Was it virtue or betrayal?
THE National Geographic Society hailed it as one of the most significant archeological discoveries of our time, a 1,700-year-old text that portrayed Judas Iscariot as a hero, not a villain, for betraying Jesus.
The portrayal of Judas as a favored apostle who handed Jesus over to the Romans at his master’s request made National Geographic’s publication of “The Gospel of Judas” -- and the companion TV documentary -- a worldwide media event.
When the gospel was released last spring, another book appeared, “The Secrets of Judas,” which sneered at the notion that the new gospel was revolutionary or that it revealed anything new about Jesus. Author James M. Robinson, a giant in the world of early Christian studies, also accused National Geographic of sensationalizing the gospel “in order to make as large a profit as possible.”
Robinson, who had long railed against scholars who tried to restrict access to biblical texts, was especially dismayed that the Judas project was conducted largely in secret with the help of Marvin Meyer, Robinson’s friend and former student at Claremont Graduate University.
Without directly invoking the payment Judas received from the Romans, Robinson made his point: National Geographic and its team of translators had received their 30 pieces of silver.
In the months to come, the specialized field of Coptic translation dissolved into public bickering and dark whispers by scholars who spoke of the jealous graybeard with a tender ego or the younger, irresponsible grandstander seduced by the prospect of celebrity.
Meyer, 58, felt misunderstood. Robinson, 82, felt betrayed.
Founder of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont campus, Robinson has been committed to exposing the unholy side of the sacred-texts trade since the late 1960s, when it was revealed that scholarly infighting and stinginess had kept the Dead Sea Scrolls under wraps for a quarter-century.
He led an international effort in 1970 to pry some 4th century papyrus manuscripts known as the Nag Hammadi Library out of the hands of a small group of scholars who had been shielding them from outsiders since 1945.
Among those Robinson enlisted was Meyer, then a doctoral student. Robinson is quiet and almost stereotypically professorial; Meyer is more relaxed and outgoing.
The pair were part of a team that prepared the Nag Hammadi manuscripts for publication in 1978, and the texts were soon hailed as an important addition to understanding the formative years of Christianity.
That same year, the King Tut exhibit arrived in Los Angeles, and Robinson put Meyer’s talent for shaping scholarly topics for mainstream media to work by appointing him the Claremont school’s spokesman on the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
Over the years, Meyer felt blessed to work beside his mentor -- at the university level and at dusty archeological sites -- and marveled at his knack for finding and developing the trendiest biblical discoveries.
Robinson went on to become one of the world’s great New Testament scholars. Meyer established himself as one of the foremost experts on Gnosticism and texts outside of the New Testament that discuss Jesus.
THEN, in June of 2005, Meyer received a surprise phone call.
The two callers were from National Geographic, and they needed help translating what they said was an important Coptic text -- but Meyer had to sign a confidentiality oath just to look at it. In fact, he had to sign before they would tell him what it was.
“I told them the offer was quite irregular,” Meyer recalled. “They said, ‘You won’t be disappointed.’ So I signed.”
Meyer then learned the society had the Gospel of Judas. Other ancient texts had referred to the document, but it had never surfaced publicly, although rumors had long circulated that a private collector had obtained the only surviving copy, a Coptic translation of the original Greek.
Meyer’s assignments included helping a team translate the Coptic into English and traveling to Egypt to film a made-for-TV documentary about the discovery. He also was prepped to help lead a publicity tour that would have him traveling by limousine and staying in ritzy hotels.
In Meyer’s view, the gospel challenged the traditional portrayal of Judas as ultimate biblical villain. Instead, Judas acts on Jesus’ orders and betrays him to set in motion the Crucifixion. In the gospel, Jesus confides to Judas: “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal.”
In late September, Meyer let it slip to Robinson that he knew quite a bit about the Gospel of Judas but couldn’t talk about it.
After stewing over Meyer’s tantalizing remarks for a month, Robinson fired off an e-mail demanding to know more.
Recalled Robinson: “His response hurt: ‘I’m sorry -- but I must say, no comment. Marv.’ ”
Robinson remained in the dark until that November, when a journalist in Paris called seeking information about a team of experts secretly enlisted to translate the Gospel of Judas. Among them, the caller said, was Marvin Meyer.
A few days later, in Philadelphia, Robinson stunned a panel of academics, including Meyer, by standing up and reading Meyer’s terse e-mail -- “I’m sorry, but I must say, no comment. Marv” -- out loud.
Then, with Meyer watching in silence, Robinson launched into a tirade against what he described as another monopoly on knowledge.
Months later, as the April 2006 publication of “The Gospel of Judas” neared, Robinson was approached by a publisher to produce his own Judas book. Without ever laying eyes on the papyrus text Meyer was working on, Robinson wrote “The Secrets of Judas” in one month’s time.
Rushed into print in April, “The Secrets of Judas” blasted what he called “the extravaganza of Easter 2006” for withholding the gospel text from other scholars.
No so fast, argued Meyer. Publishing the text through National Geographic brought an important and obscure text to the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time.
“What we have here is a Judas who was criticized and demonized and judged as the most heinous of criminals -- bad to the bone -- all of a sudden being rehabilitated in a new gospel,” Meyer said. “Could it be that someone with that reputation never deserved it? Could it be that Judas was actually one of the most positive characters imaginable?”
He added with a smile, “There was no monopoly here. We were only trying to make this material as accessible as possible as quickly as possible, and do that in a responsible way.”
Meyer had reason to smile. “The Gospel of Judas” has sold an estimated 1.2 million copies. Robinson’s book, which even some of his supporters labeled as sour grapes, has sold about 53,000 copies.
IN an interview in his cluttered office at Chapman University in Orange, Meyer, a tanned and trim man who keeps his hair short, wears rumpled khakis and oversized shirts and has a gold hoop in his left ear, said, “I feel extremely fortunate and grateful for the opportunity that came my way. I feel that sense of good fortune. It’s a wonderful moment.
“If James has been hurt, I am truly sorry,” he added. “I sense there is a passing of the mantle going on, and I would hope it can be passed with joy.”
No dice. “Some say I’m grumpy about this, but I just want things done correctly, and not by monopoly,” Robinson said.
According to people who have watched them work, Meyer is ambitious the way Robinson used to be.
“James is just angry that National Geographic didn’t include him in their project,” said Robinson’s ex-wife, Gesine Robinson, a Coptic scholar at Claremont Graduate University. “After 40 years in the limelight, James doesn’t want to give it up. But the truth is, James is on the way out, and Marvin is on the way up.”
But some others, including Gnostic scholar John D. Turner, have come to believe that “the prospects of increasing his fame and notoriety got the best of Marvin.”
Turner also says he has discovered numerous errors in National Geographic’s English translation of the Judas Gospel. He argues the mistakes could have been avoided if the translation team had included a wider variety of experts.
Meyer, an elder at a Santa Ana Presbyterian church who conducts courses on peacemaking, acknowledged that scholars “bring personal issues and presuppositions to the table.”
“A question I often ask myself,” he said, “is this: Do we gravitate to self-fulfilling prophecies? In this case, is a man of peace such as myself painting Judas as a nice guy? Have we found a Judas in our own image?”
The answers to those questions, like everything else about Judas, are complicated.
That much was clear one night in late September when Meyer, Robinson and other scholars led a panel discussion about the Gospel of Judas -- their first since April -- in a Claremont campus auditorium.
The hundreds of people in attendance heard a welter of scholarly disagreements over who was to blame for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Meyer said the world was better off with the new Judas, who “was someone who understood Jesus better than any other apostle,” and who was anything but the traitor reviled by anti-Semitic church officials for centuries.
Dennis MacDonald, director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, argued that Judas was a literary figure derived from Greek mythology and never really existed at all.
Gesine Robinson said her own analysis of the gospel’s language and history sustained the traditional view: Judas was no hero.
Then came Robinson, who drew gasps when he spoke against scholarly monopolies, including “one whose contributors included a certain Marvin Meyer.”
The National Geographic people, he added, were “nonscholars in it for the money” when they “took Marv inside a room and locked the door.” Again, Meyer sat quietly as his old mentor spoke against him.
When it was over, a member of the audience was overheard to say, “The big story tonight was not about Judas. It was about a violation of the ethics of a scholarly clan founded by the older guy, Robinson. The violator was the younger guy, Meyer, who is now top dog.”
Robinson could not agree more. Meyer would beg to differ.
Meyer has asked Robinson to write a preface to an updated version of the Nag Hammadi texts, and Robinson agreed.
And on that night in Claremont, after the seminar, they got into Meyer’s red Toyota Corolla and Meyer drove Robinson to his home nearby. Along the way, they chatted amicably about their disagreements and future projects.
When they got to Robinson’s house, Meyer said, “Have a good night, Jim.”
Robinson smiled and said, “OK. See you soon, Marv.”
In the months since, the scholarly debates over the Gospel of Judas have continued. Hard feelings linger between mentor and protege, but decades of friendship have not completely dissolved.
The gospels, after all, speak not just of betrayal, but of forgiveness.
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.