BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Isn't that convenient ...

Sometimes it's a good thing having this wide-ranging background. I can certainly understand how somebody coming to this book from a “DaVinci Code” mind-set might find it remarkably disappointing, but being that I was a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review back in college this was reasonably interesting to me, on its own merits. James M. Robinson's The Secrets of Judas: The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel was one of those books featured in the last Barnes & Nobel on-line clearance sale for $1.99, so I picked it up with fairly limited details on the book. This is certainly being marketed with the Dan Brown crowd at least in mind, but it could hardly be more different from the assorted other books pitching “secrets” of a Biblical bent.

The author is an expert in Coptic documents from the first few centuries C.E., and did a good deal of work on the famed Gnostic collection, The Nag Hammadi Library. While some experts in the field of ancient literature have gone “off the deep end” from time to time (the name Sitchin comes to mind), this is not Robinson's course at all. Rather, this book is primarily about the “secrets” of the ancient document trade, the in-fighting, the smuggling, the lies and financial deals that lurk behind most of these resources coming to light. Robinson first encountered the materials comprising The Gospel of Judas through sources of somewhat questionable provenance in Geneva in 1983, and spends the first half of the book tracing the wanderings of these papyrus sheets (which he had declined to purchase) over the decades leading to their publication via a National Geographic project in 2006. Through this he rails against the closed system of exclusive access that seems to wrap around these ancient discoveries, leading to unreasonably long cycles of selected publication by anointed researchers (whose financial and professional interests are in play) while shutting out the vast majority of the field. This happened notoriously with the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi material, and the archaeological community had tried to set up regulations that would prevent this from happening, but the Gospel of Judas was similarly swallowed up by its representatives and erstwhile “caretakers”.

From reading Biblical Archaeology Review (which itself was often close to the center of some of these controversies) back in the day, and being quite familiar with much of the Coptic Gnostic material published over the past 30 years, I found the various plots, schemes, conspiracies, and other complications both interesting and, sadly, unsurprising. To those looking for power plays with shadowy Vatican figures, this would be very dry, however. The first half of the book traces the Judas material from its likely discovery (and historical context) on through the “blockbuster” publication Easter 2006.

The second part of the book is an analysis of the figure of Judas Iscariot, from several different perspectives. Separate chapters are given to “The Judas of the New Testament”, “The Historical Judas”, and “The Gnostic Judas”, each looking at how this figure was framed, used, and integrated with various thematic, philosophical, and theological contexts. There are certainly echoes here of other books (several of which I've read) which take, to various extents, the somewhat Gnostic stance that Judas was “just following orders”, being “in on” the symbolic necessities of Jesus' execution, but it's pretty clear that Robinson doesn't have a particular axe to grind here, although it's also reasonably sure that he's not much of a Bible thumper.

The final section of the book discusses the actual text of The Gospel of Judas, while not actually reproducing any of it (which is, I'm sure, due to copyright issues on the existing English translations of it, and on-going access issues to the Coptic originals preventing the author from offering up his own version). This again could prove to be a major disappointment to readers who were expecting to at least have that pay-off at the end of the book, but was only a slight issue for me, given the rest of the thrust of the book.

Oddly, compared to many of my reviews, I have to say that I enjoyed reading The Secrets of Judas far more than I'd anticipate the vast majority of people who might be tempted to pick this up would (this reflected by the paltry 2.5-star rating this has on Amazon). If you disengage this from the “religious sensationalism” genre and drop it into the “academic/archaeological/religion research conflicts” genre, it makes perfect sense, and is quite a full and satisfying presentation of the material! Unfortunately, I'm guessing that fans of the latter are a vanishingly small demographic, so Harper has been having to peddle this with at least the “look and feel” of something that it really isn't.

As I've been discovering of late, having a book go out for $1.99 via a clearance does not mean that it's out of print. Both B&N and Amazon have it in stock (at a minor discount), and I'm guessing that copies might even be out in the brick and mortar book vendors who stock a decent-sized Religion aisle. However, the new/used guys are all over this, and "like new" copies of the hardcover, and new copies of the paperback can be had for a penny (plus, of course $3.99 shipping), so that would certainly be your best bet for picking this up. Again, unless you have an interest in the messy and somewhat louche world of the ancient text market, this might not hold your interest particularly well, but if that's "your thing", it's a great read.

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