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Was it virtue or betrayal?

A Gnostic scholar's secret involvement in a National Geographic project on Judas strains his relationship with his old friend and mentor.

January 06, 2007|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 09, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Gospel of Judas: An article in Saturday's Section A about a scholarly debate over the meaning of a newly discovered Gnostic gospel said that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver from the Romans. He received the payment from the chief Jewish priests.

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.' "

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