What a Difference a Few Words Make

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]

The recently discovered Gospel of Judas (a third-century gospel that no one believes was actually authored by him) caused quite a buzz when it was released by the National Geographic Society in 2006. Most of the publicity centered around this gospel’s apparent reversal of the traditional view of Judas: He was not a villain but a hero. He did not betray Jesus; rather, he handed Jesus over to the authorities because Jesus asked him to, and this act of obedience was rewarded with entry into the Kingdom of Heaven and a position above all of the other disciples. However, April D. DeConick, a professor of biblical studies at Rice University, claims that this entire picture is due to mistranslation; in fact, she says, this gospel presents Judas not as a hero, but as a demon. I am no scholar of ancient languages, so I have no idea who is right here. But to me, this entire debate underscores just what a profound difference the interpretation of a few words in a scripture can make, be it the Gospel of Judas or A Course in Miracles.

DeConick lists several errors (in her view) in the National Geographic translation. The Gospel of Judas refers to Judas as a daimon, which the translators rendered as “spirit”; she claims, however, that in Gnostic literature like this gospel that word actually means “demon” (“spirit” would be pneuma). Elsewhere, the NG translation says that Judas was set apart “for” the holy generation; DeConick says this should actually read that he was set apart from the holy generation. There is even one instance where DeConick claims the NG translators actually altered a word in the Coptic original; the translation says that Judas will ascend to the holy generation, while the original actually said that he would not ascend to the holy generation. (According to DeConick, the NG translators acknowledged that this was a mistake.)

Based on her reading of the Gospel of Judas, DeConick concludes that far from depicting Judas as an obedient instrument of Jesus, this gospel depicts him as a manifestation of the “king of demons,” an agent of destruction who sacrifices Jesus to the demons. This depiction, she says, is an expression of the author’s rejection of mainstream Christianity and its eucharistic ritual; it is meant to mock the mainstream Christian view that Jesus was sacrificed to God as atonement for our sins.

As I said, I don’t have the expertise to offer even a good guess about who is right here. (The National Geographic Society says that the translation issues DeConick raises are dealt with in the footnotes to the translation; see their response here.) But whatever the truth of the matter is, what really intrigues me is just how big a difference the translation and interpretation of a few words makes. In one version, Judas is a hero; in the other, he is a demon. It’s hard to imagine two pictures more different.

In A Course in Miracles, too, how we interpret its words makes a huge difference. While it has become fashionable in alternative spiritual circles to dismiss careful interpretation of words as a meaningless “head trip” that gets in the way of spiritual experience, the Course doesn’t share this view. For instance, in a comment that is surely relevant to the Gospel of Judas translation issue, the Course’s author remarks that “a good translator, although he must alter the form of what he translates, never changes the meaning. In fact, his whole purpose is to change the form so that the original meaning is retained” (T-7.II.4:3-4). This concern with getting the meaning of words right – in particular, the Course’s words – is evident throughout the Course, as can be seen in passages like the following (italics mine, except in the final example):

I have made every effort to use words that are almost impossible to distort, but it is always possible to twist symbols around if you wish. (T-3.I.3:11)

Remember your weakness is His strength. But do not read this hastily or wrongly. If His strength is in you, what you perceive as your weakness is but illusion. (M-29.7:2-4)

We have discussed the fall or separation before, but its meaning must be clearly understood. The separation is a system of thought real enough in time, though not in eternity. (T-3.VII.3:1-2)

The term generosity has special meaning to the teacher of God. It is not the usual meaning of the word; in fact, it is a meaning that must be learned and learned very carefully. To the world, generosity means “giving away” in the sense of “giving up.” To the teachers of God, it means giving away in order to keep. (M-4.VII.1:1-2, 4-5)

Miracles are teaching devices for demonstrating that it is more blessed to give than to receive. They simultaneously increase the reserve strength of the giver, and supply the lack of strength in the receiver. Be very careful in interpreting this. (Urtext)

There is no hint of “Whatever it means for you is just wonderful” here. In each of these cases and others like them, Jesus is saying, “Read this very carefully; it is crucial that you correctly understand what I’m trying to tell you.” Why is correctly understanding his words in the Course so important? It’s really quite obvious: Only if we correctly understand what he’s actually saying can we really know what he wants us to believe, to practice, and to do in the world to bring about the salvation that is the goal of the Course. He has offered us “an organized, well-structured and carefully planned program” (T-12.II.10:1) for awakening to God. If we don’t understand the instructions he’s giving us in this carefully planned program, how will we ever follow them so we can experience that awakening?

Thus, correct interpretation is not merely an academic issue; how we interpret a line in the Course has a huge practical impact on how we walk its path. Take, for example, the oft-quoted line “I need do nothing.” Course students often use this line to claim that doing things in the world is not an important part of the Course’s path. But is that really what it means? Let’s read carefully the following words from the “I Need Do Nothing” section (T-18.VII) and see if we can discern what the Course means when it says to do nothing:

To do nothing is to rest, and make a place within you where the activity of the body ceases to demand attention. Into this place the Holy Spirit comes, and there abides. He will remain when you forget, and the body’s activities return to occupy your conscious mind.

Yet there will always be this place of rest to which you can return. And you will be more aware of this quiet center of the storm than all its raging activity. This quiet center, in which you do nothing, will remain with you, giving you rest in the midst of every busy doing on which you are sent. (T-18.VII.7:7-8:3)

These words sketch a process that goes something like this: You clear out a quiet place in your mind where you forget the activity of the body. This is doing nothing. (It is also a practice, a form of meditation.) When you do this, the Holy Spirit enters your mind and sets up shop there. But of course, you still have a life to live in the world; inevitably, the body’s activities return to your awareness. However, once you’ve established this “quiet center” in your mind, it remains with you even in the midst of the body’s activities. Moreover, the Holy Spirit, Who lives in that quiet center, can now direct the body’s activities from there. What results is a kind of dual awareness. On one level, your mind continues to rest in the quiet center, doing nothing. But on another level, your mind is engaged with the world as you go on “every busy doing on which you are sent” by the Holy Spirit.

Notice how different this is from the standard interpretation. In that interpretation, doing nothing means that the Course’s path isn’t concerned with us doing things in the world. But when we read the actual words carefully, we see that doing nothing actually means keeping your mind in the quiet center while you are sent by the Holy Spirit on lots of busy doings in the world. In one interpretation, doing is unimportant; in the other, doing is so important that the Holy Spirit directs it. Indeed, as we are told elsewhere, “While in time, there is still much to do. And each must do what is allotted him, for on his part does all the plan depend” (T-25.VI.5:8-9). Quite a difference! It’s as stark as the difference between seeing Judas as a hero or as a demon.

At the end of the article on which this piece is based, DeConick speculates on the reasons why so many people are eager to turn Judas into a hero. (The Course, by the way, depicts Judas as neither a hero nor a demon, but simply as a holy brother whom Jesus loved no matter what he did—see T-6.I.15:7-9.) She speculates that at least one reason is the admirable desire to heal relations between Jews and Christians. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for a few pieces of silver has been used by Christians for centuries as a rationale for anti-Semitism. In fact, some scholars believe that he never really existed, and that the character of “Judas” was actually created by the gospel writers as part of a polemic against the Jews.

However, DeConick concludes that “manufacturing a hero Judas is not the answer.” I don’t know to what degree the hero Judas has been “manufactured”—I’m certainly not accusing the National Geographic translators of doing this—but I agree with her essential point. The problem with this is very basic: Whenever we engage in manufacturing meaning in order to satisfy some agenda of ours, what gets sacrificed is truth. And when this process is applied to the Course, the results are devastating. If we make the Course say what we want it to say in order to fulfill our own wishes, what gets lost is what Jesus wanted to say. And if we really want to follow the Course all the way home to God, isn’t what he wanted to say what we really want to hear?


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