The Gospel of Judas and the need for languages

I’m late to this party, but Prof. April DeConick of Rice University has gotten a decent amount of attention lately with her critique of last year’s National Geographic story on the Gospel of Judas. Mollie over at GetReligion has some interesting things to say about the warning journalists should take from this:

When going for a scoop, reporters risk sacrificing the quality of their work. This revelation about the allegedly shoddy work of National Geographic couldn’t get a fraction of the publicity of the original story, which is why we should be careful the first time around.

It seems to me that there are a couple of important things underscored here for academic wannabes like me, too. First off, it strikes me that the popular media is a questionable initial venue for scholarship, and the central reason is that the aims are different. The goal of an academic book or journal is to disseminate research; the goal of a popular publication is to make money. Along the same lines, exclusivity, a hallmark of commercial publishing, appears to work at cross-purposes to peer review, a necessity of academic publishing. To this end, signing non-disclosure agreements preventing peer review and publishing photos of a manuscript just large enough to prove you have it but not large enough to be useful for other scholars in verifying claims is, to put it charitably, not exactly best-practice scholarship.

Something else this communicates to somebody like me—and doubtless this will be a point so obvious to somebody who’s been in grad school for any length of time, me saying it is going to be like a three year old proudly shouting, “I’ve discovered one and one make two!”—is the importance of knowing the languages for your primary sources. If you don’t know know the language well enough to not only translate a text but to be able to discern where colleagues may have made errors, you’ve got work to do, and the published translations of other people are no substitute for putting in the work yourself. As Dr. DeConick says here, acknowledging that Coptic is not as accessible a language to New Testament scholars as Hebrew: “Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.”

An object lesson from my own past brings both of these points together. A couple of years ago, when I was first coming to the conclusion that I’d make a better scholar than an opera singer, I saw a call for papers for a graduate student conference which was going to be relatively nearby. The theme looked interesting; I brainstormed some ideas, did some preliminary research, wrote an abstract, and submitted it. Lo! and behold, they accepted it, and now I had to actually write the paper.

First of all, I’ll point out the obvious mistake: I submitted an abstract for a paper which I had not yet written. I’ve since been counseled that, in practice, this is a horrible way to go. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, I’m told, but it’s a bad idea.

The two real problems, however, were that I had to rely exclusively on translations from Welsh, Latin, Greek, and God only knows what else, rather than being able to look at those texts for myself, and that one of my main sources was a popular book rather than an academic work. I didn’t realize the importance of the former, and I had no idea at the time that there was any real distinction regarding the latter. In other words, what I did would probably have been okay for an undergraduate, at least in some classes, but it was not acceptable by any means for somebody trying to present what they do as graduate-level research, and I have no doubt it made me look bad to people too kind to tell me so. I still have a hunch that some of the things I noticed in that paper might be valid, but until I’m able to read Welsh (since now I can at least muddle through Greek and Latin), I don’t feel qualified to talk about the texts. Not only that, but until I can independently verify the claims made in the popular work I used through my own examination of the sources involved, I’m not going to use those arguments (which is part of why I’m not talking at all about the topic of the paper itself).

By contrast, I wrote a paper a few months ago that deals with sources in Greek and Syriac. I was able to successfully avoid using popular books as sources, but I had to deal with the Syriac text in translation, which the professor said was all right, but having learned my lesson with the other paper, I agreed that the paper wasn’t going to be used for anything outside of the classroom until such time as I could at least verify that textual arguments I made based on the translation weren’t rendered specious by the actual Syriac text. Spot-checks like that are within my reach at this point (as long as I have Jessie Payne-Smith by my side), so I’m going to submit the paper to a conference.

The moral: Learn Coptic. And Greek. And Latin. And Syriac. Maybe Ge’ez, too, and Arabic and Armenian and Welsh and Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Is it a lot of work? Sheesh. Um, yeah. On the other hand, as my dad used to say, the cheapest way to do anything is to do it right the first time. The overhead you think you’re saving by going with a translation won’t actually be a benefit if you’re relying on the efforts of people who have signed non-disclosure agreements and who are rushing to meet a deadline.

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