RBL: There have been a number of books on the Gospel of Judas since it was announced. How does your book differ from the ones published by Bart Ehrman, James Robinson and others?
Pagels: They differ in terms of the sources available and the perspective. James Robinson wrote a book without having any access to the Gospel of Judas. Bart Ehrman is a scholar of the New Testament and has done some excellent work on the New Testament texts.But prior to The Da Vinci Code, he had not done work on these other gospels. So he's just now coming into it whereas Karen King and I have been working on these texts since graduate school.
King: We actually focus on what the text says and offer a translation and notes that help readers through the difficulties of ancient Christian ideas to what really is at stake. Rather than simply relegate the Gospel of Judas to the bin of heresy ("Gnosticism"), we put it into the midst of early Christian debates over the meaning of Jesus' death and the painful experiences of Christians dying under Roman persecution.
RBL: The gospel makes a claim for Judas as a kind of hero, yet you remark how surprised you were by what an angry and violent document it seems to be. How and why is it so angry?
King: The author is furious with Christian leaders who are encouraging believers to die because they believe that God requires sacrifice to atone for sin. Instead, the author argues that people who portray God that way are worshipping false gods. The gospel insists instead that Jesus taught about the God beyond this world of chaos and oblivion. His teaching leads people to a spiritual relation to God.
Pagels: To me, what's exciting is that it's like seeing the other side of the moon. We've not seen these perspectives firsthand before. This kind of writing allows us to really write a much fuller and more human story about the early Christian movement. When you think about it, you really would not expect everyone to be enthusiastic about dying. But if you only read the orthodox texts from the second century, you'd think that there was only overwhelming excitement at the prospect of becoming a martyr.
RBL: When and how did you decide to collaborate? How long have you known one another?
King: We were having breakfast together just after National Geographic released the Gospel of Judas. The initial information they put out didn't really get at the core issues, and so we thought, "Let's do a book together." We've known each other for years. Elaine was first a mentor to me, now a colleague and friend.
Pagels: What intrigued us both is that we each worked on different groups of texts, so we could bring different perspectives. And we decided that we wanted to write a very short book that would be a kind of quick introduction to how gospels are written—any gospel.
RBL: In the collaborative process, how did you divide the work?
King: From the beginning Elaine thought we should do it all together. We both wrote and rewrote—and rewrote and rewrote—the first chapters that place the Gospel of Judas into the life of early Christianity and that talk about the core issues. In the end, we decided to add my translation and notes to help readers through some of the nitty-gritty, especially the ancient cosmology, which can seem very strange to modern readers.
Pagels: Karen has had a wonderful education in Coptic with one of the masters of that language. When I was in graduate school, we didn't have formal training in that language, so I taught myself. But she has an excellent capacity to work with it at a high level, so she did the translation.
RBL: Professor Pagels, most of your other books have been with Random House, so Viking is a bit of a departure for you. Is this change permanent, or will your next projects be back with Random House?
Pagels: After Ann Godoff, who was editor-in-chief at Random House, left and went to Viking, I got to know Viking and the people there, and liked them very much. I also found a wonderful editor there, Wendy Wolf. It's a very congenial press. I have no plans at present to return to Random House.
RBL: What plans are there for author appearances to promote this book?
King: Viking/Penguin has arranged an eight-city book tour, including various venues in Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., New York, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.