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April DeConick, PhD, 1994

Field of Study: PhD in Near Eastern Studies: Biblical Studies

Graduation Year: 1994

I am the chair of the Department of Religion and the Isla Carroll and Percy E. Turner Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Rice University.  I came to Rice University as a full professor in 2006, after receiving tenure at Illinois Wesleyan University in 2004.  I graduated from the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan in 1994 with a concentration in Biblical Studies.  I worked with Professor Jarl Fossum who was a specialist in early Christianity and its Jewish and mystical roots.  My dissertation focused on rereading the Gospel of Thomas as a text that was composed by early second century Christians who were mystics (not gnostics!) associated with the Jewish Christian tradition from Jerusalem.  One of the most memorial moments of my time at Michigan was when Professor Gilles Quispel from Utrecht came to Michigan as a judge at my oral defense and praised my accomplishments.  This gave me the confidence I needed to step out on my own as an independent scholar and turn the dissertation into a published monograph.

In addition to teaching and chairing the department at Rice University, I am the founder and executive editor of GNOSIS: Journal of Gnostic Studies (Leiden: Brill) and a recruiting editor for the monograph series Nag Hammadi and Manichaean Studies (Leiden: Brill).  I am active in the Society of Biblical Literature as the founding chair of the “Mysticism, Esotericism and Gnosticism in Antiquity Section,” and the chair of the Committee for the Status of Women in the Profession.  For a fuller description, visit my departmental webpage.

I study those who suffered oppression and intolerance, who were marginalized, forbidden and forgotten in the ancient Christian world. I explore everything from women’s issues in biblical and apocryphal texts to therapeutic and shamanic practices in Nag Hammadi literature. To reach a broader public, I maintain a blog, The Forbidden Gospels. My work focuses on New Testament and pre-Nicene literature, non-canonical gospels, gnostic literature and movements, mysticism and esotericism in early Christianity, new religious movements past and present, the biosocial study of religion, and a theoretical point of view called post-constructivism.

My most recent book, The Gnostic New Age: How a Countercultural Spirituality Revolutionized Religion from Antiquity to Today, is published by Columbia University Press (2016) and won the Figure Foundation Award for the best book published by a university press in philosophy and religion. I shared some of my research on this book when I came back to the University of Michigan in 2012 as the Centennial Lecturer for Rackham School of Graduate Studies.  In the book, I draw attention to a paradigm shift in our understanding of religion and its purpose, when I explore the emergence of Gnostic spirituality with its subversive view of a transcendent God, the divine human being and illusionary worlds. Contrary to popular sentiment, Gnosticism is not a heretical religion with a particular set of myths, rituals, and beliefs that were transmitted from one Gnostic church to the next until it was successfully suppressed and defeated by the Catholic Church.  Nor is it a figment of the imaginations of Catholic leaders who conjured the Gnostic heresy in order to suppress alternative forms of Christianity in the second century.  I argue that Gnosticism was very real and remains with us even today.

I am most well-known for my original work on the Gospel of Judas, a Coptic Gnostic gospel rediscovered in 2006.  At that time, National Geographic released the first English translation of the Gospel of Judas, a second-century text discovered in Egypt in the 1970s. The translation caused a sensation because it seemed to overturn the popular image of Judas the betrayer and instead presented a benevolent Judas who was a friend of Jesus.  Writers and academics have been quick to seize the opportunity to "rehabilitate" Judas as to re-examine our assumptions about this archetypal figure.  I was the first to seriously challenge the National Geographic "official" interpretation of a good Judas.  I contended that the Gospel of Judas is not about a “good” Judas, or even a “poor old” Judas.  It is a gospel parody about a “demon” Judas written by a particular group of Gnostic Christians we call the Sethians.  I published my criticisms in the New York Times and in a book called The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says (New York: Bloomsbury). My work on this text was so instrumental that I starred in CNN’s documentary on the Gospel of Judas that premiered in 2015 on the TV series "Finding Jesus". 

My work on the Gospel of Thomas as an early Christian text from Syrian Christianity had a big impact on the field, rethinking the text as a reflection of very early orthodox mysticism rather than Gnosticism.  My dissertation (Seek to See Him: Ascent and Vision Mysticism in the Gospel of Thomas. Leiden: Brill, 1996) became the first of four books I published on this subject. 

For more information about all my publications and activities, visit my professional website.