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Judas: The troubling history of the renegrade apostle

Theo Hobson

Judas: The troubling history of the renegade apostle

Peter Stanford

Hodder & Stoughton, 309pp

How important is Judas Iscariot in Christianity? It's hard to say. Paul doesn't mention him - but then Paul hardly mentions anything to do with Jesus' life and death. He plays a necessary role in the story, you might say. But on one level this is doubtful: surely Jesus could have been arrested without the collusion of one of his disciples. His betrayal certainly heightens the drama, and introduces a fascinating and enigmatic human story. But of course it also brings some huge problems. Problem number one is whether Judas' action was divinely authorized. If Jesus was just a normal human hero this issue wouldn't arise, but Jesus, being divine, must know what is going on. He can't be deceived, in the dark. So, at the Last Supper, Jesus almost tells Judas to go and betray him - 'What you are about to do, do quickly'. Is he therefore God's puppet? Another problem is that, because of whom he betrays, his villainy is hyperbolic - what act could be more evil? And yet he is not a cartoon baddie - for one thing he seems a sincere disciple until his final actions - maybe he remains sincere to the end. Also, he repents of his action, tries to return the thirty pieces of silver, and hangs himself. (He hurried to die, some have said, so as to get to hell before Jesus came to harrow it.) Does that merit forgiveness? And his extreme villainy leads to another problem, the biggest of all in historical terms. He came to epitomize the Jews' culpability for the killing of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians, Paul refers to Jesus being 'betrayed' (or 'handed over' might be a better translation), but doesn't say by whom. In Romans he presents God as the hander-over of Jesus: God 'gave him up to the benefit of all'. To Paul's cosmic viewpoint, accusing any mere human of this betrayal seems trivial, beside the point. This changes with the evangelists - perhaps inevitably, as they are telling a human story. Also, a stronger anti-Jewish agenda seems to have emerged in the Christian community, and constructing a Jewish scapegoat seems irresistible to them. The name Judas is of course ultra-Jewish (a bit like a Frenchman called Francois). In the earliest gospel, Mark, we are told the barest minimum. Matthew emphasizes his greed, adding the thirty pieces of silver. Luke has him possessed by the devil, at the Last Supper. John adds a pre-betrayal detail: it is Judas who objects to Jesus being anointed with expensive perfume, saying the money should be spent on the poor. This hints that he is the most radical of the disciples, itching for a new political order: a possible motive for his imminent action. Also it's here that the omniscient Jesus tells Judas to get on and play his darstardly role. Peter Stanford sets out this material well. But it only takes a chapter: one wonders if there's enough to say about Judas to fill the rest of the book. He adds some travelogue from the alleged site of Judas' death, and the Garden of Gethsemane. One keeps wondering. Then he moves on to The Gospel of Judas, a third-century text rediscovered to much fanfare in 2006. Of course it offers no new evidence - rather it shows that semi-Christian Gnostics were using the figure of Judas to expound their theory about the evil of the material world - but it's unclear from this account why they wanted to. The text feels like an unilluminating ancient muddle. Much of the remainder is concerned with his role as focus for anti-Semitism. There are some good insights, but this is rather well-trodden ground. Stanford's cultural history, literary criticism and art history is interesting in parts, but seldom gripping. The Romantic opium-fan Thomas De Quincey was the first to suggest that Judas was impatient for a political revolution, and wanted to prod Jesus into action. He meant well; he had a rather modern sort of impatience: we who struggle to believe in another world should sympathise. Various post-Christians have sought to rehabilitate him on these grounds - boosted of course by a desire to challenge stuffy orthodoxy, and to counter the anti-Semitic assumptions. He was a tragic figure, fallible like us - we have all known passionate friendships going sour, and have behaved foolishly as a result. We all need forgiveness - he's one of us. In the end we have a conundrum. He is, in the New Testament, presented as the ultimate traitor, the tool of Satan, and we can't get behind this to find the real man. But his association with Judaism is so strong, and so negative, that we have to challenge this portrayal, see the danger in it. It is dubious for any human being to be charged with a crime as cosmic as this, for it might authorize the demonization of those people associated with him. We should be wary of 'Judas' being used as a term for traitor - whether it's directed at Bob Dylan changing to electric guitar or at a footballer switching clubs - the word carries an unhealthy extremity. What emerges is that the demonization of Judas is un-Christian. A religion of forgiveness, of redemption for all sinners, must not feature an absolute villain (except Satan). We must accept that his motivation is largely mysterious ('greedy socialist zealot' doesn't really add up), and that his role is in a sense marginal (otherwise the redemption of the world is all thanks to him). Stanford brings out the enigmatic humanity that is lodged within the archetype, helping to explain why this figure retains the power to fascinate. But a shorter, punchier book might have worked better.