Long before Darth Vader, long before Lord Voldemort, long before Stephen Harper, Judas Iscariot reigned as the supreme icon of evil in Western mythology. Judas betrayed God. How much worse can you get?*
For 2,000 years we’ve used the term Judas to refer to anyone who betrayed anything, any cause, any belief, any friendship. Yet, like all the icons of evil that came before, and who have followed, Judas holds a fascination for us that transcends his actions.
Dante consigns him to the ninth circle of hell, one of three traitors forever chewed in the mouths of the three-headed Satan. Yet Brutus, Cassius (the other two sinners in Dante’s story), Benedict Arnold, and Vidkun Quisling never achieved such attention or notoriety. They were all were members of their respective inner circles; all betrayed their friends,their beliefs and their leaders. But they are paltry shadows beside Judas.
Perhaps that’s in part because none of the others are religious symbols, and religion far too often brings out the extreme in people.
Susan Gubar’s 2009 book, Judas, a Biography, which I’ve been reading of late, is a fascinating look at the relationship the West has had with Judas these two millennia, and how he appears in art, music, literature, religion and popular culture. Judas has become a reflection of a lot about ourselves: our fears, our religion, our mythologies, our politics, our behaviour.
Many of us have had the deeply disturbing experience of betrayal in our own lives; someone trusted, a friend or lover, someone we cared deeply about who betrayed us. And when that betrayal is over something crass like money or political favour, it cuts us deeply. We never forget, never forgive our own personal Judas.**
But who was Judas that we still use his name for such acts?
The Gospels are spare in their actual history of Judas, even in his final acts. But a whole body of legend has grown up around the man, his family, his parents, his childhood and, of course, his afterlife. All of which, as Gubar points out, is merely imagined; unsubstantiated by any historical documentation, but become part of the mythology. All of it meant to polish his evil sheen, rather than redeem him.
What’s to redeem, you might ask? Well, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.
What little is said in the New Testament about Judas – a mere 1,200 words – tells us nothing substantial about the man. He was for most of the narrative a trusted disciple; he managed the group’s finances, part of the ministry, charged with the rest to cast out unclean spirits. Then comes his final act: handing over Jesus to the temple authorities.***
And even then the New Testament Gospels don’t agree on that act or the motive (there is a significant discrepancy between the story as told in the synoptic Gospels and the later addition, the Gospel of John (which, despite the traditional attribution to John, was actually written anonymously at least one generation after the others. John’s later words are often perceived as ideological rather than historical by scholars).
But that hasn’t stopped subsequent authors from enriching the story of Judas with their own material, further demonizing Judas.
Yet without Judas, there would be no Christianity. The whole Christian narrative hinges on death and resurrection. Without it, Jesus is just another radical Jewish preacher pushing a return to fundamentalist beliefs and practices (see Matthew 5:17). Judas is essential to the story to get it beyond the Jewish tradition.
Judas is a more complex character than merely a former friend who betrayed confidence and trust. And the publication of the text of the Gnostic Gospel of Judas, since 2006, has confused and at the same time enlightened the image: what was once black-and-white is now muddy grey.
You can read a translation of it here. Be forewarned: it is a Gnostic document, and refers to themes that were common in early Christianity, but bludgeoned out of the orthodox canon during the early centuries (the story of the creation of the canon is a fascinating, complex tale of politics, religion, cunning, persecution and betrayal itself).
Plus it is an incomplete document: it suffered considerable damage and many lines could not be restored (For a full history of the discovery and restoration, see my list of sources, below). Still, what remains is worth examining.
What would be the motive? In Mark, Judas is offered money, but that is not his evident motivation. In Matthew, Judas asks for money; the fabled 30 pieces of silver (which became another metaphor). Luke’s and John’s Gospel both say Satan entered Judas, which should lift at least some of the blame from Judas, since he was not in control (who can fight the direction of an evil deity?). John also says Judas was angry that money spent on expensive perfumes could have better helped the poor (this altruism is blunted when John then adds Judas used to steal from the disciples’ funds).
In the Gnostic Gospel, Jesus tells Judas his role was to betray him and Judas would be vilified for his act. Judas did so reluctantly, but aware of his part in the drama.
And to complicate matters, Judas is not simply an image of personal betrayal: Christians have used him an a symbol for all Jews as betrayers since Jerome in the 4th century CE (Martin Luther’s virulent, scatological invective against the Jews is particularly disturbing, but forms of that antisemitic narrative continues even into this century). Jews who wouldn’t accept Jesus as a the messiah, Jews who betrayed their own god, Jews who refused to convert to the new (“true”) religion. Forgetting of course that Jesus and all his disciples were also Jews (Gubar refers to a study in which only a small minority of Americans recognized Jesus and the other disciples as Jewish).
The translation of the Gospel of Judas has itself been criticized both for its accuracy and for revisionism; an attempt, it was argued, to blunt the antisemitism inherent in the Christian narrative.
But does it? Judas, as Gubar points out, is inextricably entwined with Cain, with Esau, Judah, Herod Agrippa and even Eve, a biblical genealogy of betrayal. One cannot fully redeem Judas if his antecedents remain cursed.
There’s another side to this story seldom told in today’s Islamophobic climate. Muslim belief is that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but another did in his place: Judas transformed into a doppelganger and expiate his sins by dying for Jesus. Or a case of mistaken identity. Muslims still see Judas as a betrayer, but he paid for his sins by being crucified. Interesting approach.
Was there really a historical Judas? Or was he a later invention to justify the prophecies and mythologies surrounding Jesus? Was there really a personal betrayal or was it, as Ehrman suggests, a metaphor for the betrayal of Jesus’ teachings? John Spong suggests it’s a contrivance of later biblical authors who sought to mitigate Rome’s involvement in the death of Jesus by pushing the blame onto the Jews. A similar position has been taken by Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby.
Or was Judas like the suicide bombers of today, a willing participant in the events because he was ideologically bound to fulfill his pre-determined role?
In 1980, poet Howard Neverov wrote of Judas,
Let us consider, then, if not forgive
This most distinguished of our fellow sinners,
Who sponsored our redemption with his sin,
And whose name, more than ours, shall surely live
To make our meanness look like justice in
All histories commissioned by the winners.
* Okay, technically he betrayed the son of God who is actually God incarnate in a different form, who then died to sit beside himself in the afterlife… the mythology isn’t always logical.
** I know I have personally been deeply wounded by the betrayal of former close friends, once people I trusted and respected. Twice, in fact, within the past few years. However, I don’t refer to them as Judases because I tend to side with those who believe Judas was acting reluctantly to fulfill a greater role rather than for selfish reasons. Given the circumstances of their betrayals, rather than demean Judas with their memory, I think of these former friends as quislings instead.
*** Gubar also points out that in many surveys Christians today believe the Jews killed Jesus when it was clearly the Romans who did it under Roman imperial law. Guilty Judas as the synecdoche for all Jews has propelled antisemitism since Christianity’s start. This gives some strength to the argument Judas was a later invention to mollify Roman anger.
Sources in my library: Judas: A Biography, by Susan Gubar, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 2009; The Gospel of Judas, ed. Rudolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, Gregor Wurst, with commentary by Bart Ehrman, National Geographic, Washington, DC, 2006; The Secrets of Judas, by James Robinson, Harper Collins, New York, 2007; Reading Judas, by Elaine Pagels and Karen King; Penguin Books, London, UK, 2008.