Book review: Judas by Peter Stanford

THE tortuous journey of the arch-traitor through cultural history is something of a revelation, writes Stuart Kelly
Judas betrays Jesus with the deceitful kiss. Picture: ContributedJudas betrays Jesus with the deceitful kiss. Picture: Contributed
Judas betrays Jesus with the deceitful kiss. Picture: Contributed

Judas: The Troubling History Of The Renegade Apostle

Peter Stanford

Hodder & Stoughton, £20

This is not a biography of Judas; rather, it is a cultural history of how Judas has been depicted for 2,000 centuries. Indeed, a biography of Judas would be brief. Judas, and his father, had another name “Iscariot”, which might mean they came from a town called Qeriot, or just from a town – qiryah in the Hebrew – the other apostles being bumpkins. Or he and his father may have been members of the sicarii, a Jewish terrorist sect named by the Romans for their sickle-shaped blades.

The Gospels broadly agree that he took care of the apostolic finances, and suggest he helped himself from the funds: he famously upbraided the others when Mary anointed Jesus with expensive nard, which could have been sold (in John’s Gospel at least; in Matthew the indignant disciples are unnamed).

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He certainly betrays Jesus, but whether or not he is possessed by Satan at this point (as in Luke’s Gospel) is unclear; whether he does so by a kiss (in Matthew and Mark, it is averted in Luke, and unmentioned in John, who has Jesus voluntarily reveal himself to the arresting soldiers) is also open to interpretation. Thirty pieces of silver are certainly involved, but whether he returns them to the Sanhedrin or buys the “potter’s field” with them is a moot point. He either hangs himself, filled with remorse, or, according to the Acts of the Apostles, his intestines spill out after a fall in said field. But it’s still more to go on than for Jude of James, Jude the Zealot or Judas Thaddeus.

Nature and culture equally abhor a vacuum, so in the centuries after the writing of the New Testament we get Judas as Gnostic Initiate and the most blessed of the apostles, Judas as anti-Semitic stereotype, often with yellow robes and red hair, Judas the most condemned traitor in Dante’s Inferno, constantly being gobbled down by Satan, his legs perpetually twitching and flailing in agony, Judas as freedom fighter, Judas giving birth, Judas having a nagging wife, Judas as an even greater martyr than Jesus (the Crucifixion is necessary, Judas freely becomes the instrument of its accomplishment at the cost of his own reputation, life and soul: greater love and all that), Judas as a pawn in God’s Great Game, Judas as sexually rapacious libertine, Judas as prim fundamentalist, Judas as never-even-existing and being a literary device, Judas as obese monstrosity (from a very early source, Papias), even Judas as Jesus (from the much later Gospel of Barnabas) where the kiss effectively creates a Face/Off miracle and Judas is crucified instead.

It is noteworthy that Judas has been “retconned” in the new DC comics – the Phantom Stranger is now an amnesiac Judas, struggling to work off the 30 links of the chain around his neck. It seems curious that in an age of mob justice here and abroad, a silly comic could suggest something more heretical than the theologian Origen ever did: that forgiveness might be available to even the most notorious of sinners.

Stanford’s book is engaging without being decisive on Judas and his fate (no matter, the Church has the same problem). In his pilgrimage in search of Judas, some of the finest material in this work is in the form of travelogue: the various sites which have become associated with Judas in the Holy Land, few of which appear in standard tours of Bethlehem, Nazareth, Gethsemane and Calvary.

There does seem to be a strange reticence and reluctance to commemorate the places connected with Judas, and I doubt this is entirely because the Church is concerned with creating shrines for teenage Goths to look up on Google Maps. In terms of history and theology, Judas is a problem. He was a problem even before his name was widely used in anti-Semitic propaganda from the Dreyfus Affair to the Nazi regime and beyond. As one of the first people to receive the Eucharist, is Judas finally forgiven or perpetually damned? Did he act through free will, Satan’s ventriloquism or God’s collusion?

One is tempted to quote the great and witty lines from the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s Candide: “Twas snake that tempted Mother Eve / Because of her we now believe / That though depraved we can be saved / Because of snake’s temptations. / If snake had not seduced our lot and primed us for salvation / Jehovah could not pardon all the sins that we call cardinal.”

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The most interesting turn in this clever and nimble book is when the Enlightenment rethinks Judas. It initiates a different kind of difference between Jesus and Judas. Instead of the dichotomy between the celestial and the infernal, we get the political in Judas and the transcendental in Jesus. Judas ettles for a political solution – goad Jesus into attacking Rome, raise an army and instigate a new kingship in Israel, force the divine ditherer’s hand into action – while Jesus represents either naive or sublime disregard for the geopolitical in favour of the metaphysical.

No Christian, I think, can have avoided wrestling with the nature of Judas. Stanford’s book makes this evident, while charting a dangerous history of co-opting the figure for some of humanity’s most shameful episodes. When one thinks of the horrors perpetrated by seemingly decent men and women, the scapegoat Iscariot seems more deserving of pity than terror.