When that dwindling minority who go to church on Sundays listen to the gospel accounts of Jesus's life, there are moments and characters that leap out as disarmingly real. So much of the gospels are not gospel. Though presented as eyewitness accounts, they are a complex mixture of history, invention and the additions of subsequent generations eager to prove that Jesus was the Messiah.
Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, has always struck me as an undeniably flesh-and-blood element of the story, perhaps because his weakness is so human and recognisable. Certainly, Judas has lived on in history: in anti-Semitic literature as an archetypal Jew, in medieval legend as the classic fifth columnist, and in a wider context as the ultimate scapegoat. Someone had to betray Jesus so he could die and rise from the dead. So Judas, reviled by Christian history, was part of God's plan.
The distinguished New Zealand novelist CK Stead plays with these differing takes in his novel of ideas, which retraces Jesus's journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem through the eyes of Judas. The gospels make it clear that Judas was unlike the other apostles - because, Stead suggests, he grew up with Jesus. He was the thread of continuity in the Jesus movement that linked a leader surrounded by new admirers with his past. As if to deepen this bond, Stead posits an estrangement between Jesus and his mother, Mary.
Seen from Judas's point of view, many familiar details take on a more plausible nature, tailored, intentionally or not, to the sceptical hue of our age. Lazarus, for instance, is a bed-ridden weakling encouraged out of his sick bed by Jesus. As news travels, pepping Lazarus up is transformed into raising the dead.
The overall result is a pleasingly unpredictable mix of traditional and radical. This is, Stead seems to suggest, a plausible alternative gospel. What it lacks is any wider message of its own. Jesus, by Stead's account, was not quite as extraordinary as the usual presentation by the churches, but he was pretty remarkable. On the key question of whether or not he was truly divine, Stead, through Judas, enters an open verdict. It's clever, thought-provoking, but too much an exercise in theology. So I suspect that many readers will stick to the flawed gospels for their image of Judas.
Peter Stanford's revised life of Lord Longford, 'The Outcasts' Outcast', is published by SuttonReuse content