For 2,000 years the name of Judas Iscariot has been synonymous with treachery. But new research suggests that the villain of the Easter story may not have been such a bad person after all
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The image of treachery is very clear. Judas, one of the 12 apostles, is paid 30 pieces of silver to lead a band of armed men, in the middle of the night, into the garden of Gethsemane to seize Jesus. Judas says he will identify the man to be arrested by kissing him. Jesus already knows who will betray him, but does not resist. Later Judas repents and dies miserably.

For 2,000 years Judas Iscariot has been the ultimate symbol of a traitor, the enemy from within. In Germany it is illegal for parents to call their offspring Judas on the grounds that this would damage the child (Satan is another forbidden name). The kiss in Gethsemane was a favourite subject of medieval and Renaissance artists. In the 14th century Giotto showed Judas, dressed in a long, yellow cloak, to represent cowardice, enfolding Jesus in a warm embrace.

But new research has begun to undermine Judas's reputation as the epitome of evil. The 30 pieces of silver are the most famous pay-off in history, but some scholars even doubt if silver coins were common currency in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. In a biography of Judas, Professor William Klassen of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, a well-respected biblical research institution, goes further. He argues that, as the early Christian church began to split from Judaism at the end of the first century, it deliberately invented or exaggerated details about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. It promoted him from a marginal role - he is only mentioned three times in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels - in order to portray him as the archetypal Jew betraying Jesus.

Sympathy for Judas is not new. But it has usually revolved around seeing Judas as an essential instrument of salvation, fulfilling God's will. Thomas de Quincey, the early-19th-century essayist, saw Christ as, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, not "endowed for the business of action and the clamouring emergencies of life". Judas betrayed him to the high priest who handed him over to the Romans because he believed Jesus needed to be "precipitated into action by a force from without". The crime of Judas, de Quincey believed, served the purposes of Christ and he did not deserve a "pariah grave".

When Professor Klassen, a white-bearded Canadian New Testament scholar and linguist in his mid-sixties, was asked to write a biography of Judas by a US publisher in 1989, he shared the classic conception of Judas as the epitome of ingratitude and betrayal. But as he worked on biblical accounts of Judas his view began to change. He found that the Greek verb paradidomi, used in the Gospels to describe what Judas did, meant "to hand over" - and not "to betray" as it was invariably translated. He says that in 59 occurrences of the word paradidomi related to the death of Jesus, 27 are translated "hand over" where Judas is not mentioned, and 32 are translated "betray" when Judas is mentioned.

Klassen believes that translators shaped their interpretations to fit in with preconceived notions of Judas's treachery. "At first I couldn't believe the word was so badly translated," says Professor Klassen, sitting in the guest room of the Ecole Biblique just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. "This is the basis of my case. Although I have been criticised since my book appeared nobody has challenged me on the mis-translation of the word."

Critics do argue, however, that this merely proves that the earliest Christians did not consider the mechanism by which Jesus was handed over to the chief priests and then to the Romans as particularly important. It does not prove that the early Christians did not believe that Judas had betrayed Jesus. For them, the main protagonists in the narrative of events leading up to the Crucifixion were Jesus and God, not Judas or any of the other disciples, all of whom are portrayed as more or less deserting Christ. But some years later when John came to write his Gospel, the denunciation of Judas was more graphic and colourful. John says that at the Last Supper, Jesus directly identified the informer when he took a piece of bread and "gave it to Judas, son of Simon Iscariot".

This isn't the only evidence Professor Klassen has unearthed to support the rehabilitation of Judas. He discovered that modern historical accounts of Judas often neglect recent specialised academic monographs, mainly in German, suggesting that the early part of the New Testament actually portrays Judas as a tragic, as much as a treacherous, figure.

Professor Klassen's first publisher was not prepared to accept such a radical revision of the traditional view. And when the Fortress imprint in Minneapolis finally published Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? at the end of last year, Klassen was surprised by the degree of interest and encouraged that criticism was muted. (Though some have claimed that Klassen over-sympathises with Judas by suggesting, for example, that Judas may have thought that he was arranging a heart-to-heart chat between Jesus and the high priest Caiaphas.)

Professor Klassen believes that the biblical evidence sustains the charge that Judas was at most a small-time informer, not an arch traitor. He explains: "What our earliest sources say is that Judas did nothing until Jesus told him to do it." The apparent act of betrayal in Gethsemane is less clear-cut than it looks. When Judas identifies Jesus he does not know that the chief priests are going to hand him over to the Romans to be killed. He is surprised and dismayed when Christ is given up to Pontius Pilate. In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas gives back the 30 pieces of silver even before the Crucifixion and tells the chief priests and elders: "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." They ask: "What is that to us?" However, it is still possible, implies Klassen, to picture Judas as the over-zealous subaltern, inclined to over-literal interpretation of orders, trotting off to see the chief priests for the good of the cause.

In Professor Klassen's eyes the demonisation of Judas began as the early Greek-speaking church started to split from its Jewish origins at the end of the first century. Judas became the stereotype of the Jew betraying Christ, a central figure in the church's anti-Semitic mythology over the centuries. (In paintings of Gethsemane, like that by Valentin de Boulogne in the 17th century, Jesus often appears as a pale-skinned west European while Judas has Semitic features.) It is John, in the last Gospel to be written, who has the most to say about Judas, all of it derogatory. He emphasises his demonic nature and backdates his long-conceived treachery to the time when Jesus was still teaching beside the Sea of Galilee. He adds colourful details such as Judas's meanness - he balked at excessive expenditure on high-quality oil used to bathe Jesus's feet - as treasurer of the disciples.

There are moments when Professor Klassen's explanation of what Judas did sounds like the defence of OJ Simpson - it is possible to produce endless hypotheses explaining his behaviour - but in the case of Judas some questions remain unanswerable. Did Jesus go to Jerusalem seeking his death? If so, how far did he cooperate with Judas in bringing this about? What were the motives of Judas? The last question has always fascinated writers, precisely because the Gospels leave it unclear why - the need for money aside - he became an informer.

Where Professor Klassen breaks new ground is in showing that Judas's personality is a historical creation. In the narrative of the last days of Christ, the need for dramatic tension naturally tended to emphasise the role of Judas. But the most important impulse behind his demonisation was the political and religious needs of the young church after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD as it became increasingly anti-Jewish. Professor Klassen concludes: "The emerging church began to see the need to draw boundary lines and found Judas a convenient figure for he was both a Jew and had been a disciple."

Volumes have been written about Judas but the New Testament has surprisingly little to say about him. Mark has just 169 words on him, Matthew 309, Luke and Acts 233 and John 489. Saint Paul does not mention him at all. Almost all that is said about him deals with the week before the Crucifixion in Jerusalem. The early church was interested in the relations between Jesus and God, not the motives of the man who led the soldiers to Gethsemane. It is only in John, written at a later date, that the character of Judas is given colour and he is shown secretly plotting the betrayal of Christ.

Outside the Gospels there is no evidence of Judas's existence. Scholars have been frustrated to find that the second part of his name, Iscariot, gives little hint about his back-ground. Despite immense efforts its derivation remains uncertain. It might mean that Judas belonged to the Sicarii, a branch of the anti-Roman radicals, the Zealots. More prosaically it might mean that Judas came from the village of Kerioth in Judea or that he was a dyer or a fruit-grower. Iscariot might even have been added to his name after the Crucifixion of Jesus and could mean, from its Hebrew root sakar, the "one handing over".

Judas is associated with two places 15 minutes' walk apart in Jerusalem. One is the garden of Gethsemane with its ancient twisted olive trees on the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, visited by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Almost wholly unfrequented is the site of Akeldama, the "field of blood" bought with the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas, which, according to a fourth-century tradition, lies at the bottom of a steep valley below the south wall of the Old City of Jerusalem.

It is a suitably gloomy spot, used as a rubbish dump by Palestinians from the Silwan and Abu Tor district. Wrecks of old cars, discarded children's clothes and black plastic bags litter the ground between the olive trees. Matthew says that the land, previously known as the Potter's Field, was bought as a burial ground for strangers by the chief priests with the 30 pieces of silver thrown down by Judas before he hanged himself. Luke has a different story. He says that the place is called the field of blood because it was here that Judas died. The two brief accounts contradict each other and Matthew and Luke are both intent on proving that the death of Judas fulfilled predictions in the Old Testament.

Despite all this, Professor Klassen believes that there is enough evidence to describe a historical Judas who is more benign than his traditional image. He admits that the information is scanty, the Gospel accounts differ: almost the only common points are that Judas was a disciple of Jesus, one of the 12 apostles, and that it was he who handed over Jesus to the chief priests. Only later did the early Christians see him as the great traitor, starting a tradition which continues to the present.

Professor Klassen makes Judas sound curiously like Colonel Oliver North in the Reagan White House in the Eighties, off to do deals on hostages and arms with the Iranian ayatollahs. Like Colonel North, Judas says he was under orders. In an imaginary suicide note from Judas at the end of his book Professor Klassen has him say: "The lot fell to me and Jesus commissioned me to do it."

!'Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?' by Professor William Klassen (pounds 12.95; Fortress press, Minneapolis; SCM press, UK).