In defence of Judas

According to St John, he was a thief and a liar. Modern historians see him as an idealistic fall-guy. Allan Massie investigates the myths that surround the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss
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The Independent Online

"And Judas Iscariot who also betrayed him..." With these words, St Mark ends his list of the chosen 12 apostles. It's the first mention of Judas, and it stamps him indelibly. Throughout the Christian centuries, red-haired, yellow-gowned Judas has been a synonym for traitor; a Judas-king signifying treachery towards one to whom you owe loyalty .

"And Judas Iscariot who also betrayed him..." With these words, St Mark ends his list of the chosen 12 apostles. It's the first mention of Judas, and it stamps him indelibly. Throughout the Christian centuries, red-haired, yellow-gowned Judas has been a synonym for traitor; a Judas-king signifying treachery towards one to whom you owe loyalty .

The gospel writers don't tell us much more about Judas, and nobody else tells us anything. The picture we have of him is made up of a few scraps. He was the apostles' treasurer, though one might have thought this job would have gone to Matthew, the ex- tax-collector. Judas complained when Mary, the sister of Martha, bathed Jesus' feet with a "precious ointment" saying that it might have been sold and the money given to the poor. This provoked a sharp rejoinder from Jesus: "The poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always" . So that's all right then. Judas's objection is convincingly dismissed. But one is left wondering: did that objection mean that he had a social conscience? Was he an enthusiast for what we now call "social justice"? And did his disillusion start there, at that moment?

St John, who tells the story, has no truck with such speculation. Judas, he said, spoke thus "not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein ..." So it's not enough that Judas should have been a traitor: he must also be a thief, a thoroughly bad lot. But John has it in for Judas from the start. When he lists the apostles, he has Jesus say one of them is a "devil". This refers, John tells us, to Judas, "for it was he that should betray Him". So Jesus saw through Judas even when he named him as an apostle? Curiously, given John's hostility, he makes no mention of the treacherous kiss Judas gave Jesus, though both Mark and Matthew record it.

Though the gospels were written and edited long after the events they narrate, the evidence against Judas looks cogent. Certainly it went unquestioned for centuries. Judas was a villain. Only now, as biblical Christianity loosens its grip, is his infamy fading. A recent survey showed that only 48 per cent of British people know that Easter celebrates the Resurrection, and only around 40 per cent were able to name Judas as the traitor.

Scholars have, however, been questioning his role, and asking why the Church for centuries laid such stress on it. That role has actually always been ambiguous, if only because the Gospels insist that Jesus knew that one of his apostles would betray him, "that the scriptures might be fulfilled" . If so, then Judas may be seen almost as a scapegoat, the man forced by destiny to play this part. One may ask why it was necessary that one of the apostles should betray him since Christ's arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection could, one assume, have taken place without any act of treachery. Was Judas, one wonders, necessary to the authors of the Gospels principally for dramatic effect?

Among those who question the traditional Judas story are a Canadian scholar, Professor William Klossen of the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, and Hugh Maccoby, author of Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil.

Klassen bases his case first on the translation or, as he would have it, mistranslation, of the Greek verb varadidomi. This means simply to "hand over" rather than to "betray" . The word is used 50 times in connection with the death of Jesus, and is, he says, translated 27 times as "hand over" where Judas is not mentioned, and 32 times as "betray" when used of Judas.

This certainly seems to indicate a degree of prejudice on the part of the translators, but I am not sure this evidence is as compelling as Klassen supposes. Is there really so much difference between the meanings "hand over" and "betray" in this context? If, for instance, in an account of the French Resistance, we were to read that someone "handed over" a Resistance fighter to the Gestapo, wouldn't we regard this as an act of betrayal?

But Klassen, though regarding Judas as an informer rather than a traitor, does at least offer a plausible explanation of his conduct. He suggests that Judas didn't realise that the Jewish priests, whom he guided to Gethsemane, were in turn going to hand Jesus over to the Romans for trial and execution. He is not, as I shall show, the first writer to have put forward this explanation, which has this merit: that it makes sense of Judas' subsequent behaviour. Even before the crucifixion, Judas returned his reward money - the infamous 30 pieces of silver - because, as Matthew has him say: "I have sinned in that I have betrayed innocent blood." Met with the cynical reply: "What is that to us?" , Judas went out and hanged himself in remorse.

Klassen sees the demonisation of Judas gathering pace as the Christian sect moved away from its Jewish roots as a result of St Paul's mission to the Gentiles. Judas, then, in this Greek-speaking Church, became the stereotype of the treacherous Jew, rejecting and betraying Christ. Klassen traces the development of Judas' role from the earliest Gospel, Mark, to thefull-blown villainy presented in the last written Gospel, John.

There might of course be another explanation. If that gospel really was written by the Apostle John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved" , or compiled by someone who had spoken with John, then it might even reflect a personal animus. There is no reason to suppose the 12 apostles liked each other. There are tensions and antipathies even in close-knit groups with a common interest and purpose - whether they are the Apostles or New Labour.

Hyam Maccoby goes further than Professor Klassen. In his opinion, the Judas story did not "spring from any actual event" but was "dictated by mythological necessity. In other religious myths, a deity who brings salvation by his violent death has to have an evil betrayer" . Judas was therefore elected as the fall-guy. "The role, played on an individual level by Judas, is played also by the Jews as a whole." Making Judas guilty allowed the medieval Church to pretend neither Jesus nor the other apostles were Jewish.

This makes some sense, but Maccoby goes further. He tells us that "in historical fact, neither Judas nor the Jews betrayed Jesus. Jesus was a Jewish messiah figure who aspired to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression and inaugurate the kingdom of God on Earth." Unfortunately Maccoby's use of the words "in historical fact" is tendentious. There is very little "historical fact" available to us, once you discard the gospels as evidence of the historical Jesus.

Moreover, there is no support in the gospels for the idea of Jesus the Jewish freedom-fighter "aspiring to liberate the Jews from Roman oppression" . On the contrary, when asked if it was lawful for a Jew to pay Roman taxes, Jesus saw this as an attempt to lure him into making a statement that might be regarded as seditious. He cannily called for a coin, asked whose image was portrayed, and, receiving the reply "Caesar" , said: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" . Far from sounding like a resistance fighter, this makes him appear a collaborator.

So, when Maccoby tells us "Jesus" anti-Roman aims become embarrassing and that the Gospels were written to blame the Jews for his death rather than the Romans" , we have to ask what evidence there is of these anti-Roman aims; and we find none. Judas can't be got off his hook that easily. In any case the Gospels make it clear that the Jewish establishment (the High Priests etc) and the Romans bear equal responsibility for Jesus' death.

There was of course an anti-Roman movement in Palestine then - the so-called Zealots, with which one of the disciples, Simon, was associated. It may be that Judas was a sympathiser too, even an enthusiast; that he expected Jesus to be a Resistance leader and betrayed him precisely because he found he wasn't. If Judas was a Jewish nationalist, it is natural he should have been dismayed when Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world. In this reading of the story Judas betrayed Jesus because Jesus first betrayed him.

The weakness of this theory is that Judas handed Jesus over to the High Priests who certainly weren't nationalists or resistance fighters, but who were Vichy-ites collaborating with the occupying power. This might have satisfied his sense of grievance, but could hardly have advanced his political cause. A more interesting theory, and more convincing portrait of Judas, were offered more than 60 years ago in a novel by Eric Linklater, entitled simply Judas. It came out in 1939, a bad year for publishing a novel, and so attracted less attention than it deserved. Linklater's Judas is a well-born, rich young man, a property-owner who is an idealist. He is drawn to Jesus because Jesus promises a new way of living. In this, Linklater's Judas anticipates the idealistic youth movement of the 1960s whose members rejected materialism and violence, sought enlightenment from cult leaders and had as their slogan: "Make love, not war" .

In the novel, Judas is terrified of violence, which also disgusts him. When he finds Jesus being joined by the rabble, the poor of the world, whom he pities in the abstract and fears in reality, his terrors take possession of him. This march on Jerusalem is going to lead not only to civil disorder but to violence. The Roman army will move in to suppress it. Either there will be revolution in which no property-owner will be safe, or there will be disastrous war.

Judas has family connections with the High Priests; he is himself a member of the Establishment, if temporarily a lapsed one. So when he is approached by the priests, members of his own class, with the suggestion that, to prevent things from getting out of hand, Jesus should be taken, for his own good, into "preventive detention" for a short period, after which he can be released to resume a peaceful ministry, he consents to lead them to Jesus and hand him over. Linklater's Judas is therefore a dupe rather than a villain and a traitor, and it is in character that he should fall into despair and kill himself when he realises how he has been tricked - how, indeed, he himself has been betrayed.

Of course this picture of Judas is speculative, a novelist's truth rather than a historian's. But then, given the flimsiness - and bias? - of the evidence, all versions of Judas are speculative. Linklater's makes sense to me. It gives us a human figure, a troubled man caught up in a political drama, rather than a villain. Linklater's is a Judas for our secular age.