The Passion plays were popular entertainments, comparable in appeal to present-day football matches. Particularly associated with Easter, they were one of the main vehicles through which anti-
Semitic hysteria was built up among the common people, and their portrayal of Judas was perhaps their most effective anti- Semitic feature. The performances were often followed, not surprisingly, by anti- Jewish riots.
Even in this century, the fund of hysteria built up through the medieval portrayal of Judas has remained available for exploitation by demagogues, culminating in Hitler.
A great many questions surround the figure of Judas. He plays no part in the Christian creeds, yet he plays an important role in the Christian imagination as the archetype of the Betrayer, without whom the drama of redemption would have been incomplete.
What is his relationship to the other Judas, the obscure St Jude; and what is the connection between Judas Iscariot and the dark figures in other myths of redemption? How does the Judas Iscariot of the Gospels become the Judas Iscariot who was such a baleful ingredient in the anti-Semitism of medieval drama, folklore and art?
The question that needs to be asked at the outset is how it came about that Judas was portrayed in the Passion plays as the sole Jew among the apostles, even though, in historical fact, they were all Jews - as was Jesus himself. This view has persisted even into the 20th century. A questionnaire circulated by sociologists in the United States in 1969 showed that a high proportion of respondents thought of Judas as Jewish and of the other apostles as non-Jewish.
Many have argued that this is due to the 'unfortunate coincidence' of the similarity in sound between 'Judas' and 'Jew'. This delightfully simple explanation shows a determination to avoid the issue. A plainer answer is that the identification of Judas with the Jews is a natural inference from the Gospel story.
The role of Judas Iscariot echoes in an uncanny way the depiction in the Gospels of the role of the Jews as a whole. Judas plays out on the individual level the role of treachery assigned to the Jewish people: 'He came unto his own, and his own knew him not.' Just as Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan, so the Jews were 'the synagogue of Satan'. Just as Judas paid for his crime by a pitiable death, so the Jews were punished by the annihilation of their temple and state. Though the parallel is not explicitly drawn in the Gospels, its subliminal effect, even (or especially) on young or simple readers cannot be doubted. The parallel between Judas and the Jews certainly did not escape Christian commentators. From the Early Fathers onwards, it is explicitly drawn; both St John Chrysostom and St Jerome drew elaborate parallels between the two.
In the Middle Ages a folklore Judas saga grew, in which the parallel was enhanced in every detail. In the propaganda directed against the innocent Alfred Dreyfus in 19th-century France, for instance, the charge of treachery against the homeland was constantly associated both with Dreyfus's Jewishness and with the name of Judas, who, said Eduard Drumont - a writer and anti-Semite of the time - was the archetypal Jew.
The character of Judas seems to have developed even within the Gospels, becoming ever more evil and diabolic. In the earliest strands of the New Testament, Judas's alleged treachery does not appear at all. The story appears to have sprung not from actual events but, rather, to have been dictated by mythological necessity in the period after Jesus' death. In other religious myths a deity who brings salvation by his violent death has to have an evil betrayer: Loki in the Scandinavian myth of the death of Balder is a good example.
The reason is that the violent death of the divine sacrifice, while it brings salvation to the community, cannot be thought of as actually having been wished by the community. There has to be, therefore, an evil figure, or group of figures, on whom the death can be blamed. This is the Black Christ, who sacrifices his soul for the community of believers, while the White Christ sacrifices only his body. Judas brings salvation no less than Jesus, but this can never be acknowledged, for the company of the saved must preserve their attitude of mourning for the death of the necessary sacrifice.
This traditional myth transfers itself to Christianity. Judas Iscariot is the archetype of the Betrayer, without whom the drama of redemption would have been incomplete. He was possessed by Satan, yet his role was fated. This role, played on the individual level by Judas, is played also by the Jews as a whole. They act the indispensable role of Betrayers, bearing the full obloquy of the necessary salvational deed of blood. The Christian legend of the Wandering Jew (often associated with Judas) represents the wish of Christians that Jews would co-operate in the ritual by accepting their assigned role of crime and suffering in a spirit of repentance.
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. He aroused great hope and support among the Jews during his lifetime. When he died on a Roman cross, like so many other brave martyrs of the period, he was mourned by the Jewish people. After his death, Jesus was transformed by some of his followers into a deity, and his death was regarded as a sacrifice through which devotees could achieve immortality. Jesus' anti-Roman aims now became embarrassing and irrelevant, and the Gospels were written to blame the Jews for his death instead of the Romans. The developing myth of the Sacrificed Jesus now required a Betrayer. The Jewish people fitted naturally into this role, and could be aptly symbolised by the eponymous figure of Judas.
Who, then, was the real, historical Judas Iscariot, and why was he chosen for such a horrific role? Originally there was only one Judas (as the earlier apostle lists make clear), and he never betrayed Jesus at all. He was chosen as Betrayer (when the myth of betrayal entered the story after Jesus' death) simply because his name echoed that of the Jewish people. The second Judas who appears in the later apostle lists is simply the remaining shadow of the original, innocuous Judas before he became diabolised.
The deification of Jesus had the unfortunate result of diabolising the people to whom, in real life, he totally belonged. The figure of Judas Iscariot thus symbolises the transformation of the Jews, in Christian eyes, from the people of God into the people of the Devil.
Hyam Maccoby is the author of 'Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil', Peter Halban, pounds 17.95. 'Sorry, Judas', a programme inspired by his book, will be broadcast on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.
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