Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by Peter Stanford, book review

Telegenic study looks at the great scapegoat over two millennia

James Runcie
Thursday 19 March 2015 17:00 GMT
Betrayal: 'The Kiss of Judas' by Giotto Di Bondone (c1266-1337)
Betrayal: 'The Kiss of Judas' by Giotto Di Bondone (c1266-1337) (Rex Features)

At a time when an alarming number of people think that the celebration of Easter is more about rabbits than the Resurrection, the idea of calling someone who betrays you a "Judas" still has traction.

Whether it's Bob Dylan playing his electric guitar, the Tottenham footballer Sol Campbell signing for Arsenal or Nick Clegg's promises on tuition fees, it's the quickest way of saying: "You bastard." Peter Stanford's useful cultural biography now puts the man behind the name in context.

The book reads as if it were a television documentary. Stanford travels to Jerusalem to seek out the Garden of Gethsemane and the Field of Blood. He looks at pulpits and frescoes in Volterra and Florence; and then at stained glass windows in the churches of Norfolk and Dorset. He examines manuscripts, from the accounts of the evangelists to the The Gospel of Judas (discovered as recently as 2006); and he takes us, chronologically, through the cultural legacy in works such as the Legenda Aurea, complied by Jacobus de Voragine, in which the story of suicidal regret is bizarrely conflated with that of Oedipus.

Most tellingly, Stanford uses René Girard's seminal work on "The Scapegoat" to discuss how the figure of Judas became the stock in trade of anti-Semitism. It is salutary to see how early this begins, with Christian fathers such as St Jerome arguing "that in Judas the Jews may be accursed… Whom do you suppose are the sons of Judas? The Jews… Iscariot means money and price. Synagogue was divorced by the Saviour and became the wife of Judas the traitor." Fifteen hundred years later, German classrooms resounded with the equally offensive (and historically inaccurate) slogan "Judas the Jew betrayed Jesus the German to the Jews".

This is scary and thought-provoking stuff. In addition, Stanford's chapters are interspersed with alphabetical gobbets of information that have found no place in the overall narrative. (Television producers refer to this kind of thing as '"Fuck-me!" facts'). We learn, for example, that in medieval presentations of Judas, his skin was often shown as pitted with bright red spots, as evidence of his general depravity and untrustworthiness; and "so when individuals developed the symptoms of what we would now diagnose as measles – including bright red spots – the disease was referred to in France as Mal de Judas."

Despite the plethora of information, this is not so much a work of original scholarship as a primer, written in a conversational manner that is unlikely to trouble the millennial generation. "There was a time when the visual was so much stronger than the written, or even the spoken," Stanford explains when looking at late medieval art; Fra Angelico's painting marks a "step-change" in attitudes to Judas; St Augustine is described as a former playboy turned Bishop and the liberal use of Biblical quotation is taken from the everyday language of the New Jerusalem Bible so as to avoid the troublesome seventeenth-century complexity of the King James.

The result of this easy-going affability sometimes means that the power and terror of the story is lost. I could have done with more of Stanford's own opinion and a more dramatic sense of implication and argument. But I suppose that if your subject matter is, in Pope Leo I's words, "the wickedest and unhappiest man that ever lived", then the reader should perhaps be grateful for small mercies. It makes the experience curiously, thoughtfully and reassuringly English, even Anglican, which, since the book is written by a former editor of the Catholic Herald, comes as something of a surprise.

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