THE BILLY Connolly joke is well known. Thomas turns up late for the Last Supper, and is met by a very merry Peter. Peering round the door, Thomas sees that the disciples have all been tucking into takeaways and lager. "Thomas, I've got some bad news and some good news," says Peter. "The bad news is that Jesus has been arrested. The good news is that Judas has come into some money."
I like the joke, because it goes against the grain. Judas generally gets a bad press, both in the New Testament and beyond. In Christian tradition the name Judas Iscariot is synonymous with betrayal. In Dante's Inferno Judas belongs in the inner ring of Hell along with Cassius and Brutus, the Great Traitors. A nasty beast gnaws on them for eternity, even as they live.
And yet the New Testament tells us very little about Judas. It only hints. Perhaps he was thief? Or a disillusioned political zealot? Maybe a "double agent", in hock to Caiaphas? One modern writer suggests that Jesus is "betrayed somewhere in the lost childhood of Judas". It wasn't his fault - blame his parents.
Poor old Judas. The Gospel writers all agree he is sick and evil, and appear to give us at least three possibilities as to why: he was in it for the money; he was politically disaffected; or, he was possessed by the Devil. Of course these are not in themselves competitive theories about Judas's betrayal; they may in fact turn out to be complementary.
The point is that when a gross and evil act is committed, even the gospel writers are not above the language of blame and scapegoating. In shifting the responsibility - all too easily from a tragic and suicidal human individual on to an evil and cosmic dimension - in which Satan appears to triumph over God, the Evangelists miss a trick.
Judas is part of a problematic economy in the Gospels: those who are vilified by the Evangelists. The problem, ironically, reaches its peak in Holy Week. It began on Sunday with the dramatic reading of the Passion Narratives. Congregations are reminded that it was the Jews who called for Jesus to be crucified: "Let his blood be upon us, and our children's children."
The readings leave us in no doubt that the blame for Jesus's death rests mostly with a Jewish crowd, baying for blood. Judas is at the end of this narrative, the arch- betrayer and instrument of Satan. Greed and disenchantment get the better of him. The Romans, strangely, are just Gentiles going about their job; Jesus's execution isn't their fault. Or ours, for that matter.
The anti-Semitic tone to some of the Passion narratives makes many Christians squirm today. And so does the treatment of Judas at the hands of the Gospel writers. Laying full blame at the feet of one race or one man seems crude, simplistic and even primitive. Isn't running away just as much a betrayal? Surely the Gospels say we are all implicated in the death of Jesus? Yet those crude instincts reflected in the Gospels live on today. One person to blame is convenient and neat; it lets us off the hook. The suicide of Judas just confirms the notion that he was always unreliable; one bad apple spoiling the barrel.
Judas is, in reality, the shadow of Jesus in Holy Week. He too can cry, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do." He is despised and rejected, a man acquainted with grief. He gets mixed up in the politics and passion of the time. Like his master, he will die, hanging from a tree. He ends with no hope or security; like Jesus, he is misunderstood, his ambitions turned to ashes.
A few years ago, the artist Laurence Whistler created a set of 13 engraved- glass windows for a church in Dorset, picturing the 12 disciples, with the 13th being for Christ. It was the 12th of these windows, featuring Judas's salvation, that was the subject of much controversy, because the parish rejected it. The church clearly felt Judas belonged in Hell, with Cassius, Brutus and their other treacherous friends; but Whistler, the artist, drew on other Christian traditions.
Julian of Norwich, in one of her "Shewings", went to hell and found no one there, "not even a Jew". Catherine of Siena would not go to Heaven if she thought there was "a single soul in Hell". Origen, Clement of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa thought that Hell might not be forever: "All intelligent beings will in the end be saved . . . to share in the grace of salvation."
Laurence Whistler's controversial engraved window was nicknamed "the forgiveness window", for it showed Judas with a rope around his neck being pulled into heaven. As he did so, the coins (blood money) fell from his hands and became petals and blossoming flowers on the ground. This is the very inversion of Dante's vision of what befell Judas, and, of course, it ties in with another rather nice modern myth about Judas.
Noting that on Good Friday and after the death of Jesus, all the disciples dispersed and ran away, one modern writer asks where we might find Mary, the mother of Jesus, on this very afternoon? Why, of course, she suggests, round at Judas's house - comforting his mother.
Martyn Percy is Director of the Lincoln Theological Institute, at Sheffield University
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies