It’s Holy Week, so it’s as good a time as any for bringing up the matter of Judas. Loads of people nowadays ask whether he was as bad as he was painted or whether he’s a scapegoat for Judaism. There’s The Gospel of Judas and, most likely, Rev. Kate Bottley’s BBC documentary will be shown again.
During In the footsteps of Judas, Kate suggested that Judas truly believed Jesus was a revolutionary who would help overturn the Roman rule of Judea and that he might have been trying to force Jesus’ hand. Mitigating circumstances? Perhaps. But I think this still misses a vital point.
You see, I believe that Judas was innocent. He was the Severus Snape of the New Testament.
Judas’s betrayal of Christ was an event that (according to the Gospels) happened at the time of the Passover when thousands of Jews were in Jerusalem to celebrate. A crucifixion then would have been highly visible to everyone in the city and Jesus’ resurrection a lot more believable.
What would have happened to this Jewish insurgent who starting to look dangerous if he hadn’t been handed over to be executed in public? Most likely those who wanted him out of the way would have had Jesus quietly knifed in a back alley when no one was looking. That would have been a much better solution for everyone who was being inconvenienced by his teachings of love and inclusivity in an angry and exclusive world (no change there then!).
If that had been the case, Jesus would have pottered back into town and said, “I am the risen Christ” and everyone would have said, “don’t talk rubbish. Seriously, where have you been? We’ve been looking for you.”
He could have shown them the knife wounds as much as he liked and no one would have believed him. Result? No Christianity. You need a stonking great miracle to make people sit up and take notice and Imperial Rome under Constantine would never have adopted a non-entity of a faith simply made up from love.
Now, I know you may be saying, “no Christianity? That’s no bad thing” and let’s take a quick diversion there… Perhaps without Christianity there would have been no Spanish Inquisition, no rejection of gay folk, probably fewer witch hunts and no pedophilia scandals? Don’t bet on it. Human nature being what it is, the Romans would just have found a different religion with which to go to war. There would have been other controlling religious classes that hit out at minorities and abused the weak whatever religion came and went over the centuries. On the pedophilia score, look at what the Muslim Afghan warlords are up to, the practice of sex with adolescent boys is viewed as totally acceptable. It’s not just the Christians (horribly culpable though they still may be).
I started researching the story of Judas back in the mid 1990s when I wrote The Book of Deborah a novel about a cousin of Jesus who was raised as his sister. I wanted to include as much cultural and historical background as I could and decided to marry my heroine to Judas so that I could really get my teeth into what had motivated him.
I received the inspiration behind the book in one fell swoop at Qumran on a Kabbalistic pilgrimage to Israel but I tried to change the plot I had been given because I believed that Judas was guilty. The first time I did it, the file for that chapter didn’t save on my computer. Annoyed, I re-wrote it and backed up to floppy disk (yes, it was that long ago!). Neither the computer or the disk saved the chapter. The third time I wrote that chapter, the computer went into disk boot failure which meant that the whole shebang broke down. We took it to be mended and they restored everything except that chapter. I took the hint.
I gave in and wrote what I’d been inspired to write. And, the more I wrote, the more I became convinced that Judas was innocent. More than that, I think he was a hero. Move over Professor Snape!
Snape knew exactly when to kill Albus Dumbledore on Dumbledore’s instructions and, if he hadn’t, the whole Harry Potter saga could not have been resolved.
Jesus was no fool. He would have known that he had to have a public death and that it would have to be at a time when there were as many witnesses as possible. It was a set up from the moment he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
He would have had to have primed someone to arrange it; someone he could trust absolutely. There is a clue in the Greek word used at the Last Supper, paradidómi — always translated in the Gospels as “betray” but which is equally well translated as “hand over.”
Don’t forget, that in Gethsemane, Jesus was in agony, waiting for what was to happen. If this wasn’t meant to be, there was nothing to stop him high-tailing it back to Galilee, pronto.
And yes, Jesus was hot on the forgiveness stuff, for sure, but greeting Judas with a kiss could easily have been an acknowledgment of how utterly awful a job it was for him to have to do. Judas would have known that this act would mean his own death; not one of the disciples would ever have tolerated him again. They were “asleep” remember, in Gethsemane and “asleep” in this context is much more likely to mean “unaware of what is truly going on.”
Who could possibly have reported Jesus’ agony in the garden for the Gospels if everyone else there was actually snoring?
In The Book of Deborah, I’ve depicted Judas as a complicated and sometimes arrogant man. The story of how he learns to serve his beloved teacher is a journey of humility and, ultimately, the willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. That, in my eyes, makes him the consummate hero.
John Romer’s book Testament calls the writing down of the Gospels Christianity’s “first loss of nerve” and everyone knows that you can’t have a good story without a villain. While you’re creating that bad guy for the sake of the plot, why not also call him “Jew”? Because that’s what Judas (or Judah as it would have been in Aramaic) means. What a powerful way to stir up hatred against Judaism — something Christianity has been very good at over the years.
In the Gospels, Judas is also the purse-bearer and depicted as being mean with the money. Now there’s a Jewish stereotype that would lead to Shylock in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
As for the thirty pieces of silver, in Jesus’ day this payment was always made for information and if the person refused it, their desire to offer information was seen as malicious. Taking it was a sign of integrity not greed.
I don’t know the truth about Judas and no one ever will. But I believe it’s our task to look at him with Jesus’ eyes — and before any Christian ever again says a word against Judaism, it would be wise to remember that we follow a guy who also was a Jew.