In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the supporting characters in the story of Jesus of Nazareth beyond what is said about them in the canonical gospels of the Bible. For example the novel The Da Vinci Code (2003) by Dan Brown concerns Mary Magdalene, a female disciple of Jesus, and the alleged descendants of the couple. A translation of the noncanonical Gospel of Judas, another disciple of Jesus, was released in 2006 by National Geographic and became controversial because it was at odds with the portrayals of Judas in the canonical books of the Bible. Susan Gubar’s Judas: A Biography is also about Judas Iscariot, a supporting character who is critical to the story of Jesus because his betrayal is part of the chain of events that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
Strictly speaking, Judas: A Biography is not a biography, as the author admits in her introduction. The twenty-two references to Judas Iscariot in the Bible only amount to about twelve hundred words, and they are not consistent with one another. Instead, Gubar examines how writers and artists have interpreted those references through the centuries. Different interpretations are dominant in different historical periods, although the dominant interpretation of a given time is not the only one of its time and the time in which it is dominant is not the only time people subscribe to it.
The first question Gubar discusses is whether there was a historical Judas. All four canonical gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by Luke; and several noncanonical gospels describe Judas’s betrayal of Jesus on the night before the crucifixion. The argument in favor of his historical existence would thus seem strong. However, Paul, whose letters predate the canonical gospels, never mentions Judas, nor do several of the noncanonical gospels. Scholars now believe that none of the authors of the canonical gospels were eyewitnesses to the events they described, so none of them can be considered primary sources.
Gubar, following some biblical scholars, also questions whether Judas’s betrayal was a necessary precondition of Jesus’ crucifixion: The Romans could easily have arrested him in a public place, and his whereabouts on the night of his arrest were not secret if they wished to arrest him in a private setting. Betrayal by someone close to Jesus makes for a stronger narrative. Ultimately, Gubar decides that Judas’s factual existence and the historical truth of his actions are irrelevant to her book, since she is primarily interested in how people have interpreted the story over the last two millennia.
Judas’s name itself is not without significance. It was a very common Jewish name at that time, so many writers and artists with an anti-Semitic agenda identified all Jews with him, especially since the Jewish religion is often referred to as “Judaism.” According to Mark and Matthew, Jesus had a brother named Judas. John mentions yet another man named Judas, and Saint Jude is the patron saint of hopeless causes. Judah, the oldest son of Jacob, betrayed his younger brother Joseph by selling him into slavery in Egypt and founded the largest of the original twelve tribes of Israel. Judas Maccabeus was one of the greatest warriors in Hebrew history.
Gubar’s next step is to contrast and compare the versions of the story in the four canonical gospels, in the order in which scholars believe they were written: Mark (written around 68-70 c.e.), Matthew (c. 80-85 c.e.), Luke (c. 80-85 c.e.), and John (c. 95-100 c.e. ). All four agree that Judas betrayed Jesus by...
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leading Jewish or Roman authorities to the garden of Gethsemene, where Jesus had retired after the Last Supper to pray. Jesus was accompanied by his disciples Peter, James, and John, who, to his annoyance, kept falling asleep.
None of the four gospels describes Judas’s childhood or background. In Mark’s version, in return for money, Judas leads the authorities to Jesus, whom he kisses so that the authorities know whom to arrest. Mark never mentions what happens to Judas afterward. Matthew specifies the amount of money as thirty pieces of silver, which has some interesting connections with mentions of silver in the Old Testament, and he also has Judas kissing Jesus. Matthew adds to Mark’s account by having Judas repent: He tries to return the money to the Jewish authorities and then commits suicide by hanging himself. Luke is ambiguous about whether the kiss actually took place, has Judas using the money to buy a field, and then has him die in the field from the bursting of his bowels. Luke also wrote that Judas was possessed by Satan. John does not mention money or the kiss but specifies the arresting authorities as Roman soldiers and has Jesus identify himself to them rather than have Judas do it. John does not describe what happens to Judas after the crucifixion, but he goes so far as to call Judas a demon.
Gubar interprets the progressively harsher portrayals by the authors of the canonical gospels in terms of the need for early Christianity to differentiate itself from Judaism, as personified by Judas. She also discerns several themes that recur in the many interpretations of the story of Jesus and Judas. The first theme is Judas being portrayed as a pariah whose sin of betrayal was unforgivable. This makes him the worst human being in history, since the Bible describes many sinful actions committed by people such as King David and Saint Paul that were eventually forgiven. Saint Jerome (347-420), Saint Augustine (354-430), Martin Luther (1483-1546), John Calvin (1509-1564), and Karl Barth (1886-1968) all took this position. Luther tried to reconcile the accounts of Judas’s death in Matthew and Luke by speculating that Judas’s bladder burst when he hanged himself.
Gubar comments on Luther’s anti-Semitism and draws a clear line between the concept of Judas as pariah, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust. Judas is made to stand for the Jewish people so that executions of the Jews by the Nazis are justified as punishment for the betrayal of Jesus. Nazi theologians argued that Jesus was not a Jew but an Aryan and that Judas betrayed him in much the same way that the Jews betrayed Germany during World War I. (Hitler himself rejected this theory, because he considered Christianity itself to be part of the Jewish conspiracy against the Aryans.)
Gubar cites many examples in this anti-Semitic tradition. For instance, in Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), Satan tortures Judas for eternity by using him as a kind of chew toy. In Jacopo da Voragine’s Legenda aurea (c. 1260; The Golden Legend, 1483) and the Wakefield Mystery Plays (fourteenth century), Judas’s story is combined with that of Oedipus in that he kills his father and marries his own mother. In the film Dracula 2000 (2000), the title character is the reincarnation of Judas, which explains his aversion to silver and the crucifix.
Gubar also discusses common interpretations and portrayals of Judas’s kiss. She describes Ludovico Carracci’s painting Kiss of Judas (1589-1590) as homoerotic. In the Gospel of Barnabas, written in either the late Middle Ages or the early modern period, Judas loves Jesus so much that he takes Jesus’ place and is the one crucified. This gospel is very popular in the Islamic world because it denies Jesus’s divinity and his resurrection. Gubar cites Emily Dickinson’s poem “’Twas Lovenot me” as a dramatic monologue by Judas declaring his love for Jesus. In Terence McNally’s 1998 play Corpus Christi, Judas is openly gay. Another gay interpretation of the story is the 1964 film The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
After the Enlightenment, scholars approached the Bible as a historical text. Thomas De Quincey in his essay “Judas Iscariot” (1857) conceived Judas as a Jewish patriot, like his namesake Judas Maccabeus, who mistakenly believed that Jesus had come to establish a worldly kingdom. His betrayal was thus meant to force Jesus to take action. Richard Hengist Horne’s verse drama “Scriptural Tragedy” (1848), Frederick William Orde Ward’s dramatic monologue “Judas Iscariot” (1897), Cale Young Rice’s poem “The Wife of Judas Iscariot” (1912), W. W. Story’s long poem A Roman Lawyer in Jerusalem: First Century (1970), Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son (1997), and the 1961 film version of The King of Kings all take this viewpoint. Dorothy Sayers and Robinson Jeffers both take an opposing, although complementary, approach, Sayers in her 1943 radio play The Man Born to be King and Jeffers in his verse drama Dear Judas (1928). In both versions, Judas is a pacifist who believes that Jesus plans a violent revolt, and he betrays him to prevent an insurrection.
The last major theme Gubar discusses is the notion that Judas’s betrayal was a necessary condition of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Consequently, Judas’s action saved the human race and is therefore forgivable, as Joseph forgave his brother Judah and King David and St. Paul were forgiven for their sins. The fifteenth century dialogue Lucius and Dubius takes this position. John Donne (1572-1631) argued that Judas was only doing what Jesus wished him to do so that Jesus could be crucified and redeem the human race. Theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) also subscribed to this view, and even Karl Barth commented on the paradox that Judas is condemned for doing God’s will. Albert Levitt’s Judas Iscariot: An Imaginative Autobiography (1961), José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ (1991), and the recently translated Gospel of Judas agree with this position. A variation of this theme argues that Jesus tricked or persuaded Judas into betraying him. Examples are found in Armando Cosani’s novel The Flight of the Feather Serpent (1953), Hugh J. Schonfield’s The Passover Plot (1965), and Michael Dickinson’s The Lost Testament of Judas Iscariot (1994).
Some authors combine these themes. In Ho teleutaios peirasmos (1955; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1960; also known as The Last Temptation) and its film adaptation, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Nikos Kazantzakis combines the concepts of Judas as both patriot and savior. Judas knows that he is helping Jesus perform his mission on Earth, and Jesus tells him that God gave Judas the more difficult task of betraying a friend rather than the simpler task of being crucified. However, Kazantzakis follows John’s version of Jesus’s arrest in that there is no kiss and Jesus identifies himself to the authorities. In Mario Brelich’s 1975 novel The Work of Betrayal, the author combines the savior theme with the homoerotic aspect of the story, postulating a love triangle among Jesus, Judas, and John. Judas forfeits his own salvation so that everyone else can be saved.
None of these interpretations reveal anything about a historical Judas. However, as Gubar points out, they do reveal a great deal about the interpreters themselves and about the times and places in which they lived.
Booklist 105, no. 12 (February 15, 2009): 8.
Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 22.
Library Journal 134, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 97.
The New York Times, April 5, 2009, p. BR10.
The New York Times Book Review, April 5, 2009, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly 256, no. 2 (January 12, 2009): p. 41.
Times Higher Education, October 15, 2009, p. 48.
The Washington Post, March 26, 2009, p. C01.