(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1821 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

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.