Just thought I’d share this essay I ran across in America magazine. It was written in 2006, sort of pegged to the then-recent emergence of “The Gospel of Judas,” but the Jesuit publication posted it again on the day of Holy Week when Judas is said to have made the decision to betray Jesus.
I throw it out there so I can see what y’all think. For 2,000 years, people have been projecting all sorts of interpretations upon the man and his actions, from the mundane to a figure who was used as an excuse for Christian anti-semitism.
Judas gets pegged with being motivated by greed, which is problematic, since he’d abandoned whatever material comfort he had ever possessed to follow Jesus around for three years. Anyway, he refused to keep the money. Sometimes the theory is politics — such as saying his last name, Iscariot, is derived from sicarii, or dagger wielders, a band of religious terrorists of the time. But as the writer of this essay — Father James Martin, editor-at-large of the magazine — notes, that movement hadn’t taken off until years after Judas’ betrayal and suicide.
After reading such a serious examination as Fr. Martin’s, I’m a little embarrassed to say this — it seems both irreverent and anti-intellectual — but I’ve always found the “Jesus Christ Superstar” version persuasive. At least, it connects on an emotional level. The Judas of the rock opera sees himself as Jesus’ best friend, one who truly believes in the values his master espouses but is uncomfortable both with all “this talk of God,” and the likelihood that Jesus is getting them all into big trouble. Why not help the authorities take him off the street and let everything cool down? Then, of course, he’s devastated when his actions lead to the crucifixion. At the outset, Judas presents his case this way:
I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way.
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied.
Nazareth, your famous son should have stayed a great unknown
Like his father carving wood He’d have made good.
Tables, chairs, and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best.
He’d have caused nobody harm; no one alarm.
Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?
Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied; have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened by the crowd.
For we are getting much too loud.
And they’ll crush us if we go too far.
Of course, that’s not far off from what Fr. Martin presents as a serious, plausible set of assumptions:
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Judas’s action was articulated several decades ago by the late William Barclay, author of the widely used multivolume Daily Study Bible. Barclay posited that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggested, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional interpretations explain why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense.
This is in fact the view which best suits all the facts, Barclay concluded.
Anyway, I’m curious what you think.
Yeah, I realize some of my unbelieving friends will think this is a silly question. Some of you may even be of the persuasion that sees Jesus, much less Judas, as a fictional character. Which strikes me as extremely unlikely. Even if I didn’t believe, my understanding of history and how it unfolds would cause me to acknowledge that something happened there in Jerusalem during the time Pontius Pilate was procurator and Caiaphas was high priest. Something that started small, but gradually led to a movement that ended up taking over the Western world. And the broad outlines of the Jesus story seem a reasonable way that movement would have started.
Of course, even if you acknowledge that, you could say that Judas and the role he played were inventions by the followers of this new sect. Fr. Martin deals with that this way:
But a wholesale invention is probably unlikely. By most accounts, Mark wrote his Gospel around 70 A.D., only 40 years after the death of Jesus. Luke and Matthew wrote some 10 to 20 years after Mark. The early Christian community, therefore, would have still counted among its members people who were friends of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to the passion events, or who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. All these would presumably have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. Rather, as Father Harrington says, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact. In other words, the ignominy of having Jesus betrayed by one of the apostles is something that the Gospel writers would most likely have wanted to avoid, not invent.
And even if I were an atheist, if there were a modern-day-style biography of Judas available — something as painstakingly detailed as Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, or McCullough’s John Adams — I’d run out and get a copy and read it eagerly. So I could, you know, better understand the people and events that had pushed the world in the direction it took over the millennia.
But people didn’t process information that way 2,000 years ago. The things we don’t know even about Roman emperors would be embarrassing to any modern biographer, historian or journalist. And the people who set down the Gospels and other books of the New Testament were infinitely more interested in relating Jesus’ teachings than they were the backstory of the man who betrayed him. To them, writing at least 40 years after the events, Judas was just this bad guy who did this bad thing. Or good thing, as the “Gospel of Judas” would have it.
But what sort of man was he, and why did he do it?
Tomorrow I’ll think about something else. But this is Spy Wednesday.