Darker Judas, or A Forgiving Light?

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, March 26, 2009; Page C01


A Biography

By Susan Gubar

Norton. 453 pp. $27.95

This fascinating, occasionally infuriating book isn't really a biography. There are only 22 references to Judas Iscariot in the Bible, and there is no solid evidence that he ever actually existed. Even those who credit his historical reality can only assert two basic facts about Judas: In the words of the New Testament scholar John P. Meier, "(1) Jesus chose him as one of the Twelve, and (2) he handed over Jesus to the Jerusalem authorities, thus precipitating Jesus' execution."

Each of the four Gospels offers a slightly different sketch of the so-called 12th apostle, and these Susan Gubar duly compares before tracing what one might call the later legends, artworks and stereotypes associated with Jesus's betrayer. In essence, she presents the afterlife of Judas, examining the ways he has been used and abused, interpreted and transformed.

Quite early on, the treacherous disciple became the symbolic Jew for anti-Semites. He was obsessed with filthy lucre (the 30 pieces of silver), as well as being a lying hypocrite (his brotherly kiss, which identified Christ to the Roman soldiers) and physically repulsive: After the betrayal, Judas was said to have grown horribly bloated and malodorous, dying either by hanging or by literally exploding and releasing all manner of intestinal foulness. In artwork he is nearly always portrayed as swarthy, with a hook nose and red hair -- red alluding to his payment of blood money. Churchmen often linked him with other despicable traitors, such as Satan and Cain. In Dante's "Inferno," Judas suffers the worst fate of all: to be stuffed in the central maw of Satan himself, half-eaten for all eternity.

What Gubar labels the "Judas-Jew" stereotype has had a depressingly long history, serving the Nazi propaganda machine especially well in such films as the melodrama "Jew Suss" and the phony documentary "The Eternal Jew." But, as Gubar notes, "Judas the demon" also "had a long life in Western letters. From Charles Dickens's red-haired and fanged Fagin, despoiling Christian boys by training them in thievery, to Anthony Trollope's bloodsucking Melmotte, driven by his own iniquity to commit suicide, Judas's greed combines with his avarice and his self-destruction to shape the Jew's depiction in British literature."

Nonetheless, throughout history there have been periodic attempts to repair Judas's reputation, even to ennoble him. This effort starts with the perplexity of why Jesus would have knowingly chosen his future betrayer to be one of his apostles. To many, the answer is simply that the Messiah needed someone to denounce him so that his own sacred destiny might be fulfilled: Without a Judas there could be no Crucifixion, hence no salvation for humanity. From this premise one can readily imagine a tragic, self-sacrificing Judas, who reluctantly accepts the bitter cup thrust upon him. In Nikos Kazantzakis's novel "The Last Temptation of Christ," Jesus actually tells Judas that crucifixion is the easier course compared with the despair and vilification that Judas must endure. In some early accounts, the apostle even recognizes that he will be the last person to die under the old dispensation, that he will just miss the grace of the resurrected Jesus Christ. The 2006 publication of a Gnostic "Gospel of Judas" brought renewed attention to this belief that the erstwhile betrayer was actually Jesus's spiritual co-conspirator.

In general, the revisionists tend to view Judas as deeply sensitive and socially aware. He is rightly angry at the waste of a small fortune when a woman washes Jesus's feet with expensive oils: The money spent on this spa treatment could have been better used to feed the poor. Some writers speculate that a politicized Judas deliberately engineered Jesus's arrest so that the strangely pacific Messiah would be forced to turn on his captors with all his supernatural Ark-of-the-Covenant and Angels-at-His-Command power, thus setting in motion a revolution that would free his subjugated people from the Roman yoke. Didn't Jesus himself declare that he came to bring not peace but a sword?

From this perspective, Judas emerges as a brave Hebrew patriot, sacrificing his reputation and even his life to instigate needed political change in the real world. While he may have misunderstood Jesus's salvific message, his wasn't an act of treachery, only a well-meant intervention that went tragically awry. One might even argue that Jesus actually betrayed Judas by failing to act as any proper Jewish Messiah should -- that is, as a political revolutionary. In "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," José Saramago suggests that God the Father cruelly manipulates and then sells out both Judas and His son.

Clearly, Judas is potentially every human being, the antihero with a thousand faces. Could he have been jealously impelled to hurt the one he loved because Jesus showered too much attention on the beloved disciple John? The kiss in the garden has regularly been interpreted as homoerotic. In Terrence McNally's play "Corpus Christi," Jesus tells Judas, "I did love you, you know," and Judas answers, "Not the way that I wanted." Even more recently, Brendan Kennelly portrays the 12th apostle in his poetic sequence "The Book of Judas" as the reigning god of the 21st century, treacherous and hypocritical, the supreme double-dealer for a toxic age of fraud, greed and heartlessness.

Gubar isn't a biblical scholar, so her book draws extensively on the research of others. By training, the author -- best known for the feminist classic "The Madwoman in the Attic" (written with Sandra Gilbert) -- is a teacher of English, an interpreter of texts. This means that the ordinary reader will have to put up with some unnecessary jargon and factitious categorization: "He progresses (in a nonnormative fashion) from the anal and oral to the genital phases of development." Such lapses weaken an otherwise enthralling book.

Albeit one that is a trifle too long. Gubar spends her first 75 pages just telling us again and again what she's going to say or prove. Phrases like "we will see" and "the chapters that follow will contend" seem like endless throat-clearing. Perhaps to balance her slow start, her last chapter also runs on like an endless coda, this time repeating one time too many the points already made.

But don't miss Gubar's endnotes, which are crisp, concise and hugely informative. In one, for instance, she lists a score of contemporary pop songs that allude to Judas, including works by Bob Dylan, Depeche Mode, U2, Iron Maiden, Smashing Pumpkins and Dire Straits. Like Jesus, Judas is always with us.

Dirda, whose reviews run each Thursday in Style, can be reached at mdirda@gmail.com. Visit his online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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