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Judas: A Biography

Susan Gubar

(W.W. Norton; US: Mar 2009)

Twenty-two references scattered through the four Biblical Gospels are all that exists of Judas Iscariot. Though his presence is minor, his impact is profound; the name Judas has endured two millennia as a synonym for all manner of depravity and treachery, a reward for his participation in Christianity’s most devastating betrayal—and its defining triumph.


Like Milton’s Satan, the rebellious allure of Judas has compelled writers, artists, and theologians to ponder the man’s motives, his relationship with Christ, and his connection to the whole of mankind. Unfortunately, the character of Judas has also been used as a metonymic device by anti-Semites to impugn Judaism and its people, and to justify their ill-treatment as a response to intrinsic flaws within their race.


Following in the footsteps of Pulitzer Prize-winner Jack Miles, who treated the Father and Son to a literary dissection in his insightful books God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, author Susan Gubar takes on a far less glamorous yet equally compelling subject in Judas: A Biography. The title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek; obviously, the details of Judas Iscariot’s historical life are unfathomable. Instead, Gubar plots Judas’ evolution over time in religious texts (both canonical and apocryphal), fine art, political rhetoric, film, fiction, theater, and poetry.


The story of Judas does not end with his ignominious suicide in the Book of Matthew, but rather expands over time, shifting and evolving as it is elaborated upon by new thought and attitudes. Gubar leads readers on an enlightening, and at times harrowing, journey to uncover what various portrayals of Judas say about the cultures that created them, and what role Judas should have in how people approach the question of Jesus Christ in their own lives.


The core conflict of Judas: A Biography is that of the fallen apostle’s culpability. Judas’ infamy is built upon a paradox. Without his act of betrayal, handing Christ over to the authorities, the crucifixion and resurrection would not have occurred. The inaugural event of Christianity, the victory over death that defines the new covenant that Christ represents to humankind, can be directly traced back to Judas’ traitorous kiss. Judas is the catalyst that facilitates the birth of Christianity, and for that he is condemned to eternal damnation and is made a pariah for all eternity.


Gubar illustrates the peculiarity of Judas’ fate by describing the subtle modifications made to his character by the Gospel authors. In Mark, the earliest Gospel, written around 70CE, Judas is presented not as a villainous antagonist but a representation of doubt and fear. His betrayal is even given an implicit motivation—Jesus’ use of expensive anointing oil which all the apostles (not just Judas) felt should be sold to pay for alms to the poor. Twenty years later, around 90CE, when it is believed the Gospel of John was written, Judas has been fully transformed into a demonically-possessed, greed-filled thief, whose actions serve the craven desires of evil forces bent on destroying the Messiah.


Joseph Campbell famously illuminated the hero with a thousand faces; here, Gubar sheds light on a protean Judas who has almost as many. From those initial archaic depictions and their discrepancies, the character of Judas is continually shifting shape, through the Roman era, into the Renaissance, and up to the present day, with each new permutation gaining some flavor of its creators. Early Christian thought, so repelled by the betrayal of Christ, cast Judas out into the wilderness, an outcast whose fate was forever sealed. Renaissance painters like Caravaggio rescued Judas from his eternal damnation, seeking to show the emotional, almost romantic aspects of his relationship with Christ.


Victorians saw Byronic heroism in his actions, which they perceived as working with God’s grand plan for salvation, rather than against his will. Judas became something of a sub-savior, who sacrifices his soul with no hope of resurrection to provide for the fulfillment of Christ’s mission and the deliverance of all mankind.


Judas: A Biography is not an attempt to rebut or refute theological dogmas or act in opposition to faith. It is a thoughtful, respectful analysis of one of history’s (and literature’s) most fascinating actors, whose obscurity fuels our desire to know and to understand.


Gubar does an excellent job with the difficult, cross-textual subject matter, plumbing the nooks and crannies of well-known and less-obvious sources in search of revealing information. Her commitment to her subject makes Judas: A Biography a thought-provoking read. Though it does dig deeply into the persona of Judas, the subject we learn most about is that of human culture and how it deals with its own flaws and failings.


Judas is a troubling figure for many because his story directly challenges the expectations of the faithful. Millions of people over thousands of years have given themselves to an unseen Christ through faith, while a man who was able to see his face, lived and worked with him and could kiss his cheek, rejected him. It’s an unfathomable heresy, the implications of which led to Judas’ demonization, the idea that only someone of purest evil could reject the Messiah to his face.


It’s a crass simplification, one that protects the mind from considering uncomfortable realities. Judas: A Biography tells us that such an act is only all too human.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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