The book starts, as all serious works seem to these days, by a chatty account of the author doing his research, in this case looking around the nunnery in Hakeldama, the Field of Blood outside Jerusalem where Judas is supposed to have met his end. He then progresses to the gospel accounts, showing how the story of the betrayal of Jesus grew from the earliest sources, the epistles of Paul, in which Judas is not mentioned by name, to Mark's gospel which mentions Judas three times but recounts only the bare facts of the betrayal, to Mark and Luke who begin to give more motivations and finally John who adds dialogue and incident. This analysis of the story points out the three great mysteries:
- What would have happened if Judas hadn't betrayed Jesus? If there had been no crucifixion it would have undermined the whole point of God sacrificing his own son for the atonement of the sins of humanity. So Judas was necessary to the divine plan. Jesus seems to acknowledge this by showing fore-knowledge of what Judas is about to do at the Last Supper. So was Judas just a pawn in God's master-plan? And if he was, then can he be held guilty?
- The crucial message of Jesus is forgiveness of one's enemies. So why wasn't Judas forgiven? When Jesus died on the cross he descended into hell and 'harrowed' it, releasing the sinners who had died before the resurrection. Judas would have been there by then (having remorsefully committed suicide). So why wasn't Judas released?
- Why did Judas kiss Jesus in the act of betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane? The traditional answer is that Judas had to identify Jesus but over the past week Jesus had scarcely been unidentifiable: he has overturned tables in the Temple and staged furious face to face debates with the authorities. The kiss was not necessary. Yet it is included even in Mark's stark account.
From this last point, Stanford elaborates a theory that made me sit up and think: it is the details that seem to be superfluous that are most probably authentic. The gospel writers were writing to an audience and for propaganda purposes. They may have made things up in order to hammer home doctrinal points. One can therefore suspect everything in the gospels but the least suspicious are the details that really don't matter. Another example Stanford makes is the moment when Peter and another disciple run to the tomb but the unnamed other runs faster than Peter. A silly little detail, and therefore probably true,. he concludes.
What else did I learn from this book?
- Judas had a father called Simon Iscariot. The sharing of the surname suggests that they both came from Qeriot, a town south of Jerusalem, which makes him the only disciple not from Galilee.
- Judas was often called 'Judas the Jew' (although all the disciples and Jesus himself were Jews) and therefore used to engender anti-Semitism through the ages.
- Judas is often shown in profile in mediaeval art to symbolise the fact that he is two-faced.
- Judas often wears yellow and has red hair in medieval art; these are both symbols that he cannot be trusted.
- Judas is often portrayed with red spots or rough blotchy skin; one French name for measles is the Judas disease.
Although there are times when I felt the book could have been a little shorter, in view of the limited primary evidence, Stanford has produced a readable history and an enjoyable book. April 2015; 276 pages