Judas: A biography

The New York Times yesterday included a very interesting review of Susan Gubar’s Judas: A Biography:

In “Judas: A Biography,” Susan Gubar has amassed a long, grim and often nauseating catalog of the ways in which the Christian imagination has vented its wrath on the disciple who betrayed his master.

. . .

For most of the history of Christianity, such frankly sadistic treatment of the 12th Apostle seemed self-evidently justified. Who, after all, could be more evil, more worthy of punishment, than the man who handed God over to be crucified? The Gospels themselves are quite explicit that Judas deserves whatever he gets. During the Last Supper, when Jesus predicts that one of the Twelve will betray him, he adds, “Woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” The circumstances of Judas’s treachery make it especially terrible: when the Temple police come to arrest Jesus, Judas points him out with a kiss, turning a sign of love into an act of malice. And he does it for money, the infamous 30 pieces of silver that are his reward from Jerusalem’s priestly establishment.

Yet as Gubar notes, the four Gospels offer significantly different pictures of how and why Judas did what he did. In Mark and Matthew, he appears to be driven by indignation at Jesus’ profligacy in allowing himself to be anointed with an expensive ointment, which could have been sold for money to give to the poor. It is just after this episode, at the house of Simon the leper, that Judas is shown going to the chief priests to denounce Jesus. John, on the other hand, goes out of his way to deny that Judas was motivated by charity: he was only angry, this Gospel holds, because he was the disciples’ treasurer, and he wanted to steal the proceeds from selling the ointment. In Matthew, Judas commits suicide out of remorse for his crime; in Acts, however, he bursts open “in the middle, and all his bowels gushed out,” a grotesque divine punishment.

It is because of these “knots” in the Gospel accounts, as Gubar calls them, that Judas’s post-Biblical career could be so various and contradictory. The real subject of “Judas: A Biography” is not the fragments of a life revealed in the New Testament, but the afterlife elaborated by subsequent generations of Christian artists, writers, theologians and propagandists. In keeping with the conceit of her title, Gubar proposes that we read this long history as a biography, in which the figure of Judas ages and changes over time. He is “an enigmatic loner in ancient times who was mercilessly bullied during a fiendish adolescence in premodern societies until he unexpectedly attained a seductive and ethical maturity at moments in the medieval period and with frequency after the Renaissance.”

Read it all here.

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