Rehabilitating Judas Iscariot

The Huffington Post, January 23, 2006.

‘Trial Balloons’ to rehabilitate ‘Judas Iscariot’ (evidently emanating from Vatican ‘sources’) are presently in the news with predictable outcries from both ‘the Right’ and ‘the Left.’ While this kind of proposal is all to the good — regardless of the impact it might have on one’s ‘Faith’ — and, in view of all the unfortunate and cruel effects that have come from taking the picture of ‘Judas’ in Scripture seriously, very much to be desired (especially after the Holocaust); one must first look at the issue of whether there was ever a ‘Judas’ — to say nothing of all the insidious stories encapsulated under his name. Nor is this to say anything about the historicity of ‘Jesus’ in the first place or another, largely fictional character, very much now (in view of women’s issues) in vogue — his alleged consort and mother of his only child, the so-called ‘Mary Magdalene.’

But while this latter kind of storytelling does no one any specific harm historically speaking or, at least not one, one can readily identify; the case of ‘Judas’ is very different both in kind and in effect. It has had a more horrific and, in fact, totally unjustifiable historical effect and, even if it ever had happened the way Gospel and parallel tradition describe it, effects of this kind are wholly unjustified and reprehensible.

But in the case of ‘Judas’ there are only a few references to him and they are all clearly tendentious — for instance when he is made to complain about ‘Mary”s (another of these ubiquitous ‘Mary’s) anointing Jesus’ feet with precious spikenard ointment in terms of why was not this ‘sold for 300 dinars and given to the Poor’ (John 12:5 and pars.) — a variation on the ’30 Pieces of Silver’ he supposedly took for ‘betraying’ the Master in the Synoptics. But anyone familiar with this field would immediately recognize this allusion as but a thinly-veiled attack on ‘the Ebionites’ or that group of followers of ‘Jesus’ (or his brother ‘James’) in Palestine — and probably ‘the aboriginal Christians’ — who did not follow the doctrine of ‘the Supernatural Christ’ and saw Jesus as simply a ‘man’ or a ‘prophet,’ engendered by natural generation only and exceeding other men in the practice of Righteousness.

In fact, the Lukan version of his death and the Mattathean version do not agree with each other, a normal state of affairs where Gospel recounting is concerned, and the other two gospels do not mention either his death or how he died at all. The point, however, is that the whole character of ‘Judas Iscariot’ is generated out of whole cloth and it is meant to be. Moreover it is done in a totally malevolent way. The creators of this character and the traditions related to him knew what it was they were seeking to do and in this they have succeeded in a manner far beyond and that would have astonished even their hate-besotted brains.

Judas Iscariot is meant to be both hateful and hated — a diabolical character despised by all mankind and a byword for treachery and the opposite of all-perfection and the perfect, Gnosticizing Mystery figure embodied in the person of the ‘Salvation’ figure ‘Jesus’ — the name of whom even translates out into ‘Saviour.’ But in creating this character, the authors of these traditions and these ‘Gospels’ (often, it is difficult to decide which came first, either ‘the Gospels’ themselves or the traditions either inspired by or giving inspiration to them) had a dual purpose in mind and in this, as just signaled, he done his job admirably well.

His name very ‘Judas’ in that time and place was meant (as it is today) both to parody and heap abuse on two favorite characters of the Jews of the age, ‘Judas Maccabee,’ the hero of Hanukkah festivities to this day, and ‘Judas the Galilean,’ the legendary founder (described by Josephus) of what one might either wish to call ‘the Zealot’ or ‘the Galilean Movement’ (even, as we shall see below, ‘the Sicarii’) — and possibly even a third character, called in New Testament tradition ‘Judas the Zealot’ and very probably the third ‘brother’ of ‘Jesus’ known variously as ‘Judas of James,’ ‘Jude the brother of James,’ or ‘Judas Thomas.’ In fact, if he is ‘Judas of James,’ then he is also ‘Thaddaeus’ or ‘Theudas.’

Furthermore, the name ‘Jew’ in all languages actually comes from this biblical name ‘Judas’ or ‘Judah’ (‘Yehudah’), a fact not missed by the people at that time and not too misunderstood even today. So therefore the pejorative on ‘Judas’ or ‘Judah’ and the symbolic value of all that it signified in the First Century C.E. was not missed either by those who created this particular ‘blood libel’ or by all other future peoples even down to today. It is this the Vatican ‘trial balloons’ are obviously becoming sensitive of and, despite the theological risk involved and a predictable and largely negative outpouring of criticism which has followed, clearly want to try to rectify just as John XXIII did like-minded, similar ‘blood libels’ forty years ago; and it certainly is hard to imagine that such childish but diabolical story-telling could have had such a perverse and enduring effect for so long.

But there is another dimension to this particular ‘blood libel’ which has also not failed to leave its mark, historically speaking, on the peoples of the world and that is ‘Judas” second name or cognomen ‘Iscariot.’ No one has ever found the linguistic prototype or origin of this curious denominative in a manner that would satisfy everyone, but it is also not unremarkable that in the Gospel of John he is also called ‘Judas the son’ or ‘brother of Simon Iscariot’ and at one point even ‘Judas the Iscariot’ (John 6:71, 14:22, etc.). Of course, the closest cognate to any of these rephrasings is the well-known term used to designate (also pejoratively) ‘the Sicarii’ — the ‘iota’ and the ‘sigma’ of the Greek simply having been reversed, a common mistake in the transliteration of Semitic orthography into unrelated languages further afield like English, the ‘iota’ likewise too generating out of the ‘ios’ of the Greek singular ‘Sicarios.’

There is no other tenable approximation that this term could realistically allude to. Plus the attachment to it of the definite article ‘the,’ whether mistakenly or by design, just strengthens the conclusion. Furthermore Judas’ association in these episodes with the concept both of ‘the Poor’ (the name of the group led by James, Jesus’ brother, in First-Century Jerusalem) as well as that of a suicide of some kind in Matthew and in Acts (suicide being one of the tenets of the group, the Jewish First-Century historian, Josephus is identifying as carrying out such a procedure at the climax of well-known siege of the Fortress of Masada — to say nothing of the echo of the cognomen of the founder of this Party or ‘Orientation,’ the equally famous ‘Judas the Galilean’ or ‘Judas the Zealot’ also mentioned above) just strengthens this conclusion.

I have covered many of these matters in my book: James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Viking, 1997; Penguin, 1998) and will cover them further — along with other subjects — in the sequel: The New Testament Code: The Cup of the Lord, the Damascus Covenant, and the Blood of Christ, due to be published in May.

Equally germane is the fact that another ‘Apostle’ of ‘Jesus’ is supposed to have been called — at least according to Lukan Apostle lists — ‘Simon the Zealot’/’Simon Zelotes’ which, of course, also translates out in the jargon of the Gospel of John as ‘Simon Iscariot.’ Moreover, he was more than likely a ‘brother’ of the curious Disciple, already mentioned above, in the same lists known as ‘Judas of James,’ that is, ‘Judas the brother of James’ (the title by which he is designated in the New Testament Letter of Jude/Judas). In a variant manuscript of an early Syriac document, The Apostolic Constitutions, this individual is also designated ‘Judas the Zealot,’ thereby completing the circle of all these inter-related and overlapping terminologies which seem to have been coursing through so many of these early documents.

Of course, all these matters are fraught with difficulty, but once they are all weighed together there is hardly any escaping the fact that ‘Judas Iscariot ‘/’the Iscariot’/ ‘the brother’ or ‘son of Simon Iscariot’ in the Gospels and the Book of Acts is a polemical pejorative for many of these other characters meant to defame and polemically demonize a number of individuals seen as opposing the new ‘Pauline’ or more Greco-Roman esotericizing doctrine of the ‘Supernatural Christ.’ The presentation of this ‘Judas,’ polemicizing as it was, was probably never meant to take on the historical and theological dimensions it has, coursing through the last two thousand years and leading up to the present but with a stubborn toughness it has endured.

Nevertheless, its success as a demonizing pejorative has been monumental, a whole people having suffered the consequences of not only of seeing its own beloved heroes turned into demonaics but of being hunted down mercilessly to some extent the frightening result of its efficacy. If anything were a proof of the aphorism ‘Poetry is truer than history’ than this was As already remarked, I believe its original artificers would have been astonished by its incredible success. Even beyond this, not only is there no historical substance to the presentation or its after-effects, but if Jesus were alive today — whoever he was, historical or supernatural — he himself would be shocked at such vindictiveness and diabolically inspired hatred and he above all others would have expected his partisans to divest themselves of this single historical shibboleth anyhow.

Not only is a rehabilitation greatly in order in the light of the incredible atrocities committed over the last century (some as a consequence of this particular libel), but the process engendered by this historical polemic and reversal shows no sign of receding, the outcries over proposals to rehabilitate Judas themselves being evidence of this. It is yet another deleterious case of literature, cartoon, or lampoon being taken as history. In the light shed on these matters by the almost miraculous discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in our own time, it is time people really started to come to terms with the almost completely literary and ahistorical character of a large number of figures of the kind of this ‘Judas’ and, in the process, admit the historical error of malevolent-intentioned caricature and move forward into the amelioration of rehabilitation.