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New Look at Ancient Betrayer

For centuries, Judas Iscariot has been the archetype of the traitor. But some scholars are beginning to wonder if he was a villain at all.

April 21, 2000|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

He is the exemplar of treachery, the shadow defined by Light. To this day his name--Judas Iscariot--remains a synonym for betrayal.

But what if the traditional understanding of Judas is actually a distortion? What if he is actually a victim of a sort of theological libel--a 1st century bad press--that helped create two millenniums of Christian anti-Semitism?

As Christians observe Good Friday, New Testament scholars are reexamining Judas' role in the fateful events that led to Jesus' crucifixion. The scholarship is part of a broader movement to find the historical nuggets that underlie Christian Scripture. Some of the scholars suggest that Judas may be the most misunderstood villain in history.

Of course, you don't have to be a New Testament scholar--or even a Christian--to be fascinated by a character like Judas.

The traditional story is set out in the sometimes changing accounts of the Gospels: Judas, one of Jesus' disciples, conspired with the chief priests of the Temple to have Jesus arrested for blasphemy. In exchange for 30 pieces of silver he led Jesus' captors to a secret location in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, in the dark of night, as a sign to the police, he betrayed his Lord with a kiss.

In modern popular culture, the 1971 rock musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" is told through the eyes of Judas, portrayed as a disillusioned disciple who betrays Jesus to save the movement. The 1988 motion picture "The Last Temptation of Christ" offers a revisionist view of Judas. In the movie, Judas agrees to an act of betrayal only after Jesus insists he must die on the cross. In the 1950s, when Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the book on which the movie was based, its notion of Jesus and Judas in league together was so shocking that the author was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church.

And for centuries, the story of a disciple gone monstrously wrong has remained a cautionary tale for Christians. The implicit question: Might they too be capable of betrayal?

But beneath those metaphors and traditions, is there a historical truth?

The traditional Christian account of Judas is put together from bits and pieces of the New Testament. Judas is not mentioned in the earliest Christian writings--the letters known as epistles, many written by the Apostle Paul between AD 40 and 60.

In the Gospels, which were written later, Judas' character becomes increasingly prominent and sinister. The Gospel of Mark, which scholars believe was finished around AD 70, devotes 169 words to Judas. By comparison, the Gospel of John, probably written at the end of the 1st century, devotes 489 words to Judas and portrays him as a full-blown villain who betrayed his Lord for money--the traditional 30 pieces of silver.

Scholars see that progression within the Scriptural accounts as significant. The Gospels, they note, were written at a time when the early church--still a Jewish sect, not yet a separate religion--was riven by internal arguments.

Believers in Jesus as the Messiah differed sharply among themselves on points of their emerging Christian doctrine. At the same time, they engaged in sharp, sometimes bitterly angry, polemics with leading figures of what eventually became Rabbinic Judaism.

As Christianity and Judaism diverged in those early centuries, those arguments eventually led many of the early Christians to adopt a sharply anti-Jewish tone. That tone deepened further as the new Church reached out more and more to Gentile converts.

The story of Judas as a villain, some scholars suggest, played into the need to differentiate Christian from Jew.

Indeed, by the end of the 4th century, St. Augustine, the most influential of the early Christian theologians, was teaching that St. Peter was the biblical exemplar for the church, while Judas, the betrayer, represented the Jews.

The Judas story "was exploited as anti-Jewish polemic in dramatic literature and art, depicting Judas with grossly exaggerated Semitic features and generalizing his love for money," wrote the late Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, whose two-volume study, "The Death of the Messiah," is considered to be among the most authoritative published.

Of course, that was then. Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has declared that Jews are not responsible as a people for Jesus' death and are "most dear to God." Anti-Semitism is forbidden by the Catholic church's teachings and catechism. Other Christian churches have also made declarations against anti-Semitic interpretations of the Bible.

And some of the scholars now reinterpreting Judas' story say openly that their efforts are driven, at least in part, by a desire to fully rid the churches of anti-Semitic vestiges.

One of the most outspoken is William Klassen, a research professor at L'Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.

"Jesus never chose a traitor. He chose a man whom he could depend on to do his thing. There's no betrayal involved," Klassen argues.

The key for Klassen is a single Greek word--paradidomi.

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