Different cultures make different judgements about what the worst of crimes might be. The Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov, looking back on his complex history in the era of Stalin’s purges and the suppression of his greatest work, The Master and Margarita, wrote that cowardice was the greatest – or “one of the greatest” – of vices and put those words into the mouths of various figures in the novel, including Jesus.
It is a novel about evasion and denial, about the costs of survival in a corrupt world, about who finally is able to tell you the truth about yourself. Cowardice is trying to escape the knowledge of denial; that is why it is terrible. So, Pontius Pilate is left in isolation and despair after he has ordered Jesus’s crucifixion; he knows he has denied the possibility of being spoken to truthfully and is stranded with his own cowardice and with his consciousness of what it has cost. He has tried to escape this knowledge and failed.
The novel, in its wildly fantastic and exhilarating conclusion, allows him a final redemption, thanks to the intercession of Margarita, the lover of the “Master” of the title, a lonely, self-censoring novelist, deeply preoccupied with – of course – cowardice. And cowardice in this extraordinary book is a very specific kind of vice. It is about the denial of what you know to be true, or what you know to be above all desirable. It is about the betrayal of your own intelligence and your own emotion; survival at the cost of suicide.
That perspective perhaps helps us understand why Dante puts “traitors to their benefactors” in the lowest circle of the Inferno, trapped under the ice. It is probably not too clear to modern readers why Brutus, Cassius and Judas are presented as the ultimate in human depravity: is treachery so much worse than other sins? But a medieval reader might answer that one who repudiates a benefactor offends decisively against both love and justice: the traitor denies the voluntary gift of love that is offered and thus negates justice completely, refusing to give in return what is deserved.
The traitor represents the essence of sin: the arbitrary refusal of what is good. Like Satan, who grinds the bodies of the three arch-traitors in his teeth, they have every reason to know what is good. They have been as close as possible to absolute, free goodwill exercised towards them and they have chosen to say “No” to it, to the source of their own well-being. This horrible eternity of being dismembered and devoured is what happens when you deny what at some level you know is true and life-giving. It may be called cowardice in Bulgakov’s sense or betrayal in Dante’s but the underlying insight is the same: this is how we most effectively and incurably destroy ourselves.
Peter Stanford concludes his book Judas: the Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle by writing that Judas’s fascination is that he can “speak to both the betrayed and the betrayer in all of us”. He is a figure to think with. And what we are prompted to think about is this disturbing aspect of our humanity that is afraid of truth, or of justice, or indeed of love, because of their potentially subversive and uncomfortable consequences. They all, in one way or another, upset our hopes for control. In the figure of a paradigm traitor, we have something like a thought experiment: imagine being confronted unambiguously with unqualified love, or justice, or truth; and imagine yourself desperately mouthing sideways, “Get me out of this,” or, “Give me an excuse for not taking this seriously.” Something in human motivation prefers independence to life, prefers security in isolation to ecstasy, or thanksgiving, or simply emotional nourishment. The grotesque image of Judas in the Inferno is of a figure whose head is buried inside Lucifer’s mouth. He is silent and faceless; he is outside the risky conviviality and interdependence of language and human interaction. He is silent, as Satan, too, is silent and ice cold, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
So, Judas can be a vehicle for wondering what motivates the denial of love. It’s a question we can answer by telling various kinds of biographical stories. The bizarre medieval legends that Stanford summarises, which purport to chronicle Judas’s childhood and youth, sometimes portray an Oedipal drama in which he unknowingly murders his father and sleeps with his mother, so that his emigration to Judaea and his friendship with Jesus are an attempted new beginning. Yet there is something foredoomed about him; the legends are there so that the betrayal will not be a surprise, so that we can breathe a sigh of relief that we are not left with a void of explanation.
A more modern writer, the Irish poet George William Russell, known as “Æ”, came up with a less colourful but related thought when he wrote, “In the lost boyhood of Judas/Christ was betrayed.” We need a theory. We need to know that the impulse to deny love or truth can be made sense of at some level. We scan the school photographs or school reports of monstrous killers, looking for some sign that all was not well even then. A few weeks ago, we were gazing at the images of a young Mohammed Emwazi – sitting and grinning among the other children in his primary-school class – and wondering what we and everyone else had missed.
Both the impulse to find an explanation and the admission of failure to find a complete one are morally important. The traitor is not a monster with no history, no childhood, no processes of learning; yet we cannot turn the acceptance of monstrosity into a reasonable decision. Evil is conditioned by our history – the abused becoming an abuser, the betrayed becoming a betrayer – and is also a free self-definition.
There are quite a few theories about Judas. Perhaps he meant well; perhaps he wanted to trigger a crisis in which Jesus would have no choice but to display his divine power; perhaps he was disillusioned by Jesus’s passivity and commitment to non-violence, or (at the other extreme) by his egoism and self-delusion. There is no shortage of modern fictional explorations, from Robert Graves’s monumental alternative mythology in King Jesus to Naomi Alderman’s finely understated and polyphonic The Liars’ Gospel. But in certain respects, they have their roots in the earliest texts. Is there, in the way Judas’s betrayal is related by St John, a hint that the trigger was a public and humiliating rebuke by Jesus? And St John is the first to impute to Judas greed and dishonesty: he is the treasurer of the group of disciples and helps himself to funds. By the time – a good deal later – of the apocryphal “Gospel of Judas”, we have a first version of the idea that Judas is the one who really understands Jesus and does what is necessary to bring about his saving death, apparently with Jesus’s consent or even initiative.
Yet the existence of these imaginative projections, which have slender support in the primary texts, suggests that people felt uncomfortable with the idea of a sheerly arbitrary rejection of the good. Judas, like Shakespeare’s Iago, is difficult to leave alone. Surely there was something? “Demand me nothing: what you know, you know,” says Iago, inviting everyone else onstage to ask themselves what they know of themselves. Judas’s exit from the story as St Matthew tells it, in which he flings the 30 pieces of silver in the faces of the priests and rushes off to kill himself, has something of that chilling, defiant refusal to be scrutinised by those who need to scrutinise themselves first. It is of a piece with the strange detail in the Gospels that when Jesus predicts that one of his disciples will betray him, all respond initially by asking, “Is it I?” It is as if they have already learned the lesson that no one can understand their betrayal – or their cowardice – in advance, that all are capable of giving way to the lure of denial.
All of us could choose darkness. We have to work hard and patiently to discern a glimpse of what prompts some people just that bit further; it is not a matter of predestination but a lethal entanglement in a spiral of destruction and, at some point, a more or less conscious decision that safety lies in going with the spin downwards.
This draws our attention to another disturbing aspect of the Judas story. At one point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus says that he “goes on his way” as has been foreordained – but that it would have been better for the man who betrays him never to have been born. For Jesus to achieve his liberating mission, someone must be the catalyst for the final confrontation and also must be destroyed by that confrontation. So is God responsible for Judas’s betrayal? If so, why should Judas be punished? And if the salvation of the world necessarily results in the death in suicidal despair of the predestined betrayer, is that a price worth paying?
These rather Dostoevskian questions leave both believer and unbeliever with unpalatable issues. Whether we are talking about God’s purposes or merely the achievement of definite human good by human means, the challenge is to answer if there are any courses of action to be taken for the sake of the good that are guaranteed to be free from a cost that has nothing to do with punishment and reward. Must it be the case that for anyone to be saved, someone must be damned?
Stanford touches rather sketchily on the theological conundrum implied here (quoting some unhelpfully muddled Vatican pundits apparently defending Judas on the grounds that someone had to be the betrayer, so perhaps we shouldn’t think too harshly of him after all); the complexities are not quite so soon exhausted. The late Donald MacKinnon, lecturing on the philosophy of religion in Cambridge in the 1960s, would return obsessively to this as an illustration of what was meant by the tragic. Are we in a universe where even the most unequivocal good imaginable can only be reached by a route involving an individual’s ruin? And this is one way of focusing a massive question about God and creation: we are told that a creation in which humans are free can be realised only by allowing into creation the possibility of things going wrong. But if “things going wrong” means the abuse and murder of children, genocide, torture, and so on, it rings hollow to say that these are a price worth paying. It simply isn’t possible to quantify suffering in this way, so as to decide that the overall cost benefit is still such as to make the bargain acceptable. Like Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, we may well feel impelled to “return our tickets”, concluding that this simply is not a morally coherent way of looking at the universe.
MacKinnon also observed that the ruin of Judas was intimately related to some of what the Gospels seem to imply about the ruin of the Jewish people. Universal salvation is won, say the evangelists, because the chosen people reject Jesus – and, like Judas, they are savagely punished for that “rejection”, even though it is necessary in the scheme of things. Stanford has a good deal to say about the various anti-Semitic tropes that develop around the story of Judas, including the old slurs about Jewish greed. Medieval images frequently show Judas in characteristically Jewish dress or with stereotypical Jewish features; and Dante’s description of the circle of traitors to their benefactors as a “Giudecca” gives a particularly shocking dimension to his vision of the lowest hell. The name echoes that of Judas, as Dante says; but it is also the word often used for the ghettos of southern Italian cities. Well into the 20th century, Judas was still being used in anti-Semitic propaganda as a stock Jewish character.
So the issues around tragedy and God’s responsibility for evil are by no means distant or theoretical (given how hideously alive anti-Judaism is in Europe today). It will not quite do to suggest, as Hyam Maccoby did in an influential book much cited by Stanford, that the entire Judas story is deliberately created as a slur on the Jewish people, with a villain who has the ultimate Jewish name: Judas, like Jesus and Simon, was about as common a name in first-century Palestine as Thomas in Tudor England and there is no special reason to think that the name must be particularly significant. But it is undeniable that the fate of Judas, constantly re-presented, re-enacted, elaborated, was a regular focus for stirring anti-Jewish hatred and the “Christ-killing” stereotype was freely invoked in “blood libel” frenzies in the Middle Ages and afterwards.
It is true that Judas was also treated as the prototype of all usurers and bankers; medieval rhetoric against bankers could be as lurid as the modern variety. But the weight of symbolic significance unquestionably has to do with the demonisation of Jews. It is a long way from the terrified “Is it I?” of the disciples; or even the way in which, in the liturgy of the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, the entire congregation is invited to take responsibility for Jesus’s betrayal and death. Bach makes this clear in the St Matthew Passion, both by using Paul Gerhardt’s chorale with the words “It is I, I who must repent” as a response to “Is it I?” and by giving the penitent Judas a musical soliloquy that, like all the solo airs in the Passion, offers a framework for the hearer’s self-recognition.
The truth is that the history of Christian teaching and worship in this area shows all too plainly how easy it is to shift the focus from individual complicity in evil to the scapegoating of the other; and so much in the great literary/ritual/mythical complex of the Easter liturgies that is primarily directed at this complicity – and demands that we recognise precisely that impulse to turn away from the obvious and overwhelming good to one or another form of self-protective power – can be manipulated into another tool of such power.
The Judas story leaves some substantial questions open for believer and sceptic. There is no final, satisfactory theory about why Judas should perform this act of irrational refusal, this negative image of justice and love. There will have been, as there always are, contingent things that trigger destructive capacity in people but the mysteriousness of how these work – why one schoolchild becomes a killer in the Middle East and another a blameless engineer or care worker – ought to make us wary of thinking that the rejection of love is something only found in people who are Not Like Us. If we don’t know why someone becomes a psychotic murderer, we are accepting that the processes of the inner life are very dark to us and that this darkness clouds our self-understanding as it does our understanding of others. Judas does an evil thing and is to be held accountable for it. It is not a destiny forced on him. Yet we must also say that Judas does an evil thing and we have no idea why – and we have to recognise that we must go on thinking as hard as we can about what moves people to evil. The question about “lost childhoods” is a real one.
The other question, about freedom, about God’s “complicity” in the possibility of evil actions, has produced even less in the way of a final theoretical perspective. The nearest to a resolution seems to be the hope, sporadically expressed throughout Christian history, as Stanford notes, that there could be absolution for Judas. This says both that evil is real and appallingly destructive and that the pain and loss it brings are not the last word. It’s probably the best we can do in response to a question that we all know is formidable and that is still somehow lived with by believers who are not otherwise stupid or immune to pain. What is worth noting, though, is that it is not just a theological question. The problem of what costs are worth incurring for the sake of ultimate justice or ultimate peace is something that touches any decision maker, at any level; and the brick wall of tragic choice that stands at the centre of the Gospel story is a potent signal that it is a dangerous illusion to think there are courses of action in the world that are guaranteed not to bring loss – loss of moral substance and integrity, of life and security – whatever the generosity of intention.
Stanford sets all these and several more issues running in a wide-ranging and often engaging book. It could have done with at least one more edit: the order of chapters and their content is often rather chaotic; there are some wince-inducing slips of detail (Thomas Aquinas is described as a “Franciscan” theologian, when he is probably the best-known Dominican in history) and a fair bit of wobbliness in chronology and historical interpretation (Dante is not usefully described as a “Renaissance” figure); the style is a relentlessly breezy and colloquial journalese that occasionally grates when the subject matter is as serious as much of this is. I can’t quite see how the chapter on Judas in the iconography of East Anglian churches sits with the rest of the book; and there are awkward gaps in reference to literature, ancient and modern. But Stanford, a much-respected commentator on Catholic affairs, has unearthed some fascinating material and left his readers with more than enough material to prompt some echo of the question “Is it I?”
Rowan Williams is the former archbishop of Canterbury and a lead reviewer for the NS