- Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus by William Klassen
SCM, 238 pp, £12.95, June 1996, ISBN 0 334 02636 9
William Klassen, research professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, is a New Testament scholar with a theory about Judas Iscariot. He would be the last to say he is first in the field with a theory about Judas, but he can plausibly claim to be unique in having appeared before classes and congregations dressed as he supposes Judas to have been at the moment of the Crucifixion, and keen to defend his actions against what he knew would be the enraged accusations of his auditors. For he does not believe that Judas was a bad man or a traitor. In his book he describes at length his ‘quest for the historical Judas’, believing that the Christian tradition has misrepresented and maligned the man (the more readily since his name connotes Jewishness) and should admit guilt for having done so.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 19 No. 4 · 20 February 1997
I find it passing strange that Frank Kermode, in his review of my Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (LRB, 2 January), ignores the detailed lexicographical analysis of the key Greek word, paradidomi, ‘to hand over’, based not on any theological bias, but on a critical reading of Greek texts. The word simply does not mean ‘betray’, in any ancient Greek text I could find, including the Bible itself. The difficulty of this translation has been noted before by many authors I cite but this point was never pursued or carried to its logical conclusion in the case of Judas. One can only convict me of error if the same texts are analysed and evidence provided that the term in fact means ‘betray’.
Despite Professor Kermode’s suggestion to the contrary, I approached my mandate to write a life of Judas with the firm conviction that Judas was a traitor and that all the Gospels were unanimous in portraying him as such. In time that conviction had to yield to the evidence. This turnabout has been one of the most difficult discoveries of my life, for it seemed incredible that noted lexicographers and translators would have been so misled all these years.
Kermode’s review also illustrates how his own bias against Judas holds him hostage. For example, four times in the space of his review he refers to the ‘bribe’ that was paid Judas. Not once does that word or a related word appear in any of the Gospels. Surely it is possible to visualise the transaction between Judas and ‘the Jews who want Jesus arrested’ as something quite traditional and standard for Jews who informed on someone to the High Priest This is certainly what David Daube taught us, as have other scholars who are familiar with the Jewish society of that time.
There is no hint of a bribe in the Gospel texts. My suggestion that Judas was acting as a faithful Jew, carrying out not only God’s will as understood by Jesus but also the will of Jesus himself, at least deserves some consideration. Perhaps Judas retained his loyalty to the High Priest as guardian of the Temple. If that is granted there is little room to speak of a ‘betrayal’. In any case, there is only one later textual support for ‘betrayal’ (Luke 6:16), which alone uses the precise Greek word meaning ‘traitor’. Perhaps the notion of betrayal arose from the bitterness of the early Christians, influenced by the fact that Judas may very well have been seen as the first defector from their community. Certainly the New Testament lacks any evidence that Jesus felt betrayed and what it was that Judas betrayed has never been defined.
Professor Kermode suggests that I came to the Judas research with a built-in bias. However, there is not one conclusion in this book that fits the theology with which I began. To be sure, once I had done my basic language analysis, an area in which Mr Kermode admits he is not ‘qualified to argue’ with me, I had to follow the evidence and apply it to Judas. I follow not ‘what fits my thesis’ but the results of my research, because I was taught that the study of ancient texts should begin with the language in which they are written (not, in this case, the King James Version), and let the conclusions speak for themselves.
Vol. 19 No. 5 · 6 March 1997
William Klassen (Letters, 20 February) complains justly of Professor Kermode’s incomprehension of the important point that the term usually translated as ‘betrayed’ actually means ‘handed over’. I myself pointed out in Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992) that the Greek term paradidomi means not ‘betray’ but ‘hand over’. I also pointed out that the first occurrence of the verb is not in the Gospels but in I Corinthians, 11:23, where Paul does not even mention Judas, but simply ‘the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over’. If we did not read this passage in the light of the Gospels, we would undoubtedly think that Paul was referring to the handing-over of Jesus to the Romans by the High Priest. This would fit admirably the associations of the term ‘handing over’, since the High Priest, as the Roman-appointed gauleiter of Judaea, had possession of Jesus, whom he then transferred to Roman custody.
Unfortunately, Klassen constructs a very implausible scenario on the basis of his insight into the meaning of paradidomi, asserting that, since Judas Iscariot was not a traitor, he was obeying Jesus’s explicit instructions when he ‘handed him over’ to his death. Actually, the term ‘handed over’ is unsuitable in this context, since the term implies that someone has possession of a captive whom he transfers to someone else’s possession. I believe that the awkward language of betrayal hints at the fictitious nature of the whole Judas story. Jesus was handed over as a troublemaker to the Romans by the High Priest, not by Judas. The Gospel writers, intent on increasing Jewish guilt in the matter, invented the character of Judas Iscariot to play the role of ‘traitor’. The verb paradidomi, however, had become embedded in the oral tradition, and was thus inappropriately transferred to a context of private betrayal. The end result was to transform the story into one of internal betrayal: the Romans were now no longer the evil oppressors and invaders, demanding the death of troublemakers, but a remote external link in a process of intra-Jewish betrayal. All the dramatis personae of betrayal were now Jewish, with the Romans as shadowy, exculpated figures, viewing with concern the malevolence of the Jews towards Jesus.
Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997
I was gratified to learn that Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March), though offering different reasons, agrees with part of what I said in my notice of William Klassen’s book: the Judas story is a fiction; but he thinks both Klassen and I are wrong about paradidomi. Yet we all say it means ‘to hand over’. Maccoby argues that the handing over was by the High Priest to the Romans, which in no way affects my argument, or the interpretation of the verb. In certain circumstances to hand over is to betray. Handing over an associate to an enemy or to the police is betrayal: Jesus was shopped, if you like. Somebody handed him over (betrayed him) and Judas was appointed to take the blame.
Klassen (Letters, 20 February) is confident that since he began his search with no notion that it would end as it did, in a certainty that Judas was just obeying orders, he can reject any imputation of prejudice in favour of such a conclusion. But honest researchers, and Klassen is one, should be aware that such convictions are liable to be formed not at the outset but some way into the work. (This is, on his own account, exactly what happened to him.) Thereafter the whole investigation is prejudiced.
Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997
Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March) does not mention a use of the phrase ‘handed over’, or at any rate in translation its close equivalent, in II Chronicles, 36, much earlier than the occurrence in I Corinthians, 11:23. In II Chronicles, one finds the following account of God’s displeasure with the repeated infidelities of the princes, priests and people of Judah. ‘He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men in their own sanctuary building, sparing neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the decrepit; he delivered all of them over into his grip.’ This passage is found in the first reading in the Catholic liturgy for the fourth Sunday of Lent, the New American Bible translation. It is unknown to me if ‘delivered all of them over into his grip’ uses the disputed paradidomi in the original tongue.
Vol. 19 No. 10 · 22 May 1997
Robert Ostermann (Letters, 24 April) is largely right: the Septuagint translation of II Chronicles 36:17 – ‘he delivered all of them over into his grip’ – does use paradidomi and may be relevant toan understanding of I Corinthians 11:23b. Our versions of Chronicles are, naturally, translations from the Hebrew original. L.C.L. Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint rightly reads: ‘he delivered all things into their hands.’ ‘All things’ seems to refer both to the people and to the treasures mentioned in the next verse. But the relevant point is that it is God who does the delivering. The same may be true of I Corinthians 11:23b, as has quite often been suggested; the unnamed agent of the handing over is neither Judas nor the Sanhedrin, but God himself. It is generally acknowledged that he who raised up Jesus from the dead at Romans 4:24 is the one who did the delivering (paradidomi) in the next verse: ‘Who was delivered up for our offences and was raised up for our justification.’
Since we have gone to the Chronicler, in his Greek (Septuagint) translation, we ought also to take note of I Chronicles 12:17. David, a guerrilla leader on the run from King Saul, meets a group from Benjamin and Juda and says to them: ‘If ye are come peaceably to me, let my heart be at peace with you; but if you are come to betray [paradidomi] me to my enemies unfaithfully, the God of your fathers look upon it and reprove it.’ The Hebrew verb is not the same as in II Chronicles 36:17, and is, in the lexicon, given as ‘beguile, deal treacherously with’, but the old Greek translator found it possible to use paradidomi. Hyam Maccoby’s view (Letters, 6 March) that ‘handing over’ is unsuitable when referring to Judas Iscariot, because Judas does not have possession of Jesus as a captive, fails to take account of the range of meanings for paradidomi. David’s doubtful recruits, doubtful to him at that point, do not have possession of him, and ‘handing over’ could take several forms.