My Man

Frank Kermode

  • 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.

Klassen is insistent that his purpose is to get at the historical truth about Judas, though he is well aware that he has no other documentary sources than the Gospels themselves. This isn’t, for Biblical scholars, an unsurmountable difficulty, since for two hundred years or more they have been making ingenious conjectures as to what lies behind the Gospels, describing the contents of long-lost documents or simply appealing to Tradition, the oral reports that must have circulated between the lifetime of Jesus and Judas and the writing of the Gospels at least forty years later. It is not far-fetched to assume that Judas had a place in these reports, though Paul, writing nearer the time of the events the Gospels describe, shows no interest in him.

Of course these hypothetical sources are equally available to those who think Judas was a bad man, so Klassen’s ‘quest’ involves much learned contestation with beliefs and assumptions, scholarly and otherwise, which might seem to hinder his hero’s rehabilitation. The chief obstacle, he believes, lies in a single word, the Greek paradidomi, which means ‘to hand over’ – for example, a city or prisoners of war – and which, according to Liddell and Scott, can also mean ‘to betray’. Klassen disputes this, and claims there is no instance in classical Greek, or in the Greek of Josephus, contemporary with the Gospels, or in the Gospels themselves, where the word means ‘betray’. Yet of the 44 times paradidomi occurs in connection with Judas, the King James Bible erroneously translates it as ‘betray’ on all but four occasions.

So a single mistranslation has done much to perpetuate the idea that Judas was a traitor, made him a scapegoat instead of a participant in the action of ‘saving history’. Actually he was merely doing as he was told in handing over Jesus to the Jews; somebody had to, the divine plan required it; so to speak of his treachery is simply unhistorical. Yet there are many situations in which to hand over something (the keys of a city, or the secrets of the hydrogen bomb, for instance) is an act of betrayal; and to hand over a friend to a hostile authority is one such situation. You have to believe that the handing over of Jesus was not a betrayal of this sort before you can insist that this word has been consistently mistranslated. To conjecture, as Klassen does, that Judas was under the impression that if Jesus and the High Priest had a good talk together all the problems might be peacefully solved will strike some as sophistry or fiction.

There are a good many passages in the Gospels which might seem to support the translators Klassen condemns. Matthew’s account has Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver as the price or bribe to be paid him by the Jews who want Jesus arrested. Early in his Gospel John identifies Judas as the bad disciple who will hand Jesus over, and the only disciple to complain about the waste of money at the anointing of Jesus. Such difficulties do not trouble Dr Klassen, who goes through the four Gospels learnedly commenting on them. But however ingenious his commentary, it is obvious that his whole effort is devoted to upholding the prejudice or fore-understanding with which he began.

Sometimes this is a matter of preferring his own translation to others; for example, he needs to confute the notion that the Greek su legeis, or su eipas, literally ‘you say’ or ‘you said’, can be translated as ‘yes’. Ego eimi, said by Jesus in reply to the High Priest’s question whether he is the son of God, means ‘I am,’ but here it is translated ‘I am who I am.’ This renders merely evasive one of the most striking moments in Mark’s Gospel, which in general avoids such affirmations and times this one to coincide with Peter’s denial. Klassen is sure that at the time of the arrest Jesus addresses Judas (and no other disciple, anywhere) as ‘friend’, but does not acknowledge that hetaire can be otherwise translated – for instance, James Moffat, admittedly rather extreme, gives ‘my man’. It could as well mean something like ‘colleague’ or ‘comrade’. I am not qualified to argue with Klassen about New Testament Greek, but his preferred translations do seem, perhaps unconsciously but still consistently, to favour whatever fits his thesis.

There are other ways of avoiding what most have taken to be the sense of the Gospel language. It can be said that Mark is being ironical when he says something apparently dissonant with the Klassen theory; or that he has been editing his original. Mark reports that just before his arrest Jesus announced that he was about to be delivered into the hands of sinners; here we are told that the original read just ‘into the hands of men’. What original? What the author has in mind is presumably that Matthew and Luke, having similar sources, merely say ‘men’, not ‘sinful men’; but this could just as well be taken to mean, not that Mark changed the original, but that Matthew and Luke changed Mark. Klassen is not suggesting that he has seen an earlier draft of Mark which supports his interpretation, but an unwary reader might infer from this and from allusions to ‘a final edited form’ that he has.

The fact that Judas is said to have taken money as a reward for the handing over might seem a serious obstacle to the defence of him as a good and obedient disciple. But the money, we are told, is not ‘the critical factor’. Mark mentions the money without making much of it – it is a promise of the priests, not an initiative of Judas; but Matthew is another matter, for he specifies 30 pieces of silver and makes Judas say: ‘What will you give me if I hand him over?’ Klassen remarks that the sum of money is ‘small indeed’, considering the size of the deal; and concludes that Matthew, not to put too fine a point on it, just made up this bit of the story on the basis of some Old Testament texts. There is, he claims, absolutely nothing in the ‘original sources’ that suggests a bribe. So the bribe simply isn’t history.

Although he has some prefatory remarks about the fictional element in biography at the relevant period Klassen does not often remember them when thinking of Matthew, who also describes Judas returning the bribe and explains how the money was eventually spent. Omniscient narrator, he also provides an account of Judas’ death (quite different from the version provided by Luke in Acts), as well as reporting an intimate conversation between Pilate and his wife. It seems odd that a critic so committed to his own historical inventions should fail to recognise Matthew’s fictive powers.

The final besmirching of Judas occurs in the fourth Gospel. John obviously had it in for Judas, and Klassen simply doesn’t believe him, though he expresses his scepticism more politely: ‘From a strictly methodological point of view, I cannot attribute the same historical reliability to the fourth Gospel as to the Synoptics, especially to Mark.’ The point is that Mark, as often, gives the barest account of the matter, and John the most elaborate, definite and disagreeable. He says Judas stole from the common treasury, and was wicked in other ways, but there is no supporting evidence for these charges. John is simply blackening the character of an innocent man, loading the dice when he says quite early that Judas was a devil (‘Did I not choose you 12, and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas ...’). At the Last Supper John is sure that ‘the devil had put it into the heart of Judas to betray’ Jesus (and it is hard to believe that when John uses paradidomi in this scene he doesn’t mean ‘betray’). Klassen will have nothing to do with this slur, and makes much of the fact that Jesus directly calls Peter, not Judas, a Satan. John has to go; he is simply making up an unhistorical story.

And so the special pleading, often ingenious, fertile in fictions, always supported by elaborate discussions of the texts, always claiming methodological rigour, goes on. Take the name ‘Iscariot’. There are many guesses as to what it means. A well-supported body of opinion associates it with the sicarii, the Zealots, desperate freedom fighters determined to end Roman rule. Another theory is that it comes from an Aramaic original and means, quite innocently, ‘the man from the city’. An attractive conjecture is that the surname was added to Judas’ name after the event, and comes either from a Hebrew word meaning, ‘the one who handed over’, or a different Hebrew word meaning simply ‘the false one’. Klassen says correctly that there is no consensus, but favours ‘Iscariot as designating a place of origin’. He needs to get rid of the Zealot interpretation, and especially of ‘the false one’, which, on other grounds, is the most probable.

It would, however, be difficult to reconcile this etymology with the Klassen theory. ‘Is there anybody in history who has been so hideously slandered as has Judas?’ John must bear much of the blame, having, for his own theological reasons, made Judas ‘no longer a person’ but ‘a character in a morality play’, out of all touch with history; and since Christianity is a religion founded in history John has a lot to answer for, and so has the entire Christian tradition, for it has preferred John to history as Klassen reconstructs it.

Fiction is fiction whether or not the writer feels the need to call it history. The rabbinical practice of Midrash can involve a free use of invented narrative, and what we probably have here is what is sometimes called ‘proto-Midrash’. There is plenty of evidence that Judas came belatedly into the Passion narrative; he is placed at the end of lists of disciples, with the tag ‘the betrayer’, as Luke unequivocally calls him, attached. Betrayal was necessary to the narrative, whether divinely planned or not. A character was needed to do the betraying, and the plot agent of betrayal became Judas.

In a perfectly usual fashion the incidents leading up to the actual betrayal are constructed on Old Testament texts or testimonies. Once the Betrayer is established in the story more and more information about him is invented, until it is far in excess of what is needed simply to tell the story. This character-building process continued long after the Gospels were written; in the Golden Legend, to cite one of many instances, Judas becomes an Oedipus, married to his mother. The plot agent has become a character.

As for the historical status of Judas, there is of course no saying he didn’t exist, but as we know him he exists only in a form of fiction cultivated in the first century. The ‘quest for the historical Judas’ is accordingly an impossible one, though it has often been tried. By adjusting the record (and what he assumes to lie behind the record) to suit his own theological prejudices Dr Klassen is following an ancient tradition, a practice of which John, here represented at deplorably prejudiced, provided a celebrated instance. It is remarkable what historians can do by way of invention, omission and distortion when they are as sincerely committed to a thesis as Klassen shows himself to be in this book, as well at in those public performances in which he represents himself at a wronged apostle.