Judas’ Gift

Adam Phillips

In 1965-66 the erstwhile folk singer Bob Dylan released a great trilogy of albums, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, and set off on a world tour that would change popular music. At a now famous concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, Dylan was playing his new electric and electrifying music when a disaffected folkie in the audience shouted ‘Judas’. Dylan responded by instructing his band to ‘play fucking loud’ what turned out to be an extraordinary performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, a song about someone disillusioned by who they had become, a song about someone having to change. People had been wanting Dylan to be one thing when he turned out to be another, and they felt betrayed. By doing something new and unexpected, Dylan was Judas.

Here the betrayer is someone who wanted something to change; in retrospect we can see that what sounded like a betrayal was innovation. Something was betrayed to make something else possible. This Judas was bringing a new sound, a new vision. Being called Judas incited Dylan, released him into being the person he had become. He played the loud music even louder. He took on the role, and it freed him, for the moment. Dylan, like Judas, now had, in the words of the song, ‘no direction home’. You can do a lot of things with betrayal, but you can’t undo it. It feels irredeemable. To betray is to create a situation that there is no going back from.

If betrayal is one of the ways, or even the way, in which we change our lives, perhaps we should talk not only of the fear of being betrayed, but of the wish, the willingness to be betrayed, and to betray. And then we would be talking of consciously or unconsciously engineering our own betrayal, and looking for people (or things) we can betray. We would be talking of betrayal as a transformational act; we might even talk of it as an object of desire and start noticing how we seek it. We might also start noticing all the opportunities to betray and be betrayed that we have missed, risks that for various reasons we have avoided. Many of our uncompleted actions are uncompleted because they are forms of betrayal. Failures of nerve that we have redescribed to ourselves as commitment, or loyalty, or integrity, or kindness. We are often loyal when we fear disillusionment. Psychoanalysis wants us to ask what happens to frustration when it isn’t voiced; and a betrayer is someone who enacts, who voices, a frustration.

And yet to talk in this way, to promote betrayal, to make the case for it, is also morally reprehensible. This fact reveals just how starkly our sense of ourselves as moral creatures is organised around the question of betrayal, and whatever we take to be the alternatives to it. What would the social bond look like – and what would the bonds between individual people look like – if we thought of the capacity to betray and be betrayed as a virtue; or at least as in some sense integral to the moral life; as something to be taught in schools? Imagine what the consequences would be for a person’s life if they were unable to betray or bear betrayal: what would this stop them doing, or feeling, or desiring? In what sense would they ever be able to leave home, to begin to live as if there was no direction home? In what ways would they ever be able to change?

In psychoanalysis betrayal is called, variously: weaning, the birth of a sibling, the Oedipus complex, and puberty. At each of these developmental stages in the psychoanalytic story, the child suffers what feels like a breach of trust, a loss of entitlement, a diminished specialness. As in the sexual infidelities of adulthood, something that was taken for granted and taken to be exclusive has had to be shared. But these cumulative betrayals – not intended as such by the parents, but felt as such by the child – are in the service of development, of more life. The child, at least initially, feels betrayed by the new life he is precipitated into; he is like the man in Dylan’s audience shouting ‘Judas’ – at his parents. We know something is new, that something is changing, when we feel betrayed.

You know someone matters to you if they can betray you, or be betrayed by you. Once there is the possibility of betrayal a great deal has already happened: there can only be betrayal if there is a history, a real relationship or affinity. Betrayal is only possible when there is something to betray; that something takes time, and is of paramount importance. Sexual jealousy is not just one of the things that happens when you become attached to someone: it is the sign of attachment. If there was no such thing as betrayal in the world how would anything matter to us, or how would we know that it did?

There have always been two important questions about Judas: what was he doing, and why was he doing it? And in answering these questions – which means interpreting the story and the figure of Judas – we have to bear something simple but significant in mind: that in betraying someone (or something) one is protecting someone (or something) else. And that someone or something else may be – in fact is likely to be – of real value. When E.M. Forster said that he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country rather than his friend he was drawing our attention to the question of value, of what betrayal can protect. So we have to bear in mind what Judas might have been protecting – what values he could have been serving other, that is, than Satan’s – in his betrayal of Jesus. Unless it wasn’t a betrayal at all: some interpreters have wanted to argue that Judas was trying to help Jesus, but it misfired.

‘I know who you are and where you come from,’ he says to Jesus in the Gospel of Judas, written apparently in the middle part of the second century, a few decades after the New Testament gospels, and discovered in the 1970s in Middle Egypt, but not coming properly to light, after much shady dealing, until 2001. Judas is the only one of the disciples whom Jesus then initiates into the divine mystery. The Gospel of Judas could be taken to be saying that only someone who truly recognises someone can betray them, and so-called betrayal may be the best thing they can do. The gospel encourages us to believe that we have misunderstood the nature of betrayal: we have not been able to see how it is linked to recognition and transformation. It has been tempting to exonerate Judas – to portray him as one of the misunderstood – and so to avoid or disqualify the betrayal issue from the start. The Gospel of Judas says fairly and squarely that Judas did betray Jesus, and it was a good thing too.

The Judas of the New Testament – which we know now to be four gospels among many – is not an impressive figure; though he is an enigmatic one, partly because we are told so little about him, which invites modern readers to ascribe motives, and partly because he is such a decisive presence in the story. But he is one of the disciples, and this in itself would seem to give him some kind of privileged position. The story invites us to ask what Judas was that the other disciples were not such that he was the chosen one, the only one of the disciples whom Jesus could use to transform himself, or to be transformed by. ‘The betrayer,’ Elaine Pagels writes in Reading Judas, ‘always intrigues us more than the disciples who remain loyal’; she is intimating, perhaps, that we get a certain kind of pleasure from stories about betrayal that we can’t get from stories about loyalty – more pleasure, or a different kind of pleasure. As though disloyalty offers us something that loyalty cannot. As though we are intrigued by the part of ourselves that can betray people, particularly people we love and admire. As though there may be some forbidden vitality in this part of ourselves, something morally equivocal and alluring.

We are encouraged by the gospel narratives not simply not to identify with Judas, but to disidentify from him. As if no one would want to be Jesus’ betrayer, no one could possibly aspire or desire to betray their master, someone they really believed in and loved. But why not? It is, after all, one of our modern myths about development and independence that the adolescent betrays his parents, the student betrays his teacher; that without betrayal the disciple remains always and only a disciple. In the romantic myth of unbounded independence of spirit, being an eternal disciple, like being an eternal student, can be a form of arrested development. There is a modern cultural double-message or double-bind here: betrayal is a terrible thing, but without betrayal there can be no development. We must grow up and become the people we are, but without betraying the people we believe in. Or we must betray people and call it something else – like eccentricity, or idiosyncrasy, or independent-mindedness.

But in the New Testament story of Judas, Judas’ betrayal is his gift to Jesus; in a strange reversal of the modern myth, it is being betrayed – having the capacity, the wherewithal to be betrayed – that is transformative. In the New Testament version Judas gains nothing; in Matthew, Judas ‘cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27.5), and in Acts with the money he gained Judas, in Marvin Meyer’s lurid translation, ‘bought a piece of land, and there he fell face first, and his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out’ (Acts 1.18). Both Judas and Jesus are transformed by the betrayal, but only Jesus and the world benefit. In the New Testament account – and this is where it joins up with part of the psychoanalytic story – everything depends on what the individual can make of being betrayed. And in order to be betrayed you need – you might have to find, to recruit, to seduce – a betrayer. It is probably easier for modern people to want to glamorise Judas as transgressive. But we needn’t be trying to make Judas somehow better than he is; we just need to see what Jesus and Judas are doing together. Seeing this may mean, following one of Dr Johnson’s definitions of ‘to betray’ (to ‘discover that which has been entrusted to secrecy’), recognising that what has been entrusted to secrecy in Judas’ story is that betrayal is one of the forms revelation takes. Betrayal is an uncanny form of intimacy. Somewhere in ourselves we associate being loved with being betrayed, and being betrayed with growing. And we do a lot of work trying not to know this when it is, in fact, something worth acknowledging.