“The Chernobyl of Christian anti-semitism”
This is how the late Israeli writer Amos Oz described the figure of Judas in the gospel stories. As we approach Easter, and our annual retelling of the passion story, maybe it is time to reflect on our presentation of Judas.
Many of us will be familiar with debates about whether Judas was responsible for his betrayal of Jesus or merely a pawn in a divine plan. But Oz goes further and suggests that Judas is not a character necessary to the gospels. For example, he asks, why was he even needed to identify Jesus when Jesus himself has ridden into Jerusalem in full view of the crowds just days before ? He suggests that Judas could be removed from the gospel story without making any practical difference to what happens. He is an unnecessary character.
Furthermore, if you look in the dictionary, the word “Judas” is defined as “deceitful”, “traitor”, “a friend who betrays you”. And in many languages, the word for Judas is even closer to the word for Jew than it is in English. So, for example, in German just two letters distinguish the man “Judas” from the race “Jude”.
Many scholars consider John’s gospel to be the most anti-semitic of the gospels. It is also widely regarded as the last of the Gospels to be written. And many commentators think it likely that it was written around the time when what was to become Christianity was in the process of breaking away from Judaism, and that this explains the number of places in the gospel where the writer demonstrates real hostility towards what were after all his own, and Jesus’ own, people.
But as what was to become Christianity separated itself from Judaism so the role of Judas as one of “them” not one of “us” became even more apparent. While the followers of Jesus were still part of the Jewish faith “we” betrayed Jesus. Once the followers of Jesus have separated, “they” – meaning the Jews – betrayed him. And once the Jews are labelled “Christ-killers”, then a green light is given to 2000 years of persecution.
But the whole point of the story of Jesus is that it was not “them” (whoever they are) who betrayed and killed Jesus, but us – humanity: you and me. If Judas is an archetype of anyone – it’s not of the Jews but of all of us. This is surely the message that we should be teaching and preaching.
There is a lot written about Judas, and his place in the story of Jesus. And we will hear and speak much more about him over the next few weeks as we go through the Easter story. But in the end, whatever his actual part in the story, every time his name recurs maybe we should remember (to paraphrase the hymn): “Lord forgive Judas, because Judas is me.”
Revd Peter King is a Research Associate of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence. He trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education.