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Illustration by Michael Daley

It is hard to think of anybody in history—excluding supernatural beings such as Satan — who has had as bad a press as Judas Iscariot.

While he plays no significant role in the earliest Christian documents, the Epistles of St Paul, by the time the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles came to record the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the founding of the Church, Judas was already the villain of the piece. From an early stage his act of betrayal was conflated with the rejection of the Christian Messiah by the “perfidious” Jews — a toxic cocktail that battened onto pre-existing Roman prejudice against their most rebellious subjects to produce the anti-Judaism that has disfigured the history of Christianity and ultimately fed into modern anti-Semitism.

This “troubling history of the renegade apostle” is the subject of Peter Stanford’s magnificent Judas (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). This book does several things at once: it is a study in biography, intellectual history and iconography; a personal pilgrimage to the places where the tragedy of Judas took place and traces of his life remain; and a meditation on his meaning for our time. But it does all these things with a generosity of spirit that lends nobility to what could otherwise be a tale of unremitting woe for Jews and shame for Christians. Judas was the hinge on which the fates of both faiths turned. His demonisation was the catalyst that transformed “the greatest story ever told” into the occasion for pogroms, forcing the people to whom Jesus and Judas alike belonged to dread the approach of Eastertide.

That the enduring power of Judas to inspire has been underestimated, Stanford shows by his assiduous research, much of it done on foot in such desolate sites as Hakeldema, the “Field of Blood” where the despairing disciple is supposed to have hanged himself. If Judas had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him. Indeed, one of the most original works on Judas, by Hyam Maccoby, actually suggests that he did not exist but was invented by the early Church as a scapegoat. Stanford does not agree: some details in the gospel accounts seem unlikely to have been made up and Paul already refers to Jesus being “handed over” (he does not say by whom) to the authorities. This passage is actually the etymological origin of “traitor” (from the latin tradire).

What makes Judas a believable and even sympathetic character is his remorse, including the return of the 30 pieces of silver, followed by his suicide. (We may safely discount the alternative version of his death given in Acts, where he is said to spontaneously burst open, entrails and all.) Our natural horror of suicide has in the past been intensified by odium theologicum directed against the sin of despair. Today, however, the reaction of most people to those who kill themselves is more likely to be compassion, especially if the suicide is motivated by remorse and atonement. Stanford even suggests that Judas could become “the patron saint of those who lose a loved one to suicide”. As against this bold proposal, he quotes Benedict XVI declaring that Judas “shows us the wrong type of remorse . . . the type that is destructive and in no way authentic”, but even the Pope Emeritus concedes that by his admission — “I have sinned” — before handing back the blood money, Judas revealed that “everything pure and great that he had received from Jesus remained inscribed on his soul — he could not forget it.”

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