Peter Stanford
Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle
Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2015

ISBN-13: 978-1444754735

Judas book

Judas is both a fascinating and tragic figure. The betrayer of Christ in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, he has become a universal symbol for treachery and a warning for those who allow evil to take over their life.

Yet, as Peter Stanford explores in his ‘biography’ Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle, there remains much speculation over Judas and the role he plays in the Gospel and within society itself.

Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald whose previous books include a ‘biography’ of the Devil, takes the Gospel accounts as the starting point for a wide-ranging analysis of the character of Judas and how he has been presented down through history.

We know only a little of Judas’ life – as Stanford notes early on, there’s only 22 specific references (about 1,200 words) dedicated to him in the Gospels with the only detail from his early life that he was the son of Simon. Yet from these fragments have sprouted a dazzling array of theories about who he was and why he did what he did.

Stanford approaches the subject as an historian and cultural critic – while he looks at what the Bible says about Judas, that is only the starting point a survey of how the character has been interpreted over the past 2000 years.

And while this means delving into historical texts including the recently discovered so-called Gospel of Judas, it’s a task which also sees him travelling to various locations, starting with Akeldama, the so-called ‘Field of Blood’ in Jerusalem where the Acts of the Apostles records him as dying, and finishing with a visit to the Dorset countryside where he encounters Sir Laurence Whistler’s unusual Judas window.

In particular, this sees Stanford spending considerable time on the use of Judas as a symbol of the evils of finances, in particular money-lending, and as a touchstone for anti-Semitic beliefs and traditions ranging from the mystery plays of the Middle Ages to the use of Judas by the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

Stanford’s easily readable account also sees him wrestling with some of the theological implications raised by the life of Judas and the efforts which have been made over the ages to reclaim him – rather than being the “wickedest man who ever lived”, was he in fact merely an innocent patsy in a greater scheme or even chosen by God for the task that he had to perform?

One of the most quirky features of the book is found at the start of each chapter where Stanford works his way through the alphabet looking at different aspects of how the name Judas has been used to fulfill various purposes over the centuries – from an explanation of how a brown ear-shaped fungus which grows on wood in temperate regions became known as Judas Ear to how the name Judas O’Scariot came to be applied to people in Ireland judged to have betrayed someone.

It’s easy to gloss over the character of Judas – he’s the bad guy in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection and we often leave it at that. But as Stanford shows us, it’s worth digging a bit deeper and pondering some of the big questions that his life – and death – raise (even if the answers aren't easy to come by).