Sunday, April 05, 2009

Judas: A Biography by Susan Gubar

Susan Gubar's new book on Judas is reviewed in the NY Times Books Review by Adam Kirsch.

The book is on the character and representation of Judas arguing that the depiction moves from "disgrace to dignity." But is this a forced reading of the evidence? The gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—pay little attention to him, leaving an unclear picture both of the man and of his motives. Only the gospel of Matthew, for example, mentions the 30 pieces of silver and Judas’ suicide. Matthew offers the possibility that Judas repented. In John’s gospel there is no kiss of betrayal, yet we learn that Judas acted as the disciples’ embezzling money manager. In John and Luke, Judas is understood to be possessed by the devil, while Mark and Matthew present a more human figure.

It is because of these “knots” in the Gospel accounts, as Gubar calls them, that Judas’s post-Biblical career could be so various and contradictory. The real subject of “Judas: A Biography” is not the fragments of a life revealed in the New Testament, but the afterlife elaborated by subsequent generations of Christian artists, writers, theologians and propagandists. In keeping with the conceit of her title, Gubar proposes that we read this long history as a biography, in which the figure of Judas ages and changes over time. He is “an enigmatic loner in ancient times who was mercilessly bullied during a fiendish adolescence in premodern societies until he unexpectedly attained a seductive and ethical maturity at moments in the medieval period and with frequency after the Renaissance.”

Therein lies the problem: the scope of the book.
The very wealth of material Gubar has to deal with (she invokes Latin sermons and English poems and German films; paintings and stained-glass windows, even the music of Bach) shows how widely ramifying the Judas story is. To do full justice to it would require a team of scholars — in particular, historians of theology and art.

But perhaps the most striking element of the book is its exploration of sympathy for Judas and willingness to identify with him. No writer quoted in Gubar’s book is more astonishing than Jorge Luis Borges, who suggested in a 1944 story that God “stooped to become man for the redemption of the human race,” one who would sin and “be condemned to damnation,” that God “chose an abject existence: He was Judas.”

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