Who is Judas? This would be an interesting question to ask of a Bible study group, a congregation, a class, or even people on the street in an opinion survey. Many answers are likely to arise, but one answer likely to appear frequently would be 'the man who betrayed Jesus'. But what do we really know of this person? Was there even such a person? And was Judas the ultimate betrayer, or the ultimate penitent?
Author Kim Paffenroth gives a wonderful survey of the way in which people have viewed (and constructed) the image of Judas over time. From the very beginnings in the earliest biblical texts of Paul (which, somewhat ironically, never mention the name of Judas, and are even vague about there being one particular person who served in this 'betrayer' role) to images in modern culture ('Jesus Christ Superstar', 'The Greatest Story Ever Told', and even the rock band 'Judas Priest'), Paffenroth gives an interesting and intriguing overview of who Judas was perceived to be, and how these images shifted over time.
Paffenroth in his introduction is quite clear about the limitations of his study - this is not meant to be a comprehensive and exhaustive study of all the ways in which Judas has been portrayed, but rather (given the almost limitless amount of material available) a collection of representative images. Paffenroth writes that two things are true about writing about Judas - each one brings unique traits to the forefront, but as a whole they also tend in a few particular directions generally. The image of Judas both within and outside of Christianity also continues to develop over time, so a final definitive study would in fact be impossible to provide.
This is also not a simple biography of Judas. It does not set out to give biographical sketch and details about who Judas was, which would be nearly impossible because of the limitations of source materials, but Paffenroth also voices his concern over such enterprises as the search for the historical Jesus, both from intentional and methodological issues.
Paffenroth's main directions include Judas as the ultimate sinner, Judas as villain, Judas as a tragic hero, and finally Judas as the figure of penitence and (somewhat ironically, given his major images) hope. Prior to looking at these images, however, Paffenroth looks at the earliest data available on Judas, in Pauline literature (the earliest canonical writing available), the Markan text (most likely the earliest gospel), and the concept of Hakeldama, the Field of Blood, that seems to have its own tradition somewhat independent of the canonical strands. In Pauline literature, the name of Judas is never mentioned, and indeed the idea of a single 'betrayer' is not prominent. Paffenroth prefers the translation of 'handed over' rather than 'betrayed' in the biblical texts for the most part; it also becomes unclear both from Pauline and gospel texts if Jesus isn't seen to bear the majority of this responsibility, since the prophecies Jesus was fulfilling require sacrifice.
Early views of Judas include Lukan texts (which expand on the character of Judas and his ultimate fate), Papias, non-canonical gospels, and Dante - often the focus on the character of evil, and have a fixation on the death and punishment of Judas. Judas was used as an object of terror. Judas also was a hated figure, which surfaces canonically most prominently in John, but then there is also the recurring theory that Judas, not John, was the author of the fourth gospel, and perhaps even the beloved disciple. Judas becomes the archetype for the image of the Jew in anti-semitic terms, and even the name 'Judas' is derivative of the base word for Jew.
However, negative images have not always been the only images. Judas as a revolutionary, as a disappointed or disillusioned follower (who wanted the Messiah to be something other than what Jesus was), or as someone simply damned by fate have also been in circulation for ages. Paffenroth explores many examples of novels, plays and imaginative biographies that look at Judas as obedient even to the point of being hurt himself, as his actions were necessary for the story to progress. In the final chapter, Paffenroth explores hopeful and penitential images of Judas - perhaps his suicide and regret was motivated out of penitential sorrow? Judas is a key figure, in any case - 'Judas and our attitude toward him have become, as profoundly as the incarnation itself, the mysterious and paradoxical foundation of our possible union with God.'
Paffenroth ends with an epilogue in which he gives his own account of who Judas might have been (admitting that in earlier times he might have made the story into an historical novel or even passed it off as a piece of biblical scholarship), rather different and most likely shocking to many, but an intriguing idea of stripping away the supernatural and grandiose and rendering Judas an ordinary person in an extraordinary time.
Paffenroth's text is interesting to follow, accessible to the general reader, and should prove a worthwhile study for those who are interested in digging more deeply not simply into the biblical texts about Judas, but also the broader traditions of why he is considered as he is, and what alternatives there might be from the history of Christian thought.