Judas: A Biography

February 25th, 2009 by EVENTS

Judas: A Biography by Susan Gubar

Initially I feared Judas: A Biography might be just another tired rehash of some Gnostic discoveries. I am pleased to report that is not the case. This is a thoughtful appraisal of a serious examination of rather profound issues. The reader will most likely be intrigued, but this book is unlikely to change anyone’s mind about Judas. Is this book historical or fiction? In any case, it seems to be classified in the Religion category and, as yet, the Library of Congress data are absent. No matter and no wonder. This is a “difficult” book made comprehensible by a kind of virtuosity that very purposefully deals with many diverse topics.

Fortunately, the Susan Gubar’s Preface is a longish, but a very excellent synopsis. Just why write about such an illusive seminal work about an individual with so little historical documentation to support their existence? Just what details does the New Testament offer? What kinds of questions can be answered in this book? Indeed are there any answers? Many of these observations make for some very universal impressions. Some brief extracts may give a taste: Early in her book, Gubar quotes Karl Barth’s rather personal revelation that,

Judas is the most important figure in the New Testament apart from Jesus. . . For he and he alone of the apostles, was actively at work. . . in the accomplishment of what was God’s will and what became the content of the Gospel. . .”

And further, Barth states, that:

. . .only some 1,200 words are composed about Judas in the New Testament; they furnish the bare bones of a significant life later elaborated on repeatedly.”

Extreme paucity indeed. Dr. Gubar clarifies Barth’s additional statement by indicating her desire to formulate her work on the basis that, “ . . .the biographical framework nevertheless helps narrate the patterns of development at work in changing conceptualizations of a figure with multiple personalities during the trajectory of a convoluted career.”

Gubar’s biography is a scholarly, sophisticated effort to contain diverse, scattered impressions of what kind of man Judas might have been. Sections swing from supposition to sometimes horrifying assemblages of details and illustrative line figures and tone copy scattered throughout offer further supportive argumentation. Please be advised: This is not a quick read, but neither is it boring. Some might consider this work an overwhelming kind of postmortem presentation, given the amount and kinds of details within the particular example of the human condition. There are some sections that might be considered offensive, especially regarding the “explosive” nature of Judas’ death, some parallels might be too explicit and the author recognizes this, tempering some examples. In any event, Gubar addresses many questions and introduces more that have come from our changing attitudes toward our bodies, money, greed and hypocrisy, divinity, homosexuality, repentance and even forgiveness.

Some additional dribbled surprises: did you ever notice Judas is the apostle without a halo? And although visual representations are bountiful there seems to be an absence of statues? I found a single example described as a “statue of Judas Kissing Jesus in Betrayal in the Sacred Santuario Scala Santa in Rome, Italy.” It is a beautiful rendering; that kiss, at least, is definitely one of betrayal and not friendship.

Gubar’s notes form an integral part and decidedly weighty part of the book. Fleshing out and analyzing any written or visual material, they are placed at the rear of the book and do not interfere with the book’s readability. This quality is further enhanced by a nice proportion of leading between printed lines—perhaps a minor point, but important in holding reader’s attention level. Works cited are also listed in a separate section and are easily accessible. The index had probably not yet been compiled and was not included in this advanced, uncorrected copy.

At base, this work is a splendid example of how to write a biography where there is not much historical substance and seemingly little “to go” on. What erudite and samples we are presented with—sources that may be new to some of us. This book is a fine demonstration of how significant opinions may undergo genuine reassessment utilizing whatever historical documentation is available and the expert interpretations of others.

Is this a “gotta have” type of acquisition? For some, certainly. For theology students, pastoral workers, perhaps counselors, and for many readers of a historical mind, this book will prove valuable, indeed. There are mind-boggling conundrums in this volume—questions thoughtful people have been to grappling with throughout their lifetimes—a plethora of issues, using whatever they have adopted from personal religious training and other past experiences, private or shared. The dialogue is very helping in exploring questions of faith, even redemption. Above all, Judas begs for formal discussion, for a place where opinions might be readily offered and perhaps even defended.

Reviewed by Joan Hives

Judas: A Biography by Susan Gubar
W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Cloth, 384 pp, $27.95.
ISBN-10: 0393064832

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