Commentary Magazine


Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil, by Hyam Maccoby

“The Sacred Executioner”

Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil.
by Hyam Maccoby.
Free Press. 213 pp. $22.95.

Seldom have scriptural text and social history come together so explosively as in the case of the New Testament story of Judas Iscariot. “[A]s Judas was called a devil and the devil’s workman,” wrote Pope Gelasius I at the end of the 5th century, “he gives his name to the whole race.” The race the pope had in mind was, of course, the Jews.

As Hyam Maccoby demonstrates with cogency and lucidity, the growth of the legend of Judas—and perhaps its inception as well—is inextricably linked to the anti-Semitic stereotypes that have appeared wherever Christianity has gone. The notion of the Jews as greedy and miserly, for example, is associated with the “deeply implanted, canonical myth” that Judas’s motive for betraying Jesus to the authorities was the 30 pieces of silver that they paid him. The moneybag with which Judas was portrayed in medieval art and the Passion Plays thus recalls not only the New Testament narrative but also the contemporary Jewish moneylender, who was often depicted toting the same unsavory item.

Maccoby is at pains to point out, however, that the concept of the Jews as the Judas-people easily survived the widespread loss of Christian faith after the Enlightenment: “[A]lmost every national group of Christian background whose aspirations have been disappointed is ready to blame it on those ‘traitors’ the Jews.” A parade example is the infamous case of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army at the turn of the century who was accused of handing over secrets to the Germans. In anti-Dreyfusard polemics, the equation of Dreyfus with Judas was common and unsubtle.

Nor has it only been the nationalistic Right that has perpetuated the old Christian scapegoating. It was the socialist pioneer Charles Fourier who wrote that “[t] he Jew is, so to speak, a traitor by definition.” As Maccoby observes, the Left’s continuation of the old Christian demonizing of Jews is found not only in Marx but also in the newer anti-Semitism of today that equates Zionism with racism and Western imperialism, and the Jews with capitalism and the exploitation of the third world. Maccoby’s learned survey of the strangely persistent association of Jews with Judas in modern times leads him to sound a cautionary note about the hopes usually associated with secularization:

It is just at this point in the development of culture, when a myth is renounced on the conscious level, that it can take hold even more strongly on the unconscious level.

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But tracing the latter-day progress of the Judas story is only one part of Maccoby’s project in this book. He is also concerned with recovering the “true” Judas from the burgeoning mass of Christian legend and polemic. Here his speculations, though always suggestive, sometimes come to resemble a veritable house of cards.

In Maccoby’s historical reconstruction, the New Testament story of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Jesus is itself every bit as much a “myth” as are the traditional anti-Semitic canards about Jewish evil. The letters of the apostle Paul, which predate the Gospels, show no awareness whatsoever of the legend of Judas. Indeed, Paul reports that the resurrected Jesus appeared to the twelve apostles, as if one of them had not already been discredited. From this, Maccoby concludes—plausibly though conjecturally—that the legend of the betrayal is of post-Pauline origin. Next he traces the evolution of the Judas story through the canonical Gospels, from Mark, the earliest, where no bounty is mentioned, to John, the latest, where the perfidious disciple has become the keeper of the common purse and an embezzler to boot.

Who, then, was the historical Judas? In brief, Maccoby thinks he was one of Jesus’ brothers, a Zealot who wanted Jesus to implement immediately the scenario of Jewish nationalistic revolution implicit in his messianic claims. The last we hear of Judas, as Maccoby reconstructs him, he is serving as the third bishop of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem.

The extreme insufficiency of evidence (which Maccoby acknowledges) about the historical Judas makes it unlikely that this or any reconstruction will carry the day. His own is as unconvincing as it is bold.

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And this brings us to a third purpose of Maccoby’s book. More than a discussion of Judas Iscariot in legend and historical fact, it is a critique of Christianity itself, and an apologetic for Judaism.

In Maccoby’s interpretation,

[T]he Christ-myth belongs to a range of myths that sprang from rites of human sacrifice. . . . [T]he identity of sacrificial victim and sacrificer expresses the victim’s willingness to die, and the common tribal identity of the victim and the community which commands and oversees the sacrifice. But this identity of sacrificing community and willing victim is usually concealed behind . . . a “comedy of innocence.” The community pretends that it did not command the sacrifice at all, and that it came about against their will. A ritual “washing of hands” takes place to express the innocence of the communal authorities, and the executioner, in reality a public servant, is disowned and sent into banishment.

This means that if the perfidious Judas had not existed—as Maccoby thinks he did not—the Christian tradition would have had to invent him—as Maccoby thinks it did. For according to Maccoby, Judas plays a central and indispensable role in the mechanism of Christian salvation as the Pauline doctrine of atonement understands it. Judas Iscariot is the “sacred executioner” who inspires both hatred and awe because he has performed the great deed that is simultaneously wicked and salvific.

In Maccoby’s view, Christianity, at least in the Pauline form that dominates the New Testament, represents a “return of the unconscious,” a revival of prehistoric notions that stand in striking contrast to “the Hebrew Bible’s civilized and sophisticated stories.” Judaism, he argues, had long since replaced the idea of sin-offerings effecting vicarious atonement with a conception of them as gifts presented to God by penitent individuals in recognition of reconciliation. Similarly, the notion of a deed that is both holy and wicked is, in Maccoby’s view, utterly non-Jewish, for Judaism “refuses to accept ambivalence in an action” and does not recognize any “admixture of evil” in positive deeds.

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This polarization of Judaism and Christianity in Maccoby’s analysis causes him to miss some revealing Jewish parallels to the evolving legend of Judas Iscariot. In particular, he has missed the striking affinities’ of the New Testament material with the biblical and later Jewish story of Jacob’s son Judah, with his catastrophic proposal to his brothers that they sell Joseph, their father’s beloved son and their own half-brother, into slavery. In the book of Jubilees, a Jewish work written about 200 years before the earliest books of the New Testament, the origin of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is attributed to this same sale of Joseph: the young goat in whose blood Joseph’s brothers dip his coat to simulate his death is associated with a goat that plays a central role in the ritual of Yom Kippur. Later, in rabbinic literature, this idea of the sale of Joseph as the archetypical sin requiring expiation in every generation becomes explicit.

Since “Judas” and “Judah” are the same name, and since Jesus is the son of a man named Joseph, it is odd that Maccoby did not explore the influence of the evolving Jewish story upon the Christian one—doubly odd, since he thinks Judas was actually Jesus’ brother. Had he done so, he would have found that the notion of a despicable act with positive, indeed salvific, consequences is not altogether alien to Judaism after all. “You intended me harm,” Joseph tells his brothers at the end of Genesis, “but God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of a numerous people.” Without the sale of Joseph (which substitutes for his brothers’ earlier resolution to murder him), the people of Israel would have perished in the worldwide famine that, instead, brings them to Egypt for a reencounter with a Joseph now in the position of a powerful savior. Judah’s evil proposal to sell his little brother thus saves the life of the entire nation—and yet in post-biblical Judaism it is also and equally a sin associated with annual rites of expiation and (as in the Legend of the Ten Martyrs) with the gruesome deaths of innocent, in fact saintly, figures. The analogy with the central Christian story is patent.

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The same penchant for overdrawing the contrast between Judaism and Christianity accounts for Maccoby’s claim that in the former, only repentance and reparation but not sin-offerings effect reconciliation with God, whereas the latter represents a reversion to primitive ideas of vicarious atonement through bloodshed. But the idea that there is no atonement without the shedding of blood is not only found in the Epistle to the Hebrews; it is also found in the Talmud, whose views on such matters are often much less rationalistic and humanistic than Maccoby’s and, not surprisingly, much closer to the New Testament.

Maccoby’s portrayal of Christianity is even less reliable. One must wonder why, if the sacred executioner is an essential constituent of the Pauline conception of atonement, neither Judas Iscariot nor the Jews as deicides appear anywhere in the authentic writings of Paul (whose vehement anti-Judaism actually has a completely different foundation). The emphasis Maccoby places on Judas can obscure the rather telling fact that 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament fail to mention him. This is an omission they share with the great creeds of the early Church, some of which affirm that Jesus suffered or was crucified under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate but none of which, in enumerating the essential Christian beliefs, mentions the alleged role of Judas or the Jews in Jesus’ execution.

It should also be noted that the pernicious identification of Judas with the Jews, though of high antiquity in Christian tradition, is not made in the New Testament itself. The legend of Judas may have had an entirely different motivation from the anti-Semitism for which it later served as a horrifically effective vehicle.

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What, finally, would Maccoby do about the prejudice with which the Judas tradition has long been associated in Western culture? He would have Christians “dismantle the Pauline Christian myth of atonement” and replace it with a religion in which “Jesus is revered as a teacher, rather than worshipped as a sacrifice.” This would be, however, a religion without a scripture, since sacrificial Christology pervades the New Testament—and, anyway, recovery of the authentic teachings of the historical Jesus is yet another exceedingly speculative project.

Maccoby’s book fails to reckon adequately with the sincere efforts of many Christians in recent decades—not only individual theologians and biblicists but also official church bodies—to heal their tradition of its anti-Semitic disease. To be sure, the disease is as old as the New Testament itself and has lasted as long as the Christian tradition, a fact that raises the question of whether these recent efforts represent a permanent cure or only a partial and temporary remission. Though Hyam Maccoby’s depiction of Christianity is tendentious, his discussion of the legend of Judas Iscariot in Christian and post-Christian societies is too accurate to permit an optimistic prognosis.

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