She had me at the homoerotic kiss. You know, the one planted on Jesus by Judas Iscariot, whom Susan Gubar characterises as an "apostle in an all-male circle, associated with anality". Identifying Jesus to the Romans, the kiss in the garden (perhaps the most famous kiss in the world) and his position as Disciple are the only details about Judas that may have some semblance of truth. Everything else is wild speculation and interpretation.
Ginned up by Jack Miles' biography of God, eminent feminist literary critic Susan Gubar has written a wide-ranging interdisciplinary biography of the twelfth Apostle, about whom we know practically nothing. Since Gubar is neither biblical scholar nor art historian, she grounds her analysis by synthesising the research of other experts. Something of a dilettante, she interprets - often with little evidence or with spurious claims - a dizzying array of works (including Scripture, history, letters, film, music, paintings and sculpture), some more important than others. Reading Judas texts and artefacts as literature, Gubar constructs a cultural biography of the anti-Semitic mash-up.
From the start, Christianity reviled Judas as a backstabbing Christ-killing arch-villain. Here begins the heinous, offensive stereotype of the greedy Jew who betrayed Jesus for filthy lucre, the infamous 30 pieces of silver. Physically repulsive, Judas is usually represented with a hooked nose and swarthy complexion. His body is foetid; his rancid bowels, exploding; his eyes, bulging and sunken; his penis, engorged with pus. The iconic Jew, Judas was used over the centuries to fuel Christian anti-Semitism. (Never mind that Jesus and all his Disciples were Jewish!) This revolting representation of Jews culminated in the adoption of Judas as the darling of Nazi propaganda.
Cashing in (along with scholars including Elaine Pagels, Karen King and Bart Ehrman) on the renewed interest in Judas sparked by the recent recovery and publication of the ancient Gospel of Judas, Gubar focuses on this short Gnostic text, which exonerates him. She invites us to consider - over a breathtaking span of some 2,000 years - whether Judas was evil incarnate or whether he was acting with divine authorisation. To pose the question, Gubar invokes Bob Dylan: "You have to decide/Whether Judas Iscariot/Had God on his side". The reasoning of revisionists, keen to rehabilitate Judas, is that the betrayal (by a Judas deemed to be self-sacrificing) and the Crucifixion were foreordained. Without Judas, there is no Resurrection and no salvation of humanity. This positive representation of Judas is, according to some scholars, informed by guilt over Christian anti-Semitism.
All this is fascinating, but Gubar's book is in need of a good edit. Many endnotes are important enough to belong in the text proper, which is too circular and too redundant. Although she makes some attempt at humour in her "travel into the bowels of Judas' hell and the hell of Judas' bowels", she is too jargony - if not too anally fixated: the "Judas-Jew ... progresses (in a non-normative fashion) from the anal and the oral to the genital phases of development". As the saying goes, Freud floats on top of the water like a dead fish.
Although such problems proliferate, many of Gubar's interpretations are simply dazzling. More importantly, this book is a meditation on the persistence of hatred and evil, inherent in the Judas who became, for Gubar, "the muse of the Holocaust".
Judas: A Biography
By Susan Gubar
W.W. Norton, 384pp, £18.99
Published 4 August 2009