On Good Friday morning, at 9 am, Kate Bottley (known as the Gogglebox vicar) presented a new angle on the Easter story—told from the perspective of Judas. I have to admit to having some misgivings about the approach, mostly because of the Telegraph’s promotional pre-article. There has been a consistent trend in scholarship to prioritise marginal documents, including the gnostic Gospel of Judas, over the New Testament documents both in relation to theology and history, and I wondered whether this programme would be drawn into the debate.
As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised. Kate did a great job of introducing the question about Judas in a creative way, with a display of information in her church building. She rather nicely kept referring to the Easter message about Jesus in putting her questions:
The story of Easter is about Jesus dying for our sins. Is Judas to be excluded from that?
From the outset, she was also refreshingly direct about the importance of the NT documents.
The accounts of the gospel writers sometime differ, and sometimes overlap, but they are the most reliable source.
And throughout the programme, she acted as a practical and pastoral foil to the various scholarly voices that were included—as I think a presenter on this kind of programme should do. And the selection of scholars was very good—chief amongst them Simon Gathercole of Cambridge, who was named in the credits as academic consultant (or some such). It included Helen Bond from Edinburgh, Joan Taylor from King’s London, Anthony Cane from Chichester Cathedral, and the entertaining Peter Stanford who has written a book on Judas, The troubling history of the renegade apostle.
The scholarly input was, like Kate, consistently positive about the value of the NT documents as reliable sources for understanding Easter and the story of Judas. Simon Gathercole emphasised the contact of writers of the gospels with eyewitnesses of the events that they recount, in line with a strong, positive current trend in scholarship, largely promoted by the work of Richard Bauckham. Peter Stanford was even stronger: the non-canonical documents, like the Gospel of Judas, are late, unreliable, and composed specifically to contradict the emerging orthodox view—we should read them ‘at our peril’!
There was a useful exploration of the meaning of Judas’ name ‘Iscariot’. Was he a member of the violent revolutionary Sicarii? Probably not—his name most likely means ‘man from Kerioth’, but if this is a town in the south of the country, then it means he was an outsider amongst the group of Galilean disciples, who are northerners. We were reminded of the challenge that, although named last and from the beginning introduced as ‘the one who betrayed Jesus’ in the list of apostles, he must have been involved in preaching Jesus’ message of the kingdom, in healing and in deliverance in Jesus’ name, just like all the others.
The narrative shape of the gospels was taken seriously throughout—at some points too seriously, I felt, amongst the other historical information. Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem was key, we were told—but that is true only if you stick with the shape of Luke’s gospel, who sets much of Jesus’ ministry in the context of being ‘on the way’ to Jerusalem. The historical shape of John’s gospel, which is more likely, sees Jesus in the holy city three or four times. We were, though, reminded that Passover was a time of celebrating the liberation of God’s people from oppression, creating high political tensions in relation to the occupying Roman forces at the festival. It was a helpful reminder of how close the language of the NT (which we have tended to spiritualise) was to the political hopes and aspirations of the time.
The historical reconstruction scenes appeared to have been created for the programme, rather than borrowed from another source, and I hope it isn’t unkind to suggest that they did not have a large budget. I was disappointed by one or two of the historical realities, such as the Last Supper appearing to take place on the floor, rather than around the more likely triclinium (which makes more sense of John’s narration of events in particular).
As the programme moved into the exploration of Judas’ motive, there was an impressive convergence between scholarship and pastoral perspectives. The financial incentive (highlighted in the mediaeval period as early capitalism developed) seemed historically implausible, since the symbolically significant 30 pieces of silver was not large amount of money. Being possessed by the devil, inferred from some comments in the gospels, was also unsatisfying, since (according to Kate) ‘evil is part of our human story.’ More likely is that Judas, longing for a political revolution, was disappointed and frustrated by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself.
The most poignant part of the programme came towards the end, with the exploration of Judas’ despair. Stanford comments:
There’s a lot of despair in the world and in human life. I don’t see it much in the gospels—but I see it here.
Kate expressed both her sympathy and frustration with the character of Judas, but used that to confront the question of choice and decision:
I am disappointed that the light of world was in front of him and he stepped into darkness.
Her final discover, of a hidden church window in which Judas, as he is hanged, turns to the light, echoed the poem about Judas written by Ruth Etchells:
In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever haning on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.
The poem is cited by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart in their study of people At the Cross. Some react against it as an implausible argument for a kind of universalism—but in the programme Kate held back from that, suggesting that it was Jesus’ offer of forgiveness that was universally extended.
The programme turned out to be a refreshing engagement with the Easter story, offering all sorts of pastoral possibilities in reflecting on which aspects of Judas’ story (greed? being an outsider? disappointment? frustration?) we see in ourselves. If you missed it last week, watch it while you can.
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