Judas [The Gospel of Judas]
by Amos Oz
Translated from the Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange
Reviewed by Frank Thomas Smith
Here is a story from the winter days of the end of 1959 and the beginning of 1960. It is a story of error and desire, of unrequited love, and of a religious question that remains unresolved. Some of the buildings still bore the marks of the war that had divided the city a decade earlier. In the background you could hear the distant strains of an a harmonica from behind closed shutters.
The city is Jerusalem, divided into Israeli and Palestinian sectors. For readers who are not familiar with the history of Israel as a Jewish state it would be most helpful if they were to read at least a brief description of it beforehand, for it constitutes the backdrop of our story.
Amos Oz is perhaps the foremost Israeli writer today. He has written many novels and essays, the most well known being A Tale of Love and Darkness, an autobiography thinly disguised as fiction. It has recently been made into a movie.
Although the title of the book reviewed here is Judas, the original title in Hebrew is The Gospel of Judas. I don't know why the British publisher (Chatto & Windus) chose to eviscerate the title in this way; perhaps they considered it too provocative for their mostly Christian readership, or they thought it would be misunderstood to really be a Gospel. It is a kind of Gospel though, but the Gospel of Amos Oz, who has often defended the Palestinian cause, not that of defeating Israel of course, but of some kind of cooperation.
Judas Iscariot is a background character for Oz's humanist message of peace. The main characters are three: first and foremost Schmuel Ash, a young Israeli student fallen on hard times – his father's bankruptcy and inability to continue financing his studies, and his having lost his girlfriend who suddenly married her previous lover. During his university days Schmuel had been engaged in a study of the Jews' relation to Jesus, which involves a study of Jewish literature on the subject as well as the New Testament. At one point Shmuel wonders why the Jews didn't accept Jesus, someone whom Shmuel greatly admires. He fantasizes that then the West would have embraced a soft version of Judaism.
He considers that Judas has been unjustly condemned as the villain of the story. After all, he muses, without Judas Jesus would not have been crucified and there would be no Christianity. But as the bad guy who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, a miserly sum for someone in Judas' position, he also became the prototype of the eternal Jew, the murderer of God in Christian eyes.
Essentially, Shmuel comes to the conclusion that Judas was the most fervent believer of Jesus as the Son of God. He had followed him since the baptism, had witnessed the miracles and had loved the most loving man who ever lived. As the most educated of the disciples, as well as the administrator/treasurer, he realized that a truly sensational miracle would have to take place in order for the world to take notice and enable Jesus to spread his message of love and peace. And what better miracle than death and resurrection? Judas is totally convinced of Jesus' divinity and power, but Jesus is not so sure. Judas is able to convince Jesus that his Father in heaven will take him down from the cross and thus prove to everyone, not only the Jews but the Romans as well, that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and the Savior. When it doesn't work out that way and Judas must watch in horror as Jesus dies on the cross, he runs away and commits suicide because of his own guilt and sorrow. That, essentially, is the Gospel of Judas, described in detail and poetically by Oz.
That, however, is not the book's real message. There are only three live characters. In addition to Shmuel: we have Gershom Wald, an infirm old man whom Shmuel is hired to accompany a few hours a day, basically to converse with him, which means to listen and make tea, for which he receives room and board and some pocket money in an old house also occupied by Atalia Abravanel, an enticing woman old enough to be Schmuel's mother. Schmuel falls in love with her of course, but she is still tragically married to Gershom Wald's son, who was killed when a soldier in the Jewish-Arab conflict.
The fascinating philosophical conversation between the young Shmuel and the old Gershom plays an important part in the book, but the real hero is Atalia's father, Shaltiel Abravanel, who had been a respected member of Israel's founding Zionist clique, dominated by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister. Ben-Gurion is a real historical figure, Abravanel is not. Whether such a person really existed I don't know. The fictional character did not agree with forcing out the original Palestinian Arabs, in fact he didn't think that Israel should be a Jewish state, rather should it be a country in which all could live in equality as brothers. In fact he had many Arab friends who often visited him at home. When he publicly insisted on this viewpoint he has expelled from the ruling circle and called a traitor, a label he carried on his back like a cross for the rest of his life.
Abravanel is Amos Oz's Judas, expelled, exiled from society, hated. He didn't commit suicide, but his separation from society was complete. Atalia's husband, Gershom Wald's son, an idealistic defender of the Jewish state, volunteers to join the army despite having only one kidney, and thus exempt from military service, is killed in action in what could be thought of as a Christ-like sacrifice, leaving Atalia's Mary Magdalene alone with her bitterness.
Both Judases meet rejection and a tragic end after having been right morally but in practice tragically wrong. According to old Gershom Wald, Ben-Gurion's greatness lay in his knowledge that the Arabs would never accept a Jewish state in Palestine, so the only alternative is to fight them; Abravanel insisted that only mutual respect and equality can lead to an acceptable result. The tragedy continues to unfold still.