A Brief Review of
Judas: A Biography.
Hardcover: W.W. Norton Co., 2009.
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Reviewed by Chase Roden.
Susan Gubar’s Judas: A Biography is far from a typical biography; in fact, it’s not a biography at all. This ambitious work covers nearly two thousand years of interpretation of the apostle Judas Iscariot, as he is presented in the Gospels and Acts. The book deals largely with visual art, poetry, film, and creative prose (including several apocryphal gospels of the first few centuries), preferring these venues over nonfictive scholarly interpretation. Gubar — an English professor with an interest in psychoanalysis — uses the structure of a biography in which the stages of Judas’s development correspond roughly with historical eras. Judas’s infancy in antiquity has him develop through Freudian oral and anal stages. His adolescence in the middle ages and renaissance is marked by erotic or sexualized art allegedly displaying Oedipal traits and castration anxiety. Finally, he is led into an ambiguous but relatable adulthood in the modern era. As the author admits in several places, the biographical format is a conceit that doesn’t work perfectly, but she ends up tracing various streams of Judas interpretation with a rough chronological cohesion.
The book is fascinating, disturbing, informative, and often frustrating. Gubar’s approach is exhaustive; dozens and dozens of works are covered, to the point that it seems at times more like a catalog of Judas literature than an interpretive biography. This is a blessing and a curse — even a reader highly familiar with Western art and scholarship will encounter many new creative works about Judas, but Gubar’s attempt to treat each work individually can lead to repetition. Fortunately, Judas is filled with illustrations of the works being discussed, including beautiful color plates featuring key paintings.
The disturbing aspect of the book comes not from Gubar’s treatment so much as the history of Judas interpretation itself. Judas has long served as a proxy for the Jews, especially during our eras of greatest antisemitism. Gubar probably makes too much of anti-Jewish sentiment in the Gospels (especially John), but the book stands as a sobering reminder of just how terribly wrong the church and humanity as a whole can be.
The most frustrating aspect of Judas is that it doesn’t seem to know what it is; Gubar presents it variously as a book concerned with the historical Judas, an encyclopedic treatment of Judas literature, and also as a speculative interpretation of her subject. Unfortunately, these missions often seem to work against one another. Speculative interpretations don’t always suit the material and format of the book, and can seem deceptive to readers expecting a more historical-critical approach. Gubar’s “against the grain” interpretive strategies are de rigeur in the liberal arts, but are probably best reserved for works the reader already knows the interpretive history of. Anachronistic concepts such as modern sadomasochistic sex, homosexuality as self-identity, and “homophobic panic” are read into first-century Palestine. Furthermore, readers familiar with historical Biblical scholarship may be disappointed by Gubar’s overdependence on Bart Ehrman and JD Crossan. That being said, Gubar’s alternate readings of the works she treats are often engrossing.
Judas: A Biography will be enjoyed and appreciated by those who read it strictly as a history of interpretation, knowing that what they are getting is highly speculative though well-informed.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com