“You will sacrifice the man who clothes me,” this account of Jesus’ life has him tell Judas, having already confided to him secrets vouchsafed to nobody else. He also, significantly, tells his friend and future betrayer that Judas will be “cursed by the other generations”.
Not, let it be noted, “the next generation”. The Judas curse was going to last, if not into infinity, at least through hundreds of generations. On the other hand, if you wanted to retrieve Judas’s reputation, you might usefully start with the fact that the curse is not infinite and carries no threat of eternal damnation. (It doesn’t carry any great promise, either, although, according to this account, Judas was assumed into heaven before any of the less temperate followers of Christ could lop an ear or anything else off his person.) The rehabilitation of Judas would be the ultimate PR challenge. First of all, the powers-that-be wouldn’t like it at all. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a disadvantage. Look what the Vatican did for The Da Vinci Code. Long before the two writers who now owe two million in legal costs got litigious about Dan Brown’s book, the Vatican had taken a lash at it.
This caused experts in Church history to get rare outings on mass media, explaining why Mary Magdalene couldn’t have given birth to the Saviour’s children, as claimed by the novel.
This, in turn, caused critics, commentators and pundits, collectively dubbed “harangutangs” by William Safire, to write enough column inches to give a considerable bounce to the already buoyant sales of the novel. God be with the days when the Church could simply ban a book and thereby put a lethal crimp in its sales.
The powers-that-be wouldn’t like Judas rehabilitated because, without him, the story doesn’t have much of a villain. Pontius Pilate was just a pedantic public servant, making sure the boxes on his form were ticked lest someone subsequently set up a tribunal that might goose his prospects of later promotion.
Some scholars have suggested that the early Church buried this document so decisively because its adoption might have reduced anti-Semitism. This theory holds that when the Bishop of Lyon, in 180 AD, condemned it as heresy, he was motivated by fear that if Judas got off the hook, the Jews might similarly be exculpated. Unless there’s a lot more in the pro-Judas document than has thus far been published, this makes no sense. In fact, it puts the Jews more directly in line for blame and hatred.
Without Judas, and that quietly dramatic moment where his kiss identifies the man the soldiers must apprehend, the story is unsatisfying. But that’s not why the Catholic Church authorities will be eager to point out that one-and-a-half centuries intervene between its writing and the events it supposedly records. Pre-destination is what, to the orthodox, makes this version smell. Instead of Judas as a venal greedy opportunist, demonstrating free will by grabbing the 30 pieces of silver at the cost of a crucifixion, it presents him as a man fulfilling a pre-ordained role; as no more than a tool of the deity, prepared and positioned to act as the deity instructed.
Presenting Judas as a hero would be a nightmare task for a 21st century spin-doctor. Never mind annoying the Vatican, it would drive the Progressive Democrats nuts. They’re big on people being responsible for their own acts, and suggesting that Judas was the heavenly equivalent of Eichmann, just obeying orders from his superiors, would not sit well with them.
The biggest problem, of course, would be branding. No sacrilege intended.
The early Christian Church invented branding and all that goes with it, including logos. Long before the Nike swoosh, the Christians had invented the drawing of the fish you could produce without lifting the pen from the papyrus. The crucifix became an instantly significant emblem, incorporated into sculpture and jewellery alike.
Judas Iscariot was part of that branding. He was satisfyingly villainous.
Nobody knows a good detail about him. Picked to be one of the chosen 12, he betrayed his leader, took the money and then panicked and hanged himself, his name, thereafter, instantly evocative, at least to Christians, of tawdry treachery.
ONCE a human becomes a negative brand, it’s difficult to shift the perception. It’s a couple of millennia since Caligula made his horse a consul, but his name still stands for disrespect of the procedures of a civilised society. An Irish emigrant named Mary Mallon, at the start of the 20th century, seems to have been a great cook, since, despite a personality halfway between vile and dislikeable, she nonetheless managed to win herself well-paying jobs all over the state of New York, where she caused outbreak after outbreak of typhoid, thus becoming the first serial culinary killer, mostly of her employers, until the authorities managed to confine her to Riker’s Island and keep her out of its kitchens. As Typhoid Mary, she was the embodiment of disease and death. Even a master propagandist with unlimited funds would find it difficult to do a make-over on her image. The Typhoid Mary Cookbook is never going to be a bestseller.
For the same reason, not even a massive, multi-media campaign would allow any public relations company a reasonable chance at moving the “Judas” onto the lists of favoured names for boys. It’s just not going to compete with Alexander, Benjamin, Jonathan and Andrew.
Here’s another problem for the PR campaign. Television is the best medium for attracting attention to a new idea. Radio is the best one for changing attitudes around an idea. Both require spokespeople, prepared to go to bat for the idea. Where are you going to get spokespeople for the Judas Rehabilitation Campaign? Look at the nuclear power issue. Broadcasters, on two national stations last week, introduced the topic with such temerity, you’d have sworn they were about to suggest lowering the age of sexual consent to six or call for the revival of coursing, using grannies instead of hares. They did, however, have no difficulty finding authoritative speakers to vigorously promote the concept of nuclear power. Those speakers have copped on that nothing softens the cough of the general public like the prospect of empty petrol tanks, cold homes and lost jobs. If all three loom, even people who don’t like nuclear may find it the lesser of two evils.
The rehabilitation of Judas Iscariot doesn’t even have the payoff promised by nuclear power. People do not change deeply held prejudices without a real and important reward, and there’s no reward for being pro-Judas.
In summary, then, an effective PR campaign for Mr Iscariot doesn’t look like a runner.
Which, if the restored document is the truth, is sad. Because, if it’s the truth, Judas believed so absolutely in his leader and was so courageously selfless, he was prepared to do the unconscionable in the clear knowledge that - forever - he would be a by-word for evil.