A monumental work by a French academic examines the figure of Judas and the century-old use of the image of Judas to promote antisemitism.
by Massimo Introvigne
Christophe Stener graduated from Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). He is currently Professor of Geostrategy at the Université Catholique de l’Ouest (UCO), Angers. He has published a monumental work on Judas, and the use of the image of Judas to promote antisemitism.
Q: Professor Christophe Stener, you published a lengthy work, seven volumes, more than 4,000 pages, up to 1,000 images, about the “Iconographie antisémite de la vie de Judas Iscariot [The Antisemitic Iconography of the Life of Judas Iscariot].” What was your starting point?
A: “Judas!” as a common insult. Judas as the quintessential bad guy in the Gospels. The antisemitic iconic figure of the ugly Jew. I wanted to understand how all this religious propaganda flourished.
Q: When did it started?
A: As early as the Gospels. Mark’s and Mathew’s Gospels are factual, Luke introduces Satan, John makes the greediness the motive for the delivery. Origen (ca. 185–253) is objective, and questions the why of the delivery, while the Patristic literature portrays Judas as the antagonist. The Middle Ages exacerbated the Satanic dimension of Judas as the iconic sinner charged with lust, avarice, felony… I reviewed the representation of Judas in religious texts, from the Gospels to 20th century theology, through a very basic issue: Why did Judas deliver Jesus?
Q: “Delivery” or treason?
The New Testament mostly says paradounai (delivery), not prodotes (treason), but Jerome in his Vulgata always uses traditus, alluding to a treason and making Judas the quintessential traitor, “der Erz-Schelm” (the damn bad guy) to quote the German divine Abraham a Sancta Clara (1644–1709).
Q: Can you give some examples of this antisemitic iconography?
A: Romanesque art was neutral, the Crusades made the Christian art full of negative topoi about Judas: ugliness, red hair and beard, yellow or green attire, bended nose, aggressive look, no aureole or a black one, a purse full of the thirty silver coins… When looking at a Last Supper painting or sculpture, a parishioner had to know from the very first sight who was Judas. It is the reason why Judas sits at the very end of the table, or alone on the wrong side of it. There is a code common to most of Christian art. Only artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) or Caravaggio (1571–1610) did not follow the iconographic standards.
Q: What about other arts?
Literature, theater, e.g., the German Passionsspiele of Oberammergau or Sunday schools’ plays, easily become propaganda platforms. I would say that cinema today is the main hate media.
Q: Can you give some examples
In “Judas Superstar” I present more than 200 films and rank some as very antisemitic, including two esthetically great films: Der Galiläer (1921) by Dimitri Buchowetzky (1885–1932) and I.N.R.I. (1923) by Robert Wiene (1873–1928). Antisemitic films did not stop after the Shoah: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) is in this respect a very dangerous film.
Q: Your top five or ten “good”Judas movies?
Carl Theodor Dreyers’s (1889–1968) “Blade af Satans Bog,” Luis Buñuel’s (1900–1983) “Nazarín,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (1922–1975) “Il vangelo secondo Matteo,” Andrzej Vajda’s (1926–2016) “Pilatus und andere,” Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” Denys Arcand’s “Jésus de Montréal,” Mark Dornford-May’s “Son of a Man,” Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s “Histoire de Judas,” are all great films.
Q: What about literature?
Judas’ treason is a “good” story from a financial perspective, whatever your religious convictions. There is a huge payback. Everybody knows some bites of the biblical storytelling and likes Biblical movies, even those who are not pious. You add a spectacular landscape, beautiful clothing, very bad Jews, some sex, as Mary Magdalene “was a former prostitute” (which is also wrong, as I explain in my book, but this is another story). I introduce 392 books about Judas, ranking them from philosemitic (few) or neutral (some), to hostile (many). My ranking is not based on a personal opinion. I assess them versus the Scripture.
Q: Do you have a short list of “good” books?
Out of 20 best ones, in chronological order: “Mémoires de Judas” by Ferdinando Petruccelli della Gattina (1815–1890), “Иуда Искариот [Judas Iscariot]” by Leonid Andreyev (1871–1919), “Tres versiones de Judas” by Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986), “La Danse de Gengis Cohn” (and “La Tête coupable”) by Romain Gary (1914–1980), “L’opera del tradimento” by Mario Brelich (1910–1982), “O Evangelho segundo Jesus Cristo” by José Saramago (1922–2010), “La gloria” by Giuseppe Berto (1914–1978), “Évangile selon Judas” by Maurice Chappaz (1916–2009).
Q: Anti-Judaism or antisemitism?
I use the word anti-Judaism to qualify the religious hostility to the Jewish people, Antisemitism may have some religious bias but encompasses racial, social, political, and cultural drivers. There is an atheistic antisemitism. Hitler was agnostic.
Q: Did the Shoah impact the hostile propaganda on the figure of Judas Iscariot?
Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) titled one of his books “L’impossible antisémitisme”(1937). Jules Isaac (1877–1963), the great French historian, while hiding from the Gestapo, wrote books to demonstrate that a good reading of the Gospels should make antisemitism impossible for a Christian. We know that there is still a Christian antisemitism today, and we should not underestimate the Islamic version, but after Primo Mazzolari (1890–1959), after Vatican II, we must listen to Pope Francis, when he said on February 20, 2018, that “Nobody can say someone is not in Heaven. We cannot even say that about Judas.”
Q: Why did you made this research?
My works deconstructs the Judas myth to give the reader a better understanding of what the Gospels really say, beyond two millennia of Christian dogma.
Q: Is Judas a myth?
Yes: there is what the Scriptures tell us, but it does not amount to much. Judas is the great unknown apostle. We even do not know whether he died and how. The contradiction between Matthew’s hanging and the accident in the Acts of the Apostles is obvious. My book “Qui a tué Judas? (Who killed Judas?),” soonto be published,questions the mystery as a Borges-style enigma.
Q: Is Judas not an historic figure?
A: I believe that Jesus did exist, but I demonstrate in my work that Judas is not an historical personage, he is an apologetic construction
Q: An apologetic construction!?
A: The most abundant, and often the most vehement part of Christian apologetics tries to exonerate God of all guilt in the martyrdom suffered by Jesus on the Cross. Denouncing the treachery of Judas, the perfidy of Caiaphas, the hatred of the Jewish populace, and granting to Pilate some extenuating circumstances, all combine to glorify Christ. He is a willing victim, who knows his destiny as savior through sacrifice. He announces it to the disciples who, until the very last moment, do not understand. He invokes his Father in the Gethsemane and again on the Cross, but submits. Jesus Christ is the victim of the wickedness of men who do not recognize him as the true Messiah and kill him, but from this murder, this “deicide,” good is born, the salvation of humans through the redemption from the sin of the world.
The very subtle gloss on the free will of Judas, even when Luke and John tell us that he was under the influence of Satan, aims to place the fault on the shoulders of Judas alone. However, beyond the sophisms, the reality of the facts is that the Passion only accomplishes what God has decided, what theologians call “the plan of God.” Judas is in the grip of Fatum; he is the instrument of God’s plan. The sacrifice by the Father of his Son is total, complete, unlike that of Abraham by Isaac, whose arm YHWH retains before a goat becomes the propitiatory offering.
The objectification, the idea that nothing happens without God having willed it, hurts the conscience, and seriously damages (and this is an understatement) the image of a good God. Is God then wicked? No, answers the Christian faith, precisely because he gave his most precious possession, his Son, whom he incarnated through him, to save humans from their original sin. There is a complete reversal of the sacrificial perspective. The whole Torah tells us how the Hebrews must sacrifice to YHWH to establish, and restore after many infidelities, the covenant. The flood is one of those metaphors of the redemption by the death of all except a few righteous, a purification through the extermination of the human race. According to Christianity, it is God who gives the lamb to the sacrifice “for the redemption of the sins of the world.” The mystery of Judas calls out to theodicy.
Q: Your last word?
A: To quote Bob Dylan’s song, “You’ll have to decide / whether Judas Iscariot / Had God on his side.”