Kissing Heaven’s Door: the Medieval Legend of Judas Iscariot
By J.S. Mackley
Paper given at the York Medieval Religion Research Group Meeting, University of York (2007)
Introduction: When I was working on my thesis on The Voyage of St Brendan, one of the most interesting parts (to me, at least) was Brendan’s encounter with Judas Iscariot in which Judas is apparently offered a day of respite from hell once a week for the good deeds he performed in his life, and Brendan intercedes on his behalf to secure a further day of release from torture. The opening of this section of the thesis was horrendously laden with irrelevant details and philosophical debates concerning the problems of demonising Judas. Furthermore, it was close to turning into the thesis into a project about Judas alone. My supervisor politely told me that the material relating to Judas ‘is well known and need not be addressed here’. The problem was that even looking through the Gospels, there were horrendous discrepancies. But almost all of the material that I used for the upgrade was excised, and the project was whittled down to addressing issues relevant to my texts, rather than meandering off on what I refer to as ‘the scenic route’.
This paper is in three sections: the first is to briefly summarise my research on the presentation of Judas in the gospels, in historical documents and in material that was being circulated as the early Church was being developed; in effect it’s to show how the legend of Judas was developing. The second section is to analyse the development of the Judas Legend in the Vita of Judas; and finally, I shall look at the presentation of Judas in the Medieval Gospel of Barnabas. Obviously, I’ll only be looking at Judas in these documents, and this paper will serve only as an introduction to them. Close reading, as I’m finding, is much more of a book-length project, rather than something I can cover in an evening.
When we consider Judas Iscariot as he appears in the Bible in modern terms, we might think along the lines of a pantomime villain. He name is intertwined with the betrayal that it’s almost tempting to ‘boo’ him as he is introduced in the gospels. He’s always introduced last in the list of disciples and his betrayal of Jesus is underscored to the point of overkill right from the beginning: ‘Judas Iscariot: who betrayed him’.