A writer offers a literary reimagining of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in this novel.
Judas Iscariot couldn’t have come from more inauspicious beginnings. He endured abject poverty; his father was a violent drunk and his mother an opportunistic harlot. Judas flees Kerioth penniless with dreams of making it to Jerusalem and finding respectable work and even a wife. In the barren heat of the desert, he meets John the Baptist, who recommends that Judas locate Jesus, now an itinerant preacher with a following of disciples. Judas heeds his counsel, but not before purloining one of John’s water bags, justifying his theft by dint of need. Judas encounters Jesus and is delighted to be quickly made the “keeper of the purse,” replacing Matthew, the former tax collector. In addition, Jesus promises to teach Judas to read and write, a profoundly important aspiration for someone so taken with his own “imagined cleverness and ambition.” But Judas is never all that impressed with Jesus’ ministry and becomes frustrated with the deprivations to which he is daily subjected: “I’m sick of begging for Jesus and his lazy friends. Talk about leading astray. From now on, the money I earn, I keep for myself. He and his friends can beg for the rest of their lives without me.” Judas is eventually recruited by a powerful member of the Sanhedrin, Simon, who persuades him with a combination of financial reward and blackmail to turn on Jesus. Heil (The War Less Civil, 2012) inventively fills in the historical and scriptural blanks—not much is known about Judas, a rich fictional opportunity for a writer. In addition, the author intelligently conjures the dynamic of Jesus’ band of apostles and followers, not all of whom are as trusting of Judas as Jesus is. Martha, Lazarus’ sister, loathes him with surprisingly unrestrained rancor. But Heil’s depiction of Judas lacks psychological nuance—the man’s coarse self-interest and sensitivity to mortification are so acute, it’s hard to accept his remorse after betraying Jesus, let alone his experience of “spiritual despair and isolation.”
A creative historical dramatization that falls short of a nuanced portrait of its principal character.