Every community seeks its scapegoats. They deflect attention from their own misdeeds and unite the tribe against a common foe. Throughout the history of Christianity, Judas has been conveniently cast in the role of heartless traitor. It puts all members of the faith community in a better light.
This attitude to Judas is reflected in the history of Western art. Depictions of the Last Supper typically show Judas with a malevolent expression, without a halo, as an outcast at the far end of the table or about to leave to do his evil deed.
The three works in this exhibition deviate from this tradition and do not single Judas out or demonize him as ‘the other’. In Chris Ofili’s The Upper Room the shapes of all the disciples are identical, each carrying a ‘chalice’ and each turned to the figure who occupies the position of Christ at the end. According to the gospel writers, all twelve disciples betrayed Jesus’s trust that evening in one way or another: some fell asleep while meant to watch (Matthew 26:40); others deserted him at his arrest (Matthew 26:56); yet others disowned him when he was interrogated (Matthew 26:70, 72, 74). Moreover, all this was foretold by Jesus with reference to the Jewish Scriptures (Psalm 41:9; Zechariah 11:12; 13:7; Matthew 26:34).
When the Gospel writers describe how Jesus identified ‘the one’ after his shocking announcement that someone would betray him that night, they each use slightly different wording. According to Matthew, Jesus referred to his betrayer in the past tense: ‘the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me’ (Matthew 26:23 NRSV). Mark recalls Jesus using the present tense: the ‘one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me’ (Mark 14:20). And John records him using a future tense: ‘the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish’ (John 13:26 NRSV).
All these descriptions, however, could in principle have applied to all the disciples. Considering the Eastern custom of dipping pieces of bread or meat in a shared bowl of stew—or bitter spices at Passover Seder—most of the disciples would, at some point during the evening, have dipped their bread in the same bowl as Jesus. But the narratives all testify to the incriminating fact that the betrayer shared a meal with the betrayed, a sign of deep friendship and intimacy, which would have been considered the ultimate breach of trust. It echoes David’s cry in one of his psalms: ‘Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me’ (Psalm 41:9).
The two works by Ofili in this exhibition prompt us to take another look at Duccio di Buoninsegna’s panel painting. The double reading of this work both as the moment where Jesus offers Judas a piece of bread to identify him as his betrayer and as the moment where he offers a piece to him as a token of his broken body for the forgiveness of sins, reminds us of the words of Jesus spoken at another dinner party, one hosted by Levi the tax collector: ‘I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5:32 NRSV).
Of all the disciples Judas was the first openly to repent and the only one who, overcome by remorse, could no longer face going on living. Perhaps he remembered Jesus’s earlier words, perhaps spoken out of compassion rather than judgement: ‘woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!’ (Mark 14:21 NRSV).
Since Ambrose (340–397 CE) and Augustine (354–430 CE) there has been a tradition that refers to Adam’s fall as felix culpa—a happy fault. The idea that Adam’s sin was fortunate because it brought salvation for humanity is also referred to in the Exsultet, the Paschal proclamation sung during the Easter Vigil: ‘O Happy Fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer!’ The same sentiment can be found in Howard Nemerov’s poem, The Historical Judas, which refers to Judas as ‘this most distinguished of our fellow sinners, who sponsored our redemption with his sin’ (Nemerov 1980:74).
Might we perhaps entertain the possibility that Judas’s treachery, too, was in some ways ‘a happy fault’?
The Upper Room and Iscariot Blues allude to the profound mystery of Judas’s role in the divine drama of salvation. They enable us to see the person of Judas both as sinner and as saint, both as victim and as God’s means of salvation. On such a reading, Judas and Jesus are bonded together in a shared redemption story in which each fulfils a double role, both a scapegoat and a sacrificial lamb.
Cane, Anthony. 2017. The Place of Judas Iscariot in Christology (Abingdon: Routledge)
Gubar, Susan. 2009. Judas: A Biography (New York: Norton & Company)
Nemerov, Howard. 1980. The Historical Judas, poem in Howard Nemerov’s Sentences (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press)
20 When it was evening, he sat at table with the twelve disciples; 21and as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22And they were very sorrowful, and began to say to him one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” 23He answered, “He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me. 24The Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” 25Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Is it I, Master?” He said to him, “You have said so.”
17 And when it was evening he came with the twelve. 18And as they were at table eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19They began to be sorrowful, and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21For the Son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
14 And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him
21But behold the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. 22For the Son of man goes as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” 23And they began to question one another, which of them it was that would do this.
24 A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.
21 When Jesus had thus spoken, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” 22The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. 23One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; 24so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speaks.” 25So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?” 26Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” 28Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. 29Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast”; or, that he should give something to the poor. 30So, after receiving the morsel, he immediately went out; and it was night