A Biblical and Theological Reappraisal of the Forgotten Apostle
Iscariot is a novel of biblical historical fiction. While many of the details are created to fill in gaps in the story, the narrative never strays far from events that are well known to readers of the Gospel accounts. For this reason, reading and discussing Iscariot can also serve as an opportunity to revisit key stories from the Gospels, and to look with slightly different eyes on the story of Jesus. The novel also raises questions about misunderstanding, betrayal, depression, suicide, grief, forgiveness and hope. So while a discussion of the novel within any group will constantly be revisiting Gospel themes and accounts, it will also never be far from a wider range of questions that touch each one of us still today.
For groups who would like more information about what is known of Judas Iscariot from the biblical texts and other early sources, and what assumptions some of the conjectures made in the novel are based upon, as well as the theological significance the character of Judas Iscariot has come to represent, it is recommended that a copy of the paper by the author, ‘Judas Iscariot: A Biblical and Theological Reappraisal of the Forgotten Apostle,’ be downloaded from the publisher’s website and made available to the group.
Chapter One: Pox Romana
- The Romans brought peace, prosperity, better roads, improved irrigation and sanitisation, political stability and economic prosperity to the lands they conquered. So why did so many despise them? Why did many see the Romans as a plague (pox) rather than bringers of peace (pax)? Why, particularly, were so many in Jewish Palestine eager to rid themselves of the Romans?
- The Roman occupation and rule of Palestine loomed large in the background to all that Jesus said and did. How might many of his contemporaries have interpreted Jesus’ talk of the coming of God’s kingdom against this background?
Chapter Two: The Galilean Storyteller
- How did Judas become one of Jesus’s twelve key disciples? Did Judas seek Jesus out, or was he, like the others whose callings are recorded in the Gospels, sought out by Jesus?
- Do you think Jesus would have known from the beginning what Judas would one day do, and what the result for both of them would be? If so, why would Jesus have sought out Judas as a disciple?
- The Hebrew/Aramaic name that Jesus was known by was Yeshua (or Joshua in English). Our modern English ‘Jesus’ comes from an Anglicising of the Greek form of Joshua, which is ‘Yesus.’ Does reading about Jesus using the less familiar, original pronunciation of his name have any impact on how he is perceived in the story? Is it easier or harder to see ‘Yeshua’ in a new light?
- Much of the power in Jesus’ teaching was found in his ability to tell simple stories that had strong and unexpected applications. Certainly, he told many more stories than the parables that are recorded in the Gospels. What was it like meeting Jesus within the novel first as a storyteller, rather than a miracle-worker or religious teacher?
- How does Jesus come across when we first encounter him in the novel? What kind of person is he? Does he seem like someone people would drop everything to follow?
Chapter Three: House of Iscariot
- Jesus often stayed with relatives and friends, and those of his disciples, when travelling. Yet he had only one Judean disciple, Judas. Is it conceivable that he would have stayed with Judas’ family when in Jerusalem?
- Why does Jesus stay with this one family, in a small village outside of Jerusalem, whenever he visits the city? What was his connection to them?
- We know that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were siblings. From the role that the sisters played in a dinner hosted by Simon the Pharisee and former leper in Bethany, we assume that they must have been close relatives. How plausible do you find it that Judas’ father Simon could have been Simon the Pharisee from Bethany, who was most likely the uncle to these three famous siblings?
- Whether this was Judas’ actual family or not, he certainly had family – had people who cared about him and about whom he cared. How does our reading of the character of Judas in the novel change when we see him as someone who had a family?
Chapter Four: The Twelve
- Why do you think so many of the disciples chosen by Jesus were from Galilee? Was it simply that this was his own home territory, or was there more to it than that?
- Being the only Judean in the group of twelve would have made Judas something of an outsider from the beginning. What role might this have played in his relationship with the others and his understanding of Jesus?
- Jesus was a carpenter and several of the twelve were fisherman. Apart from Matthew (a former tax collector) the Galileans seem to have been manual labourers. Judas likely worked in some sort of business, possibly with his father. Hence he was the obvious candidate to be treasurer. What cultural differences might this have brought up between Judas and most of the others?
- John has more references to Judas than any of the other Gospels. John also has the harshest condemnations of Judas. If the Gospel was written by the apostle John himself, as many believe quite likely, what might this indicate about John’s relationship to Judas?
Chapter Five: Good and Bad Samaritans
- The status and role of the Samaritans, and well as their future, were fraught subjects among the Jews at Jesus’ time. Yet Jesus embraced the question, and provocatively so, especially in his story of the Good Samaritan and his conversation with the woman at the well. Why do you think Jesus did this?
- Read the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. Different stories told by Jesus often appear in slightly different versions within the Gospels. What are some of the differences between the version in the novel and that it Luke? Why do you think the author of the novel made these changes?
- In the version of the Good Samaritan found in the novel, there is some friendly banter and even humour between Jesus and his disciples as he tells the story. What do you think Jesus’ story-telling, when alone with his disciples, would have been like? Would he have laughed and joked with them?
- Judas and the others would have been quite concerned about Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. What are some of the reasons why this would have been so?
- How hard is it for us today to picture God being on the side of those we view as enemies? How hard is it to hear a story in which the hero/heroine belongs to a group we do not feel comfortable with or distrust?
Chapter Six: Galilee
- Jesus was from Galilee and spent most of his ministry there. Why do you think he did not spend more time with his disciples in Jerusalem?
- What would it have been like for Judas as the only disciple not from Galilee to spend so much time there, away from his family and friends?
- Discuss a time when you went somewhere unfamiliar, where you didn’t know anyone, and the landscape and lifestyle was very different to what you were used to. How did it feel? Was it exciting? Frightening? Or a bit of both?
- In the novel, Judas is surprised to meet Jesus’ family. Do you find it hard to imagine Jesus having siblings and a mother at home and having spent his early adult years working in the carpentry shop?
- Read Matthew 5:1-12, 21-30, and 43-48. Jesus’ most famous talk was the Sermon on the Mount. It is familiar to us now, but how radical might it have seemed to those who first heard it? What must his disciples, including Judas, have thought, when they heard Jesus saying these things?
Chapter Seven: Syrian Holiday
- Tyre was one of the most famous port cities of the region. Visiting it must have been quite an event for the disciples. For many, it would have been their first visit to a truly foreign city. Do you think they would have felt like tourists, and went to see the sights?
- Read the reports of this encounter in Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. What are your reactions to this story? Does Jesus appear to be putting the woman down?
- In the end, all Jesus does in Tyre is meet with this one woman and heal her daughter. Can you understand Judas’ question: ‘Is this why we came here? Just for this one woman and her daughter?’ Was this a good use of Jesus’ time?
- What does Jesus’ interaction with the woman from Tyre tell us about his priorities?
- Does Yeshua, in the novel, strike you as the kind of person the biblical Jesus actually was? Why or why not?
Chapter Eight: Home Again
- As Jesus heads to Jerusalem for his final Passover he is aware of what is coming. In the novel he tell Judas that this will be the end for both of them. But Judas hears something very different. Does it seem that Jesus is often misunderstood? Why did he so often speak in ways that were obscure, or that only made sense later?
- As the member of the Twelve who bought all the supplies, Judas would have met people that the others did not. What kind of things do you think Judas heard from the local shopkeepers that he dealt with as they travelled about? How might this have influenced his own perspective on who Jesus was and what Jesus was trying to accomplish?
Chapter Nine: Missed Opportunities
- Why did Jesus turn some people away? Didn’t he want everyone to follow him?
- Read the account of the rich ruler in Mark 10:17-31 (see also Matthew 19:16-30 and Luke 18:18-30). What would the disciples have felt when they saw important people like the rich young ruler sent away?
- Barabbas plays a key role in the final act of the story of Jesus’ life. Do you think it likely that he would have met him, or at least went to hear him speak before that day on Pilate’s balcony?
Chapter Ten: Return of the Centurion
- Read Luke 7:1-10 and Matthew 8:5-13. The story takes place in the Roman military stronghold of Capernaum, along the shores of Lake Galilee. In the novel, the story has been moved to late in Jesus’s ministry, and placed near Jericho. Why do you think this was done? Do you think the impact on those witnessing the encounter would have been much the same as in Galilee? Would the disciples still have recalled this event of healing at a distance for the servant of a Roman when Jesus declined to go immediately to Lazarus?
- Many were convinced that the Messiah would come to liberate the Jews from Roman rule. In this light, what would the crowds, and the Twelve, have thought of Jesus’ healing of the Centurions servant?
- Why do you think Jesus doesn’t go to the servant? He has also done this in the case of the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose story appears in chapter seven. Both are non-Jews, and both show remarkable and unexpected faith.
Chapter Eleven: Lazarus Lives
- Read John 11:1-44. This is one of the longest accounts of an episode in the ministry of Jesus. Why do you think so much detail is given by John to Lazarus’ death and his restoration to life?
- We know that Jesus does not have to be present to heal a person, so why does he not heal Lazarus from a distance when he receives the request for help?
- Why do you think that only Martha first came out to meet Jesus, and not Mary? (see John 11:29)
- If Lazarus is very young, as in the novel, and as many biblical scholars believe, how might he have responded to his sudden fame?
- Read John 12:9-11. Why is Lazarus’ life in danger once Jesus raises him from the dead?
- Sometimes it is said that Lazarus was ‘resurrected’, but is this actually what happened to Lazarus?
- In the novel, at the very time Judas should be feeling happy about Lazarus’s restoration to life, he is also troubled. What are the reasons for this?
Chapter Twelve: Feast at the House of Iscariot
- Read John 12:1-7; Matthew 26:6-15; Mark 14:3-10 and Luke 7:36-50. In Matthew and Mark the anointing takes place at Simon the Leper’s house in Bethany by an unnamed woman, and in both versions, the event immediately triggers Judas’ act of betrayal. In Luke the anointing takes place, apparently much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, by an unnamed sinful woman at Simon the Pharisee’s house. In John’s version the event also takes place in Bethany, but at the house of Lazarus and it is his sister, Mary, who anoints Jesus. Are each of the Gospel writers describing the same event, or are there three separate parallel events? If, as is most likely, they are versions of the same event, then much can be learned from these stories about Simon, Lazarus, Mary and Martha and their relationship to one another.
- Read Luke 10:38-42. Mary is always praised for her choice to sit and listen to Jesus, but can you see Martha’s side of the story? Didn’t someone have to serve the food?
- There are several versions of the story of the anointing of Jesus’s feet. In John’s version it is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who does the anointing. Could Judas’ strong reaction be explained, in part, if this took place in his own household?
- Why was what Mary did seen as embarrassing or even shameful?
Chapter Thirteen: Donkeys and Palm Branches
- Read John 12:12-19 and Luke 19:28-40. Many think that Jesus, through one of his disciples, most likely Judas, the purse holder, may well have paid for the colt beforehand and ‘the Lord needs it’ was the message to be given to confirm these were indeed the people who had hired the colt. Does such an interpretation seem likely? Is the triumphal entry any less remarkable if there was some preparation involved?
- Why did the crowds get so excited when Jesus entered Jerusalem?
- There were no palms at the time of Jesus that were able to grow at the elevation at which Jerusalem stood. The palms must have been brought in. Do you think this means the triumphal entry was more carefully planned and staged than we sometimes think?
- If you were a part of the crowd welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, what sort of things might you have expected him to do upon arrival? How might you have felt when these things didn’t happen?
- Why would Jesus get so upset with the money changers? They were, after all, just doing their job. The religious leaders are the ones who had set the rules about which coins could be used.
- Does it seem out of character that Jesus gets angry?
- Of all the times Jesus could have become angry during his ministry, why at this time and place?
Chapter Fourteen: Business with the Sanhedrin
- We often think that Judas sought out a chance to betray Jesus, but is it more likely that he allowed himself to be talked into it? In the story, can you see how Judas might have been persuaded that he was doing the right thing?
- Who were the Sanhedrin, and why did they have so much influence?
- Why would the ruling council gather at the home of the high priest?
Chapter Fifteen: The Upper Room
- Read John 13:1-19. Jesus washed all of the disciples’ feet, including those of Judas. What might this act have symbolised?
- Read John 22:14-23. Judas, like the others, was freely offered and freely partook of the last supper. What is the significance of this?
- Some churches and pastors turn people away from the Lord’s Supper if they are not of the right denomination, or if they feel they are openly in some sin. Why did Jesus not send Judas out before the meal? What did he allow him to partake of his body and blood in the form of the bread and wine?
- Read John 13:25-30. Have you ever wondered why Judas went out to arrange the turning over of Jesus after Jesus let him know that he knew what he was going to do? Do you think that the view taken in the novel could be right, that Judas somehow took these words as confirmation that this is what he was supposed to do?
Chapter Sixteen: The Betrayal of Judas Iscariot
- Read John 18:1-14. In verse 4 we read, ‘Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward …’ Why do you think Jesus made no attempt to evade arrest? Why did he let Judas know where he was going? Why didn’t he tell Judas not to do this thing, rather than to go and do it quickly?
- The title of this chapter can be taken two ways. Can you see how Judas might have also (even if wrongly) felt betrayed?
- Have you ever persuaded yourself to do something, or convinced yourself that you were in the right, even when deep down you knew it was wrong? What do you think the little voices in the back of Judas’ head were telling him?
- What did the Sanhedrin have Jesus taken to Pilate?
- Why did the crowds who had welcomed Jesus at the triumphal entry now turn against him? What had changed?
- Have you ever wondered how Barabbas felt when he was suddenly released? Do you think he would he have tried to find out who this person was who took his place? (The 1950 novel, Barabbas, by Pär Lagerkvist, explores this very question.)
Chapter Seventeen: Death of Judas, Son of Simon
- In this chapter we find a description of the despair and depression that Judas felt. Have there been times in your life when you have felt a little like this? Times when it seemed that you were trapped and that there was no way out?
- If Judas had lived to hear reports of the resurrection, how might he have responded? Do you think it would have changed anything?
- Read Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-20. These are two very different accounts of Judas’ death. Some have suggested that the version is Matthew has more the feel of a report of actual events, and that the version in Acts might be more of a symbolic or metaphorical description. Others have tried to find a way to make both accounts fit together as one. What can be made of these two very different accounts?
Chapter Eighteen: The Two Trees
- Judas and Jesus die at about the same time. What do you think the symbolism of this coincidence might be?
- Read Deuteronomy 21:22-23 and Galatians 3:13. In the novel, Lazarus notes the irony of two cursed deaths on two trees. The deaths have similarities and are linked. But what differences to you see in these two deaths?
- No matter how alone we might feel, there are always people who care. Are you surprised to find anyone mourning the death of Judas?
- Both Judas and Jesus weep for Lazarus. What is the significance of the novel’s ending, with Lazarus weeping for Judas?
As with any work of historical fiction, some aspects are based upon what is known, others on reasonable conjecture, and others simply filled in on the basis that we know some things must have happened and been said which led to the events that are recorded. We just don’t know what.
- To what extent do you feel that the novel followed the biblical sources?
- Where did it depart?
- Did you find the story of Judas as portrayed in the novel plausible?
Is there hope for Judas?
The Scottish poet Robert Buchanan thought there was hope for Judas. Read the last three stanzas of his poem Judas Iscariot at the end of the book.
- What symbolism does Buchanan use?
- What message is he trying to convey?
- After having read the novel, it is easier to sympathise with the hope for Judas portrayed in Buchanan’s ballad? Why or why not?