C. K. Stead, My Name Was Judas (London: Vintage Books, 2007), 244pp
If you're an avid reader, you'll no doubt nod your head in agreement when I say that every once in a while you come across a book that is such a surprise, that exceeds your expectations by so much, that you devour each and every word. My Name Was Judas is such a book. It sat unread on my shelf for many months and yesterday, after I put it down after devouring it in two short sittings, I lamented why I had left it so long.
It is a truly exceptional book; its genius lies in the familiar. The story of Jesus is one we are all familiar with, but C. K. Stead finds a new and subtly subversive angle on it. He tells the story of Judas of Keraiyot (Iscariot) and his boyhood friend Jesus, and charts their childhood in Nazareth and their growing differences in adulthood as the gifted Jesus becomes a well-known orator and prophet. Told from the perspective of an elderly Judas, it paints a picture of a flawed and charismatic, though very much human, Jesus who is come to be seen by many (and perhaps by himself) as the Messiah, the Christ spoken of in prophecy.
This is where the subtle, subversive genius is evident, as Judas recounts their lives at this time, as the cult of Jesus the Christ grows. Judas struggles throughout the book with his scepticism and his thoughtful agnosticism, causing conflict with the other disciples and their blind faith. In an eloquent passage by the author on pages three through six, Judas finally resolves, in his old age, that he will trust in his reason and rationality. You see, Judas' "betrayal" was not the thirty pieces of silver as the gospel writers had it, but that, he alone of all the disciples, did not believe his friend was actually the Messiah, and argued with those other disciples who proclaimed his divinity. Key events in the life of Jesus (the loaves and fishes, Lazarus' resurrection, etc.) are ingeniously shown by Stead to have had rational explanations, or were metaphors that over time came to be seen as literal truth. By presenting an entirely-believable interpretation of the life of Jesus which does not require any magic, any divinity, he plants a subversive seed in the reader's mind. As Judas explains as early as page four, he found "that the less we believed in these [divine] forces, the less they gave us reason to." Once the stories are given rational explanations, the need for magical or superstitious explanations crumbles away, just as a scary shadow on a child's bedroom wall ceases to cause fear once it has been revealed as a trick of the light, or a branch swaying in the wind outside. As someone who has read and thought about atheism and religion quite extensively, I have never encountered such a simple and yet gently potent advocacy of rationalism over superstition as My Name Was Judas.
But the book is doubly special as it is also a good read. Beyond the admirable and eloquent message, it is also very well-written. The prose is clean and the poetry unobstructive, making it accessible to a potentially great number of people. There is a fair amount of anachronistic language but, with the exception of one of Zebedee's utterances at the bottom of page 147, this never takes you out of the story. If anything, it only emphasises the timelessness of the story - that of two friends growing apart. The characters are also very well-drawn. Judas' recollections never seem self-pitying or biased, Jesus walks a perfectly-balanced line between gifted, thoughtful philosopher and a damaged, insecure man starting to believe his own hype, and the various other characters, from the eleven other disciples to Mary and Joseph and also Mary Magdalene, seem like real human beings rather than pawns in a divinely-ordained game, strongly reinforcing C. K. Stead's secular interpretation of events in Nazareth. The narrative is also surprisingly engaging, breathing new life into the tired old Greatest Story Ever Told. The crucifixion is especially emotional, as Judas' warnings are not heeded and his friend dies slowly and agonisingly (and pointlessly, perhaps counter-productively) on the cross. As Judas reflects in his old age, that was when he realised once and for all that there was no God, for "if there had been one, and He had ordained this end for His faithful son and servant, He would at that moment surely have died of shame." (pg. 231). As mentioned above, the rational explanations for many of the Bible events are ingenious and more believable than their religious interpretations, particularly the ways in which Stead explains the actions of Pontius Pilate and the reason Jesus' body was not present when his tomb was unsealed. I also liked the part where a young and confused Judas, in love with a local girl, looks for the love stories of Hebrew literature for guidance and finds nothing. In contrast to the Greek society which is "full of stories of the love of man and woman, man and muse, human and demigod", the only comparable stories in his own society were ones about the love between man and God (pg. 76). This short, subtle paragraph is a damning indictment of the paucity of genuine expressions of love and compassion in Abrahamic cultures, going a long way in explaining the stunted social growth of mankind and the endless religious conflicts which have plagued the world for millennia, and continue to do so today.
I have often wondered how one might 'convert', for want of a better phrase, someone to atheism. Atheist polemics can be enjoyable to read, but often seem like they are preaching to the choir (again, please excuse the inappropriateness of the phrase). I have concluded that there is no sure-fire way to do so, but one can create doubt, and doubt is not a bad thing. C. K. Stead has managed to create a novel that is subversive and yet also respectful, so that anyone with a truly open mind will be able to engage with it. They will be able to see how religions are created, how the story of one charismatic man can, by a mix of ignorance, hubris and deceit, mutate into a story about the same man being a 'man-god', the Messiah, the son of God. You will begin to wonder how you could ever have believed it in the first place (that is, of course, if you ever did), now that Stead has presented such a believable, rational alternative interpretation of events. My Name Was Judas should be at the top of the reading list for every man or woman who holds themselves to certain standards of conscientiousness, thoughtfulness and intelligence.