Best-selling novelist Tosca Lee tackles the story of the man who may be the most despised character in the New Testament --- Judas Iscariot. If you are familiar with the Gospels, you think you know Judas, the man who was paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus Christ with a kiss. But "Iscariot" will change the way you think about Judas, and in so doing, it changes the way you think about Jesus.
Lee masterfully weaves together familiar stories from the Gospels, historical events, and extensive research into Jewish life and customs at the time of Jesus. The result is a somewhat speculative first-person account of the life experiences that could have made Judas the sort of man who followed Jesus, loved him, and yet turned him over to the Jewish authorities.
Christians today, with the benefit of hindsight and the New Testament, can't understand the overwhelming hope for a Messiah that permeated 1st century Jewish culture. The prophets had been silent for 400 years. Rome held its Palestinian provinces in an iron grip, charging exorbitant taxes and crushing any hint of rebellion. More than one Jewish uprising led by a self-styled Messiah had been put down by mass crucifixions --- crosses literally lining the roadsides.
One could imagine how Judas, growing up in this kind of culture, would have certain ideas of what the real Messiah would do, how he would act, what he would teach. Tosca Lee gives us a Judas who has suffered unimaginable suffering and loss at the hands of the Romans:
"I was a boy, missing his brother. I was a child, looking on the broken body of his father. I was a young man, knowing that my new brother existed out of my mother's shame, and only because she had wanted to feed me."
Judas has every reason to be skeptical of Jesus, to doubt whether he is the Messiah. But Judas is drawn to him, not by the miraculous healings so much as by Jesus' love for him.
Through Judas, we get a sense of how Jesus continually surprised, scandalized and provoked the very people who wanted to support him. How he turned the accepted understanding of the Messiah inside out. Devout observers of the Law wondered, reasonably, "Would the real Messiah break the Sabbath, touch the unclean, associate with sinners?"
It's a question that Christians grapple with today: What is the nature of the kingdom of God? What does it look like in real life? This passage expresses it eloquently:
"My master had dirtied his hands on the leper and the paralytic both. Now he dirtied them in public with the tax collector. I began to wonder if that was the way it was, that one must dirty his hands to heal. It was as though the world was backward with him, and that purity was the truest contagion."
The first gift that "Iscariot" gave me was being able to see Judas through new eyes, and to wonder, "Would I have done the same, in that time and place? Have I not made decisions that seemed right at the time and turned into disaster?"
Seeing Jesus in a new light is the second great gift that "Iscariot" gave to me. Everything about Jesus was unsettling to the devout 1st century Jew: He healed on the Sabbath; instead of ritual purification he spoke of defilement coming from within; he claimed to forgive sins; he called himself the Bread of Life and said people were to eat his flesh and drink his blood! The message of the cross is still provocative, scandalous and --- to some --- foolishness. As Christians, we lose something if we forget how the Gospel is meant to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).