The Gospel According to St Judas

OPENING EXTRACT

This is the first, in full, of thirty-four chapters:

The Story of Judas (I)

Before this day, I had seen no angels.

It was late in the afternoon and our Leader was resting from his exertions. A good part of the crowd, the biggest we’d so far seen at el-Magthas, had already dispersed. Now we were waiting for John to give word that our work was over for the day. We all felt we’d done well.

I’d been a follower of John for six months.  His other disciples had grown to accept my livid birthmark. Now I didn’t so often catch them glancing at me sideways with disbelief in their eyes. These months had been good but, I was sure, better were to come. John knew ways of moving the ordinary people, of making them listen. When the time came, when he said the word, people would follow. When the time came...

‘Judas. They say he’s coming. The Nazarene.’

Symeon was tugging at my sleeve with excitement. His eyes glittered.

‘What are you talking about, my friend? What Nazarene is this?’

I could see Symeon’s disappointment at my calm response but, after all, there were many wanderers across our land in these troubled times. This one might be a man of Nazareth but it was a small thing to me. True, being from Sepphoris, I was practically a Nazarene myself. Still, I hadn’t visited my home town in many years. I would never be welcome there.

‘He’s the one they call the New Teacher, Judas. He’s like John, a man who reaches out to the hearts of people. Think, if this man and John worked together...’

‘There are many Teachers from Galilee, Symeon. Do we need another? We need more men of action, like you and me. Daggermen.’

I was proud I still kept my dagger; proud they called me Judas Sicarri as often as Judas Sepphoris. Yes, I might be one of John’s seven followers, but truly I was a Sicarri, a Daggerman. I knew I would not be afraid to use my blade when the time arrived. Symeon, too, knew how to wield his own weapon, even if some of his own actions were more likely to be led by his quick temper than a burning desire to drive the hated Legions of Tiberius from our lands. I watched him now as he scanned the eastern horizon, in the direction of Capernaum.

A muscle on the side of Symeon’s pock-marked face was twitching furiously as he rose to his feet, shielding his eyes with his left hand. He was a picture of concentration and expectation. My friend was oblivious to me. His mind was also closed to the stragglers in the crowd still waiting some way off and to the other five Disciples of John. It was shuttered even to the stark beauty of the wilderness of el-Magthas. I looked about me. This country of ours was truly beautiful, even here in these wild lands. But I was angry. Why should we be forced to gather in this remote place, away from the eyes of the soldiers?

‘Judas. He comes!’

Now it was my turn to scan the horizon. Symeon’s eyes must have been weakening already, because I picked out the group of figures easily. As they came nearer I could make out six of them. The one leading the group was clearly much taller than the others. He came toward us alone, leaving the other five standing at a distance. They did not move again until they were re-joined by their Leader. A strange thing, but no stranger than what I was soon to see.

‘What did you say is the name of this Teacher, Symeon?’

‘Jesus.’

‘A common enough name, especially for a Nazarene. I must speak to John.’

John was still paddling his feet in the Jordan, making small whirlpools in the water. He looked up and smiled as I arrived by his side.

‘We have done well today, Judas, do you not think?’

‘Enough for a day, John. Enough of baptisms and words.’

‘One more baptism. Only one special one. We are waiting for the Nazarene to come. Look, he approaches now.’

‘He can be baptised tomorrow. You need rest from your labours.’

John laughed, a fierce and proud laugh. Then he sprang to his feet. Grasping me by the shoulders, he pulled me roughly to him. True, I am slight in frame, but I am no weakling. Yet I was like a child or woman in John’s hands. My nose was pressed against the coarse camel hair of his coat. Its smell and the strength of his clasp made my head swim.

‘Judas, Judas. I have strength enough for many hours of work yet. Why should we hurry back to our camp, when we can stay a while under this fine Judean sky?  It is usually you, my friend, who is impatient for action. Why should we hurry from so wonderful a place if we have the chance to meet this Teacher? He may have something to teach us.’

‘Not you. He can have nothing to show you. You are our Teacher and only Leader.’

John looked me squarely in the eye and hugged me to him again. Then, suddenly, he released his grip. Without another word, he turned on his heel, striding over to where Bartholomew and Thaddaeus were standing. He flung his great arms around the two of them and fell into an animated conversation. As usual, this was full of laughter and wild gestures. I felt strangely alone. It was always like this with John. He could fill you with the Spirit by a touch, a word, a gesture and then, when he left you, all that remained was deep loneliness.

I decided to follow the riverbank upstream. I wanted to spend a few minutes in solitude. Or perhaps in truth I did not want to see John naked in the river with this new man.

I seated myself by the river, easing my feet into the shallows. Before long, the noise of the remaining crowd rose. Much as I didn’t want to do this, I found myself looking back over my shoulder at the scene.

John was still in conversation with Bartholomew and Thaddaeus, seemingly ignoring the newcomer. For his part, the Nazarene waited patiently, showing proper respect for John.

After a few minutes, John made the sign of the sea-hawk to Bartholomew, who walked slowly over to the Nazarene. He started to remove his outer garments, nodding reassuringly as he did so. It seemed the man knew what to expect, for he assented quietly to Bartholomew's actions.

Bartholomew looked insignificant by the side of this Jesus, who seemed to dominate his surroundings. This was surprising: the newcomer was tall, though thin enough. Although something about him suggested a kind of knotty strength, he was a poor specimen compared with our Leader.

Bartholomew wrapped him quickly in the sheet of initiation, bidding him lie down by the riverbank. Then he crouched and spoke softly into the Nazarene’s ear. I couldn’t hear the individual words, but knew what was being said. I had myself whispered the same things into the ears of so many others. Bartholomew would be telling Jesus to cleanse his mind. He was being told to await the sea-hawk until it flew down to bring the Spirit to him at the moment of John’s initiation.

At last Bartholomew backed away from the man, murmuring the prayer that John had taught us. Now John raised his arms and approached, his eyes not on his subject, but turned to the heavens. Automatically, I looked for the sign from the Lord. I saw nothing: I never did see anything, even when the faces of others told me they could see what I was denied. Not for the first time, I tasted bitterness at my failure. Even on the day of my own initiation, the Lord had failed to open my eyes to the magic of the sea-hawk. What was missing from me? Did I lack the thing every other man seemed to possess?

John pulled the Nazarene to his feet. In one movement he slipped the initiation sheet from his shoulders and the camel-hair coat from his own. He drew the man towards him. Then, with small, sideways steps, he led him into the deeper waters.

The crowd was silent. John and the Nazarene moved with an easy grace. It was almost a dance they were doing in the Jordan River. Did the people sense there was something different about this initiation? Was it perhaps no more than the oddity of seeing a man in John’s arms who was supposed to be a Teacher himself? With no conscious intention, I found myself rising from my resting place and moving nearer. As the two reached the very deepest part of the river, and John held the initiate’s head under the water, I swear I saw it.

It was there for a second or less. Perhaps I saw more a flash of light than a sea-hawk, but I saw. I saw something. Now I was not different. I had seen John’s miracle. I felt a lifting of my heart.

The crowd started to relax. John helped the man from the river. He was gasping and shivering and needed John’s strong arm to support him. By now the sun was beginning to set over the hills about Gergesa to the west. People were drifting away.

After they’d dressed, John and the Nazarene fell into conversation. It was unusual to see John listening as much as talking. At last he placed a hand on the man’s shoulder in a kind of blessing, then turned and walked away. He was coming in my direction.

‘Well, Judas, it was worth waiting for Jesus the Nazarene,’ our Leader said when he reached me.

‘He’s an interesting fellow.’

John smiled broadly. There was no edge to his smile. He was always in good humour after the release given by an initiation.

‘I saw the sea-hawk, John.’

‘Well, of course you did. We all saw it.’

For a moment I’d forgotten I’d never revealed my deficiency, even to John. I tried to smile.

‘I mean, I saw it in all its glory.’

‘Right. Well, Jesus won’t be joining us, Judas. Not for a while at least.’

‘Not joining us?’ I could hardly believe what I was hearing. No man of seriousness had casually strolled away from John after tasting the glory of his initiation. Not if they claimed to be serving the people of our country.

‘He says he has to spend some time alone in the wilderness. It will be a quarantine of forty days, no less. He needs to find himself, is what he says. He won’t even be taking his followers with him. When he returns, then he might join us. Or it may be more likely he’ll find his own path. But don’t worry, Judas. He’s with us, either way. Jesus of Nazareth is on our side. And do you know what he said? I could hardly believe it, but he was serious. He said to me, “One day John, we shall baptise with blood instead of water.” Blood instead of water! What do you make of that, Judas?’

Seeing my troubled eyes, John’s only reaction was to laugh shortly and to stride over to Thaddeus. I looked over to this man who had refused the chance of belonging to John. He was squatting on the ground, in conversation with Bartholomew. After a few moments, he stood. His companions had kept their distance for all this time, remaining still and watchful. Then, with nothing more than a casual wave to John, Jesus walked along the river bank, in an upstream direction. He was coming towards me.

I could not prevent myself from looking hard at the man’s face. It was gaunt, as thin as his body. Although I guessed he was not much older than me, I could see his cheeks and jawline had a lined, ravaged look. Meagre lips were drawn tightly above a sparse beard, and above them a narrow, prominent nose. His only redeeming feature was a pair of dark, steady eyes.

As he passed me, he turned those eyes in my direction. I still don’t know if there was any recognition in his gaze. But I remembered him. We were boys together in Galilee.