Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?
William Klassen, Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? Augsburg Fortress Canada, 1996. Paperback | 276 Pages | ISBN 080062968X
The late Dorothy L. Sayers, concluded that, [Judas] cannot have been the creeping,
crawling, patently worthless villain that some simple-minded people would like to make out;
that would be to cast too grave a slur upon the brains and character of Jesus." For
those who agree, William Klassen"s latest book will he a welcome and provocative addition to
a reading list.
Scholarly in organization and content, yet happily readable and compelling as a detective
novel, Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? might just as easily be titled, "The
Quest for the Historical Judas."
Klassen is an unapologetic advocate for the rehabilitation of Judas Iscariot"s memory. He
does not whine that Judas is misunderstood Klassen readily acknowledges the complexity of
all human motivation, and leaves judgment to God, the searcher of all hearts. Klassen
contends, rather, that Judas has been deliberately slandered to serve the psychological and
even theological need through the centuries to find a scapegoat for the collective human
guilt for the crucifixion, for all crucifixions, and an explanation for the inexplicable
relationship between Jesus and Judas.
Since Judas is unable to speak for himself, succeeding generations have woven an image of
him, the unforgiven and unforgivable betrayer of Jesus, from the yarn of scanty and
ambiguous biblical evidence Klassen compels his reader to revisit that evidence, and then to
decide for ourselves whether we will reassess the character of Judas, and then face the
To assist the reader, Klassen inventories the sources of the accepted, villainous image
of Judas, then exposes those sources to the unremitting light of the Gospels. The result is
a more than reasonable doubt of the verdict of the ages, and one is obliged to acknowledge
the plausibility of Klassen"s alternate scenarios of Judas" pivotal role in the Passion
At the heart of his thesis lies the key insight that the Greek word, paradidomi,
literally "hand over," has been deliberately mistranslated as "betray."
If so, then two millennia of Christians have been exposed to false witness concerning one
who began as a brother in Christ, and who may have ended the same; a false witness totally
at odds with both the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention Jesus" unambiguous
teaching concerning forgiveness.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Klassen"s work is his exposure of the blatant
antisemitism conveniently bolstered by the traditional vilification of Judas. In this he
takes on, convincingly, no less a luminary than Karl Barth for what must be seen as a
tragic, if not contemptible, misrepresentation of Judas and Israel.
Full of fascinating anecdotes, contemporary illustration and solid reasoning, Judas
is an important book. It reminds us of the complex humanity which permeates an encounter
with the divine; of the importance of studying our received wisdom critically; of the need
for all Christians to know their Scriptures intimately; of our woeful ignorance of our
history and that of our parent, Judaism.
Klassen reminds us that if we fail to recognize Judas in ourselves, we have missed the
point of the Gospel; that if we do not acknowledge Judas as our brother, then we miss the
essence of redemption; that if we continue to silence the voice of Judas, then we lose
something of our humanity, and much of the experience of God"s love.
Source: The United Church Observer, November 1996
Klassen has given us a fine example of a noteworthy approach to the study of the NT,
giving full attention to the history of its interpretation and use… For teachers of the
New Testament and Christian history and for their brighter students.
Theological Book Review 9 (1997): 15
[Klassen] has produced a fascinating challenging, deeply researched, and well-argued
book. He provides an extensive review of the evidence and careful assessment of each of the
four Gospels" presentation of Judas... His book is the fullest discussion of the Judas
material available, is certainly challenging and deals skillfully with the many ambiguities
in the reconstruction of the historical Judas.
David Scholer, Professor, NT, Fuller Theological Seminary Christian Century, August
27, 1997, 766-767.
I feel the book changed my understanding of the Bible more than any other book I have
ever read. I found pieces of the large puzzle I had long been searching for... Thanks so
much for writing the book.
Eldon Nafziger, in a letter to of April 28, 1999 the author. Farmer from Illinois, graduate
of Goshen College.
A courageous book that calls for a fundamental reassessment of one of the main characters
of the New Testament story... This is a book which will excite much discussion and will
require everyone who reads it to think afresh. It will be the standard book on Judas in
English for the next generation.
Peter Richardson, Professor, University of Toronto.
This book is obviously the result of extraordinary research coupled with a real
fascination and sensitivity to the subject. The presentation itself is especially
commendable... Klassen"s point that paradidomi cannot accurately or honestly be
translated as "betray" is particularly strong and should show its influence on all future
translations of the NT. All in all, this is a remarkable and useful book
Kim Paffenroth, Journal of Religion, 78 (January, 1998): 104-105.
Klassen is at his best in teasing out the differences in the treatment of Judas in the
four evangelists. Sensitive to nuances, and prudent in judgement he clearly shows the
different way in which the figure of Judas has been manipulated... This is a timely book
that clears up many ambiguities.
Jerome Murphy-O"Connor, Revue Biblique 105(1998):151-152.
Along with solid scholarly work, Klassen includes pertinent asides and
explorations…When old ideas are challenged, in the way that Klassen does here, it is
exhilarating; for then one sees that we are not dealing with the loss of old certainties but
with the gaining of new possibilities.
Art Boers, Pastor of Bloomingdale Mennonite Church, April 6, 1996 Kitchener Waterloo
This book deserves our careful attention... it is certain to elicit fruitful discussion.
This book is classic Klassen. An experienced NT scholar, he begins with the primary texts,
turning the Greek words until they reflect as much of their own light as possible, "the
nature of the sources must be respected". He does not hide his own presence under the basket
– this prophet with a twinkle in his eye knows that he is offering a radical revision...
At the heart of it all is Klassen"s abiding sense of justice and human dignity: he wants his
readers to come to know Judas as a person, warts and all, and worthy of respect – as they
themselves are and as Jews have also been for centuries. Klassen"s technical exploration of
this much maligned NT figure is a Christian plea for peace.
Michel Desjardins, Professor Wilfrid Laurier University, in Conrad Grebel Review,1997:
Klassen"s rehabilitation of Judas comes from a reading, solidly within the practices of
biblical scholarship, that considers the gospels as products of a lengthy period of
Christian storytelling that was as much driven by theological and social urgencies as by
concerns for historical accuracy... The book is scholarly, but readable for almost anyone.
While there is much that is unnerving, the book is always constructively unsettling.
Willi Braun, Professor, University of Alberta, Edmonton. Mennonite Reporter,
Klassen breaks new ground in showing that Judas" personality is a historical creation on
the part of the Gospel writers...the most important impulse behind this demonization of
Judas was the political and religious need of the young church after the fall of
Patrick Cockburn, March 23, 1997 Independent on Sunday. London, 4-5.
This book is an important corrective [to the antisemitism of the past and present]...
Klassen has done a service in showing that it was the emerging church which did the damage
by demonizing Judas so that he could personify its Jewish opponents and lapsed Christians…
In any case it is important that his conclusions be known to Christian educators who are
trying to ensure that the NT cease to be a source of anti-Jewish prejudice."
Geoffrey Wigoder, Jerusalem Post Magazine, December 6, 1997, page 27.
Klassen has written a book that scholars of the origins of Christianity can only envy. It
is a well-argued presentation on an important topic that is a pleasure to read..[It assists
in] recovering information about important players in the beginning of Christianity. This
classroom pedagogy is formative in his book with questions, answers and primary source
material all providing a sound methodology. Klassen presents a convincing case that Judas"
actions had to do with prodding Jesus with a legal and formal context to confront his
opponents with the essence of his religious claims... this book is recommended with
Wayne McCready, Professor. University of Calgary, Studies in Religion 26(3) 1997:
It is obvious that this is a book which will require everyone who reads it to think
afresh about the role of Judas in bringing about the death of Jesus. Klassen has read widely
and gives attention to almost every piece of evidence... All in all this book is a
remarkable tour de force. It offers the fullest discussion of the quest of the historical
Judas available in English.
Bruce Metzger, Professor Emeritus, Princeton Theological Seminary Alumni Bulletin,