By Leon Rosselson
June 17th, 2019
I wrote Stand Up for Judas some time in the 1970s. I knew it would be controversial (to put it mildly) and get me into any number of fruitless arguments. So what prompted me write it?
Here’s the story. I was walking down the Harrow Road in a dreary part of London one bleak December day when I passed a church. A large placard outside caught my eye. On it was written in dramatically bold letters this quotation:
IF YOU BELIEVE NOT THAT I AM THE CHRIST YOU SHALL DIE IN YOUR SINS
For some reason I felt indignant. Not that being in or out of my sins when I’m dying concerns me but this seemed so presumptuous. Who was this cocksure Jewish preacher to make such an assertion? And how come so many groups and people of such different — even opposing — persuasions claim to follow Jesus’ teachings? How can liberation theologists and evangelical Christians, supporters of apartheid in South Africa and opponents of it, Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King, Bruce Kent and Tony Blair, all cite the Jesus we only know from the gospels as their moral guide?
So I found a dilapidated Holy Bible, a family heirloom (Translated out of the original tongues; and with the former translations diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty’s special command) and set about reading. I read from The book of the generation of Jesus Christ in Matthew to the final Amen in John.
These were my first thoughts:
- There are contradictions and inconsistencies in the portrait of Jesus that make it impossible to assemble him as a coherent figure. There isn’t one Jesus. For example, there’s the non-violent Jesus in Matthew who reproves the disciples for fighting back when he is arrested — All they that take the sword shall perish by the sword. And there’s the violent Jesus in Luke who tells these same disciples to sell their garments and buy swords — And they said, Lord, behold there are two swords. And he said unto them, it is enough. There’s the Jesus who said : Resist not evil and the Jesus who said: I came not to bring peace but a sword. This explains why even opposing viewpoints can find some evidence for the Jesus they believe in.
2. The gospel Jesus may have shown charitable feelings towards the poor but he had no interest in liberating them from their misery — The poor are always with us — or in changing an unjust world. He accepted the status quo because he was an other-wordly divinity whose kingship is not of this world.
3. The gospels are anti-Jewish. The Jews are made responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. His blood be on us and on our children (Matthew
27:25). Inexplicably, those same Jews calling for Jesus’ crucifixion on
the Friday had, only five days earlier, acclaimed him as the son of
David and, because of their support, prevented the authorities from
arresting him. (Matthew 21:46) In John’s gospel, the enemies of Jesus
are no longer the Pharisees but the Jews. Jesus has become a non-Jew.
And since only those who believe in Christ’s divinity can be saved,
Jews, non-believers, are cast into hell.
HE THAT BELIEVETH AND IS BAPTISED SHALL BE SAVED; BUT HE THAT BELIEVETH NOT SHALL BE DAMNED. (Mark 16:16)
And then there’s the choice of Judas — meaning Jew — to be the disciple who betrays Jesus.
Centuries of antisemitism and persecution have their origin in the writings of the gospel makers.
After that, I read Hyam Maccoby’s book Revolution in Judaea and tried to find out more about the historical context in which this charismatic Jewish preacher was working his miracles.
The most obvious historical fact is that Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were occupied territories. The Roman occupation was cruel, rapacious and corrupt. It was marked by Jewish uprisings (Barabbas is said to have been involved in one such uprising) which were mercilessly crushed by the Romans with crucifixion as the common punishment. In 6 CE when, according to the experts, Jesus would have been about 12, there was a census of the inhabitants of Judaea and Samaria which provoked a rebellion led by a rabbi called Judas of Galilee who founded the Zealot party. Josephus, the renegade Jewish historian (37 CE to circa 100), wrote of the Zealots: These men have an inviolable attachment to liberty and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.
The Romans imposed heavy taxes on the mass of Jewish smallholders and landless labourers. Tax collection was contracted out to ‘publicans’, as they are called in the New Testament, who wanted their cut and who could be ruthless and violent to those who couldn’t afford to pay. They were often Jews who were hated and despised for their extortionate acts and for collaborating with the occupation.
Romans deliberately choose as tax collectors men who are absolutely
ruthless and savage and give them the means of satisfying their greed….
They exact money not only from people’s property but also from their
bodies by means of personal injuries, assault and completely unheard
forms of torture.
(Philo 25 BCE to 50 CE. De Specialibus Legibus)
So what does the gospel Jesus have to say about this brutal oppression of his people? Almost nothing. Remarkably, there is no mention in the gospels of the Roman occupation. Jesus is pictured as being in conflict, not with the Roman rulers, but with the mainstream Jewish party, the Pharisees. Jesus only mentions the Romans once: Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. An injunction against the non-violent resistance of a tax strike. This is not credible. It is like setting a story in today’s West Bank without mentioning Israel’s brutal occupation. Who would do that?
Equally ahistorical is the way Pilate is portrayed: mild, well-meaning, indecisive and weak perhaps but ultimately not responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion. The real Pilate was nothing like that. Between 16 CE and 26 CE there were 4 Procurators, all of them corrupt and rapacious. Pontius Pilate was appointed Procurator in 26 CE and is considered the worst of them all. According to Philo, He was cruel by nature and hard-hearted and entirely lacking in remorse. Philo describes his rule as consisting of bribes, vainglorious and insolent conduct, robbery, oppression, humiliations, men sent to death untried and incessant and unmitigated cruelty.
Josephus describes him as deliberately seeking to outrage the religious feelings of the Jews by marching his army of occupation from Caesaria to the Holy City with their standards containing images of Tiberius as a god in order to abolish the Jewish laws.
Pilate was eventually deposed and sent to Rome in 37 CE for harshly suppressing a Samaritan movement.
Furthermore, Jesus is described as being in perpetual conflict with the Pharisees who are in league with the Sadducees and Herodians. But this makes no sense since the Pharisees and Sadducees were on opposing sides. The Sadducees were collaborators who supported the status quo and accepted official posts under the Romans and the Herodians. They were the party of the rich landowners and priestly families. The High Priest was a Sadducee appointed by Rome. The Pharisees were the mainstream religious party, representing the mass of the people from small landowners to peasants and craftsmen. In matters of doctrine, they had fundamental differences with the Sadducees. The Sadducees were traditionalists who believed the Torah was cast in stone ; the Pharisees, on the other hand, argued that the Torah was a living thing that could be supplemented and developed into Oral Law. The place of the Torah was ‘not in heaven but in the hands of men’.
…the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers which are not written in the laws of Moses; and it is for this reason that the Sadducees reject them. (Josephus)
So it’s clear that the gospels are a deliberate distortion of history; they are anti-Jewish, pro-Roman propaganda. This is not surprising when you consider who the gospel makers were and when the gospels were written. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. None of them knew Jesus; all of them lived outside Palestine; their culture was Hellenist. Mark is the earliest, around 70 CE, John the latest, around 100 CE. All, then, were written after the great Jewish revolt against the Roman occupation.
This started as a tax strike in 66 CE, led by the Zealots, and escalated into a full-blown rebellion. The Romans were driven out of Jerusalem. Rome’s Syrian Legion was ambushed and defeated by Jewish rebels at the Battle of Beth Horon with 6,000 Romans massacred. But eventually the Roman army prevailed, the uprising was crushed and in 70 CE, after a 7 month siege, Jerusalem was taken and the Second Temple destroyed. According to Titus Flavius Josephus — who by that time had defected to the Romans and changed his name from Yosef ben Matityahu — over a million non-combatants died, thousands were crucified and thousands more enslaved.
Understandably, this revolt against Rome did not make Jews popular in the various countries of the Roman Empire in which they lived. And at this time of intense anti-Jewish feeling it would have been imprudent, not to say dangerous, for the gospels to dwell on the brutality of Roman rule (better ignore it completely) or to portray the Jews in a positive light.
What historical evidence is there for the existence of Jesus? Not a lot. One, maybe two mentions in Josephus. And scholars speculate that there was an original gospel, now lost and written closer to Jesus’ lifetime, which was the source of Matthew, Mark and Luke; and that different bits of that original account survive in their versions. That would explain some of the contradictions in the gospel stories. In any case, at that time of oppression, misery, defeat and despair, it is highly likely that messianic preachers would arise, gaining a following by promising hope and deliverance, and that fabulous stories would be told about their miraculous powers. Perhaps the militant Jesus who ordered his followers to buy swords was the real Jesus. But this is speculation. In the end, the gospel Jesus is the only Jesus we have and he is certainly the Jesus of St. Paul and the mainstream of the Christian church. My song puts him into his historical times and finds him wanting. Each verse is based on Jesus’ actual deeds and teachings in the gospels. The last two lines are the point of the song.
The title of the song, Stand up for Judas, is deliberately provocative since it not only references and challenges the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus but also upends the image of Judas Iscariot as the very embodiment of venality and betrayal. Iscariot is derived from ‘sicarus’ meaning dagger-man. The Sicarii were the most militant of the Zealot party and the Zealots were the militant wing of the Pharisees. They believed in open resistance to Roman rule and that God would come to their aid but only if they showed ‘zeal’, like Phineas the Zealot in Numbers 25. So in the song, Judas the Zealot is the voice of the resistance and a critic of the passivity of Jesus in the face of oppression.
One May Day in the early nineties I gave a concert in Catholic Belfast. To my amazement I was asked if I would sing Stand Up for Judas. So I did. Nervously. Apparently, the IRA, or some members of it, identified with Judas as a hero of the resistance.
It’s been recorded by Roy Bailey, David Campbell and Dick Gaughan and sung in concerts around the country, including at least one church.
We sang in church Stand Up for Judas
Nobody left, nobody booed us.
Our thankful timbers stayed unshivered
His thunderbolts went undelivered.
Applause was all that rattled in those
Hallowed walls and stained-glass windows.
Who knows what hellfire — and who cares?
Ascended with the rector’s prayers.
As far as I know it’s never been played on any radio programme in this country. No surprise there. It was played on CBC, in Canada, and prompted an immediate angry letter demanding that ‘this blasphemous song’ should never be aired. But I don’t think it is blasphemous. The Catholic Workers in Baltimore heard it with interest and found it serious enough to discuss. Played on KPFA in Berkeley, it acquired a fan club. The main accusation against the song has been that the song’s Jesus is a caricature, ‘not the real Jesus’. A fellow songwriter claimed that I was relying too much on the gospel of John. “Compare the more historical gospel of Mark with John” he wrote, “and you find you are reading about two completely different people.” Well, exactly.
As the environmental writer Paul Harrison has written: “Christ can be used, and has been used, as a motivation for total self-sacrifice to bring about justice on earth, or for giving 0.01 per cent of one’s annual income to Oxfam or the NSPCC. As an inspiration to die resisting tyranny or to turn the other cheek to oppression; to take up arms for socialism, or against it.
The truth is that humans have to decide for themselves what kind of society is best and how to achieve it. The gospels, unfortunately — or fortunately — don’t provide a lot of help. We’re on our own. “
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — –
The Romans were the masters when Jesus walked the land
In Judaea and in Galilee they ruled with an iron hand.
The poor were sick with hunger and the rich were clothed in splendour
And the rebels whipped and crucified hung rotting as a warning.
And Jesus knew the answer
Said, Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.
Said, Love your enemies.
But Judas was a Zealot and he wanted to be free.
Resist, he said, the Romans’ tyranny.
So stand up, stand up for Judas and the cause that Judas served
It was Jesus who betrayed the poor with his word.
Jesus was a conjuror, miracles were his game
And he fed the hungry thousands and they glorified his name.
He cured the lame and the leper. He calmed the wind and the weather.
And the wretched flocked to touch him so their troubles would be taken.
And Jesus knew the answer.
All you who labour, all you who suffer
Only believe in me.
But Judas sought a world where no-one starved or begged for bread.
The poor are always with us, Jesus said.
So stand up, stand up…
Jesus brought division where none had been before
Not the slaves against their masters but the poor against the poor.
Set son to rise up against father, and brother to fight against brother
For he that is not with me is against me was his teaching.
Said Jesus, I am the answer,
You unbelievers shall burn forever
Shall die in your sins.
Not sheep and goats, said Judas, but together we may dare
Shake off the chains of misery we share.
So stand up, stand up …
Jesus stood upon the mountain with a distance in his eyes.
I am the way the life, he cried, the light that never dies.
So renounce all earthly treasures and pray to your heavenly Father
And he pacified the hopeless with the hope of life eternal.
Said Jesus, I am the answer
All you who hunger, only remember
Your reward’s in heaven.
So Jesus preached the other world but Judas wanted this
And he betrayed his master with a kiss.
So stand up, stand up…
By sword and gun and crucifix Christ’s gospel has been spread
And two thousand cruel years have shown the way that Jesus led.
The heretics burned and tortured, the butchering bloody crusaders.
The bombs and rockets sanctified that rained down death from heaven.
They followed Jesus.They knew the answer.
All non-believers must be believers
Or else be broken.
So put no trust in saviours, Judas said, for everyone
Must be to his or her own self a sun.