Book review: “I, Judas” by Taylor Caldwell

I was scrolling through my endless list of to-reads books and thought I would try another of Taylor Caldwell’s historical/religious fiction centering around the New Testament. I had originally read her portrayal of the gospel writer Luke in The Great Physician and was deeply moved. Perhaps I, Judas would be just as inspiring?

It had its moments of profundity. The premise is by no means a new one: Judas isn’t the heinous traitor he is portrayed as. I have read a similar portrayal in James Goldberg’s Five Books of Jesus. The basic idea is that Judas was a Zealot, a group of revolutionaries intent on removing Imperial Rome from the Holy Land. And the Messiah, as understood by the Zealots, would be the one to lead it. By itself, this idea isn’t new to Sunday School lessons, but attributing this specifically to Judas is perhaps a new twist for the casual Bible reader. The Sanhedrin are portrayed as weak hypocrites willing to sacrifice religious ideas and principles to maintain good relationships with Caesar. Judas’s criticisms of the Sanhedrin perhaps feel keenly on point in concerns over religion being made palatable for a world of memes and billboards.

Perhaps the climax is Judas, first before Pilate and then again at the foot of the cross, begging Jesus to show his power, come down and lead them to victor against Rome:

‘Jesus’, I pleaded in a voice strange to me, ‘Summon those legions of the Lord and smite the Philistines.’

It changes the scene when you see Judas’s justifications for what he did. When you paint the enemy in such a grotesque monster that you can’t understand his motives, you risk making similar mistakes.

But the book is littered with, well, oddities. The first I noticed was a very obvious conservative bent to the book. Listen to this spiel of Nicodemus’s reflecting on the deterioration of the Romans:

When they give over to government those duties which they should be pleased to perform themselves. When they are told they will be fed and sheltered even when they won’t work, when they are promised security from the cradle to the grave, when they are told the state will take over the supervision of their children and say what schooling they should receive and where. When they are told these things and supinely accept them.

Caldwell fits in family values and even abortion: There is a decline in the Roman family that bodes ill for Roman vitality. Only the baseborn and slaves indulge in large families, which they know the state will support. The middle and upper classes so often do not marry and make a business of abortion. Soon there will be nobody to support the hordes who are born slave and stay slave, happy to be fed and entertained, and occasionally filling their pockets with excursions into dark alleys, preying on the very people who support them.

But it gets weirder still when we encounter Jesus. The book quotes from the New Testament quite regularly, conveniently putting Judas in key moments such as the wedding in Cana, Jesus’s invitation to dine with a Pharisee, and the interview with Pilate. But on top of that, Caldwell takes the risk of putting words in Jesus’s mouth that are WIERD. Take this take on miracles. Thomas asks:

‘But master, a pomegranate seed, like any other seed, grows at a certain rate, which one can predict from the soil in which it is planted, and the amount of sun and rain it receives.’

Jesus answers, ‘True, but its growth is still part of a universal creative process which can be understood by all. What is not so well understood is that when the spiritual element is introduced, a higher creative vibration results.

Too New Age-y for my taste. It even gets wierder when it comes to issues of sexuality. The apostles seem particularly worried about the call to celibacy. Peter asks:

‘But how does a man conquer the fevers that beset him as he vainly seeks sleep? I was no Essene perpetually committed to celibacy like the Baptist, nor, like the Master, totally caught up in the lives of others.’

Simon the Zealot harbored similar misgivings. “Is it natural, Master, to subdue the urge God has put in the loins of men?”

Judas points out that only married people can actually commit adultery, so they are off the hook: “But adultery, Master, applies only to man and wife. How can a single man violate the commandment, unless, like King David, he consorts with a married woman?”

Jesus answered, “Bathsheba” he said with a smile, “was a widow.”

It gets more real when Caldwell literally makes Judas a rapist. He has a meeting alone in Pilate’s palace with a young servant named Susanna, a friend of Mary Magdalen’s. He describes her so:

She was so ravishingly beautiful I barely resisted the impulse to take her in my arms. A simple robe which flared at the sides revealed the fleeting glimpse of her golden thighs and set my heart pumping. Her tawny hair fell over her rosy face, and she pushed it back with a charming gesture, explaining with a blush that she had hastened at her mistress’s summons.

It turned an account of Christ’s ministry into something tawdry and cheap.

There were plenty of interesting twists, but it’s probably best this book has been forgotten.

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