I had some reservations before delving into Tosca Lee’s tale. How in the world could she take this reviled historical character, and attempt to humanize him? Would it change my understanding of who Judas was? Would I look upon “Judas” as a man, rather than the ultimate traitor? Would I view him as someone who deserved empathy?
I had not read Tosca Lee’s work before. Her previous novels have included stories about Eve, and Lucian the demon, both of which have received very high praise. With Iscariot, Lee challenges the reader to see Judas in a different light. This is certainly no easy task, which means her writing must be well researched and compelling. It’s an understatement to say that Iscariot is both.
The character development in this novel is mesmerizing. From the clarity of John the Baptist’s eyes to the gaunt nature of Jesus’ first appearance, Lee drew the people of the Bible with a clear and respectful hand. I was transfixed. While Judas was Lee’s primary focus, she paid just as much attention to every surrounding figure. When it comes to knowing the people of the Bible, readers will not go wanting.
The time of Judas revolved around righteousness. Washing away sin, prayer, strict obedience to religious law… all of these things represented an impossible code that people used to measure their daily failures. Most worked to be pure, which by description, seemed near impossible. Even during a time of great strife thanks to the ruthlessness of the Romans, people judged character by levels of piousness. A person’s worth was determined by his or her strict adherence to holy law.
Judas was an “unclean” character from the start. When Judas was a young child, he saw his father’s tortured and lifeless body. After his father’s death, Judas’ mother was forced to degrade herself to keep a roof over their heads. Judas had a half-brother. Despite the fact that these were things that were beyond a child’s control, Judas knew that he was “unclean” because of them. Such circumstances plagued him, and made him question his ultimate worthiness. As an adult, Judas did everything he could to be an honorable member of society. But when he lost his wife and unborn child to a vicious Roman attack, he was devastated, and lost.
A chance at redemption appeared when he encountered John the Baptist. Longing for a cleansed soul, Judas was baptized by John. Not long after, Judas met Jesus, and everything changed. Judas once again found himself possessing a true purpose, and that purpose was to follow Jesus.
Judas witnessed Jesus’ miracles. He listened to Jesus’ stories. He called Jesus his master. He devoted his life to following this man he adored, while simultaneously describing Jesus as a paradox. Many of Jesus’ teachings, actions and proclamations confused Judas. He was often at a loss. His own perceived unworthiness kept him in constant turmoil, even while Jesus advised that he was there to help sinners. Judas never shared his personal dilemmas with Jesus. In Iscariot, he could not bring himself to explain to Jesus why he was an ill-suited follower. Regardless, Judas loved his master. He was also the only disciple that Jesus called his “friend.”
As time wore on and Jesus’ enemies accumulated, the cracks in Judas’ character started to appear. In his mind, he started questioning Jesus and his actions more and more. Like the accusers of Jesus, Judas could not comprehend why Jesus would not perform miracles on cue to satisfy the non-believers. Eventually, Judas’ observations were solicited by people of the church. They wanted to know who Jesus really was. Was he the Messiah? Would Judas proclaim him as such?
You know how the story ends. You know that it is written that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty silver shekels. In Iscariot, this was not Judas’ intention, and he wept his way through the trial and condemnation of his beloved master. As these events unfolded, Tosca Lee’s writing brimmed with emotion. The heartbreaking details of Jesus’ capture were almost too difficult to bear. It was a raw and unflinching look at the death of Jesus Christ, and it was incredibly powerful.
As for this reader, do I now feel differently about the infamous Judas? Do I now see him as a helplessly flawed man, who made the horrific mistake of trusting Jesus’ fate to the wrong people? In his efforts to protect his master, did his own character flaws propel the death of the Messiah? Do I now see him with a sympathetic eye?
I’m afraid not.
Despite the author’s formidable story, and her efforts to portray Judas as a loving but hapless disciple, Judas’ inherent cowardice always seemed to shine through. After everything he witnessed, after everything that was shared with him, after he was given the gifts of trust and love, he did the unthinkable. Yes, Jesus came for the sinners. Yes, Jesus loved Judas despite his knowledge of what was to come. Yes, Jesus trusted. Yes, forgiveness is something that Jesus taught.
But even after hearing this new version of Judas’ life story, he will always be the man who betrayed Jesus with a kiss. That’s hard to forget.
5 stars for a remarkable account of Judas. Iscariot will stay with me for a very long time.
This audiobook was narrated by Jason Culp, and he was brilliant. I loved the emotion that he breathed into the characters, and the perfect tones that he attributed to each. He embodied a tortured man when speaking for Judas, and a soft-spoken loving teacher when speaking for Jesus. This was certainly no easy task, but with Iscariot, it was beautifully done.