judas iscariot

Judas Iscariot, betrayer or faithful? #

Inveterate mindsets are sometimes so ingrained, nothing can disturb them. Once an historical person has been successfully slandered, it is almost impossible to redeem their reputation or rightful status.

Perhaps the most demonised is Judas, deemed to have betrayed Christ. Learned, conscientious scholars have a disobliging view basing conclusions on a closer reading of evidence.

A recent documentary on the last week of Jesus in Jerusalem, by Hugh Bonneville, shows a number of scholars talking about Judas who appeared to fully accept that Judas is no longer the villain he has been portrayed over the past two centuries. It is now widely accepted that the Greek word “paradidomi,” has been wrongly interpreted as betrayal when it actually means “hand over”.

SARAH PRUITT, writing in History.com:

Professor William Klassen, a Canadian biblical scholar, argued in a 1997 biography of Judas that many of the details of his treachery were invented or exaggerated by early Christian church leaders, especially as the church began to move away from Judaism.

Carol Penner, writing in The Canadian Mennonite about Judas, also continues to use sloppy language indicative of the newspaper’s slide into tabloid juournalism.

Despite the acknowlegdment of alternative views, both persist in continually referring to Judas as a betrayer.

Frank Kermode #

When , Frank Kermode, a noted Shakespeare critic, panned Klassen’s book on Judas, (on the internet) Bill’s cogent, combative response forced Kermode’s dignified retreat to areas he was more familiar with.

Professor Kermode’s review of Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus by William Klassen

William Klassen, research professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, is a New Testament scholar with a theory about Judas Iscariot. He would be the last to say he is first in the field with a theory about Judas, but he can plausibly claim to be unique in having appeared before classes and congregations dressed as he supposes Judas to have been at the moment of the Crucifixion, and keen to defend his actions against what he knew would be the enraged accusations of his auditors. For he does not believe that Judas was a bad man or a traitor. In his book he describes at length his ‘quest for the historical Judas’, believing that the Christian tradition has misrepresented and maligned the man (the more readily since his name connotes Jewishness) and should admit guilt for having done so.

Here is William Klassen’s response:

I find it passing strange that Frank Kermode, in his review of my Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (LRB, 2 January), ignores the detailed lexicographical analysis of the key Greek word, paradidomi,‘to hand over’, based not on any theological bias, but on a critical reading of Greek texts. The word simply does not mean ‘betray’, in any ancient Greek text I could find, including the Bible itself. The difficulty of this translation has been noted before by many authors I cite but this point was never pursued or carried to its logical conclusion in the case of Judas. One can only convict me of error if the same texts are analysed and evidence provided that the term in fact means ‘betray’.

Despite Professor Kermode’s suggestion to the contrary, I approached my mandate to write a life of Judas with the firm conviction that Judas was a traitor and that all the Gospels were unanimous in portraying him as such. In time that conviction had to yield to the evidence. This turnabout has been one of the most difficult discoveries of my life, for it seemed incredible that noted lexicographers and translators would have been so misled all these years.

Kermode’s review also illustrates how his own bias against Judas holds him hostage. For example, four times in the space of his review he refers to the ‘bribe’ that was paid Judas. Not once does that word or a related word appear in any of the Gospels. Surely it is possible to visualise the transaction between Judas and ‘the Jews who want Jesus arrested’ as something quite traditional and standard for Jews who informed on someone to the High Priest This is certainly what David Daube taught us, as have other scholars who are familiar with the Jewish society of that time.

There is no hint of a bribe in the Gospel texts. My suggestion that Judas was acting as a faithful Jew, carrying out not only God’s will as understood by Jesus but also the will of Jesus himself, at least deserves some consideration. Perhaps Judas retained his loyalty to the High Priest as guardian of the Temple. If that is granted there is little room to speak of a ‘betrayal’. In any case, there is only one later textual support for ‘betrayal’ (Luke 6:16), which alone uses the precise Greek word meaning ‘traitor’. Perhaps the notion of betrayal arose from the bitterness of the early Christians, influenced by the fact that Judas may very well have been seen as the first defector from their community. Certainly the New Testament lacks any evidence that Jesus felt betrayed and what it was that Judas betrayed has never been defined.

Professor Kermode suggests that I came to the Judas research with a built-in bias. However, there is not one conclusion in this book that fits the theology with which I began. To be sure, once I had done my basic language analysis, an area in which Mr Kermode admits he is not ‘qualified to argue’ with me, I had to follow the evidence and apply it to Judas. I follow not ‘what fits my thesis’ but the results of my research, because I was taught that the study of ancient texts should begin with the language in which they are written (not, in this case, the King James Version), and let the conclusions speak for themselves.

William Klassen Ecumenical Institute, Jerusalem 1996

You’d think, following the evidence would be fairly elementary, (Dr Watson); but then in this modern age we are much more clever than that - our critical thinking skills have gradually been eroded. Now, all we need is the right beliefs embellished by comforting platitiudes, unquestioningly accepting dominant narratives.. Any gut feeling should do. Even Judges feel they have discretionary prerogatives to disregard inconvenient evidence, regardless of how probative it is.

Judas Betrayer or friend of Jesus? is deeply, sedulously and assidulously researched. Instead of relying on traditonal translations of the bible it excavates and delves into original manuscripts closer to the language of actual participants. All translations reflect cultural biases and entrenched opinions of their time and place.

People believe what they want to believe, often in defiance of fact and logic. ‘‘Facts’’ alone rarely persuade us to change our minds on anything significant. In fact, they frequently entrench a contrary view. Psychologists call this the ‘‘backfire effect’’, where counter-evidence, far from changing our views, actually strengthens them.

Numerous studies underline how impervious to evidence our strongly held convictions are. Whether on political, religious or ethical issues, it seems our minds have an unusual power to reorganize contrary facts in order to support our beliefs.

A study by Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Jason Reifler of Georgia State University concluded,

“Results indicate that corrections frequently fail to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. We also document several instances of a ‘backfire effect’ in which corrections actually increase misperceptions among the group in question.”

The backfire effect is a kind of self-protection mechanism. When you are confronted with data that threatens your convictions, your mind works overtime to defend you. It reorganizes information and re-establishes arguments allowing you to continue believing what you already believed.

It seems that most of us do not let the facts get in the way of a strong belief; no one is immune to the buried power of self-deception and the backfire effect.

Gregg Elshof explores the ubiquitous nature of self-deception in public and private life, in secular and religious communities - or what he calls.

“the amazing human capacity to break free from the constraints of rationality when truth ceases to be the primary goal of inquiry”.

Dona Harvey, William Klassen’s wife, who assisted in forging an accessible language, suggests that the Anglican Church (certainly in the UK and Canada, and possibly worldwide) has changed its official liturgy for Communion, which, instead of speaking about betrayal and Judas as the betrayer, now states “on the night that Jesus was handed over….” I think the change may be directly related to Bill’s book on Judas, which was published during the time that George Carey was Archbishop of Canterbury.

George and his wife Eileen (lovely people!) came to the Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem when we were there in the mid 1980s, and George and Bill became friends. They stayed in touch over the years, and George continued to have an interest in Bill’s work. He may well have led the forces of change within the Anglican church worldwide.

I declare my interest. Bill was an older brother who inspired the rest of a large inquiring family into higher learning.

As Alice informs the Red Queen, who demands she stop asking questions: No I won’t! The more questions you ask, the more you learn.

Here are several tributes to his life following his death in 2019:

Family memories #

Siblings Tributes to our brother Bill compiled by his youngest sister, Susanna Klassen, Toronto, Canada.

Bill was the sixth child in a family of 15. He was born at home with our father assisting in the birth because the midwife had left, thinking it would be a while. Kathy writes in her family memoirs All in a Row , The Klassens of Homewood

“father believed that his active participation in that birth formed a deep lasting bond between him and Bill.” (p.151).

Bill’s death leaves us all with mixed feelings.. We hope he has finally found peace, on the other hand our loss is felt deeply. We feel for his wife, Dona Harvey and his family. They have been through so much.

Two of his older siblings Marie and Ed remain to tell us what they remember about Bill.

Marie recalls that while still in Elementary school, Bill would go out every morning on his bike and gather the cows for milking. One day he was crossing one of the ponds on his bike and the ice began to crack, he rescued himself and soldiered on to get the cows.

She tells the story of herself and Bill travelling with our dad and on the trip home they stopped to visit friends. While reading the comics in another room they heard the woman saying, “you have so many children why don’t you leave these two here with us?” Marie and Bill ran back into the car to make sure they would be able to go home with their Dad.

Ed, who is next to Bill said , the best experiences of his life were with Bill when they were children playing with imaginary toys,(referring to using stones as people to create families?). They forgot about non-resistance when fighting over who would clean the barn.

After the war, mom and dad hosted a Japanese-Canadian family. They had two sons similar in age to Bill and Ed. One day the four boys biked 14 miles to Carman. As they approached the town, and were met by some Carman lads, they challenged the Mennonite boys. The Japanese-Canadian lads reassured Bill and Ed, saying they knew Judo, and they could handle the threat. Ed chuckled, and they did.

Elsa was next in age as Bill’s younger sister. She gave me permission to use her diary entries. It is evident that she was very close to Bill. While at the MCI they would go on walks and he would occasionally chastise her for “playing hard to get”. Quote,

“Willie and I had a regular old-fashioned row about nothing! He’s so silly, getting me all mixed up.“ Willie (Bill?) likes to tease me about Werner. He said it wasn’t only luck that I kept bumping into Werner all the time.”

(Elsa and Werner married later and enjoyed each other’s love for many years.)

Another entry, “Ironed Willie’s pants and did his washing today”.

I asked Elsa whether she had been paid for doing this. She laughed and said in those days you did not get paid for anything.

Kathy writes,

”Bill was a restless person, quick tempered but also quick to laugh.”

He took risks. She writes in her memoir,

“while attending high school at a Mennonite boarding school Bill stood up for his roommate whom he felt was being treated disrespectfully by the teacher.” Instead, he was considered to be disrespectful towards the teacher and was expelled from school. When father, who was the chairman of the board went to the next meeting he told the board that his son had done what they had lacked the courage to do. Namely, to tell this teacher, who was also the principal, that he must treat his students with respect. (p64-65)

The last time we had lunch with Bill and Dona, Ernst told a story about Bill returning to the MCI at a later date and asking to speak to the student body about the Bible. The principal was skeptical about whether the students would be interested in his topic. The principal was surprised when students listened with rapt attention. During the relating of this story Bill smiled and seemed delighted to hear Ernst tell the story.

Bill once made a comment to me that had an impact on me in terms of how I saw my parents. He said,

“if you asked each of us 15 children to give a description of our parents and how we experienced them there would be 15 different parents and each perspective would have some validity.”

I was surprised because I thought that we all saw and experienced them in the same way. It was good to know that I could have my view of my parents and it would be as valid as all the rest.

When Charles was going through a very difficult time in life, Bill and his wife Dona Harvey were extremely helpful and supportive.

Bill was the first person in our family to take the risk of broadening his horizons outside of the Mennonite community. Just after finishing high school he went to teach in Pinedock a northern Manitoba fishing village.

John remembers that Bill had spent the year teaching there, after finishing high-school and before attending Goshen College.

He says, Mother and Dad took the four youngest boys, on the only family holiday mom and dad had, for holiday’s sake, of the kind regular folk took.

Bill got my (John’s) attention, when he left home to go to college. So, I went to Basel Switzerland and worked as a printer for MCC. Bill tagged me there, when Harold S Bender showed up at my printing press, saying he wanted to meet Bill Klassen’s brother. For my college, I chose Bluffton. Bill persuaded me that Goshen College was preferable. This choice had long term consequences. I met Alice Umble at Goshen. We married, had two children and one grandchild.

Bill was a wonderful brother always encouraging me to express my ideas.

Charles writes, Bill, as well as all our siblings, have been such an influential inspiration for all of us. In 1960, I read an article about prominent Theologians and their new theories. Bill got a brief mention. At that point I thought, if he can do it, why can’t I go to University.

In the mid-seventies, teaching in a High School in Australia, one of the teachers, asked me if I knew a William Klassen - because a lot of their Sunday school material contained quotes from a book called The Forgiving Community by William Klassen. I was proud to admit he was my brother.

At one family gathering where contentious family matters became tense, Bill softly suggested that with family, we did not have to judge each other, merely accept and love each other.

Bill told of the time he accidently lit a fire and burned a few acres of flax. Dad got him to help extinguish the fire, but never said a word of reproach to him about it.

Bill had an amazing career. He has taken a lot of risks. Leaving safe teaching positions, but always managing to find new challenges. He has always beat against the current. His books are challenging but well researched and supported by sound evidence.

Stan remmbered Bill as spending my early days boarding at the high school and then left for Goshen College when I was seven. He remembers Bill from the trip to Pinedock and became very attached to the dog Silver, who was born as a result of the dog Rex that Bill brought home from Pinedock.

Stan, shares memories of Bill’s home-coming - usually preceded by panic attacks that somehow we would be an embarrassment to Marilyn. I recall being highly impressed when she cooked chili con carne because it introduced us to hotter spices.

After the publication of All in a Row, we learned that after the 12th child was born, our three oldest brothers had informed Dad and Mother no more offspring were welcome. Then three more boys were born.

Further, the three oldest brothers taught us to swim by pushing us off the raft to sink or swim. Stan claims he had to come up three times for air.

Victor the youngest in the family recalls that at age eight he observed Bill’s academic ambitions and achievements and decided he would go to University like his brother.

It was Bill’s status in the family that made it possible for Victor to attend a University in Nigeria for a year. When at age 19 he asked father for permission, father was wise enough to say that he was not qualified to understand the implications of such a venture, but if Bill gave him permission he could go. He went and believes that year in Nigeria laid the groundwork for much of the direction in his life.

I will end with Bill’s own words about the family. In an article “Roots in Manitoba Mud” he wrote

”the center of our home life was the large dining room table around which we all gathered for our meals. Meals were usually eaten all together and it was this gathering around the “board” which cemented our relations with each other…. Children who came home with new ideas hammered them out on the anvil of the family discussions which were tolerated as being a phase we were going through.”

Memorials compiled by Susanna Klassen, Toronto, Ontario, Canada