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  • Working with the EnemyThe Harmonizing Tradition and the New Utility of Judas Iscariot in Thirteenth-Century England
  • Britt Mize

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw some diversification of both popular and official representations of Judas Iscariot in the Latin West. One new possibility that arose, as I will show, was the assimilation of Jesus' betrayer to one of the chief parochial priorities of the thirteenth-century church, the promotion of regular lay confession. The purpose of this essay is to define and illustrate the process by which Satan's man on the inside could become an ordinary Christian penitent worthy of a certain measure of human understanding: a contrite sinner who did exactly what he should have done, before failing at the last moment to claim God's mercy.

Section I below describes the development and ossification of the prevailing early medieval image of Judas as statically wicked. I argue that this came about largely through the theory and practice of gospel harmony, by which the more ambiguous synoptic versions of Judas, particularly the remorseful Matthean one, became flattened into a constant enemy of the true faith through commingling with details from the Gospel of John, which is unique in its intense hostility toward him. As a fundamental hermeneutic paradigm, "informal" harmony came to seem so natural, and was so strongly reinforced by its formalizations in orthodox traditions of interpretation, that very powerful counteracting influences would be required to make possible any reevaluation of Judas's significance for the contemporary Christian faith. Section II introduces the emergence in the twelfth century, and increasing prominence in the thirteenth, of intellectual and institutional tendencies that formed a new environment for scriptural [End Page 68] interpretation allowing, in Judas's case, some disruption of the older harmony-derived image and his integration into changing late medieval schemes of moral theology and sacramental praxis.

The later sections of this study examine the reanalysis of Judas in that environment for the purpose of practical teaching on the sacrament of Penance. In an especially informative convergence, the reconceptualized, penitential Judas proved capable of inhabiting even harmonizing biblical paraphrases, where reassertion of the Matthean remorse as a moral response to his earlier wrongdoing partially overcame the effect that the Johannine elements of gospel harmony had had on his character for a millennium. Sections III and IV will show this development by considering the treatments of Judas in two closely related Middle English narrative poems: the South English Ministry and Passion (ca. 1270 × 1285) and the derivative Southern Passion, into which the Passion section of the prior work was revised sometime before 1290.1

Both texts are examples of what can simply but usefully be called "biblical literature."2 The intention of these and similar works is to reproduce scriptural subject matter with the ultimate goal of instructing the laity in biblical history and related matters of the faith, whether directly or through the mediation of clerical readers, teachers, and preachers for whom these texts could serve as source books. This pair of harmonizing gospel retellings affords both an early and an outstandingly clear picture of broader trends with respect to the interpretation of Judas; and in addition to what can be seen in either of them alone, their textual kinship permits close comparative analysis to reveal strategies of revision whereby a particular construction of his tropological meaning—the sense of his story's moral applicability to the lives of latter-day Christians—took firmer shape in the rewriting process. Judas's penitential tropology is isolated in the earlier South English Ministry and Passion, where it has a didactically opportunistic character and a textually localized presence. In the Southern Passion, it flourishes into a full-blown program of penitential instruction centered on the problem of despair.

I. The Western Harmonized Tradition and Its Early Medieval Judas

For a medieval Christian with access to scripture, certain facts about Judas Iscariot seemed straightforward. Most centrally, Judas was a disciple of Jesus, [End Page 69] and he conspired with Temple officials to bring about his master's arrest in Jerusalem. These two propositions are attested by all of the canonical gospels; indeed, they constitute the whole of the core Judas...


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