*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Judas, today’s apostle

by
14 April 2022

Joshua Heath finds contemporary resonances in two early 20th-century Russian works

Alamy

Christ before Pilate, relief at Le Calvaire de Pontchâteau, Brittany, France

Christ before Pilate, relief at Le Calvaire de Pontchâteau, Brittany, France

IN THE first half of the 20th century, two Russian writers — a novelist and a theologian — composed extraordinary reimaginings of the last days of Jesus. Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, written during the rule of Joseph Stalin, contains a re-telling of the trial of Jesus (called “Ieshua” in the novel) and his conversation with Pontius Pilate. Sergei Bulgakov’s Judas Iscariot: Apostle and traitor imagines its way into Judas’s decision to betray Jesus, ultimately finding the cause in his longing for a messiah who would inaugurate a new political order.

These Easter works are each a profound statement of the difference between the power of Christ and the power of Caesar. But they are also unflinching explorations of the ways in which this distinctiveness is lost on those who claim to be disciples of the crucified Lord. They dramatise the way in which even the closest “followers” of Jesus are seduced by worldly power into perverting the truth of his words.

Both Bulgakovs thus speak a word from the Russian tradition which exposes and undermines Patriarch Kirill’s abhorrent endorsement of the invasion of Ukraine as a religious crusade. Yet they also warn us that such a confusion of Christ and Caesar is a perennial temptation, with which every Christian community must contend.


IN The Master and Margarita, the encounter between Pilate and Ieshua is the confrontation of two very different kinds of word. Pilate stands over Ieshua as his judge. His job is to ascertain exactly what Ieshua said, and to enforce the consequences of Ieshua’s words about the transience of Caesar’s power.

His words are supported by, and issue in, violence. His words are final: they bring about the death of Ieshua, and thus the elimination of a message that threatened the security of the empire.

Yet Pilate’s words also bring about his own isolation. In sentencing Ieshua to death, Pilate deprives himself of an interlocutor — someone who truly knows Pilate, and so offers the possibility of healing. Mikhail Bulgakov presents this in his dazzling re-telling of Pilate’s question “What is truth?” Ieshua answers: “The truth is, first of all, that your head aches, so badly, in fact, that you’re having fainthearted thoughts about death. . . The trouble is that you are too isolated and have lost all faith in people. . . Your life is impoverished, Hegemon.”

Ieshua’s humility is linked to a different kind of power, a different kind of word: dialogue. And, whereas the imperious words of Pilate bring death for others and endless isolation for himself, Ieshua’s words reject such closure for himself and his interlocutors. Ieshua’s offer of dialogue is thus an intimation of eternity. Yet it is an offer that Pilate, a servant of Caesar, cannot accept.

But Pilate is not the only one who fails to receive Ieshua’s words. “There’s someone who follows, follows me around everywhere,” Ieshua complains, “always writing on a goatskin parchment. . . Absolutely nothing that was written there did I ever say.” It was this disciple who took Ieshua’s prophecy “that the temple of the old faith will fall” as an incitement to destroy the Temple in Jerusalem. So Ieshua’s disciple, Levi Matvei, likewise can understand Ieshua’s words only as the promise of yet another wordly power, albeit a greater one.


FOR Sergei Bulgakov, the same kind of misunderstanding characterises Judas, and forms the root of his betrayal. If Judas was truly an apostle, one of the Twelve, then, Bulgakov argues, to cast Judas as a vulgar character, motivated by petty greed, is in fact to insult Jesus himself: “We cannot ascribe such an error. . . to the one who searches the heart.” No: Judas loved and served Jesus, and was loved by him in return.

But Judas was increasingly disturbed by Jesus’s proclamations concerning his own death. Having witnessed miracles of healing and preaching to immense crowds, Judas was more and more convinced that Jesus was the one who would liberate the Jewish people and rule as their king. Why, then, was he suddenly announcing his impeding execution, the failure of his mission? Why was he backing down?

So, Judas plans to force his master’s hand. Through his betrayal, Judas engineers a confrontation between the secular authorities and Jesus, in the hope that Jesus will have no choice but to reveal his power, “to become himself”.

Indeed, Judas sees this as his mission, entrusted to him alone and sanctioned by Jesus. For Bulgakov, the devil “enters” Judas in this moment of self-deception, when Judas’s dreams of a new, “better”, political order become the horizon for understanding Jesus’s promises.


THIS is a daring — and difficult — imaginative exercise. It refuses any easy estrangement of Judas. Instead, it ascribes to him a process of thinking and decision-making, a set of hopes and anxieties about the wellbeing of his community, that are easily relatable.

Sergei Bulgakov thus makes Judas’s betrayal of Jesus something we can more readily imagine ourselves doing. And coming to see ourselves in this way is a fundamental part of the discipline of Lent and Holy Week.

But it is an especially vital task now, as we see the invasion of Ukraine receive the endorsement of the Russian religious authorities. Our two Bulgakovs warn us not to think of the collusion between Church and Caesar as a peculiar sickness of the Russian Church. It is our duty to see the ways in which it is already unfolding in our midst also.

Joshua Heath is a Junior Research Fellow in Russian Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge.

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Forthcoming Events

6-7 September 2022
Preaching as Pilgrimage conference
From the College of Preachers.

27-28 September 2022
humbler church Bigger God conference
The HeartEdge Conference in Manchester includes the Theology Slam Live Final.

More events

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)