The Judas Tree, And Other Legends of the Betrayer

This is cercis siliquastrum, the Judas Tree:

It is, according to legend, the type of tree from which Judas hanged himself, and its once-white blossoms blushed with shame to be part of such a terrible history.

Or perhaps it’s called the Judas Tree because the clusters of blossoms sometimes hang from the branches, suggesting a hanging man.

Or maybe it’s all just a mistake: its French name–“Tree of Judea”–misunderstood as “Tree of Judas.” Legend is funny that way.

The Wednesday of Holy Week is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday”: a reference to the day Judas allegedly made his deal to betray Christ. There is a lot of lore surrounding Judas, invented as an attempt to fill in the gaps in the Gospel narratives.

Jacobus de Voragine relates some wild tales about Judas in the entry for St. Matthias in The Golden Legend. Jacobus admits that these are legends and we shouldn’t put too much stock in them, but they open an interesting window into Medieval perceptions about the figure of Judas, which are not at all as simplistic and some might think.

For example, we are told that his mother–Cyborea–has a premonition that her son would be the downfall of her people. He told her husband, Ruben, and when the boy is born they set him afloat in a basket.

The baby washes up on the shore of an island called Scariot, whose Queen is lonely and childless. She takes the baby in, hides him, and then feigns pregnancy and produces the child as her own nine months later. The King is overjoyed to have a son, and Judas is raised in royal style.

Shortly thereafter, the Queen becomes pregnant, and the two little princelings grow up together. Judas, rotten to the core, mistreats his brother, and the Queen begins to resent the foundling. Eventually, the truth comes out, and Judas slays the true heir to the throne, then flees to Jerusalem.

There, he enters the service of Pilate, who sees a kindred spirit in the wicked young man and puts him in charge of his household.

One day, Pilate spies a field of fruit and is overcome with a desire for some. He sends Judas off to gather it, whereupon he gets in an arguement with the field’s owner: his real father, Ruben. Judas slays the man, and Pilate gives all of Ruben’s property and his wife to Judas.

Judas finds his wife/mother in misery one day, and asks her what is her sorrow. She pours out her entire tale, at which point Judas realizes the true horror of his situation. Cyborea urges him to seek out and follow Jesus, beg forgiveness for all his crimes, and repent.

This Judas does, but his wicked tendencies cannot be checked, and he soon begins stealing money entrusted to his keeping. He rages against the 300 silver pieces spent on the ointment, and then betrays Jesus for 30 silver pieces. The amount is chosen because Judas had been skimming one-tenth of the purse, and the price of his betrayal was the amount lost from the purchase of the ointment.

Finally, after his betrayal, Judas repents once again, but swallowed up by despair he kills himself by hanging: his stomach bursting and spilling his bowels upon the ground. It was deemed fitting that he was burst open, so that the lips that kissed Christ should not be defiled in death, and that the bowels which had conceived the betrayal should burst, while the throat that uttered traitorous words was strangled. Moreover, he died hanging in the air, thus offending neither the heights of heaven where the angels dwell nor the earth where his fellow men roamed.

We see a lot of the Medieval imagination and misunderstanding in these tales. First, there is the strange mash-up of the stories of Moses, Cain and Abel, Joseph, and Oedipus, but through a dark, inverted lens. It suggests the inherent evil that appears bred in the bone of Judas, known even to his parents before his birth. His attempts to repent end first in backsliding, and then in suicide. He is the very image of a cursed figure.

Yet the classical motifs suggest a strange, uneasy overlay of fate in his story. Oedipus, for example, wasn’t inherently evil, but rather fated to be a tragic figure. It was the role picked out for him by the gods. It’s an element that sits uncomfortably on the story of Judas, who was a more active agent in his own downfall. The very notion of the crushing whims of inexorable fate is anti-Christian to its core.

Some Gnostics, and later some Muslims, regarded Judas in a better light. The Gnostic Gospel of Judas depicts him as an active figure in the ministry of Christ who helped free Jesus of his body, while the very late Gospel of Barnabas offers a Muslim-style Judas who takes the place of Christ on the cross. Different movements imagine the Judas they need.

But today, we remember the more straightforward figure of the traitor, a man who robbed from the poor and betrayed the son of the living God. It’s fitting that, although Judas is not a saint and the only one of the twelve not on the calender, we remember him on this day. He’s there as a warning, because each of us, every day, betrays Christ in ways small and large.

Judas didn’t just know the truth: he walked with the Truth. If he can fall so far, what of us?