The Gospel of Judas

Written by Simon Mawer
Review by Claire Morris Bernard

Set primarily in the present, The Gospel of Judas revolves about Leo, middle-aged priest and expert in ancient texts. Leaving Rome for Jerusalem, he deciphers a scroll recently discovered: Judas Iscariot’s account of the life of Jesus. Predating the earliest extant gospels, this scroll threatens to undermine both world Christianity and Leo’s own faith, already bruised by his attraction to Madeleine, wife of an English diplomat.

Parts of the story show Leo after this discovery. Dubbed Judas the Betrayer by his colleagues, he is no longer in touch with Madeleine, no longer a practicing priest, instead developing an attachment to the enigmatic Czech artist, Magda. The principal story line follows his relationship with Madeleine, and his work on the gospel of Judas. Then there are flashbacks to 1943, when Rome and World War II collide. Leo’s mother, wife of a German diplomat, makes choices that shape the man Leo becomes. Betrayal and tragedy thread the story parts together, as do references to Mary Magdalene, Jewish heritage, Moravia, and England.

Erudite and brilliantly constructed, this complex novel abounds with etymologies and unusual adjectives. It conjures up “what-if” scenarios from the first century; it paints a touchable picture of two Romes, fifty years apart. It also insightfully explores the matter of faith. What is it based on? Are heritage and belief linked? What happens to individuals who lose their faith? Or those who cling thoughtlessly to it?