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The Gospel of Judas    by Simon Mawer order for
Gospel of Judas
by Simon Mawer
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Gospel of Judas is, in accordance with its title, a novel of betrayals. In the story, these have the same ambiguity to them that the papyrus found at En-Mor reveals about Judas' original betrayal of Jesus. The book centers on Roman Catholic biblical scholar, Father Leo Newman, his mid-life crisis of faith and its resolution through 'fire and brimstone'. The style reminded me of another recent novel, Margaret Atwood's Blind Assassin. The books share the same detached narration - in Atwood's case the reminiscences of an old woman; in Mawer's that of an excommunicated and resurrected priest. Both novels move around in time and switch perspectives, to the occasional confusion of the reader.

Gospel of Judas tells of Newman's tragic love for a diplomat's wife named Madeleine, his later relationship with Magda (echoes of Mary Magdelene), his mother's wartime affair and its aftermath, and in the background the amazing discovery of a new scroll written by 'Youdas the sicarios'. Descriptions of the process are fascinating to anyone with an interest in archaeology. 'The excavators were like surgeons at the scene of an accident attempting first aid, trying to ease broken bones, trying to lift trapped limbs out of the wreckage ... searching for any other survivors of the disaster of time.'

Father Leo is already struggling with his vocation when asked to translate the scroll. In discussion of belief with Madeleine, she tells him that it evaporates 'like a lake or something drying up, leaving nothing behind but mudflats and a few dirty puddles and a musty smell of superstition.' They develop an intimacy new to the priest who 'had never known this paradox, the sense of distance that intimacy brings with it, a sensation that the same shared things had different meanings for the two of them, the same words held different significance.' This insight of Leo's is key to the tragedy that follows.

I enjoyed the author's ironic humor as in the bishop's reaction to Newman's admission of love 'At least it's not choirboys, I couldn't take choirboys. Not again', or the comment on the protestors to the work on the scroll - 'You could hear the capital letters in their speech.' The snippets the author reveals of the papyrus itself give a historically credible interpretation of biblical times. And of course the Father is dubbed a second Judas, but does he really betray his faith? The story hints at many possibilities, such as spies and sabotage, without making them explicit. It is occasionally opaque though its somewhat abrupt ending melds past with present and provides clues to Leo's motivations.

The Gospel of Judas is a compelling tale of intimacy and betrayal. The reader must mimic its protagonist's work with his scraps of papyrus by digging through the pages for pieces of the past to explain the puzzle of subsequent events. The story raises many questions and leaves you with an urge to re-read to excavate for clearer answers.

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