OMNIA Q&A: Portrait of a Villain

Ph.D. candidate Mariah Junglan Min dissects medieval literary depictions of Judas Iscariot.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

By Karen Brooks 

Mariah Min, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English

Mariah Junglan Min, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English, developed a fascination with Judas in her youth (“Dramatic, rebellious figures appeal to people—I am not immune to that,” she says) and felt unsatisfied by the scant detail she could find about the Bible’s most infamous sinner. Today, Min studies portrayals of Judas across a variety of genres, primarily focusing on English texts from the late Middle Ages, to uncover how his story has been used to make sense of issues connected to theology and history.

The recipient of one of two inaugural Kislak Fellowships sponsored by Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books, and Manuscripts, Min recently talked to us about her research and why Judas is more complicated than his legend suggests.

In a nutshell: Who was Judas Iscariot?

Accounts of Judas differ slightly in the gospels, so he’s not easily definable. But the character that’s been created from the details we have is that he was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ and treasurer for Jesus’ ministry. He was a thief who stole from the common money bag and is best known for accepting payment to identify Jesus with a kiss so that authorities could arrest him. So, Judas is understood to be responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Why hone in on medieval portrayals of Judas?

Judas continues to pop up all over the place in modern literature and movies, but I wanted to see how Western European people in the Middle Ages, which are generalized as a culturally Christian time, viewed him. He poses a lot of difficult questions for Christianity, such as, “If God meant for Jesus to be crucified, why should we condemn Judas for participating in God's plan?” I’ve found that theologians have used abstract concepts and connections to create a narrative for Judas that helps them answer questions like these.

Can you give an example?

One backstory given to Judas resembles the classic myth of Oedipus; he is said to have killed his father and married his mother. By saddling Judas with sins like patricide and incest before Jesus accepts him into his innermost circle, theologians are showing that even the most terrible crimes can be forgiven. But that causes a problem, because Judas isn’t forgiven for betraying Jesus—he kills himself—and they have to find a reason why. What they land on is despair. Although Judas is remorseful, he doesn’t think God’s mercy could apply to him, so he doesn’t ask for it. By falling into despair, they argue, Judas is proving he never really grasped Jesus’ messages of repentance and forgiveness. And that is the biggest sin of all.

14th century representation of Judas held by Penn Libraries 

Is it fair that Judas’ name is commonly used as an insult to this day?

This is tricky, because people’s biases determine the “fairness” of it. Almost everything we associate with Judas is filtered through a Christian lens, and of course people in Christian cultures consider his betrayal of Jesus Christ to be the most villainous act there could be and therefore accept his name as an insult. But there is also a lot of anti-Semitic rhetoric that gets wrapped up in Judas—he is an emblematic Jewish figure who conspired with the Jewish high priests and essentially caused the death of Jesus, so he has always carried a lot of ideological weight. It is not acceptable for the dominant view of Judas to contribute to broad anti-Semitism.

How does your work tie into more current discussions?

My project explores what medieval texts can tell scholars from all time periods about literary character. If we understand character to involve a person’s consistence with himself, then even though Judas repents of his various crimes—patricide, incest, greed, theft, despair—he has to remain a bad person. Judas feels remorse but then goes on to commit more crimes, illustrating the tension between a character being something that is self-consistent and a character being something that can evolve. He has an arc in which he shows self-contradictory attributes, but no matter how layered and multidimensional he is, he must remain recognizable as himself.  

What are your plans going forward?

I’m working on my dissertation and hope to defend sometime before summer 2019. After that, in my wildest, happiest dreams, I have a job as a professor teaching medieval literature. I believe that if a scholar has a strong emotional reaction to or fascination with a subject, there will always be something intellectual there for them to untangle.