That’s me in the corner; with Judas, My Brother

I recently re-read the book that changed my afterlife, or at least my immaculate conception of it. Judas, My Brother by Frank Yerby was first published in 1968. I purchased the fourth UK reprint in 1976 when I was 19 or 20. It was a revolutionary read, but also intensely life-affirming. It rattled the cage of my Catholicism, swinging open the door, though it would be a number of years before I flew out. It is very hard to abandon a belief system that has been reinforced week on week since before one even knew that there were seven days.

At the heart of the dilemma is the hunger for truth. It is a hunger that can never be satisfied, because truth is entirely founded on context, and context changes. Once it was true that the sun revolved about the Earth, an Earth that everyone knew was flat.

Truth and belief are strange bedfellows. They are conceptually linked, but in reality are entirely independent. So far, the twenty-first century has proven to be no more immune to the convolutions of truth and belief than any previous era. Conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ are proclaimed with new vigour, it seems. In truth, it was ever thus. They reside in the origins of most religions. Secular beliefs can be just as misleading.

The Covid-19 Pandemic proved once again that people adopt the beliefs that fit most comfortably with their predisposition. Whether it was the origins of the disease, its potency, its qualities, remedies, preventions or even existence, beliefs were concocted, disseminated, defended, applied and undermined or confirmed; though confirmation was not necessarily an end to speculation. Truth was in there somewhere, but not everywhere, and the truth changed, mutated and evolved as truth always does. The truth is Covid killed millions of people, or far fewer, or none at all; it depends what you believe.

Wars are waged based on beliefs and the victims on both sides are the causalities of the ‘truth’ that is expounded. There is, however, no need for war for belief to wring its terrible wrath. ‘Peaceful’ territories are infected by beliefs that oppress, assault and execute those deemed to be unworthy, uncommitted, or inferior. But what about beliefs that are beneficial? Should they be challenged? Well, one person’s benefit can be another’s detriment, though a crusader might disagree. Testaments of love have generated genocides.

So here we are on ‘Spy Wednesday’ – the day on which, according to tradition, Judas did the deal that secured the salvation of Christians everywhere and at all times, though the priests questioned by the teenage me could never agree on whether or not Christ’s redemption would be retrospectively applied. And how far back in our evolutionary lineage would that redemption be bestowed? And what about Judas? Was he redeemed? And what about all the other non-Christians? The Catholics I consulted could not concur.

This nineteen-year-old son of a failed priest could not get his head around why he was being asked to worship a creator who created a world that required such a cruel act to set it right. A truly competent creator could surely create a universe that had no need of redemption. And why didn’t the Bible mention dinosaurs? Or the hundred million other galaxies? Or viruses?

Those mega questions were not the most pertinent. For a man who’d been a devoted altar boy there was the small matter of transubstantiation – turning bread into the flesh of the aforementioned saviour, and what about his alleged miracles, resurrection and virgin birth?

Frank Yerby provided the answers. They were available in other places, but he was a popular pioneer at a time when questioning the consensus took real courage. Since the 1960s, sources and studies have multiplied like obedient multitudes, but Yerby was my treasured prophet, and the greatest irony of what he did is something I have always cherished: his truth was a work of fiction.

This is the review of Judas, My Brother that I posted online a few years ago:

Thirty years before Dawkins penned his popular science opus attacking religion this book began my journey away from sincere traditional Catholicism to atheism, though I’m sure that was never the intention of Yerby. First and foremost this is a cracking good sword and sandals narrative, but it is made all the richer by the footnotes that are used to justify Yerby’s versions of the gospel stories as ones that are likely to be much more truthful than those presented by the gospel writers. Strangely, it may prove satisfying for those who need a more convincing foundation for their faith as well as for those who have doubts about the origins of Christianity as presented by conventional Christians. It’s also just a damned good, well-crafted story.

I had never encountered a work of fiction with so many historical footnotes. I still haven’t. Five hundred pages of fiction are followed by fifty pages of notes and, in truth, it was those historical and cultural explanations that prompted me to take the book to the counter of John Menzies and pay the nine and a half pieces of silver (£0.95). Even at a glance I could see answers that my ordained mentors had failed to provide.

Yerby’s central character, Nathan, is the fictional doppelganger of Yeshu’a (Jesus) and, as the the title suggests has other similarities with Yehudah (Judas). Nathan becomes the ‘thirteenth disciple’ but not until after he has outwitted gladiators, supervised the construction of Pontius Pilate’s aqueduct, survived crucifixion, been the lover of Pilate’s wife and married Yeshu’a’s sister.

It has to be said that the book probably carries more entertainment value for those familiar with the gospel tales, as Yerby’s narrative offers alternative explanations for many of the well-known episodes. He doesn’t undermine all the foundations of Christianity however, and while questioning the literal divinity of Christ he reveals the prophet’s exceptional humanity and does not skew his morality or insight. At all times, though, he is at pains to point out those things that simply cannot be true due to historical impossibility, cultural contradictions and absurdities, or errors in translation or transcription.

It was those explanations that satisfied my soul. No single work can be taken as gospel, of course, and no doubt there are many who would challenge Yerby’s perspective, but his fiction is far more credible than the traditional versions, and the majority of his key assertions are confirmed by a variety of other authorities, a good number of which were not published in popular form until some time later, following the belief-inspired atrocities of the early twenty-first century.

The novel is now half a century old, and the cracks do show a little more than when the youthful doubter that I was first clung to it. Some of the attitudes to gender, sexuality and sectarian stereotypes smell of the 1950s and 1960s but they do not appear out of place in the Roman Empire of 32CE. And in this age when an author’s opinion and background seems to matter as much as the work, it should be noted that Frank Yerby was the son of a hotel doorman and a teacher and his ancestry was black, white and Native American. He knew a thing or two about stereotyping.

Frank Yerby 1916 -1991

In Yerby’s epistle, Judas is still cast as a traitor, but Yerby himself is certainly not treacherous. As well as a superb literary craftsman, he is a meticulous exponent of the editorial machinations that led to the corruption of the truth of what may have happened two millennia ago. That truth and its accompanying falsehoods spawned so many blessings, but also so much suffering between then and now. That’s what faith can do, and why we should always question our beliefs; especially if we are tempted to enforce them.

It was Yerby, much more than a whole host of evangelists, preachers, priests and teachers that provided me with the good book to start a pilgrimage in search of a less-troubled soul.

I was not saved, but I was entertained, enriched and enlightened.

Thanks Frank.


Here’s another work of fiction about truth and belief:

Click on the pic for a closer peep.

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