Iscariot by Tosca Lee—A Review

Iscariot-CoverTalk about antiheroes, in Iscariot fiction writer Tosca Lee has tackled the story of perhaps the most anti of heroes imaginable: Judas Iscariot, the man who sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Or did he?

Of course he did. The Bible is clear on that fact, but Ms. Lee in her inimitable way renders the Biblical story with a “what if” twist.

The Story. I suppose most people already know the story. Ms. Lee knew this too, so she begins her surprises by starting the story with an Epilogue–part of a story’s wrap up, material you’d expect to find at the end of a book.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the backstory she gave Judas–his father’s involvement in messianic movements when he was just a boy, his survival of the Romans’ suppression of an uprising–all groundwork to give motivation to the Judas she imagined. These instances from his childhood, of course, are extra-Biblical, but they fit the times.

After a jump-cut to Judas’s adulthood, Ms. Lee navigates him into place so that he meets Jesus and eventually begins to follow him. The bulk of the story retells many of the incidents found in the Gospels, all from Judas’s point of view.

And then there’s the unexpected end–which you can be sure I’m not going to tell.

Strengths. Ms. Lee is a masterful writer. From the first sentence, I know I’m in the hands of a capable artist who will tell me a story I may not enjoy (some things are dark and hard) but which will captivate me.

Long before I found the bibliography in the back detailing the sources of Ms. Lee’s impressive research, I was certain she had done her homework. Iscariot is filled with period and local detail that makes so much of the story come alive. The people seem real, their motives, clear and believable. Even Judas’s.

Writing about such a well-known story has to be one of the hardest things to accomplish. Ms. Lee walked the tightrope of historical accuracy and inventive imagination and pulled it off more times than not.

Consequently, no matter how well you know the events recorded in the Gospels, put together and told as Judas might tell it, it feels fresh and interesting.

Weaknesses. I have one major problem with the story: the premise. Well, actually, I think this is an outgrowth of another issue: Biblical accuracy. I said Ms. Lee walked the tightrope, but there were places where I thought she slipped. Some were insignificant in the long run, but at least one, I believe was critical.

An example of the insignificant is Judas’s first encounter with Jesus, right after He’s spent forty days in the wilderness without food or drink. In a realistic way, Ms. Lee portrays Jesus as looking gaunt, emaciated, almost skeletal, with parched and bleeding lips. Except … the Bible tells us that after those forty days angels came and “ministered” to Jesus. Was it only spiritually that they provided for Him? Unlikely. Does the fact that Ms. Lee overlooked this possibility in any way alter the Biblical underpinnings of her story? Not in a meaningful way.

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

What does undermine her story, as I see it, is a key verse of Scripture in which Jesus Himself refers to Judas as “the son of perdition.”

He was praying, in what has become known as His High Priestly Prayer, after the Last Supper, after Judas had departed. As John records it, Jesus said, “While I was with them [His disciples], I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled” (John 17:12–emphasis mine).

Jesus, then, undercuts the surprise ending of Ms. Lee’s book. It couldn’t have happened as she postulated, as moving as it was, as dramatic and heartfelt and piercing. I found myself saying, If only … I wish it had happened, but I know it didn’t.

End SPOILER ALERT!

Recommendation. Biblical fiction has a great burden to bear. The Bible is historical, but it is also inspired. When writers play with the events the Bible records, there can be theological implications. Has Ms. Lee altered the central message of the Bible? No. In fact, I suspect her goal was to serve it, not change it.

Has she been faithful to Scriptural accounts? More often than not. Consequently, many people–most?–will love this book for a “look behind the scenes” portrayal of the betrayer, the man who gave Jesus over to be crucified.

They may love it because they see hope and forgiveness, love and compassion. They may love it because it is a gritty and real look at life during those days Jesus walked on earth as opposed to the soft-light, haloed Christ so often depicted in classic renditions of His story.

I understand those responses, and yet I challenge all who read Iscariot to go back and read the true story in all four gospels and see how close the fiction comes to reality.

I received an Advance Reader’s Copy of this book from the publisher with the understanding that I would post my honest review.

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Published in: on March 1, 2013 at 6:45 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. You know me and reviews, Becky, but I liked reading your thoughts here. I really enjoyed Iscariot. Mostly, because, like you’ve said, the historical detail was so very interesting. I enjoyed the fictionalization of Judas’ early life and even the insider view of the temple he gave us. And the politics! I really loved the way she examined the politics of the day.

    But you’ve raised several questions that also popped up for me as I read. Writing Jesus is a hard, hard thing.

    I think the way it was marketed was interesting too. “Is it possible 2000 years of tradition have gotten it wrong.” Almost as if we should question whether or not Judas erred in what he did. Sits strangely in the gut, but I’ll admit the tagline snagged me.

    Marketing aside, I do think this story (all story, really) should lead us back to Scripture which you were so fabulous to point out. I do hope readers will take what they’ve read and go digging through the gospels. In my case, this was my first Tosca Lee tale and I’m looking forward to seeing what else her imagination has stewing.

    • I’d forgotten about that marketing line. Yes, that put me on alert, though I still think I would have been looking to see how closely the novel followed the Gospels.

      You’re so right, Shannon, that writing Jesus into fiction is extremely hard. I don’t think I would even want to try.

      The real advantage of books like this comes from people turning to the Bible to read for themselves the actual story.

      Just yesterday I heard the producers of the upcoming TV series, The Bible talking about their work. At one point they said they looked at it as a 10 hour commercial for the Bible, that they want people to be talking about the Bible come Monday morning and reading the text for themselves. Bravo, I say. That’s a great goal for Biblical fiction. I hope the same happens as a result of Iscariot.

      Becky


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