This was the time when Judas Iscariot took the first decisive step towards betrayal: he secretly visited the high priest Annas. He received a very severe welcome, but he did not let it bother him and demanded an extended private interview. And, having been left alone with the dry, severe old man, who looked at him with contempt from beneath his heavy, overhanging eyelids, he explained that he, Judas, was a pious man, and that he has become a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth with the sole goal of exposing the charlatan and handing him over into the hands of the law.
“And who is he, this Nazarene?” Annas asked scornfully, pretending to hear the name of Jesus for the first time.
Judas also pretended that he believed the high priest’s strange ignorance and told him in detail about Jesus’ revelations and miracles, his hatred of the Pharisees and the temple, about his continued transgressions of the law, and, finally, about his desire to seize power from the hands of the priests and create his own distinct kingdom. And so skillfully did he mix falsehood with truth that Annas looked at him attentively and casually said:
“Are there few liars and madmen in Judaea?”
“No, he is a dangerous man,” passionately contested Judas, “He is breaking the law. And it is better that one man should perish than a whole people.”
Annas nodded his head in approval.
“But he has, it appears, many disciples?”
“And they, very likely, love him greatly?”
“Yes, they say that they love him. That they love him a great deal, more so than themselves.”
“But if we decide to seize him, would they not engage us? Would they not raise an insurrection?”
Judas let out a long, spiteful laugh:
“They? Those cowardly dogs, who run away the moment a man leans down to pick up a rock. They!”
“Are they really that bad?” Annas asked coldly.
“And do bad people run from the good, and not the good from the bad? Heh! They’re good, and that’s why they’ll run. They’re good, and that’s why they’ll hide. They’re good, and that’s why they’ll appear only when it’s time to take Jesus to the tomb. And they’ll bury him themselves, you need only execute him!”
“But don’t they love him? You said so yourself.”
“They always love their teacher, but more so dead than alive. When the teacher lives, he can question them on his lessons, and then they’re in trouble. But when the teacher dies, they themselves become teachers, and then everyone else is in trouble! Heh!”
Annas looked piercingly at the traitor, and his dry lips wrinkled—this meant that Annas was smiling.
“They have hurt you? I can see that.”
“Can anything conceal itself from your perceptiveness, wise Annas? You have penetrated the very heart of Judas. Yes. They have hurt the poor Judas. They said that he had stolen three denarii from them—as if Judas is not the most honest man in Israel!”
And they kept talking for a while about Jesus, about his disciples, about his disastrous influence on the people of Israel—but the careful, cunning Annas did not give a decisive answer at this time. He has been keeping an eye on Jesus for a long time now and he had already decided the fate of the prophet from Galilee at secret meetings with his relatives and friends, with the authorities and the Sadducee. But he did not trust Judas, of whom he had previously heard as a bad and dishonest man, he did not trust his simple ideas about the cowardice of the disciples and the people. Annas was sure of his strength, but he was afraid of bloodshed, he was afraid of a terrible riot, on which the disobedient and irascible people of Jerusalem were so quick to go, and, lastly, he was afraid of a severe intervention by the Roman authorities. Inflated by resistance, fertilized by the red blood of the people, which gives life to everything onto which it falls—heresy will grow ever stronger and will strangle Annas, the regime, and all of his friends within its flexible rings. And when Iscariot knocked on his door a second time, Annas’ spirit faltered and he did not admit him. But Iscariot came to him a third and a fourth time, persistent, like the wind, which keeps banging day and night at a locked door and breathing into its gaps.
“I can see that the wise Annas is afraid of something,” said Judas, who was finally admitted to see the high priest.
“I am strong enough not to fear anything,” answered Annas arrogantly, and Iscariot bowed, slavishly stretching out his hands. “What do you want?”
“I want to betray Nazareth to you.”
“We don’t need him.”
Judas bowed and waited, obediently fixing his eye on the high priest.
“But I must return again. Is that not so, venerable Annas?”
“You won’t be admitted. Leave.”
But again and again Judas of Kerioth knocked on his door, and he was admitted to see the high priest. Dry and irritable, depressed by his thoughts, he gazed in silence at the traitor, as if he was counting hairs on his bumpy head. But Judas was also silent—as if he himself was counting hairs in the high priest’s sparse, little gray beard.
“Well? You again?” the irritated Annas snapped, as if spitting onto the other’s head.
“I want to betray Nazareth to you.”
Both of them grew silent and continued observing each other attentively. But while Iscariot was staring calmly, Annas’ silent anger, cold and dry, was already beginning to prick him, like predawn winter frost.
“How much do you want then, for your Jesus?”
“And how much will you give me?”
Enjoying himself, Annas said rudely:
“You are all a gang of charlatans. Thirty silver pieces—that’s how much we’ll give you.”
And he was quietly pleased with himself after seeing how Judas began to squirm, flutter, and run around—agile and swift, as if he had a dozen legs instead of two.
“For Jesus? Thirty silver pieces?” he shouted with the voice of wild incredulity, amusing Annas. “For Jesus of Nazareth! And you want to buy Jesus for thirty silver pieces? And you think there is anyone willing to sell you Jesus for thirty silver pieces?”
Judas quickly turned towards the wall and began to laugh in its flat white face, raising his long arms:
“Did you hear that? Thirty silver pieces! For Jesus!”
With the same quiet pleasure Annas remarked indifferently:
“If you don’t accept, leave. We’ll find a man who will sell for less.”
And, just like merchants trading old robes in a dirty marketplace who keep throwing worthless rags from one hand to another, shouting, bowing, and cursing, they entered into a fiery, wild haggle. Intoxicated by a strange euphoria, rushing around, spinning, shouting, Judas used his fingers to count the merits of the one he was selling.
“And the fact that he is kind and heals the sick, this has no value in your opinion? Eh? No, please do tell me, like an honest man!”
“If you…” Annas tried to interject, his cold anger quickly heating up atop Judas’ red-hot words; but the other kept interrupting him unabashedly:
“And the fact that he is young and handsome—like a narcissus of Sharon, like a lily of the valleys? Eh? Is that worth nothing at all? You will, perhaps, say that he is old and good for nothing, that Judas is selling you an old rooster? Eh?”
“If you…” Annas tried to shout, but his elderly voice was carried away helplessly, like fluff in the wind, by the turbulent voice of Judas.
“Thirty silver pieces! That’s not even a single obol for a drop of blood! Not even half an obol for a tear! A quarter of an obol for the groans! And the screams! The convulsions! And for his heart to stop? And for his eyes to shut? Is that free?” yelled Iscariot, pressing onto the high priest, covering him completely with the movements of his hands, his fingers, his spinning words.
“For everything! For everything!” Annas was choking.
“And how much will you yourselves make from this? Heh? You wish to rob Judas, wrest a piece of bread from his children? I cannot! I will go to the marketplace and I will cry: Annas has robbed the poor Judas! Save me!”
The weary, lightheaded Annas began rabidly stomping on the floor with his soft shoes and waving his arms:
But suddenly Judas humbly bent down and obediently spread out his hands:
“But if you’re like that… Why are you cross with the poor Judas, who only wants the best for his children? You also have children, wonderful young people…”
“We’ll find someone else… We’ll find someone else… Out!”
“But did I say that I cannot make concessions? And do I not believe you, that another may come and hand over Jesus to you for fifteen obols? For two obols? For one?”
And, bowing ever lower, wriggling and flattering, Judas obediently agreed to the sum of money offered him. Annas, flushing, handed him the money with his trembling, dry hand, and, having turned away, in silence chewed his lips and waited for Judas to finish testing all the silver coins with his teeth. From time to time Annas glanced back and, as if he got burnt, briskly turned his head again towards the ceiling and kept chewing his lips ever harder.
“Nowadays there are so many counterfeit coins,” Judas explained calmly.
“This money was donated to the temple by pious men,” said Annas taking a quick glance back, but then just as quickly presented Judas’ eyes the back of his rosy, bald head.
“But do pious men know how to tell the fake from the real? Only swindlers can do that.”
Judas did not take home the money he received but, having left the city, hid it under a rock. And he walked back quietly, taking slow, heavy steps, like a wounded animal that is creeping back to its dark burrow after a fierce, mortal battle. But Judas did not have a burrow of his own, instead there was a house, and in that house he saw Jesus. He was weary, grown thin, tormented by his endless struggle with the Pharisees, who surrounded him daily in the temple with a wall of shiny, white learned foreheads, he sat with his cheek pressed to the rough wall, and, it appeared, was deep in sleep. Restless city noises were flying into the open window, behind a wall Peter was hammering away, putting together a new table for their meal and singing a soft Galilean song—but Jesus did not hear anything and slept calmly and deeply. And this was him, whom they bought for thirty silver pieces.
Silently moving forward, Judas, with the tender care of a mother afraid of waking up her child, with the amazement of an animal that had just climbed out of its lair and was suddenly charmed by a little white flower, gently touched Jesus’ hair before quickly withdrawing his hand. He touched it again… then silently crept out.
“My Lord!” he said. “My Lord!”
And, going out to that place people go from necessity, he wept for a long time, writhed, squirmed, scratched his chest with his nails and bit his shoulders. He caressed the imaginary hair of Jesus, gently whispered something tender and amusing, and gnashed his teeth. Then, suddenly, he stopped weeping, groaning, and gnashing his teeth, and became lost in heavy thought, and, having turned his wet face to the side, he looked like a man who was listening. And he stood like this for a long time, heavy, resolute, and alien to all, like fate itself.
Judas surrounded the ill-fated Jesus with gentle love, tender attention, and affection, in these last days of his short life. Shy and timid, like a girl in her first love, terribly sensitive and perceptive, like her—he guessed Jesus’ tiniest unspoken wishes, penetrated into the innermost depths of his sensations, fleeting flashes of sadness, heavy moments of tiredness. And wherever Jesus’ foot would tread, it would be met by something soft, and wherever his gaze would turn, it would find something pleasant. Hitherto Judas did not like Mary Magdalene and the other women who were near Jesus, he made rude jokes about them and caused them minor problems—now he became their friend, an amusing, hulking ally. He spoke to them with deep interest about Jesus’ small, adorable habits, kept inquiring for hours on end about one and the same thing, secretly placed money into their hands, into the very palms—and they brought ambergris, costly fragrant myrrh, much loved by Jesus, with which they anointed his feet. He himself bought, after a desperate haggle, expensive wine for Jesus, and was very upset when Peter drunk almost all of it with the indifference of a man who only values quantity; and in the rocky Jerusalem, almost completely devoid of trees, flowers, and greenery, he somehow managed to find young spring flowers and little green grasses, and through those same women he gave them to Jesus. For the first time in his life he brought small children with his own hands, finding them somewhere in the yards or on the streets, forcing kisses onto them to stop them crying; and it oftentimes happened that something would crawl onto the knees of thoughtful Jesus, something small, black, with curly hair and a dirty little nose, demandingly seeking caresses. And while both of them were rejoicing at one another, Judas was sternly walking nearby, like a severe jailer who himself let in a butterfly to a prisoner in spring and was now pretending to grumble, complaining about the disorder.
In the evenings, when anxiety joined darkness to stand guard at the windows, Iscariot skillfully guided the conversation to Galilee, alien to him but dear to Jesus, with its gentle water and green shores. And he would rock the heavy Peter back and forth until his dried memories would begin to awake, and in vivid pictures, where everything was loud, colorful, and rich, the sweet Galilean life would arise before one’s eyes. With greedy attention, mouth half open like that of a child, already laughing ahead of time with his eyes, Jesus listened to his sporadic, sonorous, cheerful speech, and sometimes laughed so much at his jokes that the tale had to be paused for a few minutes. But John was even better at telling stories than Peter; he did not have anything amusing or unexpected, but everything became so thoughtful, unusual and beautiful that tears appeared in Jesus’ eyes, and he sighed quietly, and Judas nudged Mary Magdalene, raptuously whispering:
“Oh, how he tells it! Do you hear him?”
“I hear him, certainly.”
“No, you have to listen better. You women never listen well.”
Afterwards everyone went quietly to bed, and Jesus kissed John softly, with gratitude, and tenderly stroked the shoulder of the tall Peter.
And Judas watched these caresses without envy but with a condescending contempt. What meaning do all these tales, all these kisses and sighs have in comparison with that which he, Judas of Kerioth, knows, the hideous red-haired Judaean, born among rocks!