THE cry of “Judas!” from a disgruntled folk purist during Bob Dylan’s electric 1966 concert at the Manchester Free Trade Hall is probably the most notorious heckle in the history of rock and roll. It resulted in an unprintable response from Dylan and what is the superlative performance of Like A Rolling Stone. Three years earlier Dylan had released a song called With God On Our Side, in which he sang: “I can’t tell you, you’ll have to decide, whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” This dilemma is central to Peter Stanford’s fascinating cultural and historical biography of Judas, the human face of betrayal for the past two thousand years.

Stanford begins at the beginning. As an unconventional pilgrim in Jerusalem he heads off the beaten track to Hakeldama, the fields of blood where Judas supposedly hung himself after trying to give back his 30 pieces of silver to the Jewish authorities. This is as told in the Gospel of Matthew, although the Acts of the Apostles suggest a more gruesome end, namely that his “entrails poured out” of him in an act of spontaneous combustion. The four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John provide the basic story of Judas’ life, and Stanford compares their similarities and differences in detail. Although attentive to the fallacy of literalism when interpreting scripture, Stanford can’t resist hinting that the discrepancies in Judas’ story might show a factual basis for his existence. This is pure nonsense. There are plot holes in plenty of good fiction. But it is worth remembering the main anomaly in Judas’ tale: Caiaphas, the Jewish Priest, didn’t need someone to identify Jesus. The authorities knew who was undermining them in Jerusalem. It is also worth noting that in St Paul’s letters, which pre-date the gospels, Judas is not mentioned, only that Jesus was betrayed.

After Stanford dips into the Gospel of Judas, discovered in 2006 and which provides a devilishly Gnostic take on Jesus’ life, he investigates the medieval period, when Judas became a symbol for every sin under the sun, from sexual depravity to usury. Any history of Judas must in part be a history of anti-Semitism and between the fifth and the 15th century the church used every opportunity to blame Judas for Christ’s death, mostly so the ignominy could be spread to all Jews. Stanford wanders around Italy finding various paintings which promulgate the “Judas as Jew” stereotype. He also dips into Dante’s Inferno, where Judas is condemned to the ninth circle of hell. In Giudecca (also the name for the Jewish ghetto in Italy at the time), Dante and Virgil find Satan, “from whose mouth Judas dangles, half-digested, his legs kicking in vain against his fate to the very end.”

Enlightenment scepticism helped many to reassess Judas’ role in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Thomas De Quincey would later argue that Judas was the real saviour of the Christian faith. But it wasn’t until after World War II that the Judas-as-Jew stereotype started to wane, and there arose some carefree interpretations of Judas’ life, including the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. This isn’t the only light entertainment. Stanford’s book is peppered with an A to Z of Judas-related facts, from the origin of the rock band Judas Priest to the simnel cake, which in Victorian times was decorated with eleven marzipan balls, ‘for the eleven apostles who stayed loyal to Jesus’.

Fictional creation or not, one can’t help feeling sympathy for Judas. One moment of folly has resulted in 2,000 years of damnation. Furthermore, if he did have God on his side, and was simply another player in a divine plan, he can’t really be blamed for his kiss of betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.

But even if Judas was guilty, Stanford knows it is far better to “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

It is a delight to follow Stanford on his unique journey from Jerusalem to its end in Dorset, where he finds the Window of Forgiveness in the Church of Saint Nicholas. Sir Laurence Whistler’s engraving shows Judas “dressed in simple workman’s clothes. This is not the monster of legend. He has become ... a kind of everyman.” The 30 pieces of silver falling from his open hand become flowers when they hit the ground, and the field of blood is “transformed into a spring meadow, symbol in religions of regeneration, rebirth and redemption.”

Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle, by Peter Stanford, Hodder & Stoughton, £20