Historians do not know whether Judas really betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. On the one hand, betrayal by a trusted disciple is unlikely to have been invented, any more than denial by a disciple who became a prominent figure in the later church. But the sum of money may be derived from Scripture rather than knowledge of historical facts, and the discrepancies between Acts and Matthew leave us with uncertainty about whether one or neither had accurate information.
There is a level on which it may not matter, ultimately. Most of us would agree that betraying someone who trusts us for money is wrong. That is something that historical study cannot demonstrate, and depends not in the slightest on whether a historical disciple named Judas did this or that.
Such values may be worth living for, worth dying for, but historical study cannot demonstrate their truthfulness, nor provide motivation for living a certain way. Perhaps historical study could show us what happened to people who lived in certain ways. But would historical evidence that people who betrayed the trust of others often became rich persuade us that we ought to follow their example?
When it comes to other claims of value, the situation is similar. Regardless of matters relating to the burial of Jesus and a body missing from a tomb, the question of whether God exalted Jesus to heaven is clearly beyond anything historical study can investigate. And the notion that Jesus could have “ascended” implies a view of the universe and the location of heaven that is in tension with astronomical observation.
But there is no doubt that Jesus has been honored beyond the grave, in a way that may indeed be said to have mitigated or even reversed the dishonor perpetrated against him. Few even notice today that Mark’s story implies that Jesus was dishonorably buried. And Jesus has been honored by countless Christians and by many others over the course of almost 2,000 years. Could any chair placed in a distant nebula offer more than that?Christians have historically believed that Jesus gave his life for the salvation of others, and it is only relatively recently that “salvation” has become something utterly other-worldly. If Jesus was the sort of person he is depicted as in the Gospels, and he learned that through his death the lives of mystics and missionaries, doctors and drug addicts, the helpless and the heroic would be transformed in all sorts of positive ways, with no assurace that it would also help them in the afterlife, would he go through with it? Do we really need more, and more certainty, than the positive things we can experience and have experienced?
We have no choice but to betray Jesus. If we repeat his words in a context where those words imply something different, we are unfaithful to his meaning. If we change the words in order to preserve what we think was the intention, we betray the words.
Simply repeating things that no longer make sense should not be an option. None of the writings in the New Testament written after the passing of the first generation of Christians dealt with the prediction that Jesus would return before then by merely repeating his words. Some took them as spiritually true. The kingdom of God has indeed dawned, eternal life is something here and now. Others simply advocating waiting, like the author of 2 Peter, saying that eventually it would happen in a more literal fashion. Neither approach simply repeated what had been said.
And so we reach the crux of the matter. Christianity cannot simply stay the same, because even by saying the same words and repeating the same actions as times change and the world moves on results in a different message being heard. But to consciously change and adapt leads us into uncertainty, and takes far greater courage.
But such betrayal may help bring salvation to the world.