Judas, the infamous betrayer of Jesus, is presented differently in the Gospels and not in ways that give us a clear and exhaustive image of who he really was.
Judas and “spy Wednesday” mark some of the darkest traditions we have as Church. Good stories have memorable villains, and as the story of Jesus percolated through history and various cultures, different flavors accrued seasoning the villain Judas. But not all of these were delightful or conducive to good Christian nutrition. Outrageously, Judas became a motivation for pogroms and anti-Jewish / anti-Semitic atrocities none of which were intended by Gospel writers.
Who was Judas? Why did he betray Jesus? The New Testament gives scant help answering these questions, plus several contradictory answers as to Judas’ motives. Even the exact circumstances of Judas’ death are confused and messy. Despite this fact, Gospel presentations of his demise colored the Christian ideas and imagery concerning hell.
The Historicity of Judas
Since Medieval times, Judas has been interpreted to be the very personification of the Jewish people. For centuries, Judas has been depicted in a vile and vicious caricature of Jews that has enabled genocidal tendencies in imperial Christianity. Because of this, some (e.g., Hyam Maccoby and John Shelby Spong) have go so far as to even doubt that Judas ever existed. Perhaps, some speculate, Judas was a constructed character used to symbolize the Judeans who rejected Jesus (later in the Middle Ages co-opted to serve Anti-Jewish hatred).
However, due to multiple attestation of his betraying Jesus in the garden with a kiss and the embarrassing nature of Jesus choosing poorly one of his closest followers makes it doubtful that Judas was invented. Judas probably existed and did something infamous to get remembered so negatively.
At least three of the Twelve bore the name Judas (יהודה, Iούδας)—Judas Iscariot, Judas Thaddeus, and Judas called Thomas/Didymus for “twin.” Barbarian Israelites remembered with great pride the hero Judas Maccabeus, so the name Judas was very popular by Jesus’ day. One of Jesus’ own brothers was named Judas (Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55).
As far as Iscariot (Iσκάριωθ, Iσκαριώτης) goes, different proposals have been offered explaining it. Perhaps it simply derives from the Aramaic or Hebrew expression for a man from Kerioth (Îš-Qrîyôt). But some have suggested that the term Iscariot suggests Judas to have been a “knife man.” Maybe Judas (together with Simon Zealotes?) were hillside “dagger men” bandits, formerly Galilean peasant farmers who had lost their ancestral lands to greedy elites. Who can say for sure?
The earliest mention of Jesus being “betrayed” or “handed over” (παραδίδωμι) comes from Paul (ca. 55 CE), specifically his Eucharistic Institution Narrative (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). But Paul is silent about Judas or anyone else doing the “handing over” of Jesus. As we said last time, although the most ancient element in our Tradition, the Passion story evolved greatly over time.
The catalyst for Jesus being crucified according to the later Synoptic tradition was revenge on the part of Judaean elites having been humiliated by Jesus’ prophetic sign-action in the Temple ruckus (Mark 11:15-19). The earliest written Gospel, “Mark” (ca. 70 CE), doesn’t really provide exact motivation for why Judas betrayed Jesus (Mark 14:43-46).
But “Matthew” (ca. 80s) augments and “corrects” the evangelist we call “Mark.” “Matthew” claims that Judas betrayed Jesus specifically for 30 pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16).
According to “Matthew”
All the Gospels agree that Judas was a core member of in the Jesus faction. Therefore, Judas would have given Jesus his word of honor to be absolutely committed to his cause and person. To take a bribe assisting in revenge against Jesus would be extremely shameful. As Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh explain, in the honor-shame Mediterranean world of the Gospels, loyalty to your kin, ingroup, or patron is supremely virtuous. Hence, betrayal is one of the most shameful crimes. “Matthew” paints Judas thus.
Even though “Matthew” depicts the death of Jesus as conforming to the plan of the God of Israel (keep in mind that all predestinarian language in the Bible is “after-the-fact” predestination), that does not exonerate the Matthean Judas. “Matthew” still presents Judas committing a heinously shameful act nevertheless.
And yet the Matthean Judas does repent (he changes behavior in metanoia—e.g., Matthew 21:29) Before the vengeful chief priests, repentant Judas proclaims he betrayed “innocent blood” (Matthew 27:3-4). Consequently, Judas publically redresses his lost honor and signifies his repentance by hanging himself (Matthew 27:5). It was out of repentance, not psychological guilt, that the Matthean Judas hung himself. Judas, “Matthew,” and all other biblical characters and authors were quite anti-introspective, and as such, did not experience psychological guilt.
Did He Commit Suicide or Suddenly Explode?
Fundamentalists, in service of mental idolatries, attempt impossible harmonizations of contradictory scripture verses trying to make squares fit into circles. But despite their mental gymnastics, we simply cannot escape that the New Testament presents radical discrepancy in two different accounts of Judas’ death (Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18).
In the Matthean version, Judas repented and committed suicide. But according to the author of “Luke-Acts” (ca. 90s CE), Judas never repented. Nevertheless, God got even with him—pitching him (like a football?) and exploding him in gory shame, guts and all.
What really happened to Judas? How did he really end up? We don’t know. Again, New Testament documents are not transcripts of factual events, but present interpretations of earlier things. The New Testament writings evolved.
According to the Fourth Gospel
By the time we reach “John” (final version, ca 100 CE),Judas has evolved into a greedy, thieving SOB (very convenient picture for later anti-Jewish caricatures). Judas is depicted as a money-man in “John,” the keeper of the common purse who (not unlike many corrupt U.S. clergy) enjoys stealing from it (John 12:5-6). Interestingly though, “John” is silent about bribing Judas with silver pieces.
“John” also remains silent as to the issue of Judas’ death.
Culturally Plausible Reconstruction
How much can be said for certain about the historical Judas other than Jesus chose him to be a member of innermost followers and he was involved in handing Jesus over to Judaean authorities? But perhaps some cultural insights can helps us to see poor Judas and what caused his downfall in a clearer way.
Perhaps some helpful insight can be found in exploring Mediterranean cultural secrecy as employed by Jesus. That may appear odd to some readers—Jesus and secrecy? Jesus is the Light of the World He doesn’t hide anything! But careful reading of the Gospels is sobering.
Jesus the Secret Keeper
There is no big theological “messianic secret” in “Mark” or any other Gospel. As John PIlch says, the so-called “messianic secret” of “Mark” has been overplayed by exegetes and theologians. But there is plenty of culturally-normal secrecy and deception most common to the Mediterranean and Middle East to be found in the Gospels. In the cultural world of the Bible, you don’t owe strangers and outsiders the truth. Jesus lived by that understanding.
As scholar Jerome Neyrey explains, Middle Eastern North African (MENA) personality Jesus himself mandated secrecy and deception (Mark 8:29-30). Look what he commands about disguising or hiding fasting (Matthew 6:17-18). Or about giving alms (Matthew 6:3-4). Whatever the act of piety be, Jesus says it has to be kept hidden, secret, and disguised (Matthew 6:4, 6, 18). Consequently, outsiders to the Jesus group are deceived into thinking that Jesus and his followers reject the Torah and its observances.
Like Abba, Like Son
The God presented in the Bible, the Patron God of Israel is very Mediterranean so it shouldn’t surprise us that this deity therefor behaves in culturally expected ways. Hence, God keeps secrets (Matthew 11:25-26). Should we be startled, then, that his broker, Jesus, likewise keeps secret his authority and shamanic powers (Matthew 8:4) and his identity (Matthew 16:20)? Like Father like Son, eh?
Just as the God of Israel can be wily, ambiguous, deceptive, and inconsistent (1 Kings 22:23), so too slippery Jesus behaves in like manner (Mark 4:10-12) and is often inconsistent himself (compare Matthew 5:22 with 23:17). In the agonistic Middle Eastern world of Jesus, inconsistency is treasured and normative. “Gentle and lowly of heart” Jesus (Matthew 11:29) is a MENA personality; therefore, he quite suddenly can become fiercely angry (Mark 11:15-19 // Matthew 21:12-13 // Luke 19:45-48, see also John 2:13-17).
Look at how Jesus, the most ambiguous of all Gospel characters, tells parables! Through them secrets get disclosed only to a few insiders, meanwhile the majority of outsiders are kept guessing in the dark (Matthew 13:11). This is just like how the God of Israel plays it (Matthew 11:25-27)! Why? Because this is all very Middle Eastern, the social system from where biblical words and stories derive their meaning. Since there it is perfectly acceptable for God to withhold information and be secretive, so it is also for Jesus and his disciples to be “godly” doing likewise.
Scandalized by Jesus’ Secrecy!
Some of you may scoff at the suggestion that Jesus, who sought to save everyone and thus reveal himself to everyone, would be secretive, inconsistent, ambiguous, and deceptive. Our perennial habit and predilection for creating culturally congenial Jesuses far removed and alien to the Mediterranean world of the genuine article seems to be as difficult to kick as heroin addiction.
In contrast to our congenial idols, the real Jesus, as he is presented in all the Gospels, conceals information, activities, and relationships in a calculated manner and demands his followers do likewise—that’s secretive, folks. There is no getting around the fact that Jesus, as presented by the Gospels, consciously and deliberately conceals information.
A New Look at Judas as Secret-Leaker
By way of John Pilch, here may be an interesting proposal—maybe the historical Judas was a secret-leaker? Imagine him as a teenaged blabbermouth who boasted before the Sanhedrin about Jesus. They get him to leak ingroup info that Jesus was messiah and God’s holy one.
As to Judas’ probable age at the time of Jesus’ ministry, watch the video below:
Maybe Judas broke under pressure after having been arrested himself?—speculative I know, but not unwarranted. He may have done what he did out of coercion. Or perhaps with good intentions, having zero clue it would lead to Jesus’ death. Or maybe as a way of saving his fellow poor, starving Galileans, but as a way of necessitating Jesus’ unveiling to Israel. We can’t say for certain. Just like we shouldn’t say he’s in hell, Scott Hahn.
Not Being Certain about Judas
In any case we don’t know. However we also do not have a consistent picture of Judas in the Gospels, certainly not enough to feign certainty that he was a money-obsessed villain. On the contrary, we have good reason to believe the portrayals of him by the Gospels and Acts (not 21st century historical-biographically precise works) are exaggerated and slanted in an extremely negative way. After all, they had been seasoned with decades of bitterness completely lacking any defense from Judas himself. It’s like judging a matter based on one end of a telephone conversation—we don’t get Judas’ side.
One-sided telephone conversation presentations of various early Jesus group figures happens often in the New Testament. Diotrephes (3 John 9-11) and the Johannine Secessionists (1 John 1:6-9; 2:9-11; 4:2-3, 7–21; 5:10-24), “Jezebel” in Thyatira (Revelation 2:20-23), the Nicolaitans (Revelation 2:6, 14-16), the “Synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:8-9), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), and Simon Magus (Acts 8:9-24) come to mind. As with Judas, we never get these characters’ end of the phone conversation, do we? Therefore should we arrogantly hazard these folks are all damned? The idea that “Inspired scripture tells me enough about these reprobates, and that’s all I need!” reflects a dangerously naïve and theologically unhealthy attitude.
As this blog has explained many times before, the Gospels evolved, and therefore cannot be transcriptions of factual events or literary photographs of historical happenings. In its official documents, the teaching Church recognizes that the Evangelist (Gospel Development Stage Three) interprets events from Jesus’ life (Stage One). So also, as with the various Gospel Jesuses (yes, plural), the Judases we see in “Matthew” and “Luke-Acts” are Stage Three interpretations.
“Spy Wednesday” Takeaways
As we indicated earlier, since the Middle Ages Judas has been used as a symbol of hatred for all Jewish people. This didn’t end in post-World War II times, Vatican II, or the half-assed apologies given by recent popes. I have friends who recall Lenten advice from Irish priests telling them it is a virtuous thing to “sock a Jew” during Holy Week. Historically, Judas as “the Jews personified” has been a terrible engine for this ongoing Christian evil.
Religion can be great when accompanied by heightened awareness and sensitivity for the other in a deepening and mature consciousness. But it can also be a nightmare, as when we scan our Tradition for theological justifications to hate and oppress other groups. The terrible confusion of a badly misunderstood historical associate of Jesus employed continually to villainize and murder the Jewish people should give us Christians pause to reflect seriously before we triumphalistically adulate ourselves. There’s more to the mystery Judas than our prejudiced idea of Judas. Same with everything else.