Everything You Wanted to Know about Judas but Were Afraid to Ask

Everything You Wanted to Know about Judas but Were Afraid to Ask June 6, 2018

Some years ago, I read Richard Carrier’s excellent book “Proving History” which essentially sets out a case for the use of Bayes’s Theorem (BT) in historical contexts in order to work out the most probable explanation for a given event, or the relative probabilities for alternative explanations. In his first book, Carrier sets out the case for using BT so that in his second volume he can apply this to the historical (or not) Jesus.

Although, on the one hand, I would have liked Carrier, in the first volume,  not to have used any examples connected to Jesus or the Bible so that the case could be built without the distraction or baggage of Bible and religion; on the other hand, there are some really interesting nuggets within this first volume relating directly to the historical Jesus. I would like to share with you some theories about Judas, the man renowned for his infamy in betraying Jesus. I will quote Carrier’s book and then discuss the matter further (p. 154-155):

The fact that Jesus’ betrayer’s name essentially means “Jew” should already make us suspicious [69]. Mark may have intended him as a symbol of a particular recent poignance. In both name and deed, Judas may be an intentional symbol of the very internecine betrayal that was destroying Jewish society and causing it to fail to realize God’s kingdom, even just recently having caused the destruction of Judea, Jerusalem, and God’s own Temple (if Mark wrote in the 70s CE, as most scholars now think). Judas was also a name famously associated with the path of violent rebellion (Judas Maccabeus and Judas the Galilean), which is all the more obvious an allusion if “Iscariot” is (as many scholars believe) an Aramaicism for the Latin “Sicarius”, the infamous “Killers” whom Josephus blames for provoking Rome to bring about the destruction of the Jews (which would further mean that Judas’ full name meant in Aramaic “The Jew Who Kills [Him],” which one might think would be too coincidental to be historical). The name Judas may also be intended to evoke the divided kingdoms Judah and Israel, a symbol of Jews disunited and at war with each other, the more so if you agree that a number of indicators suggest Jesus is typecast in the Gospels as a symbol of Israel (as Thompson argues in convincing detail in The Messiah Myth), which alone could have inspired the creation of a Judah to oppose him. The text of Zechariah from which Matthew borrows many details of his expanded Judas story even contains this very juxtaposition, including the very name of Judas [70]. In Zechariah, the one who is paid thirty shekels is to “become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter” (an apt description of Judas in respect to Jesus) and then, by abandoning the task (and the sheep to their death) and casting the money aside, to “break the brotherhood between Judas and Israel” (the very point of the Judas story: you can take the money and die, or follow Jesus and live, thus either joining the New Israel or the grave) [71]. Matthew saw this very symbolic value of the Judas story, which inspired him to exaggerate it with even more scripturally derived detail.

And the footnote references (p. 317-318), which I strongly suggest reading, even more than the main text, for all the further points they contain:

69. Modern translations render his name familiarly as “Judas” when in fact his actual name in all NT documents is Judah (Ioudas). The word for Jew (Ioudaios) is the adjective of Judah, meaning “People of Judah” (hence “People of Judas”); likewise the word for the Holy Land, Judea (Ioudaia) means “Land of Judah” (hence “Land of Judas”).The latter is of particular note considering the legend that land was bought with Judas’s money and consecrated with his blood (if Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-20 derive from a common story). In fact, according to Matthew, the land thus bought was declared to belong to “foreigners,” in fact dead foreigners, and thus no longer Jewish, nor the land of the living. The symbolism is just too apposite to be anything but mythical (see following notes).

70. Compare Zechariah 11 (esp. in the LXX) and Matthew 27:3-10 (with possible allusions as well to Jeremiah 18:1-11 and 32:6-26). See Randel Helms, Gospel Fictions, pp. 112-17 and the relevant section of John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2005). Note that the thirty shekels Judas is paid in Matthew’s version is exactly the legal value of a slave (Exodus 21:32), in fact a dead slave (thus it is what God’s law declares you shall receive in place of a living servant). Credit for some of these observations is owed to Evan Fales, Reading Sacred Texts: An Anthropological Approach to Matthew (forthcoming). Even though I don’t always agree with Fales, he has an astute eye for mytho-symbolic parallels.

71. The Zecharaich tale has him giving money “to the potter in God’s temple” (Zechariah 11:13), so Matthew has Judas cast the money into God’s temple (Matthew 27:5) and then the priest give it to the potter (for his field: 27:7): Acts 1:18 has Judas just buy a field (no details given). Matthew might also be alluding to Jeremiah 32 (see also Jeremiah 18-19), where Jeremiah is to buy a field and put the deed for it in a pot (32:14 thus connecting a potter and a field), and that plot of land is saved while the sinners of the city are forsaken (they are now foreigners who will inherit the grave – literally: Matthew 27:7), and the sinners of the city will be saved (in Jesus).That Matthew emphasises how the Jewish elite in the end break their covenant with God (by their violation of the Sabbath) thus dovetails with his version of the Judas tale: cf. TET, p. 362. Evan Fales also suggests that the priests in Matthew’s account have in effect given away a parcel of the holy land (to foreigners – since burial establishes inheritance) in violation of God’s covenant, and cancelled their share of the atonement sacrifice (by taking back the money they paid for it). The Jewish elite are thus portrayed as total sell-outs who completely abdicate their participation in God’s covenant. All of which would explain why Matthew even bothers to tell this story (as otherwise, what use is our knowing it?).

It seems that if the Judas account is not entirely fabricated, then it si incredibly overlaid with midrashic qualities, which I explain in my own book, The Nativity: A Critical Examination (p. 121-122):

 I have had conversations with Christians who have claimed that you don’t have to take a historical truth from such accounts, but that the truth can be symbolic, partial or theological. This I have touched on earlier, but allow me to go into further detail. It is customary in Jewish rabbinical tradition to interpret and reinterpret Holy Scripture. New meaning is extracted from older texts in a continual manner known as Midrash. As theologian Robert Price in his essay New Testament Narrative as Old Testament Midrash states, “the stories comprising the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles are themselves the result of haggadic midrash upon stories from the Old Testament”. Bishop John Shelby Spong, a liberal Christian scholar, wrote a book looking predominantly at this very issue (Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes). It seems that this kind of midrashic approach of rehashing the Old Testament within a New Testament framework does remove oneself from a literalist view of the Bible. As Spong says (p. 325) it “might also help the searching and questioning Christian avoid the faithless despair that engulfs the person who feels that ‘no’ is the only honest answer to the question: ‘Did it really happen?’” But what of a claimed symbolic or theological truth? It appears, to me at any rate, that a theological truth is meaningless without something or someone to apply it to; that this person must be real in order to allow the theology to have any purchase. Yet a few pages later  (p.332) Spong claims that Jesus is “for me the conduit through which the love of God was loosed into human history”. But what is that history if everything one investigates turns out to be theological overlay? Who was this Jesus if one cannot fathom any nugget of truth in the biographical claims of Jesus made in the Gospels? If the intent was not to give true historical biography then where is the biography, the evidence that supports any claim of who Jesus was and in what manner he existed? To support a case for a historical Jesus, such historical truth must exist somewhere, and if it does not then we cannot at all be sure of whom Jesus is claimed to be by the Gospel writers or any subsequent writer.

Thus Judas seems to be (rather like Joseph of Arimathea) a name with quite some symbolic meaning, and the account runs along Old Testament framework with such obvious parallel as to lead one to the conclusion that it cannot, in all probability, be historically veracious.

Judas is a character whom we seem to be able to take for granted because we might deem him to be ‘so well known’ when, in reality, there is so much more about him than just being the ‘bad guy’. Without this obvious overlay of midrash, there are already enough theological problems to be dealing with, with regards to the Judas account, such as free will and determinism, moral accountability and so on. Given these notions that Carrier mentions, the account moves from problematic history to fairly run of the mill symbolic allegory.

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