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Affirmations and Confessions of a Progressive Christian Layman – Judas Iscariot

His actual name was Judah-bar-Simon. He was the heir to a fortune from a Pharisee family, but he gave up his wealth to follow the person he believed to be the Messiah. However, he is known in the New Testament as Judas Iscariot. What “”Iscariot” means is uncertain, but the major theories are that Iscariot identifies Judas as a member of the sicarii, a group of Jewish rebels intent on driving the Romans out of Judea; another theory is that Iscariot refers to Judas as “son of Simon Iscariot,” which comes from John’s gospel; it has also been argued that Iscariot was a descriptive name given to Judas by Jesus, like Peter was called Cephas (which means “rock”). I personally prefer the first explanation.

Judas Iscariot, the anti-hero of the story of the crucifixion, has been heaped with scorn and ridicule over the centuries. “Judas” is not used as a child’s name because it became the synonym for betrayal, for being a back-stabber. In Christian art, he is portrayed in dark, sinister tones. Events in western Christian history from the Inquisition in the fourteenth century to the expulsion of the Jews from almost every country of Europe at one time or another, to Martin Luther’s call for the burning of synagogues, to the violence and killing frenzy of the Holocaust in the twentieth century are all rooted substantially in Judas and because he was a Jew, applied to all Jews. Even his name is identical with the name by which the entire Jewish nation was known… Judas is simply a Greek spelling of Judah.

What Does the Bible Tell Us About Judas?
Let us examine what the gospels say about Judas, beginning with Mark, the first of the four gospels to be written. We will find that the Judas character grows more evil with each succeeding gospel.

In Mark 3:19, Judas is mentioned for the first time when Mark introduces the disciples and identifies Judas as the one who betrayed him (why would Jesus have chosen Judas to be a disciple if he had foreknowledge that he would betray him?). Later Mark says Judas “went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them” (Mark 4:19). He does not mention a bribe nor does there appear to be a motive. While Jesus was speaking to the disciples who were with him in Gethsemane, Judas arrived with a crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests, scribes and elders. Judas kissed Jesus as a prearranged sign to the temple officials that this was the person they should arrest (Mark 14:43-50). Then Judas disappears from Mark’s story and is never heard from again.

Like Mark, as Matthew names the twelve disciples, he identifies Judas as “the one who betrayed him” (Matthew 10:2-4). Judas is not mentioned again until he visits the chief priests (Matthew 26:14). Matthew expands Mark’s story and adds the bribe. During the Last Supper when Jesus predicts that one of them will betray him, Judas asks, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” (Matthew 26:25) Also like Mark, Matthew says Judas arrived to betray Jesus while he was speaking to the disciples who were with him in Gethsemane. Evidently the temple authorities didn’t know Jesus well enough to recognize him, especially in the dark, so a sign had been arranged – Judas greeted Jesus (“Greetings, Rabbi!”) and kissed him (Matthew 26:47-50). It seems strange that Judas must not have expected Jesus to be condemned to death, because once Jesus was condemned and handed over to Pilate, Matthew claims that Judas repented and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. When they refused to accept the money, Judas threw the money into the Temple (Matthew 27:3). Matthew is the only gospel that writes about Judas’ death by hanging himself (Matthew 27:5). By the way, acceptance of thirty pieces of silver was mandatory under the laws of the Sanhedrin, because it indicated that the person had revealed his knowledge, or in this case identified the person to be arrested, in good faith – refusal of the money made them suspect the person’s truthfulness.

Similar to Mark and Matthew, during Jesus’ selection of the twelve, Luke introduces Judas as “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor” (Luke 6:16). Later Luke says “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Luke 22:3), i.e. the devil made him do it. Also similar to Mark and Matthew, Luke says it was while Jesus was speaking to the disciples who were with him on the Mount of Olives that Judas led a crowd to Jesus and kissed him (Luke doesn’t indicate that this was a prearranged sign, but it seems to have been). Jesus asked, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” And that’s the last we hear of Judas in Luke.

John’s first mention of Judas is when Jesus says one of the twelve he chose “is a devil.” Jesus was “speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot” (John 6:70-71; some authorities translate this as Judas son of Simon from Karyot or Kerioth) because he was going to betray him. In John, it is Judas Iscariot, identified as “the one who was about to betray him,” who objected to Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. John writes that Judas objected, not because the money it cost could have helped the poor, but because he was a thief. John claims that he stole from the group’s funds; he was the group’s treasurer (John 12:2-8). The idea that Judas was money-hungry makes his betrayal of Jesus for money more believable, but John’s gospel does not mention payment for his dastardly deed. Later as John writes about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, he says “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” (John 13:2). During the Passover meal, Jesus had told them that one of them would betray him. When they asked “of whom he was speaking” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Jesus gave the dipped piece of bread to “Judas son of Simon Iscariot.” Once again John, for the third time, says Satan entered Judas. John also suggests again that Judas was the group’s treasurer (“Judas had the common purse”). Judas immediately left the upper room; “And it was night,” i.e. it was important that the betrayal was in the dark of night (John 13:21-30). Because Jesus had often met with the disciples across the Kidron valley in a garden, Judas led a detachment of soldiers and police from the chief priests and the Pharisees to the place where Jesus and some of his disciples had gathered. Jesus stepped forward and asked who they were looking for. They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said, “I am he” (another of John’s “I am” statements), which caused the soldiers and police to step back and fall to the ground; they were awed. John’s last mention of Judas by name says he was standing with the soldiers and police (John 18:2-5). In the New King James translation of 17:12, Jesus says, “…those that you gave me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.” The “son of perdition” he is referring to is Judas, of course. The NRSV translates that passage as “…I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” In either case, the scripture that is fulfilled is not specified.

In Acts 1:16, Peter claims scripture had to be fulfilled when Judas guided those who arrested Jesus (Luke, the writer of Acts, does not specify the particular scripture). In a parenthetical paragraph, Judas’ (identified as “this man”) reward for his wickedness was a field in which he fell, burst open and his bowels spilled out. This, according to Luke, was fulfillment of Psalm 69:25 – “May their camp be a desolation; let no one live in their tents” that was paraphrased in Acts as “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” and Psalm 109:8 – “May his days be few; may another seize his position” that was paraphrased as “Let another take his position of overseer” (Acts 1:18-20; I don’t see any correlation between these Old Testament passages and Judas’ gruesome death). During the choosing of a replacement for Judas, the disciples prayed about which one to select “to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place” (Acts 1:21-26; what does “turned aside to go to his own place” mean?).

When we search Hebrew scriptures, we find that every detail attributed to Judas in the gospels is present in earlier stories of traitors in Jewish history. In the Genesis story of Joseph being “handed over” by his “twelve” brothers to be sold into slavery in Egypt, the brother who received money for this deed was named Judah (Judas). In the David series of stories in II Samuel, the king was called “The Lord’s Anointed,” the same word that would later be translated “messiah.” He was betrayed by a man named Ahithophel, who also broke bread with King David around the table just as Judas did with Jesus at the last supper. When Ahithophel recognized the consequences of his actions, he hanged himself. The idea of being betrayed with a kiss is also found in the David stories when Joab, David’s military Chief of Staff, was replaced after Absalom’s rebellion by a man named Amasa. Under the guise of congratulating his successor, Joab found Amasa, drew him by the beard to give him the kiss of friendship and disembowel him with a dagger. Mark has Judas kiss Jesus in the Garden to fulfill a signal given to the Chief Priests. Luke, writing in the book of Acts, suggests that Judas died not by hanging, but by falling down and having “all his bowels gush out” like Amasa. Psalm 41:9 says, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me;” which pretty well parallels the gospel accounts of the Last Supper. Finally, in Zechariah 9-14, the shepherd King of Israel is betrayed to those who are traders in the temple for thirty pieces of silver, which was later thrown back into the temple.

Was Judas a Historical Person?
Considering the evidence presented in the previous paragraphs, we need to ask if Judas was actually a person of history or if he was a mythical character, a symbol that the gospel writers and hearers of their writings would have understood, but whose meaning escaped later Gentile readers? Paul had nothing to say about Judas or an act of betrayal. He merely says, “On the night that Jesus was handed over, he took bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Notice that he did not identify the meal as a Passover meal (that would come later in the gospels). Next, there is no indication that this “handing over” was a betrayal and there is no evidence that Jesus was handed over by one of his closest associates. Paul would not have ignored an act as scandalous as betrayal by one of the twelve disciples. Paul describes the resurrection appearances by saying: “He (Jesus) first appeared to Cephas (Peter) and then to the twelve” – i.e. as far as Paul knew, Judas is still one of the disciples. So, it seems likely that the Judas betrayal story developed after Paul’s time. This evidence strongly suggests that betrayal at the hands of Judas was not a historical fact, but an interpretive addition.

The Gospel of Judas
In the Gospel of Judas, a text that has recently made world-wide headlines, Jesus taught Judas the true meaning of his life, ministry and death – teaching that was not given to the other disciples and was unknown to the writers of the gospels. Written by some Gnostic follower of Jesus in the second century, rather than by Judas himself, it suggests that Judas’ betrayal was done in obedience to instructions given to him by Jesus. Judas reportedly was the only one of the disciples who accurately understood Jesus’ teachings. This text also claims that Jesus planned the events that led to his crucifixion. While the other gospels contend that Jesus died to atone for our sins, the Gospel of Judas claims that God does not demand any sacrifice. Jesus’ death was simply a way for him to leave the human body to return to “the luminous cloud,” a very Gnostic idea. The Gospel of Judas says that Judas had a vision in which the other eleven disciples stone him to death after they find out about the betrayal.

In the rather farfetched Gospel of Barnabas, it was claimed that Judas was miraculously transformed to look like Jesus shortly after the betrayal and was crucified in his place.

I think Judas was a revolutionary, perhaps a member of the sicarii, who, like most Jews, expected a political/military Messiah. Regardless of what he had heard Jesus teach and say to the contrary, I think he thought by betraying him to the authorities he was forcing Jesus to become the military/political leader who would end Roman rule. Once he realized he was wrong, that the kingdom of God that Jesus preached about had nothing to do with a military or political kingdom, he may have been very remorseful – perhaps even to the point of taking his own life. I think it is at least possible that Judas was merely the negotiator in Jesus’ prearranged surrender, which would make his later portrayal as a traitor a historical distortion.

Review & Commentary