Spy Wednesday: Who was Judas and why did he do it?
Last month’s bombshell release of the Gospel of Judas had some Christians wondering if the familiar story of Good Friday needed some updating. The fragmentary text, probably dating from the second or third century, depicts Jesus asking Judas to betray him. In doing so, Jesus says that Judas, a close friend, will exceed the other apostles. That explanation, to put it mildly, is not the traditional one. The leather-bound manuscript, discovered in the Egyptian desert in the 1970’s, seems authentic. Written in Coptic on both sides of 13 sheets of crumbling papyrus, the document was made public by the National Geographic Society in conjunction with a television program and a new book on the provenance and significance of the text. [See the article in this issue by Pheme Perkins for a detailed analysis of the document.]
But will the Gospel of Judas change Christian understanding of Judas’s role in the passion narratives?
For one thing, the newly discovered codex appears to have been written by followers of Gnosticism, a collection of early Christian movements that emphasized salvation through a kind of secret knowledge. Gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge. The Gnostics also believed in the absolute superiority of the spirit over the body. In short: spirit good, body bad.
Saints and theologians, not to mention authors and poets, have long debated this thorny question: Why did Judas do it? To answer that we need to know something about the man himself.
So it is not surprising that Judas’s most famous deed, which led to the execution of Jesus, is celebrated in this newly released text. One passage has Jesus say to Judas, For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me. In other words, you’ll help me get rid of my body, which clothes my spirit.
The Gospel of Judas has an agenda, at least when it comes to the story of Good Friday. For that matter, so do the familiar Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. But their aim was different: to portray not Judas but Jesus in a positive light, and to describe what led to the crucifixion. They are less concerned with Judas. As a result, they offer what seem to be contradictory and even confusing explanations for Judas’s betrayal.
Saints and theologians, not to mention authors and poets, have long debated this thorny question: Why did he do it? To answer that we need to know something about the man himself.
Who Was He?
Very little is known about Judas. The Rev. John P. Meier, professor of New Testament at Notre Dame and the author of a multivolume study on Jesus called A Marginal Jew, is one of the leading contemporary scholars on the historical Jesus. Meier notes that there are only two basic things known about Judas: Jesus chose him as one of the 12 apostles, and he handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities.
Those two bare facts enunciated above, Meier writes, are almost all we know about the historical Judas. Beyond them lies theological speculation or novel-writing, with the dividing line with the two activities not always clear-cut. Even the recent discovery of the Gospel of Judas adds little to our understanding of the historical background of Judas.
In other words, many standard traits of the Judases who appear in films and on stage, like his reddish hair color (Harvey Keitel in The Last Temptation of Christ), his fiery disposition (Carl Anderson in Jesus Christ Superstar) as well as various facts that appear in supposedly historically minded narratives (Judas is the first disciple called by Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told) are almost purely speculative, invented for artistic purposes.
Many of these artistic speculations can be traced back to varying interpretations of a single word in the New Testament: Judas’s last name, Iscariot.
Many of these artistic speculations can be traced back to varying interpretations of a single word in the New Testament: Judas’s last name, Iscariot.
According to Meier, there are several theories about the name. From these interpretations spring two millennia of artistic representations of Judas. In turn, these representations have influenced how Western culture has come to think about the man and his actions.
First, the name is said to derive from Judas’s membership in the sicarii, or dagger wielders, a band of religious terrorists of the time. In this speculation Judas was aligned with the Zealots, a fanatical group that had included another apostle, Simon. As a result, Judas is sometimes portrayed, as in The Last Temptation of Christ, as an apostolic hothead. But as Meier notes, the sicarii did not emerge until around 40 or 50 A.D., after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Also, if Judas was a sicarius, then it would have been likely that he would have assassinated Jesus by stabbing him in a crowd, the approved method among the sicarii, rather than handing him over to the detested authorities.
The name Iscariot is also said to have come from the Semitic root verb sqr, meaning to lie. Here the problem is more subtle: Judas is not portrayed throughout the New Testament as a liar so much as a betrayer. (An even more tenuous linguistic connection is to the Semitic verb skr, to hand over.) Others see in the name a link to a Semitic word describing the man’s occupation, a red dyer, or a reference to his supposed reddish hair color.
Finally, Iscariot may refer to a place of birth, a village named Keriot in Judea. Therefore he would be, in Hebrew, a man from Kerioth (ish qeriyyot). In this construct Judas would have been the only apostle not from Galilee, but from Judea. This is a tantalizing possibility, for it would make Judas an obvious outsider among the Galilean apostles. Unfortunately, it is not clear that a town called Kerioth ever existed.
The best explanation may be the simplest: Iscariot was the name Judas had taken from his father, who is identified three times in the Gospel of John as Simon Iscariot. Where the father got his name, however, remains a mystery. And whether John’s narrative is authoritative on the matter is also doubtful. In the end, says Meier, the nickname, like the person, remains an enigma.
One thing seems probable: Judas was not always as villainous as he has historically appeared in art and literature. (Early and late Renaissance painters often portrayed Judas with grotesque, even animalistic, features. Giotto’s painting The Kiss of Judas  shows a simian-looking Judas kissing his teacher.) After all, Judas Iscariot was chosen to be one of the Twelve. This means that Jesus, presumably a shrewd judge of character, must have seen some redeeming qualities in the man. Likewise, Judas himself recognized Jesus as someone worthy of following and initially accepted the sacrifices required to become his follower.
Judas Iscariot was chosen to be one of the Twelve. This means that Jesus, presumably a shrewd judge of character, must have seen some redeeming qualities in the man.
This alone argues for a more sympathetic portrayal of Judas. In other words, how could someone who was supposedly so irredeemably evil decide to leave everything to follow Jesus of Nazareth? And if any of the traditions have any factual basis, and Judas was a passionate man, one can speculate that he could have been one of the more devoted followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Needless to say, the writers of the Gospels were unlikely to include any material in their narratives that would cast Judas in a positive light. Any evidence of Jesus’ early affection for Judas or any stories showing Judas’s initial devotion to Jesus would probably have been set aside by the Evangelists in their writing and editing. (Similarly, fans of George Washington probably have little interest in favorable portrayals of Benedict Arnold.)
Consequently, the generally accepted understanding of Judas begins with sources that painted him in the darkest tones possible. The writers of the four Gospels were also good storytellers, who knew that for simple dramatic effect, the story of Jesus requires an archvillain. And if a good hero story needs a good villain, a divine protagonist requires the most wicked of opponents.
The Judas of History and of Culture
Later Christian traditions built on these presentations, and were also influenced by nascent anti-Semitism, as the early church began to distance itself from its Jewish roots. St. John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, writing in the fourth century, used Judas as an example of the wickedness of Jews in general. Chrysostom (the name means golden mouth, a tribute to his skills as a preacher) was one of several saints whose writings were tinged with, and contributed to, the virulent anti-Semitism common at the time. Judas was evil not only because he had betrayed Jesus, but because he was Jewish.
Chrysostom sees the suicide of Judas as foreshadowing the suffering of the Jews, and comments on this approvingly. In his Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, he writes: This desolation [his fate] was a prelude to that of the Jews, as will appear on looking closely into the facts. That one of the most influential church fathers could write so cruelly shows not only the rapid assimilation of anti-Semitism into Christianity, but the hardening of the Christian imagination against Judas.
These characterizations continued throughout the medieval Passion plays and would influence early and late Renaissance writers and artists. Dante, for example, in the Inferno,places Judas in the lowest circle of hell where the archsinner is torn apart by a three-headed Satan. In his wide-ranging historical study Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple, Kim Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New York, writes: For Dante, Judas is an example of the worst sin possible, betrayal, and he therefore places him at the center of hell, the worst of human sinners. As Paffenroth notes, most of the medieval Passion plays popular throughout Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries accentuated the ties between Judas and the Jewish people.
Gradually, the role of Judas and the Jewish people in these performances began to eclipse earlier portrayals of multiple devils, thus elaborating and accentuating Jewish evil as completely human but utterly and irredeemably evil. Arguably the most famous of these Passion plays, in Oberammergau, Germany, continues to be staged. And while the Oberammergau play has evolved, it was only in 2000, according to Paffenroth, that any substantial changes were made to the script regarding anti-Semitism.
Over time, the stereotype of Judas as the most wicked of all human beings, as well as layer upon layer of historical anti-Semitism, made it difficult, if not impossible, for later generations to gain any distance from his story and to understand his motivation. The historical Judas was buried under artistic representations of him. As Graham Greene wrote in his novel The End of the Affair, “If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we be able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?”
Even the traditional explanations and biblical descriptions of Judas’s betrayal are, as Meier notes in A Marginal Jew, both confusing and even contradictory.
An edgier interpretation comes from David A. Reed, a Scripture scholar writing in theBiblical Theology Bulletin. Perhaps, says Reed, one could see in Judas a kind of offbeat heroism. Reed suggests that in the first century, his suicide would have been understood as a calculated decision to shame the Jewish religious leaders for refusing to take back the money that they had given to Judas in payment for his betrayal. His suicide may also have been intended as a means by which Judas could atone for his sin.
Like many figures in the Hebrew Bible, writes Reed, he has experienced atonement in the best sense of the word, though it shocks us that the atonement came about by suicide.
But even the traditional explanations and biblical descriptions of Judas’s betrayal are, as Meier notes in A Marginal Jew, both confusing and even contradictory.
A Known and Most Embarrassing Fact
The Gospel of John, for example, has Jesus say, Do what you must do, implying the collusion that the Gospel of Judas highlights, but for different reasons. John’s version of Jesus seems angry, but nonetheless resigned to his friend’s deceit. In Matthew and Mark, the motive is greed. What are you willing to give me? asks Judas of the high priests. That theme is taken up by the Gospel of John as well: long before the Last Supper, Judas is depicted by the Evangelist as the greedy keeper of the common purse. Finally, Luke’s Gospel, which also portrays an avaricious Judas, tells us that at the Last Supper Satan had entered into Judas. As the New Testament scholar Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., noted, this explains either everything or nothing.
Another hypothesis is one that sometimes remains unstated by Scripture scholars: the Evangelists concocted the entire story of Judas’s betrayal for purely dramatic purposes. Some posit that the one who betrayed Jesus could have come from outside the circle of the Twelve, and that Judas was simply a convenient fall guy. Similarly, Judas may have been invented as a generic Jewish character in order to lay the blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish people as a whole.
Another hypothesis is one that sometimes remains unstated by Scripture scholars: the Evangelists concocted the entire story of Judas’s betrayal for purely dramatic purposes.
But a wholesale invention is probably unlikely. By most accounts, Mark wrote his Gospel around 70 A.D., only 40 years after the death of Jesus. Luke and Matthew wrote some 10 to 20 years after Mark. The early Christian community, therefore, would have still counted among its members people who were friends of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to the passion events, or who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. All these would presumably have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. Rather, as Father Harrington says, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact. In other words, the ignominy of having Jesus betrayed by one of the apostles is something that the Gospel writers would most likely have wanted toavoid, not invent.
Overall, none of the four Gospels provides a clear or convincing explanation for why one of the inner circle of disciples would betray the teacher he esteemed so highly. Greed, for example, fails as an explanation. After all, why would someone who had travelled with the penniless rabbi for three years in the Galilean and Judean countryside suddenly be consumed with greed?
What about the contention of the newly discovered Gospel of Judas? How likely is it that Jesus asked Judas to betray him in order to free him from his corporeal existence? How likely is it that Jesus himself was a closet Gnostic?
Whether or not Jesus of Nazareth was interested in a purely spiritual existence is difficult to establish. Nor is it likely that Jesus would have expressed himself in these terms, which find more resonance in Greek philosophy than in the Jewish thought of his time. As the Fordham University theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., notes in her book Consider Jesus, when Jesus did express himself in concrete terms, he did so in Jewish and not in Greek categories.
But, at the very least, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have had to entice Judas to betray him. There were ample opportunities when Jesus himself could have sufficiently enraged both the JewishandtheRoman authorities, who were often members of the crowds that witnessed his miracles or heard his subversive teachings. Jesus could easily have gotten arrested on his own.
Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Judas’s action was articulated several decades ago by the late William Barclay, author of the widely used multivolume Daily Study Bible. Barclay posited that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggested, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional interpretations explain why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense.
This is in fact the view which best suits all the facts, Barclay concluded.
Fear And Hope
Judas, in the Christian imagination, was not condemned simply for his betrayal of Christ. Traditional Christian piety has long held that he was also condemned for the despair that led to his suicide. You were right to be afraid, Judas, wrote St. Augustine in his Exposition on the Psalms, but your fear ought to have been accompanied by hope in the mercy of him whom you feared. Other spiritual writers have pointed to a ruinous pride that led Judas to despair. His sins, he may have believed, were too great for even God’s mercy and so, instead, he chose damnation.
In the end, perhaps the most likely explanation historical, theological and spiritual is that Judas wanted a God of his own making: an avenging God who would serve justice by tossing out the hated occupiers and restoring the fortunes of the people of Israel. What Judas got was very different: a suffering God who willingly accepted a shameful death on a cross. A crucified God, in the theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s poignant phrase. Tragically, Judas did not stick around to see what happened on Easter morning.
The Gospel of Judas will continue to be fodder for television shows, magazine covers and lunchtime conversations. But the answer to the question that has bedeviled Christians for almost 2,000 years remains the same. Why did Judas do it? Probably because Judas, like most of us, wanted to make God in his own image rather than the other way around.