Sunday, June 2, 2019

Following Judas: The Judas of History

6. The Judas of History

Judas as a historical figure even brings controversy.  There are scholars who believe that Judas Iscariot is largely a fiction or device created for the narrative.  In his book Antisemitism and Modernity (2006), Jewish scholar Hyam Macoby suggests that, in the New Testament, the name "Judas" was constructed as an attack on the Judaeans or on the Judaean religious establishment held responsible for executing Jesus.  A form of the argument against Passion plays, which were historically used to drum up feelings of Anti-Semitism.  John Shelby Spong, concurred in his book The Sins of Scripture (2009), insisting, "The whole story of Judas has the feeling of being contrived...The act of betrayal by a member of the twelve disciples is not found in the earliest Christian writings.  Judas is first placed into the Christian story by the Gospel of Mark (3:19), who wrote in the early years of the eighth decade of the Common Era."  Or 80 AD.

In fact, early Christian writers had little interest in Judas.  The betrayal had remained a dark spot for the young church, and as such, the apologetic literature of the second century carefully avoided the subject.  Judas did grow in legend, developing more and more the evil character and terrible end of the betrayer.  We only know of this because of Ireaneaus and the Papias fragment.  We do not find any mention in expected sources like Justin, Hermas, Josephus, or Clement.  The Gnostics would then be the first to meditate on Judas, as we've seen in the Apocrypha section. Origen of Alexandria, 185-254 A.D. would then be the first to write about the historical and theological implications of the betrayal in his Commentaries on the New Testament.

These concerns may be a bit overstated.  The name Judas is actually used in the New Testament to refer to several individuals in a positive light including the prophet Judas Barsabbas, Jesus's brother Jude, and the apostle Judas the son of James.  It was an extremely common name for Jewish men during the first century.  Further, while First Corinthians does not mention Judas explicitly by name, it does refer to "the night when he was betrayed" regarding the Lord's Supper.  While the translation for paradidomi should perhaps be "was handed over" instead of "was betrayed," either could refer to Judas and his betrayal.  First Corinthians has been dated back to 53-54 AD.

Generally, the acceptance of Judas Iscariot as a historical figure is widely accepted.  Most other details are up for debate.

A. Iscariot

While Judas is relatively easy to trace, the epithet Iscariot or Ὶσκάριωθ or Ὶσκαριώτης, is not.  Generally, Iscariot is thought to be a Greek rendering translating to "the man from Kerioth," a town in the south of Judea.  This particular translation is supported by the reference to his father as "Simon Iscariot" in John 6:71.  This would place both men as from that particular location.  Such a translation would make Judas the only disciple who was not from Galilee.  As Robert Cargill, assistant professor of classics and religious studies at the University of Iowa and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, "Jesus is from the northern part of Israel, or Roman Palestine.  But [Judas's] surname might evidence that he's from the southern part of the country, meaning he may be a little bit of an outsider."

A popular alternative explains that Iscariot is a corruption of the Latin word sicarius, meaning "dagger man," which referred to a member of the Sicarii, a group of Jewish rebels and the earliest known organized assassination units of cloak and daggers.  The Sicarii were known for committing acts of terrorism in the 40s and 50s AD.  In particular, they assassinated people in crowds using long knives hidden under their cloaks.  Much of what is known about the Sicarii comes from the writings of the early historian Josephus.  This interpretation is problematic, as there is nothing else to tie Judas to the Sicarii, especially given they were only known to be active after his death.

Many other explanations have been offered from it meaning the "false one" or "liar," to meaning "red color," to it being associated with "chokiness" or "constriction" to indicate he was the hanged.  There is disagreement as to whether it is a posthumously applied epithet to it being a descriptive name given by Jesus, like Cephas to Peter.  It is simply unclear and not explained in any text that we have.  Cargill summarizes, "We're not sure Judas was from the South, and we're not sure Judas was Sicarii.  These are attempts to see if there may have been something up front that set Judas apart from the rest.  Because people are always trying to explain - why would he have done this?  Why would Judas have betrayed Jesus?"

B. The Betrayal

Judas's betrayal is generally accepted in history.  As quoted in the introduction to this series, it is one of the two basic facts we know about Judas.  According to New Testament Scholar Bart D. Ehrman, the betrayal "is about as historically certain as anything else in the tradition."  The betrayal is independently attested to in the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of John, and the Book of Acts. It is unlikely early Christians would have made up the betrayal, as it would have reflected poorly on Jesus's judgment in choosing him as a disciple.  With the act of betrayal as a certainty, motivation becomes the part still fought over.

Origen of Alexandria would make it part of his philosophical writings through his Commentary on Matthew's and John's Gospel, with his writings dating back to sometime after 200 AD.  Origen moved beyond the Judas legend to as "How could Christ take a thief and betrayer among his closest followers?"  Origen still regards Judas as a covetous keeper of the moneybag, but he looks far beyond that information to the deeper questions.  Origen insists Judas possessed a full apostleship; i.e. that he was a "good apostle" on whom Jesus had put "a good hope."  But he also recognizes that as surely as Judas had once lived as a good apostle, he likewise found himself a slave to sin where he was no longer a servant of God.  To Origen, Judas's greed likely served as the foothold Satan needed to lead Judas to betray Jesus.  That Judas through free will made a choice to turn away from God and to pursue the path of betrayal.  This examination provides a theologically sound exploration of Judas's life and act of betrayal.

Greed has been continually pointed to as a primary source for the motivation, based on its mention in scripture.  "There have always been those who have wanted to tie Judas's betrayal to the fact that he had a love of money."   It does raise several questions though.  If Judas's only motive was greed, why didn't he ask for more money?  The thirty pieces of silver would have only bought a field.  Victorian art critic John Ruskin adds a little color to this question.  "Stupidity is always the basis of the Judas bargain.  We do great injustice to Iscariot, in thinking him wicked above all common wickedness.  He was only a common money-lover, and, like all money-lovers, did not understand Christ;-could not make out the worth of Him, or meaning of Him. He never thought He would be killed.  He was horror-struck when he found that Christ would be killed; threw his money away instantly, and hanged himself.  ...Judas was a common, selfish, muddle-headed, pilfering fellow; his hand always in the bag of the poor, not caring for them.  Helpless to understand Christ, he yet believed in Him, much more than most of us do; had seen Him do miracles, thought He was quite strong enough to shift for Himself, and he, Judas, might as well make his own little bye-perquisites out of the affair.  Christ would come out of it well enough, and he have his thirty pieces."

Other suggestions have cropped up throughout history.  One suggestion has been that Judas was a zealot and was following Jesus because he believed Jesus would be the new King of Israel.  He expected Jesus to overthrow Roman rule of Judea.  This is used to explain Judas's betrayal, as he would seemingly be forcing Jesus's hand to act, and to explain his remorse, in that he never intended for Jesus to die, he just wanted him to fight.

Others have taken a completely opposite view.  That perhaps Judas believed Jesus was causing unrest likely to increase tensions with Rome.   This Judas would have betrayed Jesus because he thought they should be restrained until after Passover, when things had died down.  Judas would have here been attempting to prevent a riot or large scale confrontation.

Each of these has a combination of personal gain and unintended consequences, used to tie together the betrayal and the remorse.  I think this is important in our understanding of how we act like Judas.

C. Death

Historians have attempted to reconcile the two accounts of Judas's death presented in Matthew and in the book of Acts.  Augustine of Hippo suggested a literal interpretation in which the two accounts are viewed as describing different aspects of the same event. Judas hanged himself in a field and the rope or branch snapped, sending him falling down such that his body burst open.

The early Church Father Papias of Hierapolis offered a much different version of the death of Judas in his Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, likely written in the early 100s AD.  According to Papias, Judas was so afflicted by God's wrath that his body became so enormously bloated that he could not pass through a street with buildings on either side.  His face became so swollen that a doctor could not even identify the location of his eyes using an optical instrument.  His genitals became enormously swollen and oozed with pus and worms.  It is this state that leads Judas to commit suicide by pouring his guts onto the ground of his own land.  According to Papias that it stank so horribly that even a century later, people still could not pass the site without holding their noses.  This story has remained popular, even competing with the Gospel accounts of Judas's death.


Though historical writings and theories on Judas are scarce, they do provide interesting possibilities for motive.  They also provided inspiration for much of the art and literature surrounding the Passion and Judas's role in it.

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