2. The Judas of the Gospels
Within the Gospels, we find the traditional narrative of Judas. Woven through those four book, with a little footnote in the Book of Acts, we see Judas listed as a disciple in the calling of the twelve, and from there, generally the next mention of Judas comes at his betrayal. Only the book of John offers a little more insight into Judas's life and motivation by discussing two earlier instances involving Judas and foreshadowing his betrayal.
Still, in the Gospels, we get our first insights into possible motivation for Judas's betrayal: possession, predestination, and greed. These will prove key theories in developing a picture of Judas, his character, and his motivation.
A. The Call
"Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeaus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."
"And he went up on the mountain and called to him those whom he desired, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons. He appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."
Mark 3:13 -19
Matthew, Mark, and Luke each include a section of the calling of the twelve disciples, listing them all by name, along with various name changes and identifying characteristics. Each text has slight variations that provide interesting insights into the larger puzzle.
From all of the texts, we see that Judas Iscariot is listed as one of the twelve who were given authority by Jesus. This included the authority to drive out impure spirits and demons, to heal every disease and sickness, and to be sent out to preach. With Judas included on this list, he presumably had the power of the Spirit in him and he still betrayed Jesus. This makes his betrayal even more surprising.
Further, all three have some variation of referring to Judas' betrayal. Matthew and Mark refer to him as "Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.," using the Greek παραδίδωμι, or to give over or to hand over. Luke uses the variation, "who became a traitor," using the Greek γίνομαι προδότης or become a betrayer/traitor.
The Gospel of Luke adds on interesting wrinkle. In Luke's account, Thaddeus is referred to as Judas the son of James. So we have a good Judas in Thaddeus and a bad Judas, the Iscariot. It is a reference to how common the name was at the time, a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Judah, or "God is praised." Particularly in light of the Maccabean rebellion and its hero, Judah or Judas Maccabee.
"In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor."
B. John's Background
1. Jesus's Knowledge
The next mentions of Judas in the chronology of Jesus's life come from John. The other Synoptic Gospels do not include these accounts, though they provide the two key clues to Judas' character.
The first comes in the sixth chapter of John after Jesus has performed the feeding of the five thousand and had then revealed to them that He was the bread of life which they should be consuming. After this teaching and the difficulty that many had in understanding it, many of the large crowd of followers that had amassed began to leave. Jesus then turned to his disciples.
"After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, 'Do you want to go away as well?' Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.' Jesus answered them, 'Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.' He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him."
The way Jesus refers to Judas here is very interesting. We first have a clear indication that Jesus chose Judas. The Greek word here is ἐκλέγομαι or eklegomai, where we get "election" from, and meaning "to pick out or choose for oneself." We also have clear indication that Jesus knows at this point that Judas will betray him, here at an early point in his ministry. A reference to the omniscience of God and Jesus's inclusion in that knowledge.
This raises so many questions. Was Judas chosen specifically only to betray Jesus? Was there something in his character that would signal him for this particular fate? If so, why would he be included in the power and authority provided in the call above?
It implicates broader questions of omniscience and predeterminism. Does knowledge equal determining, setting in stone? Was Judas chosen because Jesus through omniscience knew he would betray Jesus? Or was it predetermined, set in stone, that Judas would be the betrayer; that he was created solely for that purpose?
These questions cannot be sufficiently answered and likely never will be. John's gospel will continue to provide the most material for this struggle.
2. Mary's Ointment
The next mention of Judas is in connection with Mary's use of an expensive oil to wash Jesus's feet with her hair.
"Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 'Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?' He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, 'Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.'"
Judas here is named as the keeper of the purse for the disciples and identified as a thief. This brings in greed as a potential motivation. John will later use this information as context that allows Judas to slip away from the Last Supper and complete his betrayal. Likewise, Matthew will reference greed as a possibility in Judas's encounter with the chief priests.
C. The Plot with the Chief Priests
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain reference to Judas plotting with the chief priests to betray Jesus. In the accounts, Judas is the one who goes to the chief priests, they are glad and offer him money, and then he looks for an opportunity to effect the betrayal. Matthew's account makes Judas's greed apparent, with Judas asking the chief priests, "What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?"
"Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, 'What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?' And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him."
Matthew 26: 14-16
This furthers greed as a motivating factor for Judas's betrayal. The idea that thirty pieces of silver would be sufficient motivation to complete the act.
Luke's account introduces the idea of possession.
"Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented and sought an opportunity to betray him to them in the absence of a crowd."
According to this text, if the possession is taken literally, it is Satan who uses Judas to betray Jesus to the chief priests. Under some interpretations this would be the first of two possessions, here and then on the night of the Last Supper. We even see this idea in John's discussion of the preparations for the Feast of the Passover. When Jesus is going to was the disciple's feet, there is a mention that the devil "had already put it in the heart of Judas Iscariot" to betray Jesus.
"Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist."
Regardless, whether these citations refer to a literal possession or a metaphorical hardening of the heart, the result is the same. By this time, Judas has been turned over to his sinful ways, blind to and cut off from the power of the Spirit. His decision and fate has been set.
D. The Last Supper
Matthew, Mark, and John all contain a report of a specific exchange at the Last Supper in which Jesus reveals that someone will betray him. In all three versions, the disciples begin to question who it will be and Jesus indicates that it will be "He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me" or "he to whom I will give this morsel of bread."
Matthew then continues and has Judas ask Jesus specifically if he will be the betrayer. Jesus replies "You have said so."
"When it was evening, he reclined at table with the twelve. And as they were eating, he said, 'Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.' And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, 'Is it I, Lord?' He answered, 'He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed? It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.' Judas, who would betray him, answered, 'Is it I, Rabbi?' He said to him, 'You have said so.'"
Mark 14:17-21 is the virtually identical, but omits the exchange with Judas.
John, though, goes farther and provides a little longer exchange between Jesus and Judas. He provides mention of the second possession of Judas, and Jesus then told Judas/Satan, "What you are going to do, do quickly."
"After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, 'Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.' The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus' side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus answered, 'It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.' So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, 'What you are going to do, do quickly.' Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, 'Buy what we need for the feast,' or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night."
We also see from this exchange that the other disciples question this exchange, but Judas's status as treasurer provides cover, keeping from realizing who the betrayer is. If that question had ever bugged you before, there is a bit of an answer. The other disciples thought Judas was buying more food, or giving to the poor, or generally handling something else needed with the money.
The passage in Matthew does provide one haunting paradox, particularly in light of the questions of possession and predestination. Questions regarding how much control Judas had in the situation. How much the betrayal was his choice. In Matthew 26:24, Jesus says, "woe to that man whom the Son of Man is betrayed? It would be better for that man if he had not been born." We see this as a mention of how severe Judas's punishment will be. But if Judas's betrayal was foretold and predetermined to be his path, is he being punished for his choice, his actions or for his role? Likewise, there is an inherent paradox with Judas's role and this statement. Without a betrayer, would Jesus be able to fulfill his purposes, "as it is written of him?" Was the betrayal necessary, or would Jesus have suffered and acted as a sacrifice regardless? In other words, were Judas's actions necessary and unavoidable, leading to his condemnation, or were they his misguided choice?
It's a question that many have struggled with. Erasmus believed that Judas was free to change his intention, but Martin Luther argued that Judas's will was immutable. John Calvin believed that Judas was predestined to damnation, but that "it will be no more right, because God himself willed that his son be delivered up and delivered him up to death, to ascribe the guilt of the crime to God than to transfer the credit for redemption to Judas."
To me, this paradox strikes at the heart of the divide between Calvinists and non-Calvinists. To the heart of the question of predestination.
F. The Priestly Prayer
John adds more fuel for this question with his inclusion of Jesus's priestly prayer in Gethsemane. In the prayer, while Jesus is praying for his disciples, he mentions that none have been lost, except for the son of destruction or son of perdition, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.
"All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled."
This again adds to the idea that Judas's purpose as a disciple was to betray Jesus. Sentence construction would indicate that both "not one has been lost" and "except the son of destruction" were both necessary for Scripture to be fulfilled. In the next section, this idea of prophecy and the Judas of the past will be explored.
G. The Betrayal in the Garden
All four gospels contain an account of Judas's betrayal in the garden. All of them recount the detail that Judas approached Jesus, bringing a crowd with him, called him "Rabbi," and greeted him with a kiss, the sign he had established with the priests.
"While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, 'The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.' And he came up to Jesus at once and said, 'Greetings, Rabbi!' And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, 'Friend, do what you came to do.' Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him."
Matthew 26:47-50"And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, 'The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.' And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, 'Rabbi!' And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him."
"While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, 'Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?'"
"When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, 'Whom do you seek? ' They answered him, 'Jesus of Nazareth.' Jesus said to them, 'I am he.' Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, 'I am he,' they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, 'Whom do you seek?' And they said, 'Jesus of Nazareth.' Jesus answered, 'I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.' This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: 'Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.'"
H. His Death
Only Matthew and the book of Acts include accounts of Judas's death by suicide. The two accounts seem contradictory, but there have been attempts at harmonization.
According to Matthew, Judas was overcome with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the priests, in recognition of his sin. In this passage, Judas truly seems repentant. He is so overcome, he hangs himself, which according to some, is what he is truly damned for, for the act of taking his own life. The priests then use the returned blood money to buy a potter's field.
"Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, 'I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.' They said, 'What is that to us? See to it yourself.' And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, 'It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.' So they took counsel and bought with them the potter's field as a burial place for strangers. There ore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, 'And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me.'"
According to Luke through the book of Acts, it is Judas himself who buys a field and it is there he falls headlong upon, bursting open such that his bowels spill out. Attempting to reconcile the two, some have argued that when Judas hung himself, the rope snapped or the limb snapped, leading him to fall from that position headlong onto the ground, bursting his body open. Combining and fulfilling both.
"In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 'Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.' (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 'For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
"May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it";
"Let another take his office."'"
In whatever manner he died, Judas seems to have been moved by remorse and regret for his actions. And it's this Judas that has led to the fascination of many. That has led to many different theories regarding his actions. Why would someone determined to betray Jesus be remorseful at his crucifixion and death? What could explain that change of attitude? This is what will be explored through looking at the Judas of history.
These accounts in the Synoptic Gospels are what provide us the most complete context of Judas's life and yet they still leave open so many questions. As seen above, Judas's actions in the text amount only to his questioning of Mary's use of nard, his plot with the chief priests, his leaving the Lord's Supper and later betrayal in the garden, and his death. There is so much of his life left unrevealed.
Likewise, in terms of motivation, we are left with a few answers. The texts offer possession and predestination and greed as possible sources. Possession and predestination lead to much heavier questions of theology. Ones that cannot be answered here.
Greed fits, but only seems to carry so far. Greed provides a motivation to seek out the chief priests and to see what they would offer. But it does not account for Judas's later remorse. It's clear Judas had a desire to plot with the chief priests and that he has a desire to be paid, but he seems to have a different outcome in mind. As if the idea that Jesus could be captured and executed did not enter his mind.
It's this background that has pushed theorists into many other sources, including looking at the very foundational sources of the prophecies fulfilled in the Gospels.