Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Enigma Called Judas

Exploring the Story of the Cross, Part VI
By John Shelby Spong

The anti-hero of the Christian story in general and of the crucifixion story in particular is one who is known as Judas Iscariot. Scorn and ridicule have been heaped on this figure over the centuries of Christian history. Much anti-Semitism has flowed from the depiction of this character. No one anywhere names his or her child “Judas.” The name itself has become the synonym for betrayal, for being stabbed in the back. The phrase “thirty pieces of silver” is referred to in print time and time again in the context of other incidents of traitorous behavior. When Judas is depicted in Christian art he is portrayed in dark and sinister tones. Events in western Christian history from the Inquisition in the 14th century to the expulsion of the Jews from or the ghettoizing of Jews in 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 20th century are all rooted substantially in the biblical portrait of Judas and through him applied to all Jewish people. It does not escape notice that the name Judas is identical with the name Judah, by which the entire Jewish nation was called, Judas being simply a Greek spelling of that name. Given this history, what can we then say about the literal biblical character known as Judas Iscariot? Can 21st century people, employing the critical tools of biblical and historical scholarship now available to us, cast light on this figure? I think we can.

The first questions we need to raise are very basic. Is Judas actually a person of history or is he a mythical character, a symbol that the original writers and hearers of the gospels would have understood, but whose meaning escaped later non-Jewish readers? To begin to answer these questions, I turn first to the record regarding this figure in the New Testament itself and see what light a critical study of those various books might say about this major character in the Jesus drama, which the gospel writers were creating forty to seventy year after the crucifixion.

I begin with the earliest Christian writings that we possess the authentic epistles of Paul, all of which can be dated between 51 at the earliest and 64 at the latest. This makes them just 21 to 34 years after the crucifixion, which makes these Pauline writings the closest writing we have to the historical events surrounding the crucifixion. They are also one or two decades before the first gospel (Mark) was written and four to five decades before the last gospel (John) was completed. So our first task is to examine what Paul, the original New Testament writer, had to say about Judas Iscariot. The answer surprises many. Paul said nothing about Judas. Not a single, solitary mention of his name! Pressing deeper we ask if Paul says anything about an act of betrayal. The answer to that question is vague, since it depends on how one Greek word is translated. In I Corinthians, written in the mid-fifties (54-56) Paul says in chapter 11, “On the night that Jesus was handed over, he took bread.” Paul then proceeds to relate the story of the institution of the Christian Eucharist, known as “The Lord’s Supper.” Note three things about this single reference. First, there is no indication in his text whatsoever that Paul identified the meal with a Passover meal. This identification would come later only when the gospels were written. Second, the word used in this single text is properly translated “handed over” not “betrayed,” which means that the idea of betrayal was based on a later, harsher rendering of that word. In the Pauline text by itself here is no indication that this “handing over” constituted an overt act of betrayal. At the very least it is not as strong a word as people have assumed in Christian history Thirdly, there is no sense in this original reference to the handing over of Jesus that it was the work of one of ‘the twelve.” So the first question we face is what do these omissions mean? Could Paul simply have assumed the truth of what came to be thought of as the “traditional view” of betrayal without actually mentioning them? That would be in the category of possible but not probable! An act as painful and scandalous as betrayal at the hands of one of the twelve would be hard to ignore. If such a tradition were known could it possibly have been omitted? I do not think so,which leads me to suggest that it was not known.

Recall that Paul was a student of the law as well as an educated rabbi and a rigid observer of Jewish liturgical forms. The words “handed over” are quite passive and do not seem to imply a planned act of traitorous behavior such as that described in the gospel accounts where Judas has contact with the Temple authorities well in advance of the act and even agrees on the amount of the payment that he is to receive for his cooperation. The clinching argument for me is that Paul, just four chapters later in the same epistle, describes the resurrection appearances by saying: “He (Jesus) first appeared to Cephas (Peter) and then to the twelve.” Note “the twelve!” Judas is still present. Could the traitor still be part of the intimate band of disciples if he had brought about the death of their leader? That is to me inconceivable! So, I conclude that in the writings of Paul there is no hint that one of the twelve was the traitor, which means that the Judas story has to be a story that developed after Paul’s time and is thus not an original part of the tradition. Recall that thirty years later Matthew would say that Jesus appeared only to “the eleven.” All of these data point to the probability that betrayal at the hands of one of the twelve named Judas was not a fact of history, but an interpretive addition to a developing tradition.

When Paul was forced later to defend his own apostleship, an activity that permeates his authentic writing, would it not have helped his cause to refer to the defection of one of the twelve, to bolster his apostolic claim as one whom he said “was born out of due time?”

Having filed these first seeds of doubt, based on contemporary biblical insight, I now turn to the gospels and trace in them the development of the story of Judas. Lining up the gospels in the order in which they were written and focusing only on what each gospel says about Judas, we discover that between Mark, dated in the early 70’s, and John dated in the late 90’s, the figure of Judas grows more and more evil. Judas is mentioned for the first time in written history in chapter three where Mark introduces the twelve and identifies Judas as the one who betrayed him. It is of interest to note that both Luke and John tell us of another one of the twelve who is named “Judas,” but who is not Iscariot. It appears that a good Judas is also in the Christian memory in the 1st century. When Mark first describes Judas‘ traitorous act, he does so in a fairly low-key fashion. In this first gospel Mark mentions no bribe and no stated motive; he does say, however that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss at midnight. Then Judas disappears from Mark’s story and is never mentioned again. Matthew, the second gospel to be written (82-85), builds on Mark’s story, but he now supplies the motive, a bribe of thirty pieces of silver. Matthew goes on to tell us that Judas repented and hurled the thirty pieces of silver back into the Temple and then went and hanged himself. The Judas story is clearly growing. Luke, writing about a decade after Matthew, explains Judas’ actions as having been done at the impulse of “the devil.” John, writing between 95-100, suggests that Judas was a thief and that he would do anything for money. John also says that when Judas left the upper room to do the dastardly deed, he walked out of light into darkness. At that moment “it was night.” says the Fourth Gospel. As the years go by Judas grows darker.

Next, we take all of the biographical details found in gospels about Judas and search the Hebrew Scriptures about other traitors in Jewish history to see if we can see any literary connections. The result of this search is that every detail attributed to Judas in the gospels is present in earlier stories of traitors in the Hebrew Scriptures.

First we look at the Genesis story of Joseph being “handed over” by his brothers, a band of twelve, to be sold into slavery in Egypt. The brother who decided to receive money for this deed was named Judah. I do not think that is coincidental. In the David cycle of stories in the book of 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 was portrayed as doing at the last supper in the gospel narratives. This same Ahithophel, when he recognized the consequences of his actions, was said to have hanged himself. That detail is added to the Judas story by Matthew. The idea of being betrayed with a kiss is also found in the David cycle of stories when Joab, David’s military Chief of Staff was replaced after Absalom’s rebellion by a man named Amasa, Joab sought out his successor under the guise of congratulating him. When he found him, he drew Amasa by the beard to give him the kiss of friendship only to disembowel him simultaneously 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.” Is the literary fate of the betrayed Amasa at work here?
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 then later thrown back into the Temple, just as Matthew says Judas did with his thirty pieces of silver.

A study of Hebrew sources reveals Judas as a composite of Old Testament traitors described in the Bible. Perhaps Paul did not know about the Judas story because it had not yet been developed. The Judas story grows darker as the years go by because not being history it is still being created. Every detail in the gospel portrait of Judas can be found in earlier biblical traitor stories. Is it then not possible that Judas is a literary figure, a corporate symbol developed for an interpretive purpose to serve some apologetic Christian need? I think this conclusion is both possible and probable. What purpose would such a story serve? I will turn to that question next week and seek to address it then.


  1. have some serious issues.... we will just take the last paragraph you wrote...says it all about you guys on this site..
    If you really meant what you wrote about, Paul, Judas and a "composite" in your last paragraph..PLEASE....leave the church....
    Remember what Elijah said on Mt. Carmel about halting between 2 opinions? Or was Elijah someones composite of a series of past people/events too?
    When it comes to Spectrum and Adventist Today, I thought they were bad...but WOW.. you people take the cake and eat it too....
    I hear Brain McLaren could use some staff....

  2. DC,
    Sorry you are unhappy with the Spong essay. It’s intended to be thought provoking, and does not claim to be “truth”. How would you account for the different Judas stories?