Thursday, April 09, 2015

Part XLIV Matthew: Judas Iscariot – Myth Or Reality? Part I

by John Shelby Spong

Among the best known characters in the New Testament is the one who is sometimes called “The Anti-Christ.” He is always painted in dark colors, as slinking around corners, shielding his face. It is said of him that “he would do anything for money.” In biblical dramas from Hollywood’s “The King of Kings” to Broadway’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell,” this character is the second lead, the counterpoint of the motion picture or the play. His name is Judas, but typically in the New Testament, he is given a title of identification, so his name is hardly ever mentioned without this title attached to it. He is called Iscariot, Judas Iscariot.

What does this word mean? Once scholars thought it had to do with his place of origin, which they postulated must have been the village of Kerioth in Judea. If that turned out to be true, this would have made Judas the only one of the twelve who was not a Galilean. Speculation then emerged seeking to explain his act of treachery based on the fact that he was an “outsider.” Biblical speculation always runs rampant in the face of little real data.

Then someone noticed that first century people did not invent titles to designate one’s place of origin. In that day they knew how to say “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Paul of Tarsus” or even “Peter of Bethsaida.” There are only two people in the New Testament who have a descriptive title attached to their names, one is Judas Iscariot and the other is Mary Magdalene. Neither of these titles is now believed to be related to their geography so much as to their character. “Magdalene” seems to derive from the word Migdal (written mgdl in Hebrew), which appears to be a reference to Mary’s status. Migdal, which originally referred to a tower, came to mean large, tall or great. If that is so, and it appears to be, Mary Magdalene would mean “Mary, the great” or “the great Mary,” an idea that opens the door for all sorts of new possibilities to develop.

Iscariot is now thought to derive from the word “sicarius,” which literally means “an assassin.” Judas, the assassin would probably be the best translation of the term. By the time this particular character first appears in the New Testament, his name has already been connected with the definition “assassin.” From his first mention the memory of this man was not favorable.

Strangely enough, however, as central as this man’s role was in the Jesus story, there is no mention of him in any written Christian source until the 8th century of the Common Era. This fact frequently surprises people, yet it is true. Judas Iscariot makes his first appearance in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel, written about the year 72 CE, or some forty-two years after the crucifixion. That initial reference comes in Mark 3:19. Mark is describing the beginnings of the Christian movement. He starts with John the Baptist preparing the way, welcoming and baptizing Jesus and testifying to his future greatness. Then Mark tells the story of John’s arrest and suggests that Jesus has now stepped into the role of leadership following that arrest. Then he describes the beginning of the Jesus movement with the call of disciples and the performance of a number of “mighty acts” or miracles as signs of his power.

Finally out of a host of followers, Jesus was said to have chosen twelve “to be with him and to be sent out to preach and to have authority to cast out demons” (Mark 3:14-15). Mark then lists those twelve with Peter first and Judas Iscariot, “who also betrayed him,” listed last. The role of Judas will grow and other details will be added to his life as the other gospels come to be written: Matthew about 85 CE, Luke in the early 90’s and John near the end of the first century. There was, however, no mention of Judas prior to Mark. There are references to Peter and the twelve earlier than Mark. Those references are found in the writings of Paul, who wrote all of his epistles between the years 51 and 64, but no reference to Judas Iscariot can be found anywhere in Paul. Does that fact raise questions about the historicity of Judas? It might, but we should not draw hasty conclusions until all of the available evidence can be drawn together.

People say that Paul’s failure to mention Judas is an argument from silence and as such is never a strong argument. Paul is, however, not quite as silent as people assume. So let me look at what Paul does say that would be appropriate to this discussion.

Paul is the earliest Christian writer to use the word “betray” in relation to Jesus. He does that in I Corinthians 11:23-26, which was written about the year 54 CE, a little less than two decades before Mark’s gospel appeared. This passage is one of two places, both in this same epistle, where Paul uses similar words to introduce what he is saying and to claim for it a special authority. Here, he says “I received from the Lord what I delivered to you,” words that are guaranteed to get his listeners attention. The content of his material was this: “that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (the Greek word here is paredideto, which literally means “handed over”), took bread and when he had given thanks, broke it.” Paul then goes on to tell of the institution of the Christian Eucharist. It is of interest to note that Paul does not indicate who it was who “betrayed him” or “handed him over.” Certainly there is nothing in his epistle to suggest that Jesus’ betrayal was at the hands of one of “the twelve.”

To solidify further the idea that this is not an argument based on the silence of the record, we move four chapters later in this same epistle, I Corinthians, to the second and final time that Paul claims to be delivering authoritative material of original importance. This time in I Corinthians 15:3, Paul writes: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.” Then he goes on to relate the first account of the final events in the life of Jesus. He describes the crucifixion in one sentence: “He died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Then he describes Jesus’ burial in just three words: “He was buried.” Then he moves on quickly to the Easter experience.

About the resurrection, Paul says: “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve (I Cor. 15:4-5). Note the words that I have italicized. The “twelve” includes Judas. Paul is saying that three days after the crucifixion the disciples, all twelve of them, were still intact. When Matthew wrote in the middle of the 9th decade, after the story of Judas Iscariot had entered the tradition, the disciples were referred to as “the eleven” (Matt 28:16). Obviously, it seems logical to conclude that Paul had never heard of the idea that one of the twelve had betrayed Jesus. Does this suggest that the story of Judas Iscariot was a later, and perhaps a mythological addition, to the gospel tradition? It certainly opens that possibility, but more data is still necessary before that conclusion begins to seem probable. So our inquiry presses on.

Is it significant that the name of the traitor is Judas? Judas is simply the Greek spelling of Judah, which is the name of the entire Jewish nation. Throughout the gospels there is an apparent attempt to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans to the Jews. This is best seen in Matthew where Pilate, the public face of the Roman Empire in Judea, was said to wash his hands publicly and to proclaim himself “innocent of the blood of this just man,” only to have the Jewish crowd shout back “His blood be upon us and on our children.” To make the name of the traitor identical with the name of the nation would also achieve the purpose of transferring the blame would it not? So suspicion about the historicity of Judas Iscariot enters our minds and begins to grow.

Next we look at the details of the Judas story. Mark, Matthew and Luke all identify Judas Iscariot as “one of the twelve.” Mark says the Jewish authorities promised to give him money but there is no mention of how much. It is Matthew alone who sets the price at “thirty pieces of silver.” At the last supper Jesus announces that “one of the twelve will betray me.” They all ask “Is it I?” Mark does not identify Judas. Matthew, however, has Jesus respond to Judas’ question with the words: “You have said so.” John has Jesus say: “it is the one to whom I give this bread when I have dipped it into the common bowl.” Then he dips it and hands it to Judas. In John, Judas then goes out immediately into the night. All of the gospels have the act of betrayal come through an identifying kiss. Matthew alone, however, tells the story of Judas repenting and trying to return the money. When that attempt is refused, he says, Judas hurls the thirty pieces of silver into the Temple. Matthew also alone then tells the story of Judas going out and hanging himself.

Luke, in the book of Acts, suggests a very different death for Judas. In this account the unrepentant Judas goes out to inspect a field he has purchased with the money he was given and falling down headlong, Luke says: “he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18). That cannot be the result of hanging. Each of the gospels predicts a terrible end for the traitor and he is also called a thief in the Fourth Gospel. As the years go by, Judas Iscariot gets more and more evil.

So the biblical details regarding Judas Iscariot reveal that the story of one of the twelve being the traitor is a late-developing tradition. They give the traitor the name of the nation on which they seek to place the blame for Jesus’ death. They paint him in ever darkening colors while, at the same time, they seek to whitewash or to exonerate Pilate. Is there something going on here besides remembered history?

Could it be that the story of Judas Iscariot was part of a developing mythology? Is Judas a person who actually lived or is he a literary character developed later? Let these questions stir in your minds during this coming week. We will pursue this subject with more evidence from the Bible next week when this series continues.


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