There are at least three traitor stories in the Hebrew Scriptures. They were all well known to Jewish readers of those scriptures. They would not, however, have been familiar to those Gentile Christians, who became the majority in the Christian movement by the year 150 CE. Most Christians, through the centuries, therefore, tended to be unaware of them. It is that unawareness that made it possible for generations of Christians not to see the connections between these Old Testament stories and the character we call Judas Iscariot. With no hint of the source of the details found in the Judas stories, it was not surprising that the only alternative that traditional Christianity ever really considered, until relatively recently, was to regard the Judas story, as found in the gospels, to be literal history. Today, I challenge that literalism on several fronts. My study has led me to a different conclusion. I do not think that Jesus ever fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish. I do not believe that he ever changed water into wine. I do not believe that he ever raised a four-days-dead Lazarus from his grave. I also do not think that the gospel writers, who recorded those stories, thought that they were recording events of literal history.
To press this line of inquiry back into my subject of this moment, I am specifically convinced that the biblical character we know as Judas Iscariot never lived. I am all but certain that he was a literary creation, a symbolic figure. His role in the Jesus story, once he entered it, was, I believe, to shift the blame for the death of Jesus from the Romans, where it surely belonged, to the Jews, where it has, quite inappropriately, fed the anti-Semitic prejudices of the ages. I am not alone in this assessment. Indeed, the vast majority of the “Fellows” in the Jesus Seminar join me in this conclusion. This fact reveals one more gap between the understanding of the Bible that is held in academic circles today and that which is held by the majority of the people found in our various congregations. Local clergy, even when they know better, tend to side with their congregations.
That conclusion alone accounts for a number of things to which we have already referred in the first of these two columns on Judas. They are, indeed, hard to explain on any other basis. Let me list them in a brief review: Why is the name of the traitor identical with the name of the Jewish State? Judas is simply the Greek spelling of Judah. Why does Judas, the name of the traitor, not enter the Christian story until the 8th decade of the Christian era? Why is Paul clearly not aware of the tradition that the traitor was one of the twelve? In today’s column we move on to new evidence, which we will examine by answering this question: Why is it that every detail in the Judas story that we find in the gospels appears to have been taken from other traitor stories in the Hebrew Scriptures? Let me now bring those stories to our attention by lifting them out of the Old Testament. I begin with the oldest of the three.
In the 16th chapter of II Samuel a character named Ahithophel is introduced into the drama of the Bible. The background of his introduction is that a civil war is tearing the country apart. One of David’s sons, named Absalom, has risen in rebellion against his father, the king. Ahithophel was part of King David’s council of advice. He was respected and trusted by the king. In this capacity, he even ate at the table of the king. He became, however, a secret admirer of Absalom. When the civil war began he backed Absalom and betrayed the king. One of the official titles bestowed on King David was: “The Lord’s Anointed.” The Hebrew word translated “messiah.” literally meant “The Lord’s Anointed.” So, Jews reading this story would read it as Ahithophel “betrayed the Lord’s messiah.” It was out of this narrative, I am now convinced, that the story came of Judas being identified as one who ate at the table of the Lord. It this way Judas was said to have fulfilled the scriptures, since the psalmist had written: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted up his hand against me” (Ps. 41:9). Every one of the gospels in the story of the last Supper includes some version of this narrative. That is one of two Ahithophel reference that are incorporated into the Judas narrative.
When Ahithophel’s treachery failed and Absalom was defeated, Ahithophel knew what his future contained, so he went out, put his affairs in order and hanged himself. It was one of the Bible’s first stories of a suicide. The hanging of Judas Iscariot by his own hand, which Matthew alone tells, appears to come from this story. The traitor is one who eats at the table of the king, the Lord’s Anointed. The traitor, whose treachery fails, goes out and hangs himself. These two details, written into the Judas story, both appear to be drawn directly from the story of the traitor, Ahithophel, in II Samuel (II Sam.17ff).
“The kiss of the traitor” is the next reference to be investigated. Does that act, so closely identified with Judas, also have an antecedent in the Hebrew Scriptures? Yes, it does and it too comes out of the same cycle of David stories that surround the rebellion of his son Absalom. King David, following that civil war, felt a need to shuffle his cabinet after discovering that some were not as loyal to him as he had once thought. Amongst the casualties of this purge was Joab, David’s military captain, who was replaced by Amasa. Joab was not pleased. Under the guise of seeking out Amasa to congratulate him, Joab found Amasa at a place named Gibeon. Joab saluted Amasa with the words, “Are you well, my brother?” Then with his right hand he grabbed the beard of Amasa to draw Amasa’s face close to his own in order to give him “the kiss of friendship.” While pretending to kiss him, Joab instead took a dagger in his left hand and disemboweled Amasa on the spot. From this story, I believe, the detail of Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss came into the tradition (II Sam. 20:1-13).
One other detail in the Judas story in the New Testament also seems to root in this Joab-Amasa narrative. In a sermon attributed to Peter found in the book of Acts (Acts 1:18), a very different version of the death of Judas is recounted. In this version Judas buys a field with the money he received for his act of treachery. In that field Judas was said to have fallen “headlong and he burst open in the middle and all is bowels gushed out.” It appears that this narrative is a second reference drawn from the story of Amasa being betrayed with a kiss.
The third and final traitor story is a bit more complex. It is drawn from II Zechariah. In the Old Testament, the book of Zechariah is a single book of 14 chapters. Scholars, however, have determined that it is really two different books, placed together on the same scroll. Chapters 1-8 appear to have been written about 150 years earlier than chapters 9-14. This second book (9-14) features one called the “Shepherd King” of Israel and it was clearly influential in the development of the Jesus story. It is II Zechariah that the gospels quote to justify the abandonment by the disciples of Jesus when he was arrested (Zech. 13:7). It is the words of II Zechariah on which the Palm Sunday story is based: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king comes to you, lowly and riding on a donkey and the foal of a donkey” (Zech.9:9-11). In II Zechariah, the Shepherd King is bought off for “thirty pieces of silver” (Zech 11:12). This pay out was later thrown back into the “house of the Lord” (Zech 11:13). Those by whose hands the Shepherd King was removed turn out to be the ones who traffic in sheep in the Temple (Zech. 11:11). Zechariah then says: “All Jerusalem will look on him whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child” (Zech 12:10).
It is out of this source that the thirty pieces of silver as well as the account of this money being thrown back into the Temple treasury are lifted and placed into the Judas story. We note that these details occur only in Matthew. Every biographical detail, written into the Judas story, appears to have had its origin, not in remembered history, but in the traitor stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. After studying these texts, Judas comes across as a composite of all Old Testament traitors. Those are the things that seem to me to proclaim that Judas is a literary creation, not a person of history.
I have mentioned before that Judas becomes more and more sinister as the years pass starting with his entrance into the tradition in the writing of Mark (ca.72) and ending with John, the last gospel to be written (95-100). During those same years we also note that the character called Pontius Pilate becomes more and more sympathetically drawn and positively portrayed. Behind that shift is the historical reality that occurred during those years. A war pitting the Jews against the Roman Empire broke out in 66 CE in Galilee. Before that war ended in total defeat for the Jews at a place named Masada in 73 CE, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the Temple leveled. A great and cruel persecution and oppression by the Romans of the Jewish people followed as Rome sought to punish the perpetrators of the Jewish-Roman War.
In an effort to separate themselves from those Jews, whom the Romans held responsible for that war, the followers of Jesus, who were themselves Jews, sought to make common cause with the Romans by blaming the Orthodox leaders of Judaism for the death of Jesus. They also began to interpret the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple as God’s punishment on Judaism for its failure to recognize that Jesus was the promised messiah. These tensions grew so hostile that finally the Orthodox leaders excommunicated the followers of Jesus from the synagogue.
As the story developed, the name of the traitor became the name of the entire Jewish nation. The details from earlier Jewish traitor stories were then wrapped around the symbolic figure of Judas. Later generations of people, not knowing the origins of these details, literalized them. The time has come for us to set the record straight, to remove forever the blaming of the Jews for the death of Jesus and to cease using Judas as the prejudicial stereotype of what Jews are like. Good Friday must never again be a day that fans the anti-Semitism of the masses. Jesus did not die for this!