As we approach the week of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death, it’s fitting that we consider the betrayer Judas Iscariot. Much of the New Testament teaches us by principle and by example how to follow Jesus. We enjoy feel-good stories of obedience and blessing, but we need warnings from bad examples as much as encouragement from good examples. This story of Judas Iscariot furnishes with the ultimate bad example,one that shows us how not to follow Jesus.
Apart from the crucifixion itself, the story of Judas’ betrayal is probably the saddest part of the Passion Week narrative. If you wonder about the relevance of this story for your Passion Week experience this year, remember how each of the disciples responded when Jesus told them that one of them would betray him. Instead of immediately guessing the betrayer was Judas, each of the disciples wondered whether he was the betrayer of whom Jesus was speaking (Matt 26:20-25; Mark 14:17-21; Luke 22:22-23; John 13:22). Just as Jesus’ prediction of Judas’ betrayal led the first disciples to introspection, so the story of Judas should lead us to examine our hearts this year. Apart from grace we are no better now than he was then. There’s quite a bit about Judas in all four Gospels, but we’ll focus on the Gospel of John in this post.
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Additional Passion Week-related Posts:
- Following Jesus through Passion Week
- The Cross: For Us, By Us, and In Us
- Why does it matter that the tomb was empty?
- Easter isn’t over: Learning about Life with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
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How many Judas’s in the New Testament?
Judas was a very common name in NT times. It was related to the word that means “Jew” or “Jewish,” Yehudi (יהודי) in Hebrew and Ioudaios (Ἰουδαῖος) in Greek. There are five other people in the NT besides Judas Iscariot known as Judas. We don’t want to confuse these people with the betrayer:
- Judas the brother of Jesus, who is likely the author of the little book of Jude at the end of the NT (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3).
- Judas the son of James, one of the 12 apostles (Luke 6:13; Acts 1:13). This is probably the same Judas who is distinguished from the betrayer in John 14:22 when he questions Jesus. He was probably also known as Thaddaeus in the list of the apostles found in Matt 10:4 and Mark 3:18.
- Judas the Galilean, who led a revolt against Roman taxes in AD 6. He is mentioned in Acts 5:57 and by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities 18:23.
- Judas of Damascus, in whose house Paul stayed after his vision on the way to Damascus. This is where Ananias laid hands on Saul/Paul and Paul was called to minister to the Gentiles (Acts 9:11).
- Judas Barsabbas, a prophet from Jerusalem who accompanied Paul and Barnabas to Antioch with the message from the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:22-35).
Judas the Betrayer
Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, known as Iscariot. The word Iscariot is obscure and its likely Semitic origin is difficult to understand. It may mean “man of Kerioth,” and refer to Judas’ hometown (Josh 15:25?). Today there is a Palestinian village near Nablus called Qaryout. Additional explanations attempt to link the word Iscariot to Hebrew words connoting falsehood, betrayal, or even a city or village. A popular alternative is that Iscariot is derived from the Latin word for an assassin, sicarius (“dagger-man”). Acts 21:38 speaks of a such a group of anti-Rome assassins. In this view Judas was a zealot who wished to overthrow Roman rule. When he realized Jesus was not sympathetic to that political cause, Judas betrayed him.
But was he really a betrayer? This has been debated since the early days of the church. In 2006 an ancient manuscript known as the Gospel of Judas came to light. This so-called “Gospel” was likely known to Irenaeus (Against Heresies 1.31.1) It portrayed Judas as a hero, the only disciple who was really enlightened and who helped Jesus return to the Father. In death Jesus’ spirit was released from the prison of his body. It portrays Jesus saying to Judas, You will exceed them all [the other disciples]. For you will sacrifice the man who clothes me (Gos Jud 56). This heretical late second century “Gospel” reflects gnosticism, which denies the Old Testament and the goodness of the material world. In this view Jesus chose Judas, knowing full well that Judas would hand him over to the Jewish leaders, so that he would be executed and freed from his physical body. Read more about it here if you like.
The word translated “betrayer” (παραδίδωμι/paradodOmi; Matt 10:4/Mark 3:19; John 13:2) is ethically neutral—it can describe positive actions, such as committing or entrusting someone to God’s care (Acts 14:26; 1 Pet 2:23) and the handing down or transmission of apostolic teaching (Luke 1:2; 1 Cor 11:2; Jude 3). It is commonly used for someone being arrested or turned over to the authorities (Matt 4:12; 10:19; 24:10). The word is used for Judas arranging for the Temple authorities to arrest Jesus (Matt 26:15), for the authorities handing Jesus over to Pilate for trial (Matt 27:2, 18), and for Pilate handing Jesus over to the execution squad (Matt 27:26). Accordingly, a common translation of Paul’s description of these events as “the night when he was betrayed” (1 Cor 11:23, ESV, NIV, NLT) is arguably accurate only if Paul was referring to Judas alone.
The question is really about Judas’ internal motivation and his personal relationship with Jesus. Some think that Judas didn’t really betray Jesus, he just facilitated the arrest by arranging an opportunity for Jesus to be handed over. They suggest Judas only wanted the authorities to examine Jesus’ teachings—he didn’t realize this would lead to Jesus’ crucifixion by order of the Roman governor Pilate. Although we might hope the best for Judas, when we look at the rest of the Gospel tradition, it turns out that he wasn’t simply confused. Judas wasn’t like the Roman soldiers who mocked and crucified Jesus—it is too much to suggest that he was forgiven because of ignorance. We take no joy in the sad story of Judas, but we should not manipulate the Bible in an attempt to make him into a good and decent person who was just weak and confused.
Judas the betrayer is mentioned in the following passages outside of John:
- as a member of the 12 apostles (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:19; Luke 6:16). Judas is always listed last.
- as colluding with the religious leaders to betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-16; Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-6)
- as identified by Jesus as the betrayer (Matt 26:25)
- as leading the soldiers to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane (Matt 26:47; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47)
- as experiencing sorrow, returning the 30 pieces of silver to the chief priests, and hanging himself (Matt 27:3-10/Zech 11:12-13; Jer 32:6-9; compare Acts 1:18-19)
Judas is mentioned in five passages in the Gospel of John. Interestingly, on three occasions he is called the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6:71; 13:2, 26). This clearly distinguishes him from the others named Judas.
- In John 6:66-71 people are abandoning Jesus. Jesus asks the apostles whether they will leave too. Peter speaks up for the group and says they will stay with Jesus, but Jesus says one of them is a devil.
- In John 12:1-8, Judas objects that Mary has anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment instead of selling the ointment and using the money to help the poor (12:5). This is where we learn that Judas handled the disciples’ funds dishonestly. Perhaps Jesus’ rebuke of Judas in 12:7 motivated Judas to betray Jesus.
- John 13 is the account of the last supper. Before Jesus washes the disciples feet, John mentions that Judas has already been influenced by Satan to hand Jesus over in 13:2. Then in 13:10-11 Jesus states that not all the disciples are clean, referring in a veiled way to Judas as the betrayer. Jesus later quotes Ps 41:9 in 13:18 to emphasize the treachery of his intimate friend Judas. Later in 13:21 he plainly says that one of the disciples will betray him, and reveals to Peter and the beloved disciple that the betrayer is Judas (13:24-28). Then Judas immediately leaves (13:30-31).
- In John 17:12, during his prayer for the disciples, Jesus refers to Judas as “the son of perdition,” the one disciple he is not protecting. The loss of Judas fulfills Scripture (Ps 41:9?). The term “son of perdition” is a Semitic expression meaning Judas was headed for and deserving of divine judgment (cf. Eph 2:3).
- In John 18:1-11, Judas leads the arrest party to Jesus and the disciples in a garden across the Kidron valley. Interestingly, John does not mention Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, as in Matt/Mark/Luke. In John the primary moment of betrayal is at the last supper (13:18, 26), where Judas shares table fellowship with Jesus only to spurn his hospitality. In ancient times this was especially atrocious, as the reference to Psalm 41:9 indicates.
Enigma: Why did Jesus choose a Judas?
The Gospel tradition as a whole makes it clear that Judas betrayed Jesus. We do not relish the thought of Judas as a traitor who was inspired by Satan. We would prefer to diminish Judas’ treachery, if not excuse it altogether. But Judas was inspired by Satan to be a traitor (Luke 6:16) who would desert Jesus, snitch on him, and betray him with a kiss. His diabolical act was anticipated by the experience of the Psalmist, perhaps referring to Ahithophel’s betrayal of King David (John 13:18 citing Ps 41:9; cf. 2 Sam 15-17). Instead of sympathetically trying to rehabilitate Judas’ reputation, we ought to acknowledge our own potential for apostasy and persevere all the more in our faithfulness to the Lord.
How could a person who began so near Jesus finish so far from him? Viewing his story as a cautionary tale that warns believers to persevere relieves the Judas-enigma somewhat. Noting the similarity between Judas and Saint Peter is worthwhile. How does Peter’s triple denial of Jesus (John 13:36-38; 18:15-18, 25-27) differ from Judas’ betrayal? Was Judas any worse than Peter? Why did Jesus abandon Judas on the one hand, and on the other restore Peter to his ministry (John 21)? And how are we any different than Judas? Answers to such questions are not simple. Peter’s denials were lapses that led to grief, restoration, prominent ministry, and martyrdom. By contrast Judas’ habitual dishonesty led to disillusionment, apostasy, and betrayal. Judas’ realization that he had done wrong led to suicide, not restoration. In the inscrutable plan of God, like Pharaoh, Judas was what Paul would call a vessel of dishonor (Rom 9:14-23). Judas was not a mere puppet, manipulated against his will by predestination. Judas was not a naive pawn, led by Satan into something he did not to happen. Judas was responsible for his actions, as we will also be if we turn away from the living God. Go here for a post by Pastor Colin Smith that develops this thought further. Go here for Pastor Smith’s book that creatively tells the story of Judas in his own words. Here is an interview with Pastor Smith about the book.
May the story of Judas lead us to renew and deepen our commitment to the Lord as we remember his passion again this year.
PS: Judas and Anti-Semitism
Any discussion of Judas needs to acknowledge that through the centuries some Christians have taught that Judas and his betrayal of Jesus personifies the Jewish people as a whole. Some scholars go so far as to say the original authors of the Gospels created the character of Judas to slur the Jewish people. This sort of thinking is mistaken to say the least. It plays into the anti-Semitic defamation that all Jewish people are responsible for killing Jesus. Let’s be clear—Jesus, along with his earliest followers and his earliest opponents were all Jewish. To think of the Jewish people as a whole as Christ-killers is as historically ignorant as it is morally repugnant. People who think this way turn the plan of God to bless all people through Abraham’s descendants upside down. The salvation of the world is from the Jews (Genesis 12; John 4:22; Romans 11; Eph 2:11-22), and apart from the efforts of early messianic Jewish evangelists, the gospel would never have reached the Gentiles.
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When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me.” They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely you don’t mean me?” “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Mark 14:17-21, NIV)