Today is known as “Spy Wednesday”, a reference to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot for thirty silver coins. This event is described in the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-12, Luke 22:3-6. We know that Judas’ betrayal was but part of a larger vortex of events that would lead to Jesus’ arrest, trails, scourging, crucifixion, and death. Only Matthew (Matthew 27:3-6 ) narrates Judas’ own death.
For all this, Judas’ name is synonymous with betrayal, and Dante, in Canto XXXIV of his “Inferno,” places him in the very lowest circle of Hell, being devoured eternally by a three-faced, bat-winged devil. Virtually every image we carry about Judas comes from Dante or a later artistic portrayal of the man – e.g., reddish hair color (Harvey Keitel in “The Last Temptation of Christ”) or his fiery disposition (“Jesus Christ Superstar”).
However, there is very little known about Judas. The Rev. John Meier, author of a multi-volume study on Jesus called A Marginal Jew is one of the leading contemporary scholars on the “historical Jesus.” In the third volume of his work, entitled “Companions and Competitors,” Meier notes that there are only two basic things known about Judas: Jesus chose him as one of the twelve apostles, and he handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities. Meier writes: “Those two bare facts enunciated above are almost all we know about the historical Judas. Beyond them lies theological speculation or novel writing, with the dividing line with the two activities not always clear-cut.”
There has been a lot of energy spent on trying to interpret meaning based on Judas’s last name, “Iscariot.” There are four main theories about the name.
- It is derived from Judas’s membership in the sicarii, or “dagger wielders,” a band of religious terrorists of the time. In this speculation Judas was aligned with the Zealots.. But, as Meier notes, the sicarii did not emerge until around 40 or 50 A.D., well after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Also, if Judas was a sicarius, then it would have been likely that he would have assassinated Jesus by stabbing him in a crowd rather than handing him over to the authorities.
- The name Iscariot is comes from the Semitic root verb sqr, meaning “to lie.” But Judas is not portrayed as a liar but a betrayer.
- Perhaps it is a link to a Semitic word describing the man’s occupation, a red dyer, or a reference to his supposed reddish hair color.
- Iscariot may refer to a place of birth, a village named Keriot in Judea. Therefore he would be, in Hebrew, “a man from Kerioth” (‘ish qeriyyot). In this construct Judas would have been the only apostle not from Galilee, making Judas an obvious outsider among the Galilean apostles. Unfortunately, it is not clear that a town called Kerioth ever existed.
In the end, says Meier, “the nickname, like the person, remains an enigma.”
But why did Judas do it? What was his motivation? As a starting point, we should see what Scripture has to say.
The Gospel of Mark, for example, gives no motivation for Judas’s sudden betrayal. Matthew, writing a decade or so later than Mark, attempts to clarify things in his account by introducing the motive of greed: “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” asks Judas to the Jewish high priests. Luke simply writes: “Then Satan entered into Judas, the one surnamed Iscariot, who was counted among the Twelve, and he went to the chief priests and temple guards to discuss a plan for handing him over to them.” Was this simply the promised return of Satan from the time of the failed temptations in the desert? (Luke 4:13)
The Gospel of John parallels the avarice theme depicting Judas as a greedy keeper of the common purse. Foe example, right before his crucifixion, when Jesus is anointed with costly fragrant oil by a woman in the town of Bethany, Judas complains asking why the money was not given to the poor. As an aside, John comments “He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions.” It should be noted that this was written 60-70 years after the event.
Confusing things even further, John has Jesus telling Judas at the Last Supper, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27) implying a bit of coercion on Jesus’ part.
Some scholars have toyed with the idea that Judas is a fictional character invented as a plot device in order to lay the blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish people. But this wholesale invention is unlikely. By the time the gospel accounts were reaching final written form (from their oral tradition beginnings) the Christian community would have still counted among its members those who were friends of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to the Passion events, or who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. All these would presumably have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. The story of one of the apostles, Judas, betraying Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact. Something to erased from the record not invent.
Overall, though, none of the four Gospels provides a clear or convincing reason for why one of the inner circle of disciples would betray the teacher he esteemed so highly. Greed, for example, fails miserably as an explanation. After all, why would someone who had travelled with the penniless rabbi for three years suddenly be consumed with greed?
One Scripture scholar, the late William Barclay, professor of divinity at Glasgow University, and author of the widely used Daily Study Bible series, suggested that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus’s hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggests, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. When Judas’ plan goes terribly wrong, this offers a better sense of explaining why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense.
It is truly sad that Judas did not persevere to see the incredible measure of good that came from Jesus’ action. It is the pitfall of being “spy.” From the shadows you think you see it all, but it is only in the light that the truth can be known.