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Giotto di Bondone

Yudah, one of the most common Aramaic names among Jews during the first-century, becomes “Judas” in English. One of Jesus’ brothers bore this name (Mark 6:3); so did a disciple who carried the nickname “the Twin,” giving us Judas Thomas (in the Gospel according to Thomas). But the most well-known man to bear the name was Judas called Iscariot. That designation might be a reference to a town or village, but rendered into Aramaic, Iscariot can also mean “man of pollution,” signaling Judas’ infamy. Although he was one of the twelve followers selected by Jesus to represent him as his agents, Judas is remembered preeminently as the disciple who betrayed Jesus.

Toward the close of the Gospel narrative, Judas goes to the Jewish high priest in order to reveal Jesus’ location to the authorities. They follow Judas to Jesus at the place called Gethsemane, and Judas greets his master with the customary kiss. The local Judean authorities deliver Jesus to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, who arranges crucifixion, a Roman method of dealing with crimes against the empire.

The Gospel of Matthew narrates Judas’ regret when he learns that Jesus is condemned; he then commits suicide (Matt 27:3-8). In this scene, Judas attempts to return thirty pieces of silver he had been paid prior to the betrayal, but the authorities in the temple refuse to touch it. Judas hangs himself while they use the funds to buy a cemetery for strangers called “Field of Blood.” In contrast to Matthew’s emphasis on Jewish complicity before and after the betrayal, the book of Acts has Judas dying in a fall that disemboweled him after he bought the field, so that his own blood earns the field its name (Acts 1:18-20). The barren impurity of Judas is more important to Acts than is the issue of Jewish culpability.

What motivated Judas, according to the Gospels?

The Gospels address his motivation in two ways, both of them theological. One explanation is that Satan entered into Judas, in effect possessing him (Luke 22:3). On the other hand, in the story of the Last Supper, Jesus says that one of those eating with him will hand him over as part of his necessary course to death (Luke 22:21). So side by side with the explanation of Satanic possession, there is another, involving divine necessity. John’s Gospel, the last to be written, combines the two explanations. It has Jesus hand Judas a piece of food, telling him to act quickly, and says that from that moment Satan entered into Judas (John 13:26-27). This motif of Judas and Jesus as complicit in the actions that led up to Jesus’ death is developed in the later Gospel of Judas, which does not appear in the canonical Bible.

These divergent theological explanations reflect the ambivalence in the Greek word used to describe Judas as a betrayer. Although the verb paradidomi can be used in the sense of “betray,” it can also mean “hand over” or “deliver.” The very same word is used in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of the necessity of his being delivered to the authorities (see, for example, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:33, and Mark 14:41).

Why did Judas’ action result in Jesus’ death?

By the time that Judas consulted with Caiaphas, the Roman-appointed high priest, Jesus had stormed into the temple with his followers and upset commercial arrangements there (Mark 11:15-17, Matt 21:12-17, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-22). Jesus compounded this direct challenge to the most central religious institution of his time with a claim to set up an alternative sacrifice. If we appreciate Jesus’ Last Supper in its original setting, we can understand the underlying motive of Judas’ “betrayal” of his master.

Jesus had long taken part in fellowship meals with followers. But after his occupation of the temple, he began to say over the wine, “This is my blood,” and over the bread, “This is my body” (Matt 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20, 1Cor 10:16-17, 1Cor 11:24-25). He proclaimed that this “blood,” symbolized by the wine, was equivalent to actual blood poured onto the altar. “This bread is my body,” he said, to replace the meat customarily offered in the same way. This claim to replace ordinary sacrifice disturbed many of the disciples, Judas included (John 6:60-71), because it displaced the Jerusalem temple as the central focus of worship in Judaism. Judas sought an opportunity to inform the priests when Jesus would be close enough to the temple so that their police could seize him. But the high priest had no authority to crucify: that was a uniquely Roman means of execution.

Unknown to Judas and to Jesus, Pontius Pilate had to contend with the loss of his backer in Rome, named Sejanus. When Sejanus was toppled from power and killed, Pilate needed to make common cause with Caiaphas for political reasons. They formed a deadly alliance that created the conditions for Jesus’ crucifixion, giving Judas the dubious honor of being remembered as Jesus’ betrayer. Although his full motivations cannot be known precisely, Judas may have wished to do no more than frighten his teacher back to Galilee, away from the controversies in Jerusalem. The unexpected events in Rome that had made Pilate and Caiaphas into allies made Judas’ memory synonymous with treachery.

  • Bruce Chilton

    Bruce Chilton is Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College and author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography (Doubleday, 2000) and The Way of Jesus: To Repair and Renew the World (Abingdon, 2010).