How would you react if someone called you a Judas? Would you instantly assume you were being called a traitor? If so, you would not be alone in that assumption, as the association of the disciple Judas and treachery has been developed for centuries. Most readers of the Bible can all remember Judas as the betrayer of Jesus. But how did Judas become so ingrained in the popular imagination as a villain over the last two thousand years? His long shadow begins with a kiss.
Each Gospel describes the role that Judas plays in the Passion. Jesus conducts the Last Supper with his disciples, prays in Gethsemane, and is arrested by soldiers led by Judas. In the Synoptic Gospels beginning with Mark (the earliest Gospel, dating to around 70 C.E.), Judas leads the soldiers and exclaims: “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard” (
Kissing in the ancient world into late antiquity was seen as an act of greeting and of deference, particularly between males. The kiss could be on the cheek or on the mouth, and such kisses are catalogued from Homer to Virgil onward. Curiously, a male kissing a female on the mouth in greeting was not typical except in Rome, where Greek historian Plutarch explains it as an action a husband takes to see if his wife has been drinking. Judas’s kiss to identify Jesus would be recognized by the Gospel audience as an act of greeting and honor, and the kiss deepens the narrative drama since Judas is performing an act of dishonor by turning Jesus in to the authorities.
Matthew depicts Judas’s demise memorably: Judas attempts to return the money he received due to his treachery and hangs himself, actually dying before Jesus does (
The most famous image of the kiss of Judas is perhaps the work by the late Middle Ages artist Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto painted Judas, eyes closed, approaching and embracing Jesus while draping Jesus’ body with his cloak. The haloed face of Jesus stands out as he looks with open eyes at Judas and stares with vivid emotion at his disciple. Giotto’s Jesus seems confident in his fate on the cross, a theme that the Gospels of Luke and John embellish. In the Renaissance, Caravaggio painted the scene with his characteristic use of light and shadow. Above Jesus and Judas, the red cloak of John seemingly binds both figures together, connecting both in the moment of betrayal, indicating the gravity of the action.
From Mark’s Gospel through centuries of culture, Judas has been progressively understood by a Christian audience as a villain whose act in Gethsemane forever connects him to Jesus. His reputation as traitor has seemingly been sealed with a kiss for two thousand years.