Saturday, June 16, 2007

Another look at Judas Iscariot

The most vilified man in the history of Western civilization has been Judas Iscariot. His name alone conjures up the image of the ultimate betrayer. The conventional wisdom says that he was one of the 12 Apostles but was always a crook and a rotter who eventually betrayed God- Incarnate to his executioners for 30 pieces of silver. And then , wracked with guilt, Judas committed suicide.

Jewish author Hyam Maccoby in his book Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992) opined that there was no historical Judas but that he was a personification of the Jewish people invented by the Early Church to vilify those Jews who did not follow Jesus. The very name "Judas" means "Jew" and Maccoby sees Judas Iscariot as the first Christian target of anti-Semitism.

Some modern authors have tried to rehabilitate Judas and make him into a(n) (anti-) hero who has been misunderstood. Such is the case in Tim Rice's Musical musical Jesus Christ: Superstar.

Recently, a 2nd Century gnostic Gospel of Judas has been discovered which portrays the other 11 Apostles as opportunists trying to set up a new "fleshy" religious system to make themselves rich. Judas is depicted as the only disciple to really understand Christ's message of "spiritual" salvation. For this reason, Judas betrays Jesus so that his "fleshy container" enclosing the God-spirit can be destroyed and the spirit let free. Judas acts out of contempt for the body at Jesus' behest. As a result, the 11 other Apostles supposedly stoned Judas and made up the story of his suicide.

I submit that all of these are ridiculous distortions of Judas that do not pay attention to what the Bible actually says about him. I submit the following ideas as an attempt to better understand who Judas really was, what he did, why he did it, and how we should understand him.

First of all, Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve Apostles chosen by Jesus himself to be in his inner circle and literally in his messianic Sanhedrin. For this reason, even as a child I could never understand why Jesus would have let an evil person get so close to him. There must have been something good -- if not exemplary -- in this man for Jesus to have elevated him to such an intimate relationship with Him. I cannot believe that Jesus would pick someone just to be His betrayer. There must have been more depth and character to Judas of which we are unaware.

Much is made of Judas's surname "Iscariot". It is believed to be a variant on the word "Sicarii" which is the plural of the Latin word for "dagger" and was used as a euphemism for a contract-killer. There was a Jewish insurgent group called the Sicarii who advocated the overthrow of the Romans and were prone to violence and murder. But Judas became a follower of Jesus who did not advocate the use of force but of love of God and neighbor and reasoned discourse. If Judas had been a Sicarii, he must have given it up to follow Christ. Jesus made fools of his enemies by tripping them up and outsmarting them. Jesus was always eloquent and no one bested Him an an argument. By becoming not only a follower of Jesus but an Apostle, Judas must have eschewed the use of force in favor of didactic disputation. In many ways, Jesus' method was like that of the great prophets of old who likewise used words and stories as their primary way of motivating the people. Judas may have seen Jesus Messiah as a new prophet/king who would come to rule Israel with wisdom and truth.

The Gospels tend to magnify Judas' faults and portray him as a hypocrite. We are told that he held the common purse of the group and stole from it (John 12:6). But is that not a mere peccadillo of which many of us are guilty? Who hasn't padded an expense account or somehow funded a pet project from company funds? Mea culpa! I find the fact that Jesus trusted Judas with money to indicate that he was a better candidate to do so than any of the other disciples. He may have dipped into the till, but he also may have been very careful with how the money was spent and kept everyone on a budget. Maybe the other Apostles resented how Judas controlled the purse strings. Nobody likes a bean-counter.

We are also told that Judas was possessed by Satan (Luke 22:3, John 13:2) who goaded him into betraying Jesus. Demonic possession is rarely willed by the victim and one cannot necessarily be held responsible for one's actions when the possessing spirit has taken active control of the body.

In St. John's Gospel, Jesus is depicted as controlling all events. After the Devil enters Judas, Jesus says to him "What you are going to do, do quickly." and Judas went out to fetch the mob to arrest Jesus. Was he addressing Judas, or Satan, or both of them? It is obvious from all the Gospels that Jesus knew Judas was gong to betray him ahead of time. Yet He let it happen.

In summation, we have a highly placed and trusted disciple of Jesus with a history of violent insurgent activity in his past who had flaws and was the victim of demonic deception. This is the man who betrays Jesus to the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. And it looks like Jesus knew what he was up to and encouraged him to do so. Why did he do it? Did he intend to have Jesus killed? Was he just after money? Was Judas alone in his betrayal of Jesus?

At this point I want to draw attention to a parallel between Judas and St. Peter. BOTH were highly placed and highly trusted disciples. BOTH had a penchant for impulsiveness and violence. BOTH were warned by Jesus that they would betray Him. And BOTH were depicted as being possessed by Satan when they opposed our Lord's teaching about himself. But I think there was a specific difference about them.

St. Peter expected Jesus to declare himself the true Davidic king of the Jews and to lead a revolt against the Romans. he was willing to fight to try and save his Lord from the mob in the Garden of Gethsemane and actually followed Jesus into the High Priest's house in order to try and set Him free.

Judas Iscariot had eschewed his violent past and had become the disciple of the wisest man in Israel who could out-think and out-argue the cleverest Pharisee or Sadducee. He was looking forward to a non-violent kingdom where Jesus by His preaching would be acclaimed as King of the Jews without the need for any fighting.

We know what happened to St. Peter. He tried violence and it didn't work and so he resigned himself having his Lord be crucified. And we know how Jesus later forgave him and rehabilitated him.

What happened with Judas?

I sincerely believe that Judas did not intend to betray Jesus to his death. Instead I think that was trying to goad Jesus into a final confrontation with the High Priest which he thought Jesus would win.

Likely Judas had high hopes that when Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph He would cleanse the Temple and depose the Sadducean priestly faction which had charge of it. There were at least six other competing priestly groups that could have filled that void. But instead, Jesus tells parables and embarrasses the Pharisees and Sadducees, but does not depose them or try to alter the status quo.

Judas could have perceived this as a missed opportunity and decided that all Jesus needed was the right venue and the right situation to undermine the Jewish leaders and have the people rise up against them. With His eloquence, Jesus would make fools of them and they would be run out of town.

So he decided to go to the High Priest and offers to turn Jesus over to him to be tried as a heretic. Judas knew that under Roman occupation, the High Priest had no power to execute anyone and with Jesus' popularity Judas doubted that the Sadducees would ever try to have him assassinated. They would be the first suspects and the Romans would have taken that as an excuse to execute them. He was also quite sure that no Jew would ever turn a fellow Jew over to the hated Romans over a purely religious dispute. I think that he expected Jesus would have had a public trial before the Sanhedrin where His rhetorical skills would triumph and no one would get hurt.

When they offered Judas money, it was icing on the cake. The fools would be paying for their own destruction! Meanwhile, the money could go back into the purse and would be used to subsidize the Church.

(There is an interesting parallel here with OT sacrifice rules in the Book of Leviticus:

Lev 5:14
The LORD said to Moses,
Lev 5:15
"If any one commits a breach of faith and sins unwittingly in any of the holy things of the LORD, he shall bring, as his guilt offering to the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued by you in shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary; it is a guilt offering.
Lev 5:16
He shall also make restitution for what he has done amiss in the holy thing, and shall add a fifth to it and give it to the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven.
Lev 5:17
"If any one sins, doing any of the things which the LORD has commanded not to be done, though he does not know it, yet he is guilty and shall bear his iniquity.
Lev 5:18
He shall bring to the priest a ram without blemish out of the flock, valued by you at the price for a guilt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for him for the error which he committed unwittingly, and he shall be forgiven.
Lev 5:19
It is a guilt offering; he is guilty before the LORD."

Note that Jesus was "bought" for thirty shekels of silver (the going value for a male slave) and that Judas tried to make restitution by buying Jesus back from the priests with silver. The priests took the money and they still sacrificed Jesus, the Lamb of God as a guilt offering for sin albeit unwittingly.

It should be noted that an "unwitting sin" was considered any unintentional breaking of the Torah or any intentional violation of it of which the sinner has repented so that he now wishes it had never happened.)

So I submit that Judas was not really intending to betray Jesus or sell Him out. He was trying to get him a "bully pulpit" so that He could make fools of the religious leaders of the Jews and lead to their downfall. And he certainly did not think that Jesus was in any physical danger.

This was Judas' way of forcing the issue and goading Jesus into taking the action that Judas thought he needed to do. Just like St. Peter, Judas was not listening when Jesus predicted his betrayal, passion, and death. Judas had his own agendas and wanted to "help Jesus along" with his mission.

Then everything started to go wrong. Jesus was not arrested in an orderly fashion. He was assaulted by a mob that beat him. There was no public trial but an informal (and illegal) private interrogation in the High Priest's house. Instead of dazzling his enemies with His eloquence, Jesus remained silent throughout the proceedings. He did not say anything in His own defense. At the end, the Sanhedrin voted him guilty of blasphemy and then they did the unthinkable: they decided to turn Jesus over to the Romans as a seditious revolutionary who advocated the violent overthrow of Roman rule. Jesus was thus condemned to death for being what Judas Iscariot himself had been before he became a follower of Our Lord!

Judas had never intended this to happen. He went back to the priests and tried to buy Our Lord back from them, but they refused. It was crazy, but Jesus was actually dying in Judas' place for the very crime of sedition that Judas had been guilty of!

Judas' plan had not only failed but Jesus was going to pay the ultimate price and in Judas' eyes he had single-handedly caused the downfall of the Messiah. It is no wonder that he became depressed. So depressed that he went out and hung himself in a secluded place. His body remained hanging for so long that his bowels became inflated with bacterial gases and his abdomen literally exploded and his bowels gushed out.

And so ended the life of Judas the betrayer of Christ.

I find the fate of Judas very sad. He likely never intended what had happened and he did not gloat about it. In fact, he regretted it all. So much so that he could not live with himself afterwards.

In a world that was motivated by pure justice in which the punishment fit the crime, Judas deserved no more than damnation. But we must remember that God does not work that way. He is the God of mercy and love who justifies the ungodly, rejoices more in the repentance of the sinner than in one hundred just men who have no need of repentance and counsels us to forgive our brethren from our hearts

We do not know the state of Judas' soul at the moment of his death. Most likely he received the just deserts for what he did. But I always hold out a hope that the man who told us to forgive our brother 70 times 7 times might forgive Judas this one time. He might count Judas' suicide as a disordered act of penitence by a man so sorry for what he had done that he could not think straight. Like my Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked should turn from his evil ways and live (Ezekiel 33:11).

And this hope serves a higher purpose. If there can be hope for Judas Iscariot, then there is hope for the rest of us! And to be honest, I identify better with the poor screw-up who blew it than with those sleek and sassy saints who never seem to have taken a misstep. May God have mercy on us all!



AcemacD said...

The primary purpose of the life of Christ was to go to the cross to die for you and me for the remittance of our sins, as part of the overall plan of God Judas was chosen to be the agent whom the devil used to send Jesus to the cross. The devil thought he would win by using Judas but God knew that he would win by enabling the devil to use Judas. Sneaky but flawless, perfect plan.

Art Sippo said...

And so Judas was human garbage to be used, abused and disposed of. The nicest thing I can say about that is that it is a sub-Christian horror masquerading as piety.

Sorry, Alastair, but I think your mean-spiritedness has blinded you. Judas was a man chosen by God to be part of the inner circle of the Apostles. He made a lapse of judgement just like St. Peter did, but he was so distraught and sorry for what he had done that he took his own life.

No real Christian can dismiss any fellow human as merely being "used" by God like an inanimate tool. We are made in God's image and He loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for our sins. No one is disposable or dispensable. Evey human soul is infinitely precious and the damnation of even one is a tragedy. Until you can understand that, you cannot follow Jesus.

Jesus came to save sinners, not the (self-)righteous. Judas was foremost among those sinners. Can you not see that it is possible for the one who told us to "love our enemies and do good to those who hate you" to be able to forgive this one poor sinner?


raumzeitmc2 said...

No real Christian can dismiss any fellow human as merely being "used" by God like an inanimate tool.

I agree with you 100%, Art.

But I can tell, you I have met so-called Christians who, in order to preserve their “guaranteed salvation,” would gladly consign, not only Judas, but even entire worlds to eternal damnation, so utter and complete is their obsession with their own salvation. But is not this the very antithesis of Christ's teaching?

"For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it." Matthew 16:25

And surely such an unrelenting preoccupation with one's own salvation is what has "blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts" (Jn 12:40)to God's great love of, and desire for, the salvation of all souls. And not surprisingly, many of these folks are spiritual heirs of John Calvin, a man who once said:

“All things being at God’s disposal, and the decision of salvation or death belonging to him, he orders all things by his counsel and decree in such a manner, that some men are born devoted from the womb to certain death, that his name may be glorified in their destruction.” – Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23. – From Wikiquote

I believe however, that Calvin's teachings are in marked contrast to those of Christ:

"Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the LOST SHEEP until he finds it?” Luke 15:4

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to SAVE WHAT WAS LOST." Luke 19:10

And also:

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because HE IS KIND TO THE UNGRATEFUL AND WICKED.” Luke 6:35

For my part, I infinitely prefer Christ to Calvin.


Ben M

Art Sippo said...

Amen, Ben!

James Jordan said...

Somehow I don't think you actually read what Maccoby said.

Paul says Jesus appeared to the 12 -- 12, not 11.

Mark has Jesus appear to the 11, and so does John -- who is missing? Thomas, not Judas. Doubting Thomas wasn't there. When Jesus finally appears to him, there you have all 12. Judas is still alive.

Furthermore, the Pharisees knew what Jesus looked like so Judas kissing him to identify him is nonsense. The story of the betrayal suffers from John making Jesus miraculously known the arresters over by saying "I am he" when they say they seek Jesus -- he knocks them over twice. And if Jesus is going to admit he's Jesus, what need for Judas' identifying kiss?

Judas only commits suicide in Matthew and Acts, but they contradict. Matthew has him give the 30 pieces back to the priests, who buy a field with it which is called Akel Dama because they bought it to bury strangers. Acts has Judas himself buy the field with the 30 pieces, and hang himself in it, and the name Akel Dam derive from that. In one he merely hangs himself, and in another he "fell headlong."

So Judas is fiction. Too many inconsistencies. He's alive still in this gospel but committed suicide in that one. The story of Judas' betrayal is entirely made up, and that's without even mentioning how John has Jesus give him permission to "betray" him (thus making it no longer a betrayal). Its fiction.

Art Sippo: said...

Sorry, Mr. Jordon, but you are guilty of the same selective reading of Scripture as Hyam Maccoby. According to you two, when it suits you, you are crass biblical literalists ("Jesus appeared to the 12") but when it doesn't you dismiss the Word of God as mere fiction.

The Bible in both Testaments as defined by the Catholic Church is composed of 73 books which are Inspired by the Holy Spirit and Inerrant. The Bible does not err and it does not lie.

Judas Iscariot was a real human being who was a member of Jesus' inner circle of disciples (collectively known as the Twelve for symbolic reasons even if only a quorum was present) who betrayed his master for reasons that are not entirely clear. Judas loved money. He devised a scheme which he thought would goad Jesus and/or his entourage into revolutionary action against the Roman-backed status quo and line Judas'pockets at the same time. Sadly, his plan back fired. He led Jesus' enemies right to him in the dead of night away from the protection of the crowds and identified him in the dark just in case Jesus tried to sneak off. But Jesus did not try to escape. Our Lord embraced his capture and even warned the other disciples to run away and leave him.

When it became clear that Jesus was going to be killed and the whole dream of a Messianic revolution would die with him Judas tried to undo what he did and buy Our Lord back with the silver pieces he had been given. When the priests mocked him he threw the coins into the temple and ran off. The priests gathered the money and did not know what to do with them because they were tainted as blood money. They put them aside for a while they made up their minds.

Meanwhile Judas hung himself in despair from a tree in a field on the outskirts of town. His body remained there for a few days baking in the hot sun until the expanding gas from the bacteria in his decomposing intestines caused his abdomen to burst spraying his body and his viscera onto the ground. This rendered the ground ritually impure and not fit for any ordinary use by the Jews. The priests then used the 30 pieces of silver to buy that piece of land to bury non-Jews who died in Jerusalem.

No fiction, Jimmy. It just takes a little effort - and some faith - to put the truth together.