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:
The LORD said to Moses,
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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!