He is the exemplar of treachery, the shadow defined by Light. To this day his name--Judas Iscariot--remains a synonym for betrayal.
But what if the traditional understanding of Judas is actually a distortion? What if he is actually a victim of a sort of theological libel--a 1st century bad press--that helped create two millenniums of Christian anti-Semitism?
As Christians observe Good Friday, New Testament scholars are reexamining Judas’ role in the fateful events that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. The scholarship is part of a broader movement to find the historical nuggets that underlie Christian Scripture. Some of the scholars suggest that Judas may be the most misunderstood villain in history.
Of course, you don’t have to be a New Testament scholar--or even a Christian--to be fascinated by a character like Judas.
The traditional story is set out in the sometimes changing accounts of the Gospels: Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, conspired with the chief priests of the Temple to have Jesus arrested for blasphemy. In exchange for 30 pieces of silver he led Jesus’ captors to a secret location in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, in the dark of night, as a sign to the police, he betrayed his Lord with a kiss.
In modern popular culture, the 1971 rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” is told through the eyes of Judas, portrayed as a disillusioned disciple who betrays Jesus to save the movement. The 1988 motion picture “The Last Temptation of Christ” offers a revisionist view of Judas. In the movie, Judas agrees to an act of betrayal only after Jesus insists he must die on the cross. In the 1950s, when Nikos Kazantzakis wrote the book on which the movie was based, its notion of Jesus and Judas in league together was so shocking that the author was excommunicated by the Greek Orthodox Church.
And for centuries, the story of a disciple gone monstrously wrong has remained a cautionary tale for Christians. The implicit question: Might they too be capable of betrayal?
But beneath those metaphors and traditions, is there a historical truth?
The traditional Christian account of Judas is put together from bits and pieces of the New Testament. Judas is not mentioned in the earliest Christian writings--the letters known as epistles, many written by the Apostle Paul between AD 40 and 60.
In the Gospels, which were written later, Judas’ character becomes increasingly prominent and sinister. The Gospel of Mark, which scholars believe was finished around AD 70, devotes 169 words to Judas. By comparison, the Gospel of John, probably written at the end of the 1st century, devotes 489 words to Judas and portrays him as a full-blown villain who betrayed his Lord for money--the traditional 30 pieces of silver.
Scholars see that progression within the Scriptural accounts as significant. The Gospels, they note, were written at a time when the early church--still a Jewish sect, not yet a separate religion--was riven by internal arguments.
Believers in Jesus as the Messiah differed sharply among themselves on points of their emerging Christian doctrine. At the same time, they engaged in sharp, sometimes bitterly angry, polemics with leading figures of what eventually became Rabbinic Judaism.
As Christianity and Judaism diverged in those early centuries, those arguments eventually led many of the early Christians to adopt a sharply anti-Jewish tone. That tone deepened further as the new Church reached out more and more to Gentile converts.
The story of Judas as a villain, some scholars suggest, played into the need to differentiate Christian from Jew.
Indeed, by the end of the 4th century, St. Augustine, the most influential of the early Christian theologians, was teaching that St. Peter was the biblical exemplar for the church, while Judas, the betrayer, represented the Jews.
The Judas story “was exploited as anti-Jewish polemic in dramatic literature and art, depicting Judas with grossly exaggerated Semitic features and generalizing his love for money,” wrote the late Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown, whose two-volume study, “The Death of the Messiah,” is considered to be among the most authoritative published.
Of course, that was then. Since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, the Roman Catholic Church has declared that Jews are not responsible as a people for Jesus’ death and are “most dear to God.” Anti-Semitism is forbidden by the Catholic church’s teachings and catechism. Other Christian churches have also made declarations against anti-Semitic interpretations of the Bible.
And some of the scholars now reinterpreting Judas’ story say openly that their efforts are driven, at least in part, by a desire to fully rid the churches of anti-Semitic vestiges.
One of the most outspoken is William Klassen, a research professor at L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem.
“Jesus never chose a traitor. He chose a man whom he could depend on to do his thing. There’s no betrayal involved,” Klassen argues.
The key for Klassen is a single Greek word--paradidomi.
Traditionally, that word has been translated as “betray.” But Klassen, along with other scholars, argues it actually should be translated “to hand over.”
The distinction may seem to be splitting theological hairs, but Biblical scholars insist it is weighty. One translation makes Judas a traitor. The other could make him an agent of divine will.
In a key biblical passage from the Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 11:23-24)--a passage from which the Christian Eucharistic service takes its words--Paul used the word paradidomi. The traditional translation is ". . . the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ ”
Paul’s account does not say who betrayed Jesus. Nor does it give any hint why anyone would do so. But once the idea of betrayal was raised, later Gospel writers filled in the blanks--Jesus, they said, was betrayed by Judas for the money.
The alternative theory is that Paul’s use of the word did not mean that Jesus was “betrayed” at all, but only that he was “arrested” or “handed over.”
However it is translated, many scholars say that Paul had a higher purpose in mind in his letter--to link Jesus with the “suffering servant” mentioned in the prophecy of Isaiah who was despised and rejected by others and gave up his life for his friends. The emphasis was on God’s action. The human agent’s role was incidental.
The idea that paradidomi may not mean betrayal is also conditionally supported in a new third edition of the authoritative Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, to be published in June.
In it, editor Frederick William Danker writes that the word paradidomi, as used in the New Testament, can have a far more benign meaning than “betray.”
“It is not certain that when Paul refers to ‘handing over,’ ‘delivering up,’ ‘arresting’ he is even thinking of the action taken against Jesus by Judas, much less interpreting it as betrayal,” Danker wrote in his commentary.
Danker, who is an authority on Greco-Roman literature, papyri and epigraphs, said in an interview that “when this hits the fan there’ll be a lot of discussion about some of my departures from traditional wording.”
Klassen goes further in his 1996 book, “Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus?”
Gleaning the meanings of the earliest accounts, he argues that Jesus and Judas together arranged Jesus’ arrest as a means of presenting him to the chief priests and elders to make the case that he was the Messiah.
“I maintain the evidence is that Judas had some preliminary discussion with the temple authorities. [But] the decision to go to them, telling them where Jesus was to be found, was not made until after the Last Supper,” Klassen said. “Judas hoped that Jesus would have a chance to establish his credentials before the high priests.”
No one was more surprised than Judas when Jesus was turned over to the Romans after a night of questioning, Klassen hypothesizes.
Further, Klassen said, Judas may have hanged himself, not out of guilt, but out of a tradition of a soldier’s dying with his king. Klassen points to an intriguing painting, done between AD 350 and AD 370, that hangs in the British Museum and may preserve an alternative tradition edged out by what is now the Gospel account.
The painting depicts Jesus on the cross and Judas next to him hanging from a tree. Aside from the fact that Jesus and Judas are pictured together, what fascinates Klassen is a nest of birds in the hanging tree. The mother bird is feeding her young.
“In ancient art, that is always a sign of hope,” he said.
Most scholars, including Danker, take issue with Klassen’s theme of friendship to the bitter end. Klassen’s book is loaded “with a lot of perhaps and possibilities,” Danker says.
But many agree that, if not a good guy, Judas was probably a man of far more complexity and mixed motives than the Gospel accounts suggest.
“Probably it was a complex human story. Most human beings have very mixed motives, and to see Judas only as a terrible person with very bad motives is probably a mistake,” said Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop Frederick H. Borsch, a New Testament scholar and the author of books on Jesus.
For all the scholarship, however, Judas’ dark reputation appears to have been sealed by theology and tradition.
In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is relegated to the lowest pits of hell, where he is eaten, head first, by a three-headed demon with flapping bat-like wings. In the popular imagination, that may be where he remains.
“The story is so firmly entrenched that I don’t think it’s going to change. He’s the person who got Jesus into that fix,” Borsch said.
“If you want to know who was responsible, in some real sense, of course, God was. . . . Just as we say that God was present with Jesus, and God was in Jesus taking the responsibility, in some sense God is responsible for Judas, too. I think, finally, we have to trust Judas to God.”