Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

The Paradox of Judas’ Deed

Posted by foryourfaith on March 24, 2010


The name of Judas Iscariot has become a byword for betrayal, and his kiss the symbol of treachery. The first time Judas is mentioned in each of the Gospels, he is identified as the traitor. The Gospel of John goes so far as to call him “a devil” (John 6:70). Yet Judas remains an enigmatic character. Who is he? Why did he betray Jesus? What became of him?

Though the name Judas was common in the time of Jesus, the puzzling designation “Iscariot” was not, and it perhaps holds a clue to Judas’ background. The Gospel of John spoke both of “Judas Iscariot” and of “Judas the son of Simon Iscariot.” Thus, the term perhaps applied to Judas’ whole family. The most common guess at its meaning links it to a Hebrew phrase meaning “man from Kerioth,” thought to be a town in southern Judea. If correct, this suggestion would mean that Judas was probably the only one of the twelve from Judea. Did he feel like an outsider among the disciples from Galilee? The ancient texts do not give us an answer to this.

Another suggestion is that “Iscariot” derives from the Latin word sicarius meaning “dagger-man,” the designation of one of the most radical, anti-Roman of Jewish factions, a group that used terror tactics to deal with those who collaborated with Rome. If so, then perhaps Judas became disaffected because Jesus failed to take a radical stand against Rome and even approved the payment of Roman taxes (Mark 12:13-17). The greatest problem with this suggestion is that the ancient historian Josephus indicates that the Sicarii arose as a faction after AD 52, more than 20 years after the death of both Jesus and Judas. Other guesses have interpreted “Iscariot” to mean “man from Sychar” (a Samaritan), “carrier of the leather bag” (scortea), and “false one, liar” (an Aramaic Christian designation).

The Gospels provide no clear religious or political rationale for Judas’ betrayal. Matthew suggested that his motive was simply greed by describing how he bargained with the chief priests for 30 pieces of silver – the recompense that the Torah required for the accidental killing of a slave. Mark and Luke, however, indicated that chief priests were the ones who first made the offer of money. John wrote that during Jesus’ ministry Judas held the trusted position of treasurer for the twelve, and John accused him of stealing their funds. But when he wrote of the betrayal, John did not mention money.

For Luke and John, Judas’ personal motives were less important than the assertion that it was Satan that brought about the betrayal. Still important for the Gospel writers was the fact that God’s will determined the manner of Jesus’ death (Mark 14:21). John indicated that the disciples suspected nothing when Judas quickly left the Last Supper to prepare for Jesus’ arrest.

When the moment of arrest came, Judas led a large group to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives. Since Jesus was a public figure, it is unlikely that Judas’ kiss was needed to identify Jesus. Matthew, Mark, and Luke portray Judas leading “a crowd” of Jews, including many who had heard Jesus teach in the temple (Mark 14:43-49). On the other hand, John described Judas leading Jewish officers and a “band of soldiers.” The term John used indicates a company of Roman troops.

What became of Judas? The New Testament provides two accounts. Matthew reported that he repented, returned the money, and in deep remorse went out and hanged himself. The priests used the tainted money to buy a burial ground for foreigners, a potter’s field called the “Field of Blood” (Matthew 27:3-10)

The Book of Acts recorded that Judas himself bought a field with the money and “falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” so that his field was called “Field of Blood” (Acts 1:18-19). From his beginning to his horrible end, the dark character of Judas Iscariot remains an enigma.


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