The word “Judas” has become synonymous with “one who betrays under the appearance of friendship—after Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus” (Webster’s II New College Dictionary). The Gospel of Judas, released last year as a major media event, reinterpreted Judas’ motivations not as betrayal but as obedience to Jesus himself. But what if both of these interpretations are historically inaccurate? Michael J. Cook, HUC-JIR Bronstein Professor of Judeo-Christian Studies and author of Modern Jews Engage the New Testament: Enhancing Jewish Well-Being in a Christian Environment (Jewish Lights, 2008), explains why and how Judas came to be branded—falsely—as the personification of betrayer.
Tell us about the origins of the Gospel of Judas.
The Gospel of Judas was written in Coptic near the turn of the fourth century. Contained in an ancient leather-bound papyrus codex, it was unearthed in an Egyptian cave in the 1970s and circulated, in deteriorating condition, among antiquities dealers before its release last year. It may be a translation of a Greek original dating from the late second century C.E., a time when many such Christian texts were produced.
What does the Gospel of Judas wish to convey?
The text interprets the biblical Judas’ act not as betrayal but as obedience to Jesus’ instructions. Written not by Judas himself but by an anonymous Christian devotee of Gnosticism—a system of belief emphasizing the soul’s craving to escape its entrapment within a material (hence evil) body—the Gospel of Judas claims that, by colluding in Jesus’ arrest, Judas facilitated the release of Christ’s spirit from its physical constraints as part of a Divine plan, so that humankind could be redeemed through the death of Jesus’ mortal body.
If Judas was doing what Jesus asked as part of the Divine plan, doesn’t the Gospel of Judas exonerate Judas as a betrayer?
If this version of the Judas story were true, yes. But the Gospel of Judas is only fanciful. It conveys nothing historically reliable about the actual Judas; it merely uses his image as a vehicle to convey ideas cherished by its Gnostic author. A more important consideration, for Jews especially, is whether the version of Judas conveyed by the New Testament itself is true.
Why is that?
The idea of Jesus being betrayed by a disciple named “Judas” (keep in mind that “Judas” and “Jew” sound and are spelled almost alike in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek) paralleled the notion of Jesus’ communal betrayal by “the Jews,” making it easier for Christians of the late first century to affix the blame for Jesus’ death onto the Jewish nation as a whole. Ever since, throughout the centuries, the Judas story has had a toxic impact on Jews. The presentation of Judas as selling out Jesus for money, for example, fed into later stereotypes of Jews as misers and money-grubbers.
But would average churchgoers have drawn such connections?
Quite easily, if they heard these notions preached again and again. Also, the art of the time, which functioned as literature for the illiterate, conveyed such connections. Many Renaissance paintings depicting Judas at the Last Supper, or Judas identifying Jesus with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, accord him a grossly exaggerated hooked nose (often shown expressly in profile), and/or with horns, carrying a money bag, or wearing yellow clothes. Yellow was the color Christian artists designated for the Jews, and hence for the badges Jews were forced to wear intermittently from the thirteenth century on, including during the Nazi era.
Might Jewish history have been less tragic had the Gospel of Judas been true?
Yes, had Judas been portrayed in Christian teachings as a faithful friend of Jesus, many anti-Jewish stereotypes fostered by the New Testament might have been precluded, as well as their even grosser embellishments over time. For example, according to the second-century Church writer Papias, after Judas died his “flesh became so swollen, that where a wagon could pass with ease he was unable to....He died on his own property, which…remained...deserted because of the stench” (Eusebius’ Church History, 3.36.2). Twelve hundred years later, a search for Judas in Dante’s Inferno (Divine Comedy, early 1300s) finds him frozen at the very bottom level, head-first in Lucifer’s central mouth, clawed, bitten, and chewed for eternity (34.58-63).
Does embellishment also occur within the New Testament, comparing early and later Gospels?
Yes, it does. The Judas story, as it goes in the earliest Gospel, Mark (written around 72 C.E.), is quite skeletal. Here, Judas offers to assist Jewish authorities bent on arresting Jesus. During the Last Supper, Jesus predicts his betrayal by someone present and warns of the traitor’s fate. All adjourn to the Garden of Gethsemane, where an armed party, led by Judas, arrives. Judas kisses Jesus to identify him for the captors. When we move on to Matthew (in the mid-80s), the embellishments begin. While in Mark we learn nothing about Judas’ motives—Judas does not request payment for his services and rewarding him with pieces of silver is the Jewish priests’ idea—Matthew has Judas demand upfront, “What will you give me if I deliver him to you?” (26:15). Luke (mid-90s) and John (ca. 100) add a further motivational embellishment: Satan is acting through Judas. Also consider what happens to Judas over the course of the first three Gospels. In Mark the reader learns nothing of Judas’ fate after the betrayal. Matthew presents Judas as so overwhelmed by remorse that he returns the priests’ money and hangs himself (27:3). In Luke (Acts 1:18ff.) Judas ruptures himself in a fall (or swells up) and bursts asunder. (John is silent concerning what transpired with Judas thereafter.) Nowadays we sometimes hear creative ways of reconciling these disparate modes of death—for example, a claim that the rope for Judas’ hanging snapped, plummeting him to the ground where he exploded upon impact—yet another form of embellishment!
How can we be sure that Mark’s own account does not embellish an earlier tradition?
I believe this is just what happened when Mark designated the betrayer’s name, thereby initiating the connection between “Judas” and “Jew.” This would explain the otherwise oddly repetitive refrain in Mark that Judas was “one of the twelve” (14:10, 20, 43; cf. 3:14, 19). In the story circulating before Mark inherited it, I suspect, the traitor was unspecified, other than as “one of the twelve,” and it was Mark himself who named Judas as the traitor. Mark, I believe, was probably influenced by the story in Genesis in which Judah (Judas, in Greek), “one of twelve” sons of Jacob, suggested selling Joseph (37:25-28), and later received pieces of silver from the merchant purchasers. Deciding that the “one of the twelve” was Judas in particular made it easier for Mark to affix the blame for Jesus’ death onto the Jewish nation whose name Judas bore, as if to say that it was not only Judas the Jew but Judas “the Jews” who betrayed Jesus. And since it was during a meal that Judah had suggested selling Joseph, Mark spliced into the original Last Supper narrative Jesus’ announcement that he expected to be betrayed (14:18-21).
If we could strip away all embellishments, what happened in the betrayal?
Frankly, I doubt there was any betrayal at all. The evidence for it is weak and the evidence against it strong. The earliest reference citing the supposed betrayal is Paul’s text: “The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Yet in Greek, the word for “betrayed” also means “delivered up,” and when you look at the scope of his writings, every time Paul uses this word in reference to Jesus, he means that Jesus was “delivered up to death.” With this new understanding, the Last Supper passage would actually mean: “the Lord Jesus on the night when he was delivered up to death.” If this is Paul’s sole reference to the betrayal, and if the translation is itself faulty, then Paul, about fifteen years before the Gospel of Mark, says nothing of any “betrayal” after all. So our strongest evidence outside the Gospels disappears. I believe most New Testament translators chose “betrayed” on the assumption that Paul had the betrayal in mind; in short, their assumption predetermined their mistranslation. These days, most experts on Paul agree that Paul meant no such thing. The betrayal story doesn’t add up for other reasons as well. Consider that both Matthew and Luke relate Jesus’ promise that each of his twelve followers would come to occupy a throne judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:21,30; cf. Matthew 19:28). At the same time, in both Mark and Matthew, Jesus says that the betrayer would have been better off “if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21; Matthew 26:24). How could the notion that Judas would be awarded a judgeship ever have arisen in an environment where he was already known to have betrayed Jesus? The betrayal story therefore could not have existed early on; it only could have arisen after the judgeship promise was accepted within the tradition. These contradictions lead me to believe that the betrayal story was improvised and introduced into Christian tradition at a later time.
What could have prompted the myth of betrayal by a follower of Jesus?
As the Jesus Movement grew after his death, Jesus began to be thought of in increasingly exalted terms—approaching and eventually becoming a deific being. In this light, it would have been difficult to imagine that Jesus would have fallen prey so easily to mere mortals. Hence, the surmise may have arisen that the captors must have had inside help, even from “one of the twelve.” This kind of reasoning might in fact have contributed to the misunderstanding of Paul’s Last Supper reference as the night when Jesus “was betrayed.” What most likely helped the betrayal story coalesce was the need, in the 60s C.E., to shame Christians who were betraying one another, to comfort families of loved ones who were so victimized, and to calm the Christian community that was witnessing such betrayals.
What caused betrayal and fear among Christians?
In 64C.E., a large area of Rome was engulfed by fire. The emperor Nero was suspected of having had the fire set so as to facilitate enlargement of his palace complex. To divert suspicion from himself, he scapegoated Christians and ordered them set on fire atop poles to serve as street lamps for the city (Tacitus, Annals xv.44). In order to round up more Christians, he directed that those already in captivity be tortured until they betrayed their fellows. The Gospel of Mark recalls this time when betrayal of Christians was running rampant, with informants drawn from one’s erstwhile friends, even relatives: cf. “brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child...” (13:9). Consider here, once again, how the same Greek verb allowed the concepts of “deliver up” and “betray” to be used interchangeably.
Would a story of Jesus’ betrayal have helped Christians of the time?
Yes. Christians who had been betrayed probably identified with a Jesus who had himself been “delivered up”/ “betrayed” by one of his closest companions, and would have felt assured that he would see them through their plight. Then, also, families experiencing the horror of losing a loved one in this fashion similarly would have felt that their “Lord” was with them. In addition, the traitor story would have alerted Christians that, just as Jesus and his followers could not have prevented the betrayal of Jesus, the Church could not protect itself from traitors. Lest overly confident, loyal Christians imagine themselves immune from betraying tendencies, think of Jesus’ own deceiver, himself one of the twelve.
You noted that Mark may have been influenced to identify Judas as the traitor by drawing on a story from Genesis. Did the Gospel writers commonly use the Bible in this way?
Yes. In the absence of real evidence, Christians used Jewish Scripture—at the time their only Bible—to embellish “information” about Jesus. They looked for clues presumed predictive of him. For example, the Judas episode may have been embellished from motifs or themes echoing stories about King David—as if to suggest that whatever David experienced had transpired also with Jesus, David’s “son,” since Jesus was thought to be descended from him. Consider how Ahithophel, the trusted advisor of King David, betrays the king and hangs himself in remorse (2 Samuel 17:23)—as Judas does (in Matthew). “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,” laments David, “who ate my bread [again, think of the Last Supper], has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9; cf. John 13:18).
If the betrayal is only a legend, what do we know about the actual Judas?
Very little, other than that he actually existed as one of Jesus’ followers, which we know from his inclusion on the lists of named disciples in various Gospel texts (e.g., Mark 3:16-19; Matthew 10:2-6; Luke 6:14-16)—lists most scholars consider to derive authentically from early Christian tradition.
And the image of this faithful disciple has been sullied ever since.
Yes, and Judas is not alone. The images of all the close followers of Jesus were sullied. The Gospel of Mark finds all twelve to be “hardened of heart” (cf. 6:52; 8:17), an expression otherwise reserved for the wicked Pharaoh. The three disciples Peter, James, and John are depicted as imperiling Jesus’ life by falling asleep three times while they’re on guard (and against Jesus’ express command) in Gethsemane—and all the while Peter insists that although the other disciples will deny Jesus, he never will. And it is Peter—not Judas—whom Jesus calls “Satan” (8:33). In addition, the Gospel writers say that none of the disciples shows up to succor Jesus amidst his agony on the cross.
Yet Judas is the one whose name has becomesynonymous with perfidy.
Right. The accounts about the actions of Peter, James, and John are often dismissed as inconsequential by Gospel readers, but the accounts of Judas are not.
What’s the lesson here?
We must keep in mind that often in ancient writings the communal needs of the writer’s day determined how the material was cast. In Judas’ case, the Gospel of Mark made him into a traitor, most likely, I believe, to meet the needs of the Christian church community in the city of Rome around 70 C.E. Similarly, the writer of the Gospel of Judas portrayed Judas in a way that reflected the needs of a Gnostic community in the late second century. The lesson here is: do not take sacred texts at face value. Instead, heed the words of Galileo, writing to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany in 1615: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”