By Helen K Bond
Senior Lecturer in New Testament Language,
Literature and Theology
University of Edinburgh
“I know why Judas betrayed Jesus, says Gerry Adams” ran a recent headline in The Times (15th February 2010), based on an essay of mine for this website. Since the article has sparked some controversy, and not a little misunderstanding, I thought that I would devote the third of my essays in this series to revisiting the subject of Judas.
The fact that Judas betrayed Jesus seems historically certain. The almost palpable disbelief expressed by the evangelists suggests a genuine historical tradition, as too do their attempts to show that Jesus foresaw it, Mk 14.17-21, Jn 13.21-30 (a clear case of the “criterion of embarrassment”). Doubtless David’s betrayal by Ahithophel in 2 Sam 15 lent a much-needed scriptural parallel to the affair, but this sounds more like a later lens through which to understand the shocking act rather than the origin of the story.
Equally clear, however, is the fact that that, despite their theological and scriptural gloss, the evangelists had no idea why Judas acted as he did. Mark’s brief presentation of Judas’ actions is made all the more chilling by the complete lack of any motive; his Judas simply goes to the chief priests who offer him a financial reward (Mk 14.10-11). Matthew characteristically turned to his Jewish scriptures, drawing on Zech 11.12-13 and a number of passages from Jeremiah 18, 19 and 32; his Judas went looking for money, and agreed to betray his master for the paltry sum of 30 pieces of silver (Mt 26.14-16). But Matthew adds a sequel: when Judas realised where his betrayal would lead, he returned his ill-gotten gains to the chief priests and killed himself (out of remorse? Mt 27.3-10). Luke and John could explain Judas’ actions only by ascribing them to Satanic possession, no other motives are given (Lk 22.3-6, Jn 13.2). And Luke, in contrast to Matthew, allowed Judas to buy a field with his blood money where retribution soon overtook him (Acts 1.18-19).
Modern scholars have tried to explain Judas’ actions in other ways. Was he disillusioned by Jesus? Had he hoped for a more militant approach? Was his betrayal an attempt to force Jesus’ hand, to make him declare himself to the Jewish authorities (hence his suicide when the plan backfired)? Or was Judas a faithful follower, handing his master over so that God’s plan for the redemption of humanity might be put in motion? Was he even acting on Jesus’ orders?
I have to admit that, as historical explanations, I have never found any of these suggestions particularly plausible. Judas could surely have had little doubt as to what would happen to Jesus once in Jewish custody. And hadn’t Jesus plausibly (and quite realistically) foreseen his own death in Jerusalem? I can see that a close disciple might become disillusioned and draw back, but why betray him to his opponents? Such an act, it seems to me, takes more than disillusionment and thwarted expectations.
It is here that my conversations with Gerry Adams were helpful. I should emphasize that I am not drawing any comparisons between Jesus’ disciples and Irish terrorists (whether republican or loyalist). I am interested only in the way a group of men who have left their normal lives and are drawn together by a common commitment to a cause might function. More specifically, what might make such a man defect to the opposition, rather than simply fall away? What Gerry Adams helped me to see is that in seeking to explain Judas’ betrayal we should look less at Judas’ actions and focus instead on the attempts of the chief priests to infiltrate Jesus’ closest circle and to “get at” one of its members.
When the question is asked in this way, a different range of possibilities opens up. Why did the chief priests choose Judas? Was he a Judaean, as some scholars have supposed (Kerioth being a place in Judaea)? And did that make him more vulnerable to the Temple leaders? Did they make certain promises, not only to him but to his family? (Were these promises honored?) Or was Judas simply the weakest member of the group? In a culture impressed by status and honor, was he unable to stand up against the power and prestige of the Jewish chief priests? Were the priestly rulers able to persuade him that Jesus’ actions in the Temple amounted to blasphemy, that he was a false prophet, and that he was leading people astray? Did the bravado and camaraderie of the Judas who followed Jesus in Galilee crumble and fade in the face of the sophistication and religiosity of the Jerusalem Temple and its guardians?
All this, of course, is speculation. But everything to do with Judas and his motivations is speculation – from the evangelists’ attempts to explain what happened, to the oral traditions which predated them. Perhaps no one ever knew for sure. All that is certain is that Judas has taken on a mythical quality, the archetypal Betrayer, consigned by Dante to the lowest level of Hell. Such a creature necessarily preys on his victims, takes charge of the situation, and manipulates those around him. The reality, I suggest, may have been rather different: a weak and uneducated outsider, a frightened man completely out of his depth, someone easily persuaded by others into making the biggest mistake of his life.