As far as the traitor archetype is concerned, Judas Iscariot is second only to Benedict Arnold. With his betrayal of Jesus Christ to Jewish chief priests and Roman soldiers, Judas immortalized himself as the ultimate villain, but what if the title isn’t so deserved? In the New Testament, there are many discrepancies in each gospel’s presentation of the life of Jesus Christ. For example, the Gospel of Matthew narrates Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and describes his baptism by John the Baptist, while the Gospel of John makes Jesus out to be as old as the universe, omitting his baptism entirely. But, one of the few episodes consistently recorded in all four gospels is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot. How Judas died or why he betrayed Jesus in the first place isn’t so consistent, but analysis of the gospels as well as the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas, reveals an apostle who betrayed Jesus either because of disillusionment with his mission or out of compliance with Jesus’ orders. The nuances of Judas’ characterization differ between gospels, and assessing the reasons behind these characterization choices can reveal the motivations of both the evangelists and early Christian interpreters. Some wanted to paint him as a villain that foiled Jesus’ mission while others wanted to appreciate his essential role in that same mission, and by comparing all his different lives and deaths, we can come to a more complete understanding of who exactly Judas was.
Part I: Who Was Judas Iscariot?
First, we must determine what is the least questionable about Judas. The gospels tell us that he was one of Jesus’ original 12 apostles. While some of the gospels disagree on the names of certain apostles, like James of Alphaeus in Luke or Thaddaeus in Mark, Judas Iscariot is an apostle across all four. Moreover, when Judas is first introduced in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) as one of the apostles, his name is always accompanied by an epithet. Some examples include Judas being called the one “who betrayed him,” (Matt. 10:4, Mk. 3:19) or “the traitor” (Lk. 6:16). Outside of the Synoptic Gospels, Judas is even referred to as “the devil,” (Jn. 7:70) so narratively, Judas’ eventual actions come as no surprise. It is clear from the start of each gospel that the evangelists do not hold a positive view of him.
Nonetheless, the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels still gave all the apostles, including Judas, special powers. Jesus gives all the apostles “power and authority over all demons” (Lk. 9:1), which includes the ability to “cast out demons” (Mk. 3:15) and “unclean spirits” (Matt. 10:1). They are even given the power to cure “diseases” (Lk. 9:1. Matt. 10:1). The evangelists also made it clear that Jesus knew he was ultimately going to be crucified, telling his disciples that he must “undergo great suffering” and “be killed” (Matt. 16:21, Mk. 8:31, Lk. 9:22). He even knew it would happen as a result of a betrayal from one of his apostles, telling them that the apostle who was to “betray me” (Mk. 14:17, Lk. 22:21, Matt. 26:21) was sitting with them at the last supper. If Jesus has this advanced knowledge of Judas’ betrayal and his own crucifixion, why does he choose Judas as one of the twelve in the first place and still give him the power to exorcise demons and cure diseases? Is it possible Jesus made a mistake?
Part II: Judas’ Betrayals and Deaths
To prevent the possibility that Jesus unknowingly erred, the evangelists give different reasons for Judas’ betrayal. Instead of choosing to betray Jesus, two gospels claim “Satan entered into” (Lk. 22:3, Jn. 13:27) Judas. Interestingly enough, this claim is first introduced in the Synoptic Gospel Luke, but it is also repeated in John, which may just lend the claim credibility. Judas’ death as a result of this possession is explained in Acts, which scholars believe was also written by the evangelist Luke. Satan’s possession of Judas was so powerful, in fact, that it resulted in him being “burst open in the middle and all his bowels” (Acts 1:18) gushing out. Why does Judas die in such a violent manner? This particular account concerning Judas’ possession by Satan and subsequent death exists only to remove any potential fallibility on Jesus’ part since he could not possibly predict or overcome the devil, but it ignores accounts within the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus does exactly that.
Looking elsewhere in Scripture, we can establish a biblical history from which we can answer ambiguous questions. Long before Judas’ betrayal, after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he fasts for 40 days and nights in the wilderness and is “tempted by the devil,” (Lk. 4:3, Matt. 4:1) though he stays true to the Spirit and does not give in. Here is proof that Jesus has overcome the power of Satan before, so we can assume that Jesus still had the power to overcome him once he possessed Judas. If Judas had really been possessed by Satan, not only would Jesus have known about it, but he would have been more than able to overcome the power of Satan and avoid his own crucifixion, so why does he let it happen?
Another view of Judas within the gospels is offered in Matthew. Instead of being possessed by Satan, Judas goes to the chief priests and asks, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” (26:14) and is offered 30 pieces of silver. Once Jesus was condemned, Judas “brought back the thirty pieces of silver” (27:3) to the chief priests out of repentance. When the priests refuse to acknowlege the blood money, Judas departs and commits suicide. This is the account of Judas’ death that most people are likely familiar with today, but it stands in stark contrast to the claim of his Satanic possession in Luke and John, and his explosive death in Acts. This account seeks to put fallibility on Judas for being greedy and losing faith in Jesus’ mission, while the claim that he was possessed by Satan attempts to make both Judas and Jesus infallible for the crucifixion. However, whether he was possessed or not, using the Bible’s own history, we know Jesus knew of the betrayal beforehand and did nothing to stop it, so we must suppose that Jesus understood this to be a necessary step in order to bring about God’s new kingdom.
Part III: The Thirteenth Daimon
Outside of the canonical gospels, there is another view of Judas that supports this notion, and that is the Gnostic text, The Gospel of Judas. Written in the mid-second century, roughly 140 years after Jesus’ death, The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas and Jesus from the perspective of Gnostic Christians. This group of early Christians favored allegorical exegesis, an interpretive strategy that read scripture metaphorically to emphasize a more spiritual reading of the Bible. They rejected the God of the Old Testament, believing Jesus to have instead come from the “immortal aeon of Barbelo” (Judas 35) and having secret knowledge about the world’s creation and its future. Jesus communicates this secret knowledge to Judas in The Gospel of Judas, which materializes as a dialogue between the two at the exclusion of the other apostles.
Aside from a difference in his origins, the gnostic Jesus laughs at the apostles’ thanksgiving, rejects the title of Son of God, and says that “no generation will know me from the people that are among you” (Judas 34). Jesus demands that anyone who does not agree with what he says should stand up before him, and Judas is the only apostle brave enough to do so, though he refuses to look him in the eye. Judas and Jesus then have a private conversation away from the other apostles, where Jesus reveals to him the “mysteries of the kingdom, not so that you may go there, but that you may grieve greatly” (Judas 35). Jesus then details a creation story entirely different from the one given in Genesis which involves an angel called the “Self-Originate” (Judas 47) who creates 72 luminaries with 72 heavens that later produced the first humans. Jesus laughs at Judas’ confusion, calls him the “thirteenth daimon,” (Judas 44) and says Judas shall rule over the remaining generations that originally cursed him. Afterwards, Judas betrays Jesus, aiding in his ascension and the arrival of God’s new kingdom.
The Gnostic Jesus is obviously quite a departure from the Jesus of the New Testament, but the importance of this portrayal of Judas, and what differentiates it from the canonical gospels is that Judas was deemed worthy to receive a divine revelation at the exclusion of all the other apostles. This Jesus is interested primarily in his own ascension and emphasizes his spirit over his body, ridiculing the apostles’ earthly prayer as it does little to save the soul. This Jesus recognizes Judas as a necessary cog in his mission to ascend to God, and the Gospel of Judas, though in contrast to the canonical view of Judas and Jesus, portrays a Judas trusted to carry out that mission.
There is only one interpretive issue with the belief that Jesus understood the value of Judas in carrying out his worldly mission. At the last supper, Jesus says of his betrayer, “It would have been better for that one not to have been born” (Matt. 26:24, Mk. 14:21), declaring “woe to that one” (Matt. 26:24, Mk. 14:21, Lk. 22:22) that ultimately betrays him. If Jesus saw Judas as a necessary part of God’s new kingdom, why would he curse him? The two claims, that he knew of Judas’ importance and that he cursed his existence, aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The Jesus of the gospels has the complexity of character to regret the existence of suffering yet consent to endure it for God’s purposes. After the last supper, Jesus prays to God that “this cup pass from me” (Matt. 26:39), his sweat falling like “great drops of blood” (Lk. 22:44). Despite the belief that Jesus knew of his betrayal and crucifixion beforehand, he still feels great agony over it. Taking this into consideration, it is entirely possible he could both recognize Judas’ role in the completion of Jesus’ mission as well as curse his birth. It may also be possible the addition of Jesus’ curse of Judas’ birth was made by the evangelists, and not actually what Jesus said. Misunderstanding the value of Judas, they may have interpreted him to be a worthless traitor, and it is possible they wrote Jesus to believe the same.
Despite disagreements on why Judas betrayed Jesus or how he died, it is true that he was ultimately necessary for the completion of Jesus’ mission. In John and Luke, he is the Satan-possessed heretic who betrayed Jesus, blowing up as a result in Acts. In Matthew, he is the greedy traitor who loses sight of Jesus’ mission. Finally, in The Gospel of Judas, he is the divinely-chosen apostle who is trusted by Jesus to help in the process of his ascension. No matter what, whether Jesus wanted to be crucified or not, Judas is a pivotal figure. Judas Iscariot has been demonized not only in the New Testament, but also in modern popular culture, and it is understandable that people may instinctively react negatively towards him, even Jesus cursed his birth, but should he be so demonized? Arguably, without him, Chirst’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the primary components of Christian theology, would not have happened, proving that whether he was a traitor, daimon, or divinely-chosen, he surely was an important figure in the story of Jesus Christ.
Note: All biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version