Spy Wednesday question: Who was Judas? Why did he do it?

Harvey Keitel as the Judas-haired betrayer in 'The Last Temptation of Christ'

Harvey Keitel as Judas in ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’

Just thought I’d share this essay I ran across in America magazine. It was written in 2006, sort of pegged to the then-recent emergence of “The Gospel of Judas,” but the Jesuit publication posted it again on the day of Holy Week when Judas is said to have made the decision to betray Jesus.

I throw it out there so I can see what y’all think. For 2,000 years, people have been projecting all sorts of interpretations upon the man and his actions, from the mundane to a figure who was used as an excuse for Christian anti-semitism.

Judas gets pegged with being motivated by greed, which is problematic, since he’d abandoned whatever material comfort he had ever possessed to follow Jesus around for three years. Anyway, he refused to keep the money. Sometimes the theory is politics — such as saying his last name, Iscariot, is derived from sicarii, or dagger wielders, a band of religious terrorists of the time. But as the writer of this essay — Father James Martin, editor-at-large of the magazine — notes, that movement hadn’t taken off until years after Judas’ betrayal and suicide.

After reading such a serious examination as Fr. Martin’s, I’m a little embarrassed to say this — it seems both irreverent and anti-intellectual — but I’ve always found the “Jesus Christ Superstar” version persuasive. At least, it connects on an emotional level. The Judas of the rock opera sees himself as Jesus’ best friend, one who truly believes in the values his master espouses but is uncomfortable both with all “this talk of God,” and the likelihood that Jesus is getting them all into big trouble. Why not help the authorities take him off the street and let everything cool down? Then, of course, he’s devastated when his actions lead to the crucifixion. At the outset, Judas presents his case this way:

I remember when this whole thing began.
No talk of God then, we called you a man.
And believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died.
But every word you say today
Gets twisted ’round some other way.
And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied.
Nazareth, your famous son should have stayed a great unknown
Like his father carving wood He’d have made good.
Tables, chairs, and oaken chests would have suited Jesus best.
He’d have caused nobody harm; no one alarm.

Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?
Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied; have you forgotten how put down we are?

I am frightened by the crowd.
For we are getting much too loud.
And they’ll crush us if we go too far.

Of course, that’s not far off from what Fr. Martin presents as a serious, plausible set of assumptions:

Perhaps the most plausible explanation for Judas’s action was articulated several decades ago by the late William Barclay, author of the widely used multivolume Daily Study Bible. Barclay posited that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus’ hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggested, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional interpretations explain why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense.

This is in fact the view which best suits all the facts, Barclay concluded.

Anyway, I’m curious what you think.

Yeah, I realize some of my unbelieving friends will think this is a silly question. Some of you may even be of the persuasion that sees Jesus, much less Judas, as a fictional character. Which strikes me as extremely unlikely. Even if I didn’t believe, my understanding of history and how it unfolds would cause me to acknowledge that something happened there in Jerusalem during the time Pontius Pilate was procurator and Caiaphas was high priest. Something that started small, but gradually led to a movement that ended up taking over the Western world. And the broad outlines of the Jesus story seem a reasonable way that movement would have started.

Of course, even if you acknowledge that, you could say that Judas and the role he played were inventions by the followers of this new sect. Fr. Martin deals with that this way:

But a wholesale invention is probably unlikely. By most accounts, Mark wrote his Gospel around 70 A.D., only 40 years after the death of Jesus. Luke and Matthew wrote some 10 to 20 years after Mark. The early Christian community, therefore, would have still counted among its members people who were friends of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to the passion events, or who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. All these would presumably have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. Rather, as Father Harrington says, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact. In other words, the ignominy of having Jesus betrayed by one of the apostles is something that the Gospel writers would most likely have wanted to avoid, not invent.

And even if I were an atheist, if there were a modern-day-style biography of Judas available — something as painstakingly detailed as Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, or McCullough’s John Adams — I’d run out and get a copy and read it eagerly. So I could, you know, better understand the people and events that had pushed the world in the direction it took over the millennia.

But people didn’t process information that way 2,000 years ago. The things we don’t know even about Roman emperors would be embarrassing to any modern biographer, historian or journalist. And the people who set down the Gospels and other books of the New Testament were infinitely more interested in relating Jesus’ teachings than they were the backstory of the man who betrayed him. To them, writing at least 40 years after the events, Judas was just this bad guy who did this bad thing. Or good thing, as the “Gospel of Judas” would have it.

But what sort of man was he, and why did he do it?

Tomorrow I’ll think about something else. But this is Spy Wednesday.

17 thoughts on “Spy Wednesday question: Who was Judas? Why did he do it?

  1. Pat

    This is what the Apostle John wrote about Judas:
    “Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, *said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?” Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.”
    John 12:1-6 – https://www.biblegateway.com/passage?search=John%2012:1-6&version=NASB1995

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, and of course the “Superstar” account plays that up, having Judas sing:

      Woman your fine ointment, brand new and expensive
      Should have been saved for the poor.
      Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe
      Three hundred silver pieces or more.
      People who are hungry, people who are starving
      matter more than your feet and hair!

      This in keeping with Judas as a sort of modern secular humanist — a woke kind of guy — who thought in terms of practical ideals, and had no patience with religious devotion.

      The last line of your excerpt from John is one of those little problematic things about that Gospel.

      I have a love/hate relationship with John’s account. I love the details he throws in. He’s very cinematic. The description of running to the tomb with Peter — John pulling ahead because he’s younger and faster, but then stopping at the open tomb, and Peter pushing past him because he’s the impetuous one… really adds life to the account.

      But then there’s all his propaganda — particularly the antisemitism. “The Jews” did this and “the Jews” did that.

      When I read about how, after the crucifixion, the apostles are huddled together in a room, locked “for fear of the Jews,” I want to hear one of the actual apostles pipe up and say, “The JEWS? What Jews? We’re ALL Jews — everybody here! ‘Jews’ are not some feared ‘other.’ What’s wrong with you, John?”

      And that line about how Judas only objected “because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it,” just raises all kinds of objections. Really? How, writing 60 or 70 years later, do you know that? Who told you that? Was it somehow common knowledge among the group? If so, why did y’all let him carry the money? You’re trying to give us a pat answer for Judas, and it just raises more questions.

      It’s fishy, and it sounds like stuff that’s in there for propaganda purposes, just like “the Jews” is in there over and over to try to separate the new faith from its natural context, for political reasons.

      Which is why, in spite of its good story-telling, I tend to prefer the synoptics to John…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Obviously, I thought a lot about this over the years.

        And the reason that I seem to have the Superstar version memorized, rather than more serious sources, is that I DO have it memorized.

        I performed in the play version, back in the early ’80s. I was one of the apostles. Sit there through rehearsals as many times as I did, and the lyrics get etched into your brain…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        Bottom line, unlike the author of the Gospel of John, I tend to see Judas as something more complicated than a thief. I see him as a more conflicted figure.

        Otherwise, how could he have passed as an apostle for three years? Wouldn’t he have caused the other apostles to ask, repeatedly, “Why did you choose THIS jerk? He’s not one of us.”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Here’s a writer who asks the question, “Why Was Judas Carrying the Moneybag?” Which is a great question, because it always seemed to me that Matthew, the former tax collector, would have been the logical choice (if not for the fact that a lot of people, such as maybe certain Galilean fishermen, might have objected to it).

          This writer still buys the idea that Judas was always a bad guy, and just had people fooled. Jesus knew, but let Judas handle the money to show how little he cared for money (sort of a Biblical precursor of the Vatican Bank scandal, you might say).

          I’m not fully convinced…

  2. Ken

    Entering the world of early Christianity is a venture into a very foreign place, a highly confusing scene for anyone used to Nicene orthodoxies. Even for specialists, it’s a realm of speculative interpretation. And trying to interpret motivations of figures, like Judas, about whom there is little or no direct evidence is harder still.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, it is.

      Which is frustrating, when you’re trying to better understand monumental events.

      I bemoaned the lack of details about emperors and such. But I think I have a pretty good grasp of why Brutus and the rest killed Caesar (and how that led to having emperors). But, since it happened out in the boonies of the empire and was recorded only by people building a church rather than historians, we have less to go on regarding Judas…

      Which is why Tim Rice had Judas sing:

      why’d you choose such a backward time
      And such a strange land?
      If you’d come today
      You could have reached a whole nation
      Israel in 4 BC
      Had no mass communication

    2. Ken

      Some time ago, David Lowenthal wrote The Past is a Foreign Country to demonstrate 1) how a great gulf divides how we think about the world and how peoples in the past thought about such things, as well as 2) how the writing of history meant something quite different millennia or even just a few centuries ago and that, as a consequence, we can’t necessarily rely on it as “scripture.”
      It would do us well to treat actual Scripture in much the same way.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Well, that’s the way we SHOULD see it — as scripture. Not as history, or journalism, or accounting.

        Of course, I suppose “scripture” means something different to me than it does to many Southern Baptists…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Going back to the definition of “scripture”… Purely literal scripture — “here’s a thing that happened, and it happened just like this” — would be sort of disappointing.

          Scripture, as an overall category, is higher than that. It’s transcendent. The difference between that and an objective account of events is like the difference between epic poetry and a grocery list.

          Of course, I suppose some books of the Bible are more journalistic than others. Acts is more “and then here’s what happened” than, I suppose, the Song of Solomon. Of course, the Bible is all over the place. Proverbs is just that, a bunch of sayings. Psalms certainly isn’t a collection of stories. All sorts of different kinds of literature, written at different times for different reasons…

      2. Brad Warthen Post author

        As for The Past is a Foreign Country… I’ve got another blog post I’ve been meaning to write on that subject, about the difficulty of connecting with people from other times and places.

        For a time when I was very young, I had this theory that people in the far past — Old Testament times, which is the earliest for which our culture has a large body of literature — WERE different, that their brains worked in entirely different ways, which explained behavior that was inexplicable from a modern perspective.

        In other words, that we had evolved in significant ways since then.

        But that’s ridiculous, right? We haven’t evolved that much within so few generations. And we certainly haven’t gotten BETTER.

        Now, I read about people from thousands of years ago and see them as far more like us than I used to. Even their more brutish, primitive behavior. All their murder and blatant greed and lying with their maidservants as though such things were normal. If I hadn’t seen enough by then to reach this conclusion, the election of 2016 would have convinced me. Highly evolved people would never have elected Donald Trump to be the most powerful man in the world…

        1. Ken

          “that their brains worked in entirely different ways”

          See Julian Jaynes on the theory of the bicameral mind. He posits, for example, that communication between the two hemispheres of the brain in early, pre-conscious man was responsible for the development of the religious sensibility, the very notion of a deity. A physiologist put me onto the book years ago, but it was very hard going for a non-specialist.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            That reminds me of the beginning of a book by atheist Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

            It was an enjoyable read; he’s a clever and engaging writer. Not as entertaining as Christopher Hitchens was, but engaging. I don’t agree with his ultimate point, but I like him.

            Interestingly, while being a leading atheist — or “Bright,” as he puts it — he affects the look of an Old Testament prophet.

            Sort of the way I did, until just before the election…

  3. Barry

    My question regarding Judas hasn’t really been “why did he do it” – but a question of had I been in his place, is it a big stretch to think I might have done the same thing.

    (and this goes for almost everyone I know).

    I don’t see Judas as some oddity. I see him as quite common. For how many times do I see Christians who profess to love their neighbor do the opposite? How many times have I done the opposite?

    Too many times.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I think you’re on solid theological ground, there. I think this is why, when we read the Passion on Palm Sunday, the whole congregation reads the lines when the crowd says “Crucify him!” Not Pilate. Not “the Jews,” as John would have it. All of us.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Oh, the movie had flaws. A lot of things about it were actually rather cheesy.

      It failed to the extent that it was actually BETTER as just an album, without seeing people. If you can’t improve something by adding images, don’t add images.

      It was also better as a concert. I saw it that way at the Carolina Coliseum in 1971, with the Mary Magdalene from the album, Yvonne Elliman.

      No, really, I did. This isn’t one of our “I saw them open for Deep Purple in 1970” jokes…


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