Scripture: Mark 14:1-50
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Judas. You know who I am talking about. The one who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. The one who gave Jesus the kiss of death. The one who hanged himself. Yes. We know Judas. He is one of the most well-known figures in all of scripture.
We know that Judas betrayed Jesus. It is because of him that the authorities knew where to find Jesus and who Jesus was so that he could be arrested, tried, and killed by crucifixion. Why did Judas, one of the twelve, the inside circle, betray Jesus? There are multiple motivations that are hinted at in the New Testament. The earliest gospel, Mark, does not really intimate a reason why Judas betrayed Jesus. But later gospels allude to Judas’ motivations. Going chronologically, Matthew tells us that Judas is motivated by greed. Luke and John say it was the devil, Satan, that caused Judas to betray Jesus. Was Judas disillusioned that Jesus was not taking over as king as was expected of the Messiah? Was Jesus proceeding too slowly for Judas? We can’t know the motivations, but we definitely know that Judas betrayed Jesus.
Judas has been remembered in Christian literature for centuries as the embodiment of evil. He is portrayed as everything that Jesus taught people not to be. He is the supreme negative example; the person who is not good and true and dedicated to God.
A poem from the 4th century characterizes Judas this way:
You bloody, savage, rash, insane, rebellious,
faithless, cruel, deceitful, bribable, unjust,
cruel betrayer, vicious traitor, merciless thief –
[Meyer, p. 121]
That about sums it up for Judas in the New Testament, early Christian writings, and beyond. And that continues to be Judas’ legacy in literature throughout the ages.
There are several traditions about the death of Judas. The most familiar, that he hanged himself. Also, from the New Testament, we are told that he falls and explodes and his guts spill out. There is an early Christian tradition that he was stoned to death by the other eleven disciples. However he died, no death could be too awful for him. He is the quintessential betrayer, setting the standard ever since.
That is how the church wants to remember Judas. It gives a place to put the blame. There is someone to hold accountable for the whole heartbreaking travesty of the death of Jesus. Judas. It was his fault.
This presentation of Judas has been going along consistently for 2,000 years. Until an ancient document was discovered in the late 1970’s but not investigated by scholars until the early 2,000’s. It is a text referred to in the writings of Irenaeus from 180 C.E. Irenaeus discredits and refutes the Gospel of Judas. But what was the Gospel of Judas? We did not know until these ancient writings came to light in the last few decades found by farmers in a burial cave in Egypt described this way:
The burial cave was located across the river from Maghagha, not far from the village of Qarara in what is known as Middle Egypt. The fellahin stumbled upon the cave hidden down in the rocks. Climbing down to it, they found the skeleton of a wealthy man in a shroud. Other human remains, probably members of the dead man’s family, were with him in the cave. His precious books were beside him, encased in a white limestone box.
[Meyers, p. 6, quoting Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel]
As it turns out, the Gospel of Judas was written in Greek in the mid second century. The text found in Egypt is a Coptic translation. The Gospel offers Judas’ perspective on the teachings of Jesus and Judas’ relationship with Jesus. Judas is Jesus’ beloved. He is the disciple closest to Jesus. He is the one who can be trusted with the special knowledge that Jesus has to share. Judas is portrayed as the most devoted, the most loyal. He is the disciple with the most courage and strength. Yes, he hands Jesus over, but he does this at Jesus’ request. In the Gospel of Judas, Jesus tells Judas, “You will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man who bears me.” [Verses 118-119, Gospel of Judas, see Meyer, p. 65] By turning Jesus over, Jesus will be released from his body, liberated from the confines of this physical life. Freed to return to God from whence he came. Judas has the emotional strength and boldness to understand Jesus and fulfill his wishes.
For those of you who are familiar with Harry Potter, this is reminiscent of Professor Snape. He is always trusted by the Headmaster Dumbledore but everyone else is suspicious of Snape. In the end, Snape contributes to the death of Dumbledore, and we learn that it is at Dumbledore’s request so that good will triumph over evil in the end. Snape, the apparent betrayer, is actually the loyal and faithful servant.
The Gospel of Judas presents Judas in that kind of light. He is the appearing betrayer, but he is actually fulfilling Jesus’ desires.
In the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death, there is a crisis. The Messiah, Savior has been killed. Tried as a traitor, a capital offense, he is sentenced to die by crucifixion, a humiliating, excruciating death. Definitely cruel and unusual punishment.
How do Jesus’ friends and followers deal with this reality? With this outcome? They have left home, family, and livelihood for Jesus. Was it all for naught? What are they to do?
They must have been filled with doubts and regrets. Why didn’t they stand up for Jesus. Defend him? At least verbally. They were silent. They deserted him. Peter even denied Jesus. Could they have prevented his death?
How are Jesus’ friends and followers going to redeem this situation? Maybe they were jealous of Judas and his special status. Well, in any case, the blame is pinned on Judas. Judas becomes a negative example of everything Jesus taught. Drawing heavily on images and references from the Hebrew Bible, like the 30 pieces of silver taken from Zechariah, Judas is condemned. He is the one held responsible. He is the scapegoat for the guilt and blame associated with the crucifixion of Jesus.
And it has stayed that way for centuries until this alternate view has arisen with the discovery of the Gospel of Judas. Now, the lyrics of the Dylan song of 1963 seem prescient:
In many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
that Jesus Christ
was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
whether Judas Iscariot
had God on his side.
And then there is also speculation by scholars that Judas Iscariot was not an historical person at all, but a literary figure. He is not mentioned in the earliest writings of the New Testament, the letters of Paul. Judas was a very common Jewish name in the first century, maybe like John today. Judas. Everyman. The name Judas is also related to the word for Jew. This goes with the agenda of some in the early church who wanted to pin the death of Jesus on the Jews. The name Judas is also reminiscent of the name Judah, the brother of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Judah is the one who comes up with the idea of selling his brother into slavery. Also the way Judas is presented in the gospels has many parallels with the archetype betrayer in ancient literature. So, there are those who make the case that there never was an actual person Judas Iscariot at all.
Of course, we cannot resolve all of this. We can’t really choose which tradition or version of events is historically accurate because we just don’t have the information we would need. For the ancients, tradition was truth. They were not burdened by a desire for factuality as we are today.
An examination of the legacy of Judas invites many interpretations and raises many questions. This makes it a fitting topic to consider as Holy Week begins. This week, we remember the last week of Jesus’ life. We reflect on the story of his crucifixion and death. It is a time to consider the many meanings, perspectives, and messages in this story. It is a time to consider the multiple interpretations associated with Jesus’ ministry, life, and death. It is a time to remember how close together goodness and evil may be. The legacy of Judas reminds us that life is not as simplistic as we may want to make it.
Between the contrasts of the crowds shouting, “Hosanna!” and “Crucify him!” we are invited to examine ourselves and our reality. Who are we, really? Where do we stand? How do we deceive ourselves and others? How do we betray our beliefs?
The stories of this week should unsettle us. They should make us uncomfortable. They should disturb us. They should make us suspicious. They should provoke questions in us. What do the teachings of Jesus and his death mean? What does it mean to be faithful? How is God’s love present in our lives and our world?
May the legacy of Judas lead us to wider visions of God and the power of love. Amen.
Books used for information about Judas and the Gospel of Judas:
Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King
Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends about the Infamous Apostle of Jesus, Marvin Meyer
The Lost Gospel of Judas: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, Bart D. Ehrman