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What Does the Name Judas “Iscariot” Mean?

I received a number of questions about Judas Iscariot from my recent post.   I had dealt with many of these within living memory on the blog, but given their frequency, I think I should deal with them again.  Here is one of the most frequent:

QUESTION:

I read somewhere that “Iscariot” was a version of “Judas the Sicarii” which as it was handed down orally got altered. Is there any truth to this?

RESPONSE:

Behind this question is a bit of rare historical knowledge.  In Jesus’ day there was a group of Jewish insurrectionists supporting a violent overthrow of the Roman occupancy who were called “Sicarii” — literally “people who wield daggers.”  They had a reputation for mingling in a crowd and stealing up to an aristocrat and killing him with a dagger, mixing in then with everyone else and escaping.

The name Iscariot is very odd and no one really knows what it means.  Could it mean that Judas was actually a zealot seeking a military uprising against Rome, so that when he realized Jesus was not in support of that kind of thing, he turned on him and handed him over to the authorities?

It’s an interesting idea, but it hinges, to some extent, on the meaning of Iscariot.  What does the world/name mean?  I talk about the matter in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  Here’s what I say.

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The Name Judas Iscariot

Sometimes knowing the names of persons from antiquity can give further information about them.  People of the lower classes did not have last names, and so to differentiate people with the same first name, descriptive designations were often added.  For example, there are several different Mary’s in the New Testament.  “Mary” was one of the most common names in first-century Palestine.  And so each New Testament Mary is given some kind of identifying feature: Mary “the mother of Jesus”; Mary “of Bethany”; Mary “Magdalene.”  This last designation indicates that this Mary came from the town of Magdala, which was a fishing village on the Sea of Galilee. Thus, simply by knowing what she was called, we can learn some information about her.

Some people have hoped that the same might be true of Judas Iscariot.  What everyone agrees on is …

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What everyone agrees on is that his name was Judas (or Jude, as the name is sometimes translated), and that he is called “Iscariot” to differentiate him from the other Judases of the New Testament.  One of Jesus’ own brothers was named Judas (or Jude), for example (Mark 6:3); as was another of his disciples (“not Iscariot”; John 14:22); as was the author of one of the shorter letters in New Testament, the book of Jude (whose author does not claim to be Jesus’ brother, or any other known Jude).

There is no doubt that the Judas we are interested in was described as Judas Iscariot – this descriptive term for him is found some twelve times in the New Testament, and also in our other sources, including the Gospel of Judas.  What is in doubt is what the term might have meant.  There have been many, many suggestions made by scholars over the years, but none of them has won general assent.

Some of the suggestions are highly creative.  One nineteenth-century scholar suggested that Iscariot came from a Hebrew word meaning “to stop up” (skr), and that it referred to the fact that he died by strangling (his throat was “stopped up”).  A hundred years later another scholar suggested that the term came from the semitic words ’isqa’ re‘ut – which might mean something like “one who makes money out of friendship.” Some scholars have thought that the term showed he came from the region known as Issachar (he was an Issachariot).  Others have pointed out that the term Iscariot sounds a bit like the Latin word for dagger, sica, and is possibly related to the term used of Jewish dagger-assassins known as the Sicarii.  This might suggest that Judas was a Jewish zealot who advocated violence against the Roman empire.  Others have thought that the name derives from the Hebrew word for “liar” (saqqar), and that it designates his basic nature.  Some have thought that the name goes back to an Aramaic word ’isqar, which signifies a person with a ruddy complexion; on this basis they have argued then that he was a red-head.  The possibilities seem endless.  But none of these options has persuaded most linguists intimately familiar with the rules of ancient semitic languages.

Probably the most common explanation is that Iscariot comes from the Hebrew words “ish-Kerioth” – which might mean something like “a man” (= ish) who comes from the village of Kerioth.   If this view is correct,– then the question remains: where was Kerioth?  The book of Joshua in the Hebrew Bible mentions a town of this name in the southern part of Israel, the region later known as Judea (Josh. 15:25); and perhaps that’s what the name signifies, that Judas was a Judean.  If so, that would make him the only “southerner” among Jesus’ followers.  On the other hand, there are reasons for doubting that Kerioth still existed in Jesus’ day (1200 years after the time of Joshua!); and it would seem odd that Jesus, who spent his entire public ministry in Galilee prior to his last week, would have had someone from a completely different part of the country as one of his closest followers.  Another city called Kerioth appears to be located outside of Israel in the country of Moab (Jeremiah 48:24, 41); but it also seems unlikely that one of Jesus’ Jewish followers would be from there.

As a result, some of the best scholars have concluded that we simply don’t know what Iscariot meant.  Indeed, some have argued that even the Gospel writers – some 35-65 years after Judas’s death – no longer knew what it meant.  In any event, knowing Judas’s name does not appear to give us much to go on if we want to learn more about him historically.


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The Quest for the Historical … Judas Iscariot

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    lobe  October 28, 2019

    TIL what Magdalene referred to. For some reason I just never questioned it…I think my 21st century bias of perceiving those as last names (even though I intellectually KNOW it’s not a last name) was slipping in.

  2. Avatar
    clongbine  October 28, 2019

    I had assumed the name would mean something symbolic in relation to Judas and his discipleship with Jesus. Especially coming from Mark, who seemingly does something similar with Barabbas in relation with Jesus and the people’s choice of messiah. It seems reasonable to assume he was a Judean in light of how the people, and the leaders, ultimately treat him. But perhaps it is simply one of those things that will be lost to history, leaving us to only guess, like so much of the interpretation of the symbols in the book of the Revelation.

  3. Avatar
    jrhislb  October 28, 2019

    “1200 years after the time of Joshua!” I thought it was accepted that the Book of Joshua in many ways reflects the circumstances when it was written, much closer in time to Judas and Jesus than that?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      I think I was referring to the (allegedly historical) figure of Joshua, not the author of the book about him.

  4. Avatar
    lmabe10  October 28, 2019

    Hello Bart! I really enjoyed this post. It reminded me of a question I’ve been meaning to ask. Can you recommend any quality, reliable online sources for maps from early christianity? Google returns a lot of options with varying quality, but I’m hoping to find one trusted by scholars. I’m even interested in premium services if necessary. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      I’m afraid all the available biblical maps are based just on each other rather than on real, advanced knowledge. for that you would need to go the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  October 28, 2019

    Don’t we have a similar situation with Joseph of “Arimathea?” No one has come up with a satisfying answer for what or where Arimathea is. As a historian, does the obscurity of these terms mean anything or tell you anything about the accounts, or is it more a matter of saying “we just don’t know” and moving on?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      People have hteories, of course; but most just say “let’s move on”

      • Avatar
        clongbine  October 29, 2019

        I believe James Tabor has done some interesting work and archaeology on the person and family of Joesph of Arimathea.

  6. Avatar
    veritas  October 28, 2019

    Just a thought,that I need clarity on,Bart.Judas Iscariot as you have said,we know he betrayed Jesus.My question is this.Is the betrayal and the choosing of Judas by Jesus as one of his apostles,a direct result of God’s plan for the story to unfold according to God’s will or is it just a story that happened this way? Thanks for making us think.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      If you’re asking what God really did or didn’t do, I have no idea. If you mean within the narrative world of the story, then yes, it’s all according to plan.

  7. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 28, 2019

    Thanks!

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  October 28, 2019

    Kerioth is probably somewhere near Arimathea.

  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  October 28, 2019

    where was Kerioth? Somehow, I latched on to the idea that Judas’ “last name” pertains to a person who lived along the Brook of Kherith/Cherith, a stream in Gilead. It’s the place where Elijah was fed by ravens in 1 Kings 17. Also probably the area from which he hailed. You can find it to the East of the Jordan about midway down the map [try H-8] here.

    https://www.bible-history.com/geography/ancient-israel/ot/brook_cherith.html

    Elijah “the Tishbite’s” home town was probably on this brook, or should we call him “Elijah Iscariot”?

  10. Avatar
    HawksJ  October 28, 2019

    Were these descriptive surnames (for lack of a better term) commonly used by one’s friends and acquaintances, or were they later assigned by the writers of the NT?

    I would assume those were the names that they were known by during their lives, but when you say above that a scholar speculated that he got his name from how he died and another thought it was based on him being a liar, that would suggest that these names were given retroactively to help later readers keep them straight.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      WE don’t know, unfortunately. but yes, there is a lot of retroactive scholarship!

  11. Avatar
    FocusMyView  October 30, 2019

    Probably showing my lack of linguistics here, but several Keriath cities are mentioned in the Bible. The most important of course is Keriath Arba, which is Hebron. The Bible tells us the Keriath names are former names, so what was called Keriath Arba is now Hebron. Today there is a town outside of Hebron called Kiryat Arba. I wonder if “Canaaites” called the cities different names than the “Isrealites” did through many millenia.
    Maybe he was from Hebron?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 30, 2019

      I don’t know of any evidence that people identified Hebron as Keriath in the first century.

  12. Avatar
    quadell  October 30, 2019

    > as was the author of one of the shorter letters in New Testament, the book of Jude (whose author does not claim to be Jesus’ brother, or any other known Jude)

    This is from your 2006 book. You reached a different conclusion in “Forgery and Counterforgery”, published in 2012. I guess it just shows, you’re never too old (or too published) to change your mind in light of new analysis!

    Personally, I waffle on whether the authors of James and Jude meant their readers to think they were Jesus’s brothers. It seems they did, but then, it’s so understated! Is it possible that these letters originally circulated with an explicit “brother of the Lord” claim in the heading, and that these were removed by pious copyists who were scandalized by the claim that Jesus had literal brothers?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 1, 2019

      Yeah, it’s amazing what sustained research will do! But I think my 2006 statement is still true, technically. He actually does not *claim* to be Jesus’ brother. But he intimates it and appears to want his readers to think it.

  13. Avatar
    Britt  November 8, 2019

    Bart, what do you think of John Shelby Spong’s theory that Judas was fictional literary character created by the early Christian Church in the 9th decade for the purpose of shifting blame for Jesus’ death away from the Romans to the Jews that wouldn’t accept Jesus? He argues that the Judas story appears to be a composite of 3 traitor stories in the Hebrew Bible: https://bit.ly/2NtP1Pf

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2019

      Don’t buy it. It’s too broadly attested by independent sources, starting with Mark in 70 CE, but including early traditionsin Acts, and independent account in John, later from an independent tradition in Papias. And it passes the criterion of dissimilarity.

  14. Avatar
    robbeasley  November 13, 2019

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_Iscariot

    From Wikipedia
    Judas Iscariot (/ˈdʒuːdəs ɪˈskærɪət/; Biblical Hebrew: יהודה‎, romanized: Yehûdâh, lit.

    ‘God is praised’;

    Greek: Ὶούδας Ὶσκαριώτης) (died c. 30 – c. 33 AD) was a disciple and one of the original Twelve Disciples of Jesus Christ.

    Is this correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 15, 2019

      I’m not particularly up on Hebrew etymology, and others on teh blog are. So maybe they can pitch in. But yes, Judas does seem to be related to both “Yahweh” and “praise”; We don’t know what Iscariot means. But i.d. of him is correct.

      • Avatar
        robbeasley  November 17, 2019

        Here’s a pattern.

        From the Hebrew name יְשַׁעְיָהוּ (Yesha’yahu) meaning “YAHWEH is salvation”, from the roots יָשַׁע (yasha’) meaning “to save” and יָה (yah) referring to the Hebrew God. Isaiah is one of the four major prophets of the Old Testament, supposedly the author of the Book of Isaiah.

        What are the odds of Judas and Isaiah being given these birth names. Or was it a technique of the author to try and impress the reader of Gods plan.

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