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:
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?
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.
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.