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Judas Iscariot? What’s an Iscariot??

I have argued that Judas Iscariot really existed as one of the disciples of Jesus.  Unlike the others, though, he is given a “last name” — Iscariot.  But what does the name mean?  It turns out, there is a huge debate over that.  Here is how I discuss the matter in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.



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 Marys 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 …

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If We Did Have the “Original” Gospels, Would That Make Them True?
Was Judas Iscariot “Made Up”?



  1. Avatar
    Hormiga  May 26, 2020

    Obvious question: Does “Iscariot” or anything plausibly close to it occur as a personal name anywhere in extra-biblical writings?

  2. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  May 26, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Could it be possible that Judas Iscariot was part of an espionage plot to get Jesus? Maybe Judas did not betray but, may have been an informant for either the Roman or Jewish authorities and never was a true follower of Jesus. Is there any evidence that spy’s were use to snoop out any underground activities In Judea in the first century?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      None that I know of, no. But there is some evidence for what the betrayal was all about, and I’ll be getting to it soon.

  3. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  May 26, 2020

    I wonder whether somewhere in that early Christian tradition, Iscariot meant something, or had been defined in some context, and that information was either lost or it was considered to be such common knowledge nobody bothered to explain. Apart from that, Jesus chose his disciples. So Judas was chosen. How much can we presume Jesus to have known? Jesus is credited with being God, who knows all things. So Judas must have been an open book. Judas seems to have played an essential role– no betrayal, no atoning sacrifice, no prophecies fulfilled. So it seems odd to excoriate the poor guy. To what extent would Judas even be culpable? None of this betrayal scenario has ever made sense to me, supposing that Jesus was God. But if Jesus wasn’t God, and had no foreknowledge, and had a mission in mind that had nothing to do with being crucified, events surrounding the last days of Jesus, including Judas and the betrayal do make a bit more sense.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      I don’t know of definitions until the third century or so. But in doing my historical analysis, I don’t assume that Jesus was God, so I doubt he knew much about him at all, except some basic back-story.

  4. Avatar
    Zak1010  May 26, 2020

    Dr Ehrman

    Since there were no surnames back then….Depending on how it was spelled in its original language, a( Askariot / ascariot / asqariot or b ) Askhariot with a kh.

    If it was spelled with only the K, c or q then it meant of the village. ( referring him to a village or a particular village )

    If it was spelled with a kh, then it meant the cynicistor, the mockeror, the saracsticor sarcastic person, the scorner er, the ridiculor…. ( referring to him as being one or all of these attributes )

    In arabic and hebrew bibles that I came accross, it is spelled with the Kh. In the English ones it is spelled with the c…..??

    Jesus knew.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      As I said, it could be taken to mean a number of things, however it was spelled.

  5. Avatar
    Hormiga  May 26, 2020

    >which might mean something like “a man” (= ish) who comes from the village of Kerioth

    I should know better than to hazard a guess, but isn’t “kerioth” similar to the plural of קריה , meaning “town”? So Ish-kerioth would be a man of the towns, a city-slicker not like the Nazarine rustics?

    (Retreats into well-deserved obscurity.)

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      Interesting idea. Off-hand I can’t recall if Hebrew qoph was translitered into Greek kappa the way Hebrew kaph was. In any event, I’m not sure the phrase was “man of the cities” was used for urban dandies.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  May 26, 2020

    Kerioth was somewhere near Arimathea, right?

  7. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  May 26, 2020

    Thank you.

  8. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 26, 2020

    Some random questions. Is there any indication that the name Iscariot could have been added as a sobriquet after his infamous betrayal? Similar to Charlemagne which is a combination of the latinized name Charles the Great. If Iscariot is a type of sobriquet, as suggested with the term “ Sicarii”, it may have come to represent his entire name even if the sobriquet was Only adopted after his demise. Charles the Great certainly wasn’t called that in his youth.

    Another question, is it possible that Iscariot was a misspelling by an early scribe and that mistake was missed, not corrected and that mistake became permanent?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      Yup, it’s possible; but it doesn’t help us now what it means, unfortunately. And it does not seem to be a scribal alteration since the name shows up spelled the same way in various written texts that were produced independently of one another….

  9. fefferdan
    fefferdan  May 26, 2020

    I think I may have said this before, but I like the idea of a place-name for ‘Iscariot.’ But we don’t need a village. There is a biblical Brook of Cherith where Elijah was supposedly fed by ravens. [1 Kings 17.3, 5.] Just as a person might be known as Judah the Galilean [Acts 5. 37], after the region associated with a lake, so might a person be called Judah the Cherth-ite [or Iscariot in the Greek version] because he came from the region of the brook where Eliah famously fled from Jezebel.

  10. Avatar
    WaterfrontSunrise  May 27, 2020

    If the Greek-speaking, Gentile gospel writers indeed didn’t know what it meant, implying a rooting for the name more relevant to the earliest Aramaic-speaking Christians, wouldn’t this more or less mean Paul had to know of the Judas story? I.e. if the whole character is independently attested to have existed and aspects of his person are meaningful only in an early Palestinian context (despite later propagation) how could he *not* have been part of the early Palestinian-Christian corpus taught to a converted Paul?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 27, 2020

      The answer is a bit surprising, and has two prongs: (1) there was not a single early Palestinian =Christian corpus of teaching in circulation, but lots of traditions in various places throughout Judea and Galilee and (2) it appears Paul was *not* taught much if anything by the Christians in Israel who were on the scene before him. He is often quite insistent that they gave him almost nothing (since he had a revelation from Jesus himself, he didn’t need much from them)

  11. Avatar
    GeoffClifton  May 27, 2020

    All of the ‘popular’ books I had read back in the day seemed to plump for the ‘sicarii’ explanation and I had not come across the other possibilities as to the derivation of Iscariot. So it was interesting to read about them. I think the ‘Isqa-re-ut’ explanation appeals most to me, as it seems closest to Iscariot in terms of pronunciation but that is just my gut feeling.

  12. Avatar
    Thespologian  May 27, 2020

    And if a story has multiple Marys from Magdala, how was that handled? Like email? MaryMagdalene-2,3 etc.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      I’m not sure! I don’t think there are any such stories!

  13. Avatar
    Leovigild  May 27, 2020

    Of the various sobriquets found in the Gospels, what percentage are geographic in origin, and how many of other types (occupation, physical characteristics, etc.)?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      Great question. I haven’t added them up. Some are geographical (Arimathea, Magdala, Nazareth) others are descriptive (Peter/Petros/Cephas; Boanerges; the Zealot) and others are relational (son of Zebedee, son of Jonah). Not sure what the percentages are….

  14. Avatar
    Lms728  May 28, 2020

    Speaking of descriptive designations….Mark 16:1, Matthew 27:56, and Luke 24:10 all refer to “Mary the mother of James.” What are your thoughts about who this “James” was?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      I’ve never been sure; it was a common name.

      • Avatar
        Lms728  May 29, 2020

        I’ve always been curious about “James the brother of Jesus.” Would you consider doing a post on him one day? A leader in the early church but ignored by the evangelists. How odd is that!

  15. Avatar
    Chad Stuart  May 29, 2020

    After reading your book, I tend to agree with the conclusion that it was a misspelling of “ish-Kerioth” since other people in the Bible are named after where they are from (Magdalene).

    While we’ll never know, it seems logical that since the tradition had been passed orally the author of Mark, having no knowledge of a place named Kerioth, simply wrote down the name the way he thought it should be written.

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