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But WHY Did Judas Betray Jesus?

This will be my last post in this thread on Judas Iscariot, and it deals with a question that has long been asked, often answered, and never satisfactorily: what motivated Judas to betray Jesus?  No answer has ever satisfied because there is simply no way to know.  When I say the answers are never satisfactory, and that they do not satisfy, I don’t mean that no one is satisfied.  Lots of people — including possibly you! — have an answer that you think works perfectly.  OK then!

But there’s no consensus on the matter and even though I have my preference of an answer, I don’t think it’s possible to enter into some person’s mind — especially a person living 2000 years ago that we know virtually nothing about — to come up with a psychological explanation for why he did what he did.

Here’s the reality: you can’t come up with a convincing and conclusive psychological explanation for MOST things that MOST people do.  You actually have no idea what is motivating me to write this post.  Is it because I’m hoping it will convince more people to give money to the charities supported by the blog?  Is it to show off how much I know about the Bible?  Is it to trash an academic rival whom I don’t like who has written a book on the topic.  Is it out of a sense of guilt that I’m not doing enough public service in spreading the knowledge about the New Testament that the taxpayers of North Carolina are giving their hard-earned money in taxes for me to both acquire and disseminate?  Is it because I’m bored and would on the whole rather do this then watch a sit-com?  Is it … ?  These are all plausible explanations.  Maybe one is right.  Maybe they are all right.  Maybe some are right.  Maybe only one is more right than the others.  How would you know?  And in fact, how would *I* know?

OK, so, ascribing motivation is a very tricky enterprise.  But still, hey, it’s a lot of fun to think about.  And we do it all the time, for all sorts of people, both those close to us and those that we read about incessantly (oh boy, incessantly…) in the news.  Why did they do that???   And so, with Judas.  Why did he do that?

I talk about the issue in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  Here are my reflections found there:

***************************************************************************

The Gospels give various answers to the question of “why.”  In the (newly discovered) Gospel of Judas, he betrays Jesus because that’s what Jesus wants him to do — Jesus needs to escape from the material trappings of his body, which requires him to die, and Judas both recognizes this and makes it happen.  In our earlier accounts  from the New Testament there are a range of different reasons given: (a) John portrays Judas as inherently evil, “a devil,” and so naturally he does what he is inclined to do (John 6:71; (b) Luke suggests that “The Devil made him do it” (Luke 22:3-6); (c) Matthew indicates that he does it for the cash (Matt. 26:14-16).

But what was the real motivation behind Judas’s act?  At the end of the day, I’m afraid we can’t know for certain.  It might be that the scenario I’ve suggested above [i.e., earlier in the chapter] is the right one, that Judas simply wanted Jesus removed from public view until after the Festival of Passover had ended and they could return to Galilee to continue their public preaching.

But there’s another option that might be even more intriguing, possibly hinted at in Mark, our earliest surviving account.  Throughout Mark’s account …

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But How Did Judas Die?
What Did Judas Betray?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    zuoanqh  June 2, 2020

    Wow, I’ve never thought of it this way. I guess I never tried to make sense Judas as a historical character, so thanks for the speculations of what might be the cause of him turning on Jesus and highlighting some of the facts within the bible.

  2. Avatar
    Stephen  June 2, 2020

    One interesting speculation about Judas comes from writer Jorge Luis Borges in his short story, “Three Versions of Judas”, where he has his fictional scholar/heretic Runeberg claim that in order to truly become human God would have had to know iniquity to the point of committing sin. The pain of a few hours on the cross does not compare with the sacrifice of accepting the burden of shame and guilt and revulsion for all time to come.

    “God became a man completely, a man to the point of infamy, a man to the point of being reprehensible – all the way to the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the destinies which together weave the uncertain web of history; He could have been Alexander, or Pythagoras, or Rurik, or Jesus; He chose an infamous destiny: He was Judas.”

    • Avatar
      MGH  June 3, 2020

      That’s a wonderful story by Borges, thanks for reminding me of it! And the twist in the tale is wickedly funny as well as thought-provoking.
      There’s also the possibility that Judas didn’t exist at all he’s a allegorical character, a stand-in for Judah ie the Jewish people, who the author of Mark is cross with for not having en masse accepted Jesus as the Christ. After all, Paul never mentions him by name, writes of 12 not 11 apostles (although the 12 in the gospels are disciples, not apostles), and early Christian writers give THREE versions of the death of Judas, with the legend becoming ever more gruesome and bonkers.

    • Avatar
      bseiler  June 4, 2020

      What a haunting, fascinating, game-changing speculation. Thanks for posting such an intellectually stimulating idea. I’ll be thinking about it for days…

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 2, 2020

    “handed Jesus over to his enemies – not simply telling them where to find him, but giving them the insider information they needed in order to have him brought up on charges before the Roman governor.”

    His enemies here would be the Jewish priests? From what Josephus writes about Pilate it doesn’t seem like he would need an excuse if Jesus was on his radar.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      The tradition says it was the Jewish leaaders, who were the first point of contact int he local judicial system; but it *could* have been directly to the Romans.

  4. Avatar
    TMC  June 2, 2020

    I always thought the “why” of Judas more interesting than the “what.” Thanks for this interesting take on it!

    A sort-of related question, you have opined that at least a few of the apostles had vision(s) of a risen Jesus. Do you have an opinion on how many of the twelve actually continued to believe (either in Jesus or the resurrection), or to follow the “Way”? I have this image of Bartholomew (as a random example) sheepishly returning to his wife to report that he was not actually going to rule over one of the tribes (and of her giving him a stern “I told you so.”)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      I think it’s clear that Peter did, at least he is the first recorded in our earliest reference. Mary Magdalene is multiply attested. And Paul tells us himself that he had one. As it turns out, that would be Peter, Paul, and Mary!

      Others too? I think it’s hard to say. I go into all this in my book How Jesus Became God.

    • Avatar
      bseiler  June 4, 2020

      FYI
      The youtuber Paulogia has been doing a series of late with the theme of Christianity needing only Peter and Paul to have visisions to get the ball rolling…He issued a challenge to all to explain using any extra-biblical sources how to refute the possibility that Christianity needed only Peter and Paul (and nothing else) to explain the early spread of Christianity.

      “Paulogia” is a good example of a former Christian who really did his homework and ended up going down a similar path to Professor Ehrman’s in terms of belief.

      https://youtu.be/-TjXExCBM_U

      • Avatar
        aarsen  June 6, 2020

        you always hear Christians saying that the other disciples would have come out to disprove it, had it not been true.

  5. fefferdan
    fefferdan  June 2, 2020

    Bart in an earlier part of this discussion you wrote: “Jesus almost certainly did not publicly claim that he was the messiah during his lifetime; more specifically, he never publicly announced that he was the King of the Jews.” I think differently. Namely, IMO Jesus did, in effect, publicly proclaim himself Messiah when he rode into Jerusalem in fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah 9.9 and accepted his followers’ cheers of “Hosanna Son of David.” To me this was his “coming out party,” and it led to his arrest, especially in the context of the money-changers episode, which signaled his willingness to use violence. I would guess that you deny the historicity of this account [meaning the intentional fulfillment of Zech 9.9 and the acceptance of the ‘Son of David’ cheers]. If so could you explain why?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      I used to think that too. But I argue in Jesus Before the Gospels why I now think that is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, if he did declare himself openly as the messiah and did have the “Triumphal Entry,” he would have been arrestd on the spot, not five days later.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  June 3, 2020

        Logical, but the way I read it, the Triumphal Entry grew in glory with every telling. It Mark 11, Jesus approaches the city to shouts of Hosanna but there is no huge crowd. Then, “he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple. And when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” No wonder then that he wasn’t arrested – “the Triumphal Entry” was a complete dud! The money changers’ episode happens the next day, and I figure it was this event that caused the authorities to seek his arrest.

        But when Matthew tells it [21] there are “crowds” shouting and “the whole city was stirred up.” The money changers event follows immediately. If it really happened that way, then the authorities would surely have been notified, yes. In Luke 19 there’s a big crowd and controversy, and he stays in the Temple several days… But I’ll have to but my comment short for lack of space! Bottom line, Mark is closer to the historical fact, and his account doesn’t require an immediate response from the authorities. Did make a small dent in your certainty? 😉

        • Bart
          Bart  June 5, 2020

          Well, if it was a complete dud then it wasn’t actually a triumphal entry!

          • fefferdan
            fefferdan  June 6, 2020

            Exactly! However the issue isn’t whether the entry was actually triumphant, but did Jesus in fact proclaim himself as messiah. He kept the messianic secret for nearly his entire career, but IMO he “came out” in the end, though not successfully. Later, his disciples increasingly exaggerated the “triumph” of his entry, just as they also turned his death into a victory.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 7, 2020

            Yup, that’s fine. I just don’t see much evidence for it. But it’s certainly possible.

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  June 4, 2020

        But why with such certainty? Doesn’t that assume that the gate was sufficiently guarded? And if they had tried to arrest him on the spot (for presumably the same reason they didn’t arrest him few days later in the temple) a riot would have likely broken out, with many ready to defend their promised one? And that is what the Romans were worried about at the time – but then, would they have even understood the Hebrew reference in the first place, and that he represented a threat? Or even if the Jewish authorities had caught sight of it ( among whom, I would think, opinions, would be mixed even though they would have gotten the reference) would they have necessarily rushed to turn him in, or rather just thought: “let’s just see where this is going..guards, keep an eye on this man”.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 5, 2020

          The reason for the certainty is because we know from other sources that this was one time of year that Pilate brought troops into Jerusalem (he was located in Caesarea otherwise) and stationed them in pressure points precisely to make sure that there was no unrest or potential disruption of public order. When you read Josephus, it is very clear that Romans did not have a hands-off attitude to potential trouble makers, and no sense that they should simply see how things played out.

          • Avatar
            meohanlon  June 9, 2020

            I get it. But still, would the Roman troops have recognized what Jesus was proclaiming by riding in on a donkey? (also,among the thousands of pilgrims, how many were riding in on donkeys, not necessarily with messianic aspirations? They would’ve had to single Jesus out) If the guards had known what was up, it just seems like it would be a bad time to arrest him, for fear of a massive bloody riot (and Josephus does say that Pilate was wary of this, with Tiberius notified of and unhappy about his earlier provocations). Yes, I know brutal ol’ Pilate wouldn’t let him get away; but why get him when he’s away from the crowds, and so rather than arresting him have a spy follow him (who approached Judas with an offer perhaps). Pilate was known for having Roman soldiers spy on people, disguised as Jewish civilians.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 10, 2020

            No, it’s not the donkey that is the issue. It is the idea that the crowds were declaring him the coming messiah.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  June 2, 2020

    Maybe Judas saw it as him or us? That might explain why the disciples were not implicated or arrested: Judas told the authorities that Jesus saw himself as the king of the Jews but it was just him, not the disciples who believed that. In a real stretch you could suppose that Judas sacrificed Jesus in order to save his fellow disciples. It’s all speculation, but then that’s the fun part of Bible study!

  7. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  June 2, 2020

    Professor, what is the scholarly consensus about whether the betrayer actually was Judas? (Sorry; I forget whether you discuss this in your writings.) I know that the earliest mention of Jesus being betrayed is in First Corinthians 11:23-24 but Paul never mentions a Judas. Is there any support for the idea that very early on, before Paul wrote, a tradition evolved that Jesus was betrayed and that later, after Paul but before Mark and before John’s source, Judas somehow was tagged?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      Yes, I talked about that in a post earlier in the thread. It’s multiply attested (and Paul does NOT talk about the betrayal!). Start at the beginning of the thread and you’ll see.

  8. Avatar
    KingJohn  June 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern/Oriental Orthodox Church claim to be the FIRST church. In your mind, what kind of church existed in 1st century Jerusalem? And are the Catholics and Orthodox correct in their claims?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      It was a group of Jews who thought Jesus was the messiah. It was nothing like ANY of the churches of today.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  June 2, 2020

    But you have said in the past that Jesus was not expecting to die. If Jesus was not expecting to die, then he would not have said that the anointing was for his burial. With that in mind and also speculating on what might have happened, maybe since Jesus thought the Son of Man was going to appear during the Passover Festival in Jerusalem, Jesus himself starting preaching to the crowds that he was soon to be the King of the Jews. Maybe Judas was vocal during all this while the other disciples were silent. Judas confirmed with Jesus that Jesus will be the King of the Jews.The priests heard him, let the Roman authorities know, Jesus was arrested and crucified. The story then was changed and exaggerated that Judas was the devil, greedy and betrayed Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      That’s right. He almost certainly did not say the anoining was for his burial. And I don’t think Jesus probably said the Son of Man was coming during the Festival. (At least we have no record or evidence that he did)

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 3, 2020

        Well…that’s why we’re speculating…since there is no record or evidence. I was speculating that the reason he made the journey to Jerusalem was because he thought the end was going to happen “now” and he needed to be there to declare himself the King of the Jews.
        Kind of similar to James, Peter, John, etc leaving Galilee to live in Jerusalem because they thought Jesus was returning “now” in Jerusalem and they needed to be there when he returned.

  10. Avatar
    gavriel  June 2, 2020

    Maybe I have asked this question some years ago: What if Judas thought Jesus went bananas in the temple court, bringing all of them into serious danger, and he thought to have found a secure way out?
    Just being frustrated or disappointed should not lead to anything but quietly leaving the group.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      Ah, I know lots of people who are frustrated and disappointment who do far more than simply leave…. Would that they did.

      But yes, the Temple incident is a plausible turning point for Judas.

  11. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 2, 2020

    If Jesus actually did anticipate his demise, what would have been his apocalyptic expectation? That he would be rescued by a divine intervention? That he would not actually have to die an ignominious death? That might explain the final outburst on the cross– wondering why he’s been forsaken. Could Jesus still be the messiah Christians have taken him to be, as the gospels were written and christology hardened into the current form, and still have been a sort of delusional crackpot? If God assumes the human dress, becomes fully human, is He doomed to be a crackpot?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      I don’t think he anticipated his demise probably until the very end.

  12. Avatar
    Lms728  June 2, 2020

    Not only can we not readily surmise the motivations of others, we often can’t know for certain what our own motivations are. I may think I’m posting this comment because of x but my real motivation may be y, and it’s quite possible that I’m wholly unaware that y is what’s driving me. Or I may, in fact, know that y is my motivation but, for whatever reason, insist to others that x is. So even if Judas revealed what he believed to be his motivation, could we necessarily trust him? Perhaps the best we can do is to assign to Judas the most plausible explanation and leave it at that. It’s not very satisfying but it’s honest.

  13. Avatar
    J--B  June 3, 2020

    Well, Dr. Ehrman, I do believe we have some fairly reliable Information to indicate what it was that motivated you to write this post – unless it was forged:
    Blog post of August 1, 2014:
    “It’s not that I don’t want to provide all the content that I provide. I absolutely do. But at the end of the day, that’s not why I do the blog. My sense is that *most* people who have blogs put in the effort because they want the wider world to know what they are thinking. That’s certainly true, I think, of most blogs involving the New Testament, early Christianity, the historical Jesus and … well, probably religion generally. But that’s not what drives me. If it were up to me, by myself, I’d be happy not to do the blog, and just to write books. But doing the blog is a way for me to raise money for charities that I believe in and want to support.”

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Yup. That’s what I wrote and believe. Or so I say…. 🙂

  14. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 3, 2020

    “And I said unto them, If you think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my hire thirty pieces of silver. And God said unto me, Cast it unto the potter, the goodly price that I was prized at by them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them unto the potter, in the house of Jehovah” (Zechariah 11:12-13).

    It’s symbolic of a deeper betrayal – that of the Jewish people for their Messiah.
    The price of thirty pieces of silver demonstrates the value the religious leaders put on Jesus. Nothing more than the price of “damaged goods” under the Mosaic law.
    “Cast them unto the potter” became the “potter’s field” for broken pottery, 600 years later.
    And Zechariah’s account links Jesus to the Tanakh and the old covenant.
    Thus the Redeemer paid the full price of humiliation, judgment and death – as prophesized.

    Of note – Mary’s alabaster box was worth about $75,000 in today’s value (more than three hundred day’s wage)

  15. Avatar
    tadmania  June 3, 2020

    My take on Judas (Aren’t you thrilled?!) Just as Jesus embodies the essence of man’s ‘goodness’, or ‘God likeness’, so Judas serves as an avatar for his most base attribute, selfish ambition. Jesus could have walked into the public square and declared himself king, or incited the crowd to violence against the Roman occupation without much difficulty. Both public acts would have provided more than enough reason to have anyone humiliated and dead. But, the story doesn’t work according to its purposes if Jesus merely violates the law. The ‘evil’ aspect of man must betray the ‘virtuous’ man, so bringing about tragedy for both. Only then can the virtuous man be made free. Judas serves the gnostic vision of ridding the soul of the body, imparting secret knowledge to achieve his aims. Jesus has secret knowledge, too, and it is made clear post-resurrection, when his glorified personality inspires the formation of the religion we know today.

  16. Avatar
    DoubtingTom  June 3, 2020

    That’s certainly plausible. Another guess is Judas was trying to force God’s or Jesus hand to get the new kingdom ball rolling.

    Does that seem a reasonable possibility?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Ah, thought I suggested that one…. If not, I *meant* to….

  17. Avatar
    tcasto  June 3, 2020

    Thanks for highlighting Matt 10:23. Additional support for the thinking that Jesus was preaching a new world order that was soon to come. And support for the possibility that one or more of the disciples became disillusioned when it didn’t occur as predicted.

    It seems to me that the parts of Matthew that emphasize the imminent upheaval wouldn’t have gotten much play in recruiting among the Gentiles. How do you sell a new religion post crucifixion when one of the major themes ( Son of Man on his way) hasn’t panned out?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      You say it’s been delayed to give your audience a chance to repent, but it’s now about to happen! (At leaast that was one common tactic)

  18. Avatar
    Coimbra1982  June 3, 2020

    Both Luke and John tell us that Satan entered into Judas, at the time when he made the deal with the Pharisees and when he left the last supper. John also tells us that Judas helped himself to the group’s funds, so he was already greedy before that. While greed is a sin, we are all sinners, so that doesn’t necessarily mean that Judas was any more sinful than the other disciples. Satan exploited his greed to betray Jesus.

    The Gospel of Judas is a second century Gnostic text which was discredited by Irenaeus as fictional.

  19. Avatar
    Coimbra1982  June 3, 2020

    Judas does NOT betray “Jesus because that’s what Jesus wants him to do.” Do you even understand what that would mean? Judas Iscariot was a good apostle who had bad thoughts about stealing money and he entertained and cultivated those thoughts until he sinned. He ignored his conscience until his heart hardened. This is what the perfect angel did before he became Satan the Devil. This is what Eve and Adam did before they rebelled. James says, “each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15) That is the real motivation behind Judas, human imperfection. Genesis 6:5; 8:21 tells us that fallen man and woman are mentally bent toward evil. Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that our heart is treacherous and we cannot know it. Paul tells us that our natural desire is to do bad. The only way to avoid those things is to wholeheartedly obey the conscience that God gave us and strengthen it.

    The Apocryphal writings are completely inferior and regularly fanciful and, simple and childish. They are most often inaccurate.

  20. Avatar
    rwhershey  June 4, 2020

    Hi Bart! I have a lingering memory of “something I read once” (how’s that for a citation) that the betrayal wasn’t actually a betrayal at all, but rather Judas handing Jesus over to the Romans was done at Jesus’ request, and only later was explained as we read it now. This may be apocryphal or some other romanticized fiction, but certainly exonerates Judas, and also speaks to his motivation, that it was done out of loyalty and duty. Have you encountered this tradition in your research, and if so, where does it come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 5, 2020

      Yes, I thought I suggested that as an option — or at least I meant to. It’s found in some of the Jesus movies, e.g., The Last Temptation of Christ. But no, I don’t find anything in our accounts to suggest that; My sense is that Jesus was not at all planning on being executed.

      • Avatar
        rwhershey  June 5, 2020

        After some research, I see that my question should have been, did Jesus *predict* Judas’ betrayal, or *command* it?

        As you say, it’s clear in the Gospel of Judas that Jesus wants Judas to betray him. But take the passage: “you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” It’s the “you will” on which the whole question pivots. (My nephew has a delightful way of “requesting” things using this language: “Uncle Richie, you will get me a doughnut.”)

        Modern Gnostics take this to mean that Jesus is giving a command. For example, Gnostic scholar/practitioner Tobias Churton writes of Jesus “commissioning Judas’ ‘betrayal,’” (Churton, The Kiss of Death). But this may simply be bad exegesis. However, I find that many modern Gnostic traditions in fact teach that Jesus ordered Judas to betray him, not just approved of it.

        In the synoptics, Judas plots with the authorities, and John’s account unambiguously points to unsanctioned betrayal. So when we read in Mark and Matthew, “one of you will betray me,” it’s clearly a prediction, not a command. But what about the Gospel of Judas? Is the “you will” a prediction, or a command? I don’t read Coptic, so I have no authority to answer this.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 7, 2020

          No, I don’t think the historical Jesus predicted the betrayal.

      • Avatar
        Coimbra1982  June 5, 2020

        Hi Dr. Ehrman,

        You better than I know that the gospel of Judas is a gnostic writing. The Gnostics influenced by some Greek philosophy believed that the material flesh was evil and one had to escape it. It is most probably written late second century and of course not written by the historical Judas.

        Concomitantly, even thought the ideia of Jesus supposedly planning on being executed is in some sense unlikely, unless there is a solid and a strong evidence to suppor it on historical ground.

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