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Judas and the Messianic Secret

Yesterday I gave one reason for thinking that Jesus considered himself the future messiah: he almost certainly told his twelve disciples that they would be future rulers in the coming kingdom.  It is hard to imagine how they could be twelve rulers in a kingdom if he himself was not the one over them, as the ultimate ruler, the king.  Jesus understood the coming kingdom in an apocalyptic sense: it would be brought in by a cataclysmic act of God in which the forces of evil were destroyed prior to the utopian rulership appeared.  And Jesus would be the king.  In *that* sense, he was to be the future messiah.

I’ll give a second reason for thinking this in my next post.  For now I want to show how this understanding of Jesus’ view of himself makes sense of one other very puzzling datum, the betrayal of Judas.

I don’t think there can be much doubt that Jesus really was handed over to the authorities by one of his own followers, Judas Iscariot.  Some people have argued that Judas was an invented figure who is meant to represent “the Jew” (because of the close similarities of the names Judas/Jew).   In theory that’s possible of course – since then the story would have been invented by Christians to cast yet further aspersions on Jews for their rejection of Jesus.  But I don’t think this view is ultimately persuasive.

For one thing …

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Jesus Death as King of the Jews
Jesus’ Claim to Be the Messiah



  1. Avatar
    drdavef  December 1, 2015

    How are we sure there were 12 disciples? The Talmud eludes to there only being 5. Could the “12” have been written into the story by later Christian editors, or the Romans Church as the narrative was developed?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 1, 2015

      It’s because it is so widely attested (Mark, Q, John, Paul) and even though everyone knows there were 12, they give some of them different names. So 12 is a very very ancient tradition (pre-Pauline). The Talmud, of course, was centuries later.

      • Avatar
        sinetheo  December 7, 2015

        Didn’t the Egyptian Pharaoh God Horus have 12 disciples and could walk on water and helped someone feed a crowd of a 1,000 with a few fish and several loaves of bread too with 3 wise men from the East for his birth? 🙂

        I always wondered if any of this was adapted for the gospels?

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 1, 2015

    An interesting interpretation. Possibly true. Other possibilities:

    Judas heard what Jesus said (and I think you can agree that we don’t have Jesus’ exact wording, because we rarely if ever do), and either intentionally distorted it, or badly misunderstood it. We do have a record of Jesus telling the disciples they would be kings. He does not say he would be king. Why would this be left out? Obviously the disciples never did become kings, and author of Matthew would know that. They all died in obscurity, leaders of a little-known sub-sect of Judaism.

    Judas could have lied to the authorities, saying that Jesus had claimed he would be king of the Jews in the near future, and made it sound as if he expected to be king in the literal earthly sense–the promised Jewish Messiah, a military leader who would drive the Romans out. That would be more than enough to assure his death at the hands of the state (though honestly, it’s possible they’d have killed him just for attacking the Temple Authorities, who were the chosen leaders of the Jewish people in Palestine, and therefore attacking them was attacking Rome’s authority).

    As he is reported to have told the authorities “My kingdom is not of this world.” Now I agree he believed the Kingdom would be on earth, but not THIS earth. A transformed earth, the old world made new, so he really could have said that, said he never meant that he would rule the earth as it is now, and have still believed the Kingdom was coming soon–or maybe he never believed he would be king on earth, that he had to die for the world to be transformed, and his kingdom was elsewhere.

    It’s a matter of semantics. We can’t know what he meant, but did he really think God would just show up and stick him on a throne, to rule? I must confess, it just seems like such a common vulgar fantasy of empowerment for such a subtle searching person to embrace. I don’t believe it. I don’t dismiss it as a possibility, but since we don’t actually have him saying it–even when he’s speaking to them in private–how can we see it as a certainty that’s what he believed? It’s one possible interpretation.

    Maybe there was a Judas, in something like the form we have him in the gospels–and maybe he’s the scapegoat–maybe Jesus’ followers as a whole needed to blame somebody for their own failure. A great deal of what drove Christiantiy in its early years was precisely that sense of failure and guilt. They’d been shown a great vision, and they’d loved this man, revered him–and then stood by while he was killed horribly. That burned into their souls, and they spent the rest of their lives trying to atone, and it brought out a collective genius for evangelization that the other cults lacked, and history was made. But there had to be a serpent in the garden, because in that spiritual tradition, there always is.

    So whoever and whatever Judas was originally, he became the figure we have in the gospels, because that’s what was needed.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  December 1, 2015

    I strongly disagree with the message of this song by the great Scots singer Dick Gaughan (whose politics I hardly need describe, since the lyrics will tell you), but I love the song regardless. There’s a lot of ways of looking at Judas.


  4. Avatar
    JSTMaria  December 1, 2015

    Just like only the insiders, or the twelve brothers with Joseph, knew about his “dream” of them all bowing down to him one day as the ultimate ruler. And Judas sold him out. I can’t help but see the screaming parallel and duplication of the Joseph story here. The fact that Judas Iscariot’s betrayal is most likely true makes it all the more intriguing! What do you think of the possibility put forth by the Gospel of Judas that Judas was actually chosen by Jesus to betray him?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I think there’s not much to commend it. I don’t think Jesus expected to get crucified.

      • Avatar
        JSTMaria  December 4, 2015

        Do you have a thread on this topic (Jesus not expecting to get crucified) elsewhere on the blog that I can read up on? Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  December 4, 2015

          No, I’m afraid not. But you could get the logic from my other posts. Jesus was expecting God soon to send the Son of Man from hevaen to destroy the forces of evil. He thought he would then be made king. Being crucified was not part of it.

          • Avatar
            Britt  December 15, 2015

            As described in the New York Times at this link, would the ancient inscription on this stone indicate that perhaps Jesus did expect to die and rise from the dead? Your thoughts? http://goo.gl/0HMqLc

          • Bart
            Bart  December 16, 2015

            That was seven or eight years ago, and the initial (rather sensational!) reporting was later discredited. I think if you google Gabriel’s stone you’ll see the controversy. It is highly problemeatic: the key word (the one that everything hinges on) “rise” is garbled.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  December 1, 2015

    Couldn’t the Romans just crucify Jesus for making a disruption in the Temple?
    No betrayal needed.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      They could have if they wanted to do so, but that’s never mentioned as having anything to do with the trial.

  6. Avatar
    doug  December 1, 2015

    I agree. Simply turning Jesus over to the Romans and saying “we don’t like this guy – please kill him” would not have gotten Jesus killed. They needed to supply a *reason* for which the Romans would kill someone. And telling the Romans that Jesus wanted to cause an uprising apparently did the trick.

  7. Avatar
    flshrP  December 1, 2015

    This business of Jesus saying that the Twelve would somehow rule over the 12 tribes always puzzled me.
    In the time of the NT, only two of the tribes were in existence (Judah and Benjamin).
    The other 10 tribes had been deported by the Assyrians 800 years earlier when the northern state of Israel was destroyed and have been
    lost to history in that early diaspora ever since.
    Question: what do modern NT scholars say about this? Was Jesus just talking metaphorically as he was accustomed to do?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      There was a lively expectation that hte other ten would be “restored”

  8. Avatar
    anberry  December 1, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, in the past you have argued that Jesus was probably thrown into a common grave as per usual with crucified criminals. Do you still hold to this view? Also, do you think the first Christians envisioned the resurrection as the physical body that was dead being transformed into an immortal body, or that the old body would be discarded and decay and your soul would just be put into a new, imperishable body? The first theory would imply an empty tomb (the physical body being brought back to life) and the latter theory would not (Jesus mortal body would decay in the grave while he was just given a brand new body).

    Don’t know what to make of 1 Corinthians 15

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yes, I do think that. But I don’t think any of the early Christians thought that. They thought his body had been brought back to life, and that his followers’ bodies would too.

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  December 1, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I find this argument far more convincing than your last. It’s very much possible that the only reason the Roman authorities even had reason to presume that Jesus had messianic aspirations was that Judas probably “spilled the beans” as you say. Indeed, you have missed one important fact that even supports your argument. “Iscariot” is not meaningless. It actually has a meaning in Hebrew. The root שקר in Hebrew means to lie or deceive. And there is a common Israelite practice of purposely altering a despised person’s name as a form of mockery. There are several examples in the Hebrew Bible itself. For instance, when the Deuteronomist calls Saul’s son Ish-Ba’al instead “Ish-Bosheth”, because the god Ba’al is, of course, unworthy of mention, so the writer instead refers to him as bosheth or “shame”, so Ish-Ba’al goes from “man of Ba’al” to “man of shame”. The same thing is likely going on with Judas Iscariot’s name in the Gospels.

    In all likelihood, Judas was probably originally called Judas ‘ish-Kiryyot (יהודה איש קריות, “Yehuda the man from the outskirts”). Maybe he came from the suburb of some city, such as Sepphoris or Tiberias or whatever. Who knows? After Judas’ presumed betrayel (it’s unlikely that Judas told them of his betrayel; the disciples must have put two and two together after Judas’ kiss and Jesus’ subsequent arrest), the disciples most likely purposely altered the pronunciation of his name from something typical (“Judah the Suburban Man”) to something that they felt expressed his true nature, יהודה ישקריות, Judas Iscariot, “Judah the Deceiver”. I would say that’s pretty good evidence that the disciples blamed Judas.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yup, that’s one of the many theories about what Iscariot means! If you’d like to see an evaluation (which doesn’t buy this explanation), see Raymond Brown’s discussion in his book Death of the Messiah.

  10. tasteslikecorn
    tasteslikecorn  December 1, 2015

    In my un-churched youth, I was under the general impression that Judas was to Satan as Robin is to Batman. Saint John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, writing in the fourth century, used Judas as an example of the wickedness of Jews in general. Others focused on the last name “Iscariot” being the key to understanding Judas, having either to do with his place of birth, red hair, membership in the Sacarii (though maybe the founding member, since they seem to be a product of the 40’s or 50’s). My current favorite is that the Gospel of John is the key. John depicts Judas Iscariot as the keeper of the apostles’ purse and complaining that the money that is used to anoint Jesus with costly perfume doesn’t go to the poor. Could this scene be key to understanding Judas? Maybe he really was a champion of the poor and became disillusioned with the “eat, drink and be merry (and smell merry)” lifestyle of Jesus and turned him in to the authorities. Admittedly, this is barely-rational logic, but that’s why I find it so plausible, as much of what we read about Judas seems barely-rational in the first place. I mean, who gives up everything for a road trip with a poor, itinerant preacher, only to do a complete about-face and turn on him in a manner that would prove lethal? Was Jesus a poor judge of character, or, possibly, was he a poor character himself and turned in by the saintly Judas?

  11. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  December 1, 2015

    Why do the rulers have to have a ruler? If the Twelve rule, why do you think they need yet another layer of rule. What Jesus told them does not imply anything or anyone else: they will rule.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Just because ancient kingdoms had kings — not twelve at once, but one at a time, even if they had governors and other rulers under them.

  12. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  December 2, 2015

    I’m sorry, Professor; I’m missing something important. I thought that one of the big issues with Mark, put simply, is that despite what the disciples see and what Jesus says, his followers just don’t “get it”. But here you say that, “Only the insiders knew that Jesus considered himself the future messiah of the coming kingdom.”. I thought that this is precisely what the disciples did not know.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      When I’m discussing what the disciples knew (the actual disciples in history) I’m not referring to how Mark’s Gospel portrays the disciples (it’s the difference between a historical claim and a literary view)

  13. Avatar
    living42day  December 2, 2015

    “For one thing, the story of the betrayal is independently attested in numerous sources (so no one of them could have made it up).”


    Some have suggested that Judas’ role as betrayer was based on a historicizing of Psalm 41:9 (“Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heal against me”). We see this sort of thing throughout the passion narrative, where details that have little claim to historicity have been worked up from OT passages. Isn’t it just as likely that those who found the rationale for Jesus’ death by searching the Scriptures found this detail there as well? If that was done at an early date and the idea found its way into the oral tradition, then there would be only one source for the idea–Psalm 41:9.

    By the way, lest you think I’m relying on questionable sources here, I’m basing my question in large part on what Koester says in HTR 73:105-130. Here’s the key summary:

    In the beginning there was only the belief that Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial, as well as his resurrection happened “according to the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). The very first narratives about Jesus’ suffering and death would not have made the attempt to remember what actually happened. Rather, they would have found both the rationale and the content of Jesus’ suffering and death in the memory of those passages in the Psalms and the Prophets which spoke about the suffering of the righteous. (127)

    If the process Koester outlines took place relatively early, wouldn’t it be just as likely that the further development of such ideas in multiple sources (Q, Mark, M, L, & John) derived from that initial searching of the scriptures as the claim that it actually happened?

    If this is too far afield for the present thread, could you perhaps add this to your list of future topics?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yes, that’s certainly possible. What I”m arguing is that it is more likely that the event is historical based on independent attestation and dissimilarity. My sense is that the early Xns searched their scriptures to explain what didn’t make sense — including Judas’s betrayal (just as it wouldn’t be fair to say that Jesus was not really crucified because the early Christians found a Scripture text — Isaiah 53 — that could be used to explain the crucifixion)

  14. Avatar
    Scott  December 2, 2015

    I read this to my wife. She was thrilled to learn that Albert Schweitzer, a man she greatly respects, was also such an insightful biblical scholar. it is a shame – as you say – that well educated Christians have not been exposed to so much of what we know about the Bible – even after 100 years.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Yes, his most famous book was Quest of the Historical Jesus! Arguably the most important book on the NT written in the 20th century.

    • Garrett20
      Garrett20  December 4, 2015

      Schweitzer’s book is great, however I completely disagree that well educated Christians aren’t exposed to what “we” know about the Bible. Have you ever read Dan Wallace, F.F. Bruce, etc ? There are some brilliant Christian scholars out there, too.

      • Bart
        Bart  December 7, 2015

        I don’t think I ever said that about educated Christians did I? I certainly didn’t mean to!! Some of the most brilliant NT/early Christianity scholars (most of them, I suppose) are Christian!!

        • Garrett20
          Garrett20  December 7, 2015

          Apologies Dr. Ehrman, my response was to Scott.

  15. Avatar
    Stefan  December 2, 2015

    It seems to me that the Jewish authorities would not be so enraged as to hand him over to the Romans merely because he taught privately that he would become the messiah after God had sent the Son of Man. Had he already enraged them in another way? And so Judas would have delivered the perfect excuse for them to have Jesus done away with. But how would Jesus have enraged them?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      My sense is that they were ticked off about the temple incident and its implications.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 9, 2015

        The Temple incident likely did not happen. Explain otherwise.

        Jesus disrespected the Temple, if he did turnover the tables of the money changers: Jesus disrupts the sacrifices to His Father in His Father’s House of Prayer. All the great religious men in the Hebrew Bible respected animal sacrifice. But, Jesus disrupts the Altar of the God of Israel. He has the nerve to ask God, Why have you forsaken me?

        God’s Answer: you disrupted my sacrifices, you led people away from the Torah, away from Leviticus 17: 10, ‘I will set my face against any Israelite or any foreigner residing among them who eats blood, and I will cut them off from the people. You, Jesus, who asked your disciples to remember you by, hopefully, metaphorically drinking your blood (Last Supper/Communion) by not seeking my Face.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2015

          For attacks on the temple and temple sacrifice, read the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.

  16. Avatar
    rbrtbaumgardner  December 2, 2015

    Bart, I am wondering why the Romans didn’t capture and execute Jesus’ twelve disciples as well. Was it they scattered or that they weren’t easily identified? Or perhaps the Roman’s didn’t have the man-power for such a hunt or the disciples weren’t of much consequence?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      They evidently just went for the ring-leader, as they did, e.g., in the case of John the Baptist as well.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 2, 2015

    The confusion concerning why Jesus was put to death reminds me of the mystery of why Socrates died. The “why” behind both deaths is confusing, at least to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      Socrates: for introducing other gods into Athens. Jesus: for claiming to be the future king.

  18. Avatar
    maryhelena  December 2, 2015

    Historical memory is at the base of the gospel Judas story. The historical memory of the execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews, Antigonus II. That execution, in 37 b.c.e., is referenced in the various themes of the gospel crucifixion story.

    Judas Iscariot, the betrayal for 30 pieces of silver and the suicide: Herod the Great paid the Roman Mark Antony a great deal of money in order to have the Jewish King and High Priest executed. Antigonus was hung on a tree/cross/stake and beheaded. Mark Antony, for issues unrelated to the execution of Antigonus, later committed suicide by stabbing himself with his own sword.

    The family of Herod the Great, Herod I, were, for many years, part of the Hasmonean court.

    The gospel writers were not writing history about an itinerant preacher who claimed to be the messiah, who claimed to be a King of the Jews. Such a scenario would be incomprehensible to the Jews. As for the Romans taking heed of such a mad-man – a laughing stock more likely.

    The gospel crucifixion story rests on Jewish history – the Roman execution of the last King and High Priest of the Jews. A King that was betrayed by one with connections to the Hasmonean household. The hired assassin later committing suicide. These are the historical accounts that provided the historical memories upon which the gospel writers created their Jesus crucifixion account. Even to the extent that it is Antioch, the place where the last King of the Jews was executed, that the NT lists as the place where Christians were first called by that name.

    Sure, there is much more in the gospel story that is not connected to the execution of Antigonus. But that the gospel crucifixion story reflects themes from Jewish history indicates that that story is a political allegory and not itself history. If the time of Pilate was relevant to the gospel writers then that relevance was due to other historical events and not because some unknown itinerant preacher was claiming to be a king of the Jews.

    If there is historical memory to be found in the gospel story – then it is Hasmonean Jewish history that needs to be remembered. That is the history from which the gospel writers and the Jewish people had memories – no need for messianic secrets. Messianic secrets are only needed in the gospel’s political allegory – a political allegory written under the nose of the Roman occupation.

  19. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  December 2, 2015

    In citing multiple attestations, is it widely accepted that M and L are distinct sources from Matthew and Luke? What is the evidence that they are not Matthean and Lukan creations?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      They certainly *could* be. But it would mean they were just makin’ stuff up, and I think one would need to make an argument for that, since otherwise they can be shown to be utilizing earlier sources for their stories.

  20. Fearguth
    Fearguth  December 2, 2015

    Why do you suppose the Gospel of John (at 1:41 and 4:25) uses the Hebrew/Aramaic word, ‘Messias/Messian’ (as well as ‘Christos’), and the Synoptics only use ‘Christos’?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      John’s sources at these point go back to Aramaic accounts, that have been translated except for a key word or two that are thought to pack a better punch in the original.

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