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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
    SidDhartha1953  December 2, 2015

    I found this, to me novel, treatment of the Judas question. What do you think of the claim that there were rival accounts of Judas’ involvement both in the death of Jesus and his subsequent role as one of the Twelve? If Pilate had initially agreed to house arrest for Jesus and his inner circle, could Josephus have known of it and omitted it from his Antiquities?http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/judas357931.shtml

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I’d say there was no evidence for a house arrest option. And Josphus almost certainly knew whatever he knew simply from sources that ultimately derive from Christian story tellers.

  2. Avatar
    spiker  December 2, 2015

    Interesting that you doubt the Sanhedrin trial. This is a bit thin, but do you also doubt the trial before Pilate.
    On the one hand, I think Josephus mentions a Jewish embassy to Rome complaining about Pilate. One of the charges was execution without trial. To be sure, the charge against Jesus was pretty serious; a matter of directly challenging Caesars authority. Pilate might have wanted to make a show of it . Then again, execution without trial can also be a way demonstrating you are taking care of business.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I’m not 100% sure that Jesus appeared directly before Pilate, but I’m 99.9% sure he appeared before *some* high ranking Roman official who ordered his execution for claiming to be the Jewish king.

      • Avatar
        spiker  December 4, 2015

        WOW! OK

        I knew I was on very thin ice with that one, but sometimes ya have to put some weight on it and see how long it takes to fall through.

  3. Avatar
    fabiogaucho  December 2, 2015

    Extremely interesting idea, with many implications besides the issue of Judas. For example, you say elsewhere that when Jesus in his public Ministry said “Son of Man” he was often referring to someone other then himself. So under this hypothesis, he told only his inner circle that the Son of Man is him, period? And then the Mark takes the inner teachings and put in Jesus’ mouth as things he said publicly.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      No, my view is that he did not think that he was the Son of Man. The Son of Man was the future cosmic divine being who would come in judgment; he, Jesus, was the one who would be installed on the throne of the kingdom. Two different persons.

  4. Avatar
    JimBG  December 3, 2015

    What do you think of Schweitzer’s view that Matt 10:23 (the apostles not going through of the Cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives) and the lack of it’s fulfillment, (as they did come back and nothing happened) was the first example of a delay of the Parousia, and that subsequently Jesus took a different approach in his ministry in not seeking out crowds, and deciding he most likely would need to die to “force” the end and the kingdom’s establishment?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      I’ve never bought it. Interesting issue though. I’ll add the question to my Readers’ Mailbag.

      • Avatar
        brandon284  November 19, 2016

        Did you ever come back to this issue Dr. Ehrman?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 20, 2016

          No, I never did!

          • Avatar
            brandon284  November 20, 2016

            I think it would be really interesting!

  5. Avatar
    RevRobSt  December 4, 2015

    Makes sense! If I were Jesus living in a culture of oppression with government “spies” keeping watch over the peons, I probably wouldn’t be telling “people on the street” (or along dusty roads) that I was expected to be king. Surely, Ceasar would not be impressed nor pleased.
    So, if Judas “spilled the beans,” do you think that it was possibly an accidental sharing? Might he have been bragging (to the wrong people)?
    As always, I appreciate your knowledge and personal “takes” on the issues. Thanks

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  December 6, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, why would it be necessary for Judas to betray the messianic secret when Jesus, in public, spoke the Parable of Ten Minas which ends with: “But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”

    Second, Dr. Ehrman, why would it be necessary for Judas to betray the messianic secret when Jesus staged references to his kingship on Palm Sunday? Are you suggesting there were no references to kingship on that day?

    Third, are you saying the Gospel of Judas is not an attestation of Judas’ actions, here, not a betrayal, but in accord with Jesus’ intent. Yes, I am referencing a program you did on the Gospel of Judas. If you are using that as one of the multiple attestations, it needs the qualification to which I reference.

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 7, 2015

      The question is whether Jesus said that. I think, the answer is absolutely not. And was there a triumphal entry? Again, no. And no, the Gospel of Judas is not historically reliable. So it’s all a matter of how you use the Gospels to reconstruct what really happened in Jesus’ life (and how you argue for historical probability)

      • Avatar
        Steefen  December 8, 2015

        Then I would like to submit a Reader’s Mailbag question. The Jesus Seminar has published a version of the gospels showing varying degrees in various font color what is acceptable. Can you and would you do the same?

        That said, triumphal, in this context, is partly riding on donkey (or whatever animal since two are mentioned) and is partly the crowd waving branches in a manner similar to the waving of branches at a military leader in Maccabees.

        Given the numerous people in Jerusalem Passover Week, a segment could have constituted a large crowd. Second, just by association with John the Baptist and taking on some of the disciples of John the Baptist, Jesus had some celebrity status, there was anticipation if this celebrity would appear, would he address any group of people with a smart parable explaining what Passover meant to him or a new prayer or a new sermon or a healing or an exorcism, or congratulating one publically about their faith, let alone anything greater. Jesus had talked about the kingdom being at hand. What more would he say about that. What advancement would the Son of Man Movement make while Jesus was in Jerusalem?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 9, 2015

          Yes, I’ll address this on the Mailbag. No, I won’t produce such an edition!

  7. Avatar
    Luke9733  December 11, 2015

    What are your thoughts on the passage in 1st Thessalonians in which Paul says that “the Jews” killed Jesus (and the prophets)? I read that you believe that passage is probably authentic (I’d agree, I think it probably is). But that passage seems strange if your reconstruction of Jesus’ execution is correct. Why would Paul (a Jew – who probably would still be considering himself as a Jew) say that “the Jews” killed Jesus if, in fact, the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem had nothing to do with it? Why not say the Romans killed Jesus, or that Pilate did (or even that Judas did)? Do you think Paul may not have known what took place, or was mistaken?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 11, 2015

      I think he must be saying that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death. Which isn’t the same thing as saying they actually crucified him. Paul appears to have thought that the Jewish leadership was ultimately the cause. Whether he was right about that or not is another question!

      • Avatar
        ravensmp  December 22, 2015

        Hello Bart! Could you elaborate your thought on that more?
        1 Thessalonians 2:14-15
        If Paul thinks Jewish leadership had something to do with death of Jesus, don’t you think it is actually “highly”
        possible that Jews ,in fact, was partially responsible for the execution of Jesus? Paul is one of the earliest sources for Jesus from what I know.. Why would Paul make up those things if it isn’t true?
        And if Jesus was preaching about coming kingdom of God, why would Jews kill Jesus?
        I think Jews lacked motive to kill Jesus than romans did..however Paul is saying the opposite
        and he even talks about killing the “prophets”? Is Paul being anti-Jewish here? Is he making up things against
        Jews or do you think the verses are made up and added in later tradition?

        Thank you.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2015

          No, I don’t think so. The Jewish leaders in Palestine did not have the right to execute criminals during the Roman period.

  8. Avatar
    Hari Prasad  March 1, 2016

    One other suggestion that I came across regarding Judas’ betrayal is that it was the last supper which was the trigger. This is when Jesus would have made clear his role and that the disciples would be the 12 sub-kings for the different tribes of Israel which would be gathered back together with the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven. As in the Didache tradition, the bread (Passover or not, depending on which gospel), broken up, represented the Diaspora which would reunited, and the wine celebrated the vine (shoot) of David – the Messiah in the form of Jesus. Perhaps Judas could not (metaphorically) swallow all this and so wanted to denounce the impostor, as he saw him.

    What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 1, 2016

      I’ve never seen that suggested before. It’s hard to explain how he could have alerted the authorities to arrest Jesus immediately after the supper if he was there at the supper with him and that was when he turned.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 1, 2016

      It was not, as far as I know, against the law to see oneself as a messiah or the messiah and to have far out ideas about one’s role and the roles of his disciples in the Kingdom of God. But, if Judas did have a negative reaction toward Jesus’ ideas and decided then and there to “turn him in,” I don’t see the problem Bart has in his response that follows: he could have left immediately afterward and told the authorities.

      • Avatar
        Hari Prasad  March 2, 2016

        I agree that there would have been nothing particularly strange or objectionable in the Jewish 1st century context of Jesus seeing himself as the Messiah or in his naming his disciples as soon-to-be sub-kings of all Israel. I should have been clearer. Actually, the suggestion was that Judas could have reacted in particular against the institution by Jesus of a private cultic ritual at the last supper, outside the accepted Jewish practice centering around the Temple, even if this was meant to be temporary – i.e. until the establishment very soon of the Kingdom of Heaven and of a purified temple in Jerusalem.

  9. Avatar
    Simulacrum  February 17, 2017

    I think John Shelby Spong makes an interesting case for Judas being a literary invention to incriminate the Jews (see Spong Judas on youtube). He leans on Iscariot stemming from Sicarii (Judas the Assassin). If this is true, then the gospel writers would all have had that agenda (incriminating the Jews), even Matthew who portrays Jesus as the new Moses. That would fit well with the attempt to distance Christianity from Judaism after the ‘outrageous’ rebellion in 66-70 AD. What’s also compelling, I think, are the references Spong draws from the details of the Judas stories to Scripture stories of betrayal (Judah handing over his brother, kiss, silver coins, disembowelment etc). The details could be added to a real core of course.

    Bart, you argue that the Judas betrayal would be embarrassing to the Jesus-movement, and that therefore the story is likely true. But is it really that embarrassing? The disciples in Mark not knowing Jesus is the Messiah seems more embarrassing to me, but Mark uses this as a literary strategy to explain that the Messiah can be crucified and still be the Messiah. I think the same could be true of Judas. The betrayal reinforces the image of a new kind of Messiah. The early Christians thought Jesus was exalted to heaven at his resurrection, and only then did he become the son of God. The human form of Jesus (the angel?) would be prone to attacks from the evil forces of this world, and his own followers too. That wouldn’t be embarrassing, but expected (as they thought about the crucifixion in retrospect). Jesus strength as a suffering Messiah is his weakness (Paul uses this too), and in that light it would create sympathy, not embarrassment, to be betrayed by someone close, wouldn’t you agree? Jesus is not a mighty king, but a new kind of Messiah, a suffering, humbled, even betrayed, yet devoted Messiah.

    Finally, Paul’s seeming ignorance of the Judas story supports the literary invention thesis.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 19, 2017

      The etymology connecting Iscariot to the Sicarii is clever, but it is widely recognized as not working. In any event there are lots of views about all this. You can see how I work it out myself in my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot. It’s worth noting that we have independent accounts of Judas in Mark, John, Acts, and Papias (so no one of them made it up). And they all try to explain it away. That matters, in my opinion, for deciding if there is a historical root to the tradition.

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  March 18, 2019

        Bart: you refer to the “virtually unknown” place name sometimes associated with “Iscariot”. I suppose you are referring to the Wadi Cherith, mentioned in 1 Kings 17.3. Do you reject this as a likely explanation for the name? I think it makes sense, since men of that time [especially with a common name like Judah] would want a unique surname. Probably not literally Iscariot originally of course but “of Kherith”. This was the place where Elijah was famously fed by ravens. If someone actually hailed from that little valley, it would be a mark of distinction, methinks.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 19, 2019

          I think all the options are problematic, but “the man from Kerioth” is probably the least problematic.

  10. Avatar
    Machaon  August 14, 2017

    If Jesus conceived of himself as the kingly Messiah, that also explains the anointing at Bethany (Mark 14:3 and all the other Gospels).
    Although retrospectively described as an anointing for burial, the story makes much more sense as an anointing for kingship prior to the triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of Passover.
    This seems to have been a historical, ceremonial event whose meaning the earliest Christians needed to re-explain to themselves after the death of their Messiah.
    Mark also seems to suggest that the expense of this ceremony was a matter of controversy, and was followed immediately by Judas’ betrayal of the newly-anointed Messiah (Mark14:10).

  11. fefferdan
    fefferdan  March 18, 2019

    I agree with Bart that only insiders were supposed to know the messianic secret, and that this secret involved an attempt to accomplish the messianic task as commonly conceived of at the time — to restore the kingdom of Israel. But more interesting to me in the fact that Judas betrayed Jesus is WHY he betrayed him. My guess is that there was a woman involved, probably Mary [whether of Bethany or Magdala I don’t know].
    But I disagree with Bart in this sense: I think the Triumphal Entry was historical, that it represented, in effect, the end of the Secret. It looks to me [especially in Mark’s version, see Mk 11] that the Triumph Entry was anything but a triumph. Whatever parade there may have been simply fizzles. Then Jesus just looks around the place and leaves because “the hour was late.” If the money changers incident [the next day in Mark] is also historical it gave the Temple authorities all the reason they needed to arrest Jesus, whether he claimed to be the messiah or not. Judas may have betrayed the secret in giving details and confirming that ‘Son of David’ wasn’t only what a few fanatics in the crowd called him; it was what he himself was teaching about himself to the inner circle.
    So Bart, if you are keeping up with old threads like this, can you explain why you think the Triumphal entry was not historical? Would there perhaps be a latter moment when Jesus would proclaim himself?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 19, 2019

      I’ve posted on it. If something like this did happen, with the crowds coming out and praising the coming messiah — Jesus would have been arrested on the spot. That was precisely the kind of thing the governor had brought troops into the city for the occasion to prevent.

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