What then can we say with relative certainty about Judas called Iscariot? I think the following five points just about cover it:
- He did exist. This has been doubted in some circles and by some scholars, of course, especially among those who have wanted to point out the etymological similarity between his name, Judas, and the word Jew, and have argued, on this and related grounds, that Judas was a creation of the early church who wanted to pin the blame of Jesus’ death on the Jewish people. I think this is an attractive view, and one that I personally would like very much to be true, but I don’t see how it can be. Judas figures too prominently in too many layers of our traditions to be a later fabrication. I give all the data in my book on Judas, but here let me just say that there is unique and shared material about Judas in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – so that his existence passes the criterion of Multiple Attestation with flying colors.Moreover, if early Christians wanted to invent a villain responsible for Jesus betrayal there would have been no good reason that I can see to make him one of the twelve. Quite the contrary, the idea that one of Jesus’ own disciples turned him over to the authorities (however one construes the term paradidomi) is widely and rightly, I think, thought to pass the criterion of dissimilarity. Jesus had no more authority and control over his own closest disciples than that? He couldn’t keep even them in line? What kind of authority figure is that?As a sidenote I should say that I do not think that there is any reference to Judas in the writings of Paul. When Paul narrates the events of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, he does indeed indicate that this meal took place “on the night on which he was betrayed” (to give the traditional rendering); but elsewhere in Paul paradidomi in relationship to Jesus always refers to God’s action of handing Jesus over to his death. Thus, for example, Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own son but handed him over for us….”; there is no reason to think that Paul means anything else by the term here in 1 cor. 11. The Last Supper, then, took place on the night that God fulfilled his purposes by handing Jesus over.
The absence of Judas from the writings of Paul, of course, does not matter much for my thesis. Virtually everything from Jesus’ life is absent from Paul. But since Judas is mentioned in Mark, in an independent source of Matthew, and another for Luke, and yet another for John – and since his act of betrayal, if that’s what it was, passes the criterion of dissimilaritly, I think we can say he existed.
- As a corollary, I think we can say on the same grounds that he was a follower of Jesus. This must mean, I think, that he was a Jew from Palestine. Everything we can say about first century Palestinian Jews, therefore – if in fact we can generalize at all about Palestinian Jews – we can say about Judas.
- More than that, I think it is virtually certain that he was one of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers, one of the twelve. This is one thing that all the sources on every layer actually say about him. The existence of the twelve, of course, is multiply attested, not only throughout our Gospel sources but also, in a rare moment of historical utility, in the writings of Paul (1 Corinthians 15).There is one additional datum from the Gospels that demonstrates the point, in my judgment, one directly related to the fact of Judas’s membership in the group. This is the saying of Q that appears to be best preserved in Matthew’s version of Matthew 19:28: “Truly I say to you, in the renewed world, when the Son of Man is sitting on the throne of his glory, you disciples also will be seated on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (cf. Luke 22:30).That Jesus actually said something like this I think is virtually certain, because it is not at all the sort of thing that Christians after his death would have invented and put on his lips. That is because no one familiar with the traditions of Jesus’ death really thought that the twelve disciples would be the twelve rulers in the future kingdom soon to come. For among the twelve was the one who betrayed him. Is Judas going to rule in the future kingdom with the other eleven? Later Christians – even in the days and months after Jesus’ death – certainly did not think so, since Judas, one of the twelve, was a condemned traitor to the cause. This must mean that the saying is something that Jesus actually said. The twelve disciples – including Judas — would be future rulers in the kingdom.
- One further implication of the circumstance that Judas was one of Jesus’ followers and was in fact one of the twelve closest disciples has been somewhat overlooked in the discussions of Judas Iscariot. Like Jesus of Nazareth, Judas must have been an apocalyptic Jew, one who expected an imminent act of God to overthrow the forces of evil in this world and to bring in a good utopian kingdom here on earth to replace the corrupt and oppressive kingdoms that are currently in power. I obviously don’t have time here to discuss the powerful arguments in favor of an apocalyptic interpretation of the life and message of Jesus, but will instead take it as firmly established by a bevy of serious researchers over the past century, since the publication of Schweitzer’s classic study (outstanding scholarly exceptions duly noted and nothwithstanding).The implications of Jesus as an apocalypticist are worth considering, however, and have not been adequately considered by most scholars working on the problem of Judas. Jesus’ followers were ones who accepted his message, not ones who rejected it; and the twelve were the ones who really accepted it. Judas Iscariot must have been a Jewish apocalypticist.
- And finally, Judas was the one of the twelve who handed Jesus over to the ruling authorities, leading to Jesus’ trial, condemnation, and crucifixion. As I’ve pointed out, this datum is not only multiply attested by independent sources, it passes with flying colors the critierion of dissimilarity. For my purposes here it doesn’t matter whether the term they used for this act is para- or prodidomi. It’s the former, but it scarcely signifies: Judas turned him in.
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