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Did Judas Really Betray Jesus? Readers’ Mailbag

My post a few days ago about whether Paul knew that Jesus had been betrayed by Judas Iscariot — in which I concluded there really was no solid evidence one way or the other — generated several follow-up questions.  Many of them simply asked: well, did it really happen?   Here is an example, and my response.

QUESTION:

I may be showing my ignorance here but could it be that Paul doesn’t know/write about Judas’ betrayal because it never happened? Yes, it is in all four gospels but as you’ve pointed out the four gospels do not agree on who showed up at the empty tomb, what they saw, and what they did next so…. If they get that wrong could it be that the Judas betrayal is also a fabrication/legend?

 

RESPONSE:

It’s a great question, and I’m completely sympathetic to it.   But I have to say that I think Jesus really was betrayed by one of his own, Judas Iscariot.   In my judgment, that’s just where the evidence points.

As many of you know from the blog and other sources, when trying to determine what really happened in Jesus’ life, we have good news and bad news.  The good news is that we have four ancient accounts (all in the New Testament); that’s more than we have for 99.999% of the rest of the human race at the time!  So that’s good!  The bad news is that these accounts were not produce by eyewitnesses, they are from 40-65 years later, written by authors who did not know Jesus or probably any of his followers, in a language different from Jesus’s, in other countries, based on stories that had been in circulation for decades, and often they are at odds with one another.  Ugh.

Scholars therefore have devised criteria for exploring the sources for the life of Jesus — and they are, in fact, virtually the same criteria historians use for establishing just about everything from the past.  For example: does the same tradition appear in different sources that didn’t get it from one another (“independent attestation”)?  If so, then it is more likely something that happened.  By no means does it *prove* it — lots of things are multiply attested that didn’t happen.  But it adds to the likelihood.

Moreover, if a tradition runs counter to what the people telling it would *want* it to say (as when a mother is required to testify in court about her son’s alleged alibi), then it is more likely trustworthy (called “the criterion of dissimilarity”: the account is “dissimilar” to what the story tellers would prefer to say.

The betrayal of Judas passes both criteria with flying colors.  (It’s not that one cannot *imagine* it was made up; it’s that on the balance of probability, it really does look like it happened.

And so, for example, …

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Was Judas Iscariot “Made Up”?
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Comments

  1. Avatar
    saavoss  May 22, 2020

    Yes, please, I’d love to hear your ideas concerning “what” Judas betrayed…

  2. Avatar
    Hormiga  May 22, 2020

    > Maybe I’ll talk about that in a later post if anyone’s interested.

    What a tease! Of course we’re interested! Talk on!

  3. Avatar
    TMC  May 22, 2020

    The cliffhanger ending is intriguing! I have also always found the “away from the crowds” explanation as unconvincing. Did he blab the messianic secret (which presumes there was such a thing)? Or maybe Jesus had plans for another, bigger disturbance like the cleansing of the temple? It could be as simple as agreeing to provide witness against Jesus (which I guess is the same as blabbing the secret). But if Judas did testify (or agree to), why doesn’t any Gospel report it?

    BTW, thank you for the free access during this period. I have been thinking of joining for some time, but I am super cheap. Now that I have had a taste I don’t think I will be able to stay away.

  4. Avatar
    flshrP  May 22, 2020

    It’s likely that the temple guards had Jesus and his followers under surveillance since the previous weekend when he caused the disturbance in the Temple where the moneychangers did business. Consequently, the Jewish authorities and probably the Roman leadership knew exactly where Jesus was while he was in the Jerusalem area. So the idea that Judas betrayed Jesus whereabouts is unlikely.

    As to what Judas told the authorities, that’s obvious from the inscription that the Romans nailed to the cross, namely, “King of the Jews”. Judas told the Jewish authorities about the private teachings of Jesus to his apostles in which he claimed to be the Jewish Messiah, hence, King of the Jews. That was enough to have the Jewish authorities find him guilty of blasphemy and for the Romans find him guilty of sedition, which is a capital offense.

    Why he betrayed Jesus is not clear. I don’t think that 30 pieces of silver is the reason.

  5. Avatar
    tom.hennell  May 22, 2020

    Having Jesus followed would not necessarily result in finding him alone; maybe the authorities needed an insider to prompt Jesus to go to a place where he could be found by the arresting party without the Jerusalem crowd about him?

    Paula Fredriksen emphasises the inconsistency in the Gospel accounts; that Jesus’s popularity with the crowd on Thursday evening was still such that he had to be taken in secret; while later that same night the crowd is calling for his death. She proposes that the hostile crowd is a later construct – exculpating Pilate and the Romans.

    In this narrative, although Jesus is executed as a political threat to Roman rule, neither Pilate nor the Jewish leadership can have believed such a threat to be real, or the disciples would have been on crosses beside him. Rather Jesus died as a result of his continuing popularity with the Jerusalem crowd (maybe this Passover, more so than ever before); as a public lesson and warning. Hence the need to crucify him at Passover, with the pilgrim crowd still present to see; rather than holding him in chains to be disposed of later.

  6. Avatar
    Poohbear  May 22, 2020

    This is endlessly fascinating. Where do “scholars” get this claim of the Gospel being written 40-70 years after Jesus? If it’s to do with the earliest manuscripts then this proves nothing.
    Please don’t say it’s because Jesus spoke of the destruction of the temple and “the future hadn’t happened.”
    Why wouldn’t people write this down, being eyewitnesses, plus given the commission to take this out into the whole world – as David put it. “… proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” You don’t leave this to oral tradition.
    Jacob spoke of Israel ending with the Messiah, and Daniel spoke of the Romans destroying the sanctuary, Jerusalem and the Messiah (but that He would not die for Himself.) And we can be sure David, Daniel and Jacob didn’t live in the Second Century.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      No, it’s not related to the dates of the earliest manuscripts. It’s a rather complicated matter; I’ve talked about it a few ties on the blog. Just search for Date of the Gospels

  7. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  May 22, 2020

    I can’t recall where I read this, but there is a theory that Judas was acting as a go between for Jesus and Caiaphas. According to the theory, Jesus wanted concessions and support from Caiaphas, and Caiaphas wanted Jesus to tone down his criticisms and not be so disruptive. Judas was supposedly arranging for them to meet under a kind of truce. Later authors then changed it to Judas betraying Jesus. Have heard of this, and what are your thoughts on on it?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      Not sure I’ve heard of that one, but yes, one can imagine someone coming up with it! As you probably know, nothing in the texts suggests it and historically it’s not plausible, since Caiaphas would have never heard of Jesus and certainly would not have anything to do with an illiterate peasant from some other country (Judas) who happens to be in town.

      • Avatar
        Shawnmrmsh  May 24, 2020

        That’s what I had thought. The author had been arguing that neither Judas or Caiaphas was responsible for the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus. They tried making a case for Caiaphas being sympathetic towards Jesus and his movement, but was bound by politics. Which as you stated is not very historical or plausible.

  8. Avatar
    lbjorke  May 22, 2020

    My guess is that Jesus and Judas had philosophical differences and there was a parting of ways. Humans, who place great importance on placing blame, decided to heap that blame on Judas. It could be as simple as Judas getting sick and dying and the rumor spreaders deciding to assign him the blame for Jesus being captured and crucified.

  9. Avatar
    jhague  May 22, 2020

    Judas was letting them know that Jesus said he is the King of the Jews, right?

    If you were to argue the other side, that Jesus was not betrayed by Judas, how would you do that?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      That’s what I think. But it’s a minority opinion. If I had to argue that side, I’d say that “Judas” is too conveniently close to “Jew” that it looks like he was a made up figure to blame “the Jew” for Jesus’ death.

      • Avatar
        jhague  May 25, 2020

        What’s the majority opinion of how Judas betrayed Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 25, 2020

          By turning him over to the authorities in a quiet place with no one around.

          • Avatar
            Alx87  June 2, 2020

            So the texts of canonical gospels and apocrypha talking of a fairly big amount of soldiers which went off to arrest Jesus a battle are not considered accurate according to what u said by the common scholarship?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 3, 2020

            Depends on whether they thought Jesus’ followers might want to fight them off….

  10. Avatar
    quadell  May 22, 2020

    > I think something much bigger, more significant, and more profound was in fact involved.
    > Maybe I’ll talk about that in a later post if anyone’s interested.

    Ooh, can I guess? My hunch is that it has to do with the Messianic secret, the “12 thrones” saying, and the peculiar “King of the Jews” charge against Jesus (a title otherwise unattested). Am I on the right track?

  11. Avatar
    Kristjan  May 22, 2020

    I´m interested..:)

  12. Avatar
    RN1946  May 22, 2020

    I have often wondered why Judas is so vilified. Jesus told his disciples that one of them would betray him which, in fact, is what happened. He knew it in advance. That said, it seems to me that Judas was a necessary part of “God’s plan” for Jesus, in effect, fulfilling the “prophecy.” Comment?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      It’s an irony people often raise!

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  May 25, 2020

      > That said, it seems to me that Judas was a necessary part of “God’s plan”

      In that respect, Judas seems similar to Pharaoh in Exodus. They were players in a per-determined plan Yahweh was choreographing to make a larger point.

  13. Avatar
    NTDeist  May 22, 2020

    Yes, please share the bigger, more significant, and more profound facts you have on Judas!

  14. Avatar
    robgrayson  May 22, 2020

    “I think something much bigger, more significant, and more profound was in fact involved. Maybe I’ll talk about that in a later post if anyone’s interested.” Consider me interested.

  15. Avatar
    fishician  May 22, 2020

    1. “Judas” = Jew which is the first suspicious characteristic.
    2. If the earliest source (Mark?) says it was Judas and the other Gospel writers simply followed suit, then that’s not multiple attestations.
    3. Paul, our earliest Christian writer makes no mention of Judas and simply says he was “handed over.”
    4. Given the increasing antisemitism in the early Christian writings doesn’t it make more sense that “Judas” as the epitome of the Jews was invented or modified to accuse the Jews? Maybe a disciple did betray that Jesus thought of himself as the “King of the Jews” but later that was changed to “Judas?”
    I can envision a disciple becoming disillusioned with Jesus and turning him over, but I think the evidence for “Judas” is pretty thin.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2020

      1. Yup 2. The others have different stories about him, so they are not dependent only on Mark. 3. Yup. 4. It would make more sense apart from the fact it’s independently attested (Mark, M and L, John, Acts) and passes the criterion of dissimilarity rather well.

  16. Shahin
    Shahin  May 22, 2020

    Historical approach to the Bible fails in hermeneutics. The Gospels are not history and historical approach will not be able to reconstruct their history. The Gospels are prophetical genre and they should be deciphered by typology. All of the types of Jesus in the Old Testament indicate that he was not going to be crucified literally, but his crucifixion refers to the fact that his mission was to give way to the Antichrist (who is Paulus). Jesus reminds us time after time in the Gospel that the real betrayer is Peter, just remember that he said he will make him the fisher, because this is the background of it:

    Habakuk 1: 13 Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he? 14 And makest men as the fishes of the sea, as the creeping things, that have no ruler over them? 15 They take up all of them with the angle, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their drag: therefore they rejoice and are glad.

  17. Avatar
    veritas  May 22, 2020

    My view of *why* he did it was to fulfil the plan of God for salvation (Theologically and Christianity) that one of the chosen twelve Apostles would betray the Messiah. Without the betrayal no Christian movement of salvation would of started. The *what* he betrayed is the confidentiality Jesus had with his Apostles in claiming/revealing to them he was the chosen Messiah and the king of the Jews and hence Judas revealed this to the authorities and thus his arrest/conviction of blaspheme. I agree with you, the other reasons found in the Gospels don’t make much sense to me either. I also give some weight to a theory I read where Judas was more concerned with the fate of his own people, the Jews, having their beliefs squashed by this new uprising(Christianity) that was beginning to take off. I think the former is more believable but nonetheless still difficult to assert with certainty. No doubt an argumentative post and thoughtful.And I too believe it happened.

  18. Avatar
    bannebatts@hotmail.com  May 22, 2020

    Yes, please discuss what is betrayed by Judus.

  19. Avatar
    Silverback66  May 22, 2020

    I’ve always thought that Judas got a bad rap. Wasn’t judas’s betrayal sort of necessary to the narrative? What if there were no betrayal, no arrest, no cruxifiction? What if Jesus married the Magdalene, lived a long life of carpentry, raised a dozen kids? How would Paul make a church out of that?

  20. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 22, 2020

    I probably don’t need to add my voice to the chorus I anticipate will want you to elaborate further, but here it is anyway. 🙂

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