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The Quest for the Historical … Judas Iscariot

I occasionally (in fact, just last week) get asked if I think Judas Iscariot was a real person or a fictional character, wholly made up.  I have a definite view about that.  Real person.  Actually one of Jesus’ disciples.  And the one who betrayed him to the authorities leading to his arrest and crucifixion.

But what makes me think so?  I talked a bit about the “Quest of the Historical Judas” in a chapter of my book on the recent discovery of the Gnostic “Gospel of Judas,” a highly intriguing text that emerged into public view about fifteen years ago (the book: The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed, Oxford University Press, 2016).   Here’s what I say about the existence of the person himself, starting out with the basic and fundamental question of how historians know about *any* figure from the past (Robert E. Lee; Charlamagne; the Emperor Tiberius; uh, Jesus …), and then applying the question to Judas.


What kinds of sources of information do historians look for, when dealing with persons – such as Jesus or Judas – from the distant past?  The best sources, of course, will be from the person’s own time, preferably a contemporary who actually knew the person.  If you have a lot of eyewitness accounts, you are in relatively good shape.  If the accounts are not actually by eyewitnesses but by later authors who knew eyewitnesses, that’s not as good, but still not so bad.  If they are by later authors who talked with people who once knew someone who claimed to have once heard an eyewitness, well, that’s not nearly so good.

What historians want are lots of contemporary reports, if possible.  It helps if these reports are independent of one another.  If you have two sources of information about a figure from the past, but one of these sources got his information from the other one, then in effect you don’t have two sources but one.  If you have two independent sources, that is obviously better than having to rely on one, especially if these sources corroborate what the other has to say.  Moreover, it is useful if the sources of information are not overly biased in their reporting.  If a source has an obvious agenda, and if the information that it conveys embodies that agenda, then you have to reconstruct the real historical situation, the actual historical data that lie behind the slanted account.

In short, historians want numerous sources close to the events themselves, which are independent of one another, yet agree on the information they provide, while not being biased in their reports.

How do our sources of information about Judas stack up against this wish list?  Unfortunately …

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  1. Avatar
    craig@corbettlaw.org  October 25, 2019

    A friend once told me: It was not “Judas Iscariot.” It was originally “Judas’s chariot” and was copied wrong over the years. He was supposed to give everybody a ride home, got delayed in traffic, got there late and things just got out of hand when he parked in a space reserved for the soldiers. So far, scholars and archaeology haven’t proven this theory…

    • Bart
      Bart  October 25, 2019

      Ha! There are lots of theories about what the name means, but that’s definitely one of the best….

      • Avatar
        Sblake1  October 25, 2019

        I read somewhere that “Iscariot” was a version of “Judas the Sicarii” which as it was handed down orally got altered. Is there any truth to this?

      • Avatar
        DominickC  October 25, 2019

        Bart – How do you feel about the possibility that “Iscariot” is not a name but an identification of Judas as one of the Sicarii. Any etymology issues with that?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 27, 2019

          No, though it’s commonly said. Think I’ll post on it.

    • Avatar
      AndrewJenkins  October 25, 2019

      Others have noticed the similarity, and used it for political comment, for example:

      “Lloyd George no doubt, when his time runs out,
      Will ride in a flaming chariot.
      Seated in state on a red-hot plate
      Between Satan and Judas Iscariot…… “

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 25, 2019

      Swing low, Iscariot
      comin’ for to carry me home……..

      So obvious when you think about it. 😐

      • Avatar
        Bewilderbeast  November 1, 2019

        Is than an omen for the rugby world cup in Japan?

    • Avatar
      HoltG  October 26, 2019

      LOL!!! Hysterical!!

  2. Avatar
    Diane  October 25, 2019

    Another question is Judas’ motivation in betraying Jesus. I continue to advocate for my own personal theory, that Judas got impatient with Jesus and turned him in for arrest to force his hand, to make him (at last!) to declare his kingship and usher in the new age. As an apocalypticist who had found the promised messiah, he was no doubt itchingly impatient for the fireworks to begin, and perhaps came to see himself as the man destined to throw the switch.

    • Avatar
      ShonaG  October 29, 2019

      My son has a theory he felt that Christ was betraying their religion when he let the woman was his feet instead of him washing her’s and it was to prevent it becoming corrupted that he betrayed him.

  3. Avatar
    anthonygale  October 25, 2019

    Do you think that Paul, without naming him, is referring to Judas in 1 Corinthians 11:23?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I used to, but not any more. He doesn’t use the Greek word for “betrayed” here, but “handed over,” a word that he uses elsewhere to refer to God handing Jesus over to his death (Rom. 8:32)

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  October 28, 2019

        Is “handed over” or “betrayed” used in the gospels? I’ve heard a claim that Judas “handed over” Jesus and that is used to support the idea Judas was in on Jesus’ plan.

        Also, how similar are the words in Greek? If Mark was clumsy at times anyway, might he or other writers interchanged the terms?

        • Bart
          Bart  October 29, 2019

          Actually, mainly “handed over.” (Luke once uses a form of “betrayed”).

  4. Avatar
    fishician  October 25, 2019

    Doesn’t it seem a little too coincidental that Jesus’ betrayer’s name is the Greek version of “Judah”, which is essentially the origin of the term “Jew?” Even if there was an actual betrayer is it possible or likely that the actual name was deliberately changed to Judas to support the developing antisemitism of the early church?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I think it would seem a bit too coincidental if it was a rather unusual name, but it was very common. One of Jesus’ brothers had the same name. “Judas” is the same Greek word as “Jude.” So also one of the books of the NT was called that.

  5. Avatar
    NTDeist  October 25, 2019

    My theory on Judas and his “betrayal”:
    He was one of Jesus’ disciples. He was entrusted by Jesus and the other disciples with holding their money. (John 12:6) He was probably responsible then for buying their food each day in the market. During the last week in Jerusalem, the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus at night – not during the day while Jesus was surrounded with followers so as not to cause a riot. The authorities saw Judas leave to buy food and arrested him when he was isolated in the market and it wouldn’t cause much attention. The authorities (Temple police or Roman soldiers?) forced Judas, possibly through torture, to reveal where Jesus was staying at night. They forced Judas to go with the police/soldiers to physically point out Jesus the night he was arrested. (Why pay someone 30 pieces of silver when you can get the information for free through coercion or torture? Typical on how the Romans or Herods operated.) After Jesus was arrested, Judas was released and since he was so distraught over being forced to give away the location of Jesus causing his arrest, Judas killed himself. The disciples had fled, but saw Judas with the soldiers and believed he betrayed Jesus. Judas’ sin of killing himself seemed to confirm he betrayed Jesus. Later Christian writers of the Gospels continued the betrayal story.

  6. Avatar
    Brittonp  October 25, 2019

    What are your thoughts regarding 1 Cor. 11:23? Does Paul suggest that Jesus was betrayed? As you know, some scholars have indicated that the passage could mean “he was handed over”.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I used to than that, but not any more. He doesn’t use the Greek word for “betrayed” here, but, as you suggested, “handed over,” a word that he uses elsewhere to refer to God handing Jesus over to his death (Rom. 8:32)

  7. Spencer Black
    Spencer Black  October 25, 2019

    Sorry, this is a little off topic but the post got me thinking. Dr. Ehrman, do you have an opinion on the date of composition of the Syriac Infancy Gospel of Thomas? T. Burke and B. Landau have it during the 2nd century.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      Tony Burke is the real expert, and I don’t have any reason to dispute the date…

  8. Avatar
    jrhislb  October 25, 2019

    Off-topic, but it has recently struck me that the decision of the early Jesus movement to admit Gentile followers must rank as one the most important events in world history, but I have not seen it discussed too much by historians. (Jesus’ life receives much more focus.) Would love any discussion you can give on why this decision was made, and whether it is surprising given the Judaism of the time.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      I discuss it at length in my book The Triumph of Christianity. I agree with you on its importance..

      • Avatar
        jrhislb  October 28, 2019

        Purchased the Kindle edition right away, look forward to reading your thoughts.

  9. Avatar
    veritas  October 25, 2019

    It’s interesting having recently watched Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth,I found Judas portrayed somewhat different than what I had been taught in churches I attended.He seemed like a man who was decent and believed Jesus and his messages.His goal was to have Jesus meet with the Sanhedrin and hear him out.Oddly,he was paid for bringing Jesus to the Jewish leaders and was prevented from listening to that meeting,something he really wanted to hear.After much thought he hung himself,with the money scattered below him.For the sake of time and length,I compressed the 6 or 7 hour series into a brief detail.One other scene was strikingly different, is when Jesus was having the supper with his disciples.Jesus said,”One of you will betray me” and as the disciples started looking around and dismissing themselves,another disciple comes to Jesus and asks,”Tells us who it is Master”.Jesus responds,”The one who dips the bread in the wine after me”.Of course it was Judas.But interestingly,I always believed no one except Jesus himself knew who betrayed him,except in the movie,this one disciple(I am not sure who it was) whom Jesus told.Ironically,wikipedia states that Gnostic gospels of Judas praised him for his role in saving humanity and declared him as the best apostle.Professor Bart,do you concur with this story from your findings?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      It’s my favorite Jesus movie. Robert Powell is the best Jesus ever! Blue eyes that will look right through you.

      • Avatar
        mwbaugh  October 28, 2019

        I did a church study of Jesus movies, and Powell was easily the favorite Jesus, especially with female students.

      • Avatar
        ShonaG  October 29, 2019

        My Jesus has the most beautiful eyes in the world because they see into everybody’s soul all the darkness and still love the person. I think maybe you have a little bit of that Jesus too 🙂 Not the ability but maybe the belief in something as beautiful as that lol, I like humans to be human even our heroes.

  10. Avatar
    mwbaugh  October 25, 2019

    I ran across one in Isaac Asimov’s Guide to the Bible. He said “Iscariot” could be a misreading of “sicariot” which could make Judas one of the Sicari, an anti-Roman group of Jewish assassins. I think I’ve seen that one debunked.

    I wonder if you could tell us the historical evidence for Jesus’ boyhood friend, Biff. If you don’t know Biff you might enjoy the novel Lamb by Christopher Moore.

  11. Avatar
    dwcriswell  October 25, 2019

    Are there to your knowledge any comparable figures in other religions, mythologies or ancient history to the character of Judas? Many thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      No one comes to mind immediately, but I’d love to hear suggestions.

      • Avatar
        Nathan  October 28, 2019

        Well Julius Caesar, who was also a priest, was betrayed by his trusted companion and murdered by the elect among him during a festival because they feared he wanted to be a monarch. Afterwards they believed he became a god.

        So Brutus is similar to Judas

        • Avatar
          Nathan  October 28, 2019

          Ha! And Iscariot could refer to the Jewish group that pulled daggers from cloaks and murdered people like Brutus and the senators. Then there was the supposed events after the assassination like earthquakes.

          Bart, wouldn’t the gentiles converting to Christianity be very familiar with the story of Julius Caesar? I imagine it to be one of the most famous events known in the Greek world. Wouldn’t they recognize Judas’s name to refer to a dagger?

          • Bart
            Bart  October 29, 2019

            No one in antiquity that I know of made that association when talking about Judas.

  12. Avatar
    Brian  October 25, 2019

    Since we’re being fanciful….there’s a wonderful story by Borges titled “Three Versions of Judas” about a theologian who becomes convinced that the true savior is Judas. While Jesus suffered and died, Judas had to destroy his own soul to secure the Redemption. In the end, he aspires to go to hell to be with his redeemer.

  13. Avatar
    forthfading  October 26, 2019

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I was always taught that Judas simply became greedy and turned Jesus in. It was a devil thing! Satan got through! Could a historical case be made that Jesus was probably teaching privately that he was “The king of the Jews” and therefore the Messiah and Judas simply could not swollow that pill? As a good observant Jew he maybe really thought Jesus was going too far with the blasphemy. I have a friend who turned in a pastor for going too far with mishandling church funds. He hated it but at some point enough is enough. Is it a plausible scenario based on the evidence we have that Judas maybe said enough is enough, in your expert opinion?

    Thanks, Jay

  14. Avatar
    AstaKask  October 26, 2019

    Paul says Christ was betrayed, though?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      Not exactly. 1 Corinthians 11:23 says he was “handed over” but he doesn’t say “betrayed,” and he doesn’t say by whom. Elsewhere Paul uses the same word in a similar context to indicate that *God* handed Jesus over to his death (Romans 8:32).

  15. Avatar
    Stephen  October 26, 2019

    It’s hard to see why the tradition would invent a figure like Judas based on the criterion of embarrassment. It is frankly…embarrassing to have one of Jesus’ own disciples betray him to the Romans. It even calls into question Jesus’ own judgement. So… can you recommend a good book by a critical scholar who does NOT believe Judas was historical? I would like to consider those arguments.


    • Bart
      Bart  October 27, 2019

      When I saw your question I had a couple of authors in mind, but when I went back and reviewed my notes, I was wrong: that’s not what they say. Some do, and I should certainly remember. Am I right that Hyam Maccoby does?

      • Avatar
        Stephen  October 27, 2019

        In his ‘Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil’ Maccoby seems to think that Judas was a historical figure but that the NT accounts are exaggerated and distorted. His book is mostly about how the figure of Judas has been used to justify historical antisemitism.

  16. Avatar
    smackemyackem  October 26, 2019

    Great job on your Unbelievable discussion.

    Very interesting
    Video Premiering NOW!


  17. Avatar
    mtavares  October 28, 2019

    Given that Paul says Jesus appeared to the “twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15, is there anything to be gleaned in terms of Paul’s knowledge or lack of knowledge of Judas’ betrayal? Or conversely, the veracity of the Gospel historicity?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      I’ve wondered about that; the choices are either that Paul didn’t know about the betrayal or that he’s using “the twelve” in this passage as the generic term for “the chosen disciples of Jesus,” without insisting there were twelve (just as the football conference continued to be called “The Big Ten” when there were more than ten schools in it). I tend to prefer the first explanation.

  18. Avatar
    Andrew  October 28, 2019

    How do we even know that the character of Judas is derived from oral tradition rather than being a character created by Mark to meet his literary narrative objectives?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 29, 2019

      Mainly because it is independently attested in source that didn’t know Mark (e.g. John)

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