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Was Judas Iscariot “Made Up”?

My recent post on Judas Iscariot generated more interest than I expected, and a lot of readers wanted to hear more.   I’ve posted on Judas a number of times over the years, but maybe it’s a good time to give the full scoop.  If you want a lot more information, you might want to check out my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot.  That book was prompted by the discovery of the Gospel of Judas; I was not involved with the discovery or the restoration of the Gospel, but I was part of a small team of scholars asked by National Geographic to study it as they decided whether it was authentic and important.  Uh, yeah.  But one has to look carefully at these things before deciding (as pointed out in yesterday’s post an recent academic fraud).

I may talk about my involvement with the project later on the blog, but for now: my book on Judas arose out of it, and does indeed talk about the Gospel of Judas based on my preliminary study of it.  But I use it as an occasion to talk about Judas Iscariot himself, who he was, what we can know about him, what he did, and why he might have done it.

The first issue — one that has been raised by a number of readers over the past few days — is a very basic one.  Did he really exist?  Or was he “made up” by Christian story tellers who wanted to explain how Jesus ended up in the hands of his enemies?  Often it is pointed out that “Judas” sounds like “Jew”: did Christian story tellers come up with the “Jew” who “betrayed Jesus” in order to make a theological point?

I have a definite view about that.  I think he was a real person.  Actually one of Jesus’ disciples.  And the one who betrayed him to the authorities leading to his arrest and crucifixion.

Why should I think so?  The following explanation is based on the discussion in my book.

First, in general: 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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Unfortunately, not as well as we might hope.  We might hope for 10 sources from Judas’s lifetime that all talk about him.  We don’t have that.  Of course, we don’t have it for virtually *anyone* who lived at the time, but still: we do not have any eyewitness accounts to Judas’s activities.  Our earliest Christian source, the apostle Paul, never mentions Judas.  The Gospels of the New Testament are therefore our earliest accounts.  These do not claim to be written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus, and historians have long recognized that they were produced by second- (or third-) generation Christians living in different countries from Jesus (and Judas), speaking a different language (Greek instead of Aramaic), experiencing different situations, and addressing different audiences.  Even so, there are reasons for thinking that what they say about Judas is, in very rough outline, probably historical.  At least at a couple of key points.

The first of our Gospel accounts is Mark, written thirty-five to forty years after Jesus’ death.  Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source but they also appear to have used independent sources of their own for what they tell us about Judas.  The Gospel of John probably did not rely on the other three Gospels for its stories, so it is an independent account of Judas.  That means that we have accounts of Judas in a number of early Gospel sources: Mark, M (source of Matthew), L (source of Luke), John. There is also a tradition about him independently inherited by the author of Acts.  Moreover, we have an account of Judas in the writings of Papias (120-40 CE?), that is not based on what we have in the New Testament.

So here is yet another independent source.  Later traditions – such as those found in the Arabic Infancy Gospel or the Golden Legend – are many centuries removed from the events they narrate, and are obviously highly legendary.  But the Gospel of Judas itself is much earlier than these, and its author shows little evidence of having used the New Testament Gospels for constructing his account – although he does appear to have known the account of Judas’s death from the book of Acts (so he presumably had read Luke as well, and possibly the other Gospels).

In short, we do not have eyewitness accounts of Judas, but we do have a rather large number of independent sources that all speak about him, and to the same effect: he was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, and the one who betrayed him.  That is significant for historians: if the same tradition about Judas is found in more than one independent source, that increases the likelihood that it is a historical datum (since the sources that attest it could not have “made it up,” given the fact that it is found independently in different sources).  That is, it’s hard to explain so *many* sources knowing about Judas without having gotten their information from one another unless the tradition about him was very, very early.

One reason for thinking the tradition is actually historical is that the very heart of the traditions about Judas does not not appear to advance the agendas of the sources that narrate them, as I indicated in he previous post.  It seems unlikely that a Christian storyteller would concede that Jesus had no more charismatic authority than *that*, that he couldn’t even control those who were closest to him, that not even all those who knew him well actually believed him.  That wouldn’t seem to serve the Christian agenda of promoting the incredible person of Jesus very well.

This kind of consideration is sometimes called the “criterion of dissimilarity” — the idea that if a view is dissimilar to what people telling it would want to say, and against what they would *want* to say, then it is more likely to be authentic.

The same consideration does call into question a number of the portrayals we have about Judas (i.e portrayals that are so much LIKE what some Christian story tellers would want to say that it’s not clear they could be historical).  For example, Judas is sometimes denounced as a stereo-typical “Jew” in sources that are otherwise anti-semitic in their tone – where he is portrayed as a money-grubbing, God-denying, demonically inspired Christ-killer.  This kind of portrayal does not appear to be disinterested.  Moreover, in the one source named after him, the Gospel of Judas, he is portrayed as the one follower of Jesus who at least as an inkling of who Jesus was, one with “knowledge.”   But the Gospel of Judas advances a Gnostic understanding of the world and our place in it, and uses the memory of Judas to promote that understanding.  (Gnostics argued they were the ones who “knew” the truth; the word Gnostic comes from the Greek gnosis, which means “knowledge”).  And so this Gospel appears to be using Judas to advance its agenda, and is probably not reliable as a historical source, however interesting it is for understanding how later Christians portrayed Judas.

When all is said and done, there is frustratingly little information about Judas from antiquity that we can trust as historically authentic.  But that should not lead us to despair of saying anything about him.   He appears at least to have existed — based on the surprisingly widespread attestation of stories about him and the criterion of dissimilarity.  Moreover, what little firm data we do have about him is illuminating, sometimes in ways that scholars have failed to notice.  My view is that we can infer a lot from what little historically reliable information is available to us.

If we are looking for the bedrock of historical fact about Judas, a critical examination of our sources yields at least three pieces of information: his name was Judas Iscariot; he was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples; and he “betrayed” Jesus by turning him over to the ruling authorities.  I will be dealing with each of these data in separate posts.     

 


Judas Iscariot? What’s an Iscariot??
Did Judas Really Betray Jesus? Readers’ Mailbag

29

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Shawnmrmsh  May 25, 2020

    I’ve read that many scholars translate Judas’s epithet Iscariot as ” the man from Kerioth”. However, other scholars believe it is related to sicarius, possibly linking Judas to the Sicarii. I’m curious as to your thoughts on this.

  2. JMJ
    JMJ  May 25, 2020

    Every time I read about Judas‘s betrayal of Jesus and then alleged suicide, I wonder how Jesus would’ve handled it if Judas was still alive after His resurrection? Knowing Judas obvious remorse for betraying Him, would Jesus have forgiven and reinstated Judas like he did Peter for denying Him three times, or would He have forgiven Judas and not reinstated him in the Twelve? Or maybe Jesus wouldn’t have forgiven Judas at all because even though Judas was remorseful, his heart may not have been repentant. Either way it would’ve been very telling and a great teaching moment, but we’ll never know.

  3. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  May 25, 2020

    Outside of Judas are there any characters, individuals, that are fictional, creations of the authors of the Gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      Yes, almost certainly. Was there really a “Lazarus” (Gospel of John) for example? I doubt it.

      • Avatar
        KarlTaps  May 31, 2020

        Nicodemus in the Gospel of John? The character seems to exist primarily for rhetorical purpose and does not appear in the other Gospels.

  4. Avatar
    Gary  May 25, 2020

    Would you agree that the primary “evidence” for most evangelicals and fundamentalists for the eyewitness authorship of the Gospels comes from Papias, a man whose unsubstantiated claims include that Judas Iscariot was so fat that he could not pass between the buildings on either side of a city street?

    Off topic question: Do YOU believe it is possible for a Bible scholar to be objective in his scholarship if he believes that he perceives the presence of the resurrected Jesus within him?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      I’d say it’s a piece of the evidence; but there is a lot more to it than that, including the ancient traditions apart from Papias about the authorship of the Gospels.

      My (rather strong) view is that since history, including biblical scholarship, is not rooted in mathematics, it is not an “objective” discipline no matter who does it.

  5. Avatar
    Eaglesjack  May 25, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman:
    Not that “Jew” and “Judas” is compelling to me or even the conspiracy-like theories about “Iscariot” having some kind of meaning like “assassin” or the other speculations I’ve read, but the fact that his name was Judas, a close (possibly Greek) variation of Judah remains the only thought that at least murmurs “midrash.” It was Judah (Judas) who “handed over” Joseph to be sold into slavery, but as we know Joseph was glorified and became the unsung hero. It was Judah, the people, who rejected their savior and crucified him outside the gates of the “Holy City.” It’s not that I believe it, per se, but it makes sense, and with all the other old testament illusions in Mark and Matthew, I wonder if the story-telling element of a real character was at least “inspired” (you know, “based on a true story”) of the man who “betrayed” Jesus but personified and renamed to bring forth an old, historical tradition. Any thought a on this connection? Thank you, as always, for devoting time to your readers.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      It’s hard to say. Judas/Jude was a common name: Jesus himself had a brother named that, and another disciple besides the betrayer.

  6. Avatar
    Brand3000  May 25, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In the earliest tradition the risen Jesus appears to the 12. Do you take the view, like a number of scholars do, that the 12 was more of a nickname for the inner group of followers rather than an actual head count of people numbering 12?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      Are you referring to 1 Corinthians 15? I’ve posted on that issue a couple of times. Either “12” was just the name of the group however many people were in it, or Paul didn’t know about the tradition of Judas killing himself.

  7. Avatar
    JoeWallack  May 25, 2020

    You cannot do Source Criticism here because we have no identified sources. So there is no credibility. All you are doing is Literary Criticism which does not yield much conclusion weight. As far as these sources agreeing establishing anything the only thing they all agree on is that Jesus was resurrected which you, me, Bob Dole and the Israeli people know didn’t happen. And what sources claim Judas existed? The ones in my previous sentence.

    So on to Literary Criticism. Paul, the only significant extant author before “Mark” famously writes that Jesus was handed over at night. “Mark” writes:

    6:3 “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon?

    13:12 ” And brother shall deliver up brother to death,

    14:43 “…Judas, …
    44 Now he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that is he; take him, and lead him away safely.”

    Brother (or at least the same name) handing over brother at night. You don’t see it as odd that Jesus was arrested at night, well before the invention of lighting?

    Your evidence is better (that Jesus existed) because it is positive. It’s just not very good.

  8. Avatar
    scissors  May 25, 2020

    >It seems unlikely that a Christian storyteller would concede that Jesus had no more charismatic authority than *that*,

    I’ve often wondered about this, Dr. Ehrman. There are many ancient stories where someone important is betrayed by one of their own. I’m not saying its made up, but the value of a vindicated hero is even more meaningful if defeat seems assured: it certainly makes a story dramatically compelling. Then there’s the prospect of what Mark may have wanted to say about Jesus enemies. The old synecdoche angle.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      It’s certainly possible. The only way to balance out the probabilities is to consider what else we know or can posit about the earliest Christian story tellers and what they say in order to heighten the status of Jesus and how they tell stories in order to heighten the tension and literary value. My sense is that the former is by far the dominant feature; but it’s a judgement call.

  9. Avatar
    J--B  May 25, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    In his May 19, 2020 post on your blog, Hugo Mendez wrote regarding the Gospel of John:

    “Over the past decade, an increasing number of scholars have concluded that the author probably knew one or more Synoptic gospels as well (at least Mark, but possibly also Matthew and/or Luke). But our author was also creative, inventing large amounts of his material (dialogues, scenes, individual details, etc.).”

    Do you agree with this and if it were true, would it have any implications on using John as an independent source?

    If John were a forgery, would it be able to be used as a reliable source at all?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2020

      I would say “increasing number” doesn’t tell us much about about the overall consensus. But I don’t know what the consensus is. If John did know the others, yes, it would compromise his value as an independent source for the stories that they share where it could be argued he simply edited what he received from them. But I don’t think he used the Synoptics. And yes, forgeries can still be valuable historical sources. An author who lies about his identity is still giving us information, and it still needs to be evaluated.

  10. Avatar
    Kevin@CoJCoLDS  May 25, 2020

    For me, I think the Jew that betrays Jesus for money is more in line with the later negative portrayals of Jews as Christ killers. I’m just not buying it. It fits too neatly into that agenda.

    My sense is that there was a historical Judas Iscariot and he believed like many of the disciples that Jesus was a political messiah. He didn’t “betray” him but “handed him over” which is what he thought Jesus wanted in order to fulfill his political mission to replace the Roman Empire with the Kingdom of God or Kingdom of David. Judas thought he was getting the ball rolling and it was what Jesus wanted. He may have felt ashamed, confused, or embarrassed that it led to his crucifixion. All good stories need a villain and he is a great candidate. His story becomes embellished as an antisemitic polemic as the rupture of Judaism and Christianity widens.

    • Avatar
      Kirktrumb59  May 26, 2020

      Melito of Sardis, in his (attributed) Peri Pascha, explains: “Nevertheless, Israel admits, I killed the Lord! Why? Because it was necessary for him to die. You have delivered yourself, O Israel, rationalizing thus about the the death of the Lord.
      “It was necessary for him to suffer, yes, BUT NOT BY YOU; it was necessary for him to be dishonored, BUT NOT BY YOU; it was necessary for him to be judged, BUT NOT BY YOU; it was necessary for him to be crucified, BUT NOT BY YOU, nor by your right hand.” (Upper case my emphasis.)
      “Israel” should have “cried aloud” to god asking deliverance from this, um, task. “Israel” did not do so. “Lawless Israel.”
      Pilate (and therefore the Romans), according to the good bishop, was innocent. This guy had all the answers, and provided them ad infinitum and quite ad nauseam.
      “You dashed the Lord to the ground; you, too, were dashed to the ground, and lie quite dead.”

  11. Avatar
    jhague  May 27, 2020

    “That means that we have accounts of Judas in a number of early Gospel sources: Mark, M (source of Matthew), L (source of Luke), John. There is also a tradition about him independently inherited by the author of Acts.”

    Wouldn’t L and Acts be the same source since Luke and Acts have the same author?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      The normal view is that the author had *various* sources for his Gospel — as he himself indicates in 1:1-4 — not a single source. And the material in Acts must come from other sources since it is not about the life nad death of Jesus.

  12. Avatar
    clerrance2005  May 28, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Please, would you kindly consider a post on the topic: The journey and the evolution of the Christian Church and Science (natural philosophy) and the how the renaissance affected it both?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 29, 2020

      That sounds more like a book! It’s a very complicated subject, for both Chrsitainity AND science, let alone the relationship of the two. But highly important. Maybe I could post on some *parts* of it. I’m obviously not an expert on science or the early modern period….

      • Avatar
        clerrance2005  May 29, 2020

        A part or an aspect would likewise be greatly appreciated. Much grateful.

        Watched your session with Reason & Theology, I found it so fascinating as it appeared you had been lured there to be quizzed on Catholic sentiments. You couldn’t help but ask again the subject for discussion

        Ref
        Bart May 29, 2020
        That sounds more like a book! It’s a very complicated subject, for both Chrsitainity AND science, let alone the relationship of the two. But highly important. Maybe I could post on some *parts* of it. I’m obviously not an expert on science or the early modern period…

  13. Avatar
    JoeWallack  May 30, 2020

    “If we are looking for the bedrock of historical fact about Judas, a critical examination of our sources yields at least three pieces of information: his name was Judas Iscariot; he was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples; and he “betrayed” Jesus by turning him over to the ruling authorities.”

    Once again, which is more likely:

    1) Judas betrayed Jesus.

    or

    2) Jesus was not resurrected.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 31, 2020

      Which is more likely, an apple or an orange? 🙂 These are not commensurate statements subject to the same criteria of evaluation.

      • Avatar
        JoeWallack  May 31, 2020

        No problem. The question was largely rhetorical as the answer is obvious. The real question is why you refuse to answer.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 1, 2020

          I refuse to answer because I don’t think you can compare an apple to an orange.

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