In my previous post I indicated that there are several things we can say with relative certainly about the historical Judas Iscariot (and indicated why I think we can be pretty sure about all of them): he really existed, he was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, he was therefore an apocalyptic Jew from Palestine, and he really did hand Jesus over to the authorities to be arrested.
But what is it exactly that Judas did that led to Jesus’ arrest, and why did he do it? Here we move from the grounds of relative historical certainty to issues of probability and speculation. The question of Judas’s motives for his act has intrigued Christians from the time before our earliest sources and continues to intrigue scholars today. The reality is that any discussion of motive is almost entirely speculative. If you can’t accurately describe my motives in writing this particular blog thread the way I have – and I can assure you, you don’t know my motives (and even if I *told* you, you couldn’t be sure! Who knows what I might say or why!) – then you can’t come close to knowing what might have motivated a virtually unknown figure whom you not only have never seen or heard, but about whom you are poorly informed from sources which themselves had no possible access to knowing Judas’s motives.
And so, the Gospels don’t actually help us much here. Mark, our earliest Gospel, does not speculate on Judas’s motives, but does indicate that after he turned Jesus over he was handsomely paid for it. So maybe he wanted the money. That’s explicitly what Matthew’s Gospel indicates, that Judas turned Jesus over out of greed. Luke puts a different spin on the matter and indicates that Satan entered into Judas prior to the betrayal, so in this more theological account of his motives, the Devil made him do it. In John’s Gospel Judas is himself called a devil, and so here one might infer that he does his act of betrayal because he has some kind of inherent mean streak. All four Gospels account for the betrayal differently, and all four were probably just guessing. Modern scholars have come up with other explanations that I don’t need to go into here. Everyone has their favorite and the options are well known to anyone who has put the least work into looking into the matter. But these modern explanations, like their ancient Gospel counterparts, are like them based on nothing more than educated or not so educated guess work.
We are on somewhat more solid grounds, however, when it comes to asking what it is that Judas actually did that led to Jesus’ arrest. I would judge that these grounds are not certain – unlike the five facts about Judas that I have just listed. But there are aspects of the traditions about Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion that can provide some leverage for understanding what it is that Judas did, and it is these aspects that I think have been under-estimated and under-explored in scholarship on the question. So here let me lay out certain data that I think are relevant to the question and that can provide some grounds for reaching a decision about what it is that Judas actually did.
I should say at the outset that the two Gospel sources that discuss the matter have a simple view of it: Judas showed the authorities where they could find Jesus virtually alone so that they could arrest him without the presence of the crowds gathered together to celebrate Passover. This may indeed be all that Judas did, but I have to admit that I’ve always wondered about it. Maybe I’ve seen too many bad movies and read too many bad detective novels. But if the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus when there weren’t any crowds around, why didn’t they simply do so by having someone follow him and report back? Why did they need to secure the services of one of his followers?
I’m not sure there is a good answer to that, and it makes me wonder if something more significant was going on. Here are the data that I think can contribute to an answer to the problem.
One that might seem irrelevant at first glance, but that is actually the key to the question is that Jesus was executed for calling himself the King of the Jews. I think this is about as certain a historical datum as we can find from the passion narratives of the New Testament. For one thing, it is multiply attested in our sources, all over the map, in a variety of the relevant narratives. Moreover, this is not a datum that the early Christians would evidently have made up, since we have no indication in any early source that the title “King of the Jews” was preferred, or even used, by the early Christians when speaking or thinking about Jesus. In other words, the grounds of the crucifixion pass the critierion of dissimilarity.
But ironically, we have no indication that Jesus publicly portrayed himself as the King of the Jews or called himself the King of the Jews in any of his preaching and teaching. If he ever did so, we have no record of it in our earliest sources. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and so far as we can tell, in all of their sources (Q, M, L) – the term King of the Jews does not appear on anyone’s lips until the Passion narrative.
If Jesus didn’t proclaim himself King of the Jews, why did the Roman authorities try him for calling himself King of the Jews? And why, if tried on these grounds, did he not simply deny it, if this is not in fact what he called himself? This is the penetrating question posed by that most penetrating of NT exegetes, Nils Dahl, in his rightly acclaimed and insufficiently studied essay, “The Crucified Messiah”
To answer the question we should reconsider the apocalyptic character of Jesus’ proclamation. For even though Jesus did not publicly proclaim himself the King of the Jews, he did publicly proclaim that there was to be a future Kingdom. By their very nature, kingdoms have kings. Who would be king of the future kingdom? In public, at least, Jesus never said, so far as we can tell from our sources. But he did teach his disciples something about the matter privately. As we have already seen, Jesus told his disciples that they, the twelve, would be the rulers of the twelve tribes of Israel in the future kingdom. And who would rule them?
Jesus was their master in the present evil age. Would he be their master then as well? Did Jesus teach his followers that he would be the future king of the future kingdom, ruling over his vice-gerents just as he was leading them now in the days approaching the coming of the kingdom? That would make sense of all the data that I take to be historically certain: Jesus was killed for calling himself the King of the Jews, he did not actually call himself that in public, but in private he did teach his followers that they would be rulers in the future kingdom, and that he would be the one ruling over them. The Roman authorities learned that this is what Jesus taught, and put him on trial for political sedition, for thinking of himself as the Jewish king when only Caesar could appoint a Jewish king. Why did Jesus not defend himself against the charge? How could he? This is what he actually thought.
But how did the authorities know that this is what Jesus was teaching, if in fact he never taught any such thing in public but only privately to his disciples? One of the disciples must have told the authorities.
Judas Iscariot is known as the one who handed Jesus over to the authorities. But he may have done something far more significant and far more scandalous than indicate where they could find Jesus alone apart from the crowds. He may have revealed the private teachings of Jesus about his own role in the coming Kingdom of God, that in fact he was to be its king. The traditional name for the future king in Judaism, of course, was the term “messiah.” In a sense, then, one could argue that Judas was the first to betray the Messianic Secret of Jesus.
Several obvious objections to this view may occur to you, and as they are obvious I won’t go into them. But I do want to say that this solution to what Judas betrayed makes sense of the relatively certain data that are otherwise very difficult to explain. These are, to repeat: the fact that Jesus was executed for calling himself something that he does not call himself throughout his public ministry of teaching and preaching, that someone must have told the authorities that this is what he was saying about himself, that he evidently never defended himself against the charge, that he must have taught his disciples that they would be rulers of the kingdom, and that he himself would have a special role when the kingdom arrived. Those who adhered to his teachings would be the ones who would enter this kingdom; they would be governed by the twelve disciples; and the twelve would be ruled then, as they were being ruled now, by Jesus, the future King of the Jews.