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What Did Judas Betray?

In an indirect but very important way, recognizing what Judas actually betrayed is central to understanding the life and death of Jesus.  It goes to the heart of his messages and explains why he was crucified.  Even so, it is a complicated matter and has not been fully thought out even by many New Testament scholars.

It is commonly supposed, of course, among lay-folk and scholars alike, that Judas indicated to the authorities where Jesus could be found apart from the crowds.   Maybe that’s right, even though I do have some doubts about it.  Even if it is right, there may be more to it than that.  I think the following data are worth bearing in mind, leading to the resolution of the question that I prefer.  (At first these data may not seem relevant: but hang in there for a minute!)

  • Jesus almost certainly did not publicly claim that he was the messiah during his lifetime; more specifically, he never publicly announced that he was the King of the Jews.  In our earliest accounts — esp. Mark — he does *accept* the title messiah in a public setting when asked about it, but only at the very END of his life, at his trial (Mark 14:61-62).  And never is the King of the Jews a term Jesus uses of himself in the Gospels during his public ministry.  That is key.

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But WHY Did Judas Betray Jesus?
If We Did Have the “Original” Gospels, Would That Make Them True?



  1. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 1, 2020

    One of the most beautiful of all Messianic “story tellers” was Isaiah. – the child as a sign, the innocent man, despised, rejected, healing the sick, recovering the blind, raising the dead, betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, imprisoned, judged, condemned to a tortuous death – but then raised again and satisfied his sacrifice avails much, and his story is preached to generations not yet born. Written 500 or 600 years before Jesus was born.
    I am not sure why Jesus “had” to be betrayed – but he had to live and die as he did.

    • Avatar
      jpklein  June 7, 2020

      ? Isaiah wrote about events in his time. Later Christian apologists forced historically nonsensical interpretations onto that text like they have wherever else it is convenient to their agendas.

  2. Lev
    Lev  June 1, 2020

    I find it especially interesting that in reconstructions of Q (such as IQP here: http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/iqpqet.htm) that the very last saying of Jesus is the “twelve thrones”.

    It’s as if the author of Q had assembled the sayings in chronological order and it was this final saying that got Jesus arrested.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Of course since we don’t have the document we don’t know what else was in it or even the arrangement of the sayings….

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 1, 2020

    The natural question then becomes – why don’t the Gospels say that Judas betrayed the messianic secret?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Well for three of them there is no secret. And Mark probably just didn’t know, since the stories about the betrayal were not being told in relation to a messianic secret, since most story tellers were not saying anything about there *being* a secret.

  4. Avatar
    CFSmith  June 1, 2020

    For the Readers Mailbag:
    When do historians apply the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, etc.? Were these developed specifically for biblical textual criticism, or are they applied more generally? When there is a reference in a scholarly paper, usually only one reliable source is cited, not three for the sake of multiple attestation. Is seems that these criteria are used to interrogate unreliable sources. What makes a source unreliable? Isn’t it a certain kind of unreliability? Dissimilarity and embarrassment won’t help you analyze the testimony of a witness whose memory is simply poor or inaccurate due to a lapse of time. If fundamentalists insist that the Gospels are historically reliable, should they not also argue that this form of textual criticism does not apply?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Ah, really important questions. I’ve had a thread dealing with just the issues you’re asking. Just to a word search for “dissimilarity” and “multiple attestation” and you’ll find them.

  5. Avatar
    flshrP  June 1, 2020

    So Judas told the Jewish high priest who told Pilate about the messianic secret. That’s the What.

    Is there any agreement among NT scholars regarding why Judas spilled the beans?
    Is the part of the Last Supper narrative about Jesus’ predicting his betrayal and execution considered authentic (Jesus actually said those words) or is it something that’s made up by whoever wrote the Gospels?

  6. Avatar
    Maracus  June 1, 2020

    Dr Ehrman, two unrelated questions.

    First, I’ve heard you speak about episodes in the gospels that read better if we presume they started as aramaic sources (I recall your example about the sabbath and the son of man). On this matter I’ve read Maurice Casey’s book on Aramaic sources. While interesting, his retrotranslations seem awefully optimistic. Could you recommed a source on this matter to engage with what was probably originally Aramic in the gospels?

    Second, I recently encountered a Christian who argued against leniency in Mark 7: 18 – 19 on matters of food. He claims that Jesus didn’t claim all animals are food, but rather that all foods are clean. Therefore things that were food according to the law became clean (contrasting with the purification rituals of the Jewish authorities), but pork, shellfish and such animals remained unclean because they were never food in the first place. His argument seems compelling. However, I wonder if the distinction between food as only what was present in the law would have been intuitive for the author of Mark. Can we tell from his context or contemporaneous sources that this was indeed the way that the concepts of food and animals were distinguished?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      1. I think in most cases it simply can’t be done. I agree: Casey is overly optomistic. 2. Interesting argument. But ancients understood food like we do: anything that can be ingested for nourishment. The issue was never over what is food, but what is appropriate food.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  June 1, 2020

    It’s impossible to know, but I wonder if Judas simply blabbed too much. Perhaps he told people, including the wrong people, what Jesus was saying about the coming kingdom and their (the disciples and Jesus) places in it, especially since he and the others probably believed it was going to happen at that Passover. But over time this was amplified into an intentional traitorous act by Judas. Question: Matthew and Luke have Jesus telling the disciples they will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel, but that’s not in Mark, is it? Q material?

  8. Avatar
    NTDeist  June 1, 2020

    But did Judas betray that information voluntarily? I believe Judas was captured by the Temple police and was forced to betray Jesus. Why pay (30 pieces of silver) when you can get that information for free?

  9. Avatar
    tom.hennell  June 1, 2020

    That is a very attractive argument Bart, and might be right; except that, as stated, it explains only half the data.

    You explain how Jesus came to be crucified by the Romans as ‘King of the Jews’; and the role that Judas might have had in that.

    But, Josephus narrates the prophetic careers of a whole succession of popular apocalyptic figures in these years – Theudas, ‘the Egyptian’, ‘the imposter’ – and how they were violently dealt with by respective Roman governors. In none of these parallels was the leader killed, but his followers left free.

    If Judas betrays Jesus as the one claiming to rule the rulers on the twelve thrones of Israel; then he equally dobs-in those aspiring to be seated on those twelve thrones.

    How come Jesus dies, and the Twelve don’t?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Theudas was indeed killed. So was Bar Kochba. Romans didn’t have federal legislature do deal with such things, only local practices. But why not the twelve is an excellent question. It’s almost certainly because they were *not* calling themselves kings. Comparable to John the Baptist. He was killed but his followers were not.

      • Avatar
        tom.hennell  June 2, 2020

        Not really a parallel Bart; John the Baptist was not executed by the Romans; and it is most unlikely that he ever claimed kingly authority of any sort.

        In any case, how the Romans dealt with anyone they saw as representing a threat to their control was not at all sensitive to ‘local practices’; a point that you have yourself made frequently on several occasions.

        I am inclined to think that Judas did betray Jesus to the authorities; but kept to himself the bit about the twelve apostles sitting on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes. Informers are commonly forgiven some elements of culpability with those they betray;but such indulgence is limited. That logion might have got all the Twelve on crosses – Judas included.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2020

          He was executed by a ruling authority authorized by the Romans, which of course, is what Pilate was as well (his authority came from his appointment to be governor, not from being a Roman). And yes, Romans were sensitive to local situatoins — what I mean by that is that htere was no federal law that required rulers to do one thing or another with dangerous individuals or troublemakers. Each one, in his own locality, made a decision.

      • Avatar
        jhague  June 2, 2020

        Was John the Baptist calling himself the future king?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 3, 2020

          No indeed. I’m explaining why someone who is seen as a trouble maker might be killed without his followers also being killed. The Romans often just killed the offender. Sometimes they went after their followers as well, but that was a local decision based on all sorts of factors (such as the size and violent views of the crowd, etc.)

          • Avatar
            jhague  June 4, 2020

            Since Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist and John did not claim to be the future king of the Jews, how did Jesus decide that he was to be the king of the Jews after John’s death and taking over John’s ministry?

          • Bart
            Bart  June 5, 2020

            We don’t know. But I will say that followers very often move off in directions different from their teachers, mentors, advisors and so on. In fact, all the time. Billy Graham, Sun Yun Moon, Mohammed, Jim Jones, Buddha — all had mentors they followed, but became very different people themselves. I suppose it’s rooted in personality and personal charisma?

  10. Avatar
    bseiler  June 1, 2020

    Thanks, Dr. Ehrman,
    I have heard you take this line before and I find it compelling. Judas is one of the most interesting characters in the entire bible, yet shrouded in mystery. I can remember being a child in Catholic grade school and wondering just what the heck Judas did that was so wicked. To me, the story that Judas’s grave sin was to expose Jesus’ location on a public hill on a specific night did not seem like such a big deal. Intuitively I knew there were pieces missing from the story. What *does* make sense is why Church leaders would want to downplay the political/practical aspects of the betrayal and focus on the implied spiritual aspects.

    Long story short, I went through 8 years of Catholic grade school, 4 years of Jesuit High School, and four years of Catholic College with no idea what the real “meat” of Judas’ betrayal was.

    Next question is *why* Judas undertakes this endeavor.

  11. Avatar
    Phil  June 1, 2020

    When I first read this in one of your books, it all made sense. It explains Jesus’ evasive answers to Pilate ( if they are historical) as someone not wanting to incriminate themself yet also not tell a lie.

  12. Avatar
    Hickman777  June 1, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman, I wonder if you might extend your posts on Judas to include the Last Supper in general? If Paul received his knowledge in a dream/vision directly from God (1 Cor 11), is it possible that the synoptic gospels built their accounts on what Paul wrote earlier? Or, were there other independent accounts orally floating around? Is it possible that none of them are records of what was said? Since so much of Christian liturgy and theology has been centered around those few words, the historicity or lack of it would seem to be hugely important. PLEASE, your views and studies on this would be very important to me (and a few thousand others, I would guess).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Interesting idea. 1 Cor. 11 does not necessarily mean he received his understanding from a vision, though. He could have received his information “from the Lord” by means of human intermediaries, just as people today say: God says that xxx, and what they mean is that they read that in a book written by others (e.g., the New Testament). The problem is that the Gospels show almost zero evidence that their authors knew the writings of Paul, so they do not appear to have gotten their sotires from him. Plus, famously, Paul tells almost NONE of the stories int he Gospels (just this one, actually!)

  13. Avatar
    seahawk41  June 1, 2020

    I agree. That seems to be the most logical conclusion.

  14. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 1, 2020

    Would Jesus have been killed simply for making this claim, or was is it likely there was more to it? Such as causing a disturbance or having a sizable following? If he was just a small time peasant from Galilee, might he have simply been laughed out of the Temple?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      The claim itself would have been enough, but the action inthe temple and the fact people were sometimes listening to him were probably contributing factors.

  15. Avatar
    Markplunkett99@gmail.com  June 1, 2020

    I’m convinced this is exactly right: Judas betrayed the messianic secret, and that gave them the legal basis for Jesus’ death. Albert Schweitzer, of course, made a similar argument in The Quest of the Historical Jesus. It’s critical for the history of Christianity that Jesus not only died, not only was executed, but that he was executed *as* the Messiah. The key notion of the crucified messiah is grounded in that historical event. That is the key connection between the ministry of Jesus and the preaching of the early church.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Mark Plunkett!!! Ha! Yes he did. I came up with the idea at one point and for years didn’t realize I had gotten it from Schweitzer, implanted in my brain without my remembering it. Luckily I never claimed I came up with the interpolation of the Bloody Sweat myself….

  16. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  June 1, 2020


  17. Avatar
    forthfading  June 1, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    The conclusion makes perfect logical sense. Do you have a speculation to why Judas would want to betray his teacher? The NT leads me to think it is about greed and the devil, but do you think greed and the devil is the whole story? I know that we can’t KNOW the exact personal reason Judas would betray Jesus, but I enjoy your thoughts.

    Thanks, Jay

  18. Avatar
    Poohbear  June 1, 2020

    Wish there was an Edit function of worth. I can’t remove the comment that Isaiah did not speak of the betrayal for thirty pieces of silver – that was Zechariah. To gain a comprehensive picture of the Messiah as Redeemer would entail going through many, if not all, of the Old Testament books.

  19. Avatar
    Apocryphile  June 1, 2020

    Just a couple of quick questions. Maybe it’s not that hard to explain, but I always wondered if the disciples all fled after Jesus’ arrest, how would they know what was inscribed on the titulus? None of them were presumably anywhere near his place of trial (if there was one) or execution, for good reason. Were some of Jesus’ women followers there, as tradition says, who later told the disciples? Was it just a good assumption based on what he had already told them? Word of mouth?

    A related point – if, as Dale Martin believes, Peter or another of his disciples really brandished and apparently used a sword at Jesus arrest, why wasn’t he arrested as well? For that matter, why wasn’t the whole group of them arrested or simply killed on the spot? Were they faster runners than the Temple Guard and/or Roman soldiers who took Jesus into custody, or, somehow, didn’t they see his disciples as a threat? I realize this is probably unanswerable – just thinking out loud, so to speak.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 2, 2020

      Exactly. They wouldn’t. They just knew why he was killed.

      And yes, that’s the precisely the problem with thinking that Jesus’ followers put up an armed defense. I talk about the issue in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  20. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  June 2, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I don’t disagree with you when it came to Jesus’s arrest for claiming to be king of the Jews. I believe that’s exactly what they used to charge him with a crime. But with that being said, I feel that there’s more to this story. Two passages in the New Testament stand out that imply that Jesus had enemies and we’re always out to get him way before he entered Jerusalem. Paul indicates that Jesus had enemies in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15. In Mark 14:1-2 indicated that a conspiracy was planned ahead to arrest Jesus. So my question in a previous blog I asked, if it was possible that Judas Iscariot was part of a espionage plot to get Jesus? Could it be possible that he was Jesus’s enemy from the beginning?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 3, 2020

      Yes, it’s certainly possible. But there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of it, and Jesus at least considered him a loyal follower. So one would need to think of reasons to think so…

      • stevedemarco
        stevedemarco  June 7, 2020

        Judas Iscariot as you described, was considered by Jesus to be a loyal follower. With that all being said, all 12 of his disciples fled the scene when Jesus was being brought on charges for claiming to be king of the Jews. What is striking is that none of the disciples were with him while he was being charged and then crucified. It makes one wonder what type of following Jesus had? It’s amazing that none of his closest followers would help defend him and go down with him. So I ask you, did Jesus’s followers actually believe what Jesus said or was his ministry complicated?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 7, 2020

          It was definitely complicated, but my sense is that hte twelve, except Judas, were fully on board. They fled because they realized that they had been wrong and could pay a very heavy price for supporting a messianic pretender.

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