I get asked about Judas Iscariot far more than any of the other disciples, even the ones who are completely central to Jesus’ life and ministry (Peter, James, and John).  I guess that’s because he is seen as, ultimately, more crucial to the story of Jesus.  The betrayer.  Without him, no arrest, trial, and crucifixion.  Or at least, a completely different scenario for the death of the Son of God.

This week, when scrounging around looking for something else, I came across this paper I delivered at a conference years ago.  I thought it might be of interest to blog members.  This will take three posts.  (The paper was written for scholars, so I’ll put any necessary explanatory notes in italics)


In recent years, more has been written and less known about Judas Iscariot than about any of Jesus’ followers, with the outstanding exception of his wife and lover, the founder of the Merovingian Dynasty. (That was a little joke about people who take Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code seriously about what he says about Mary Magadalen) Interest in Judas has intensified, to put it mildly, with the discovery, publication, and various idiosyncratic interpretations of the Gospel of Judas.  But even before these recent events (I was writing this in 2008), Judas has been the subject of intense inquiry and speculation.

In this paper I will not be dealing at length with the sundry legendary portrayals of Judas per se.  My interest is in the historical Judas, what we can say about who he really was, what he stood for, and what he did.  As is true for all figures of the past, it is important for us to distinguish between what we can almost certainly know, what we can probably know, what we may not actually know, and what we can’t know at all.  And as is always the case with historical figures, these questions of epistemology depend directly on the state and nature of our sources of historical information.

For Judas Iscariot, our sources are sparse and for the most part unreliable.  The most interesting sources are the ones that cannot be trusted to give us anything like a historical picture.  This includes not only the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, but a range of other accounts from the early centuries of the church.  These include the following:

  • The reports of Papias who indicates, first, that Judas the betrayer had the gall and arrogance to question Jesus’ claim that in days to come “vines will come forth each with ten thousand boughs; and on a single bough will be ten thousand branches. And indeed on a single branch will be ten thousand shoots and on every shoot ten thousand clusters; and in every cluster will be ten thousand grapes, and every grape when pressed, will yield twenty-five measures of wine.  And when any of the saints grabs hold of a cluster, another will cry out, “I am better, take me!”  The unfaithful Judas found it hard to believe such a thing; go figure..
  • Papias’s second report  about Judas is even more telling, if equally apocryphal:

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    “Judas became so bloated in the flesh that he could not pass through a place that was easily wide enough for a wagon — not even his swollen head could fit.  They say that his eyelids swelled to such an extent that he could not see the light at all; and a doctor could not see his eyes even with an optical device, so deeply sunken they were in the surrounding flesh.  And his genitals became more disgusting and larger than anyone’s; simply by relieving himself, to his wanton shame, he emitted pus and worms that flowed through his entire body.”This is the kind of report we might wish were true, either because we think Judas was such an awful figure that he deserved it, or because we simply would love history to be really interesting.  But alas, often it is not.
  • The much less well known account of Judas prior to his death reported in just one obscure fifteenth century manuscript of the co-called Gospel of Nicodemus, otherwise known as the Acta Pilati:

In this account, after he sees that Jesus is condemned, Judas goes to the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees in the temple and confesses that he has sinned by turning over innocent blood.  He tries to give the money back, but they won’t take it, so he casts it in their midst and returns home in order find some rope to hang himself.

When he arrives at home he finds his wife cooking a chicken on a spit over a charcoal fire.  He tells her to prepare a rope for him to hang himself with.  Obviously perplexed,  she asks him why.  He tells her that he has handed his teacher Jesus over to evil doers to be killed, but that he will rise on the third day, to their woe.  His wife tells him to speak and think no such thing:  Jesus can no more rise from the grave than can this chicken begin again to speak.  As soon as she says this, of course, the chicken rises up, stretches out its wings, and crows three times.  This is more than enough to convince Judas, who takes the rope and hangs himself.

  • The reports of the same event  — Judas’s death – in Matthew and the book of Acts, which stand directly at odds with each other at key well-known points and cannot be accepted, either one of them, as historically reliable, although there may be some kind of historical tradition lying behind them common to them both.

But my interest in this paper is less with the death of Judas than with his life, particularly in relationship to Jesus.  My assumptions in the following sketch of what I think we can know historically are first, that our best sources are the earliest ones available, which happen in this case to be the Gospels narratives in the canon, second, that as a rule the Synoptics preserve more historical information than the Gospel of John, and third, that the only way to distinguish between what is historical and what is fictional in these sources is to apply rigorously the standard criteria that one uses for all the Jesus traditions, such as multiple attestation and dissimilarity.  So far so good; nothing too outlandish yet.

Among the pieces of information that we can learn about Judas from the Gospel narratives are some that – despite our longing to have as full a picture about the man as possible – simply don’t give us anything, or much of anything, to go on.  This includes the firm historical datum that he came to be known – whether during his lifetime or afterwards – precisely as Judas Iscariot.  His name, of course, was Judas or Jude, and the epithet connected with his name was meant to differentiate this Judas or Jude from others who bore the same name, including one of Jesus’ brothers and another one of his disciples, much as the Mary’s of the New Testament are differentiated according to whether they are Mary of Bethany, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus’ children, and so on.

For nearly as long as we have had scholarly discussions of who Judas was we have had speculation concerning what the epithet Iscariot is meant to signify.  Starting in antiquity there have been a mind-numbing number of creative solutions: that Iscariot indicates that he died by strangling, that he made money out of friendship, that he came from Issachar, that he was a member of the Sicarii.  That he was a liar, that he was a red head; that he came from a town called Kerioth.  Probably the majority of scholars prefer this final solution, but it actually doesn’t tell us anything, since we don’t have any reliable record of where this town was or what its citizens tended to be like.