As we celebrate our ten-year anniversary of the blog (April 18) by reposting the ten most commented-on posts, here now is #8, with 187 comments.
Why Did Judas Iscariot Betray Jesus?
June 3, 2018
In this edition of the Readers’ Mailbag I address an interesting and perplexing question about Judas Iscariot:
You may have mentioned this (I cannot recall) but why did Judas go to the authorities in the first place?
I wrestled with this question long and hard while writing my book The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, which includes a section on what we can know about the historical Judas. In the book I argue that there are some things that we can know with relative certainty about Judas (he was one of the Twelve and was the one who actually betrayed Jesus); other things we can profitably surmise based on our evidence (e.g. what it is Judas betrayed to the authorities – not just Jesus’ whereabouts, I argue); and other things that are almost entirely in the realm of speculation.
Among the latter I would include the reasons Judas *wanted* to betray Jesus. Scholars have offered numerous suggestions over the years. You may have your own favored view. Here is what I say about the matter in my book.
The Gospels give various answers to this question. In the (newly discovered) Gospel of Judas, he betrays Jesus because that’s what Jesus wants him to do. In our earlier accounts there are a range of different reasons given: (a) John portrays Judas as inherently evil, “a devil,” and so naturally he does what he is inclined to do (John 6:71) ; (b) Luke suggests that “The Devil made him do it” (Luke 22:3-6); (c) Matthew indicates that he does it for the cash (Matt. 26:14-16).
But what was the real motivation behind Judas’s act? At the end of the day, I’m afraid we can’t know for certain. It might be that the scenario I’ve suggested above is the right one, that Judas simply wanted Jesus removed from public view until after the Festival had ended and they could return to Galilee to continue their public preaching.
But there’s another option that might be even more intriguing, possibly hinted at in Mark, our earliest surviving account. Throughout Mark’s account Jesus has been preaching about the coming Kingdom of God, speaking about the coming of the Son of Man in judgment, indicating to his disciples that it would happen soon. Then he comes to Judea from Galilee, cleanses the Temple, and is anointed by an unknown woman in the town of Bethany. Apocalyptic fervor among his disciples must have been at its peak. Jesus has just given his lengthiest apocalyptic discourse in Mark 13, describing what will happen soon, at the end of the age. When he is anointed in Bethany, what does it mean? The act, of course, could be interpreted in a number of ways. If Jesus is about to become king, could it not be a symbolic statement that he is about to assume the throne as the Lord’s “anointed”? Possibly that’s what the disciples think. But Jesus does not interpret it this way. Instead he indicates that this unnamed woman has anointed his body “for its burial” (Mark 14:8).
Every time Jesus speaks about his coming death in Mark, the disciples misunderstand him: isn’t he to be the future king who will rule, and aren’t we to rule with him? So too here. As soon as Jesus speaks of his impending death, Judas goes out to betray him.
Is it possible that we have a historical recollection of the real situation here? For Judas, Jesus’ interpretation of his anointing may have been the last straw.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples, including Judas, were looking ahead to the time when they were to rule in the coming kingdom. This would happen soon. How soon? Certainly within their own generation. But sooner even then that. In one of those sayings preserved in Matthew, but which may go back to Jesus himself, Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to preach the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God, telling them: “Truly I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man arrives” (Matt 10:23). In its own historical context, what could such a saying have meant? It can’t have meant that Jesus himself was going to follow each of the twelve to all the towns they visited. Is Jesus here referring apocalyptically not to himself, but to the cosmic judge of the earth, who will arrive not some time later in “this generation,” but imminently, before the mission of the twelve is even finished?
If that’s what he meant – or at least if that’s how he was understood – the disciples must have been bitterly disappointed when the end in fact did not come and things went on just as before. After a while, did all this talk about the coming Son of Man, the Kingdom of God, the ruling of the twelve tribes of Israel, the entire apocalyptic vision – did all of this begin to lose its plausibility? Jesus may well have come to suspect that he would run afoul of the authorities. His predecessor John the Baptist had done so. The prophets of sacred Scripture had done so. Other prophets of his own time had done so. There’s nothing implausible about Jesus himself beginning to think that he too would do so. That is, after all, the constant refrain of his preaching in the Gospels.
So, why did Judas betray Jesus? It is possible, as I suggested above, that he simply thought matters were getting out of hand and he wanted Jesus securely taken out of way before any violence broke out But maybe it was the delay of the end that finally frustrated Judas and made him rethink everything he had heard. He, along with the others, thought they were to be glorious kings. They had made a trip to Jerusalem, raising their hopes that this would be the time; but nothing was happening and nothing evidently was about to happen. Maybe Judas had a crisis of faith, triggered by Jesus’ enigmatic references to his own coming demise. And out of bitterness he turned on his master. Maybe his hopes were dashed. Maybe he rebelled. Maybe he turned on the one he had loved out of despair, or anger, or raw frustration.
All of this, as I indicated, must lie in the realm of speculation. As much as we would like to know, we simply will never have reliable information to indicate what it was that motivated Judas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, to betray his master. What is clear is that for one reason or another, Judas became a turncoat and handed Jesus over to his enemies – not simply telling them where to find him, but giving them the insider information they needed in order to have him brought up on charges before the Roman governor. Jesus had been calling himself the king.