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In Defense of Judas

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Throughout history, since the beginning of the Common Era, two names have stood in contrast in the human psyche: Jesus, and Judas. No name would be more synonymous with betrayal and treachery than the latter, and it would forever be tied to his counterpart. Just the mere utterance of the name will articulate emotions that no other words will.But does he deserve the reputation he’s endured over the millennia?

To begin with, it’s important to point out that not all scholars agree as to the authenticity of Judas or his story, and those who believe the story, differ on his actual role. Judas is mentioned in all four gospels, which is significant, but they all disagree on the details, lending an air of confusion to the narrative.

Judas, of course, was a common name in Palestine, representative of the patriarch Judah, and Jesus had several followers by that name. One such Judas, Jesus jokingly called “twin,” probably because he was always where Jesus was, so much so that Jesus joked that he was like a shadow.

Only the synoptic gospels tell the story of a conspiracy to betray: Matthew 26:14 and Mark 14:10 both tell of collusion between Judas and the Chief Priests. Luke 22:5 puts the conspiracy between Judas and the elders of the Temple. Only Matthew 26:25 mentions the thirty pieces of silver.

John, on the other hand, ignores all of that to say that Satan entered Judas, and then suggests that it was Jesus who drove Judas to the betrayal. But John mentions no collusion between Judas and the Temple officials. Instead, the authors of John seem to suspect that there was some sort of connivance with the Romans. However, if Judas wanted to betray Jesus to the Romans, all he had to do was tell any Roman official that Jesus was a lestai—bandit—messiah, and that would be the end of Jesus.

Our story begins just before Passover in Jerusalem. The capital city of Israel was home to about fifty-thousand permanent citizens, but as Passover approached its numbers would swell, sometimes to as much as a quarter of million people: Jews, gentiles, and spectators from all over the Middle East who filled the city for the sacred festival. Along with their families, they would bring their sacrifices: doves, lambs, cattle—not to mention pack animals. It was a time of great tension between the Jews and Rome—which would also mean thousands of extra guards to patrol the city.

According to the gospels, Jesus was staying in Bethany, only a few miles outside of Jerusalem. John recounts that on the day Jesus was to enter Jerusalem, he sent two disciples ahead of them to retrieve a donkey that had been tied up but never ridden. He provided further instruction that should they be questioned—or more likely—accused of stealing, they should simply tell the owner that the Lord needed it, and that it would be returned.

Already, we’re starting to see signs of possible intrigue; signs of an event that has been carefully choreographed to publicly present Jesus as a messiah. He entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, riding an ass, while members of his entourage threw their coats on the ground as he passed, just as Israel did for Jehu when he was crowned king. Other disciples would welcome him raucously, shouting “Hosanna to the son of David,” suggesting that Jesus was of the lineage of David, and would restore Israel and its Temple. Still others sawed off palm branches and waved them in the air, just as Israelites had done for the Maccabees when they liberated Israel from Seleucid rule only two centuries earlier.

All four gospels agree that Jesus had messianic aspirations, and that he kept the company of some who bordered on zealots. Another area where the gospels agree is that his disciples didn’t know much about these associations. They appeared to think that this was all spontaneous.

Later that day, Jesus would send delegates into the city to make preparations for his own Passover feast. He told them to look for a man carrying a clay vessel on his head filled with water. Of course this had to be a signal, since only women carried water outside the Temple. This man was involved the operation in some way, and again, his disciples didn’t know.

Whatever Jesus’ scheme was, it was an audacious one, with Jesus presenting himself as the messiah in the middle of the most treacherous time of the year to pull such a stunt: in Jerusalem, with additional Roman guard, under the shadow of the Temple, and during the Passover feast which commemorated Israel’s deliverance from slavery and occupation.

After his triumphal entry, they would need a more clandestine signal though, as it would be necessary to keep Jesus’ whereabouts private from that point forward so as to avoid arrest, most likely by the Romans, but also by the Temple police. This would explain the man carrying a water pot on his head.

Of course we mustn’t forget the cleansing of the Temple, a raid upon which Jesus and certain of his disciples stormed the outer court, overthrowing the tables of money changes, setting the sacrificial animals free, and literally scourging the merchants. This, more than anything, according to scholars, would bring Jesus under the scrutiny of the Romans and the Temple administrators—including the High Priest.

Again, the disciples don’t seem to have known that this was going to happen.

Our strongest indication that Judas would have been privy to Jesus’ messianic ambitions comes from a story that happened only a few days before, in Bethany. All the gospels tell the story, though they disagree quite significantly on the details. In this story, a “woman,” (John identifies her as Mary of Bethany, Luke identifies her as ‘a woman that lived a sinful life,’ and Matthew and Mark just call her a woman), approaches Jesus, who is reclined at a table, and weeps, washing Jesus’ feet with her tears, drying them with her hair, and then anointing them with some rather expensive perfume.

Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus’ disciples were offended by this, because it could have been sold for more than a year’s wages. Luke reports that it was Jesus’ host, Simon, who was offended, and John says that it Judas who got offended. John is particularly careful to make the point that Judas was their treasurer, and adds that he was also a thief, actively stealing their money and using it for himself.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus seems downright testy with the disciples and Simon for their lack of compassion, and for not recognizing the gift that the woman had given to him. However, in John, Jesus seems somewhat amused at Judas’ response, and it’s the only gospel where he says, “the poor with be with you always,” as if Jesus is making some kind of joke.

To explain the significance of this particular passage would take pages and pages, but there are some interesting subtleties, both by what’s in the text, and what’s missing from it.

Firstly: John tries to paint Judas as a thief. Why in the world would Jesus tolerate a thief in his midst? He was intolerant of those who would rob from the poor for any reason, so it begs the question, was this “stolen money” actually going someplace else, someplace that both Judas and Jesus knew about.

Second: John presents Judas as a hypocrite. If there was anything that annoyed Jesus, it was hypocrisy. He used incendiary terms to define those he saw as hypocrites: whitewashed sepulchers; nest of vipers; children of the devil; den of thieves; and, of course, hypocrites. Yet he responds to Judas with his little nugget: “the poor you will have with you always.”

Scholars have struggled with this verse for centuries, because it’s so out of character for Jesus. Why did he respond this way to an alleged thief, while responding much more angrily toward his disciples and even his own host?

All that brings us back to this night—the night of the Passover meal with Jesus and his disciples. The gospels tell us that Jesus was worried, or that he had a ‘heavy heart.’ Something was clearly troubling him. John reports that Jesus looked over at Judas and said, “that thou doest, do quickly.” Of course John is trying to relay that this was Jesus telling Judas to go and betray him, but it’s hard not to get the impression that Jesus was up to something, and that none of his disciples knew about it—except for Judas, who had paid for it.

Even a child would have recognized Jesus, and would have known where to find him: during the day, he was in the Temple preaching, and at night, he was camping on the Mount of Olives. The priests knew who he was, the Temple police knew who he was, and the Romans knew who he was. There was nothing that Judas could have ‘revealed’ that the authorities didn’t already know, and the gospels themselves know this since they never actually tell us exactly HOW Judas betrayed Jesus.

That Jesus was worried about the authorities is even more evident when he told his disciples to arm themselves that night before they returned to camp.

He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one."
Luke 22:36

And it’s not insignificant that the authors of John reject the tradition that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. In fact, according to John’s account, Jesus identified himself to the guards and soldiers while Judas had nothing to do with it. “Whom seek ye?” he asked as they entered the garden. It’s also the authors of John who tell us that there was a skirmish in which Peter cut off a guard’s ear. Of course they skip over a lot, but it’s pretty obvious that there was some armed resistance.

That Jesus was met with Roman guards and Temple cops means that his crime was against Rome, and not the Temple. That Jesus was then taken to the house of the Annas suggests that the Romans remanded Jesus into Temple custody until the morning. To that end, if Judas had betrayed Jesus to the Temple police, it wouldn’t have mattered since it was Rome who arrested him, and Rome who would decide his fate, not the Temple rulers.

So ultimately, what happened that night was, more than likely, a plan gone awry, and Judas had either ‘failed’ in his mission, or gotten caught trying. Clearly it was Jesus the Romans wanted, not Judas, and so they let him go—to deal with his overwhelming guilt. Matthew tells us that Judas hanged himself, whereas Acts (Luke) tells us that he bought a field with his money, and jumped off a cliff, falling so that he split himself open, spilling his entrails onto the ground.

There is, of course, one other option, which could be just as viable. Judas (another name for Judah) could have been an outright creation of the gospel writers to stand in proxy as a dark and disturbing metaphor to represent what the gospel writers felt about Judah/Israel. While the gospels had already gone out of their way to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus, even though it was the Romans who killed him, here they could add one more level to their case against Israel. They would portray the Jewish people through the lens of Judas—as thieves, criminals, and traitors, who would ultimately betray the very son of god.

Thus, the name Judas, would forever be synonymous with the death of the very messiah that Judas risked his own life—and reputation—for.

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