Iscariot and the dark path to the Field of Blood

Our correspondent takes issue with recent attempts to portray Judas in a sympathetic light

Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus with a perfidious kiss, has been viewed throughout the ages as the chief villain of the story of the Crucifixion.

In January, however, it was rumoured that the Vatican, following revisionist theologians who argued that Judas was simply Jesus’ agent in His dealings with the chief priests, was planning to rehabilitate the black sheep among the Apostles.

These rumours turn out to anticipate the main thesis of the apocryphal Gospel of Judas which has just been released, to a blaze of excitable publicity, by the National Geographic Society. It is the product of the Gnostic heresy composed in Greek in the second half of the 2nd century AD, and surviving in a very poorly preserved Coptic translation from the 4th century.

The existence of this gospel was attested by the Church Father Irenaeus of Lyons (AD180), who ascribed it to the sect of the Cainites, hero-worshippers of such dark biblical characters as Cain, Esau, Korah and Judas. While the “new” papyrus may reveal some of the non-Jewish ideas of Greek Gnosticism, it cannot improve the genuine picture of the events of the last days of Jesus. For a more level-headed view of the part played by Judas in these events, we still have to rely on the handful of data contained in the New Testament.

Concerning Judas, the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles have three points in common. First, he was one of the 12 Apostles. Secondly, he was instrumental in the arrest of Jesus, singling him out, according to the synoptic Gospels, in the dark orchard of Gethsemane by what has become known as the Judas kiss. Incidentally this embrace did not necessarily indicate love or close friendship. It was a social custom. Jewish hosts greeted their guests and members of the early Christian churches with a kiss.

Thirdly, a financial motive stands behind the act of Judas. In Mark and Luke the chief priests offered him a bribe, but in Matthew it was Judas who demanded to be paid. John in turn, without mentioning a deal, describes Judas, the treasurer of the apostles, as an embezzler who stole from the common kitty. The precise sum of 30 pieces of silver appears only in Matthew, who, as customary, draws on the Old Testament, here on two prophecies (Zechariah xi, 13 and Jeremiah xxxii, 7-9), wholly irrelevant to the story of Jesus.

We have two contradictory accounts of Judas’ death. In Matthew he seems to have expected Jesus somehow to extricate himself, as he was wont to do, from the plight in which Judas had placed him. On realising, however, that this was not to be the case, he broke down and decided to return the blood money, but as the chief priests refused to take it back, let alone to change their plans, he hanged himself. The money was then used by the Temple authorities to buy a plot of land, the Field of Blood, for the burial of strangers.

In Luke’s account, far from repenting, Judas purchases a field with the money but, while visiting it, he suffers a fatal accident. The death of Judas was used in popular Christian circles to explain the Aramaic place name, Akeldama, Field of Blood. In Matthew it is so called because it was purchased with blood money; but in Acts the designation signals that the traitor’s blood was spilt on it.

While Luke and John attribute the downfall of Judas to the influence of the Devil, some recent writers try to portray him in more favourable colours. The linguistic argument claims that the Greek word “to hand over” (paradido^mi) is erroneously rendered in English as “to betray”. It is suggested by one apologist for Judas that his task was merely to “make a connection” between Jesus and the chief priests. But there was no need for a go-between to arrange such a meeting since Jesus could be found every day teaching in the Sanctuary. In fact an encounter had already taken place there between him and a delegation of chief priests, scribes and elders shortly after the commotion caused by Jesus in the merchants’ quarter of the Temple, but this further exacerbated the situation (Mark xi, 27; Matthew xxi, 23; Luke xx, 1).

To grasp the true meaning of the concept “to hand over” in a 1st century AD Palestinian Jewish context, it is enough to realise that the Greek word corresponds to the Hebrew term masar, used to designate a Jew delivering another Jew into the hands of the ruling power.

In anti-Roman Judaea such an act was betrayal and its perpetrator was a despicable collaborator. When Luke (vi, 16) refers to Judas as a prodote^s or “traitor”, instead of using the more subtle “he who handed him over” (Matthew x, 4; Mark iii, 19), he simply calls a spade a spade. It is a red herring to maintain that “betraying” is a mistranslation. In the story of Judas “handing over” always carries a pejorative overtone.

Some of the theological arguments are, to put it mildly, purely speculative, such as: “If God decided to deliver Christ to the chief priests, Judas cannot be blamed for it” or “If Jesus possessed prescience, he must have known and willed the future conduct of Judas, betrayal included”. Such reasoning cuts no ice with the historically minded.

Other theologians seek to combine speculative thought with their own reading of the New Testament. Their chief argument lies in the words Jesus addressed to Judas in John’s version of the Last Supper: “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John xiii, 27). They read into these, anticipating the new Gnostic gospel, an instruction to Judas to pour oil on troubled waters between Jesus and the chief priests.

But there is no supporting evidence in the Gospels that Jesus sought an accommodation with the Temple authorities. Moreover, such an understanding of the saying is patently contradicted by the preceding passage in John (and in the other Gospels) in which Jesus predicts that one of his Apostles would hand him over to his enemies (John xiii, 21; Mark xiv, 18; Matthew xxvi, 21; Luke xxii, 21).

Put in colloquial language, “What you are going to do, do quickly” amounts to “I know what you are up to. What holds you back?” The evangelist dramatically concludes: “He immediately went out and it was night” (John xiii, 30).

Far from requiring a fundamental reassessment, the historicity of Judas’ role, as attested in the New Testament, must be recognised as the linchpin without which the Passion story would fall apart. In the Gospels the chief priests, fearful of popular outrage at any heavy-handed action against Jesus, decided to postpone his arrest until after Passover: “Not during the feast, lest there be a tumult of the people” (Mark xiv, 2; Matthew xxvi, 5; Luke xxii, 2). However, Judas’ unexpected move offered a chance to arrest Jesus without witnesses. They seized the opportunity and sent in their troops in the dead of night.

Geza Vermes is Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford. His book The Passion is published by Penguin at £6.99. [ |]

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Times, UK
Apr. 8, 2006
Geza Vermes

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 10, 2006.
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