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Stan Mikhailov ©
The Ill-Fated Tool of God,
The Quest For Historical Judas*

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At first glance, the title of this essay may seem a little provocative: how can the greatest traitor of all times be also called the instrument of God? The problem, it appears, is somewhat recursive in nature. Indeed, if Judas' betrayal of Jesus was not a part of divine plan, how did it come to be realized? And if it were to be fulfilled no matter what the circumstances, then why is Judas, unlike any other apostle, so controversial a figure? After all, he simply performed his role, however horrific and treacherous.
It seems that Judas' role, however, was not that simple. Today, we can neither fully comprehend the extent to which his action may have been influenced by the cultural and ethical norms of his time, nor can we accurately assess the credibility of the few New Testament sources where he is mentioned (Gospels, Acts). Even when a historian is trying to look at the life and deeds of Jesus Christ himself, he or she is inevitably going to face the lack of purely historical material at a certain point and will then naturally revert for more evidence to the New Testament writings. In the case of Judas Iscariot, however, even the New Testament material is not at all abundant (I am referring to the few places in the Gospels that are unambiguously connected to Judas; certainly, one can infinitely inflate one's commentaries of those paragraphs). Catholic Encyclopedia very accurately summarized the trivia about Judas by stating that "very little is told us in the Sacred Text concerning the history of Judas Iscariot beyond the bare facts of his call to the Apostolate, his treachery, and his death" . As a challenge, then, it becomes even more interesting to address the historical personality of Judas.
Of many questions that can be posed about Judas Iscariot, we will likely be able to answer only a few. It is my hope that those few answers will also provide some insight on the historical background of the life of Jesus Christ, and vice versa. I would like to emphasize that this essay for the largest part will be concentrated on the probabilistic approach to the actual events that took place in the beginning of our era. Here, I will not endeavor to study ethical or theological questions, because they generally leave much freedom to thought and little to conclusions.

The Assumptions; The Historical Background

An essay such as this is prone to be contaminated by detours and speculations on topics not quite associated with the main idea. A certain set of assumptions needs to be introduced, then, to avoid unnecessary complications.
One could argue if we have sufficient material to postulate even the existence of Jesus Christ himself ; definitely, then, the question of whether Judas Iscariot has ever lived leaves even more room for doubt. However, we may recall that the criterion of dissimilarity dictates that, since, according to the Gospels, Jesus Christ was "handed over" to the Roman governor, and that certainly does not favor the concept of his omnipotence or fit the eschatological framework, we must therefore accept that this indeed took place and Jesus was prosecuted by Pilate . Also, just for the sake of argument, I shall settle for now with the idea that the person who "surrendered" Jesus was, indeed, one of his disciples, and his name was Judas. Howard Kee in Understanding the New Testament rather curtly mentions, "Theories of plots are unfounded guesswork. All we can be sure of is that Jesus was put in the hands of the authorities by one of his own followers" , meaning that if any conclusions are to be drawn, we do not have much material to begin with--only that Jesus was "handed over" by Judas.
Although these assumptions in themselves are quite a bit of progress, the question still remains open: what can we say about the historical background of Judas Iscariot? How likely was the central event of the Gospels to happen? Departing for a moment from the profound problem of the particular betrayal described in Gospels, I would like to present the point of view offered by Albert Bell, Jr. in his book Exploring the New Testament World. He writes:
Pliny mentions that he questioned some people who had been named by an informer. This word has a traitorous sound to the modern ear, but such people played an important part in helping the government <…>. Under the emperors this system of informers became a network of spies. <…> What an informer said was always believed. <…> This is the role Judas played in Jesus' arrest.

The author then proceeds to state that the action of Judas was not that blameworthy in his own times. It is quite easy to see the flaw of that approach. One should not confuse the actions that were undertaken by the citizens to merely protect themselves with the unquestionably traitorous behavior of people driven by pure avarice and avenging motives. Suetonius and Cassius Dio refer to the institution of informers (which blossomed during the times when Jesus Christ lived) as to something horrendously cruel and vile:
Never was the word of an informer doubted. Every crime was treated as a capital offense, even when it was just a matter of a few simple words. <…> Summoned to plead their case, some opened their veins at home; <…> others drank poison in the middle of the senate house.

We can quite safely conclude, then, that the reality was contrary to what Bell suggests: indeed, the informers were there, but they were not something people had put up with; rather, they were intensely feared and hated. If we adopt this (rather logical, it seems) point of view, the explanation of how Gospel authors succeeded in communicating their extremely negative view of Judas (if they did not perceive him as traitor) is rendered excessive.
Another point should be attended to, for that matter: why is it our perception that Mark, Matthew, Luke and John all despise Judas? We can turn to the text itself for answers: everywhere in Matt 10:4; 26:14-16, 20-25, 47-50; 27:3-5; Mark 3:19; 14:10-11, 43-46; Luke 6:16; 22:3-6, 47-48; John 6:64, 71; 12:4-6; 13:2, 11, 21-30; 18:2-5 Judas is very clearly portrayed as a traitor, liar and thief, moreover, the authors seem to be infatuated with this idea, so that virtually everywhere where his name is mentioned, we are reminded that Judas either already did, or will betray Jesus Christ (here, I consciously simplify the concept of betrayal).
It appears, then, that if we choose to admit Bell's view that Judas' deed was more excusable then than it is now, the very drama (and, consequently, the foundation of Christianity) unfolded in the Gospels collapses. Therefore in retrospect we can see that, although the time when Jesus Christ lived was extremely violent, dangerous and unforgiving , and much could be ascribed to the hardships one had to overcome, Judas still did something truly horrible. Hence it remains for us to examine whether his act was so dreadful only from the theological point of view, in which case the problem will have to be abandoned, or if it was something more tangible, something we could dispassionately assess.
The problem that immediately emerges is: what was it that Judas betrayed, and for what reason did he do it? To proceed with the answer, or at least attempt to do so, we must first relax the idea of H. Kee and allow for an at least limited degree of freedom in our judgment, because the hypotheses justifying or explaining Judas' betrayal are numerous, and there are some that most rightfully demand our attention.

Judas' Name; The Dispute

The most widespread theory is that Judas Iscariot means Judas from Kerioth, or Judas, the man of Kerioth. This view is based on the etymological analysis of the word Iscariot, or Iscarioth. It has been suggested that "Is-" in this context should be perceived as a Hebrew affix, `ish- (???), meaning "man of", and the "-cariot" part of the name refers to the village of Karioth in Judea . This derivation is quite prominent because it laid foundation to the hypothesis that Judas was from the very outset of the narratives an outsider to the apostolic group, positioned a priori at a higher rank (all the apostles and Jesus were Galileans, whereas Judas was Kariothen, hence his southern origin made him more familiar with the ways of metropolis, Jerusalem) and thus, as a "black sheep", was more likely to betray Jesus. This view has been maintained until recent times, when, increasingly, scholars have devised other interpretations of this name.
Probably the greatest weakness of this explanation is this: why exactly would the Hebrew affix be directly transliterated into Greek, as opposed to being properly translated? The Greek name in Matt 26:14 ("Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests.") is: `Io???? `I????????? . It would seem quite logical, then, if Matthew employed the same scheme throughout his narrative, in the few places where "man of" would be appropriate. But that is not the case. In Matt 27:32 ("As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyre'ne, Simon by name <…>") we find "… ??????o? ???????o? ??o???? ??????" , and not "????? I????????o?", as one might expect. Certainly, this particular instance is insufficient to prove that the name "Iscariot" must be explained in some other way, but it is quite suggestive. Maccoby confirms this by writing: "Certainly the expression 'man of…' is idiomatic in Hebrew of this period. But it is never regarded as part of the name, and is always translated explicitly when the name is transferred into another language" (my emphasis). Maccoby stresses that, "despite its wide acceptance, the 'man of Kerioth' theory is very flimsy" . It is interesting to see how the two (quite representative of their own times) scholarly points of view, separated by an interval of some 25 years, come into contradiction here. Contrast Maccoby's statement with what was quite abruptly written by Kraeling in Disciples: "Modern speculations disbelieving the ancient explanations have produced a variety of etymologies, none of which seems to persuade anyone but the author" . And, to demonstrate another point belonging to this "variety", I would like to turn to Klassen , who quotes Torrey and Wellhausen. They agree that Judas' sobriquet was unlikely to have been formed by someone uneducated and familiar only with Aramaic; Torrey states, moreover, that there is no evidence to conclude that Judas was ever addressed as "Iscariot" during his life, but suggests, rather, that the name was later used as a reproach, the root scariot having been derived from Hebrew ??????, shakrai, liar.
I will go at the length of presenting yet another hypothesis, which, in my opinion, has the greatest explanatory power.

Judas the Zealot--Betrayal Because of Disappointment?

Maccoby holds that the name "Iscarioth" is derived from Latin sicarius, which means "dagger-man", a word commonly applied to members of the Zealot movement. He builds a very strong case, and the following points may be considered most relevant to his thinking (this should not be perceived as a mere retelling of the text, because I am "upgrading" Maccoby's case):
  1. This derivation is quite plausible linguistically (the addition of the "Is-" part can be easily attributed to the agglutinative property of word shifts between languages)
  2. Jesus had at least one more disciple who was a Zealot (Simon, according to Luke)
  3. One of the most intriguing passages in John, 14:22-24 ("Judas (not Iscariot) said to him…") can be re-interpreted in the light of the fact that third and fourth century Coptic Gospels have in its stead "Judas Kananites", which is probably a misunderstood Hebrew qan'ai, Zealot, and this enables Maccoby to claim that originally this name was indeed "Judas Iscariot".

Indeed, if one were to adopt all these points and start thinking along the same lines, the argument would make perfect sense. Interestingly enough, in Mark's and Matthew's apostle listings we see that Simon and Judas go together, one after another, and that, moreover, Simon is called Cananaean (Kananites) in Mark and Matthew, whereas virtually the same listing in Luke says that he was a Zealot. It would be only fair to claim that Judas, too, must have been a Zealot. Was the meaning deliberately obscured, then? Or is this point of view, still, not valid?
Although Maccoby's arguments seem quite convincing to me, I would like to present three rather heavy objections to his theory. First, Dominic Crossan wrote the following in his Historical Jesus: "sometime between 52 and 60 CE <…> we hear for the first time of a group whom Josephus calls the Sicarii" (my emphasis). But by that time Jesus had already been dead for twenty years. How, then, could one of his apostles have been a sicarius? There is no answer simply because one cannot be produced with certainty, but if we deny the etymology suggested by Maccoby, even this faint argument in favor of the connection of Judas to Zealots seems to disappear . Second, Maccoby's reasoning relies heavily on a particular order of translation mistakes and misunderstandings, which could be interpreted in an entirely different manner. Unfortunately, any hypothesis that operates with such a great amount of ifs can hardly be correct. While Maccoby refers to a variant reading of John 14:22 for an additional proof of his standpoint, I have demonstrated in my previous essay on the Gospel of Thomas that sufficient evidence could be collected to suggest that "Judas not Iscariot" could in fact refer to "Didymus Judas Thomas". Finally, the third (probably shakiest) argument is: sicarii is the name of the curved swords, which the members of the band (often called town guerillas or assassins) used to slay prominent people. If Judas were indeed one of the cold-blooded killers, would Jesus want to ally with him? Or, to put things in another order, would Judas want to ally himself with Jesus? That seems quite unlikely, because, as it appears, during his own life Jesus did not manifest himself as a man of great power, a man who came to combat the almighty Rome. His purposes were quite different, quite unearthly and therefore not exactly attractive to a man of destructive social charge. One might argue, of course, that Judas had hoped till the very end that Jesus would engage in some violent activity, would provoke an uprising and lead the Jews (a straightforward analogy would be the Bar Kochba revolt, which took place in 132 CE), but his hopes faded away and, as a revenge, he decided to betray Jesus, or, rather, "hand him over" to the authorities. This point of view is not entirely devoid of plausibility, and yet we should not forget that Jesus was neither perceived by multitudes as a man of great authority in his own time (if Josephus mentions him in two passages only!) nor was he considered a Messiah, contrary to what Gospels proclaim. It seems therefore utterly unlikely that a man like siccarius Judas should abandon his most imminent affairs and settle as a mere treasurer (John 13:29) with the twelve paupers.
The conclusion at this point, sadly enough, follows that of Klassen : we cannot gather additional information from the second name of Judas, no matter how tempting it may seem, especially as far-fetched as some scholars have proposed. The matter now rests with either collecting more material or producing better, more reliable interpretations. Nor, it appears, have we sufficient grounds to claim that Judas was a rebel seeking a master who could channel his energy.

Handing Jesus Over

This essay would be rather incomplete without a look on a most remarkable study of William Klassen . Trying to challenge century-thick layers of the tradition that regarded Judas Iscariot as The Traitor, Klassen argues that the word on which most emphasis was placed, paradidomi, was in fact mistranslated and has nothing to do with the English word "betrayal". The author's discussion of this term is, indeed, fascinating. Klassen holds that Judas did not betray Jesus; rather, that he "surrendered" him because he, of the Twelve, understood best of what Jesus' entire mission was. Regretfully, I cannot pursue this motif in great depth here simply because otherwise we would again be entering a field known as guesswork.

Выдача Христа**


It seems noteworthy that of all the New Testament writings, we find evidence of Judas' death only in two: the Gospel of Matthew (27:5) and Acts of the Apostles (1:18). The two accounts are absolutely different. In Matthew, Judas "hanged himself", whereas in Acts, he "fell headlong and burst open in the middle". That there is no agreement between the two books and that the Acts version of Judas' death is so enigmatic and unclear seems to indicate that the authors simply did not know what had happened to Judas (Kraeling suggests that of all the original elements of the story, Evangelists only knew that Judas had died a violent death, and so both Luke and Matthew filled the gap with stories of their own invention) . Indeed, if the story of Judas' death came either from Q or Mark, it would seem natural for both Matthew and Luke to incorporate it in their narratives. But that did not happen. The Field of Blood (potter's field, according to Matt 27:10, in Aramaic Akeldama), called so because the blood of the villain was spilled there (Acts), or alternatively, because it was purchased for blood money (Matt), was apparently a locality near Jerusalem, a field of red clay. That is all we can ascertain about the death of Judas.


You will notice that certain seemingly crucial points have remained unattended to in this essay. In particular, I did not employ too many quotations or too many references to the Gospel text. The reasons for that are extremely simple: the few facts about Judas that can be extracted from the Gospels are widely known, and that what is unknown is largely a matter of interpretation. I could mention, for instance, that the incident described by Matthew in 27:3 appears to correspond almost exactly to passage 11:13 of Zechariah , and that Judas' misdeed falls under the curse of the law of Deuteronomy 27:25 . But that would not contribute much to the historical validity of the various points discussed here. In this piece of research, I did my best not to stray from the historical guideline and not to plunge in constructing my own, scarcely founded, visions of who exactly Judas was and what he did.
In 1998, a most fascinating debate between Dr. William Lane Craig and Dr. John Dominic Crossan took place. William Craig defended his position, to which there were two basic points: first, Jesus not only lived, but he also got resurrected, and second, if that were not so, Christianity was but a fairy tale. His arguments were quite persuasive, and, following his line of thought, I would like to stress that the data supplied by the Gospels on Judas are absolutely insufficient to draw concrete conclusions. We know or can infer a lot of things about historical Jesus (even resurrection), but we know not a trifle about Jesus the man. We can but guess what his true relationship with his disciples was. We, therefore, can neither judge nor justify what Judas did, and we cannot even state whether he really "betrayed" Jesus or if some global misunderstanding has occurred. When it comes to Judas Iscariot, we are helpless in the face of history; tens if not hundreds of books have been written about him, and they do not seem to converge to one particular line of thought.
And it is probably due to this fact that some scholars have suggested that Judas Iscariot never existed at all.

Bell, A. A., Jr. Exploring the New Testament World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998
Copan, P., ed. Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Crossan, J. D. The Historical Jesus. San Francisco: Harper, 1991
Doherty, E. The Jesus Puzzle: Did Christianity Begin with a Mythical Christ? Ottawa: Canadian Humanist Publications, 1999
Edwards, C., trans. Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, De Vita Caesarum. Oxford, 2000
Ehrman, Bard D. The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. Oxford, 2000.
Kee, H. C. Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1983
Klassen, W. Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996
Kraeling, Emil G., Disciples. Rand McNally, 1966
Kung, H. Quinn, E., trans. On Being a Christian. New York: Doubleday, 1976
Maccoby, H. Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil. London: Peter Halban, 1992

Online Resources:
Catholic Encyclopedia
Full Greek text of the New Testament
* Cм. также эссе С.Михайлова: ** Картина "Арест Христа" сошла с мольберта Микаланджело Меризи да Караваджо (Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio (1571 –1610))

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