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  • Stephen HRM

The Enigma of Judas

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

In the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote that in the fourth course of the ninth circle of hell, as far as one could descend, “That soul up there which has the greatest pain…Is Judas Iscariot…”. So offended by his betrayal, Dante wrote that for his great sin, Judas would spend eternity with Brutus and Cassius in perpetual agony as Satan chewed and tore at the flesh of the one who handed over the Messiah to his enemies.

While the Church for many years taught that Judas was deserving of his fate, many scholars and theologians have in more recent times been troubled by this view. For these scholars, Judas was not the typical sinful man, preferring earthly treasure over the salvation of God, but was caught up in a cosmic philosophical conundrum revolving around free will and divine predestination, that is, someone needed to deliver the Messiah to advance God's plan for salvation. The Gnostic perspective accounted for this by teaching that Judas was the favourite and superior disciple of Jesus and that his betrayal of Jesus was a consensual act necessary in releasing Jesus from his earthly state. The British theologian Hugh J Schonfield argued for a non-Gnostic version of this view, claiming that Judas acted with Jesus’ full consent so that prophecy may have been fulfilled. The theological and philosophical conundrums presented in the story of Judas – the tension between divine sovereignty and free will being the principal concern- led others to dabble in similar theories in attempts to explain the sad fate of Judas as an apparent victim of God’s predestination. As one scholar put it, “Had [Judas] evaded his purpose and disdained to do what must be done for the sake of all our salvation-he would have become a traitor to God. Without Judas no Cross, without the Cross no fulfilment of the salvific plan”.

There is no doubt some profound answer to this cosmic riddle, but one is struck at just how little the text reveals to us about Judas. Where he is mentioned in the text, scholars have described the literary character of Judas as a type of "narrative ambiguity". What we do know about Judas is that the Biblical text seems to mirror him as a bit of an anti-Judah. Both share the same name for one – Judas being the Greek version of Judah – both are one of twelve and both demonstrated a willingness and desire to profit from the selling of a brother. In Genesis 27, Judah says, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood?”. In Matthew 26, it says of Judas, “Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?”

Their similarity also extends to their repentance. Both Judah and Judas realised the error of their ways, but here the similarity ends. In response to their repentance, Judah offers himself to save a brother, and Judas kills himself, one sought self-sacrifice, the other sought self-murder. One could then perhaps claim that where Judas fell was not that he betrayed Jesus, nobody can evade the will of God after all, but that he sought to retreat from the consequences of his actions. It is of course only speculation; another just as plausible answer is that the weight of history crushed him.

It is the ambiguity in the text that makes any conclusions about Judas difficult. As a character, Judas has no narrative function other than in the Garden of Gethsemane and all we know of him prior to this comes from his consistent description as the one who would “deliver up” Jesus. That he was described as this prior to the act reinforces this narrative ambiguity, it is as if he was an instrument written into the story entirely for that purpose. It is only in Matthew we learn he attempted to undo his work while others denigrate him, culminating in John’s account linking Judas with Satan, but Mark is neutral about the whole affair. Further, and interestingly, in other books of the New Testament, such as 1 Corinthians 11:13, Judas involvement in the garden is not mentioned and the Greek text seems to imply that it was God that delivered Jesus, something that is perhaps hinted at in the Gospel of Mark given its neutral flavour when describing the actions of Judas. Such is the lack of character development surrounding the narrative of Judas, it is one of the most surprising aspects of the New Testament that this would be the character who would deliver Jesus to the authorities and change world history forever.

To add to this shroud of mystery, the meaning of the term “the deliverer” – paradidomi in Greek, is contested. The word is traditionally translated as betrayed, or betrayer, but one can make a case that this translation was favoured on ideological and theological lines – in particular through Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible. This word in fact has multiple meanings, “to hand over, to deliver up, to relinquish/surrender, to grant, to hand down, to transmit”. The literary scholar Karl Bathes favoured this meaning, noting that many other uses of the same term did not convey a negative act. When used in relation to the apostolic mission for example, the term related to giving something entirely over to God, that is, it was a positive act. For Karl Bathes then Judas was “the servant of the work of reconciliation itself” and he and more scholars in recent times rejected the view that the New Testament provided evidence as to Judas being an evil person. For Barthes, Judas committed a kind of necessary evil, he handed Jesus over to the enemies of God, but in doing so, handed Jesus over in accordance with the apostolic mission, the plan of salvation as ordained by God.

It is easy to simply cast Judas as an evil man – his association with the devil certainly makes it so. But such a categorization does not provide a satisfactory answer to the issue of Judas’s free will and the requirement of the Messiah’s death, nor does it explain the lack of narrative depth to this character. We know the gospels differ for various reasons, but why they differ on this particular character remains a mystery. It is not the case that the Bible provides the inner monologues of characters, we don’t know what Abraham was thinking when God commanded him to sacrifice his son, nor do we know what Isaac thought about the whole affair. Likewise, we have no insight into what Judas was thinking other than a few lines suggesting a financial motive as told by others and some supporting evidence regarding his thieving ways. While Jesus links him to the devil, as does John, we are still left with the moral ambiguity of “delivering up” and the issue of Judas’s free will. It is in all likelihood a riddle that will never be solved, but there is enough evidence I believe to think that maybe, just maybe, we may be able to ask Judas in the world to come.


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