Judas Iscariot, the most infamous of the Twelve Disciples, betrayed Jesus to the Sanhedrin in the Garden of Gethsemane, which led to Jesus’ death and crucifixion. Due to this notorious role, Judas is a controversial figure in the Bible. One the one hand, he betrayed Jesus, and on the other, he set in motion the events that led to the resurrection, which was necessary to bring salvation to humanity.
The name Judas was a Greek version of the Hebrew name Judah and, therefore, was popular in Biblical times. We have already looked at the disciple Jude, who was also known as Judas Thaddeus. To distinguish between the two disciples, the Gospel writers used Epithets, such as “Judas, son of James” for Jude and “Iscariot” for Judas. It is not completely certain what “Iscariot” meant, however, some scholars have linked it to a Hebrew phrase meaning "the man from Kerioth.” Other suggestions for the meaning of “Iscariot” are “liar”, “red colour”, and “to deliver”. There is also the theory Judas was connected with the Sicarii group who carried daggers under their cloaks, however, there is no evidence they were around during Judas’ lifetime.
“Kerioth Hezron (that is, Hazor)” (Joshua 15:25) was a town in the south of Judea. Judas may have been born there but there is no direct reference to this in the Bible. All we know about Judas’ life before he met Jesus is his father’s name. “Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.” (John 6:71)
Judas Iscariot features in all four Gospels, although not always named. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus sent out the Twelve in pairs to preach and gave them authority over impure spirits. Other than the twelve, most of Jesus’ disciples had been unable to accept his teachings, which is why they are not named in the Bible. In the Gospel of John, Jesus emphasised that he had chosen the Twelve deliberately, because he knew he could rely on them, however, he also shocked them by saying, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70) The “devil” we know refers to Judas Iscariot.
Despite Jesus knowing Judas would eventually betray him, he promised all the disciples, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” (Matthew 19:28) This suggests Judas had been chosen specifically for the role he would play in the crucifixion and resurrection and would not be punished by God.
Judas’ act of betrayal is portrayed from different angles in each Gospel. In Matthew, we are told that Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:15) The priests gave Judas thirty pieces of silver. The Gospel of Mark also says the chief priests promised to give Judas money for handing over Jesus, however, Mark does not indicate how much. After the Last Supper, Judas found the opportunity to hand Jesus to the chief priests. Whilst Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrived with a large, armed crowd and said, “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” (Matthew 26:48)
The Gospel of Luke provides a similar account to Matthew and Mark, however, Luke includes a further detail. Luke suggests Judas did not go to see the chief priests of his own free will but says, “Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.” (Luke 22:3)
The Gospel of John is the only Gospel that does not state Judas betrayed Jesus in return for money. Nonetheless, it is implied Judas was greedy and a thief, therefore, it is likely Judas would have asked the priests for something in return for delivering Jesus to them. “He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” (John 12:6)
John also directly indicates that Judas would be the one to betray Jesus. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells his disciples at the Last Supper that one of them would betray him. In the Gospel of John, however, he makes it more obvious whom this disciple is by saying, “‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.” (John 13:26-27)
Jesus then told Judas to go and do what he had to do quickly, however, the other disciples were unaware of what this meant. “Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.” (John 13:29)
Judas’ betrayal is unusual in that it gets mentioned in all four Gospels. The other eleven disciples are either involved with events recorded in a couple of the Gospels, or they are barely mentioned at all. The New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman (b.1955) states this is evidence that Judas’ actions truly happened. Whilst Christians believe everything in the Gospels are fact, it is strange not every Gospel writer thought certain events were worth writing about.
It is generally believed Judas was overcome by remorse after the arrest of Jesus and committed suicide. The Gospel of Matthew records Judas tried to return the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, saying, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” (Matthew 27:3) The chief priests, would not accept the coins, “So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5)
The chief priests could not accept the money back because it was “blood money.” Therefore, they used the money to buy a plot of land where foreigners (non-Jews) could be buried. “That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:8) This supposedly fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (Matthew 27:9-10) Yet, there is no such prophecy in the Book of Jeremiah, however, there is in Zechariah.
The Book of Acts, on the other hand, claims Judas bought the field with the money. “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” (Acts 1:18-19) In this verse, there is no suggestion that Judas was remorseful and his death could have been an accident rather than suicide.
The two differing accounts of Judas’ death have caused consternation amongst scholars. St. Augustine of Hippo suggested the account in Acts was a continuation of Matthew. The field bought by the chief priests with Judas’ money may have been the same field in which Judas hanged himself. The rope may have eventually broken, causing his body to burst open on impact with the ground. Other writers have suggested the version in Acts was metaphorical rather than factual; "falling prostrate" was Judas in anguish and the "bursting out of the bowels" is pouring out emotion.
A couple of Apocryphal books add more to the account of Judas’ death. The Gospel of Nicodemus, written in the 4th century AD, relates that Judas went home to his wife and told her he was going to kill himself because he knew Jesus would punish him after the resurrection. His wife laughed and said Jesus is as unlikely to rise from the dead than the chicken carcass she was preparing for dinner. At that very moment, the chicken was restored to life. The Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, reveals Judas’ worries that the other disciples would persecute him, so he preferred to commit suicide than face that fate.
Just as the term “Doubting Thomas” has entered common language, the name “Judas” has come to mean “betrayer” or “traitor”. In Spain, Judas is usually depicted with red hair, which during the renaissance era was regarded as a negative trait. As a result, red hair, alongside greed, became a way of portraying Jewish people in literature. In traditional art, Judas is often portrayed with a dark-coloured halo, which contrasts with the lighter colour of the other disciples.
Unlike the other disciples, Judas was not made a saint. Saint Matthias quickly filled his place among the twelve disciples. Nevertheless, Judas will not be forgotten. His betrayal is remembered annually in churches across the world. Judas has also become a fascination with authors and playwrights. Just for fun, here are a few books, films and plays you may enjoy involving the Apostle Judas Iscariot:
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon