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What the Bible says about Judas

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The four canonic gospels agree that Judas Iscariot was one of Jesus disciples, and that he betrayed Jesus to the temple priests and guard. The repeated use of the word "betray" emphasizes the nature of Judas' actions.

One strange aspect of the gospels' story is that the priests were apparently unable to identify Jesus without paying for Judas' help. Yet, Jesus had been welcomed as a hero by the people of Jerusalem in a great celebration a few days earlier. He would presumably be recognizable by many of the temple personnel.

Another strange aspect is that, according to "John," Jesus was aware that Judas Iscariot would betray him in the future. Yet Jesus chose him to be a disciple anyway. Some theologians view Judas as being an essential part in God's plan to have his son tortured to death by the Roman Army. If Judas was merely carrying out Jesus' and God the Father's wishes, then he can hardly be criticized for his act of betrayal. Yet "Matthew" and "Mark" record Jesus as saying that it would have been better for Judas if he had never been born.

Each of the gospels gives a slightly different slant to the activities and motivation of Judas:

bullet Judas Iscariot's motivation is not clearly stated, although "Matthew" suggests that it might have been financial.
bullet "Luke" writes that Satan entered into Judas before he went to the priests to arrange the betrayal of Jesus. "John" writes that the devil "put into the heart of Judas Iscariot" the decision to betray Jesus. Judas, having been possessed by an evil spirit, might not be considered a free agent. Being mentally ill, we would not have been fully responsible for his actions.
bullet Curiously, in "Luke" and "John," neither Jesus nor any of the other disciples appeared to notice that Judas was possessed by an evil spirit or by Satan himself. If so, one would expect that they would have performed an exorcism to rid Judas of the indwelling demon. If they were aware of Judas' possession and did nothing, they would have been partially responsible for the betrayal of Jesus, and his subsequent execution.
bullet "Matthew," alone, states that Judas suffered remorse after betraying Jesus.
bullet "Matthew" implies that Judas was so upset and depressed at his actions that he hanged himself. This apparently conflicts with Acts 1:18 which has Judas visiting the field that he had bought with his temple reward. He is recorded as having an accident, falling to the ground, splitting open his gut, and presumably dying on the spot.
bullet The authors of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) have Judas identifying Jesus to the temple guards by a kiss. "John" has Jesus twice identifying himself directly to the guards.

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About the structure of the canonic gospels:

There is an amazing similarity in the texts of the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. They often use the exact same words and phrases to describe the same events. This, and other internal evidence, has led many liberal theologians to conclude that Mark was written first. They believe that Matthew and Luke were based on Mark, on a source documents of Jesus' sayings, and on material unique to each gospel. This source text, called the Gospel of Q, has not survived as an independent document, but can be reconstructed by analyzing the passages that Matthew and Luke have in common.

Conservative theologians generally believe that the Bible is inerrant and inspired by God. Thus, since the four authors are discussing the same events, one would expect them to use identical passages.

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Passages related to Judas in the Gospel of Mark:

Writing about 70 CE (according to most liberal theologians) or circa 60 CE (according to many conservative theologians) the author of Mark wrote from a Gentile, Pauline Christian viewpoint. He portrayed Jesus' disciples, who were all Jews, in a very unflattering light:

bullet They were repeatedly amazed whenever Jesus performed a miracle.
bullet They dozed off in the Garden of Gethsemane in spite of Jesus' repeated appeals that they remain awake.
bullet Peter repeatedly denied that he knew Jesus.
bullet They all abandoned Jesus as the crucifixion approached, and fled back to safety in Galilee.

This bias against the disciples may have been a reflection of the stresses between the Pauline Christian movement to which "Mark" belonged, and the Jewish Christian church in Jerusalem which had been organized by the disciples and led by James, the brother of Jesus. Some of this friction appears in chapter 2 of Paul's epistle to the Galatians, which may have been written as early as 48 CE. He refers to bitter conflicts between the Jewish Christians -- those "which were of the circumcision" -- and himself.

Although the author only mentions Judas' activity in four passages, the disciple is clearly identified as a "betrayer." The word is used seven times!

Some important factors:

bullet Unlike the authors of the other canonic gospels, "Mark" has the priests bring up the matter of a financial reward to Judas. Other gospels say that Judas went to the priests seeking money.
bullet Jesus did not make a positive identification of Judas as the betrayer at the Last Supper.
bullet Jesus threatened Judas. saying that it will be better for him if he had never been born.

The Gospel of Mark mentions Judas in only three passages, and implies his activities in a fourth.

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Passages related to Judas in the Gospel of Matthew:

Many conservative theologians suggest that this gospel was written by the disciple Matthew circa 37 to 45 CE. Liberals suggest it was written in the late 80s by an unknown author. James Robinson, perhaps the world's leading authority on the Gospel of Q believes that the Gospel of Matthew was written when the Jewish Christian group that had written "Q" merged with the Pauline Christians. He suggests that, as an ecumenical gesture, the Gospel of Matthew was created by combining the Gospel of Q -- a Jewish Christian document -- and the Gospel of Mark -- a Pauline Christian work, 1 along with some new material unique to this gospel.

Again "Matthew" continually refers to Judas as a betrayer -- a total of eight times in four passages. He more clearly identifies Judas as responsible for the betrayal than "Mark" did. "Matthew" describes Judas as clearly motivated by money; he asks the priests for a financial reward in exchange for identifying Jesus. But, alone among the gospels, "Matthew" writes that Judas experienced remorse at his betrayal of Jesus, tried to give back the money, and hanged himself.

The Gospel of Matthew mentions Judas in five passages.

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Passages related to Judas in the Gospel of Luke:

Estimates of the date when "Luke" was written range from the late 50's to the 90's, with most conservative suggesting earlier dates, and most liberals suggesting later. James Robinson suggests that the Gospel of Luke is also an ecumenical book. 2 There is a general agreement among most liberal theologians that this gospel is a combination of Mark's text, the Gospel of Q, and material unique to "Luke."

The Gospel of Luke mentions Judas in three passages. There is also a reference to Judas in Acts, which was also written by the author of Luke

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Passages related to Judas in the Gospel of John:

This gospel appears to have been written between 85 and 100 CE. There is no consensus among theologians concerning what individual or group wrote the book. This gospel mentions Judas more often than synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) do. He thoroughly assassinatesJudas' character.

The Gospel of John mentions Judas in five passages.

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References used:

  1. James M. Robinson, "The secrets of Judas: The story of the misunderstood disciple and his lost Gospel," HarperSanFrancisco, (2006), Page 17. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.
  2. Ibid, Page 20.

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Copyright 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
First published: 2006-APR-07
Most recent update: 2006-APR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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