Recently, I received an email concerning Judas and it asked the question, “What was Judas thinking when he betrayed Jesus?” For someone with such a prominent role in Jesus’ ministry, you would think there would be much information about this person’s personal life reflected from the descriptions in the texts, but that is not the case.
Maybe from God’s point of view, the details are not necessary, only the solid facts of the story. But it is human nature to want a complete picture with all the details. If you come home and find out your neighbor has been arrested, you know what was done, but don’t you also want to know why that happened? Like a detective, we investigate and ask questions to build a full picture. So maybe God actually expects us to dig for the details of stories in his book — that is called Bible study and research.
Judas was a common name, during the time of Jesus Christ’s life on earth as a human, but we are, of course, speaking of Judas Iscariot, the man who put into motion events which collapsed Jesus’ personal ministry and led to his death. But the fact is, although we know what Judas did, we know not why he did it.
We know God’s reasons for its end result, but we do not specifically know Judas’ motivation. We can only try to piece together bits of Judas’ personality to draw a larger portrait of his complexity. That may give us more options upon which to speculate, but it will unlikely completely satisfy our curiosity. We may never learn the full record of his actions.
The man’s first name is the Greek version of the Hebrew Judah, which means ‘Praise’ or ‘Let God be praised’.1 His last name is but a description, for surnames were not common in that culture and time. Some academics think ‘Iscariot’ is an indication that he came from the town of Kerioth (Carioth) in the kingdom of Judea, because that word is a corruption of the Latin word sicarius, meaning ‘dagger man’. By extension of this thought, some believe he was a member of the ‘Sicarii’, a group of radical Jews, some of whom committed acts of terrorism2 and this would suggest he was a member of the Zealot3 sect of Judaism.
See how this works? It is as if we are going down a rabbit hole; you get to one answer and your research branches off in another direction. When you don’t have enough knowledge, you try to piece together the missing information as best you can from other sources or data. Some people call this ‘reading between the lines’.
Then some scholar will come along with another idea, which they publish documenting the study and reasoning behind those new deductions. Add all these thoughts together and you get research to use for coming to your own conclusions. Understand that this is not changing the facts of the story, only adding additional well-researched information to the facts to present a larger picture to the reader.
Since there is no clear biblical statement of Judas’ thought process, I gave the email writer a couple of people’s opinions of Judas’ background to establish some possibilities and then wrote, “I think he was expecting that the real savior, predicted by scripture, was going to be a revolutionary leader to take the Jews into battle against the Roman soldiers. He may have become disillusioned by Jesus’ lack of will to physically fight against the government.” Then I added a possible reason to explain why physical warfare would not be what Jesus had in mind, at all. I wrote, “Jesus showed that freeing people from oppression was a spiritual battle against evil entities, not killing people on the battlefield.”
Then a return email from the correspondent came, “So, I’m guessing this was an interpretation issue. This is what I think of most, when it comes to religion.” From that answer, I believe the implication was that this person believed preaching was just each minister’s interpretation of what was in the Bible. I guess the thought was, how does one learn the truth, if everyone’s interpretation is different? Many people have that impression, I guess.
I have known preachers just like the one this email writer describes. They think they know everything and have it all figured out, but haven’t really even studied the Bible in detail — only memorized it. A good teacher or preacher, when getting into ‘grey’ or ‘cloudy’ areas of knowledge should always tell you it is an opinion, and not state questionable information as accepted fact. And in study groups, they should give varying scholarly thoughts to help the study group understand there are differences of view.
I admit there is a problem with some church organizations, in that you either follow their constricted and specific beliefs, or get out (or get kicked out). Over my early years, when attending such organizations in my search for truth, I always, eventually, got out. No regrets.
I understand the need for scripturally specified doctrine, attitudes, and behavior, if one is to become a Christian, but don’t attempt to force me into believing someone’s personal views. For example, don’t tell me I can’t drink wine, when Jesus went to such an extreme measure to make sure it didn’t run out at a party. I’m sure you get my point. “What would Jesus do?” That quoted dependence upon Jesus’ teachings is as relevant today as it was when conceived, back in the 1800s.4
You don’t need a preacher to learn biblical facts.
Generally, if someone wants only the facts, they are easy to find. They don’t need any teacher or preacher, just read the Bible. The facts are all in there. But in many cases, there are not enough facts to answer a specific question. Most people do not want their question answered by hearing, “That information is not plainly stated in God’s word, so we’ll never know.” Or have the teacher imply that any additional information is not even important.
If you need help putting the facts together for better understanding, or to learn the customs and culture, or histories of peoples and governments, or geography, etc., it does help to have a learned leader guide the way. To go further than that, you need even more. You need serious research.
As Christians, we all have faith in God’s word, but come on, we are allowed to use our minds to squeeze a few answers out of other peoples’ research. And in this modern era of the internet and technology we have so many resources: world libraries of knowledge, archeological excavations, satellite mapping, etc. New discoveries of ancient scrolls, and digs of newfound cities, and museums filled with artifacts, are increasing constantly.
There are a lot of missing pieces being found to the biblical puzzle to better help our understanding. Could this be part of God’s meaning, when he told Daniel that in the last days we would see an increase of knowledge? “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.” (Daniel 12:4, ESV).
Sometimes we must step slightly to the outside of the established texts, to take in the entire view. Is that replacing or changing scripture? No, it is not. Scripture is not being deleted or rewritten; we are only including additional knowledge for clarity and insight. If someone does not want the extras, they don’t have to learn about them. However, if you want to know more, for example, about Judas Iscariot, then it is available.
Another couple of questions from my email correspondent came in the second missive. It was asked, “. . . if someone really thought they were doing the right thing, can they really be held accountable, if they innocently got it wrong? Do you think Judas misinterpreted it or was it intentional?”
Unintentionally doing wrong can be forgiven, but one must still suffer the consequences of their actions. For instance, you many not intentionally plan to kill someone with your automobile while they are walking on the highway at night in the rain, but if you do, there will be consequences for your act. The aftermath may last a lifetime, even if you sincerely regret your actions. Vehicular homicide may not be murder, but the law does provide a series of provisions covering driving offences causing death5 and the thought of taking someone’s life may be a large burden to carry.
Now, about Judas doing something intentional or not depends upon a lot of things, so we must investigate further, as it is a much more complicated question and would also have consequences attached. This will take us out into the fringe of Christian thought — a place I enjoy visiting, as you know. As mentioned previously, we sometimes have to “read between the lines” to get a reasonable answer and that is the case in this situation.
Occasionally, it is difficult to give a short answer in an email, but all the questions were intriguing and they are the reason for this article. We will examine ideas along with whether Judas was helping or hurting Jesus. First though, we will go a bit deeper into our study of whom Judas Iscariot was and why he acted as he did. For the readers that are familiar with my style, I will give you my thoughts, the opinions of others, and plenty of references from which to find a comfortable view of your own. As always, it is your choice what you believe, not mine or those of anyone else.
What we know about Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and his death are the only major recollection of him within the Gospels. He was always mentioned last on the list of apostles, but we do learn he was the group’s treasurer and stole from the money box.6 “He was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” (John 12:6b, NRSV).7
The Bible does record an event when Judas protests Jesus’ actions. It is at a dinner in the home of Lazarus, when Mary of Bethany took a pound (0.45 kg) of expensive perfume and used in to anoint Jesus’ feet and then used her hair to wipe them, as an act of worship. Judas complained about wasting such an expensive item. Judas asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii8 and the money given to the poor?” (John 12:5). And Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” (John 12:7-8).
John records a comment about the devil influencing Judas: “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas, son of Simon Iscariot to betray him.” (John 13:2). There is no expressed reason given as to why, although we can assume Satan wanted to circumvent Jesus’ plan. And during the last supper Jesus told his disciples he would be betrayed. So, it could be that Judas was looking for a strong political leader in the Messiah, but was not getting what he expected in Jesus.9
Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, he and Judas were very close;10 could it be that Judas’ thoughts about the Messiah were changing? Some scholars believe this was the case and their theory suggests the betrayal was the result of a gradual development within Judas as the most practical answer.11 They believe that Judas became disappointed in what Jesus was doing, and Satan used that disappointment to manipulate him for his own advantage. But why would Judas change his belief?
One theory is that Judas was originally a Zealot. “In first century Judaism, there were various sects within Judaism, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots.” The disciples came from all four sects.12 We read that Jesus primarily clashed with the Pharisees, but he was clearly in opposition to all sects’ responses to Roman rule. Most scholars recognize the possibility that Judas was affiliated with the Zealot group, which was an armed resistance movement, fighting the Romans.
The theory suggests that when Judas “betrayed Jesus, [he] was not just giving Jesus up for the sake of the money, not because Satan made him do it, not because he was possessed by a demon, and certainly not because God made him do it. Rather, they think that Judas was trying to initiate a confrontation between Jesus and the authorities so that the war could begin. Judas would have had the expectation that Jesus would be a military hero, and that Judas himself would have a starring role as one of Jesus’ closest companions.”13
So Judas made a deal with the high priests to betray Jesus for thirty shekels14 of silver. He gets paid and carries through by pointing out Jesus among the men in the garden at Gethsemane. They arrested Jesus and took him away. There was no fight or rebellion, so Judas did not force Jesus’ hand. In theory, after seeing this turn in events, Judas regrets his actions and attempts to return the money paid to him. And in one version of the story, his regret was so psychologically painful that he commits suicide.
When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. (Matthew 27:3-7).
An interesting side note is the belief that Judas Iscariot committed suicide by hanging himself from a Eurasian tree with the scientific name Cercis siliquastrum. The tree’s common name is now known as the ‘Judas tree’ because of its most famous historical use. It is very popular and cultivated for its showy flowers.15
This price, thirty shekels of silver, was considered the price for shed blood (hence called ‘blood money’); in other words, it was the restitution price of a slave accidentally killed (see Exodus 21:32). During Jesus’ time, the shekel contained a bit less than one-half ounce of silver.16 Today, the buying price of silver in the metal’s market is about $15US per ounce (28.35 grams), so thirty shekels would equal a little more than $200US. During the time of Jesus, those thirty shekels would have been equivalent to six weeks of work by a day laborer.17 To me, that seems like a low price to sell off Jesus’ life, so I doubt that Judas did it just for the money.
Every time I hear this story of the thirty pieces of silver, it reminds me of an old country song made popular by Grand Old Opry star, Wilma Lee Cooper18 (1921-2011), called “Thirty Pieces of Silver.”19 It is a very descriptive song about Judas receiving money for betraying our Lord, but unusual because it is sung to the tune of “On Top of Old Smokey.” Selected lyrics are below, and a clip, from an old entertainment program, is listed in References & Notes with a link for viewing.20
It’s a sad but true story, from the Bible it came
And it tells us how Judas sold the Savior in shame.
He planed with the counsel of high priests that day,
Thirty pieces of silver was the price they would pay.
Thirty pieces of silver, thirty shekels of shame,
Was the price paid for Jesus, on the cross He was slain.
Betrayed and forsaken, unloved and unclaimed,
In anger they pierced Him, but He died not in vain.
What About the Gospel of Judas?
A document about Judas Iscariot written in the second century was known to have once existed, but thought lost, until a damaged papyrus artifact was found in 1978. After translation, it was discovered to be the missing Gospel of Judas.21 The National Geographic Society created a media firestorm when it announced the release of the translation in 2006. The text states a secret disclosure that Jesus spoke in conversation with Judas Iscariot a few days before his last Passover.22
“Regarding Judas’ betrayal of him, Jesus said, ‘so that the words of Scripture will be fulfilled: The one who eats my bread turned his heel against me’ (Psalm 41:9, [and] quoted in John 13:18). Jesus does not mean to state that Judas could not have acted differently, but rather that God remains the author in what is being played out. For if through Judas the Scriptures are being fulfilled, that means that God’s intentions are being carried out.”23
“In those dialogues, Judas emerges as the close confidant of Jesus, who tells him: ‘You will exceed all of them.’” Jesus appears to ask Judas to help him. “Thus, the Judas of the gospel is not the betrayer of Jesus but his most important collaborator.”24 If this was true, “Judas wasn’t the renegade disciple who betrayed Jesus and committed suicide after remorse overwhelmed him. No, this Judas was just doing what Jesus told him to do.”25
Well, about Judas helping Jesus and being willing to accept the blame and public hatred over these last couple thousand years, I don’t think so — that’s just me thinking out loud. Some scholars do, but most don’t. In Christianity Today magazine, one author wrote, “Don’t get confused by mentions of Jesus and Judas. This is no Christian text. The Gospel of Judas did not circulate until about 150 years after Jesus died. Let’s put it this way: This new text tells us nothing more about Jesus’ relationship with Judas than does Jesus Christ Superstar.”26
And Biblical Archaeology Review magazine (BAR) criticized the National Geographic Society for presenting “the Gospel of Judas as possibly recounting actual history. In fact, no scholar would treat it this way. . . . As the BAR notice stated, ‘The idea that this new gospel might be an accurate historical report of the reason for Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is arrant nonsense.’”27
An interesting story, maybe, but a gospel, I think not. I can believe, however, that Judas may have misinterpreted Jesus’ approach to overcoming oppression. Judas didn’t understand much of what Jesus was doing, but neither did the other disciples. But it was Judas that tried to take matters into his own hands — he thought he was smarter than Jesus. That was his error.
Error or not, Judas’ part was played just as God ordained; Judas set into motion the events needed for the sacrifice of the Christ. Jesus died for our sins and his death was necessary to purchase back humanity from the death sentence received in the garden in Eden.
Many people do not understand the full spectrum of reasoning behind the necessary death of Christ, but The Outlaw Bible Student has published an article on this subject, which was uploaded in 2017. The title is “What do you mean, Christ died for our sins?” and a link can be found in References & Notes.28
Copyright © 2020, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Roat, Allyssa, “Who Was Judas Iscariot?” (Christianity.com, retrieved 1 April 2020), https://www.christianity.com/wiki/people/who-was-judas-iscariot.html
- “Judas Iscariot Biography”, (TheFamousPeople.com, 6 September 2018), https://www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/judas-iscariot-37498.php
- Zealot: The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism, which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms. (Wikipedia).
- What would Jesus Do?: In popular consciousness, the acronym signifying the question — WWJD — is associated with a type of bracelet or wristband which became a popular accessory for members of Christian youth groups, both Catholic and Protestant, in the 1990s. Originally from a book in the late 1800s by Charles Sheldon entitled, In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do. (Wikipedia).
- “Vehicular homicide”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 19 September 2019), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicular_homicide
- “Judas Iscariot”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 30 November 2015), https://www.britannica.com/biography/Judas-Iscariot
- Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible (NRSV), ©1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
- denarius (singular); denarii (plural): At the time of Christ, the denarius was 3.9 grams (0.14 ozs.) of 98% silver. (Wikipedia). 300 denarii would have been 1170 grams or about 42 ounces of silver. At today’s price ($15US per oz.), that would be $626US.
- Roat, Allyssa, “Who Was Judas Iscariot?” (See above).
- Shanks, Hershel, “First Person: Why Did Judas Identify Jesus with a Kiss?” (Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical Archaeology Society), January/February 2014, vol. 40, no. 1, p. 6.
- Kerr, C. M., “Judas Iscariot,” Orr, James, et al., (Eds.), The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), p. 1766.
- Helweg-Larsen, Robin, “Who were the Twelve?”, (The Gospel According to the Romans, retrieved 2 April 2020), https://robinhl.com/tag/essenes/
- Nye, Kevin, “The Judas Theory”, (Revkevnye.com, 27 April 2010), https://revkevnye.com/2010/04/27/the-judas-theory/
- shekel: an ancient Near Eastern unit of weight (slightly less than 14 grams of silver). It was first a currency in ancient Tyre and ancient Carthage and then in ancient Israel under the Maccabees. (Wikipedia).
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
- Freeman, James M. and Chadwick, Harold J., Manners & Customs of the Bible, (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), p. 473.
- Moss, Candida, “Why Did Judas Really Betray Jesus?” (The Daily Beast, 14 April 2019), https://www.thedailybeast.com/why-did-judas-really-betray-jesus
- Wilma Lee Cooper, AKA Wilma Lee Leary (1921-2011), was an American bluegrass-country music entertainer. After her husband’s death in 1977, she was a solo star on the Grand Ole Opry. She suffered a stroke in 2001 while performing on stage, which ended her career.
“Wilma Lee Cooper”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 9 February 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilma_Lee_Cooper
- Written about 1950 by Odell (Mac) McLeod (1916-2003), songwriter-singer-entertainer, although some sources inaccurately attribute the song to Hank Williams Sr.
“Odell McLeod”, (Wikipedia, Wikipedia Foundation Inc., 4 March 2020), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odell_McLeod
- “Thirty Pieces of Silver”, Artist: Wilma Lee Cooper; Album (VHS/DVD): Country’s Family Reunion 2, Volume 3; from television series by Gabriel Communications; uploaded 27 December 2015 – VIDEO: https://youtu.be/axe_Oj-mLLc
- Brakke, David (translated by), The Gospel of Judas, (Ohio State University, NAPS Annual Meeting address, 24 page monograph, May 2014), https://classics.osu.edu/sites/classics.osu.edu/files/Brakke%20Documents.pdf
- “Judas Iscariot–Friend or Betrayer”, (The Cenacle, retrieved 2 April 2020), https://thecenacle.weebly.com/judas-iscariot.html
- “Gospel of Judas”, (Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 24 March 2020), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Gospel-of-Judas
- Hansen, Collin, “The Judas We Never Knew”, (Christianity Today, 6 April 2006), https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/aprilweb-only/114-43.0.html
- Pearson, Birger A., “Judas Iscariot Among the Gnostics”, (Biblical Archaeology Review, Biblical Archaeology Society), May/June 2008, vol. 34, no. 3, p. 52.
- Hermann, Ray, “What do you mean, Christ died for our sins?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 31 December 2017), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/what-do-you-mean-christ-died-for-our-sins/