|Judas Iscariot. Gabriel von Max. Prague National Gallery|
You may recall that the character of Judas makes his appearance in the stories about Jesus in the Bible but only seems to play any significant part towards the end of the tale, when his role suddenly become absolutely critical to the plot, only to be maligned and vilified for playing his allotted role later on. Although, as we shall see, this maligning of Judas seems to be a much later addition to the story, added moreover by someone who hadn't been following the plot too closely. Not only that but the later addition seems to have become muddled too.
To recap: the story goes that a god has gotten itself into such a state about a couple of people scrumping its apples that the only way it could think of to forgive their very remote descendants (work with me on this one!) was to manifest itself as a man so it could be sacrificed to itself in a ritual involving a blood sacrifice. Somehow (we are never told how) the god would so impress itself by this self-sacrifice that it would forgive everyone. Look! I didn't make this up! I'm just outlining the plot. Okay!
Now, this all hinged on the authorities who could actually allow the sacrifice being given a reason to carry it out and - and this is where Judas comes in - being sure they had the right person. Apparently it would have been all too easy to get the wrong person what with this god being indistinguishable from a human being and all, so Judas is unwittingly picked to be the one to point him out to the authorities.
So, the entire success or failure of the plan hinged on Judas and Judas saved mankind by playing his allotted role to perfection, pointing out Jesus so the authorities had the right person. Apparently, although omniscient, this god was incapable of identifying itself to the authorities or of putting the necessary knowledge into the arresting soldiers' minds so they could pick it out themselves.
So, are we grateful to Judas for being, by all accounts, the only one on message and ensuring mankind got saved? Not a bit of it. The person who ensured the success of the plan gets vilified and, if the accounts are correct, even the god who must have been aware of his pivotal role in the whole scheme, never steps forward to defend him. Instead it simply lets him become one of the most vilified people in all folklore and the archetypal traitor prepared to sell his principles for a small sum of money.
But now things start to get a little strange, because whoever began this campaign of vilification didn't make a good job of it and we've ended up with a typical Bible muddle of two irreconcilable stories, at least one of which must be wrong.
First Matthew's version:
When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.
So, Judas regrets what he's done, confesses and asks for forgiveness - not that that means much apparently - gives the money back and tops himself. The priests then use the money to buy a plot of land to bury strangers in and it gets called the Field of Blood because it was bought with blood money.
(Incidentally, note that 'unto this day' phrase. Would that be used by an eyewitness writing soon after the events described? Of course not. This is a tale being written down many years later - and we'll see why in a moment.)
When we get to Luke's account however, something really strange has entered the tale:
Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.
And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.
Curious indeed! Satan is now helping to ensure God's plan to save mankind works! Why would Satan do that? Someone has lost the plot completely here. The point of the story has been abandoned; the objective now is to blacken Judas's name at all costs.
Neither John nor Luke, like Mark before them, have anything more to say about Judas. Judas is a traitor and that's enough. John bends over backwards, almost obsessively, to refer to Judas's treachery every time he mentions his name but we learn nothing more of his fate.
It's not till we get to Acts that we learn more. Apparently, the author of Acts had a source outside the 'testimonies' of the four Apostles. Bear in mind what Matthew told us above.
And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty,) Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry.
Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.
So, did you stop the difference? In this version, Judas buys the field, not the chief priests. There is no repentance; no returning the money and no meeting of the chief priests to decide what to do with it. And Judas doesn't hang himself but falls headlong and 'bursts asunder' and his bowels gush out. The field is now called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilt on it, not because the priests bought it with blood money. In fact, the only things in common between these two tales is the the name of Judas, where the money came from and the name of the field.
Both these stories can't possibly be right. Either Judas or the priests bought the field, not both. Either Judas returned the money or he bought a field with it, not both. Either Judas hanged himself or he fell headlong and burst asunder, not both. And either the field is called the Field of Blood because of Judas's blood spilled on it or because it was bought with blood money by the priests, not both.
By now readers of this blog will be familiar with the irreconcilable differences to be found in the Bible, so that's not really the point of this blog. There can be no doubt that at least one of the stories was made up, even if we allow that the other is correct. There is, of course, like so much of the Bible, no external corroboration of any of this so no basis by which we can determine which is the correct version, if any.
The interesting thing here is why these stories about Judas were made up. Instead of being the hero of the tale, as logic should dictate, having ensured the Passover Plan worked, Judas is the worst of all men who sold the saviour of mankind for a handful of money. Only Matthew seems to show a modicum of pity on Judas and at least has him confessing his sin and asking for forgiveness.
Another clue about what's going on here as the stories in the Bible developed is a line from Paul which normally passes completely unnoticed:
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve:
The twelve, of course, being the twelve disciples. When Paul, or whoever was writing to the Corinthians purporting to be Paul, wrote that, there were still twelve disciples for Jesus to appear to. No one had yet written Judas out of the story. He hadn't been accorded the credit to which he might have felt entitled, but he hadn't been dropped from the gang even though his alleged betrayal had been in full view of the others. The standard excuse that the other disciples had chosen a replacement can be dismissed by the quote from Acts above, which specifically relates how they replaced Judas after Jesus had allegedly departed for Heaven. Again, if they had replaced Judas, Acts is lying.
You might think that from the beginning, Christianity was always basically one thing: a religion descended from Jesus, as interpreted by Paul, leading to the church of the Middle Ages on down to the present. But things were not at all that simple. About a hundred fifty years after Jesus’ death we find a wide range of different Christian groups claiming to represent the views of Jesus and his disciples but having completely divergent perspectives, far more divergent than anything even that made it into the New Testament.What we are seeing here is an echo of the tensions and struggles between the various early messianic sects that seem to have sprung up some time after the supposed death of Jesus as they battled for control and membership. It would appear that Judas was an early leader of one of the losing sects and one which seems even to have had its own 'gospel' or statement of faith together with tales of the legendary Jesus. Judas is cast in the role of traitor for no other reason than to discredit a rival sect and slander its leader. What happened to him after the betrayal is of no real importance; the important thing to get established in people's minds is the betrayal. The differences show that Matthew's sect was a little more kindly disposed to Judas while John is dripping with loathing and positively relishes a gruesome, almost supernatural death.
Ehrman, Bart D. (2009-02-20). Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible
(And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 191).
Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
(And Why We Don't Know About Them) (p. 191).
Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
This was a time of undoubted culture shock for the Jews of Palestine. From having been "God's chosen people", they had become hellenized subjects of the Eastern Roman Empire with their kings chosen for them and answerable to Roman governors. As Bart D Ehrman points out, a large number of Jews had become effectively A-Yahwehist and a new god had been created in it's place, considerably more Greco-Roman than the old irascible, capriciously violent and angry god of the Old Testament. The struggle was on for control of this new religion.
And so we end up with the logical absurdity of Judas being both the logical hero of the plot and the one who ensured God's plan came to fruition, and the villain of the piece, for exactly the same reason. Clearly, sectarian rivalries, and the power of rival priesthoods assumed an importance over and above even the central event of their emerging mythology. Such is the nature of human pride and megalomania which sees these things merely in terms of their utility value to their ambitions.