Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Was Judas actually Christ's accomplice?

Or was Judas truly a traitor to Jesus after all?

One of the most deeply-rooted traditions in Christian faith is that one of Jesus' disciples, Judas Iscariot, cruelly betrayed Jesus in Jerusalem, guiding Temple soldiers to Jesus and identifying Jesus to them. Jesus was immediately seized and taken away. He was shortly condemned by both the Jewish Sanhedrin and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Not long ago a documentary on the Discovery Channel examined the last week of Jesus' life. One scholar posed the idea that Judas did not betray Jesus, but was Jesus' accomplice in carrying out a course of action that went bad in ways Judas did not foresee, but Jesus did.

I don't recall the scholar's name, but his position was based almost exclusively on word studies of the Greek texts of the Gospel's accounts of the events, especially the word translated "betray," which is translated elsewhere as hand over or deliver up - about which more in a moment.

The idea that Judas was traitor has very ample evidence, not least of which is the testimony of the Gospels themselves. Luke identifies Judas as a traitor early:

Luke 6:16: Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. [There were two disciples named Judas. The infamous Judas was termed "Iscariot." This term refers to his hometown of Kerioth, in southern Judah. Hence, Judas was the only one of the Twelve who was not a Galilean.]

John's Gospel also identifies Judas as a traitor:

John 18:5: "Jesus of Nazareth," they replied. "I am he," Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)

There are other such specific attestations as well. (The Greek used for "traitor" is prodotes, which has no other connotation.)

"Traitor" is not the only pejorative term used about Judas in the Gospels. He is also called a "thief" in John 12:6; as the "keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it."

So an attempt to paint Judas in more favorable terms has very strong scriptural obstacles to overcome, to say the least. There are, however, some questions that intrigue:

How did Jesus know that Judas would betray him? None of the other disciples knew. Like the other Gospels, John 13 relates that Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal on his last evening as a free man. After an instructional discourse to them, Jesus informed them, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me" (v. 21). Jesus identified the traitor as one who with whom he would share bread, then handed bread to Judas.

As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. "What you are about to do, do quickly," Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him.

Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor [v.27-29].

How did Jesus know he would be betrayed in the first place, and that Judas would be the traitor? The Gospels give no clue.

The Greek word used for betrayal, paradidomi, does not mean only a traitorous action. It can also be translated, according to Strong's Greek Dictionary (a standard reference) as "to surrender, yield up, entrust or transmit," without necessarily implying underhandedness. My Liddell and Scott Greek-English Lexicon indicates the word is multivalent (as are so many Greek words) and betrayal is one of several meanings the word implies. Context is everything.

The King James version translates paradidomi as "deliver up" in other parts of the Gospels. The modern NIV translates it in other uses as "hand over." In Mark 10:33, Jesus foretells that the Jewish authorities will "hand him over" to the Romans, and the word used there is paradidomi, the same word translated as "betrayal" when referring to Judas' deeds.

The ambiguity of the word at least leaves open the possibility that Judas' actions were not actually traitorous. In fact, the NIV translates paradidomi as "hand over" in Matt 26:15-16. Judas went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty silver coins. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over."

(According to some historians, the money Judas was paid was standard bounty money paid to good citizens who identified wrong-doers.)

After Judas left the Upper Room, Jesus completed the Last Supper. Then he and his disciples went to the Mount of Olives, outside the city. Matthew and Mark say they went to there and then to "a place called Gethsemane," where he was arrested. Luke says he was arrested at the Mount of Olives and does not mention Gethsemane. John merely says they went to an olive grove across the Kidron Valley from the city. (The Gospels never refer to a place called the Garden of Gethsemane.) John confirms, though, that the place was known to Judas "because Jesus had often met there with his disciples" (John 18:2).

After a period of prayer and speaking to his disciples, Judas arrived with soldiers from the Temple, sometimes called Temple police because they were more a constabulary than a fighting force. (The synoptic Gospels say it was "a crowd" armed with clubs and such. John is probably more accurate.) Judas identified Jesus to them, and they apprehended him.

Events then proceeded apace. After a tempestuous confrontation with the Jewish High Priest, Caiaphas, and the high Jewish council (the Sanhredrin), Jesus was convicted of the religious crime of blasphemy for claiming messianic identity. This crime was one for which the Jewish law required death, but the Sanhedrin did not have authority from the Romans to adjudge a capital the sentence. And they knew that Pilate didn't much care about what religious offenses Jews committed. So they persuaded Pilate that Jesus was actually attempting insurrection against Rome. For that, Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified, a standard punishment for insurrection against Roman rule. The sentence was carried out.

Judas attempted to return the silver coins to the chief priests, then hanged himself. (Acts says, though, that he bought a field with the coins, fell headlong into it and was disemboweled.)

There are the bare facts of what Judas and Jesus had to do with each other the last week of both their lives.

So - did Judas actually turn traitor against Jesus, or did Judas do what he did at Jesus' bidding?

The claim that Judas was a traitor has the substantial weight of text behind it, as I have explained. But it does not answer four key questions:

1. How did Jesus know he would be betrayed, and betrayed by Judas, and why were the other disciples clueless about it?

2. How did Judas know exactly where to lead the Temple police to arrest Jesus?

3. Why didn't Jesus escape away from Jerusalem when he had the chance? The Mount of Olives was the near edge of safety for him, from there he could have easily gotten away across Jordan River, which land John 11 identifies as safe haven for Jesus.

4. Why did Judas try to return the money and why did he commit suicide? Judas was no fool, he surely knew his betrayal would risk Jesus' life and could not have been surprised when Jesus was condemned.

Postulating that Judas has gotten a bad rap and that Judas was actually doing what Jesus wanted answers these questions. So consider some pluses and minuses of the "Judas as accomplice" theory:

A. As the only Judean, Judas was the only choice to be Jesus' messenger or intermediary with the high priests. The people of Jerusalem considered Galileans to be hicks from the sticks - John 7:41 records the incredulity of Judeans that Jesus was a Galilean: "How can the Christ come from Galilee?"
Advantage: accomplice.

B. Passover week in Jerusalem was always a tempestuous time. Tempers against the Roman occupiers ran high then, so high in fact that Pilate left the resort city of Caesarea and moved to Jerusalem for the duration, where he could control his forces on scene. Jesus was loved by many of the ordinary people. That would explain why the high priest didn't want to arrest Jesus during the daytime when the crowds could see.

But it does not explain why Jesus would arrange to meet with Caiaphas at night, nor for that matter why he didn't arrange to meet Caiaphas himself, without using Judas. If Jesus wanted to meet Caiaphas all he had to do was walk into the Temple and say hello.
Advantage: betrayal.

C. If Judas was Jesus accomplice, why did Jesus tell the disciples, including Judas, that one of them would betray him? They all understood what he meant. For Jesus to call Judas a betrayer while actually being in collusion with him makes Jesus deceptive.

Not only that, Jesus threatened that it would be better for Judas had he never been born (Mark 14:21).
Advantage: betrayal (a major advantage at that).

D. But Jesus knew what Judas was going to do.
Advantage: accomplice.

E. Jesus went to exactly the place where Judas led the Temple police and did not attempt to evade them.
Advantage: accomplice.

F. If he was working at Jesus' initiative, Judas had no reason to believe that the Jewish high council harbored lethal intent toward Jesus. Thus, when Jesus was condemned, Judas was overcome with grief and remorse at having had a part in delivering up Jesus to that fate. So he killed himself.
Advantage: accomplice.

G. Judas took the silver coins from the high priests because he was avaricious and wanted to be paid for betraying Jesus,
the 30 pieces of silver were "market rate" and a routine matter for the high priests to pay for cooperating with them.
Advantage: neutral.

Outside the Gospels, Judas is mentioned a couple of times in Acts, written by the author of Luke, but that is all. The rest of the New Testament is silent about him. But the Gospels' record is uniformly negative. Clearly, there was an apostolic and early church understanding that Judas was a traitor.
Advantage: betrayal.

The idea that Judas was an accomplice of Jesus rather that his betrayer rests on too thin evidence to be accepted. The verdict of the early witnesses is upheld.

Update: I see I neglected to explain what the reason would be for Jesus to send Judas on a secret mission to have him delivered into the hands of High Priest. According to the ruminations of a couple of scholars on the Discovery Channel, Jesus wanted to force the issue of who he was with the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Judas, being the sole Judean among them, could most easily act as intermediary with the Temple.

By this idea, the notion to see Caiaphas by subterfuge would have to be a very late idea in Jesus' mind. We could say the Jesus had tried to force the issue of confronting the Sanhedrin by his violent cleansing of the moneychangers from the Temple earlier in the week. And according to Matthew 23, Jesus launched into verbal broadside against the Temple class that we bloggers might say was the mother of all fisking of their religious practice and indeed, their very identity. He actually called them sons of Hell, not a move calculated to win their affection.

But these events did not cause the religious authorities to apprehend Jesus, forcing Jesus to arrange his "betrayal" to them by Judas. Judas thus would have been faithful to the end; he committed suicide from shock that his faithfulness had led to Jesus' death.

What this theory fails to explain is why Jesus was so desirous to stand before the High Priest. It could not have been merely to respond affirmatively to Caiaphas' question that he was indeed the "Son of the Most High." Jesus had been declaring his Messianic identity openly for some time; in fact, driving out the moneychangers was a Messianic act. He had personally forgiven sins in front of scribes and Pharisees for a couple of years or so, angering them because they knew that only God can forgive sins.

Nor does it hold up that Jesus expected the High Priest to confirm his Messiahship, for the Gospels are full of Jesus saying that judgment would fall upon "this generation" (meaning his own contemporaries) for not recognizing him.

There is one reason, though, that Jesus could have sent Judas to do what Judas did: Jesus intended to force his own execution. His death, then, was not the result merely of a good disciple gone bad, but the actual objective Jesus had in mind all along. And in fact, the Church has usually been quite comfortable with the idea that Jesus’ death was a cosmic necessity. But with Judas a true traitor, Jesus' death can seem practically accidental - it might not have taken place if Judas had reconsidered and heeded Jesus' warning, for example. And a near-accident is a mighty thin lifeline upon which to hang the redemption of humanity! So this part of the Jesus story is a buttress of the notion that Judas was Jesus' agent rather than his betrayer.

But there is an even stronger argument against the theory: Jesus kicked Judas out of the Upper Room before he instituted the Eucharist. Jesus and the disciples gathered there for a meal (not necessarily the Passover Seder; John says it was not, the other three Gospels say it was). It was only after the meal was done that Jesus took the bread, gave thanks for it, blessed the bread and gave it to his disciples. Likewise, it was after the supper that Jesus took the cup of wine and proclaimed it was the cup of the new covenant.

There is no question that Jesus saw the Eucharist as a defining ritual for his followers. He told them to practice it often and that he would share it with them again at the eschaton. That Jesus dismissed Judas from the room before the sharing of the bread and cup must be considered, I think, as proof that Judas was free-lancing, not secretly abetting Jesus' plans. To use a later religious term, Jesus excommunicated Judas from discipleship, and discipleship identity in Christian faith is practically defined by partaking of the Eucharist.

So, in my mind, the idea that Judas was actually Jesus' ally rather than his betrayer is refuted.

More plausible was the show's examination of just who was most responsible for plotting for Jesus to be executed, about which another post to follow.

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