In our last four posts we’ve looked at Judas Iscariot in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke as well as in the book of Acts. In Mark, we aren’t told why he betrays Jesus only that he does. In Matthew, we are told that Judas does it for money. In Luke, we are told he does it because he has been possessed by Satan. And in Acts, we saw that he died in the field he purchased with the money he earned for betraying Jesus. Today we will look at Judas Iscariot through the lens of the Gospel of John.
JUDAS ISCARIOT IN THE GOSPEL OF JOHN
The Gospel of John is unlike any of the other Gospels we have in the New Testament. It has no birth narrative like Matthew and Luke have and it lacks a baptism narrative like the ones we read in each of the Synoptic Gospels. John’s Gospel begins with the uncreated, preexistent divine logos that in the course of history “became flesh” (1:1, 14). As we see, Jesus is that logos and he has come to bring “grace and truth” (1:17) and to make the invisible God known (1:18).
John’s Gospel lacks a list of all the disciples like the one we saw in Mark 3:16-19. Over the course of the narrative we are slowly introduced to each of the disciples beginning with John 1:35-42. The first time we come across the name of Judas Iscariot it is following Jesus’ teaching that he is “the bread of life” and that by eating his flesh and drinking his blood his followers would have eternal life (John 6:35-59). Some of the disciples had a hard time grasping this concept and Jesus notes that among them were some who did not believe (6:64). John tells us, “For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him” (6:65). But who would betray him?
The answer comes in 6:66-71. Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” to which Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:67-69). Jesus’ response to this unique affirmation of Jesus’ identity is two-fold. First, Jesus states that it was he who chose the Twelve, not they who chose him. This reinforces the idea in 6:65 that no one comes to Jesus unless the Father allows it. Second, Jesus tells the disciples that one of them “is a devil.” A devil? What does Jesus mean? John tells us: “He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him” (6:71).
This is the first time we see Judas’ father named. In each of the Synoptics he is only referred to as “Judas Iscariot.” Jesus also refers to him as “a devil” (diabolos), a word that only appears two other times in John’s Gospel (see John 8:44 and 13:2). So the narrator through the words of Jesus makes it known that what Judas is going to do is the work of demonic forces. This is similar to how the Gospel of Luke presented Judas’ betrayal.
Judas the Thief
The next time we read Judas’ name it is “six days before the Passover” when Jesus and the disciples travel to Bethany to the home of Lazarus (12:1). Mary, one of Lazarus’ sisters, takes some costly perfume and uses it to anoint Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair (12:3). As the fragrance wafts throughout the home, Judas asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (12:5) Lest we think that Judas is looking out for the poor, the author of John’s Gospel offers us this aside: “He said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (12:6). So now we see Judas is portrayed as a thief.
This story in John finds parallels in the other Gospels as well. But whereas the action occurs in the house of either Simon the leper (Mark 14:3; Matthew 26:6) or Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36), here it takes place in the home of Lazarus the resurrected. In the Markan version, once Jesus is anointed “some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was this ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor'” (Mark 14:4-5). Matthew follows suit though he changes some of the wording: “But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor'” (Matthew 26:8-9). In the Gospel of Luke, the indignation comes not over the use of precious ointment but from the fact that a sinner was touching Jesus. And it came not from the disciples (implied by Mark and explicit in Matthew) but from the Pharisee who was hosting Jesus at his home: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).
So in Mark and Matthew, the indignation comes from the disciples and it is over the waste of valuable ointment. In Luke, the indignation comes from the Pharisee hosting Jesus and it is over the fact that a sinful woman was anointing Jesus. John’s Gospel reflects the tradition found in Mark but instead of the indignation coming from a group of disciples it comes from only one: the traitorous Judas whose habit it was to steal from the “common purse.” And Jesus rebukes only him: “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” (12:7-8).
Lord, Who Is It?
The Johannine telling of the Last Supper is unique in that there is no telling of the Last Supper. The Synoptics all have it but John has inserted a story about foot-washing instead (13:1-20). Following that scene, Jesus tells the disciples, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me” (13:21). The disciples look to one another, wondering about whom he is speaking. Peter pipes up – “Lord, who is it?” (13:25) Jesus responds, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” He then hands the dipped bread to Judas (13:26) who, upon receiving it, is possessed by Satan and is told by Jesus, “Do quickly what you are going to do” (13:27). The disciples that Jesus was telling Judas to purchase supplies for the festival or to donate to the poor (13:29). Judas then immediately leaves them (13:30).
There are so many interesting things to note about the Johannine version in comparison with the Synoptics. Three things in particular stand out.
First, of the Synoptics it is only in the Gospel of Matthew that is it clear that Jesus is pointing the finger at Judas (Matthew 26:25). The other two leave it open from the perspective of the disciples. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that the one who would betray him is the one to whom he would hand a dipped piece of bread. He then hands it to Judas, making it clear to all that he was the one to betray Jesus.
Second, whereas in Luke’s Gospel Satan enters Judas before he leaves to set up Jesus’ betrayal with the religious authorities (Luke 22:3) making the betrayal of Jesus a demonic scheme, in John’s Gospel the possession only happens after Jesus shares bread with Judas. We aren’t even told if Judas went to the chief priests ahead of time. Nevertheless, the effect is the same in John: Jesus’ betrayal by Judas is the result of demonic scheming.
Third, whereas in the Synoptic Gospels we are not told when Judas leaves the group to gather the religious authorities and the guards to arrest Jesus, in John’s Gospel it is explicitly stated that Judas left immediately after receiving the piece of bread (13:30).
Following Judas’ departure from the group, Jesus begins a series of teachings about himself. He is the way to the Father (14:6) and he is the “true vine” (15:1). He also foretells Peter’s denial (13:36-38) and in 17:1-26 he prays for the disciples. Then he takes the disciples and he goes to a garden with them (18:1). Though this parallels what we read in the Synoptics, we aren’t made aware of Jesus praying alone or that the disciples fall asleep. Instead, right away Judas enters the scene and with him “a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees” (18:3). What unfolds is a fascinating theological portrait from the Johannine writer and is unlike anything in the Synoptics.
First, Jesus knows ahead of time what Judas and the soldiers are there to do (18:4) since he is, after all, the divine Word (see John 1:1). But he asks them anyway, “Whom are you looking for?” to which they answer, “Jesus of Nazareth” (18:4-5). Now, Judas would have recognized Jesus immediately. He had spent the last few years with him so why they need to say “Jesus of Nazareth” instead of “You!” is interesting. But this is the Johannine author painting his portrait of Jesus so we won’t begrudge him his narrative.
Second, Jesus replies with, “I am he” (18:5) and as soon as he says it the text tells us that “they stepped back and fell to the ground” (18:6). Why would this be their response? Well, without getting into all the details, John’s Jesus is divine and the NRSV’s translation of “I am he” is actually just “I am” in Greek, an overt reference to the divine name. Thus, at the sound of the divine name they fall back.
Third, after Jesus again asks for whom they are searching and both they and he respond as they had before (18:7-8) Peter then draws his sword and slices off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (18:10). Each of the Synoptic feature this story and in Luke Jesus restores the slave’s ear (Luke 22:51). But in none of them are we told that it is the right ear of the slave nor are we told that the slave’s name was Malchus.
Finally, nowhere does Judas refer to Jesus as “Rabbi” and nowhere does he betray Jesus with a kiss to signify that he was the one that the authorities were to arrest. Instead, in John’s version of things Jesus identifies himself to the authorities.
The Fate of Judas
Nowhere in the entirety of the Gospel of John are we told what happens to Judas after his betrayal of Jesus. John 18:5 is the last time we read Judas’ name and he never appears again. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts gave us two differing accounts of Judas’ post-betrayal death. But John doesn’t. Either he was not aware of any tradition of Judas’ death or he simply wasn’t interested in it (or both). In any event, Judas’ role in the story ends and the rest, as they say, is history (or, at least, historical fiction).
In our final post of this series we will summarize the Gospels’ portraits of Judas to see how it developed.