This is the final post in our brief series on Judas Iscariot. We’ve looked at Judas from the vantage point of each of the Gospels as well as the book of Acts. What have we learned? Here are a few things.
Setting Up the Betrayal
We have four Gospels but only three versions of Judas’ conferring with the religious authorities to betray Jesus. John’s Gospel doesn’t mention it at all.
In the Markan version (Mark 14:10-11) Judas goes to the religious authorities “in order to betray him to them.” This pleases them as they had been searching for a way to kill Jesus for some time (see Mark 14:1-2). They promise Judas payment and Judas then begins looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. Of note is that we are not given any motive for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus.
The Matthean Judas (Matthew 26:14-16) does have a motive. We are told that Judas goes to the religious authorities and asks them, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They pay Judas thirty pieces of silver and he then begins to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus. So the motivation supplied by the Matthean author is greed.
In the Lukan version of events (Luke 22:3-6), Judas is not motivated by greed. Instead, we are told that the religious authorities had been searching for a way to kill Jesus (Luke 22:2) and in the very next verse we are informed that Judas has been possessed by the devil himself: “Then Satan entered Judas.” So Judas’ motivation is not greed but instead the betrayal of Jesus is couched in terms of demon-possession, calling to mind Jesus’ previous encounter with the devil after which the nefarious demon left Jesus “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Now the Satan-possessed Judas begins “to look for an opportunity to betray him to them.”
So the original Markan portrait of Judas leaves the reader not knowing exactly why he betrays Jesus. The Matthean portrait of Judas makes Judas out to be a greedy traitor. The Lukan portrait makes Judas out to be demon-possessed and therefore acting under the control of the powers of darkness.
The Passover Meal
Each of the four Gospels have a scene wherein Jesus reveals in some form or fashion that he will be betrayed by someone in their midst. In the Synoptic Gospels it comes during the Passover meal that he shares with the disciples while in John’s Gospel it happens during an unspecified meal after he had ceremonially washed the disciples’ feet.
Mark’s Gospel reports (Mark 14:12-21) that while Jesus and the Twelve were eating the Passover meal Jesus interrupts to tell them that one of them would soon betray them – “one who is eating with” him. This causes distress among the disciples and they begin saying to Jesus, “Surely, not I?” Jesus reiterates that it would be one of the Twelve who was eating with him – “one who is dipping bread into the bowl with” him. He then tells them that while what is to happen to him has been laid out by ancient scripture, nevertheless for the one who betrays Jesus there is a “woe” and the warning that for the betrayer “it would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Following this, the Markan author details the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:22-25).
The Matthean version (Matthew 26:20-25) follows Mark’s closely. While Jesus and the Twelve were eating the Passover meal, Jesus interrupts them to tell them that one of them would soon betray him. This causes distress among the disciples and they begin saying to Jesus, “Surely, not I, Lord?” Jesus informs them that it would be “the one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with” him. He then tells them that while what is to happen to him has been laid out by ancient scripture, nevertheless for the one who betrays Jesus there is a woe and the warning that for the betrayer “it would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Then Judas the betrayer says to Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” to which Jesus replies, “You have said so.” Following this, the Matthean author details the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-30).
In the Lukan version (Luke 22:14-23) the Passover meal and the institution of the Lord’s Supper are merged into one narrative. After Jesus has instituted the Lord’s Supper, he then informs the Twelve that one among them would betray him “and his hand is on the table.” He tells them that while what is to happen to him has already been “determined,” nevertheless for the one who betrays Jesus there is a woe. The Lukan version ends with the disciples question amongst themselves who it was who would betray Jesus.
The Johannine version (John 13:21-30) is something entirely different. There is no institution of the Lord’s Supper. Rather, Jesus ceremonially washes the disciples feet (John 13:1-20) and then he becomes “troubled in spirit” and tells them, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples begin looking to one another and wondering who it could be that would betray Jesus. Simon Peter even asks Jesus directly, “Lord, who is it?” to which Jesus replies, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Jesus then dips a piece of bread and hands it to Judas. Then the Johannine author tells us that “after he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into” Judas. Jesus directs Judas saying, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Judas then departs.
So in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus reveals that one of the Twelve would betray him, prompting them to ask him, “Surely, not I.” Though the reader knows that Judas is the betrayer, the Twelve are clueless. In the Matthean version, Jesus reveals that one of the Twelve would betray him, prompting them to ask him, “Sure not I, Lord?” Judas, on the other hand, asks Jesus, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” The contrast is intentional as the word “rabbi” has negative connotations in the Gospel of Matthew (see Matthew 23:7-8). The Lukan version is more like the Markan in that Judas does not have an overt role in the story but it differs in that the revelation of the betrayal occurs after the institution of the Lord’s Supper rather than before. Finally, in the Johannine version Judas is singled out directly by the reception of the piece of bread from Jesus. We are also told explicitly that Judas leaves the group to go to the religious authorities. None of the Synoptics tell us when Judas leaves.
The Scene of the Crime
Each of the four Gospels have a scene where Jesus is confronted by Judas and then arrested by the religious authorities. But they all have differing details, some of which are very interesting.
In the Markan narrative (Mark 14:32-50), Jesus and his disciples have gone to Gethsemane to pray. He asks Peter, James, and John to remain behind while he goes further in and tells them to stay awake. He finds them asleep three times and after the third time he tells them, “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” As he speaks, Judas approaches with an armed crowd from the religious authorities. Judas greets Jesus with the title “Rabbi” and then kisses him, the sign to the armed crowd that this was the one to be arrested. Jesus is then taken into custody.
The Matthean narrative (Matthew 26:36-56) follows the Markan generally. Jesus and his disciples go to Gethsemane to pray. He asks Peter and “the two sons of Zebedee” to remain behind while he goes further in and tells them to stay awake. He finds them asleep three times and after the third time he tells them, “Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.” As he speaks, Judas approaches with an armed crowd from the religious authorities. Judas then says to Jesus, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kisses him, the sign to the armed crowd that this was the one to be arrested. Jesus then says to Judas, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Jesus is then taken into custody.
The Lukan narrative (Luke 22:39-53) is similar to the Markan from which it was derived but has some interesting differences. Jesus and his disciples go to the Mount of Olives (Gethsemane was at the base of the Mount of Olives) and there he prays. After he finishes his prayer, he returns to the disciples and finds them asleep. He tells them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” As he speaks, Judas approaches with an armed crowd from the religious authorities. Judas intends to kiss Jesus but he is prevented by him with the words, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” Then Jesus is taken into custody.
In the Johannine version (John 18:1-12), the prayer scene is omitted entirely. Jesus and the disciples go “across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden.” Upon entering the garden, Judas approaches along with soldiers and police from the religious authorities. Jesus asks them for whom they are searching and they reply with “Jesus of Nazareth.” He tells them, “I am he,” causing them to stumble back and fall upon the ground. He asks them again and they tell him that they are searching for “Jesus of Nazareth” to which he replies, “I have told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” Jesus is then taken into custody.
So Mark and Matthew share the most similarities. In both, Judas approaches Jesus and greets him with either “Rabbi!” or “Greetings, Rabbi!” In the Markan narrative, referring to Jesus as a “rabbi” is no big deal but in Matthew’s Gospel it is frowned upon and so Matthew emphasizes that Judas is truly against Jesus. The Lukan narrative lacks the kiss itself for reasons we discussed in part 3 of this series. The Gospel of John doesn’t even bother with a kiss and the story is used to emphasize Jesus’ divinity.
The Demise of Judas
Neither Mark’s Gospel, Luke’s Gospel, or John’s Gospel tell us what happens to Judas following the arrest of Jesus. Only the Gospel of Matthew and the book of Acts (written by the same individual who wrote the Gospel of Luke) offer us details about Judas’ fate and they do not agree with one another. For more, see parts 2 and 4 of this series.
The Evolving Judas
As we have seen in this series, Judas is Jesus’ foil and he is consistently portrayed as the one who betrays Jesus. But whereas in Mark it isn’t clear why he does it, in the other Gospels we see his character develop more. In Matthew, he is greedy. In Luke, he is possessed by Satan. And in John, he is a greedy thief and he is possessed by Satan. As for the death of Judas, the two authors who detail his demise differ on the circumstances behind it. In Matthew Judas kills himself over feelings of regret for betraying Jesus. In the book of Acts he dies seemingly accidentally though we should read that behind it all is divine retribution at work.
It should come as no surprise that each of the Gospel writers portray Judas with such similarities and differences. Clearly there must have been a core tradition that Jesus was betrayed by someone on the inside and it very well could have been Judas Iscariot. But the Gospel writers weren’t reporting history as we understand it. Instead, they were painting pictures and for each of them Judas fulfills a different purpose. In the Markan narrative Judas plays the simple role of betrayer but in Luke he is demon-possessed. In Matthew’s Gospel he is a greedy man who ends up regretting what he did to Jesus but in the book of Acts Judas shows no remorse and dies in the very field he purchased with his ill-gotten money. And in John, Judas is a greedy thief who doesn’t plan ahead of time to turn Jesus over but is instead possessed by Satan not long before he actually betrays him.
Judas Iscariot. The one who betrayed him.
Featured image: By James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2007, 00.159.216_PS2.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10957540.