Was Judas Really Such a Bad Guy? July 29, 2009

Was Judas Really Such a Bad Guy?

Here’s the coolest article about Judas Iscariot I’ve read all week. It’s by Joan Acocella of the New Yorker:

… If Jesus informs you that you will betray him, and tells you to hurry up and do it, are you really responsible for your act? Furthermore, if your act sets in motion the process — Christ’s Passion — whereby humankind is saved, shouldn’t somebody thank you? No, the Church says. If you betray your friend, you are a sinner, no matter how foreordained or collaterally beneficial your sin. And, if the friend should happen to be the Son of God, so much the worse for you.


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  • bill

    if your supposed betrayal likely never happened, but is merely part of a fictional tale, are you really responsible for your act?

    actually when i was young and catholic (before i reached the age of reason), i often thought of judas in this way after hearing my theology teacher freshman year of high school present this perspective. most christians view judas negatively, but by some accounts judas was supposedly one of jesus’ closest friends and jesus may have actually asked judas to turn him in, or something along those lines. not that it matters, and judas could very easily be a completely fictional character, but hey give the guy a break. i’m sure handing over one of your best friends, your leader and supposed savior, was troubling enough…

  • Max

    Well he did kill him self afterwards so he was really sorry, but I suppose the church would view that as another sin.

  • TheThinkingTheist

    Well he did kill him self afterwards so he was really sorry…

    That’s according to one source about Judas, namely Matt. 27:5, but according to the author of the Gospel According to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, he died differently.

    “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. Acts 1:16-18

    A note in the NRSV mentions that “falling head long” is read also as “swelling up.”

    So did he hang himself or did he swell up and pop? Did the priests buy the field or did Judas buy the field? Once again, the sources don’t agree.

    As Acocella justly writes, “the answer is not to fix the Bible but to fix ourselves.”

  • Joseph Campbell maintained that Judas got a really bad rap. After all, he was chosen by Jesus himself to deliver the Lamb of God up for sacrifice to save all of humanity. What greater honor could there be? The Gospel of Judas makes him the hero that Campbell thought he always should have been.

    I’ll have to go check out the Joan Acocella article now.

  • flawedprefect

    Possibly an apocryphal account that the gospel of Judas existed; I did hear it was one of the gospels not included in the final edit of the bible (rumors there were even gospels by Mary Magdalene and Jesus himself, but hey – their rumors)
    Damn, wouldn’t that be a read, eh?

  • chancelikely

    Two parallels I saw immediately:

    1. Snape and Dumbledore.

    2. If Judas was punished by God/Jesus for something Jesus asked him to do, that’s entrapment. (I realize that there are a lot of problems with using a legal model for the behaviour of God and Jesus, not least of which is the conflict of interest when the judge and the plaintiff are the same party or at least father and son, depending on your theology. But hey, God the Judge is one metaphor that gets hammered pretty hard in Christian apologetic circles, so why not.)

  • Crikey, I was just about to mention Snape and Dumbledore!

    You beat me to it, chancelikely, you beat me to it.

    Of course, I don’t blame the other people for scapegoating Judas. I always thought Snape was really on Voldemort’s side, and you can imagine how embarrassed I was when I found out that he was actually following Dumbledore’s orders. So yeah, I sympathize there.

  • medussa

    chancelikely and teleprompter, you both beat me to it!

  • Dan W

    chancelikely, teleprompter, and medussa all beat me to it. From the Gospel of Judas, it seems Judas is like Snape and Jesus is like Dumbledore.

  • ChameleonDave

    The incredible thing about discussions of Judas is that they revolve around the idea that Jesus knew Judas would betray him, and the question of whether this mitigates this heinous crime.

    It’s the wrong question. Instead ask ‘did Judas do the right thing?’.

    People assume that he did it for the money. It is very clear in Mark, chapter 12, that this is not the case:

    3: And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as [Jesus] sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
    4: And there were some [disciples] that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?
    5: For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.

    [Jesus then offers an unconvincing justification for his acceptance of this luxury, which flies in the face of his calls for poverty, charity and modesty.]
    10: And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.

    In other words, Judas realised that Jesus was a false prophet and false messiah, who was becoming corrupt just as he accused the priests in the temple of being. So, he turned him in. He is best described as a whistle-blower, not a traitor. He did the right thing. His reward from the authorities was well-deserved.

    I’m not even having to turn to outside scholarship for this. Even the words of the Bible itself make this clear, if you read them without Christian goggles on.

  • Autumnal Harvest

    ChameleonDave, if you accept the authority of the Bible, Judas only complained about the money because he wanted to steal it:

    But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:4-6, NIV)

  • I had this discussion a couple of weeks ago with a Christian. Judas’ actions seem to be pre-ordained and necessary as long as you assume that the cruci-fiction was necessary. As such he should be applauded rather than vilified.

    His response was that Jesus could have arranged his sacrifice without the need for a betrayal. He missed the point that a traitor makes for a more compelling story. It’s the ancient version of a car chase. He also missed the suggestion that perhaps Judas’ was set up as a traitor to serve as a warning to others. The bible is full of examples were God “hardened the heart” of one person or another in order to make the story better… I mean accomplish his divine goals.

  • Christophe Thill

    I love Borges short story (it is a story disguised as an essay) “Two versions of Judas”. It’s about a theologian arguing that God decided to incarnate because he wanted to feel the lowest aspects of human condition. Therefore, he couldn’t be the tall, handsome and charismatic guy. He had to be the short, ugly, hard to like one. And moreover, he had to commit the most despicable crime: leading someone who loves you (more than you deserves) to capture, humiliation, torture and death.

    So the real son of God was actually Judas.

    Borges adds that believers considered this blasphemy, while for atheists it was just empty mind games…

  • I love Borges short story

    Perhaps a new JW denomination should be started. But this time JW stands for “Judas’s Witnesses”. I would actually get a chuckle of seeing them go door to door and argue their case.

  • I would reccomend that anyone and everyone see the play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” Our local community college put it on a few months ago, and if believers can handle having their beliefs questioned and some foul language, then it is all the better.

    I went with a little group of non-believers (they don’t all use the naughty “A-word” :P), and we all had an amazing time. Very entertaining and thought provoking.

  • Jason R

    Judas, should be one of the most revered people in the bible. Without his self sacrifice, the bible would be without worth.

  • TheThinkingTheist

    Autumnal Harvest,

    That’s just John’s “improvement” on the story of Mark.

    The four canonical Gospels are obviously biased (really any human account of an event is biased) to suit the theological “needs” of the early Christian community to whom they were addressed.

    John was written around the end of the 1st century CE, about the same time that Jewish-Christians were being thrown out of Jewish synagogues. So no wonder “John” vilified the Jews and made them the initial enemy of the “founder” of their faith, who ironically, was Jewish himself.

    It could also be read as John’s further indictment of Judas the typical money-hungry Jew but, I may be reading into that too much.

  • DroolinDalton

    The Judas Iscariot story is a composed fairy-tale by people with very bad taste and minds. Note the similarity in the words Juda and Judas. Judas is the traitor, in other words, the Judeans, Jews are guilty of betraying Jesus. Furthermore Iscariot is a bastard form of Sicariot (murderer).
    Note also that in the gospels the romans are the good guys and the jews the bad ones. This is a complete falsification of first century reality in Israel. The effects of blaming the jews for the death of Jesus, who most people seem to forget was himself a Jew, were always visible through history; The Spanish inquisotion, Russian Pogroms, Adolf Hitler and the recent wave of Jew-hate.

  • Alexander

    I easy can rewrite this, You got a man chosen to guide the lamb to the sacrifice, and this all was fine in all the stories of sacrifice in the Bible, your own son thing and all that. So imagine the real traitor is Peter who that day repeatedly denied that he knew Jesus, he dont understand, the meaning of sacrifice? So he go and kill Judas thinking he was Jesus avenger, to make the murder bigger the “serpent” give him, the same weapon Cain use, those CSI from the bible never got clear what was the murder weapon so more mistery, and then , they all abandoned Jesus as the crucifixion approached, and fled back to safety in Galilee. If the old bible translators got in this mode wild things can happen…