Reflections on Judas: Part 2, Judas as Other in the Gospels

In Susan Gubar's book Judas: A Biography she makes the observation that, as time went on, Judas became increasingly demonized. In the earliest two gospels--Mark and Matthew--Judas appears to stand in for all the disciples. That is, Judas is just the focal point of the collective betrayal of the Twelve. Judas, thus, is "one of us." However, Gubar goes on to argue that in the two later gospel accounts--Luke and John--more material is devoted to Judas and these accounts become explicitly diabolical. Across the four gospels, read in chronological order, we see Judas evolve in the consciousness of the church. Judas moves from being "one of us" to "one of them." Over time Judas becomes Other.

Let's make some comparisons so you can evaluate Gubar's claim. Is Judas slowly demonized?

Let's examine the three most critical Judas passages in the gospels:

1. First description of Judas.
2. Judas' reaction to Jesus' anointing.
3. Judas at the Lord's Supper.
Early in the gospels we get lists of the Twelve, those handpicked by Jesus to be in his inner circle. This is the first we hear of Judas, narratively speaking. Compare the initial descriptions:
Mark & Matthew:
Mark 3.19 "...and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."
Matthew 10.4 "...and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."

Luke & John:
Luke 6.16 "...and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor."
John 6.70-71 "Then Jesus replied, 'Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!' (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)"
It does seem that the description of Judas, as he is first introduced to the reader, gets harsher and more diabolical over time.

The second big event in the story of Judas occurs during the days before Jesus celebrates his final Passover with the Twelve. In these accounts a women anoints Jesus with a very expensive perfume. The disciples, or Judas alone, object to this waste. Jesus brushes these criticisms aside and praises the woman for "anointing" him in anticipation of his death. After these exchanges Judas seems prompted to betray Jesus (just why Jesus' waste triggered the betrayal is not clear; was Judas upset that Jesus didn't seem to care about the poor?). Here's a comparison of the gospels regarding these events:
Mark & Matthew:
Mark 14.3-10 (Matthew's account in 26.6-16 is almost identical)
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.

"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

Luke & John:
Luke 22.1-4
Now the Feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was approaching, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people. Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.

John 12.4-6
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.
In these accounts we see a similar pattern to the one noted above. In Matthew 26.8 "the disciples," collectively, object to the waste of money. In John, only Judas objects. Further, John adds the unique detail that Judas was a "thief." That is, John undercuts the moral criticism leveled at Jesus in Matthew and Mark. Interestingly, Luke doesn't include the anointing narrative and debate. Without it, Judas' actions seem motivationless. In Luke, for no apparent reason, Satan just "enters" Judas.

In short, the narratives in Luke and John do seem harsher and more diabolical.

Finally, let's compare the accounts of Judas at the Lord's Supper. Jesus announces that he will be betrayed and confusion ensues:
Mark & Matthew:
Mark 14.19-21
They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, "Surely not I?"
"It is one of the Twelve," he replied, "one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born."

Matthew 26.25
Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, "Surely not I, Rabbi?"
Jesus answered, "You yourself have said it""

Luke & John:
Luke 22.21-23
"But the hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed, but woe to that man who betrays him." They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.

John 13.2, 21-27
The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus...

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, "I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me."

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, "Ask him which one he means."

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, "Lord, who is it?"

Jesus answered, "It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish." Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
In Mark and Luke Judas is never named as the betrayer. In Matthew Judas shows up, but even then Judas names himself and Jesus' response is equivocal ("So you say."). Regardless, John's account is very harsh. The devil bookends John's account. Further, it is the only gospel where Jesus publicly indicates that Judas will be his betrayer.

In short, I think Guber's case has merit. As time went on the character of Judas became demonized in the consciousness of the church.

So the question becomes: "Why should this matter?" Guber's argument is that, over time, as the church experienced early persecution at the hands of the Jews, the church began to identify Judas with the Jews. Rather than being one of the inner Twelve ("one of us") Judas became a diabolical Jew ("one of them"). Consequently, the later gospels begin to emphasize and highlight Judas' Otherness. And, over time, the Christian stereotypes of the Jews became linked with the image of Judas found in the later gospel accounts: A Jew/Judas who is sneaky, plotting, strategic, greedy, and stingy (because thirty pieces of silver wasn't a lot of money). Judas becomes the archetypal figure of Christian antisemitism. The symbol of the Jew.

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5 thoughts on “Reflections on Judas: Part 2, Judas as Other in the Gospels”

  1. Is there a possibility that as the story became more familiar that Judas the character fell into the archetypal traitor role because every great story seems to have a traitor? I love Joseph Campbell's Power of Myth, and I wonder -- in addition to the points you mentioned -- if there was a unconscious inclination over time to nudge Judas further into the villian role.

  2. In any event the number of accounts is directly tied to the number of witnesses. Intelligent, objective people will report different things, and the assertions need not be explained by supposed ulterior motives.

    The entire premise sounds like a stretch. All of the apostles were Jews, as were the new testament writers. Hard to put antisemitism on them...and their primary persecutors were Romans, not Jews, who lacked the authority to kill Christ, let alone persecute the Christians across Eurasia. By the time of John's gospel, both Peter and Paul had been Rome by Romans, not Jews. This of course all presupposes that the Christians' problems with the Jews had nothing to do with ideology but racism, something not only not supported by gospel accounts or history but in fact contradicted by all accounts.

    It seems rather like one more attempt by secularists/Jews to discredit the Gospels with the spurious claim of 'antisemitism'.

  3. Richard, Mark, Andy,

    It seems to me that Gubar does not give enough consideration to the Sitz im Leben of antiquity of those early believers. If nothing else, the Gospels are highly contextual--that is, written in Greek by Messianic Jews (except Luke). Questions of when, where, why, and what were the writers and the audiences thinking (about Judas) are very complex. Dating the Gospels, for example, can play a major role. I am one a the minority who dates the Gospels prior to the destruction of the temple in 70 BCE. Much of her case likely comes from dating them later than that, especially the Gospel of John. I agree with Mark that injecting proto-antisemitism is anachronistic. That kind of thinking did not really develop until the late second century at the earliest. Personally, I would not attribute her efforts to a secularist-Jewish attempt to discredit the Gospels.


  4. So Mark, tell me did "some" of the disciples object to the perfume being poured on Jesus or was it just Judas?

    It makes a huge difference in the story. In John, Judas is singled out as a thief who wanted to use the money for himself. But if Matthew and Mark are correct, the other disciples had the same objection. Were they also thieves?

    Maybe a bunch of disciples objected, but the others had better motives than Judas? But then Jesus seemed to take the objections of the other disciples seriously.

    Bottom line is that the story changes enormously with the facts. The fact that the stories are consistently slanted in one direction (John always takes a dimmer view of Judas) indicates that the authors shaped the facts to fit their points and not the other way around.


  5. I don't see a general pattern here. As far as I can tell, all that's been demonstrated is that John was more harsh in his portrayal of Judas than any of the Synoptics - but why couldn't we just chalk that up to John rather than attributing it to a general trend in the early Church?

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