No other character in the bible raises as many questions about free will, foreknowledge, and prophecy as Judas Iscariot. Sometimes in the gospel accounts it appears that Judas is just a cog in a machine, a critical but bit player to get the wheels of sacrifice moving forward. Jesus needs a betrayer. And Judas plays his part.
And this raises questions about Jesus' complicity in Judas' sin. Knowing he needs a betrayer Jesus consciously adds Judas to the Twelve. This choice effectively seals Judas' fate, a cursed fate. Jesus' knowing selection of Judas begins a chain of events, a chain Jesus apparently knew about, that leads to Judas' damnation and suicide. Thus, is Jesus wholly innocent here? Is Judas wholly to blame? The gospels give us a mixed message about all this.
The Prophecies Related to Judas: Did Judas Have Free Will?
Regarding prophecy, the gospel accounts point to multiple explicit prophecies regarding Judas' betrayal, death and subsequent replacement amongst the Twelve. The first prophecy (in the chronology of Judas' story) is found in John 13.18. Jesus is sharing the Last Supper with the Twelve and declares:
"I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: 'He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.'The scripture Jesus refers to is Psalm 41.9:
Even my close friend, whom I trusted,The second reference to "fulfilled" scripture involves the events surrounding Judas' death in Matthew 27.5-9:
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.The author of Matthew makes a mistake here as the attribution to Jeremiah isn't accurate. The prophetic allusion actually comes from Zechariah 11:13:
The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me."
And the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter"-the handsome price at which they priced me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD to the potter.Some ancient scribes corrected this error and penciled in "Zechariah" for "Jeremiah." But the oldest manuscripts of Matthew contain the error. The misattribution in the text is likely due to multiple biblical allusions to a location outside of Jerusalem that represents a place of curse and desolation. This was the Valley of Hinnom, often called "Gehenna" or "hell." The Valley of Hinnom was an ancient place of child sacrifice, an evil and wicked location. And we see in Jeremiah 7.30-34 that God curses this "Valley of Slaughter" and promises to destroy those who inhabit it:
The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the LORD. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room. Then the carcasses of this people will become food for the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and there will be no one to frighten them away. I will bring an end to the sounds of joy and gladness and to the voices of bride and bridegroom in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem, for the land will become desolate.The misattribution in Matthew is likely due to the fact that the location of Judas' death in the "Field of Blood" echoes back to this cursed "Valley of Slaughter" in Jeremiah (cf. Acts 1.19).
The final references to Judas and fulfilled prophecy come from Acts 1.15-22 when the Eleven apostles discuss the loss of Judas and, to fulfill prophecy, seek his replacement:
In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, "Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus—he was one of our number and shared in this ministry."Peter is referring to Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8.
(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
"For," said Peter, "it is written in the book of Psalms, 'May his place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in it,' and, 'May another take his place of leadership.'
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection."
The events in Acts 1 are instructive because they push against any simplistic notions of prophecy. That is, we see in Acts 1 the Eleven consciously reading prophecy and trying to move toward its fulfillment. Prophecy, in this sense, isn't creating automatons. Rather, the Word of God is functioning like a guide, path or rule. We choose to fulfill prophecy. In this sense prophecy is fully compatible with human agency.
But does this view apply to Judas? Did Judas make his decisions in a conscious attempt to "fulfill scripture"? It doesn't seem so. But this view of prophecy could apply to another character in the story:
Was Jesus Complicit in Judas' Betrayal and Death?
If Judas wasn't consciously following prophecy could we claim that Jesus was? Here is what we see in the gospel accounts:
First, Jesus appears to pick Judas as one of the Twelve knowing that Judas will betray him:
John 6.68-71Second, on the night of his betrayal Jesus orchestrates the events of the betrayal. He gives Judas his instructions and then goes to meet him at the appointed place:
Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."
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.)
John 13.26-30; 18.1-4It appears, from John's account, that Jesus did know what was going to happen long before it happened. Jesus picks Judas knowing he has selected his betrayer. And, on the evening of the betrayal, Jesus cues Judas ("Go and do what you must do.") and then meets Judas at the appointed spot. Judas seems clueless about what is going on. Jesus, however, "knows all that was going to happen to him."
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.
"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. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night...
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it.
Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons.
Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, "Who is it you want?"
Some Uncomfortable Questions
At no point in the gospel narratives is Judas given any sympathy for his actions. Despite all the prophecy and Jesus' orchestration Judas is roundly condemned and cursed. However, I expect modern readers are disturbed by Judas' story. The ancients tended to believe in fate, even tragic fate. "Free will" and "moral responsibility" weren't things the ancients worried about or recognized. Judas' life followed the path of his cursed fate, tragically so. But was Judas "free to do otherwise"? If not, can he be held morally accountable for his actions? These questions simply bounce off the gospel accounts.
And what about Jesus? Of all the characters involved Jesus seems to control his own fate. More, he seems to control the fates of others, Judas' in particular. So it makes one wonder, should Jesus have picked Judas to be one of the Twelve? Should Jesus have saved Judas from his fate? Could Jesus have figured out an alternative plan to meet the soldiers in the garden that night that didn't involve the fall of one of his inner circle?
I don't have answers to any of these questions. But what I do know is this. Of all the stories in the bible that run up against modern prejudices regarding freedom and moral responsibility the story of Judas Iscariot takes pride of place.