Reflections on Judas: Part 4, Was Judas Free? And What About Jesus?

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,
he who shared my bread,
has lifted up his heel against me.
The second reference to "fulfilled" scripture involves the events surrounding Judas' death in Matthew 27.5-9:
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

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."
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:
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."

(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."
Peter is referring to Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8.

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 6.68-71
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.)
Second, 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:
John 13.26-30; 18.1-4
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?"
It 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."

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.

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15 thoughts on “Reflections on Judas: Part 4, Was Judas Free? And What About Jesus?”

  1. The thing that I keep coming back to is that the leaders of the day knew what Jesus was teaching, where He was, and what they intended to do. They really didn't need Judas but were happy to use him.

    I get the impression that the danger to Jesus was not a a big secret. When Jesus came back to raise Lazarus, Thomas said that they disciples had lived with Him and they may as well go back to die with Jesus.

    I don't know that Judas fits neatly into my concept of free will, the love of Christ for us (He knew about the betrayal but chose Judas any way), or how a person appears to others (the other disciples didn't seem to think that one of the twelve could deliberately betray Jesus) but am willing to keep an open mind for answers.


  2. "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."

    Hmmm, maybe it's just me but it appears the "ancients" are very much alive and prevelant today - they can be found thriving behind pulpits and mid-week Bible studies throughout America.

    Very sad to say, there's no way I could imagine sustaining a half-way decent and intelligent conversation (such as this one we're having here concerning Judas and Jesus) with ANY Christian I know.

    The consideration that Jesus Himself might have been calculatingly complicit is undeniably the "elephant in the livingroom" - and no pastor or Bible teacher would dare touch it.

    What's disturbing is that Christians in general are NOT disturbed. I posted in part 3 and again, I really don't see much difference between Peter's failure and Judas' failure, but allegedly, Peter is a short-list Apostle and Judas is dancing in the hottest fires of hell.

    Gary Y.

  3. The fact that so little of the Judas story makes rational sense, and that it was designed to retroactively fulfill scripture, are major clues that much of it was likely invented.

    What's more, John's invective toward the Jews in every regard was clearly a late development. Judas became more evil with each gospel.

    Gary, I know what you mean about intelligent conversations. I asked the pastor of my church some questions about some of his recent sermons, and he went ballistic. Yeah, they were pointed questions, but they were about the bible and the meaning of what jesus said.


  4. I tend to agree with pf. The gospel accounts are the products of specific men at specific times with specific biases for specific purposes in specific cultures. None were trained historians, theologians or psychologists. They were writing narratives with a purpose. I think it makes more sense to let the themes of the gospels - those elements that are consistent, unbroken and foundational set the tenor for interpreting the rest of the "facts" rather than trying to create a version of gospel that "fits" with all the details. For me, Jesus was the ultimate respecter of persons and each person's choosing. Judas made his choices, regretted them, and was likely forgiven and given grace. The details filled in by the gospel writers served their specific purposes, but for me do not require a literal interpretation.

  5. I don't think that simplistic, either/or, approaches to these narratives are helpful. If Judas' actions were free, they were free in the way all of ours are: mostly like little rudders attempting to adjust our tack within streams running within channels that are not of our choosing. Sometimes, heroically, like someone trying to dam a channel to reset the flow. My take is that Judas was the brightest of the disciples: He could see the tragedy coming to a head, and wanted to stop it. (Recall Jesus saying to Peter, when he objected to Jesus'statement of his coming sacrifice: Get behind me, Satan!) I read a significant element of heroism into Judas' betrayal.

    As for Jesus, after he "set his face like flint" to go to Jerusalem, the channel was set, and his "decision tree" had to follow it, if the Passion was his life mission.

    The interesting thing for me to think about is how the good news must be seen through the lens of the Passion narrative. If Judas was bright enough to see the Passion about to unfold, it could not have looked like "gospel" pre-Easter. Judas seems like the only disciple anyone would want on an organization's board of directors.

    How about this? As the Jews had to exemplify the height of religious zeal to make it plain that salvation cannot be by faithfulness to the law, so Judas had to be the brightest of the disciples to show us that we need to rethink what it means to act well.

    In that case, he played his part well. Honor him and lament the human tragedy implied for all humanity in the part he played.

    Gary and pf, at least HERE we can have an intelligent--I hope--conversation about tough topics of faith.

    Thanks, Richard.


  6. Tracy: I agree that if Jesus was about to see the Passion unfold, it would have been different than later imagined. But I also think it is hard to come to any real conclusions about Judas because what we know about him is so sketchy and filled with legend.

    But let's assume the basic outlines of the gospel story are correct. Jesus heads to Jerusalem with the idea he was going to die, either because he knew he had to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world or because he knew the Romans tended to kill people who acted like him.

    Judas, who had dedicated himself to the Jesus cause for some time, giving up his entire life in the process, and apparently is a trusted member of the inner circle.

    Did he become disillusioned with Jesus? If so, why wouldn't he have just packed up and gone home, wherever that was? If he was afraid of persecution, then he could have slinked away and nobody would have been the wiser. If he was a thief, then betraying Jesus would have killed the goose that laid his golen eggs. You can't steal if the source of your funds is gone.

    If Jesus did instruct Judas to go to the authorities, what was it about? Certainly it had to be about more than location. Maybe Jesus was trying to force the kingdom to come right then and there.

    I don't know the answers here, but I suspect it's a combination of embellishment on the part of the gospel authors and our ignorance of ancient thinking.


  7. pf,

    A couple quick points: surely you're correct to say it's "hard to come to any real conclusions about Judas because what we know about him is so sketchy..." To think productively about him is to use suppositions.

    The core supposition for me is always that Jesus intentionally engaged the cross as his mission--the unmistakable message of Mark, the first gospel, which Ben Meyers describes as "a march to the via dolorosa" (2009 Christmas sermon posted on Faith and Theology blog). But there is no Christian faith without that supposition. So my supposition is just to take my faith seriously. And once one does that it's a short step to playing the characters in the story off of the Passion narrative.

    That's my "method," and I'm not sure even an inference to the best explanation is possible using so much supposition, let alone "real conclusions," but the biblical narratives are richly engaging and instructive. In my view it's sufficient to suppose that Judas saw a tragedy unfolding and sought to have Jesus arrested to prevent it. But I can't prevent you from ascribing darker motives to him.

  8. Anonymous, I'm not ascribing darker motives to Judas, I'm saying that the dark motives ascribed to him by the gospels don't make sense.

    Then we get get back to the topic of the post -- if you are correct that Jesus intentionally engaged the cross, then Judas didn't do anything wrong, or at least he had no choice, and the demonization of him in the book of John is nonsensical.

    Your method, which is one to which I formerly ascribed, is to start from the conclusion (Jesus intentionally died for our sins) and work backwards. Free yourself from that premise for just a minute, and the actions of Judas no longer comport to any rational behavior. The contradictions of the gospel accounts no longer seem unimportant, but are an intentional attempt to place blame and create a narrative, whether it happened that way or not.


  9. To Anonymous,

    "So my supposition is just to take my faith seriously. And once one does that it's a short step to playing the characters in the story off of the Passion narrative.

    That's my "method," and I'm not sure even an inference to the best explanation is possible using so much supposition, let alone "real conclusions," but the biblical narratives are richly engaging and instructive."

    Anonymous - I'm going to need a lot of your help. Are you saying then that NOT "taking our faith seriously" results in our asking the questions or issues we raise, failing to see the "short step playing the characters"?

    No one argues Jesus' single-minded focus of His mission to the cross. But do the "means justify the end"???

    I believe our "faith" must also accept the seriousness of our sinfulness - ALL OF OUR SINFULNESS. Many of those who yelled "Hosanna Hosanna" that proceeding Sunday were the same ones who chanted to have Him crucified later that week. I don't see that being a whole lot less of a betrayal.

    Earlier in this post and in part 3, I asked
    if Peter's failure was really that much LESS
    than that of Judas?

    Maybe a weak theory on my part, but many of His followers, including the 12, expected his
    reign to go into effect THEN, and they seemed
    to anticipate Him blowing away those evil
    and oppressive Romans, thus taking over as King.

    If that is true, the presumption may have led
    to much prideful, covetous behavior, i.e.
    perhaps the 12 were jocking for position to
    be His "cabinet members".
    Peter getting a bit cocky after Jesus personally pronounced him the "Rock in which
    He was to build His church", John and his brother wanting fire to come down and burn
    the Samaritans, a covetousness for who will
    sit on His right-hand and on His left, etc, etc.

    I bring this up because I can buy into Judas
    possibly having his own selfish motive behind this. After Jesus was incarcerated, Judas'
    pleading with the Pharisees of Jesus' innocence and his throwing the money into the temple seemed to be a knee-jerk emotional reaction indicating his agenda (whatever it was) was going severely awry. But I'd argue that the other 11 (except for John perhaps) running away and hiding, stunned and thoroughly dispondent indicates that they too (like Judas possibly) had their personal agendas crumble. It's as if all were still completely clueless about His death, let alone the necessity of it, despite Jesus exhaustively repeating that such was to come.

    The real point of why we muse over the issue
    of Judas's "choice and responsibility" and the
    possibility of Jesus participating complictly
    is the disparity of the alleged eternal destination of Judas as compared to the other 11, who as far as I see, were not a whole lot better in regards to demonstraing selfLESSness, integrity, or loyalty to Jesus.

    All 12 were sinful - Judas is allegedly burning in hell, and most of the other 11 are acclaimed as eternal heroes - that's why this matters to some of us.

    I'm not even mentioning if we (Christians)
    today have gone beyond the mental assent of our own sinfulness to actually taking full ownership and personal responsibility of participating in His murder ourselves. Doing that might help to inject a bit of empathy and identification with all who are recorded as
    failures in Scripture - even Judas.

    Anonymous - please give your name so as not
    to get you mixed up with other Anonymous.
    Thank you for hearing me out!

    Gary Y.

  10. pf,

    You indicate that my supposition results in a coherent narrative:

    "Free yourself from that premise for just a minute (Jesus intentionally died for our sins) and the actions of Judas no longer comport to any rational behavior."

    Since that would be a reason to adopt the premise, I'm guessing that you didn't express your thought quite right.

    And Gary,

    My main point was about the role of supposition in interpreting the narrative, mine being to take the intentional "march to the via dolorosa" on Jesus' part as the key interpretive element. I can accept almost all of your suppositions; I affirm the role of supposition in interpretation--implying that I am not apt to argue with another person's; and you agree with my supposition. We're a couple of latitudinarians who agree with each other on my main point. It will take some skill to find a disagreement here.


  11. Hey Dr Beck,

    About a week ago, my wife and I were reading the story of Luke with one of our neighbors here in Russia and this is one of the questions she asked, and we discussed it for a while. We too, could not come up with an answer that seems consistent with the identity of Jesus, the story of Jesus' mission of grace, and the concept of free will.

    I respect your honesty you wrote with in saying that you don't have the answer. Cognitive dissonance and anxiety definitely can lead us to make up quick answers in the moment, but those usually don't lead us closer to God...they just make us feel better and proud of ourselves.

    If anything, wrestling with the dissonance between beliefs, values, identity, and purpose probably connect us more to the story of the psalms, Jesus' life, and the disciples' journey in the Bible than making up an answer for every question.

    As I find myself stripped more and more away from the American culture and the American Christian culture, I appreciate reading blogs like this.

  12. as far as I know, Jesus never call Judas The devil, but Jesus did Call Peter the Satan, "...Get behind me, ..."

  13. all that Judas has done was to make the word of God and its prophesy  fulfilled whereas what Peter did  was trying to prevent Jesus crucification ended up being called the Satan to get behind Him...Namaste  

  14. This sentence isn't making much sense to me:

    "'Free will' and 'moral responsibility' weren't things the ancients worried about or recognized."

    I'm not sure what you mean by "ancients," but if we're talking about the first couple centuries AD, this sentence is certainly false. Paul made it clear that sovereign orchestration was an irritant for free will fans and troublesome for moral responsibility when he said, "One of you will say to me: 'Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?'" And Justin Martyr went so far as to explicitly say that genuine love required free will in creatures.

    Now, Justin was incorrect. Libertarian free will is a relatively incoherent concept absent from Scripture, and isn't necessary for "genuineness" in anything we do. We save ourselves a lot of acrobatics when we punt the attempt to shoehorn it into the Bible and reality in general. We're all cogs in a grand remedial machine; the bizarre spontaneity required by libertarian free will really does contradict the idea of decisions proceeding from in-the-world selves.

    But the fact is that both libertarian free will AND its interaction with moral responsibility ARE ancient concepts that we see in early writings.

  15. There are no uncontested indubitably true prophecies in the OT concerning the first coming of Jesus. That includes the so-called prophecies related to the tale about Judas' betrayal in the earliest Gospel, Mark. God was not hiding prophecies about Judas discretely inside psalms (in the most general language possible), nor inside PAST events mentioned in other OT writings, like Zechariah 11:13.

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