Judas Iscariot: racketeer or revolutionary?

By Guy Brandon 03 Oct 2016
The Inferno, Canto 34 by Gustave Dore (1857)

As the man who betrayed Jesus to his death, Judas has gone down in history as a Thoroughly Bad Man. His name is synonymous with treachery, as is the sum of money he was paid for identifying Jesus on the Mount of Olives.

In his Inferno, Dante depicts Satan as a three-faced monster, frozen in ice in the lowest circle of hell. Each of his mouths chews a different betrayer: Brutus, Cassius and Judas. Whilst Brutus and Cassius are eaten feet first for their murder of Julius Caesar, Judas suffers the dubious honour of being eaten head first, whilst his back is eternally flayed by Lucifer’s claws. Dante, who had suffered betrayal himself, did not like Judas.

Whilst Judas bears responsibility for his actions, he is nevertheless part of a much larger picture. The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead. In an example of so-called ‘Johannine irony’, high priest Caiaphas argues, ‘You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ (John 11:50) His words ostensibly refer to the need for a convenient scapegoat to defuse political tensions around the Passover, but the reader is invited to consider the spiritual implications of Christ’s sacrifice. Jesus himself raises the strange position Judas occupies as a result: ‘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.’ (Mark 14:21) Judas was not blameless, by any means, but he was a thread in a far broader tapestry than he must have recognised.

What prompted his betrayal?

To such a complex backdrop we have to add Judas’s internal motivation, which is also not as clear as it might be. Luke 22:3 simply reads ‘Then Satan entered Judas’, perhaps seeking to explain the moment at which he put into motion the idea he had been turning over in his mind for some time.

Money also played a role. Judas liked money. ‘As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it’ (John 12:6). He is not handing Jesus over due to some misplaced loyalty to the Jewish authorities – or, if so, he is not above profiting from it. His fee was 30 pieces of silver, which probably amounted to somewhere slightly short of £200 at current spot prices – enough to buy a field in those days. It was also the price of a slave in Exodus 21:32. The implication contained between the lines is that the priests hadn’t just paid Judas – they had bought him.

It’s not evident whether money was a welcome bonus or the primary reason. Probably he saw the writing was on the wall for Jesus and that he might as well get out while he could. Or perhaps the writing being on the wall was the problem. Maybe Judas had never seen it going this way, and it made him realise with resentment that he’d misunderstood the nature of Jesus’ mission from the start.

Who was Jesus – and who was Judas?

The disciples’ understanding of Jesus evolved as they spent time with him. There is a period of unfolding revelation, culminating with the Transfiguration (Mark 8:31-9:13). Peter’s response shows that the suffering servant narrative was not universally popular among the disciples. Instead, when the disciples first met Jesus, at least some were probably hoping for something entirely different. The kind of messiah most Jews were looking for at the time was a far cry from Jesus. They expected a charismatic military leader rather than a teacher and healer – someone who would overthrow the Romans by force and establish an independent Jewish state again. Acts 5:33-39 records two of the men disaffected Jews had rallied around.

The group of disciples Jesus called included several dubious characters. There were James and John, whom Jesus called the ‘sons of thunder’ (Mark 3:17). The nickname and the pair’s eagerness to call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54) suggest they weren’t averse to violence. Neither was Simon Peter, who cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear in front of a detachment of Roman soldiers (John 18:1-11). There was Simon the Zealot, presumably a member of the religious-political movement that sought to overthrow the Romans. And then there was Judas.

The name Judas Iscariot can be interpreted in more than one way. ‘Judas’ is the Greek form of Judah, a common Hebrew name. ‘Iscariot’ might be the Hellenised form of the Hebrew ’Ish Keriot, ‘man of Keriot’, a reference to Judas’s home town (see Jeremiah 48:24). Another explanation is that Judas Iscariot is the Greek form of Judah Sicariot: Judah the Daggerman. The Sicarii were a first-century group related to the Zealots, who also opposed Roman occupation. Unlike the Zealots, though, they did not aim to attack Romans directly. They would use curved sicae, concealed under a cloak, to assassinate Jewish sympathisers. There’s a good chance that Judas was a Sicarius.

Disappointed revolutionary

the-last-supper-largeExplaining Judas’ betrayal is necessarily speculative, but there are hints at his motivation. John 6 records that many followers left Jesus at a certain time, finding his teaching too hard. This may also be the point at which Judas starts having second thoughts. ‘“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to 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 6:67-71)

Then there is Jesus’ anointing at Bethany (John 12:1-11). Jesus’ rebuke to Judas includes a reminder that he is imminently to die – definitely not something anyone anticipated for a traditional messianic leader. If Judas was looking for a military leader then he would be sorely disappointed, and may even have wondered about how he could help Jesus complete his mission by dying as quickly as possible. This is also the point at which the chief priests redouble their efforts to kill him. Ironically, Jesus’ association with Zealots probably raised a warning flag for the authorities in the first place.

So it’s possible that Judas betrayed Jesus not just for the money – which was only an opportunistic reward – but because he was disappointed with the direction Jesus’ ministry had taken. He wanted a revolutionary but ended up with a sacrificial lamb. However, he quickly regrets his decision. ‘When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse…’ (Matthew 27:3) Did Judas always know that he was betraying Jesus to death, and the reality of that simply hit him at this point, or did he expect a lesser punishment and was shocked at the death sentence?

Judas’s own death has been the subject of much speculation, since two versions are recorded. ‘He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.’ (Matthew 27:3-5)

Luke records a different story in Acts. ‘With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.’ (Acts 1:18) The standard explanation is that Judas hanged himself, then after a couple of days of rotting in the damp heat over the Sabbath, the body fell or was cut down and…


Judas isn’t often used as a role model like many other biblical characters are, but there are still lessons to be learned from his life and death.

The ends do not justify the means. Judas bears responsibility for his betrayal of Jesus, but was still a part of a much bigger picture – one that was God’s will. We cannot see the entirety of God’s plan from our limited human perspective. We have to hold this apparent paradox as a part of our faith: not only that God can bring good out of evil, but that our own wrongdoing may be woven into this picture while we are simultaneously held responsible for our actions. We must not be tempted to take shortcuts or ‘do evil that good may result’ (Romans 3:8).

Recognise the effect money has. Whilst money may not have been the ultimate reason Judas betrayed Jesus, it presented a good justification for him to do something about his resentment. Without the offer of the 30 silver pieces, he might simply have walked away or chosen a less destructive way to harm Jesus. In our own lives, it’s often worth asking whether we would act differently in a certain situation if money was not an issue – whether it catalyses or fundamentally changes our behaviour.

Remorse is not the same as repentance. Judas feels remorse and kills himself. The same night, Peter denies Jesus. He feels remorse too: ‘he went outside and wept bitterly’ (Luke 22:62) but later repents and is reinstated (John 21:15-19). Repentance, unlike remorse, leads to a change in behaviour. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 7:10, ‘Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.’



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