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The case for St. Judas Iscariot by Graeme Davidson, July 2001

Why is there no Saint Judas Iscariot? Surely the disciple who has been vilified as the traitor who aided the religious authorities in the arrest of his Master was no worse than the cowardly disciples who let Jesus take the rap alone. They now feature as stained-glass icons. Sun shines through their golden halos. Churches and children are named after them while Judas continues to fill our archetypal need to find and blame a serpent in the garden.

Why is it that Judas is regarded as the evil scoundrel who gets his just desserts? Has he been the victim of unfair smear tactics?

The Gospels depict him as a traitor, thief and agent of Satan
The Gospels don't speak kindly of Judas Iscariot. He is mentioned in the lists of the twelve disciples as the 'traitor' and as the son of Simon to distinguish him from the other disciple who shares the name 'Judas'.

John's Gospel portrays Judas as diabolos, an agent of Satan, and says that Satan enters Judas (Jn 6:71 and 13:27). The theological implication is that Judas is an instrument in the eternal battle between the forces of light and dark, between God and Satan. Satan, and therefore Judas, lose.

John's Gospel also mentions the incident of Judas complaining about Mary's pouring costly ointment over Jesus' feet instead of giving the money to the poor. The Gospel attributes the motive to Judas' greed rather than genuine concern for the poor. Judas is then portrayed as the thief who pilfered from the common purse under his charge — the sort of person who would have no scruples about selling his Master for 30 silver pieces.

But why is such an alleged thief still acting as the disciples' treasurer at the time of the last supper? Surely there would have been some audit on what happened to the common purse over the three years that Jesus was with the disciples? And why is it that none of the other Gospels mention the pilfering? Is this a case of editorial character assassination? And even if Judas were a thief, he would be no different from some of the other company Jesus kept, including the generic tax collectors, or the despised ones, like the disciple Matthew.

'Iscariot' could refer to the village of Kerioth or an assassin
The meaning of the word iscariot is not certain. It may indicate that Judas came from the Judean village of Kerioth. This would differentiate Judas from the other disciples who came from Galilee and may explain in part why the others regarded him an outsider and the obvious scapegoat for their own unfaithfulness during Jesus' passion.

The other possibility is that 'iscariot' originates from the Greek sikarios, a dagger-man or assassin, a term that was generalised to the group of extreme patriots who used treacherous terrorist tactics to oppose the Roman occupation. If this is the case, perhaps readers of the Gospels are to infer that Judas uses the same kind of devious tactics in the betrayal of Jesus that were used against the Romans.

Jesus associated with terrorists
Clearly Jesus associated with both soldiers of the occupying Roman forces and some of the extreme elements that opposed Rome. Another disciple, who is mentioned only in the list of 12, Simon the Zealot, was a member of the fanatical group of zealots (a word that is now in common usage for someone who is intensely focused) who were, well, zealous about regaining Jewish sovereignty.

John's Gospel mentions how on several occasions the crowd acclaimed Jesus as King. After the feeding of the five thousand they unsuccessfully tried to force Jesus to be their king. And during his ride into Jerusalem he is hailed as the 'King of Israel' in the forlorn hope that he would become their messiah or saviour to lead them to a military victory like their ancient hero saviour, King David.

During his passion Jesus was mocked as the 'King of the Jews' and the sign on Jesus' cross stated the same. As far as the authorities were concerned he was a budding messiah who posed a threat to the establishment.

Galilee, where Jesus and most of the disciples originated, had a reputation for being a thorn in Rome's side. Both Josephus and Gamaliel (Ac 5:37) mention how the Galilean, Judas the Messiah, led an abortive rebellion around the time of Jesus' birth. Jesus' outrage at the goings on in the Jerusalem Temple, his reference to the need to sell a garment to buy swords (Lk 22:35-37) and the use of a sword by a disciple against those who arrested Jesus would suggest that Jesus might have considered taking the option of the messianic template established by the successful warrior saviour, King David.

In this context, perhaps Judas saw his role as helping to force the issue by giving Jesus the opportunity to inaugurate the revolution that would bring in the kingdom of God's rule: in other words, the return of the theocratic state of Palestine by force of arms.

Jesus appears to sanction Judas' betrayal
But even if the attempt to force Jesus' hand as a warrior messiah was not Judas' motivation, Judas is necessary to bring in the kingdom that Jesus intended. At the last supper, according to John's Gospel (Jn 13:18-35), Jesus appears to collude with Judas as the disciple chosen to fulfil scripture to betray him. Jesus certainly does nothing to dissuade Judas from the action that they both know he is about to perform. As Judas leaves to sell his Master to the authorities, Jesus even implies that what Judas is doing is so that the 'Son of Man may be glorified and God glorified in him'.

If there was no Judas Iscariot to betray the nightly hideaway of Jesus and the disciples, the authorities may have resorted to publicly arresting Jesus. And a public arrest might have been the spark that would incite the rebellion and casualties the Jewish authorities were trying to avoid. More importantly, a public rebellion in support of Jesus could well have confused Jesus' followers as to the true nature of his mission and the kind of kingdom God intended. It was therefore necessary to the completion of Jesus' mission and to the disciples' clear understanding of the nature of that mission that the authorities arrest Jesus surreptitiously. Judas enabled that to happen.

Judas' death
There are two accounts of what happened to Judas after the betrayal. Matthew's Gospel describes how Judas repented and in a state of remorse returned the infidelity price of 30 silver pieces and went and hanged himself. As the money was tainted, the Jewish religious authorities used it to buy a field to bury strangers (Mt 27:1-10).

The second account in the Book of Acts describes how Judas bought a field with the blood money and fell over and died when his bowels gushed out (Ac 1: 16-20).

The two accounts agree only on Judas' death and the name of the field as the 'field of blood'. The timing of his death so close to the crucifixion would suggest remorse and suicide as the likely cause rather than an random and inexplicable accident.

Judas unfaithful like the other disciples
Judas was human like the rest of the disciples who were unfaithful to Jesus. The difference is that the other disciples promised to be faithful and then reneged when Jesus was arrested, whereas Judas proactively took sides with the authorities. The other disciples also learnt from the experience, were forgiven and used it as an example of God's saving grace. Judas didn't live long enough to show the power of God's redemption.

Whatever Judas' motive in betraying Jesus, and whether Judas died in a state of remorse or not, he did play a significant part in bringing to a climax God's divine plan of salvation — a plan which includes saving all those who sin and fall short of God's hopes.

Judas helped establish the nature of God's Kingdom
Judas' alleged act of treachery helped establish the nature and meaning of God's kingdom for us, and has enabled us all to come closer to God — even those of us who let God down or even betray him.

For these achievements, Judas Iscariot should be entitled to a stained-glass halo instead of the devil's trident and horns. He is as deserving of the title 'saint' as the other very human disciples and the many saints who began with lives of debauchery and acts of brutality. Or those like St. Paul, who zealously persecuted the followers of Jesus before he saw the light and started on the road to his own corona.

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Copyright ©2005
Graeme Davidson