case for St. Judas Iscariot by
Graeme Davidson, July 2001
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.
is it that Judas is regarded as the evil scoundrel who gets his
just desserts? Has he been the victim of unfair smear tactics?
Gospels depict him as a traitor, thief and agent of Satan
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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