5 min read
Some of the apostles aren’t well-known, but we can all remember at least three of them: Peter, Paul, and Judas Iscariot. Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus to religious authorities and made, therefore, made Jesus’ death possible, is easily one of the most notorious figures in the Bible.
While a lot of legends and speculation have developed over the centuries about Judas, many of us don’t take the time to look at what the Bible actually says about him.
Judas was one of the many people who followed Jesus, and Matthew 10 lists him as one of the twelve men that Jesus made his apostles, giving them “authority to cast out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and illness” (Matthew 10:1). The same list is repeated in Mark 3:16-19 and Luke 6:12-16.
The list is almost identical in these three Gospels, and none of them tells us much about any of the apostles. We learn that some of them were related to each other—Andrew was Peter’s brother and that James was “son of Alphaeus.” We also learn Matthew’s profession, that he was a tax collector. The only disciples we get any personal details about are Simon “the zealot” (the Zealots being a rebellious military group trying to take over the Romans) and Judas, “who later betrayed him.” Given that Judas becomes such an important figure in Jesus’ death, it’s interesting that he’s the only one this list gives this kind of detail about.
The Gospels are very selective in what they tell us about people. We get very few details about Jesus’ childhood and teenage years, and almost no details about what the apostles were doing before Jesus found them (other than what some of their professions were). However, there are some things we know about Judas:
His last name probably tells us where he was from.
The word “Iscariot” sounds odd and harsh to an English-speaking audience. Since the Gospels don’t mention any second or last names for the other apostles, and we think of Judas as being a sinister figure, you’d immediately think this name has some dark meaning (“convicted thief,” for example). In fact, most scholars say the name means “man of Kerioth,” a town in Judea.
Jesus gave him spiritual authority.
Matthew 10 says that Jesus gave spiritual authority to all 12 apostles, which allowed them to cast out demons and perform miracles. They also preached (Mark 3:14) and the fact James and John offered to call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54) suggests that at least some of the apostles gained other spiritual gifts or abilities on top of these gifts and callings.
He was in charge of the finances.
Several passages in the Gospels allude to the fact that Jesus and his disciples received money from donors like Salome, and John 12 says that Judas was in charge of the disciples’ money, implying a communal bag the group used to cover their expenses. John 12 also mentions that Judas stole money from that communal bag. Given that Matthew was a tax collector, a profession associated with theft and extortion, it’s perhaps ironic that someone other than Matthew turned out to be sneaky with the finances.
The other disciples didn’t suspect him.
While John 12 says that Judas stole from the money he was put in charge of, it’s worth noting that when Jesus announced at the Last Supper that one of the apostles would betray him, they were all surprised. In fact, they each asked Jesus “Am I the one?” (Mark 14:19), meaning Judas didn’t have a reputation that immediately made them think “Oh, I know who he’s talking about…”
Jesus says several times in the Gospels that he knows someone would betray him. He predicted his death at least twice, with different Gospels apparently referencing the same two predictions, and Jesus uses the word “betrayed” (as opposed to being “handed over” or arrested) in at least some of these predictions. We see this in Matthew 17:22-23, Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 9:30-32, Mark 10:32-34, and Luke 9:43-45.
In John 6, after Jesus gives a hard teaching about people eating his flesh, many of his disciples leave and Jesus asks the 12 apostles if they’re going to go too. Peter replies, “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” (John 6:68-69). Jesus answers, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (John 6:70).
Jesus also hints that he knows Judas’ plans in the events before and during the Last Supper, even before the famous moment where he singles out Judas and Judas leaves. When Jesus finishes washing his disciples’ feet, he says “you disciples are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:10). When the Last Supper starts, Jesus announces, “truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (Matthew 26:21) and “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” (Matthew 26:24).
Since Jesus was fully God and fully human, we assume he knew via divine foreknowledge that Judas would betray him. Since the Gospels aren’t written from Jesus’ perspective, we don’t get his analysis of why Judas betrayed him. We do, however, get descriptions of the scene where Judas committed to betraying Jesus.
According to Matthew 26:6-16, when a woman anointed Jesus at Bethany, “the disciples were indignant” because the anointing oil could have been sold to create money for a charitable cause instead of being used upon Jesus. Jesus rebuked the disciples for their behavior and Judas went to the religious leaders and offered to betray Jesus. The same details are repeated in Mark 14:3-10, without specifying how the two scenes relate to each other.
John 12:1-17 retells the scene with fresh details. Here, Judas is the only disciple who’s mentioned as being indignant, and while he pretends he’s being philanthropic, actually “he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself” (John 12:6). Given that detail, it’s possible that Judas betrayed Jesus because even though Jesus didn’t denounce him as a thief, the rebuke drew attention to his greed.
Luke 22 says that while Jesus was in the Jerusalem-Bethany area for the Passover, “Satan enter into Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve disciples, and he went to the leading priests and captains of the Temple guard to discuss the best way to betray Jesus to them” (Luke 22:3-5). Assuming that Luke doesn’t mean that Satan possessed Judas and overrode his free will, this could be an expression to mean Satan (or some demon in general) tempted Judas with this particular idea. Theologians with varying opinions about free will and predestination have suggested many different interpretations of this passage.
So, we know Judas loved money too much, and perhaps he was concerned about Jesus exposing his greed. Beyond that, we don’t get any clear descriptions of his motivations. Over the years, different writers have adapted the Gospel story in ways that characterize Judas in different ways. Some writers play around with the idea that Judas had a particular idea of what the Messiah should be and Jesus didn’t fit that.
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