“The Invention of Judas”

Rev. Nannene Gowdy

I like trying to solve crossword puzzles, mind games, and Bible stories.  I know I have a lot more company on the first two, but I think that is only because most people don’t know that Bible stories need solving.  We are so used to hearing that the words in the Bibles are the words of God, we think we have to just take time as they are.

But the various books of the Bibles were written by men who lived in a finite time and a definite space.  Thousands of years later there is still much the Bibles can teach us. But like any good lesson, we have to consider the source. The discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in the 1940s has advanced Biblical scholarship enormously.  To find that many of the books of Christian scripture had several versions before they were officially canonized into one has opened up biblical criticism.  We are now much freer to question the texts without fear of being called a heretic.

This has, in a sense, turned loose the detectives.  I am not fluent in ancient Greek, Aramaic, nor Hebrew, so my solving has had to be second hand.  But I find reading about the new discoveries as exciting as any detective novel.

Most of you are probably familiar with the story of Judas.  Christian Scripture says he was the one, of the twelve disciples, who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish temple authorities for thirty pieces of silver.  Full of guilt for what he had done, he returned the thirty pieces of silver to the temple authorities and then hanged himself.

For centuries, people have heard this story and used it to blame the Jews for the killing of Jesus.  Conveniently forgotten has been the fact that Jesus himself was called rabbi, all of the disciples were Jews, as were most of the followers.

A quick look at the story might make blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus seem like a huge leap for people to make.  But a closer examination of the text shows how people came to this conclusion.  A look at the environment in which the text was written shows why.

It all takes a little detective work, however, which is what makes it interesting.

I will be giving you eight of the clues that have developed.  As I go, let me know if any are unclear.  Then we’ll see what conclusions we can reach.

Clue # 1:  The Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the gospels, written 35 to 40 years after Jesus’ death.  It contains the first mention of Judas.  None of the Christian writings before 65 C.E., the Common Era, mention this supposedly important disciple.  Furthere more, these early writings don’t mention a betrayal, either.  Paul, in his letters, does talk about the twelve disciples, but never mentions Judas nor betrayal.  Indeed, in one of Paul’s letters he said the resurrected Jesus appeared to the twelve disciples.  How could this have happened if Judas was dead from suicide?

Clue # 2:  In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he stated, “Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.”  The scriptures he is talking about are Hebrew Scriptures. The early Christians scoured scripture for signs which foretold the birth, life, and death of Jesus.  The quotes in the Order of Service are just small examples of how ideas were lifted from Hebrew Scripture and incorporated into Christian Scripture.  In other words, if there was a Judas, it is unlikely  that he performed an act of betrayal, was paid exactly the same, and reacted exactly the same as the portagonist in Zechariah.  The need to show that Jesus’ life was foreordained by the God of Hebrew Scripture made for fanciful additions to his life story.

Clue # 3:  Three of the four gospel writers – Matthew, Mark and John – were Jews who converted to Christianity.  Luke was most likely a Gentile.  All four were very familiar with Jewish worshipping tradition and drew deeply from it in writing their gospels.  But the early church, by the end of the first century when these gospels were written, was predominantly gentile.  The Gentiles were not likely to know what Matthew, Mark, Luck and John knew: That it was traditional to search ancient texts to find stories from the past which could explain the present.  This is a a style of writing called a “midrash”.  For instance, the story of the parting of the waters by Moses was retold about Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha.  The story tellers were trying to show that the three later figures were just as great as Moses.

Those familiar with the midrash tradition find it yet another reason to suspect the historical accuracy of stories in Christian Scripture which appear to have been taken from Hebrew Scripture.  The whole crucifixion story is full of midrash material.

The details of Judas’ life which come from Zechariah are just some examples.  Yet another midrash example would be the story from 2Samuel of Ahithophel who betrayed King David and then hanged himself.  King David was called “the Lord’s annointed”, which coincidentally translated to Messiah or Christ.

Yet a third midrash example, from all four gospels, is the story of the last supper where all of the disciples are dipping their hands or bread into the common food supply and a traitor, Judas, is identified among them.  Psalm 41 is the original source here, and the psalm also contains material which foretells the resurrection of Jesus.  With so much of the story of Judas borrowed in midrash fashion from Hebrew Scripture, it is doubtful that he was ever an historic character.

Clue # 4:  The word Judas, not so coincidentally, is the Greek word for Judah. Judah was the patriarch who was thought to be the father of the Jewish nation.  Indeed, in ancient times Israel was called Judah, and later Judea.  A Jew was a descendent of Judah.

Red flags should start waving here.  Why would the traitor in the crucifixion story be given the name of the nation from which, by the time the story was written down, the early Christians were trying to distance themselves?

Clue # 5:  At the last supper, when Jesus announced that his betrayer was among them, there was no reaction from them.  It was as if nothing was said.  They went on to debate who among them would be the greatest in heaven!  Not noticing an announcement like that is exactly what you would expect if a new piece of a story was inserted into a narrative.  For example, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer is not listed as one of the reindeer in the narrative poem “T’was the Night Before Christmas” because Rudolph is a later addtion to the story about Santa Claus.  Yet every child will tell you that Rudolph is one of Santa’s reindeer.  In just this way, Judas might have been added to the list of disciples at a later date.

The last supper part of the story is muddied further by the quote in which Jesus says, “You shall eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on twelve thrones as judges of the twelve tribes of Israel.”  How could this be said at the same supper, by the same man, who announced that one of the twelve will betray him?

Clue # 6:  The Jews from the temple and in the crowd are blamed for the death of Jesus, while Pontius Pilate is allowed to wash his hands of the situation.  Why?  Only the occupying Romans had the authority to legally order a crucifixion.  The Jews had no real power in their own land.  That Pilate offered to release a prisoner as part of the Passover celebration and the Jewish crowd turned him down is a custom that can be located no where else in either Roman or Jewish history.  Instead, the Jewish crowd reportedly cried, “His blood be on us and on our chrildren.”  Does this sound like something any group of people would say/wish upon itself?

Clue # 7:  The night Jesus was arrested was, suppposedly, the most holy night of Passover.  Yet, according to the story, Jesus was tried by the Jewish court that very night before being turned over to Pilate.  It is highly unlikely that the leadership of the Jewish nation would meet to condemn anyone on that holy night.

Clue # 8:  Just before the first of the Gospels were written, the occupying Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and drove the remnants of the Jewish army to Masada where the war ended in a massive Jewish suicide.  Being identified as a Jew was very unhealthy.

The early Christians were seeking to ingratiate themselves with the Romans.  If the Christians blamed the Romans for the death of Jesus, they would have been wiped out or exiled just as the Jews had been.

So where are we with the clues?

  1. Early writings have no mention of Judas
  2. a betrayal was necessary if Jesus’ life and death were foreordained
  3. the whole story is told in midrash tradition – if a hero like King David was betrayed then Jesus had to be also
  4. Judas is Greek for the name of Israel
  5. the parts about Judas seem clearly tohave been inserted into the story at a later date
  6. it was necessary to curry favor with
  7. the Romans by blaming someone else for the death of Jesus
  8. it isn’t likely the Jews tried Jesus on Passover; and
  9. for political reasons the Christians needed to distance themselves from their Jewish roots.

Enter Judas – the ultimate scapegoat.  It is easy to see why the early Christians would look for some answers as to why their leader was executed.  “But it is a tragedy of enormous dimensions that by the time the story was written, Jesus was the innocent victim not of the Romans but of the Jews.  And in order to meet their political needs in the last years of the first century, the Christians rewrote history to make the Jews rather than the Romans the villains of their story.” (Spong)  Conveniently forgotten is that Jesus himself was a Jew.

What irony that this was done by following the Jewish midrash tradition.  They created “the story of a Jewish traitor out of the bits and pieces of the sacred scriptures, and by giving that traitor the name Judas, the very name of the nations of the Jews,” (Spong) they fixed blame for the death of Jesus on his own people.  “No text in any religious sacred literature has ever been the cause of such pain and suffered in history as has this one.  In these words a killing anti-semitism found its biblical … justifiying legitimization.” (Spong)

We can never undo all of the damage that has been done over the past 2,000 years to the Jewish people.  But perhaps by facing and acknowledging the reasons for the invention of Judas as the scapegoat, we can begin to correct the error that was made so long ago.

(I am indebted to John Spong’s article, “Did Christians Invent Judas?” for many of the ideas in this sermon.)