With Easter right around the corner, Christians are thinking about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events that took place during what is now called “Holy Week” certainly transformed the history of the world, but they also created a new villain: Judas. As one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends you have to wonder what he was thinking when he betrayed Jesus. What did Judas know that we don’t?
For much of history, we have been led to think that Judas betrayed Jesus for a payout. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. But in modern terms, that’s the equivalent of about six weeks of work for a day laborer: not a huge amount, and certainly not enough money to compensate you for betraying someone you had spent years following. If you were already annoyed and planning on leaving the movement, then perhaps this sweetener could help push you further along the path to betrayal. But the general impression that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
The Gospel of John, which is almost certainly the last of the canonical gospels to be written, doubles down on the idea that Judas was motivated by financial reward. John adds that Judas was a thief who had stolen from the common resources of the group. Some of the gospels introduce the idea of demonic inspiration and possession. According to Luke 22:3, it was during the final week in Jerusalem that the devil placed the idea of betraying Jesus into Judas’s heart. This isn’t just a literary flourish or theological window-dressing; the demonization of Judas has a long history in influencing how people, medieval Christian in particular, have thought about Jews in general. Add this to ahistorical scenes in which the Jews called for the crucifixion of Jesus and say that the blood of Jesus rests on them and their children, and the Jewish people end up as the villains of the piece. The intertwining of antisemitism, the passion narrative, and violence is one of the reasons that it is important we get the historical pieces of the passion narrative correct.
If it wasn’t about the money then, historically speaking, why did Judas do it? In truth, no one knows. But there are a number of historically and narratively responsible explanations.
In the first place, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus takes place at the tail end of a difficult few days for Jesus’ followers. According to the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to be written and thus the one closest to the actual events, Jesus and his followers spent an evening at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. As the group is at dinner, a woman comes in with a jar of extremely expensive perfume and pours it out on Jesus’s head. Mark says that “some” of those who were present were angry at her actions and asked, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? [It] could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” Mark does not say exactly which of the disciples are indignant, but immediately afterwards, we are told, Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the chief priests.
If, as the Gospel of John writes, Judas was the group ‘treasurer,’ it would make sense that he was angered by this event. During his ministry Jesus and his followers lived close to what we could call the breadline. They received some financial support from his wider group of supporters (particularly women), and they could depend on friends and community members for occasional food and lodging, but life was hard. Organizing the group’s limited funds and resources would have been a difficult task. In addition to which, Judas, like the other disciples, had left behind his family (whatever that looked like), home, and hopes of reliable employment when he had decided to follow Jesus. After years of struggling to make ends meet it might be frustrating to watch one’s leader do something so wasteful. Modern readers (who, let’s face it, know the ending when they first read the gospels) can see all the moments at which Jesus seems to be warning the disciples that he will be arrested and executed, and can therefore understand the scene as an anointing before death. But to the disciples none of this was immediately clear.
Moreover, at this particular moment, the disciples had been waiting for something dramatic to happen. Like most first-century Jews living in Roman-occupied Judea and Galilee, they were awaiting the arrival of a messiah to overthrow the shackles of the oppressive Roman government and establish a new regime. While some first-century Jews thought the messiah would be a priestly figure, the assumption that the messiah would help liberate the people was extremely widespread. The disciples had similar expectations. At one point two of the other disciples—James and John, the sons of Zebedee—ask Jesus for positions of authority when that happens. At another moment Peter declares that he will not allow Jesus to die. None of the disciples have an accurate sense of what kind of messiah Jesus actually is; they all misunderstand his message.
The week before Jesus is crucified, at the event we know as Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph on the back of a donkey. The whole scene—with crowds assembled waving branches, a leader riding into the city, and the shouts of the people that Jesus comes in the name of the Lord—is reminiscent of a Roman Triumph, the celebratory ritual in which a great military leader was welcomed into the city in a procession. Everything about this moment suggests that Jesus is a political figure. Then Jesus proceeds to the Jewish Temple, where he overturns tables and throws out the money changers. To many people, but arguably especially the disciples, it seems as if things are about to happen. The revolution is beginning.
But nothing like that actually happens; there’s no rebellion. Jesus does not raise an army, organize troops, or even try to evangelize the pilgrims who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover.
At this juncture, maybe Judas is tired and disappointed and just wants to go home and try to pick up the pieces of his life. Alternatively, perhaps he thinks he can force Jesus’ hand and propel him towards a rebellion. If Jesus is arrested, one might imagine, maybe God will intervene. Perhaps Judas genuinely thinks that his actions will expedite the arrival of the Kingdom of God and is horrified at how things unfold? In either case, almost immediately after having betrayed Jesus, Judas regrets his actions and tries to return the money he was paid. In one version of the story, he commits suicide.
Modern readers aren’t the only ones to wonder about Judas’ thought process and motivations. About 250 years after the death of Jesus, a group of Christians wrote a new history of Judas. The text is known as the Gospel of Judas, and when it was discovered and announced to the world in 2006 it caused something of a media firestorm. In this version of the Easter story, Judas is presented in a much more sympathetic light: he was on a kind of secret mission from Jesus. Jesus asked Judas to do this and even predicted that Judas would be “cursed for generations” as a result, but also promised him that one day he would be vindicated.
The Gospel of Judas tells us absolutely nothing about the historical events that took place on the last few days of Jesus’s life, but it does prompt the question: how did Judas’ actions shape history? According to the Bible, it was the kiss of Judas that led to Jesus’s arrest and execution, and without that Jesus might never have been crucified. In some ways, you might say, Christianity owes a lot to Judas.