The Great Conspiracy?
Of all the people in the New Testament, none is
presumably as despised and hated as Judas Iscariot. His first name has become
synonymous with snitching and betrayal. This is shown, for example, in the
Danish Dictionary (DDO) where the word "judas" as a noun is made synonymous with
"traitor". Dictionary of the Danish Language (ODS) goes on to describe a
as a false, unfaithful person, a traitor. Farlex, The Free Dictionary has the
same definition of the word "judas" in English as DDO has in Danish. The concept
is thus, as one might expect, common in several languages, and is common in
What the Gospels tell us
Let me, as usual, start by looking at what the canonical gospels say about Judas. Matthew mentions him by his full name in two places. The first time is at the beginning of chapter 10, where the names of the 12 apostles are listed. "These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him". (Matt. 10.2-4) Already, when the apostles were chosen, the evangelist foreshadows the betrayal that was to come later. The next time Matthew mentions Judas is in chapter 26, where he just mentions the betrayal."Then one of the Twelve — the one called Judas Iscariot — went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over." (Matt. 26.14-16) Later in the same chapter, Judas is mentioned again, though without mentioning his nickname. In connection with the Last Supper Matthew has: "Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?" (Matt. 26.25) and in verses 47 and 48 in the same chapter it is stated: "While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.”" The final time Matthew mentions Judas is in the next chapter, where you can read: "When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood." (Matt. 27.3-4) Although the nickname Iscariot is mentioned only in two of the statements in Matthew, the context makes it quite clear that it is the same Judas that is mentioned in the other quotes.
The last Supper by Carl Bloch, late 19th century. Judas is leaving the Last Supper. Notice the red hair.
Mark also mentions, in connection with the
election of the apostles, that Judas was the one who later betrayed Jesus "These
are the twelve he appointed: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter), James son
of Zebedee and his brother John (to them he gave the name Boanerges, which means
“sons of thunder”), Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of
Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him."
(Mark 3.16-19), and in chapter 14, he can tell: "Then Judas Iscariot, one of
the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were
delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an
opportunity to hand him over." (Mark 14.10-11) Mark also mentions Judas'
role in the arrest of Jesus: "Just as he was speaking, Judas, one of the
Twelve, appeared. With him was a crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from
the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders. Now the betrayer had
arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him
away under guard.”" (Mark. 14.43-44). Mark, on the other hand, knows nothing
about the fact that Jesus already during the Last Supper pointed at Judas as the
That Judas was a traitor is one of the things
in which the Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptic Gospels. John has no list
of the names of the apostles, yet manages to "predict" Judas' betrayal. This is
already happening in connection with Jesus speaking to the "12" about the "bread
of life". To a question from Simon Peter follows: "Then Jesus replied, “Have I
not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” (He meant Judas, the son
of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)"
(John 6.70-71). Also in the twelfth chapter, it is mentioned that Judas is to
become a traitor. This happens in connection with the anointing of Jesus in
Bethany prior to the entry into Jerusalem: "Then Mary took about a pint of pure
nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with
her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of
his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why
wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s
wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a
thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into
it." (John 12: 3-6) In this case John even uses the opportunity to state, partly
that Judas did not (like the other disciples) care about the poor, and partly
that Judas was a thief and stole from the shared purse. In chapter 13 John
continues, after Jesus foretold that one of the apostles would betray him and when
they asked him who it was: "Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give
this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece
of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took
the bread, Satan entered into him." (John 13.26-27). Interestingly, according
to John, Satan didn't possessed Judas until after he had been mentioned as a traitor
by Jesus himself, in contrast to the story in Luke. Judas is also involved in
the arrest of Jesus: "Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus
had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the garden, guiding a
detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the
Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons." (John 18.2-3).
The Gnostics and the Gospel of Judas
So far the scriptures, at least the canonical
ones. From these writings it is clear to every reader (and listener) that Judas
is the horrible traitor, who is the sole cause of Jesus' arrest, conviction and execution.
However, there are other writings than the canonical ones. Especially one of the
so-called apocryphal writings is interesting in this connection, namely the
so-called Gospel of Judas. The Gospel belongs to a group of books called "the
Gnostic Gospels", and there are in fact also traces of Gnosticism in eg the
Gospel of John. The gospel probably dates from the middle of the second century,
and can therefore not be written by Judas himself, but it contains some
conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot.
* It is not known with certainty whether the Gospel of Judas mentioned by Irenaeus is the same as we know today or whether another Gospel of Judas existed in the time of Irenaeus.
First page of The Gospel of Judas. From wikimedia.org
The oldest existing copy of the Gospel of Judas
dates from sometime between 220 and 300 AD, and it is written in Coptic, but it
is believed today that it is based on an older version of the Gospel written in
Greek, perhaps as early as 130. The manuscript was found in 1970s but was first
translated around 2000. When the manuscript was originally found there were 31
pages with wrtings on both sides, but today only 13 pages remain so we know only a
very small part of the text. What happened to the remaining pages I don't know.
The Gospel of Judas claims to be secret, but
many of the Gospels did. It was to be understood in such a way that their
message was intended only for a closed circle of believers, who would understand
not only the words but also the hidden messages in the texts themselves.
According to the gospel, Judas was specially chosen by Jesus: "You will
surpass them all, because you will sacrifice the man (the body) who envelops me".
At another time Jesus says to Judas "Go away from the others, and I will tell
you about the mysteries of the kingdom" and later "Look! Now I have told
you everything. Raise your eyes and look at the cloud and the light inside it
and the stars who surrounds it. The star that shows the way is your star."
From this, it is obvious that Judas is more than the other disciples.
Much more could be said about this gospel, who also hints at Jesus being able to shapeshift, which explains why he often was able to disguise himself from the disciples so they only recognized him, when he choose to reveal himself, but that a story for another time and another article in another series.
What was Judas called, and what was the meaning of the name?
What do we know about Judas? We do first and
foremost know that he was the son of Simon. In the article "Jesus and the Band
of Rebels" I have discussed this, and here it is clear that the person who is
partly called Simon Canaanites and partly Simon Zelotes ("Canaanites" and "Zelotes"
mean the same thing, namely that he was zealous for the law"), is father of
Judas, and in John the family relationship is even clearer as he links the son's
nickname to the father and speaks of Simon Iscariot, see e.g. above. This, in
turn, is almost all we can deduce with certainty about Judas. Everything in
addition is speculation, but speculation that should be mentioned.
One of the speculations that is often brought forth is the question of the meaning of the nickname "Iscariot". The name has previously usually been interpreted as "The Man from Kheriot". Kheriot is a town in Judea, where Judas was supposed to come from. However, this is very uncertain for several reasons. First, the way the nickname is used. In all the places in the New Testament where a person is identified by the name of a town, he is called "this and that from or of the name of the city". This applies, for example, to Joseph of Arimathea and Simon of Cyrene. In cases where the nickname is just mentioned, it describes in all other contexts a characteristic distinction of the person, eg Simon Baryonam (Simon the Uncontrolled) and James and John Boanerges (James and John, actually "Sons of Wrath" even if in many translates the nickname as "Son of Thunder"). I discussed the same issue in the article "Was Jesus married - and to whom" in connection with Mary Magdalene. The second reason for the uncertainty is that the gospels (at least the synoptic gospels) largely agree that most of Jesus' disciples and at least the apostles, are from Galilee, so it is unlikely that Judas was from Judea (which he may have been anyway, as I believe the synoptic gospels locates too many events and people in Galilee even if they actually took place or belonged in Judaea).
Another, newer but now very widespread
interpretation of "Iscariot" is that it could be a distortion of "sicarii",
assassin or "stabber". The Sicarii were an ultra-violent faction within the
Zelot movement. During this period, the Jews were not allowed to carry weapons,
but were allowed to carry hygiene items. The Sicarii then developed a technique
in which they hid razors in the wide sleeves of their robes. The Orthodox Jews
had and still have a ban on shaving, so it is believed that the knife was not
used for shaving, but only for killing. The presumably Egyptian razor used by
the Sicarians had a short but wide blade and was very sharp, and could quickly
be pulled out of the sleeve and cut the throat of an enemy. Some sources will
know that the weapon of choice was a long, slender dagger, but that would have
been difficult to get out and hide again fast enough in my opinion. For the Sicariis,
enemies was both the the Roman occupying forces as well as the Jews who collaborated
with them. However, this interpretation is hampered by the fact that it is
assumed that the Sicarii movement did not exist in Jesus' time, but only arose
in the mid-40s or early 50s, ie 10-20 years after Jesus had been crucified. The
meaning of the nickname is therefore still uncertain. Personally, however, I am
a supporter of the Sicarii interpretation, and the fact that the Sicarii
movement did not exist under that name until after Jesus' death does not mean
that it did not already exist earlier. There may well have been such assassins,
and when the Gospels were written down at a later time, the term was common and
But if the meaning of the nickname is not known
with any certainty, we do at least know what Judas first name was, or do we? Nor
is this certain. Some modern scholars believe that the name Judas was created as
a symbol, so that Judas simply represents the betrayal and guilt of the whole of
Judaism, and that Judas is thus the "ancestor" of or reason for anti-Semitism. The very name
Judas or Judah, as it is in Aramaic, was also the name of one of the sons of
Jacob in Genesis, who (along with his brothers) betrayed his brother Joseph and
sold him to Ishmaelite slave traders for money: "Judah said to his brothers,
“What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come, let’s
sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our
brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed. So when the
Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern
and sold him for twenty shekels of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to
Egypt." (Gen. 37.26-28). Then he lied to his father and told him that
Joseph was dead. Later, Joseph "came to life again" when he became the "judge" of his
brothers, as the right hand of the Egyptian pharaoh, and one day revealed himself
to them: "Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his
attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no
one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers." (Gen. 45.1).
Do we know anything else about Judas?
Actually not that much as he is not mentioned
very much in the gospels except in connection with the betrayal. His father was
Simon, as mentioned above, but we know nothing of his mother and other family
members. In fact, only two things are mentioned about him, namely, that he was
the treasurer of the disciples, and that he was a thief; both in the Gospel of
John, see above.
Why would Judas betray Jesus?
Again, a lot of explanations have been given
for this matter. The best known and most obvious is that Judas was actually a
greedy thief and did it for the sake of money. Matthew knows that he received 30
pieces of silver for his "deed" (Matt. 26:15). He later regretted it and threw
the money back to the high priests, who eventually bought a field for them,
which was set up as a burial ground. According to Mark he gets a promise of
being paid some money to betray Jesus, but the amount is not mentioned. The same
applies to Luke, where an agreement on payment is made, but without an amount.
John knows nothing of any payment. Acts knows he got money,
but not how many. According to Acts, Judas himself bought a field for the money,
but he fell, his body burst open and he thus killed himself, either by accident or
So only Matthew knows about "the 30 pieces of silver", and he mentions that it had to be so, so that the action could fulfill a prophecy - which, incidentally, can not be found in known versions of the Old Testament. Jeremiah, to whom Matthew refers, has a story about a man who buys a field from his cousin for 17 silver shekels: "I knew that this was the word of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver". (Jerm. 32.9) But it is the man himself who buys a field, the high priests are not involved, the amount not 30 shekels and there is nothing indicating neither suicide nor betrayal. The Book of Zechariah comes a bit closer with the amount as there is a story of 30 silver shekels, but it is also not about betrayal, buying a field or the like, but of The Lord getting mad at his "flock": "I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter” — the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord." (Zech. 11.12-13). So it is not possible to identify the prophecy that Matthew refers to, and Matthew, in his gospel, actually refers to many Old Testament prophecies that can't be found today. So unless Matthew has had access to an edition of the Old Testament that we do not know today, his prophecy references may very well be self-invented in many cases.
However, there are two other evangelists who
believe that the betrayal was done for money, but since both Luke and Matthew
have based their gospels on Mark, they may have gotten the story from him, and
then embroidered further on the story themselves. John, who has written
independently, doesn't know the story. Whether Matthew is right or not, it is
very difficult to get a sense of how much money was involved. In the time of
Moses, one could buy 400 liters of barley seeds for 50 shekels, which is
equivalent to 240 liters for 30 shekels. However, there has probably been some
inflation between Moses and Jesus, so the value of a shekel was considerably
less. So is relatively small amount for a man who had access to a lot of money.
If it was typical that the disciples were donasted values equivalent to one pound
of nard ointment, there was a lot of money in the coffers (nard ointment was
considered more expensive than gold). Now, however, the amount need not be given in shekels even if that's the unit the Gospel use,
or at least modern editions. It might have been
Roman denarii. In that case, the amount corresponds to a monthly salary for a
day laborer at Jesus' time. Still not much for the cashier who was even accused
of stealing from the shared money purse. In an old printed edition of the New Testament,
which I unfortunately no longer own, no unit of currency was used, just "silver
money", but in the comments "silver money" was explained as "Greek staters",
a coin which was in use in Greece and Greek influenced areas like Judaea until AD 50. In that case, the amount corresponds to
around four months' salary for the day laborer;
better, but still not much. Finally, it may be Roman talents, and then it's
something that rocks, as a Roman talent equals 3,000 shekels or 300 denarii. In
that case, the reward was 9,000 denarii or the wages of a day laborer for almost
25 years. If that were the case, it might be worth it for Judas. On the
other hand, 30 talents of silver would weigh about 90 pounds, so it would be
difficult to carry, and even more difficult to throw it back to the high priests.
It has also been suggested that Judas actually
believed that Jesus was the Son of God and believed that his action would
"force" Jesus to use his power and work one or more miracles that could free the
Jews from Roman oppression. Alternatively, the interpretation of the Gospel of
Judas, is that it was not the Jews that Judas would save, as no salvation was
possible for them as "mortal" souls. But rather Jesus, whom he would help to
free the soul from the prison of the body. If the latter had been the case,
there would have been easier methods than a crucifixion to achieve the same
result. He could have killed Jesus himself. Not least because the crucifixion
would require Jesus to be convicted first, and although it was likely, it was
A conspiracy between Jesus and Judas?
That there was some kind of agreement
or understanding between
Jesus and Judas about 'the betrayal' can, in my opinion, be read both between and on
the lines of two of the canonical gospels, and incidentally also in a single place in
Acts. I normally begin with Matthew, but let me wait a bit with
this gospel in this case. In Mark and the Gospel of Luke, Jesus only says that
he will be betrayed by someone who dines with him, and that could only be one
the 12 apostles as this conversation took place during the Last Supper, when no
one else were present as far as we know today. On the other hand, it is clear
that Jesus had to leave if not the world, then at least the disciples to fulfill
something foretold, for example in Luke: "The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed. But woe to
that man who betrays him!" (Luke 22.22). Why 'woe" the man if it is
already decided what will happen?
And then on to Matthew. In this gospel it says,
"And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will
betray me.” They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other,
“Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?” Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his
hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 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.” Then Judas, the one who would betray
him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”"
(Matt. 26: 21-25). In this gospel it seems as if Judas is surprised that it
should be he who was the traitor, and the passage can be taken as an accusation,
not least the phrase "but woe to the man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed."
Later in the Danish translation of the same gospel, it sounds more like an
agreement: "He who betrayed him had agreed a sign with them and said: It is
he whom I kiss; seize him! He immediately went to Jesus, greeted him with a '
Rabbi! ' and kissed him. Jesus said to him, 'My friend, now you have done your
thing'" (Matt. 26: 48-50) Here it clearly looks as if Jesus is thanking
Judas for keeping his part of an agreement. In the English translation from
Biblica Online, the text in the same verses, this hint of cooperation is less
clear but still hints at that both Jesus and Judas knew what was going on: "Now
the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest
him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend." In King James' Bible it seems
as Jesus is surprised or at least don't know why Judas leads his enemies to him,
even if he had predicted this at the Last Supper: "Now he that betrayed him gave
them a sign, saying, Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he: hold him fast.
And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, Hail, master; and kissed him. And
Jesus said unto him, Friend, wherefore art thou come? Then came they, and laid
hands on Jesus, and took him."
The Gospel of John is even clearer: "“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this
passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’" (John
13.18) and later "Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece
of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread,
he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread,
Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.”
But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had
charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed
for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken
the bread, he went out. And it was night. When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now the
Son of Man is glorified and God is glorified in him." (John 13:26-31) According
to John, Jesus handed the bread directly to Judas, and didn't wait for Judas to
dip it with him. Leaving aside the passage about Satan possessing
Judas, the two passages together clearly sound like an order to Judas to do
something that he and Jesus had agreed upon in advance; and Judas immediately
begins to carry it out. That the 11 other apostles must have been a little
slow-witted if they thought that Jesus had asked Judas to give something to the
poor, or shop for the feast, is a completely different matter. It's of course
possible that they didn't understand what was going on, as they may not have
been in on the plot - at least not all of them.
How did Judas end his life?
That's actually a good, but
actually not very important question. The Gospel of
Barnabas let Judas be crucified instead of Jesus. Matthew lets him hang himself
and and Acts let him fall down, without stating from what or where, but so
hard that all his entrails fell out. The Gospel of Judas, or the parts of the
gospel that we know today, says nothing about Judas' death. The different
explanations are so far apart that they can't all be true, although attempts
have been made to reconcile at least the explanations in the Gospel of Matthew
and Acts, by claiming that Judas hanged himself and when the body had hung so
long that it had fallen into decay, it crashed down and the entrails fell out.
However, the stories about the field that were purchased do not fit together either,
and I think both stories are literary additions or explanations, either made by the authors of the two
writings or by later editors, who wanted to add a moral to the story: "See what happened to the
traitor," in which case they overlooked the fact that without Judas, Jesus would
not have been crucified and thus had taken the sins of all people on his shoulders.
If he hadn't died. he had not been resurrected, and then there had been no basis
for Christianity at all.