CSI Biblical Jerusalem: Project Judas

I’m of the opinion that every Christian girl goes through a period of time when she gets obsessed with Judas’s betrayal of Jesus and tries to figure out what the heck he was thinking. I did it when I was twelve and have revisited the subject every few years.

The interpretations are varied, but you can break the possibilities down into a few categories. First, either Judas wanted Jesus to die, or he didn’t.

If Judas didn’t want Jesus to die, then we assume Judas wanted to provoke Jesus into some kind of action, or else he figured Jesus was dangerous and would be sent off to prison to cool his jets for a while. (And it wasn’t unknown for the Romans to put a popular figure under “house arrest” for ten or twenty years until his following died down and the next “flavor of the month” showed up.)

If Judas did want Jesus to die, then we assume he was either money-hungry or else he felt massively betrayed by Jesus and sought to return the favor.

The Bible itself is unclear on this, ironically. The accounts differ as to whether Judas was money-hungry (John) or possessed by Satan (John again) or distraught when he found out about Jesus’s sentence (Matthew) or went off and bought a field with the money and died in a freak accident (Acts of the Apostles.)

The strangest point, on which all the accounts are in agreement, is that Judas didn’t testify against Jesus. You’d think that would have been part of the price, no? His testimony would have been valuable to Jesus’s enemies.

It sounds to me almost as if the apostles themselves never figured it out, and I’m sure there were multiple discussions on the subject.

The highly pensive point is, “There’s a little bit of Judas in everyone” and none of us would be above betraying God over something. Like the woman sitting next to George Bernard Shaw, we’re “only haggling over the price.” But I’m more interested in the practical point here: what was he really thinking?

Because it’s a huge turnaound: you join up with someone, believe he’s the Messiah, witness healings, eat divinely multiplied food, watch him raise the dead, worked healings and exorcisms yourself in his name!, and then you go to a bunch of your enemies and say “Hey, got any spare cash?” I can’t see it. First off, if money was the driving issue, Judas would have been able to find other ways of making it. I hear tax collectors pulled down good salaries. Certainly abandoning all you have to follow an itinerant preacher around the countryside isn’t the subject of all those “Make Money Fast” emails I get in my spambox.

A month ago, Ivy pointed out something to me from the Talmud that brought me up short, because I suddenly realized we may actually have the key to Judas’s actions, only we’re going to find it not in what Judas did, but in how Jesus reacted.

Stay tuned. We’re about to have some theological fun (or, we’re about to wrap our brains into pretzels on the next episode of CSI: Biblical Jerusalem.)


  1. ivyreisner

    Can I throw in an odd wrinkle? He might have converted.

    Remember, things we understand as perfectly normal natural phenomenon were, for the ancients, clear proof of some miraculous happening. For the Egyptians, the sun vanishing in daytime meant that a dragon had swallowed the sun and Set had freed it. The evidence of such divine strivings was right there in the sky, undeniable.

    If Judas experienced something equally compelling to turn him to the side of Jupiter, he might have acted in that new allegiance. Think about how many people today receive, or think they receive, a divine revelation and abandon long and deeply held beliefs. The gospel writers couldn’t include this, because that would serve, to their audiences, as clear proof that Jupiter had shown his divine disapproval and they were wrong.

    Cambysis’s armies were swallowed in the desert on route to Siwa. On the same path, Alexander’s armies were blessed first by rain when their water ran out and then by birds that they could follow (birds would stay where the food and water was–the oasis). This clearly meant that Set, master of the desert, approved of Alexander and acknowledged his claim to divinity. For that world, for that time, this was proof enough to move nations.

    So stating, “As Judas prayed for blessings to fall upon Jesus, Apollo hid his face from him in disgust, casting the world into a darkness like unto the tomb. But when Judas repented and gave honor to Jupiter, then Apollo consented to appear again, and so grant life anew unto the world.” wouldn’t have been seen as “gee, solar eclipse. That’s nice.” but as proof of the Roman gods acting in opposition to Jesus. Something in that vein could have turned Judas on the one hand and been unspeakable to the gospel writers on the other.

    See how that holds? His intentions stay noble. He was trying to save the world from the wrath of the Roman gods. If he were fearing Jupiter in particular (Jupiter is a corn god) then he would have needed money to stockpile food in the event Jupiter withheld his harvest in anger. Explains the desire for cash.

    Since he would have been deceived by false signs, it would have been easy to interpret that as he was under the influence of the devil.

    He would be distraught because he would he loved and respected Jesus and thus been torn by two loyalties and needs, only finally putting the entire society over one man.

    He might have bought a field, because if it was Jupiter who was angry, and angry for the actions he and his fellows had taken, then how could he, in good conscience, hide, or shield himself, from the wrath of the king of the gods?

  2. philangelus

    Judas was, first and foremost, Jewish. I cannot believe that as a faithful Jew, and we’re told a member of the Zealot party that hated the Romans, that he would be easily converted to any kind of Roman religion. Anything that he experienced would have been experienced by the other disciples as well, no?

    Besides, he’s included in the disciples when they return from going out two-by-two and casting out demons and healing in Jesus’s name, so I don’t think you could shake that kind of belief.

    And would that one incident be enough to change the mind of someone who was already heavily invested in Jesus’s ministry? Remember, the more you sacrifice for a cause, the more desperately you need to believe it’s going to pay off. Judas had already given Jesus two or three years of his life, risked his reputation with his family, and suffered the privation of living on the road. He was heavily invested in Jesus’s ministry succeeding.

    30 pieces of silver was about one month’s wages, so anywhere from five hundred to two thousand dollars in modern American money. He wasn’t about to survive a divine pummeling with one month’s wages. The Gospels say it was a bounty price: enough to motivate someone to turn in the criminal but not enough to keep him independently wealthy or make the informer into a dangerous criminal himself.

    So no, I don’t think Judas converted.

  3. ivyreisner

    Right, of course. I forgot he was Jewish. The uprising. Messiah to free the people. It totally went out of my head. I was thinking more of a return to his upbringing, but yeah, you’re right.

  4. mercurial scribe

    Oh, c’mon now! Suspense is not good for the blood pressure, yo!

  5. xdpaul

    Now, I’m pretty much of the “Judas was tempted, demon entered him, he betrayed, then regretted but couldn’t accept his treason, so he hung himself over the field his money paid for, rotted, snapped from the tree and burst all over the place” camp, so I can’t say I’ve faced these same questions.

    However, it is totally riveting, so get on with the investigation! I’d love to learn more about motive, etc. Chop-chop! An anxious nation awaits your post!

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  8. Gina

    While you offer an intriguing argument here, I must point out that scripture is pretty clear about Judas being a money grubber.

    Recall John 12, When Lazarus, Martha and Mary gave a dinner for Jesus, Mary annointed Jesus with very expensive perfume. Who objected? Judas. He said, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” John points out in the very next sentence that the real reason Judas made this statement was because he was stealing from the till. So basically, Judas wanted the bottle of perfume to be donated, so that he could sell it and keep his cut.

    The accounts in Matthew and Mark do not specify who objected to Mary’s annointing of Jesus. Granted, others may have disagreed, and might have had difficulty with Jesus’ reasoning on this; but who went immediately running off to the Sanhedrin to turn him in? Judas.

    And thirty pieces of silver was a nice chunk of change.

    Greed is a capital sin. What can you say about a man that would steal from his own band all while living in the very physical presence of our Lord, in dining with him, living with him, knowing him and seeing first hand his wondrous works? And Judas never repented.

    Judas wasn’t thinking of Jesus at all, and only thinking of himself.

  9. philangelus

    You’re raising good points, and they work well with one another, but the greed explanation doesn’t take into account all the facts we can pick up. The problems I’m seeing, Gina, are twofold.

    The first is that the Gospels are contradicting one another, and that’s always problematic. I’m trying to reconcile the different accounts and not coming up with one coherent picture, which means something was either unknown or misunderstood and the Holy Spirit didn’t see fit to clarify matters.

    If greed was the primary sin, then Judas was smart enough to figure out how to say, “You know, you seem to be having trouble coming up with witnesses, so, uh, for fifteen MORE pieces of silver, I’ll testify. I lived with the man for three years, and I can come up with a couple of doozies.”

    And if greed was the primary sin, he’d never have thrown the money back at the Sanhedrin. (Although in Acts, to be fair, he doesn’t. He spends it on himself.)

    The second half of the problem is that let’s say Judas *was* stealing from the common purse. He’s *living* with them, as you said. Nothing is private. So even if he stole the money, what’s he doing with it? He’s not out buying a new iPod (to be silly) and stashing it in his bedroom because everything’s in common. If he’d turned up with new robes or designer sandals, the other eleven would have seen it and said, “Dude? Where’d you get that?” Or even, “Hey, we noticed you have TWO coin purses, and we were wondering what’s behind door number two.”

    There’s got to be a certain transparency to living on the road that would have made stealing from the common purse either futile or all-but-impossible. I can’t see how he’d have pulled that off.

    The chief contradictions here are the accounts of whether Judas threw back the money or not. If Judas felt remorse, I can’t see he was prompted by greed. (If he tossed back the money, I think he repented of causing Jesus’s death, but then he turned to the sin of despair, which is worse.)

    If not, then yeah, probably it was flat-out greed, but I still don’t understand why he didn’t sell his testimony.

  10. Karina Fabian

    One theory that’s been missed here, and one that seems most logical to me, is that Judas was trying to start a revolution. Remember, in those days, the Jews believed the Messiah would be a secular king, a new David to make their nation strong and independent again.

    So here is Jesus, Son of God as both his words and actions attest, soing incredible things, preaching a new Kingdom. But what does he say about the Roman rule? “Render onto Ceasar.”

    Jesus enters Jerusalem on a young colt, fulfilling the scripture. But there’s no uprising to being the new kingdom. Instead Jesus finds a nice quiet house to celebrate Passover.

    So he decides if Jesus won’t start it, someone has to in his name. He turns him in, using the bounty as an excuse. They arrest Jesus and –hooray! Peter pulls out a sword!

    But Jesus rebukes him. He is not there to start an earthly rebellion. And at last Judas understands that Jesus’ ministry is about more than the present political situation.

    Now the problem with this theory is that Judas turned him in to the Jewish authorities, but if they were considered the puppets of Rome anyway….

    This theory also explains the question of how Judas could be stealing and no one noticing. He was giving the money to revolutionaries.

  11. philangelus

    Other than the “Money to the revolutionaries” thing, I’m not seeing how your conclusion is all that appreciably different from mine.

    I think Judas honestly believed that Jesus was going to come and found God’s kingdom on earth now, only he needed to give things a tiny push in order to make it happen. Like I said, the tragedy of good (the kingdom of God on earth) versus Good (the Kingdom of God as God intended it.)

    The Romans knew about Jesus and I’ll be they were watching him closely, but since Jesus seemed to be all for leaving Rome in power, the Romans had no incentive to execute him or otherwise dispose of him, since the next revolutionary might well come along and preach violence against Romans. Instead they were probably thrilled with Jesus who encouraged paying taxes and if you were impressed into service carrying a Roman’s gear one mile, carry it two miles. I’d have let that kind of revolutionary go on preaching for as long as he liked if I were Rome! 🙂

  12. suburbanbanshee

    A lot of people get into trouble with money while not meaning to embezzle or steal it outright. They are just borrowing it for a little bit (without asking first) in order to pay some embarrassing debt. And then, they can’t pay it back, or something worse happens.

    One of the medieval ballads has Judas carrying the money while he visits his sweetheart. His sweetheart makes off with the cash. Judas is desperate to cover up the missing money and tries everything. He’s pretty shocked when Jesus doesn’t just skip out past the soldiers.

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