Judas Iscariot

I’ve been thinking about Judas a good bit. The initial prompt was the gospel for the 5th Sunday in Lent about which I preached here. There we learn pretty much everything we know about Judas Iscariot–that he is the son of Simon Iscariot, that he is one of the twelve, that he keeps the common purse. John also calls him a thief and puts in his mouth the criticism that Mark attributed to “the disciples”–that the money Mary spent on the perfume would have better gone to help the poor.

In the gospel for Wednesday in Holy Week, we read the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus in John 13. Of all the gospels, John is the most insistent on the devil’s role in Judas’ actions but Judas’ reasons for betraying Jesus are not at all clear. Many scholars have speculated that the name “Iscariot” refers to a group of assassins named the “sicarii” who were active a couple of decades after Jesus and that Judas may have been actively engaged in revolt or resistance against Rome. Others suggest the term is derived from a village in Judea and point out that Judas’ father is also known as Iscariot. Matthew attributes Judas’ motives to money, although the sum he receives, 30 pieces of silver, is not especially valuable and Judas seeks to return it as he repents of his actions.

I think the most likely motivation for Judas lies in the political sphere. From the synoptics, it’s apparent that the disciples don’t really know why Jesus is going to Jerusalem. They don’t understand the predictions of his death. It’s likely that any messianic speculation they might have had would have focused on Jesus leading a revolt against Rome, perhaps invoking heavenly armies to do battle with the Roman Empire. Judas may have betrayed Jesus in an effort to force his hand, to compel him to take action against Rome. If so, he was wrong, and his repentance after the fact may be evidence that he came to understand what Jesus was really about.

Judas is an enigmatic figure not just because we know so little about him (the uproar about the Gospel of Judas notwithstanding). He is enigmatic because we struggle to understand his motives. If Satan was the driving force in his betrayal, then Judas is more a tragic figure than a villain.

The Christian tradition has tended to interpret Judas as a diabolical figure in his own right. That’s particularly true of artistic representations. The famous fresco by Giotto in the Arena Chapel has been a powerful influence on later interpretations of Judas. Giotto depicts him as barely human. His features are ape-like, animal, and he radiates hate and evil.


A later depiction, by Caravaggio, takes Judas’ other-ness in a different direction. Now, he is the most “Jewish” looking of anyone in the painting:


In each case, Judas becomes someone with whom we can no longer identify: the personification of evil, of other-ness. And the same is true in recent cinematic or television portrayals of Judas. He is dark and swarthy, easily imagined as an undocumented immigrant or a muslim, certainly not “one of us.” That’s unfortunate because one of the things we can say certainly about Judas was that Jesus called him as a disciple, as one of the inner circle, the twelve. He walked with Jesus through Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem. He heard him teach, saw the miracles he performed. In that he was like all of the other disciples. His misunderstanding of Jesus was no deeper than that of any of the others, although he acted on it in ways they did not. But none of them understood what it meant to follow Jesus. None of them understood fully who Jesus was. That understanding came only after cross and resurrection.

There are ways in which we are very much like Judas. We heap all sorts of expectations on him, we want him to be a certain way, to do certain things, to confirm our expectations. We may not betray him as dramatically as Judas betrayed Jesus, but we do betray him, when we refuse to share his love, when we neglect the needs of those around us, when we seek to remain in our secure and complacent faith, and fail to follow Jesus on the road that leads to the cross. We are Judas, at least some of the time, just like there are times when we are Peter who denied him, and like all those who abandoned him. But Jesus loves us, just like he loved Peter, and the other disciples, and even, dare I say it, Judas?



1 thought on “Judas Iscariot

  1. Very well said. Given the action of the Passion narrative, Judas played an absolutely vital role, yet he remains the one we are encouraged to hate. There is always someone in every tragic situation who seems to be the key villain. As for the Giotto painting, Judas’ profile seems to bear a striking resemblance to Richard Nixon!

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