Judas Iscariot (Hebrew: Yehudah IshKeriyot—Greek: Ioudas Iskariо̄tēs) was born c. AD 10 (3770–3771 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman province of Judea. He was one of Jesus' original twelve apostles. All four of the canonical gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John detailed Judas' betrayal of Jesus to the Sanhedrin in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas had kissed Jesus and called him "rabbi," verifying his identity to the Roman soldiers and temple police who came to arrest him (cf. Matt. 26:14-15; Mark 14:10-11; Luke 22:3-4; John 13:25-27). Judas' surname Iscariot (G2469) literally means "man from Kerioth village" (Hebrew ish; H377; and kiryah; H7149). His father's name was Simon Iscariot, also a "man of Kerioth" (cf. John 6:71; 13:2; 13:26). Kerioth was a small town in southern Judea (cf. Josh. 15:25), which is now an archaeological site at Khirbet al-Qaryatayn about ten miles (16 km) south of Hebron. Judas Iscariot was the only Judean among the twelve apostles, since the others were all Galilean.
Today, even to non-Christians, "Judas" is a byword for disloyalty and betrayal. Ironically, Yehudah (H3063) means "praised," a common Hebrew name deriving from one of the twelve tribes of Israel. He should not be confused with Jude Thaddeus, a brother and apostle of Jesus. Even in their lists of the twelve from the very beginning, the gospel writers each identified Judas Iscariot as "the one who betrayed him" (Matt. 10:4) or "who became a traitor" (Luke 6:16). Yet, Jesus chose Judas to be one of his apostles, even making him the treasurer of the group despite his knack for embezzling their money (cf. John 12:4-6; 13:29). Simply put, Jesus gave Judas enough rope by which to hang himself—almost literally.
Judas' Betrayal: Predestined or Freely Chosen?
In Christian theology, Judas represents a dilemma between God's sovereignty and human free will (see "God's Will & Our Free Choices"). Right before Jesus was arrested, he washed the disciples' feet and confirmed his messianic identity to them. Yet, he also foretold of his betrayal by Judas and the denial by Simon Peter. Jesus contrasted his task of foot-washing with Judas' apparent lack of cleanliness, albeit spiritual rather than physical. Notwithstanding, these verses from John give many readers pause: "I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, 'The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me'" (v. 18). Jesus quoted King David's words found in Psalm 41: "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me" (v. 9). His stylistic interpretation actually involved the entire psalm, as consistent with Jewish hermeneutics. In the first century, rabbis would often cite a verse, knowing their students could recall the whole passage by memory. Therefore, Jesus was not feeling sorry for himself, because Psalm 41 ends with God blessing him with victory and his presence (vv. 12-13). His resurrection was also implied: "They think that a deadly thing has fastened on me, that I will not rise again from where I lie" (v. 8). Simply put, Judas never believed in Jesus' resurrection. In fact, this was the turning point when Judas approached the Sanhedrin; right after Jesus defended the woman who perfumed his feet and then forecast his death on the cross (cf. Mark 14:3-11).
Ever since 2006, when the National Geographic Society published the so-called "gospel of Judas" in English, it has been fashionable for some church leaders to read in sympathetic or psychoanalytical reasons for Judas' betrayal. However, the Bible gives us three basic reasons for it: 1) Judas was already inclined to evil, stealing money from Jesus' ministry funds; 2) He was possessed by Satan (cf. Luke 22:3; John 13:27); and 3) The Sanhedrin paid Judas thirty silver coins—valued today at about $197.40 when converting from the Tyrian shekel—to be their snitch. He was a simple evildoer, and we should not require a complex backstory to know this fact. God predestined Judas to be Jesus' betrayer by his foreknowledge and middle knowledge. However, Judas also freely made a series of decisions, culminating in his shameful demise. How is this possible? Because God creates options for us to follow, but all of them meet the same purpose. In Psalm 41, he planned for someone close to Jesus to be his betrayer, yet allowing Judas to make his own choices to arrive at this fate. Jesus warned, "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born" (Matt. 26:24). Peter faced a similar choice to deny Jesus, but he repented (cf. Luke 22:61-62; John 21:15-17).
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Matthew likened Judas' payment of thirty silver coins to the prophet Zechariah: "I then said to them, 'If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.' So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. Then the LORD said to me, 'Throw it into the treasury'—this lordly price at which I was valued by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them into the treasury in the house of the LORD" (11:12-13). This amount was no mere coincidence. In the Law of Moses, thirty shekels of silver was the set price of compensation if an ox gored an Israelite's slave (cf. Exod. 21:32). Therefore, when Jesus was tortured and crucified, he became damaged goods—no more valuable than a fatally wounded slave. Although Matthew cited Jeremiah as the source of the thirty shekels, the prophecy actually came from Zechariah. However, Matthew typologically referred to Jeremiah, when God told him to buy a clay jar and break it over a field in the Hinnom Valley. This was to protest Israel's concessions to idolatry, child sacrifice, and the shedding of innocent blood (cf. Jer. 19). Simply put, Jesus was a guiltless victim of the Sanhedrin, sold by Judas as a slave (cf. Isa. 53). For this treachery, God condemned Judas to death, represented by the horrors of Hinnom (see "Netherworld: Down to Death").
Judas' Death: A Controversy of Betrayal
Judas died sometime between AD 30 to 33. Matthew and Luke each narrated two different stories of his death that even the most conservative of Bible scholars find difficult to harmonize. In Matthew's account, Judas changed his mind and gave his reward money back to the chief priests and elders of the Jerusalem temple—not taking "no" for answer. He immediately committed suicide by hanging himself on a tree. The priests realized they could not donate Judas' blood money into the temple's treasury according to the Law of Moses. So, they bought the "potter's field" to bury foreigners in it, eventually being known as the "field of blood" (cf. Matt. 27:3-10). Luke narrated another version of Judas' death. This time, Judas used his silver to buy some random field instead of returning it to the priests. On an uncertain day, Judas happened to die by falling over, with his intestines gushing out of his abdomen (cf. Acts 1:18-19). This time, the residents of Jerusalem called the lot Hakeldama (G184), Hebrew for "Field of Blood," because Judas died there. Incidentally, this "field of blood" was located in the the Hinnom Valley (Greek: Gehenna; G1067)—the netherworld. In this context, Luke used the "field of blood" theme to symbolize Judas' condemnation, as Peter noted, ". . . from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place" (Acts 1:25).
As Christians who believe that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16), we must always try to harmonize the parts of the Bible that seem contradictory. However, it is true that Matthew and Luke each gave us a different set of facts. As a result, a harmony between them must be theological, but not necessarily historical. This is consistent with the Jewish rabbinical tradition of midrash (H4097)—stylized topical commentary to teach spiritual lessons. Matthew emphasized the sacrifice of Jesus with appeals to the prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah. Luke highlighted the Psalms to explain Judas' forfeiture of his apostleship, which was necessary to introduce Matthias as a replacement (Acts 1:20-26; cf. Pss. 69:25, 109:8). The usual apologetic response that "Judas hanged himself and then his guts spilled out" fails to account for all the details. However, we must be intellectually and spiritually honest with ourselves. In one version, the chief priests bought the field and, in another, Judas did so. Matthew said Judas hanged himself, but in Acts, it seems Judas died in a random farming accident. The theme of body horror is not unlike the death of Herod when "an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died" (Acts 12:23b). This coincided with Luke's idea that God killed Judas by his divine wrath. However, we do not know which version of Judas' death was factual, as both include literary devices. We do realize that he died with blood guilt—without repentance.
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, we ask you graciously to behold your family, for whom our Lord Jesus the Messiah was willing to be betrayed and given into the hands of sinners, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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