November 4, 2008

Judas is one of the most hated people in history. There are now some attempts to clean up his image but overall I think that little can be achieved. For example, in January 2006 Vatican scholar Monsignor Walter Brandmuller suggested that Judas was simply “fulfilling his part in God’s plan”.

The rehabilitation of Judas could help the Pope Benedict’s drive to improve Christian-Jewish relations. Some Bible experts have claimed that Judas’ traditional portrayal as “sinister villain” has helped foster anti-Semitism through the ages. For example, in medieval plays and paintings Judas is portrayed with a hooked nose and exaggerated Semitic features.

Therefore a fresh interpretation of his simply being a cog in the divine plan for world affairs reduces Judas’ personal responsibility for the betrayal. He was simply doing his job. But it will require a lot of Vatican spin to clean Judas’ traditional image.

Judas betrayed Jesus to the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He enabled them to identify Jesus and thus began the process that ended on the cross.

Judas receives few mentions up this point in the scriptures. For example, while we know something about how Jesus recruited most of the other disciples, nothing is known about how Judas was recruited. Similarly, there is little information on his participation in the discussions among the disciples as they try to understand Jesus’ preaching and teaching. There is little information on how he worked with the other disciples in healing the sick.

It is possible that he did not get along with the other disciples all that well because he was an outsider. All the other disciples were from Galilee, while he was from Judah. He was from part of an elite area of the country, while they were from the distant and obscure northern part. “Iscariot” most likely means “man from Kerioth”, a city in Judea, in the southern part of Israel, near Hebron. Judea was where most of the priests lived since all the sacrifices had to be performed in Jerusalem.

Additionally, Judas was the disciples’ group treasurer. There were suggestions that he was not completely honest in how he handled their money.

Judas decides to betray Jesus to the anxious religious authorities. Jesus in Jerusalem is a popular figure, surrounded by disciples and well wishers. The religious authorities would have difficulty just grabbing him in a crowd. Judas pinpointed the target. Judas takes the initiative and he goes to the religious authorities to do a deal.

He asks them how much they would give him if he delivers Jesus up to them. The sum of money is actually very small for such a major target: only 30 pieces of silver. This was about the value of a slave.

He leads the guards to Jesus, who is arrested and put on trial. Later Judas is sick of his role in the betrayal and persecution of Jesus. He said that Jesus was an innocent man. He throws the money back at the religious authorities. They cannot use it at the temple. Instead, they buy some land for the burial of foreigners. This has traditionally been known as the “field of blood”. Judas committed suicide shortly afterwards.

The inclusion of such a foul person in Jesus’ team has always been a problem for Christian commentators. Why did Jesus allow a person who was a crook to remain as the group’s treasurer? Second, why did Jesus retain a person who was an outsider in the group when his presence may well have been a disruptive influence? Did he undermine the team spirit? Third, why did Jesus select someone who was eventually going to betray him? The discussions have gone on for centuries. They are being heard again this week.