Rehabilitating Judas Iscariot


The ‘Gospel of Judas’ published on April 6th by the National Geographic Society hasbeen a subject of media attention throughout the world with claims that it is oneof the most significant archaeological discoveries ever.  This Coptic translationof an original Greek text written around AD 150-180 was discovered in Egypt in the1970s.  It then circulated amongst antiquities dealers before languishing in a safedeposit box in New York until 2000. In a deteriorating condition it was then sentfor translation by Rodolphe Kasser, one of the world’s leading Coptic scholars.

The text (which has several parts missing) tells of an alleged conversation betweenJesus and Judas three days before the Passover when Jesus was crucified.  It fitsin with ideas already well known from the second century of the Christian era, knownas Gnosticism.  

Gnosticism held to the belief that salvation comes through ‘gnosis,’ the Greek wordfor ‘knowledge.’ It is about becoming an insider on the secrets of the universe.Gnosticism puts forward a view of the true God in conflict with an evil God, whoin some forms of Gnostic teaching is associated with Jehovah of the Old Testament.One of the bad things this evil God did was to create the world with its presentimperfections.

The pure spiritual realm is where the true God is, but none of us can get to himdirectly.  The problem, according to Gnosticism, is that we live in a world thatis evil and our bodies and everything associated with them are evil.  Certain spirituallysuperior people were able to escape from the evil influence of the body and discoverthe spark of divinity within them.  ‘Jesus’ in Gnosticism becomes a facilitator tothis discovery by revealing secret knowledge to the elect.  

This is exactly what we find in the Gospel of Judas.  ‘Jesus’ says to Judas ‘Come,that I may teach you about secrets no person has ever seen.’  He also laughs at theprayer of the other disciples who are working for the ‘other god’ while Judas hasreached a higher level of spirituality than them.  Jesus tells Judas that he ‘willexceed all’ and that he ‘will sacrifice the one that clothes me’.  In doing thisJudas makes the release of Jesus’ spirit back to the heavenly realm possible.  

In Gnosticism, only the spirit is saved and ascends back to the heavenly realm. Thebody is destroyed, and there is no physical aspect to the resurrection of the deadand salvation as the Apostles taught (1 Corinthians 15). In much of Gnostic teachingJesus only appeared to be a man, so he is seen here longing to shed his human skinand return to being a spiritual being.  This contrasts with the New Testament teachingof Jesus as fully God and fully man.  

In an age which is always looking for some new reason to disbelieve the Gospel recordedin the New Testament it is not surprising that much of the media has taken all thison board.  The Daily Mail (7/4/06) carried an article Saint Judas?’ which claimed:‘The extraordinary thing about this new manuscript is that it rehabilitates Judasas one of Christ’s true disciples.  More than that it tells Judas’s own story throughhis own eyes, documenting conversations he had with Christ and the special relationshipthe two enjoyed.   And it explains for the first time why the betrayer acted as hedid, even calling into question the doctrine of the resurrection which is the basisof the Christian faith.’   

Elaine Pagels, author of ‘The Gnostic Gospels’ wrote in the New York Times that thediscovery of the Judas Gospel and related Gnostic texts ‘are exploding the myth ofa monolithic religion, and demonstrating how diverse—and fascinating—the early Christianmovement really was.’

Herb Krosney, author of ‘A Lost Gospel’ writes:  ‘Judas is actually Jesus’ best friend.Judas is the one who enables Jesus to fulfil his mission — to die and to releasethat inner spark within himself and within all of us that is the divine. And thatis the concept of this absolutely rare 2nd-century document, which is just comingto light.’

All of these ideas are entering into the popular culture today and causing many toquestion the message of the New Testament Gospels.  The Gnostic gospels, rejectedas heresy by the early church, are now entering the mainstream having received atremendous boost from the Da Vinci Code.  Turning Judas from the traitor of the Gospelsinto a misunderstood hero appears to be part of this process which generally containsthe following main themes:

1. The four Gospels in the New Testament were not the only accounts of the life andteaching of the Lord Jesus.  Other ‘gospels’ written at a later date are equallyvalid and were suppressed by the authoritarian church.

2. Jesus is not the Son of God sent into the world to redeem humanity by dying onthe cross and rising again from the dead, but a teacher of spiritual truth.

3. The problem facing the human race is not sin / disobedience to God’s commandments,but ignorance of the spark of divinity which is to be discovered within us all.

4. Therefore the solution to the human problem is not repentance and faith in theonce and for all sacrifice for sin made by the Lord Jesus at the cross, but enlightenmentto the secret knowledge which awakens our divinity.

Of course there is absolutely nothing new about these ideas at all and the claimthat the Gospel of Judas is ‘one of the most significant archaeological discoveriesever’ is absurd.  It is mentioned in Iraeneus’ writings on heresies (around 180 BC)as the product of a group known as the Cainite Gnostics who sought to rehabilitatethe evil characters in the Bible, Cain, Esau, the Sodomites etc as well as Judas.Typical of such sects which abounded in the second century of the Christian era,it puts words into the mouths of Jesus and his disciples which fitted in with theirown ideas.  

This is in direct contrast to the four Gospels in the New Testament which were writtenby eye witnesses and record the actual words and deeds of Jesus during His earthlyministry.  In our next edition I will give reasons why the bulk of the New Testamenthad to be written before the destruction of the Temple in AD 70.  By contrast thevast majority of Gnostic gospels were written between AD 150 and AD 250.  If youwanted your biography written would you want this done by someone who knows you,and lives at the same time as you, or someone who will live 150 years after you andwill never meet you and will put their own ideas into your mouth?  

I have already written about the Gnostic gospels in the articles published in thismagazine on the Da Vinci Code (available on request, containing quotes from thesegospels).  Briefly to sum them up:

1. Their teaching is anticipated in the New Testament writings which speak of falseprophets and teachers leading many astray (Matthew 24.5, 2 Corinthians 11, 2 Peter2, 1 John 2.18-23, 4.1-6).

2. They deny God as Creator and Supreme Being.

3. They deny either the divinity or the humanity of the Lord Jesus.  

4. They present an alternative spirituality in which ‘gnosis’ or knowledge bringsunderstanding of God, rather than repentance and faith in the death and resurrectionof Jesus.

As such they fit in with New Age spirituality which is being presented in myriadforms today.  This applies to the Gospel of Judas as is evidenced by the quote abovefrom Herb Krosney which expresses the view that we have within us a ‘divine spark’waiting to ‘come to the light.’  By contrast the Gospels teach us that within wehave a sinful human nature which is in darkness (Matthew 15.1-20, John 3.16-21, Romans7.13-25).  Only God coming into our lives by the Holy Spirit as we believe in Jesusas Saviour and Lord can deliver us from this (John 14.16-17, 16.5-15, Revelation3.20). We do not discover God within ourselves, but we invite Him into our livesfrom outside by repentance and faith in what Jesus did for us at the cross.

What does the New Testament say about Judas Iscariot?

Judas’ name in Hebrew is Yehuda or Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, from whose tribewas to come the royal line of David and the Messiah (Genesis 49.10).  The words Judea,Jew and Judaism and their equivalents in other languages derive from Judah.  Wherethe name Iscariot comes from is more debatable.  One possibility is it means ‘IshKarioth’, a man of Karioth, a town in Judea, which would have marked Judas out asbeing different from the Galilean disciples of Jesus.  Another possibility is thatit is connected to the ‘Sicarii’, the dagger men, a group of zealots dedicated todriving Romans out of Judea.  

The connection by name between Judas and the Jewish people became a source of anti-Semitismby the Middle Ages. Throughout Europe it was common for boys to be given the namesof the disciples of Jesus in the form common to their languages – Peter, Andrew,James, John etc.  No Christian boy would ever be called Judas, although Jewish boyswould be called Yehuda.  As Christendom left people in gross ignorance of the truthmost people assumed that Peter, Andrew, James and John were all nice Gentile Christians,whereas the only Jewish disciple of Jesus was Judas the traitor.  Often paintingsdepicting the disciples showed only Judas having obviously Jewish features.  In realityall the disciples of Jesus were Jewish and would have been known by their Hebrewnames, Kephas, Yakov, Yohannan, etc.  If we can learn anything about treachery fromthe story of Judas it is that the traitor may be found amongst those who professto be disciples of Jesus and therefore in the Christian churches.

In modern times there has been much speculation about why Judas wanted to betrayJesus.  In Zeffirelli’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ film Judas is presented as a zealot whowanted to force Jesus’ hand to present himself as Messiah to the Sanhedrin and leadthe Jewish revolt against Rome.  There is nothing of this in the Gospels themselves.In the list of disciples in Matthew, Mark and Luke, Judas is presented as ‘JudasIscariot who betrayed him.’  John 6.71 adds the detail that Jesus knew that Judaswas of the devil and would betray him.

According to John 12.4-6 Judas was in charge of money for the disciples and keptsome for himself.  This is an interesting detail because the three things most likelyto destroy a Christian ministry are abuse of money, sex or power. In Matthew 26.14-16Judas betrays Jesus for money, fulfilling Zechariah 11.12-13.  According to Luke22.3 Satan entered Judas when he went to betray Jesus.  

Jesus knew what Judas was about to do at the Last Supper and it was only after Judashad left that He shared the bread and wine with His disciples.  In doing this Hechanged the meaning of the familiar Passover meal by taking the unleavened breadand wine and applying it to the redemption He was to bring through His death andresurrection (Matthew 26.20-25).    

Following his betrayal of Jesus with a kiss, Judas went away and hanged himself inremorse at what he had done (Matthew 26.3-10).  This was not an act of biblical repentancebut sorrow at what he had done.  He had not grasped meaning of Jesus’ life and deathand he did not live to see resurrection and receive forgiveness.  Therefore we haveto conclude that Judas was eternally lost and damned.

The question is often asked ‘Why was Judas’ betrayal necessary for the arrest ofJesus?’  The Gospels show that the chief priests were alarmed at the growing popularityof Jesus’ movement and the crowds that were following him, especially as a resultof the resurrection of Lazarus and the triumphal entry to Jerusalem.  They were afraidthat His movement could really take off during the Passover week (John 11.47-50)when there would be crowds of pilgrims in Jerusalem.  They were also aware that theycould not arrest Him publicly for fear of causing a riot (Matthew 26.5). Judas ledthem to where Jesus was alone with the disciples at night where he would be easyto arrest without drawing the attention of the crowd.  

Some modern commentators say that the Gospel account is inaccurate because the Sanhedrinwould not be convened for a trial on the night of the Passover.  In fact Jesus’ hearingbefore Caiaphas was not a formal trial as such but an attempt to find a reason tojustify His execution.  The Sanhedrin did not have authority to pass death sentence,so He would have to be passed on to the Roman governor to accomplish this.  Theywere in a hurry to get it all done before the Passover week began and the hasty proceedingsat night were unusual but not unlawful as it was not a formal trial.  

Another issue raised is the fact that Matthew 27.9-10 attributes the betrayal ofJesus to the prophecy of Jeremiah not Zechariah.  The explanation of this is to befound in David Baron’s commentary on Zechariah page 409-412.  Matthew’s quote isa composite reference to both Zechariah 11.12-13 and Jeremiah 19.  Jeremiah 19 isa prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple by the Babylonians.Jeremiah uses the symbol of the broken pot to connect the Potter’s Field with theValley of Hinnom which was to be known as the valley of Slaughter.  In so doing heis making a prophecy of the coming destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians whenthe Valley of Hinnom, which is just outside the walls of Jerusalem, would becomethe place of slaughter.  

Zechariah 11 is a prophecy of the destruction of the second temple by the Romans.The Valley of Hinnom was again to become a ‘Field of Blood’ (Acel dama).  The twopassages in Jeremiah and Zechariah are connected by a common theme – the coming destructionof the temple and the reason for it.  The reason for the fall of the first templeand the Babylonian captivity was the disobedience of Israel to the Torah and therejection of the message of the prophets.  The reason for the destruction of thesecond temple and the greater dispersion of Israel was to be the rejection of theMessiah and His message by the religious leaders.  

Judas’ act of betrayal and its use by the Sanhedrin in arranging the crucifixionset the stage for this event to take place 40 years later as a judgement of God,after the message of the Gospel had been proclaimed by the disciples of Jesus andrejected by the religious leadership in Jerusalem.  When the Romans broke throughthe walls of Jerusalem in AD 70 there was such an appalling slaughter that therewas no more room to bury the dead in the Valley of Hinnom which became the Fieldof Blood.  

From God’s point of view the reason for this calamity was the consistent rejectionof Jesus as Messiah by the Jewish religious leadership.  Judas’ betrayal of Jesuswith the connivance of the chief priests was a sign of this.  Significantly the moneygiven to Judas was taken from the fund for buying sacrifices for the Temple.  Infact it bought the final sacrifice for sin through the blood of the Messiah Jesus.To those who accepted the meaning of this sacrifice, Jewish and Gentile, it becamethe source of forgiveness and eternal life.  This offer went out even to those whohad been responsible for the death of Jesus who could be saved through repentanceand faith in His name (Acts 3.11-26).  To those who rejected it, the sacrifice ofJesus became the source of judgement and damnation.  In Hebrew the Valley of Hinnomis gei hinnom from which comes the Greek ‘Gehenna’ which is the word used in theNew Testament for hell.

Another objection to the Gospel is that Matthew and Acts appear to conflict.  InMatthew 27 Judas throws the 30 pieces of silver into the Temple sanctuary and goesaway to hang himself.  The chief priests then buy the potter’s field as a burialplace.  In Acts 1.18-19 Judas is described as having purchased the field himself‘and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.’

Arnold Fruchtenbaum explains this apparent discrepancy in his book ‘Messianic Christology’(page 153-4).  Judas committed suicide at the end of the first night of the Passover,before the first day of the Passover when the Passover sacrifice would be offered.According to Jewish law if there was a dead body within the walls of Jerusalem thenthe city would be considered defiled and the morning sacrifice could not be offered.However if the corpse is taken and thrown into the Valley of Hinnom, then the citywould be cleansed and the sacrifice may be offered up.  In order for this to happenJudas’ body was thrown over the walls into the valley as a result of which his entrailsgushed out.  So Matthew is right that Judas hanged himself and Acts is right thathis body burst open when it was thrown over the walls into the valley below.

What were the Chief Priests to do with the 30 pieces of silver?  The money was wrongfullygained so it could not be put back into the Temple treasury.  Such money could eitherbe returned to the owner or used for the public good.  Since Judas was already deadit could not be returned to him so it had to be used for the common good.  So a fieldwas purchased in the name of the deceased Judas Iscariot by the chief priests asa burial place.  The first person to be buried there was Judas himself.   So Matthewis right when he says the chief priests bought the field.  Acts is also right thatJudas Iscariot was the legal owner since the field was bought posthumously in hisname.  

In conclusion the scriptures make it clear that Judas was motivated by giving intothe sin nature which lay within him to reject Jesus and betray him.  He was fulfillingprophecy in doing this and his action was part of the necessary sequence of eventswhich ensured that the Lord Jesus was crucified at the time of the Passover.  Thiswas necessary for Him to fulfil the prophecies of the Suffering Servant, the PassoverLamb who takes away the sin of the world.  

At the end of this age we are told that there will be one who will come as the ultimatetraitor, the Antichrist.   Significantly in John 17.12 Jesus refers to Judas as theson of perdition, and in 2 Thessalonians 2.3 Paul gives the same title to the comingAntichrist.  The connection between Judas and the Antichrist is that both betraythe true Lord Jesus and both come to a terrible end.  The attempt to rehabilitateJudas in popular culture is a distortion of truth, calling evil good. Reviving Gnosticteachings from the second century in the so called Gospel of Judas, is another partof the spiritual preparation in our present world to accept the Antichrist as a counterfeitMessiah in the days before the return to the earth of the true Messiah Jesus.