“Påskkärringar” 2008 and 1958 (Wikipedia)
It is Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, today. In Sweden it is not possible to avoid painted eggs, chocolate eggs, little girls dressed up as witches, reruns of “Jesus Christ – Superstar” and marathon sessions of “Poirot” and “Wallander”. But I have always been a little doubtful about the way in which poor Judas Iscariot is portrayed. It is not just coincidence that Easter week is a week of mystery.
Without the Resurrection, Christianity could still be a religion and a body of teachings with Jesus as a “great teacher”. But he would not then have demonstrated his divinity. He would not qualify to be the Son of God.
The capture of Jesus, in the plot of the Bible story, is a fundamental and necessary step for the Passion and the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The role of Judas is utterly crucial to demonstrating the divinity of Jesus, but the Bible story is not very forthcoming as to his motivations. He is a traitor who “fingers” Jesus because Satan enters him. In some Gnostic writings he is a great soul who sacrificed himself for the necessary capture of Jesus – necessary for Jesus’ purposes. Judas was the cashier for the apostles and was entrusted with keeping all their monies. That thirty pieces of silver would be the motive for the betrayal does not convince.
The Bible story is somewhat unsatisfactory also in its details of the death (usually presumed to be suicide) of Judas. From the Bible story he either hanged himself or he fell into a field and burst such that he was disembowelled. The Gospel of Judas – found in the 1970s and dated to 280 AD – is considered a Gnostic text and is not accepted as being part of the Bible. Here Judas has visions of being stoned to death by the other apostles. It is only in the Gospel of Judas that we are told the story from the viewpoint of Judas and that Judas was actually acting on instructions from Jesus.
Consider the timeline of Holy Week in the Bible story.
- Day 1: Palm Sunday: Jesus triumphantly enters Jerusalem with all his apostles, riding humbly (?) on a donkey. Spends Sunday night at Bethany a little to the east of Jerusalem at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
- Day 2: Monday: Returns to Jerusalem. Along the way he curses a poor fig tree because it had failed to bear any fruit. The tree withers. He enters the Temple to find it filled with money changers (forex dealers since the Temple only accepted Tyrian shekels) and merchants selling animals for sacrifice. He chases them out with much ado. He returns to Bethany to spend the night.
- Day 3: Tuesday: Jesus returned to the Temple in Jerusalem and played hide-and-seek with the priests who challenged his authority and tried to apprehend him. But he evaded them. In the afternoon he and his disciples climbed the Mount of Olives and he made prophecies about the destruction of Jerusalem. He spent the night again in Bethany. Matthew reports that Judas negotiated his deal with the Sanhedrin on this day.
- Day 4: Wednesday: The Bible is silent about this day. It is presumed Jesus and his disciples stayed in Bethany and took it easy.
- Day 5: Thursday: Jesus sent Peter and John to “prepare” (presumably to reserve it as well) the Upper Room in Jerusalem (The Cenacle) for the Passover feast which would begin at twilight and continue on Friday. At twilight he washed the feet of his disciples and then began the Passover meal – the Last Supper. He prophecies that he will be betrayed by one of his disciples – which they each in turn deny. He identifies the traitor as being Judas by giving him a piece of bread soaked in the dish and as soon as he does so, “Satan enters Judas” (?). From the Upper Room they all went to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here, late that evening, he is betrayed by Judas and arrested by the Sanhedrin and taken to the home of Caiaphas where the Sanhedrin Council have gathered.
- Day 6: Friday: Early on Friday morning, Judas is found dead. By the 3rd hour (9 am) the trial of Jesus has started. He is found guilty and forced to carry his cross to Calvary where he is crucified. By the ninth hour (3 pm) he is dead. Around the 12th hour (6 pm) his body is removed from the cross and is laid in a tomb guarded by Roman soldiers.
- Day 7: Saturday: The tomb is guarded by Roman soldiers all through the Sabbath day until dusk (12th hour – 6 pm). When the Sabbath ends, his body is anointed and prepared for burial by Nicodemus (himself a member of the Sanhedrin Council which found Jesus guilty).
- Day 8: Sunday: Early on Sunday several women went to the tomb and found it open and Jesus missing. He “appears” to five people during the day providing “proof” that he has been resurrected.
There are many, many writings by Bible scholars about the whole week. There are many interpretations of the symbolism but there is little controversy about the timeline. It is the timeline itself which makes me think that Judas was murdered. He identifies Jesus for the Sanhedrin on Thursday night and by dawn on Friday he is conveniently dead.
Applying the little grey cells a la Poirot,
- Jesus needs that someone close “betray” him.
- He picks Judas for that role
- He announces to all the apostles that Judas is the betrayer to be
- Judas follows instructions and identifies Jesus for arrest
- Judas dies before Jesus has even been tried and sentenced
The betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus was the prophecy that needed to be fulfilled. The story that Judas killed himself in a fit of remorse, before Jesus even came to trial, sounds implausible to me. The accounts of his death also differ too much. Hanging cannot easily be mistaken for falling into a field and bursting. Both hanging and being thrown off a cliff could just as well have been murder as suicide. The parsimonious narrative that fits is that Jesus had to pick somebody – anybody – to be a scapegoat from among his disciples. Just turning himself in would not do, since it would not create the perception of being a martyr to a cause. He chose Judas to be the “betrayer” and put upon him that burden. However, the martyrdom of Jesus needed a “clean” betrayal; not one in which he was himself complicit. Judas was chosen as the scapegoat and had to be sacrificed to the greater cause. Jesus may well have realised that whoever he chose would incur the wrath of the other disciples. Why else did Jesus identify Judas as the betrayer to the other disciples in advance of being betrayed? And Judas duly betrayed Jesus and incurred the wrath of the others. Before the night was out, and very conveniently, he was dead and the story-line of the betrayal was secure. Possibly Judas had been murdered (executed without trial) by the other disciples for the betrayal and they did not even realise that the story-line required Judas to die.
And since the Bible story is said to be written by his disciples, it is hardly likely that they would either mention that Judas was sacrificed by Jesus or that they had killed Judas to ensure his silence and protect the story-line. So did Jesus manipulate Judas to be the betrayer or did Judas act in full knowledge of his role? Did Jesus manipulate the other disciples to make sure Judas was silenced after he had played his part? It is not surprising that the Gospel of Judas is not accepted within the Bible. For that would mean that Jesus had orchestrated his own capture.
Poor Judas. He may have just been a dupe chosen by Jesus to be the scapegoat. But if he knowingly sacrificed his life and accepted being remembered in perpetuity as the “betrayer” of Jesus, his was probably a very great soul.