By Chudi Okoye
It is long past time to begin seriously to reconsider the portrayal of Judas Iscariot in biblical exegesis and intellectual discourse. In fact, such reappraisal has been going on in certain scholarly circles, especially since the translation of the recovered non-canonical Gospel of Judas and its publication in 2006. But it has yet to percolate into popular consciousness, which remains rigorously wrapped in reproving orthodoxy.
The Gospel of Judas elevates the status of the eponymous apostle and suggests that, although his action of handing Jesus over to the authorities was vile and painful, it was done with the full knowledge of Jesus himself and in obedience to the will of God. As Prof. Craig Evans of the Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, told the Associated Press at the time the translated manuscript emerged, the Gospel of Judas “implies that Judas only did what Jesus wanted him to do.” In a key passage of the gospel, Jesus singles out Judas from the pack of apostles, telling him: “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom.” He reveals many things to Judas, apparently, and then discloses, as if by commission, the critical role the apostle will play in his divine mission: “You will sacrifice the man that clothes me,” Jesus tells a seemingly befuddled Judas. By this, according to scholars, Jesus was indicating that Judas would help to liberate his master’s spiritual self by plotting to get rid of the latter’s physical flesh. It is a theme that we also find in some other Gnostic gospels such as the Apocalypse of Peter. Still, Jesus tells Judas that the latter will suffer for the role he’s about to play, because “already your horn has been raised [and] your wrath has been kindled.” But he assures Judas that there’s reward for him by and by: “You shall be cursed for generations,” Jesus says, but “you will exceed all of them,” referring to other apostles, and “you will come to rule over them.”
The translation and publication of the Gospel of Judas is leading gradually to a reassessment of scholarly – though not as yet religious – traditions on Judas.
I broached this subject lightly in some recent writings I did as Easter approached, which I shared in close social media circles. In these excursions, I offered some preliminary thoughts which I wish to develop further here, though still as prolegomenon to a fuller deconstruction of Judas.
I’ll readily admit this: that, probably like most cradle Christians, I have long harbored an innate animosity towards the person of Judas for allegedly betraying his master, Jesus Christ. It is a disposition no doubt nurtured by Christian dogma and perhaps by one’s residual feelings about betrayal of persons or causes. But if we can liberate ourselves from conventional thinking and Scriptural literalism, it is hard to see how, on logical grounds, we can sustain a belief that Judas Iscariot invidiously betrayed Jesus. Rather, logic should lead us to think that the much-reviled apostle actually helped to fulfill the earthly mission of the Messiah.
Let’s consider again the charge of ‘betrayal’ traditionally leveled against Judas. To betray means, in part, to “expose (one’s country, a group, or a person) to danger by treacherously giving information to an enemy.” Betrayal thus carries a subversive meaning, implying, for instance, a clear intent to undermine a mission.
The question we should ask is: what was the mission of Jesus and how did Judas’ action constitute a subversion of it? It seems to me incoherent to say that Jesus was sent to die for the redemption of mankind, but then turn round and condemn the very action that precipitated his death and thus the fulfillment of his mission – especially if that action was providential. I have heard an argument that although Jesus’ death was pre-destined, Judas is still implicated for exercising his ‘free will’ to betray him. This argument likely emanates from the Decree of Justification, promulgated during the 16th century Catholic Council of Trent, which proclaimed that “If anyone shall say that it is not in the power of man to make his ways evil, but that God produces evil as well as the good works, not only by permission, but also properly and of Himself, so that the betrayal of Judas is not less His own proper work than the vocation of Paul; let him be anathema.” In this convoluted language, the Council was arguing that Judas did exercise his own free will in acting to betray Jesus. To me, however, though a faithful Catholic, this is nonsensical argument. It implies that human free will could be exercised against divine determinism. If Judas exercised ‘free will’ in any sense, it was really in concordance with the divine project for human redemption, not in opposition to it. What if Judas, to salve his conscience, had rejected the role thrust upon him to hand Jesus over to the authorities: what then the Messianic mission?
Condemning Judas would suggest that one doesn’t really believe that Jesus came to redeem mankind; that Jesus came to do something else entirely but Judas subverted that other mission by betraying him. If so, the question arises: what was that other mission that Judas presumably subverted?
Alternatively, condemning Judas means Jesus could have fulfilled his mission of redeeming humanity some other way. If so, what was that other way?
Those truculently stigmatizing and condemning Judas should answer these questions.
Moreover, they need to say why Judas – who, from all indications, had abandoned his workaday job and had faithfully followed Jesus, traipsing the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea at the risk of riling the Roman and Jewish authorities – should suddenly turn against his master.
The Gospels of Mark (14:10–11) and Matthew (26:14–16) claim that Judas did it because he had been bribed. But they don’t tell us why Judas needed the money, having already committed to an apostolic life of poverty and mendicancy, as Jesus and his other disciples had done. We do have the odd story in John (12:1–6) narrating how Judas had complained about the money spent on the expensive perfume that Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha, had poured on Jesus, which Judas apparently felt could have been used to nourish the poor. John also indicates, though without proof, that Judas, who acted as treasurer for the apostles, used to filch some of the group’s money. But it is notable that these accusations appear only in John and in none of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), nor in Paul who allusively mentions Jesus’ betrayal in 1 Corinthians (11:23). All these, mind you, were written decades before the sometimes fanciful Gospel of John which scholars agree is the least historical of all the canonical Gospels.
Luke (22:3–6) and John (13:27) add to the story of Judas that Satan had ‘entered’ the apostle, causing him thereupon to betray Jesus. But this claim too is incoherent. If Jesus came to earth to die for the redemption of humanity – that is to free humans from judgment and the grip of Satan, why would Satan himself aid that enterprise? It suggests that Satan participated in a project to undermine his own dominion over humanity – a logical absurdity. Yes, the Bible indicates that Satan was once an angel (Revelation 12:7–9), but there’s nothing suggesting that Satan suffered from bipolar personality disorder! Rather, Satan is presented as a canny operator who pursues his nefarious ends with clarity and single-minded determination.
With the implausibility of both the ‘bribery’ and the ‘Satan possession’ arguments, some scholars have suggested the alternative hypothesis that Judas was a radical who had expected Jesus to overthrow Roman rule but was disillusioned by Jesus’ pacifist approach. Some such scholars claim that Judas moonlighted as a member of the fearsome Sicarii rebel group that carried out terrorist activities against Roman imperialism (see for instance Susan Gubar, Judas: A Biography (2009) and Peter Stanford, Judas: The Most Hated Name in History (2015)).
Other scholars argue the opposite: that Judas was likely worried that Jesus’ preaching might intensify Jewish unrest which usually erupted around Passover time, especially in the Jerusalem area, and thus fearing that such incitement could be fatal for Jesus, Judas wanted him apprehended and sequestered to be released after the feast (as was often the case with presumed rabble-rousers), not realizing that his action would instead lead to the very thing he was seeking to prevent: the death of Jesus. On this thinking, it is explained that Judas committed suicide afterwards when he realized his error.
These scholarly explanations, though not entirely implausible, might seem like ex post facto justification or even eisegetical.
Whatever the case though, the basic point which cannot be logically controverted is that if Jesus indeed came to die for the redemption of mankind, then Judas’ action precipitated the events leading to that outcome. This should lead to an overdue reconsideration of the role of Judas in the passion and mission of Christ. At the very least, we should feel a certain level of pity for the guy, for if indeed – as we Christians believe – Jesus was sent by God to give his life for the redemption of mankind, then Judas was merely part of the blunt instrument used for that divine mission. One pities him, on a human level, for having been made a pawn (a fall guy!) in a supposedly pre-destined purpose beyond his control.
One might, in this sense, feel even aggrieved as a Black man because Judas has been portrayed with a darkened skin tone in some Western art – including celebrated High Renaissance art such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1498): a suggestive ploy, as some argue, to implicate the Black race – not just the Jews – in the betrayal of Jesus.
Look again at how Judas is portrayed in da Vinci’s Last Supper which I use as feature image for this article (Jesus is in the centre and the apostles are arranged by da Vinci in groups of three, the first set from left to right being Bartholomew, James the Minor (son of Alphaeus), and Andrew; the next set going by row of heads includes Judas Iscariot, Peter, and John; on the other side of Jesus, left to right, are: Thomas, James the Greater, and Philip; and the final trio are Matthew, Jude Thaddeus, and Simon the Zealot). Judas is placed somewhat in the shadows, looking taut and furtive. He’s portrayed clutching a small money bag, either to indicate his betrayal loot or his role as a group treasurer with money problems; and – perhaps suggesting fretfulness about his imminent dastardly act – he has knocked over the salt jar.
If you look closely you’ll notice too that Judas is the darkest looking of all subjects in the painting, with harsh and hardened features, appearing quite menacing especially contrasted to da Vinci’s Caucasian-looking Jesus who appears effeminately innocent (like John!) with long shoulder-length hair. There is a serious question as to whether Leonardo da Vinci was being knowingly racist by conspicuously darkening the skin tone of Jesus’ supposed betrayer.
It’s not just the pigmentation. Judas also comes off with very dark beard and what seems like an Afro, to boot!
This da Vinci painting is not unlike other Christian artworks, perhaps originating in European folklore, which depict Satan in the darkest possible hue, in some cases explicitly as a Black man with frightening features, all suggesting that black is ‘bad’ and white is ‘good’.
We ourselves as Africans perpetuate these stereotypes in multiple overt and not-so-overt ways, even unto this day, whilst still struggling with the aftereffects of White imperialism.
There’s yet another angle to this issue which, compared to the above, is rather uplifting. There’s a claim, based on some Gnostic texts, that Judas was in fact the most spiritually adept of all the apostles, and that he had a deeper mystic connection to Christ than the others. The newly recovered Gospel of Judas, mentioned above, which promotes a Gnostic cosmology and presents Judas as the one who truly understood the teachings and the mission of Jesus, attests to this conception of the apostle.
The Gospel of Judas is non-canonical of course; some scholars even consider it apocryphal. But it is known to have existed since the 2nd century, probably written not too long after the canonical Gospel of John and likely predates many other New Testament apocrypha.
Some celebrated New Testament scholars have used the Gospel of Judas, along with other texts, to re-historicize and reinterpret Judas the man, presenting different insights into how some early followers of Jesus perhaps understood his death, why the supposed betrayal occurred and why God apparently allowed it. Among these, in addition to the works cited earlier, I’ll highlight the following: a book co-authored by Princeton professor Elaine Pagels and Harvard professor Karen L. King, The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity (2007); University of North Carolina professor Bart D. Ehrman’s work, The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot – A New Look at Betrayer and Betrayed (2006); and the late Claremont University professor James McConkey Robinson’s book, The Secrets of Judas – The Story of the Misunderstood Disciple and His Lost Gospel (2006).
It may be time to reappraise and reconstruct the role of Judas Iscariot, and perhaps to rehabilitate this long-vilified apostle who made it possible for Jesus Christ to fulfill his divine mission on earth. The sources cited above, among several others, make a good case for such revision. The author Susan Gubar, referencing other sources, argues that Judas was “the one person in the world and in History who had nothing to gain from [betraying Jesus but rather] had everything to gain from not committing [the act].” But she says he did “what God will[ed]” anyway, at great personal cost, and that “without Judas, neither the Gospels nor Christianity would exist.”
As leading New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, argues, a reappraisal of Judas will turn the story of Christianity on its head. If so, then I’d say the rehabilitation of Judas can’t come soon enough.