Jesus Handed Over
“One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. when morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” (Luke 6:12 – 20, NIV)
Judas is the most infamous of traitors; and his name is spoken with distaste and bitterness. Luke tells us that Jesus knew, even as he called Judas Iscariot to become his apostle, that the man would betray him. The gospels present various stories of Judas’s “betrayal,” and they are all negative, some more than others. Yet, I wonder (as have many others) why Judas must be so universally condemned. After all, Judas was a key player in God’s plan for Jesus’ life and death. Wasn’t he just carrying out the will of God?
The story of Judas is problematic among scholars. John Shelby Spong indicates that “the act of betrayal by a member of the twelve disciples is not found in the earliest Christian writings” (The Sins of Scripture). Spong argues instead that when the early writers wanted to distance themselves from the Roman state, the story of Judas was contrived, making Judas a stand-in for the Jewish state, the character who betrayed Jesus to the Romans. Spong’s argument is more complicated than this, but this is the gist of it.
Another scholar, Gary Green, examines the word ‘paradidomi.’ Its primary meaning, he tells us, is “to give or hand over to another”; “to betray” is a secondary meaning. Because Judas is not named as a traitor in the earliest Christian writings, Green and New Testament scholar William Klassen posit that perhaps Judas is responsible for handing over Jesus to authorities, but Judas was not thought of as a traitor in the first century.
Even in Paul’s letters, Paul only uses the word ‘paradedeto,’ a form of ‘paradidomi,’ once, in reference to the night of the Last Supper, as the night that Jesus was handed over. Yet there is no indication that Paul understood Judas to be a traitor. Again, the argument is more complex, but Green concludes that Judas may have been involved in negotiations for Jesus, to ensure that Jesus’s followers did not disrupt the Passover festivals. Judas did not “betray” Jesus, according to these scholars.
An even more disturbing idea about Judas lies in Spong’s conclusion—that in Judas’s story, we find the roots of anti-Semitism. If this is true, then what place does Judas’s story have in Christianity? Judas has been hated, he has been reviled, for centuries. But in considering the doubts that modern scholars put forth about the conventional Judas, I have to ask, he has suffered long enough, hasn’t he?
“Though those that are betray’d /Do feel the treason sharply yet the traitor / Stands in worse case of woe” (Shakespeare, Cymbeline)