Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Forensics of King Tut's Lineage

After more than a century of speculation within Egyptology, the lineage of King Tut and other 18th dynasty figures has been worked out. 

To those for whom Ancient Egypt is just a passing interest, this may not seem so significant.  Yet, in the world of Egyptology, this is akin to solving the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity.  This is, quite simply, a major discovery and a significant mystery solved. 

As with so many other prominent identifications in the last 10-15 years, DNA technology has helped researchers determine once and for all who the parents of King Tut were, and how he and other royal mummies from the 18th dynasty were related. 


Since most of my readers are probably not familiar with the political and cultural conditions of the 18th dynasty, it is necessary to give a bit of background information in order to make sense of what will follow.

The 18th dynasty extends from roughly 1550 to 1300 B.C.E, beginning with Ahmose I and ending with Horemheb.  The exact number of rulers between these two kings is not entirely clear, because of the political upheaval associated with the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled from about 1350 to 1334 B.C.E.     

This graph shows that Amenhotep III was the father and predecessor of Akhenaten, while his mother was a woman named Queen Tiye.  The precise lineage after that has long been convoluted.

To put it briefly, Akhenaten instituted a massive change in the religious traditions of ancient Egypt.  Outlawing the worship of the traditional gods, he began what many historians consider the first truly monotheistic religion: the cult the Aten, the sun disc god.  He moved the traditional capital from Thebes to the desert of middle Egypt, where he built a new city called Akhetaten (meaning “The Horizon of the Aten”).  Needless to say, this was not received very well by many common Egyptians, not to mention the powerful priests of the old gods, and after Akhenaten’s death, the country was plunged into religious, social, cultural, and political upheaval. 

A statue of Akhenaten.  Note the stylized facial features which characterize Akhenaten's reign.

At least two rulers seem to have held Egypt’s throne for a four year period after Akhenaten’s death.  The first was Smenkhkare, who is believed to have been Akhenaten’s brother.  This Smenkhkare appears to have married Akhenaten’s oldest daughter Meritaten.  Meritaten, in turn, appears to have ruled as a virtual co-regent with her husband, taking the throne name Neferneferuaten.  It further appears that Smenkhkare died within just a year or so of Akhenaten, leaving Neferneferuaten to rule alone for another three years, before she too seems to have died. 

The circumstances of this four-year period are extremely uncertain, and what I have provided above is simply a common historical reconstruction.  It is not clear, for instance, whether Smenkhkare and Neferneferuaten were two individuals or simply one person known by two names.  Additionally, it is not clear whether Smenkhkare was Akhenaten’s brother or his son (most believe he was a brother of Akhenaten).  Furthermore, whether two people or one person, even the gender of these figures is also not entirely clear.  Finally, it is not clear exactly when Akhenaten died, and some believe that Smenkhkare/Neferneferuaten (whether two people or one) ruled as co-regents with Akhenaten, falling from their position upon Akhenaten’s death.

In any case, following the demise of these previous rulers, Tutankhamun finally came to the throne of Egypt, beginning around 1330 B.C.E.  He was nine years old at the time.  One of his first actions as king was to abandon Akhenaten’s religion and city, return the capital to Thebes, and reinstitute the traditional pantheon of gods and religious traditions.  He ruled for ten years before dying at around the age of nineteen.  His tomb, of course, lay undisturbed for the next 3,000 years before it was discovered in 1922 by Egyptologist Howard Carter.

Inside Tut's tomb, just days after it was discovered.


The question of who Tutankhamun was has puzzled archaeologists for a long time.  His very existence was lost to history until about 1905, when an artifact was found with his name on it, discussing something he had done as king.  Prior to this, no one had ever heard of him.  Even after his nearly intact tomb was discovered about fifteen years later, nothing within the tomb gave any clear indication as to where he had come from or who he was related to. 

Over the years, most historians have assumed he was Akhenaten’s son.  However, there has been virtually no evidence to prove it.  Of all the paintings and depictions discovered of Akhenaten and his family, Tutankhamun is never pictured.  Instead, Akhenaten is always shown with his wife and his six daughters. 

Akhenaten with his wife, Nefertiti, and three of their daughters, worshiping the Aten.
There is nothing in the historical record to imply that he ever had sons.  Furthermore, as discussed above, his eldest daughter, Meritaten, appears to have been rather prominent, perhaps even ruling for a period of time after her father’s death.  This would imply strongly that there was no viable male heir. 

Others have argued that Tut was, indeed, Akhenaten’s son, but was his son by his secondary wife, a woman named Kiya, about whom very little is known.  This would explain why he is not pictured in paintings of Akhenaten with his principal wife, Nefertiti.     

Queen Kiya
Still others have suggested that Tut was not Akhenaten’s son but his nephew, the son of Smenkhkare, who was likely a brother to Akhenaten.     

Finally, some have argued that Tut may have been Akhenaten’s brother, another son of Akhenaten’s father and predecessor, Amenhotep III.  Akhenaten is known to have reigned for seventeen years, and Tut was only nine years old when he came to power, but this theory presupposes that the first eight to ten years of Akhenaten’s reign was a co-regency with his father Amenhotep, for which there is some (although not much) evidence.  It is significant to note that most of the inscriptional evidence from artifacts actually supports this theory of Tut being the son of Amenhotep III, and thus the brother of Akhenaten. 

Of these theories, the second and third ones have tended to be the most common – Tut was either Akhenaten’s son by his secondary wife Kiya, or was the son of Smenkhkare and thus nephew to Akhenaten.  In a series on Tutankhamun I wrote a few years ago, I supported the Akhenaten/Kiya theory. 

A discovery in 1910 seemed to lend credence to both of these theories.  Now dubbed “KV55,” the tomb was discovered by American archaeologist Theodore Davis.  Thought it was evidently originally a tomb for Akhenaten’s mother, Queen Tiye (wife of Amenhotep III), it had been reused in antiquity as a burial cache for items and mummies originally buried in the necropolis of Akhenaten’s capital city in the desert.  In fact, Tutankhamun appears to have been behind this reburial, as his name was on the sealed door (leading the archaeologists to initially believe they had found the boy king’s tomb).  Tut had, apparently, commissioned the work to remove these bodies and items from the now ruined city to the Valley of the Kings for protection.  Tut did away with his predecessor’s political and religious upheavals, but apparently still found it important to protect the afterlife destinies of figures associated with the reign of Akhenaten. 

Though the tomb had been robbed many times in antiquity, it still held a number of artifacts, including artifacts with the names of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye (Akhenaten’s father and mother), Akhenaten himself, as well as a few artifacts with Tutankhamun’s name. 

In addition to these, there were also artifacts belonging to Kiya, Akhenaten’s secondary wife (including the jar pictured above).  If Tut did indeed commission this reburial, then the presence of items belonging to Kiya might indicate a maternal affection Tut had for the woman.  It is noteworthy to point out that nothing with the name of Akhenaten’s principle wife, Nefertiti, was found in the tomb.

Finally, Davis’ archaeological team discovered a mummy in the tomb, resting inside a rotting coffin with no lid.  The mummy’s identity was not clear, but it was a male who appeared to have been in his early twenties at death.  Because his right arm was crossed over his chest in the traditional position of male royalty, it was clear this mummy belonged to a king.  Since the mummy appeared to be too young to be Akhenaten, many archaeologists assumed it must have belonged to his brother Smenkhkare.  As with the Kiya theory, if this mummy belonged to Smenkhkare, it may provide evidence of paternal affection Tut had for the man.  Perhaps Tut, then, was the son of Smenkhkare. 


As you can see from this brief overview, the question of Tut’s identity has haunted Egyptologists for years, and numerous theories have been put forth based on the scant evidence that has survived the millennia. 

Now, with DNA testing, Egyptologists finally have definitive answers.

To begin with, DNA testing has proven that the male mummy from KV55 was, in fact, Tutankhamun’s father.  It further shows that this mummy was the son of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, who are known to have been the parents of Akhenaten.    

Fair enough, but who, exactly, does this mummy belong to?  Is it Smenkhkare or Akhenaten?  Both, remember, are believed to have been the sons of Amenhotep and Tiye.

To begin with, there were a number of flowery royal names on the desiccated coffin in which the mummy was found, and these are names known to have been associated with Akhenaten. 

Secondly, new studies performed together with the DNA studies, have indicated that the previously accepted age of this mummy – around twenty – may be off by as many as fifteen years.  Rather than being a young man of twenty, this mummy was probably a middle-aged man of roughly thirty-five (middle age, of course, by the standards of ancient Egypt!).    

Finally, the mummy’s condition upon its discovery indicates very strongly that it was brutalized and vandalized in antiquity.  For instance, the head was completely disconnected from the body, and it was also missing its genitalia (which led initial researchers, in the early 1900’s, to conclude that it was a female mummy).  This, of course, implies that whoever desecrated the body in antiquity most probably believed it was the mummy of Akhenaten, because there would have been no discernable reason to damage the body of Smenkhkare or someone else.   

As a result of this data, the researchers have concluded that the mummy in KV55 is, in fact, Akhenaten.  Though some folks apparently still disagree with this conclusion, it appears that most experts agree that this mummy can be no one but the infamous heretic king.

As such, we can now say with confidence that Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten and the grandson of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye. 

But what about his mother?  Was it Nefertiti, the principle wife of Akhenaten, or Queen Kiya, who, from the evidence of tomb KV55, appears to have been important to Tut?

Turns out, it’s neither.

The DNA testing has proven conclusively that Tutankhamun was the son of an incestuous relationship.  His mother and father were full siblings, meaning both were the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.  Since there is no evidence suggesting that either Nefertiti or Kiya were daughters of these two people, they can be ruled out as mothers for Tutankhamun.  Unfortunately, neither of these women’s mummies has survived with any positive identification, so they cannot be tested for DNA. 

However, other existing mummies can be tested for DNA links to Tutankhamun, and because of this, the researchers have been able to identify the mummy of Tut’s mother.  It is an unidentified mummy found in 1898 in a tomb called KV35.  She has routinely been referred to as the “Younger Lady” of KV35, to differentiate her from another mummy found in that tomb, called the “Elder Lady.”  The DNA evidence has shown that this “Elder Lady” was, in fact, Queen Tiye – an identification that had long been suspected.  Additionally, the Younger Lady has proven to be Tiye’s daughter, Akhenaten’s wife, and Tut’s mother.  Her actual identity, however, is still a mystery. 

The three mummies found in KV35.  On the left is the Elder Lady, now identified as Queen Tiye.  On the right is the Younger Lady, now known to be Tutankhamun's mother (and daughter to Tiye).  The mummy in the center is a still unidentified young male, presumed to be a royal prince.

Since there is no historical evidence suggesting that Nefertiti or Kiya were sisters to Akhenaten, they seem to be excluded as possible identities for the Younger Lady (prior to this new study, at least one Egyptologist had argued extensively for the Younger Lady’s identification as Nefertiti).  Since the mummy is known to be a daughter of Amenhotep III and Tiye, and since several of Amenhotep’s other daughters are positively referred to as his own wives on various inscriptions, it is assumed that this Younger Lady is either Nebeta or Beketaten, two daughters of Amenhotep who were never married to their father (thus leaving them free to marry their brother, Akhenaten). 

It is still possible, of course, that this mummy could belong to Nefertiti or Kiya.  Perhaps one of them was, in fact, a sister to Akhenaten, but this evidence has simply not made it into the historical record.  But barring such an unlikely scenario, it is far more probable that the mummy is one of the two daughters of Amenhotep referred to above. 

Finally, DNA testing has shown that two stillborn female fetus mummies discovered in Tut’s tomb, are, in fact, his own children, as has long been assumed.  Furthermore, tentative data suggests that an unknown mummy from a tomb called KV21 is the mother of these two fetuses.  If that’s true, then it is likely that this mummy belongs to Tut’s wife, Ankhesenamun – who is known from the historical record to have been a daughter of Akhenaten and his principle wife Nefertiti. 


Confused yet?  It should be obvious by now that with every new discovery comes new questions.  What we can assert positively at this point is that Tutankhamun is the son of the male mummy in KV55 and the younger female mummy in KV35.  These two people were not only married, but were also brother and sister.  They were both the children of Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye, meaning Tut is the grandson of these two 18th dynasty figures.  Additionally, Queen Tiye can now be positively identified as the elder female mummy from KV55. 

Much more tentative at this point are the identifications of Tut’s parents and the mother of his two stillborn children.  Regarding the children, it is likely from the historical record that they are the daughters of his only known wife, Ankhesenamun.  As such, it is likely that the unknown female mummy from KV21 is, in fact, Ankhesenamun.  However, the data connecting this mummy to the fetuses is not yet complete.  Furthermore, even if this mummy does prove to be the mother of the fetuses, this does not tell us for certain that she is Ankhesenamun.  Perhaps Tut had lesser wives whose names have been lost. 

Both of these problems – the mother of Tut’s children, and the identity of Tut’s parents – should be cleared up with further DNA testing on the mummy from KV21.  As mentioned above, Ankhesenamun is known from the historical record to be the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.  As such, if the mummy from KV21 shares father/child DNA with the male mummy from KV55 (Tut’s father), this would prove beyond any reasonable doubt that not only is she Ankhesenamun, but that the KV55 mummy is, in fact, Akhenaten (and not Smenkhkare, who would have been her uncle,  not her father).  Furthermore, if her maternal DNA does not match the DNA of the Younger Lady from KV35 (the mother of Tut), this would prove that this Younger Lady was not Nefertiti (although it would still leave the door open for this mummy’s identification as Kiya, if one was so inclined).  Of course, if the maternal DNA matched the Younger Lady of KV35, this would prove that both Tut and his wife were the children of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, though I don’t think many experts expect this to be the case. 

Putting together this speculation with the hard DNA evidence, the researchers behind this project have put together an official genealogy of Tutankhamun.  His paternal grandparents are Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye.  His father was Akhenaten.  His mother was sister to Akhenaten and daughter to Amenhotep and Tiye, probably a woman named Nebeta or Beketaten.  His wife was Ankhesenamun, who was a daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (making Tut her half-brother).  They had two daughters who were both stillborn.   

This genealogy, of course, is predicated on the assumption that the Younger Lady of KV35 is not Nefertiti or Kiya, and that the mummy of KV21 is Ankhesenamun.    

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Judas and the Great Betrayal

If you follow my blog, you’ll know I’ve written previously on the subject of Judas, but like a lot of issues in Christianity, it is one worth revisiting from time to time.

In this essay, I want to look specifically at a question many people may not have given much consideration to: Did Judas actually betray Jesus?

Though some scholars, such as J.S. Spong and Hyam Maccoby, have suggested that Judas himself is a fictional creation, most scholars accept that Judas was a real figure of history. He seems certainly to have been one of Jesus’ followers, though there is very little we can say about him as a person. What we do know is that Christian history tells us that Judas was the betrayer of Jesus. Are these stories reliable?

For many Christians, the answer to this question would seem obvious. Of course Judas betrayed Jesus. It is one of the most familiar stories from the Gospel tradition. We find the stories in multiple accounts, some of which are independent of one another.

These independent sources are one of the keys scholars look for when determining the historical reliability of a story from history. If two authors give us the same story, but one of those authors used the other author for his information, then we have only one independent account. If, however, two authors give us the same story, and they are writing independently of one another, then this increases the probability, in the estimation of historians, that the story is reliable.

In the case of the betrayal, we do have these independent accounts – the two primary ones being Mark and John (Matthew and Luke both used Mark as source material). We may have other independent accounts as well, including the 2nd century Gospel of Judas (this text has only been available to scholars for a few years, but the preliminary research indicates that the writer probably did not know the Gospels of the New Testament).

As such, there seems to be good historical reasons for supposing that the betrayal story is true. There is a problem, however. And it’s a big one.

Put quite simply, our earliest sources reveal no knowledge of the stories about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, one of his inner circle.

This is a big problem because in addition to multiple independent sources, scholars like to have early sources. The earlier the better. While we have multiple independent sources for the Judas stories, they are not our earliest sources. Our earliest sources, on the other hand, make no mention of Judas, and imply instead no knowledge of anything like a betrayal by anyone, much less one of the Twelve.

Just what are these sources? The first is the hypothetical source scholars call Q. The Q Gospel is the common material between Luke and Matthew that is not found in Mark. Scholars are in virtual unanimous agreement that Luke and Matthew both used Mark as a primary source. However, there is a lot of material found in both Luke and Matthew that is not found in Mark. Where did this material come from? This is what scholars believe is the Q gospel – a text no longer in existence, but available in the 1st century to Matthew and Luke, which contained very little narrative framework, but was instead primarily a list of sayings attributed to Jesus, many of them apocalyptically oriented.

There are some scholars who doubt Q’s existence, but in my experience, the majority of major textual scholars accept it as real.

In any case, the Q Gospel is by its very nature earlier than the Gospels – at least earlier than Matthew and Luke. It is impossible to say, of course, whether it predates Mark, but most Q experts believe it was composed sometime in the 50’s or 60’s C.E., prior to Mark or the other Gospels.

As such, it is an early source for Christian material, and it is noteworthy that it includes nothing about Judas Iscariot or any betrayal of Jesus. Now, this in and of itself is not so strange. The text is mostly just a list of sayings attributed to Jesus, with very little narrative. It could be that the Q writer knew of the Judas story, but simply did not find it germane to his literary purposes in compiling a list of Jesus’ sayings.

More important than this problem of omission, however, is the fact that one saying attributed to Jesus in the Q Gospel implies that not only did the author of Q know nothing about the betrayal of Judas, but neither did Jesus.

Our later Gospels, of course, tell us that Jesus had foreknowledge that he was going to be betrayed. Consider, however, this saying from Q. In it, Jesus is speaking to his disciples in private:
Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
What’s so world-shattering about this statement? Quite simply, Jesus apparently has no knowledge, at least at this point, that Judas is going to betray him. He predicts that when he comes into power in God’s kingdom, his twelve disciples – all twelve disciples – will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. This group, by necessity, must include Judas Iscariot.

Not only does this passage contradict later Gospel depictions of Jesus having foreknowledge of Judas’ treachery, but it also implies that the writer who wrote these sayings down also didn’t know anything about Judas’ treachery, otherwise we can assume he would have redacted it appropriately.

The second early source at issue here are the letters of Paul. Paul’s letters are the earliest Christian texts in existence, written during the 50’s C.E., or about twenty to thirty years after Jesus’ death. In them, Paul never mentions anything – not one solitary word – about Judas Iscariot or his betrayal of Jesus. He implies no knowledge of any such act.

Like the omission in Q, some may write this off as unimportant – Paul’s purposes in his letters were to address specific problems in his congregations, so it stands to reason that he may never have had reason to bring up Judas Iscariot. Indeed, Paul mentions virtually nothing about the life of Jesus at all in his letters. So this fact of omission about Judas may not tell us much.

But, again like the saying in Q, Paul does say something that implies he had no knowledge of Judas’ betrayal. It comes in a famous passage in 1 Corinthians where Paul is talking about the people the risen Christ appeared to. He states that Jesus appeared “to Peter, and then to the Twelve.” Of course, we know from our Gospel accounts that Jesus appeared only to the eleven remaining disciples, because Judas was gone by then. And Paul couldn’t have been referring to Judas’ replacement, Matthias, who was voted on by the remaining disciples as depicted in the book of Acts, because that event occurs after Jesus’ ascension into heaven. As far as Paul was aware, the Twelve were still intact after Jesus’ death.

The most common argument against this point is that when Paul used the phrase “the Twelve,” he was using it as a generic title for Jesus’ inner circle. They were known as “the Twelve,” even though one eventually departed and betrayed Jesus. This, of course, is certainly possible, but it doesn’t seem very probable. The Gospels, after all, do not use any such euphemism. They tell us explicitly that the risen Christ appeared to “the Eleven.” The Twelve were no longer intact. Furthermore, making this assumption requires reading something into the text that is not actually there. It requires reading Paul through the lens of the later Gospels. If one had only Paul’s letters to go on (as his congregations did), one would make the plain, simple, and obvious deduction that the Twelve were still intact after Jesus’ death.

Some of my more savvy readers may be screaming by this point that I have overlooked a salient passage in Paul, where he explicitly talks about Jesus’ betrayal.

The passage in question is from, strangely enough, the same letter where Paul talks about “the Twelve” – 1 Corinthians. This time, Paul is talking about problems the Corinthians are having while celebrating the Lord’s Supper. In one of the very few instances where Paul refers to an event in Jesus’ life, he writes: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread…”

This seems to be a reference to a familiar passage from the Gospels – Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples, which occurs on the night Judas betrays him. Clearly Paul is talking about Judas here!

Not so fast.

The word translated in that passage as “betrayed” actually means “handed over,” whether handing over car keys or handing over a perpetrator to the police. Depending on context, of course, it can also mean something like “betrayed.” In the Gospels, for instance, this is the word of choice for describing what Judas did – he handed Jesus over. Since Judas was part of his inner circle, and did it behind his back, this constituted a “betrayal.”

However, without context to imply an act of betrayal, the word simply means “handed over.” In Paul, there is no context given to suggest betrayal. Quite literally, Paul says: “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread…”

But couldn’t the context be implied? Perhaps Paul and his readers know how Jesus was handed over, and know who did it, so Judas and his betrayal are simply understood in unwritten context. This is possible, but when one looks at the greater context of how Paul, himself, uses this word most commonly, a more reasonable context comes into play.

Put simply, when Paul talks about Jesus going to the cross and being resurrected, he frequently uses this same word. But when he uses it elsewhere, he uses it in the context of God “handing Jesus over” to be crucified.

Consider, for instance, Romans chapter 8: “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

Or Galatians chapter 2: “And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

There are roughly ten other similar examples in the writings of Paul, where he uses this word to refer to passing something on, or giving something up, or handing something over. Never does he use the word to imply betrayal. And when he specifically uses the word in regards to Jesus’ death, as in the quotes above, it is always an act of God; God handed Jesus over to death so that we might be saved.

Given that context, it is reasonable to assume that in the passage from 1 Corinthians, when he is talking about the Lord’s Supper, he is saying, in effect, “The Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over [by God unto death], he took bread…” This fits into the context with which Paul exclusively uses this word. It only fits into a betrayal context if you read Paul through the lens of later authors and their stories, and ignore Paul’s own way of using the word.

Even if one wants to argue that Paul was, in fact, referring to Jesus being physically handed over, and not just God “handing Jesus over” to death and resurrection, the phrase still does not explicitly tell us that this “handing over” was an act of Judas or one of Jesus’ inner circle. Perhaps Paul meant that Jesus was “handed over” by the Jewish leaders to the Roman authorities – which is, of course, consistent with the later Gospel accounts. Perhaps he means that some other person known to Jesus “handed him over” to the authorities. A nosy neighbor, perhaps, or the groundskeeper of the garden where Jesus was arrested.

This is all speculation, of course, but the point is that Paul is not explicit. The only context suggests that Paul is speaking metaphorically about an action of God, but even if we assume he was speaking more literally, there is no indication that this “handing over” was an act of betrayal by Judas or anyone else of his inner circle. This is particularly true in light of the fact that Paul’s use of the phrase “the Twelve” implies that he knew of no inner circle betrayal.

There is a possible third early source to consider as well. Most scholars date the Gospel of Thomas to the early 2nd century, but a few scholars, notably J.D. Crossan, have argued that Thomas predates the Gospels of the New Testament, composed around the same time as the letters of Paul and Q.

If we accept this early date for Thomas, it is significant to note that Thomas also includes nothing about a betrayal, and implies no knowledge of any such act. Like the Q Gospel, Thomas is a sayings gospel, providing very little narrative framework. In any case, Judas and the betrayal are never mentioned or implied.

This leaves us, of course, with the problem I mentioned at the beginning. We have multiple independent accounts of the betrayal by Judas, but these are later accounts, and our earliest accounts say nothing about the event, and instead say other things that imply the writers, in fact, had never heard of Judas’ betrayal.

How do we reconcile this? Ultimately, both camps have some explaining to do. If one doubts that Judas betrayed Jesus, then one must explain why our later accounts, some of them independent of one another, agree in their descriptions of Judas betraying Jesus. But if one accepts that Judas did, in fact, betray Jesus, one must explain why our earliest accounts don’t reflect the story, and the writers seem to know nothing about it.

In my opinion, this second “explanation” is the tougher one. There are, however, a few possibilities. Perhaps the Q hypothesis is completely bogus and Q never existed. Instead, the Q material is simply Luke copying from Matthew. Therefore, we can’t count Q as an early source that does not show any knowledge of Judas’ betrayal.

Furthermore, even if we accept that Q is real, the fact that the betrayal is never mentioned is immaterial. It also never mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion, but we know that happened. And the quote about the “twelve thrones” may simply reflect that the historical Jesus did not know Judas was going to betray him (even though he is later depicted as having this foreknowledge).

As for Paul, perhaps “the Twelve” was just a euphemism, and when he talks about Jesus being “handed over,” he was, in fact, thinking of Judas, and knew his readers would know what he was talking about.

Even if we accept that Paul knows nothing about Judas, this still does not undermine the stories of the betrayal. Maybe Paul simply hadn’t heard the story. Paul claims in his letters to have gotten his information originally by direct revelation from the risen Christ. He explicitly denies that he heard the story of Jesus from the disciples (see Galatians chapter 1). Perhaps the risen Christ simply didn’t find it necessary to tell Paul about the betrayal.

For me, none of these explanations is very satisfying. The issue with Paul, in particular, is a very tough one. I can simply think of no way to explain why Paul wouldn’t have been intimately familiar with the story of Judas and the betrayal, if in fact it happened. How could he not have known this information? Even if we accept his assertion that he did not first learn the story of Jesus from the disciples, he certainly met the disciples later in life – before he wrote 1 Corinthians. He tells us about these meetings, after all. By the time he was writing that letter, it is simply unthinkable that he would never have heard the Judas story.

Is it possible, some may ask, that Paul and the author of Q (and Thomas, if it is early) were simply trying to suppress the story – that it was an embarrassing moment, one that folks like Paul were not inclined to talk about? This, I suppose, would be the best explanation, if one accepts that the Judas stories of the Gospel tradition are historically reliable. By the Gospel era, it wasn’t such a painful memory because so many years had passed. But during the early years, when Paul and the Q author were writing, Christian evangelists weren’t as likely to talk openly about it.

As for the other side of the debate – those who are skeptical of the betrayal stories – what answer can be given to explain the stories of the Gospel tradition?

This is an easier question to answer, in my opinion. It does not take a graduate degree in world mythology to understand how legends can and do arise. The stories of Judas in the Gospels are simply polemical. Judas is the embodiment of “the Jews,” and thus painted as the betrayer and Christ-killer. Why Judas, and not someone else? Maybe Judas was an easy target. Perhaps he died shortly after Jesus’ own death, and by the time of the Gospels, no one really knew anything about him, thus making him an easy pick for a betrayal legend – particularly given his name. Perhaps Judas had some kind of falling out with the early Christian movement. Perhaps he didn’t like what the other disciples were saying and preaching, and instead preached a different gospel – one at odds with the others. Perhaps he grew disillusioned after Jesus’ death and decided that they had all been deluded by a fancy talker. Maybe he became an enemy of the Christian movement because he thought they were crazy for claiming that Jesus was alive. Any of these things could explain why he would later come to be vilified as the betrayer of Jesus.

In the end, I tend toward skepticism about the betrayal stories. For me, I simply can’t get past the idea of Paul not knowing about the betrayal. He must have heard such stories, if indeed those stories were around, yet his words imply the opposite. Taken together with the lack of knowledge in the Q gospel (which I believe existed), and Thomas (which I also tend to think is earlier than many scholars suppose), it simply seems unlikely to me that the betrayal stories are historically reliable. As I said earlier, I do accept that Judas was a follower of Jesus and a real person of history, but I think the speculations I provided in the previous paragraph probably give a better explanation for why he later came to be vilified in the Gospels of the New Testament.