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.