By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Romans by identifying him in public so they could seize Jesus and arrest him. Judas pointed out Jesus to the authorities by kissing him in greeting.
But there is more to this story than meets the eye, so let’s take a closer look at the character of Judas Iscariot and his betrayal of Jesus – for which, famously, he was paid thirty pieces of silver.
Judas betrays Jesus: summary
After the Last Supper (which we have discussed in a separate post here), Jesus retired with his disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane. This garden’s name is often said to mean ‘press of oils’, though we cannot actually be sure of the name’s derivation: an alternative theory (following St Jerome) renders it as Gesamani, connecting it with the ‘fat valley’ found in the Book of Isaiah. Gethsemane was just outside the city of Jerusalem on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, so either derivation of the name would make sense.
Although Judas Iscariot was with them at the Last Supper, it is stated (or, in some of the Gospels, merely implied) that he left before the meal had ended. So he was not with Jesus and the other disciples when they went to Gethsemane. John (18:2) tells us that Jesus often went to this garden with his disciples, so Judas knew where to find Jesus.
Jesus told his disciples to sit while he went and prayed. There was clearly something on Jesus’ mind, as he took Peter and ‘the two sons of Zebedee’ with him to go and pray. Jesus fell on his face and prayed to God, asking to be relieved of the suffering to come.
Nevertheless, if it was God’s will that it should be done, he was resigned to it. When he returned to Peter and the others, they’d fallen asleep, and he chastised them. Could they not watch with him, just for an hour?
Jesus went and prayed three times in total, but each time, the disciples fell asleep. In the end, he told them to get some rest because the time had arrived for him to be betrayed by his enemies.
Shortly after this, Judas arrived with a crowd of priests carrying swords and sticks. Judas had arranged to reveal to them which man was Jesus by going up to Jesus and kissing him in greeting. When he did this, the crowd of priests knew which man to seize, so they grabbed Jesus and began to take him away.
But Peter intervened, drawing his sword and lashing out at the servant of the high priest. His blade sliced off the man’s ear, but Jesus commanded Peter to put his sword up, as he was prepared to do God’s will and allow himself to be arrested. And Jesus reached out and healed the wounded man, restoring his ear.
Judas betrays Jesus: analysis
Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is obviously a turning-point in the Gospels because it precipitates Jesus’ arrest, interrogation, and subsequent crucifixion. But why Judas turned traitor is a difficult question to answer.
Matthew (who is the Evangelist who wishes to match Jesus’ life to Old Testament prophecies) is the only one of the four Gospel-writers who tells us how much Judas received for betraying Jesus. But why ‘thirty pieces of silver’?
If we go back to the Old Testament, we find in Zechariah 11:12-13 that Zechariah received thirty pieces of silver for his labour. He takes them and throws them ‘to the potter’, supposedly because he’s insulted by this amount of money, and the chief priests purchase a field with the silver.
So it seems that Matthew chose this rather modest sum – when the authorities would probably have paid Judas a far greater amount for him to betray Jesus – in order to fulfil another prophecy. Judas’ motive may well have been mercenary, though, because John 12:6 tells us that Judas was ‘a thief’.
Scholars cannot agree, by the way, on what the ‘Iscariot’ of ‘Judas Iscariot’ means. Probably the most widespread interpretation is that it means ‘man from Kerioth’, which identifies Judas as a Judean rather than a Galilean (all of Jesus’ other disciples were from Galilee), although in truth nobody is quite sure where Kerioth was.
However, alternative theories have been put forward, including the idea that it’s a mistranscription of ‘Sicariot’, meaning ‘dagger man’ or ‘terrorist’ – after a group of assassins, the Sicarii, who concealed daggers beneath their cloaks and carried out murders amongst crowds of people in an effort to resist Roman rule in the region.
These terrorists were also known as the Zealots, and because of the ardour with which they opposed Roman occupation, the word zealot came to be applied to any fervent or fanatical supporter of a cause. Indeed, another Judas, Judas of Gamala (sometimes known as Judas of Galilee), had led a bloody but unsuccessful revolution against Rome.
Another question to which there is no definitive answer is: why did Judas betray Jesus in the first place? We can obviously plump for the mercenary motive – it was all about the money for Judas – but if we pause and marvel at how cheaply Judas allowed his treachery to be bought by the authorities, we may feel dissatisfied with such an answer.
Another possibility is that Judas believed Jesus was the Messiah – hence his following Jesus in the first place – but that he grew disillusioned with Jesus’ refusal to launch a revolt against the Roman powers who governed Judea. (Here, the fact that Judas was supposedly a Judean where the other disciples were from Galilee adds credence to this theory.)
In his endlessly informative analysis of the New Testament, Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: The New Testament, Isaac Asimov points us to John’s account of Judas’ betrayal. In John chapter 12, Judas objects to a whole jar of expensive ointment over Jesus’ head (in preparation for his coming death).
Asimov interprets this act as a symbol of Jesus’ anointing as king, but also his failure to act as Judas wishes him to. Jesus’ ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophy, perhaps, doesn’t sit well with the anti-Roman Judas. But this analysis of Judas’ motives is only conjecture.
But how did Judas die? Most people will answer, ‘The Bible tells us that Judas was overcome with remorse and hanged himself.’ But this isn’t so. Or, rather, it is and it isn’t. Just as David both did and didn’t kill Goliath, so Judas both did and didn’t hang himself. In chapter 27 of Matthew, we are told that he took his own life, but a different account is given in Acts 1:17-20.
There we are told that Judas, having purchased a field with his thirty pieces of silver, fell ‘headlong’ and ‘burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out’. Lovely.