Judas Iscariot: Hero or Betrayer?

Since the recent publication and popularization of the Gospel of Judas, it has been fashionable to look on this disciple either as a victim of circumstance or as a hero, blessed by Jesus to set the stage for His condemnation. Aside from resting on bad exegesis, this interpretation ignores a basic truth about Jesus’ incarnation and His saving death.

The so-called Gospel of Judas burst on the popular scene over a year ago. Although scholars had long known of its existence, its presentation by the National Geographic society[1] created a predictable stir, largely because of its apparent challenge to the image of Jesus’ disciple Judas furnished by the canonical Gospels of the New Testament. Those who have studied the document, written in the ancient Coptic language, have classified it as belonging to a large group of “gnostic” writings produced during the second and third centuries A.D. These are works the Church rejected as heretical, in that they represent serious distortions of basic elements of Christian faith handed down “from the beginning” (1 Jn 1:1ff; 1 Cor 15:3ff; Jude 3; etc).

Fascination with the Gospel of Judas has been due largely to its apparent depiction of the man not as a betrayer, but as a hero. According to most readings, Judas emerges here as one chosen by Jesus Himself to set in motion the events that would lead to His passion and death. That is, Jesus actually wanted Judas to betray him to the Jewish authorities, so that by His death He would be liberated from His material body, in order to return to His place of origin in the realm of spirit. Recently an important paper has appeared (not yet for publication), authored by a respected scholar and student of Coptic texts, which demonstrates convincingly that this reading of the Gospel of Judas is based on erroneous translations and is essentially wrong.

However that may be, the entire issue raises a crucial question that has occupied theologians ever since Christ died. Why, in fact, was Judas’ betrayal a necessary element in the divine economy, God’s work of salvation? Why did Jesus’ sacrificial death have to include not only physical suffering, but also the heartache of knowing that one of His own closest followers delivered Him into the hands of His enemies? Perhaps we can give a partial answer to the question this way.

The Fathers of the Church made various formulations of a fundamental truth: “God became man, so that man might become ‘god’ by grace.” This ‘deification’ (theĆ“sis in Greek) is made possible by our incorporation into Christ through baptism; we become “members of His Body” and thereby we share in His personal existence, including His glorification through resurrection from the dead. This extraordinary transformation “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18), however, is possible only because Christ, the eternal Son of God, “took flesh” (Jn 1:14) and “became what we are” (Phil 2:7). Only thereby could He make us “what He is,” that is, participants in His glorified life.

He became what we are. That is, He assumed or took upon Himself our fallen human nature, everything that makes us distinctively human, and thereby He restored that nature to its original perfection. There was nothing abstract about that action. By becoming one of us, by assuming our fallenness in everything but sin itself (sin being a tragic lack rather than a positive attribute), He submitted Himself not only to human existence, but also to the greatest evil and tragedy a person can know. He had to become what we are in every way; otherwise He could not save us in all that we are, in our wretchedness and vulnerability, as well as in our strength and dignity as bearers of the divine Image.

In other words, for the Son of God to save us out of the depths of our fallenness, He had to experience the fullness of human tragedy, including betrayal and abandonment on the part of those closest to Him. (“What is not assumed is not saved,” St Gregory Nazianzus would declare.) To become truly “what we are” required that Jesus experience not only physical pain and suffering, but the anguish of treachery as well.

Betrayal is, in effect, a symbol for the basest act we can perform in relation to another person. (This is why adultery has always been seen as the worst of sins in a marriage: it betrays trust and therefore undermines the relationship as nothing else can). In order to assume the fullness of human life and suffering, Jesus had to assume betrayal as well. He had to become the victim of the ultimate act of betrayal, one which would lead to his terrible suffering and humiliating death. This is the only way his voluntary self-abasement or self-emptying (Phil 2:7) could be complete, by enduring the pain and anguish not only of physical torment, but of betrayal by one of his own disciples, one he called “friend” (Mt 26:50).

Despite recent attempts to rehabilitate Judas, in popular literature and through a (perhaps) spurious interpretation of the Gospel of Judas, he remains as he is depicted in the canonical Gospels. He is a thoroughly tragic figure, a victim of his own treachery, which culminated in suicide. His freely assumed act of betrayal stands in the starkest contrast to another expression of free choice: that of the Virgin Mother, whose fiat made possible the incarnation of the Son of God. Judas was as much responsible for his act as Mary was for hers, the one cursed and the other blessed. Both had their place in the mystery of the divine activity that created conditions essential for the world’s salvation.

If God’s motive in this tragic yet necessary drama was to heal and bring new life to all of creation, Judas’ motive, according to Gospel tradition, was simple greed. Speaking of the blood money the Iscariot had received from the religious authorities, and of the crushing regret and grief he subsequently experienced, the evangelist Matthew recounts: “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, Judas departed. And he went and hanged himself” (27:5). This raises another question formulated many years ago in a few lines of verse:

Does he perceive, as death chokes off despair,
that He whom greed betrayed will yet atone
for every sin but one? Is he aware
that treachery betrays itself alone?

This question, too, belongs to what the great early Church theologian Origen of Alexandria (+254) called “the mystery of betrayal.” A mystery of tragic proportions, yet one for which we can only feel the most profound gratitude.

[1] The Gospel of Judas. Edited by Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst with Additional Commentary by Bart D. Ehrman. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006.