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The Redemption of Judas Iscariot

Featured image: A mural depicting Judas kissing Jesus (the Kiss of Judas)  in the St. Jean Church in Cappadocia, Turkey. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Featured image: A mural depicting Judas kissing Jesus (the Kiss of Judas)  in the St. Jean Church in Cappadocia, Turkey. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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Featured image: A mural depicting Judas kissing Jesus (the Kiss of Judas)  in the St. Jean Church in Cappadocia, Turkey. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Judas Iscariot is one of the most reviled figures in Christian theology. According to biblical tradition, he is the man who betrayed Jesus of Nazareth, which leads to the latter’s capture, and subsequently, crucifixion and death. However, has Judas been handed a bad rap? Was he really the great betrayer depicted in the scriptures, or was he merely a patsy?

1. Introducing Judas

Dante Alighieri wrote possibly the greatest and most influential Italian literary masterpiece of all time, the Divina Commedia, early in the fourteenth century. In the first part of his epic poem, Inferno, Dante’s semi-autobiographical lead character, accompanied on his journey by the pre-Christian era Roman poet, Virgil, descended into the depths of the earth, right into the nine circles of hell. The sign at the entrance of hell ominously proclaimed, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.

As he passed through the first eight circles, the horrific punishments he saw meted out to sinners (consisting of well-known historical personalities such as Helen of Troy, Pontius Pilate, Pope Nicholas III and the Prophet Mohammad, among others) grew increasingly more terrible. After each of the circles, rings and bolgias, he felt that no worse punishment could ever be imagined for these eternally damned souls; and yet, he was proven wrong each time.

Upon reaching the ninth and final circle, he saw that it was inlaid with another four concentric circular sections, populated by four figures. The first figure that he saw was Satan, who was imprisoned from the waist down in frozen ice. “With six eyes did he weep, and down three chins, trickled the tear drops and the bloody drivel”, was how Dante pitifully describe Satan initially.

Yet, Dante’s three-headed, six-winged and six-eyed Satan was also performing several other tasks – the mouths of his left and right heads were chewing Brutus and Cassius (co-conspirators in the murder of Julius Caesar) respectively.

Most gruesome, however, was the eternity of pain and torture Satan, the Prince of Evil, was handing out to Judas, the greatest sinner Western mythology has ever known. Using his middle head, Satan was chewing Judas even as he was slicing his skin off using its claws.

The fact that Dante saw it fit to crown Judas as the greatest sinner of all is a testament to the enduring vilification that he has been subjected to for nearly 2,000 years.

Iconic Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's painting, La Carte de l'Enfer (Chart of Hell), which brought to life Dante's nine circles of hell. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library
Iconic Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli’s painting, La Carte de l’Enfer (Chart of Hell), which brought to life Dante’s nine circles of hell. Image courtesy of the Vatican Library

2. The Betrayal of Christ

It was at the Garden of Gethsemane, an olive grove located on the east of Jerusalem, where Jesus Christ and his Twelve Apostles went to after the Last Supper. Jesus, already aware of the events that were about to unfold that night, had earlier dropped several hints to his apostles over the course of the evening to prepare them for his capture.

Jesus left his apostles to pray in solitude twice that evening, and when he went for his third prayer, Judas also left. Judas returned a short while later accompanied by a mob of temple priests, Sanhedrin officials and soldiers. Upon His return, the waiting Judas approached Jesus and planted a respectful kiss on Him, as was proper etiquette at the time between students and teachers.

After a short exchange, Jesus identified himself to the arresting party and the soldiers advanced to arrest Him.  Simon immediately drew his sword and attacked the soldiers. Only the intervention of Jesus prevented a greater bloodbath. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus allegedly said, “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52).

One of the priests, Malchus, had his ears sliced off by Simon, but Jesus healed his wounds under the watchful eyes of everyone present. Jesus berated Simon for the violence and agreed to follow the arresting party peacefully. Amidst the outcries of His apostles and followers, Jesus said, “How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus?” (Matthew 26: 54).

Jesus was then brought before the High Priest Caiaphas immediately after his arrest. The reason is unclear, though many speculated that Caiaphas wanted Jesus to retract His claims of divinity to protect the populace against Roman aggression.

Soon after, they took Jesus to the court of the Sanhedrin (a Jewish council of wise) for His hearing. This was highly irregular, considering the Sanhedrin had no judicial authority other than an advisory role for the Romans. He was found guilty.

The next morning, they took Him to the Prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, for his sentencing. After some debate between Pilate – who was extremely wary of how his decision may affect the greater population – and Caiaphas, Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion, and in an unexpected twist of event, the murderous criminal Barabbas was given a pardon by Pilate as demanded by a feverish, manipulated crowd. Jesus was crucified and died soon after, His subsequent resurrection notwithstanding.

Biblical canons state that upon hearing of Jesus’ sentence and death, Judas, consumed with guilt and sorrow, threw away the pouch containing 30 silver coins, his fees from the Temple priesthood for betraying Christ’s location, and hung himself to death shortly after.

Thus, Judas, despite his final remorse, will forever have his name etched as the archetypical traitor, uttered in contempt throughout the ages.

The Betrayal of Christ by Stefano di Giovanni, better known as 'il Sassetta'. Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts
The Betrayal of Christ by Stefano di Giovanni, better known as ‘il Sassetta’. Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts

3. Facts, Myths and The Politics of Judas

For a character as important and influential as Judas, there is surprisingly little detail known about the man.  We know that he probably originated from Hebron and his father is named Simon. He was also the de facto treasurer of Jesus’ movement and the only native Judean among the Twelve Apostles.

According to Christian Apocrypha, the twelve apostles were meant to eventually rule the twelve tribes of Israel, so they were men of influence and power in the Jewish community.

Some have conjectured that Judas is a member of the Sicarii, a band of violent Judean nationalists who were intent on driving the Romans out of Judea and establishing an independent nation. Scholars have speculated that the Sicarii initially viewed Jesus as the prophesied Messiah that will unite all Judeans and bring about a revolution.

Judas apparently managed to infiltrate the inner circle of Christ but eventually became disillusioned with Jesus’ non-confrontational policy. The arrangement for Jesus’ capture was made in the hope that it will be the catalyst for the Judean people to take arms against the Roman invaders.

Other theories attempting to explain Judas’ treachery includes:

  • It was a prisoner exchange deal with the Romans for his Sicarri comrades captured during the money changer riots in the temple of Jerusalem (Mark 11:15–19, 11:27–33, John 2:13–16 Matthew 21:12–17, 21:23–27 and Luke 19:45–48)
  • Judas never existed at all and was simply a political creation of the theological community in a clash of ideology between Peter and Paul, and used to cement and elevate Peter’s position among the Twelve Apostles. This is further reinforced by the presumed absence of Judas in the Q Gospel, a hypothetical document believed to be the common source for the two synoptic Gospels – Matthew and Luke

There were also a number of contradictions about Judas in Christian scriptures that warrants a mention.

4. The Death of Judas

The Gospel of Matthew and the Book of Acts appear to contradict each other in relation to the death of Judas.

  • In The Gospel of Matthew, Judas appeared to fulfill the contemporary pop culture storyline of his demise, the one where he was consumed with remorse and committed suicide.
  • 27:3 Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,
  • 27: 5 And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself.
  • In the Book of Act, Judas appeared to spontaneously burst to death, in the goriest of ways
  • 1:18 Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.

There have been some who have attempted to justify this discrepancy with a simulation of how Judas could have simply fallen from a tree that he hung himself from, which caused his innards to spill owing to the great impact of the fall. Setting that theory aside, the passages above brings us to another curious point – just where did Judas die?

In the passage from the Book of Acts above, Judas had apparently purchased a piece of land using his ill-gotten 30 silver coins. The passage from Matthew, on the other hand, had clearly pointed out that he had returned the coins to the priesthood out of remorse.

However, the most telling aspect of Judas’ death lies in the following passages from the Corinthians and the Book of Acts:

  • I Corinthians 15:5: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve
  • Act 1: 25: That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.
  • Act 1: 26: And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles

To summarize, Cephas was Peter, who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus together with the TWELVE Apostles (which obviously includes Judas), three days after Judas’ supposed death! In addition, the replacement of Judas by Matthias as one of the twelve Apostles, would not take place for another forty days.

A passage from the Islamic scripture, the Al-Quran, provides yet another astounding theory on what actually transpired.

  • Surah 4, Ayat 156: “they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them”
  • Surah 4, Ayat 157: “And because of their saying: We slew the Messiah Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger. They slew him not nor crucified him, but it appeared so unto them; and lo! Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof save pursuit of a conjecture; they slew him not for certain.”

Basically, the Quran claims that Judas took Jesus’ place and was the one actually crucified!

Judas se pend (Judas Hangs Himself) by James Tissot. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum
Judas se pend (Judas Hangs Himself) by James Tissot. Image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum

5. The Role of Judas

There are those who believe that instead of labeling Judas as a traitor or betrayer, he should be hailed as a hero instead, for his part in the salvation of the human race. The following passages shed some light on the claim:

  • John 13:2    And during supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, (John 13:2)
  • John 13:27  Then after the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”
  • Luke 22: 3  Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.
  • Acts 1: 16    Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus.

The passages above clearly imply that either Judas was preordained to play the role of a betrayer, or that Satan has taken control of Judas. In either instance, Jesus was aware of both Judas’ role in the plan and/or his demonic possession, and yet, did nothing to prevent it from happening. This seems to exonerate Judas’ as he was merely a pawn in the greater scheme of things, helpless in the face of divine destiny. However, there is another missing piece of the puzzle that we have yet to consider.

6. Gospel of Judas

In 1970, a Greek black-market antique dealer, Nicolas Kotoulakis, smuggled a 62-page leather-bound codex out of Egypt to Geneva. The codex was believed to have been discovered sometime during the 1950s in Al Minya, Egypt, by a local black-market trader. Initial inspections by scholars reveal that the document could potentially be one of the earliest apocryphal gospels in existence. However, the manner that it was procured prevented any respected institution from coughing up the $3 million asking price.

Nevertheless, a private auction held in Geneva in 1983 gave a young Yale theological doctoral candidate, Stephen Emmel, the opportunity to inspect the codex, which by now had been officially named the Codex Tchacos. The interest generated by Emmel’s observations eventually led to the codex being acquired by a Basel-based private firm.

Subsequently, the contents of the codex were revealed in a theological conference in Paris in 2004. An extensive array of tests was conducted to verify its authenticity before it was conclusively declared as originating from as early as two centuries after the death of Christ. However, the most important segment of the codex was located right towards the end, a short text identified as Euangelion Ioudas, or, The Gospel of Judas.

In 2006, the Gospel of Judas was publicly unveiled and met with a firestorm of skepticism and outright claims of forgery from all corners. This was perfectly understandable since the content was incredibly inflammatory, to say the least. Even the highly respected National Geographic, which produced a documentary on the Gospel, was not spared ridicule.

In an unusual move, the Vatican, through the Roman Catholic Church of Rome, even released a statement charging that the Gospel was a fabrication, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Vatican, by word of Pope Ratzinger, grants the recently surfaced Judas’ Gospel no credit with regards to its apocryphal claims that Judas betrayed Jesus in compliance with the latter’s own requests. According to the Pope Judas freely chose to betray Jesus: “an open rejection of God’s love”. Judas according to Ratzinger “viewed Jesus in terms of power and success: his only real interests lied with his power and success, there was no love involved. He was a greedy man: money was more important than communing with Jesus; money came before God and his love”. According to the Pope it was due to these traits that led Judas to “turn liar, two-faced, indifferent to the truth”, “losing any sense of God”, “turning hard, incapable of converting, of being the prodigal son, hence throwing away a spent existence”.

So, what was inside the Gospel of Judas that made the Vatican, among many others, turn incredibly aggressive, against all norms?

Perhaps a few passages from the Gospel can shed some light. Unlike other more well-known gospels, the Gospel of Judas does not employ a narrative method of writing. Instead, it consists mainly of dialogues between Jesus and Judas. Some of the more telling passages are as follows:

  • Scene 1: “Step away from the others and I shall tell you the mysteries of the kingdom. It is possible for you to reach it, but you will grieve a great deal. [36] For someone else will replace you, in order that the twelve [disciples] may again come to completion with their god.”
  • Scene 3: “Judas said to him, “In the vision I saw myself as the twelve disciples were stoning me and [45] persecuting [me severely]”
  • Scene 3: “You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations—and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent [47] to the holy [generation].”
  • Scene 3: “But you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.”

The implications of the excerpts above are stunning, to say the least. The gospel reveals that Judas was in fact a close, if not the closest confidant of Jesus, and is being prepared by Jesus to assume the role of the ‘bad guy’, with a promise of rewards that equals to what God had promised Abraham two millennia earlier in their covenant. It’s worth mentioning that the first person narrative used in the gospel evokes the kind of awe one rarely gets from reading a religious book.

The dream that Judas’ alluded to have had may also explain what actually transpired to the man, specifically, concerning his death, which has become one of the most questioned aspects of modern biblical studies. However, the repercussion of accepting this version of his death, of being stoned by his fellow Apostles, opens a completely new line of argument.

While the concept of Judas merely following Jesus’ instructions in the matter of His arrest, has long been touted by a minority, the Gospel of Judas has, without doubt, provided us with the single most conclusive evidence of the fact. Jesus has been planning for the event, and can be seen prepping Judas for the inevitable confrontation.

While we may not see it in our lifetime, we can rest easy knowing that in a few generations, as the Gospel of Judas becomes more accepted by the masses, and even possibly by the religious community, Judas will finally be able to redeem his honor, and The Kiss of Judas, may no longer carry a stigma of evil.

Song of the day: Lenny Kravitz – Are You Gonna Go My Way

 

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