essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
One of the characters in the Gospels who fascinates me is Judas Iscariot. He’s got such an all or nothing at all role.
Either his role was predetermined by god and he had no choice but to betray Jesus, so as to allow the Passion, and the Redemption of mankind; in which case his reputation as the very figure of the traitor is totally undeserved.
Or it was his decisive action that set in motion that Passion and consequent Redemption, in which case he in fact called the shots, determined Jesus’ fate, and more or less told god what to do; in which case he is also god, and the more powerful one.
Beliefs, not events
Yet you can’t work out what really happened merely by going to the Gospels. Digging facts out of the Gospel story is all but impossible, as they were not written to convey facts, but to explain ritual.
Each little community in Greece founded by Saint Paul had a ritual, and much of it needed explaining. The communal feasts and the resurrection through Jesus’s suffering were like the mysteries of Eleusis and the feasts of Mithras, yet different in ways that had to be explicated. There were origins of words, phrases and rituals in Judaism that needed to be pointed out. Many expected the world to end and their bodies to be resurrected, and when this failed to eventuate a theology was needed to explain that. Hence the Gospels.
The explanation turned out to be unexpectedly profound, which is why we have Christianity.
Despite the lack of factual material there are some obvious factual contexts to be considered that do shed light on Gospel readings. One is that of languages. In Judaea in the first century the official language was Latin, the cultural language was Greek, the religious language was traditional Hebrew and the everyday language between all racial elements of the population was Aramaic. The Aramaeans were once a dominant power in Syria but their state had vanished, though their language remained.
In Galilee to the north a dialect of Hebrew was likely spoken. The hillsmen of Galilee probably spoke a little Aramaic too, and knew no Latin or Greek. So when, for example, Jesus was tried by Pilate it would have been in Latin; when he was sent to Herod’s court he would have heard Greek; with the High Priest a formal Hebrew. He would have had no or little idea of what people were saying to him, perhaps why his answers to questions are so non committal.
When Judas led the Temple soldiers into the Garden of Gethsemane to take Jesus captive unobtrusively, would he have been expecting a trial; or hoping for priestly support for whatever he thought Jesus was about to do; or arranging a refuge for him? There is so much confusion over motives in the Passion tale that language incomprehension might be a cause.
Is there a confusion between the Disciple Yhudah the brother of Yesu, who thought Yesu mad, and the Disciple Yhudah Iscariot?
It is worth remembering that the names by which we know the Gospel figures are translations. Mary would have been called Miriam, Joseph was Yosef, Jesus was Joshua or Yoshua, in Aramaic, Yeshua, or Yesu for short, and Judas was Yhudah. Thus, Yosef and Miriam had several children, two of whom were Yhudah and Yesu. Makes it all sound like a different story entirely.
The Gospels were written by Greeks for Greeks, but they purport to show a Jewish context. Jesus and his disciples were orthodox Jews. Jews had a sacred scripture, the Tanakh, which was a record of the covenant between god and Moses, and was the word of god. Early Christians believed that passages of the Tanakh foretold the coming of Jesus and explained his ministry.
This is one of the strangest of early beliefs, but common to other religions. There was no need to look for facts or explanation provided by human beings, as god had already revealed all in sacred scripture. And in sacred scripture it is that we first hear of some of the story of Judas Iscariot.
In the book of Exodus are written the fines and penalties for many offences. For the accidental killing of a slave the slave’s owner must be paid 30 shekels (Exod 21,32). Zechariah (11, 12-13) tells of two shepherds and how their staff of office is broken, for the flocks pay them no heed. The shepherd asks for his wages, and is paid thirty pieces of silver, which he despises as a poor sum, and throws to the potter in the house of the Lord.
Here is all the evidence of Judas’ payment for betrayal of Jesus, and what he did with the money. Exodus and Zechariah must have been speaking of Judas, and god foretelling of his fate. No further enquiry was necessary.
Although there was one scripture for Jews, the Tanakh, there was more than one way of interpreting it. Judaism was divided into sects, as it is today.
The Sadducees were an upper class group that represented the Establishment, descended from Aaron brother of Moses, and devoted to Temple worship. The Temple was the outward sign of Moses’ Covenant with god, the unceasing sacrificial fires and smoke like that that sustained Moses as he travelled to the Promised Land. The Sadducees were politically active, and attempted to negotiate a better deal for Jews from the Romans. They perished absolutely in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.
The Pharisees were a less rigidly organised sect devoted to explicating the teachings of the Tanakh to ordinary Jews for whom parts of the scriptures were a mystery. To this end they used parables, tales of ordinary events and occupations, to clarify doctrinal teachings. They were thus more populist than the Sadducees and became the teachers for Jews in Alexandria and elsewhere.
The Zealots were a political movement that believed the time was right for the coming of the Messiah, the king of the Jews who was a reincarnation of David, the Hebrews’ greatest king, or a son of David. They were organised as a guerrilla force, and caused the Romans some little annoyance by petty raids and murders. They inspired the Maccabees and eventually brought down the wrath of the Romans and the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Essenes, like the followers of John the Baptist, believed in the coming of the end of the world and a great judgment. It would be preceded by the ministry of a great teacher like John the Baptist. They were a seclusionist sect and conflicted with the Sadducees over observance of the Jewish Law. The world did end for them, in 70 AD.
Jesus in the Gospels is identified with all four of these sects. As a Sadducee reformer of Temple ritual he overturns the money changing tables in the Temple. As a learned Pharisee he teaches in parables. As a Zealot he is identified as the Messiah. And as an Essene teacher he is thought to prefigure the coming final days and judgment of all Jews.
Though he may have taught unity among the Jewish sects, it is unlikely that Jesus would have got away with acceptance by all of them. But from the distance of Greece and with some garbled knowledge of what the sects stood for, Jesus could well have seemed like Aaron, Pharisee Hillel, King David, and the Essene Teacher, combined, and referred to as all four in ways that to modern eyes can be confusing.
The vanishing crowd
Some light is thrown on Judas’ betrayal by events before and during Passover in Jerusalem according to the Gospels.
Jesus enters Jerusalem as the Messiah and is so proclaimed by the crowd (Mark 11, 9-10). This is a political, militaristic claim. He drives the money changers from the Temple, a reform act of a Sadducee priest, but it would cause a riot at Passover time as Jerusalem had then ten times its usual population. He then changes course and preaches as a Pharisee would. Finally, he accepts anointing at the hands of an unknown woman at a feast, as a King (or as a deceased person) would. Judas then goes to the Sanhedrin Council and offers to prefer charges against Jesus (Mark 14, 10-11). He leads a group of Temple soldiers to Jesus, they arrest him, and Jesus denies any Messianic role (“Am I leading a rebellion that you need swords and clubs?” Mark 14, 48)). During his examination Jesus admits to being the Messiah, but explains the Messiah in terms familiar to the Essenes, as a judge coming on the final day to judge mankind. Then, before Pilate, Jesus admits again to being the Messiah, whom the Romans saw as a rebel guilty of treason. When Pilate offers to release either Jesus or a captured Zealot, Barabbas, the crowd howls for Jesus’ death. Only four days earlier they had acclaimed him as Messiah when he entered Jerusalem (Mark 15, 1-15).
It’s not surprising that Judas, or anyone else, was unable to follow this. Jesus is first the Messiah, then a spiritual being acting as judge in the Final Days as the Essenes taught, then the Messiah again. The crowd follow him as he enters Jerusalem, but abandon him as he continues to do nothing to cause an insurrection other than driving money changers from the Temple. Then as a criminal they want him dead. At least Barabbas is doing something about the Roman oppression, but Jesus doesn’t seem to know what he wants, from their point of view. If this was planned, and not just stupidity on Jesus’ part, then he was, quite deliberately, committing suicide. How could that ever save mankind from Adam’s Original Sin?
As far as the narrative in Mark is concerned, it looks to me as though Judas was dismayed by all the claims to Messiahship Jesus made. Was this political role unexpected as far as the Disciples were concerned? What’s said of Jesus earlier shows him as a Rabbi, a teacher, and a wonder worker who healed people. Did Judas think Jesus had become corrupted by a more political role and try to stop him?
I don’t think Mark or any Gospel writer knew one way or the other. They had a ritual to explain of a god who died to save mankind from the consequences of their sins, and used what information they had about Jewish sects to create a Passion narrative. That was the point of the Gospels.
It is probably more realistic to look at the events of the betrayal and Passion of Jesus as a holy drama.
The characters are Miriam, mother of god; Yesu, the Saviour; Yhudah the Betrayer; and Pilate the Executioner.
They can be mapped to an earlier psychodrama in the garden of Eden. This featured Eve, Mother of mankind; Adam, the loser of Paradise; the Serpent who tempted; and god who expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise.
This in turn has even more ancient precedents. Inanna the Mother of mankind, and also the Saviour; Gudgalana the Bull, the husband of Ereshkigal, Queen of the Underworld; and Dumuzi, Inanna’s husband.
In this earliest myth/story, Inanna is the Queen of Love and Life, who goes to the underworld to honour the Sacred Bull who has given his life to ensure that of Mankind. She becomes trapped there, and slowly human life on earth starts to die. But her husband Dumuzi agrees to take her place, and Inanna comes once more to Heaven, and mankind is saved.
More generally, these myths, which have parallels in Greek religion and many West Asian ones, deal with the coming of death to a previous state of near perfection. Only by death and descent to the underworld can god restore salvation and happiness to mankind, but for this to happen, an agent/underworld power must be opposed, and overcome by sacrifice, restoring god to heaven. Only by death can life be found.
In a psychodrama there is no truth, no falsity, just as there is no fact in a poetic metaphor. It works to bring spiritual fulfilment to believers. Any interpretation that works is a good one, so symbolical, historical, comparative, literal, or metaphorical are all possible interpretations, and all valid.
It really doesn’t matter if Judas was the man who betrayed Jesus; the agent which initiated the Redemption; the force which enabled god to experience death, and overcome it; or a deeply felt fear of dying. We must deal with death; and Judas, as well as Jesus, helps us to do so.
For Christians, Judas is the man who found Jesus wanting, and rejected him, just as Christians have always done, despite their piety. They go to mass on Sundays, but nothing will induce them to love their enemies.
©2016 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.