Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Smacking Judas for Easter

Judas "betraying" Jesus with a kiss

Since Easter is on the horizon, it must be time to wallop Judas Iscariot again.  He gets lambasted every spring.  Most recently, in some kind of survey, he was labeled “the greatest sinner of all time” for betraying Jesus.  According to the biblical account, he identified Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver.

Too bad he never lived.

Paul, who is the earliest known writer about Jesus, knows nothing about Judas or any betrayal.  The omission is telling, since he knew everyone in the early movement and even kowtowed to the original disciples.  As a result, to many biblical scholars, Judas is a later addition to the Jesus story.

Judah Maccabeus in art
There are also problems with Judas’ name.  His last name has no known source and may be related to a town (Kerioth) or to the Sicarii, brigands known for using knives against Jewish and Roman opponents. Neither explanation works well in the original, implying that the name was probably invented.

The connotations of the name Judas (which can also be read as Judah) also raise suspicions about its validity.  It comes from the tribal name Judah, from which the words Jew and Judaism also arise.  That, in turn, could mean the Judas of the Gospels represents the Jews, who supposedly “killed” Jesus.  They didn’t, of course.  Crucifixion is a Roman punishment, but the authors of the Gospels had no hesitancy in condemning Jews.  Inventing a Judas who “betrayed” Jesus fits perfectly into that scenario.

The name could also serve an insult directed at two different Jewish heroes.  Judah was the leader of the revolt against the Syrians in 167 BCE, which led to the redemption of the Temple and the holiday of Hanukkah.  As such, he was a great Jewish hero who, in the minds of Gospel writers, might be suitable for undermining.

Artist depiction of the Temple's destruction
A second Judas, who lived nearly 150 years after the Syrian revolt, co-founded the Zealots, the radical wing of Judaism who advocated open warfare against the Romans.  That Judas, unlike the disciple, is attested to in histories of the time period.  The Zealots, in turn, were condemned for causing the destruction of the Second Temple when they lead an anti-Roman rebellion from 67 to 73 CE.  Since the Gospels were all written after the Temple had been burned to rubble in 70 CE, the authors would not have minded blaming Judas for the catastrophe.

Even the money supposedly paid Judas by the Romans as a fee is suspect. The 30 pieces of silver in that time was a piddling amount, and the sum apparently was plucked from the Old Testament. 

30 pieces of silver
The Prophet Zechariah, who lived some 500 years before Jesus, wrote: “And I said unto them, if you think good, give me my hire; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my hire 30 pieces of silver. And Jehovah said unto me: cast it unto the potter, the goodly price that I was prized at by them. And I took the 30 pieces of silver and cast them unto the potter, in the house of Jehovah.” (Zechariah 11:12-13)

That has nothing to do with Jesus, despite exuberant claims to the contrary.  Zechariah was born in Babylon after leading Jews had been forced into exile there by their conquerors.  Allowed to return around 538 BCE by the Persians, Zechariah went along, calling for the rebuilding of the first Jewish Temple.  The 30 pieces of silver Zechariah refers to (assuming he actually wrote the lines attributed to him – there’s some doubt among historians) went to a potter helping reconstruct the Temple.

Artist's view of crowds with Jesus
Besides, the money was unnecessary. Jesus supposedly rode a colt into Jerusalem with great crowds around him. Luke noted:  As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road.  As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God …” (Luke 19: 36-37)

Matthew, who did not read Luke, but relied on Mark, wrote: “The crowds going ahead of Him, and those who followed, were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest!’ When He had entered Jerusalem, all the city was stirred, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’”
(Matt: 21: 9-11)

Great crowds?  A stirred city (wording plucked from the Book of Ruth)?  Why would the Romans have to pay anyone to identify Jesus?  
Regardless, Judas gets no respect.  In Dante’s Inferno, the lowest level of Hell, level 9, bears the name Judecca, named for Judas.  It’s inhabited only by traitors.  They are punished by being locked into permafrost.  Judas also gets gnawed on by Satan, who the poet describes as having three mouths: Cassius and Brutus, who killed Julius Caesar, are also perpetual dinner.

Dante’s image eventually helped Judas win the award as the worst person in history.

That’s appropriate.  Since religion is empty conjecture, its greatest villain might as well be imaginary, too.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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