The Metamorphosis of Judas Iscariot

In the gospel of Mark, regarded by most scholars as the earliest and most historically authentic of the four gospels, we find Jesus saying "go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven... hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God" (10,21). It seems clear that his disciples understood the rejection of worldly comforts and a dedication to helping the poor as important aspects of Jesus' teachings. Indeed this doctrine of selflessness may have been what attracted some of the more secular and cerebral disciples, such as Judas Iscariot.

Mark's gospel describes how Jesus' fame spread rapidly as he and his disciples traveled from town to town, leading up to the time of Passover. There then appears one of the most intriguing episodes in the New Testament (Mark 14,3):

And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box and poured it on his head. And there were some [Judas?] that had indignation within themselves, and said, "Why was this waste of ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor." And they murmured against her. And Jesus said, "Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say into you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her." And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them. And when they heard it, they were glad, and promised to give him money."

The clear suggestion is that the scolding Jesus gave to his murmuring disciples led to a falling out, and this was the proximate cause for one of them, Judas, to betray Jesus. Since the disciples did not possess divine knowledge, it isn't clear how they were intended to interpret Jesus' explanation that the woman "is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying". If this were an ordinary story of ordinary men, we would infer that Judas believed Jesus was beginning to regard his own person as more important than helping the poor. In an ordinary human context, an incident such as the argument over the alabaster box would be necessary in order for the overall story to make sense, i.e., to provide some motivation for Judas' act of betrayal.

Of course, the status, motivation, and significance of Judas Iscariot has always been among the central questions of Christian theology. Judas is the traitor who facilitates the execution of Christ, so he is naturally despised, and yet the sequence of events leading to Christ's death and resurrection is essential to Christianity, so we're faced with the question of whether Judas was somehow playing a necessary role, and, if so, whether this mitigates his culpability. Could he have acted differently than he did? Should we wish that he had? This leads directly to questions of free will and the pre-destination of souls.

In any case, it's fascinating to trace the evolution of Judas' role and motivation in the later gospels. We can see the basic doctrines of the church taking form, with the corresponding changes in the representation of Judas. The next gospel after Mark chronologically was Matthew, where the story of the alabaster box and Judas' act of betrayal (26,9) is almost identical, except for one notable difference. After retelling the story of woman breaking open the alabaster box and anointing Jesus, the indignation of the disciples, and Jesus' answer - all nearly verbatim from Mark - the gospel of Matthew continues

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, and said unto them, "what will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?" And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he sought the opportunity to betray him..."

Recall that, in Mark, Judas went to the priests and betrayed Jesus to them immediately after being berated by Jesus (for having scolded the woman for the "waste" of ointment). The priests were glad of this, and give Judas money, but the money was not represented as Judas' main motivation. The thrust of the story (according to Mark) was that Judas had had a falling out with Jesus over the alabaster box incident, and felt that Jesus had betrayed his principles. In contrast, the gospel of Matthew has Judas going to the priests and asking how much they will pay him, and they agree to a specific price (thirty pieces of silver). This represents a subtle but significant shift in Judas' motivation. Instead of anger over what he perceives as Jesus' misbehavior, his main motivation is now simple greed.

The next gospel (by date of composition) is Luke, and here we find an even more radical change in the story (22,1). It still centers around the time of the Passover feast, but the woman and the alabaster box are nowhere to be seen. Luke says

Now the feast of the unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve. And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.

The primary cause for Judas' act of betrayal here is nothing other than Satan. No hint of a falling out appears, and there is no mention of the argument over the alabaster box. Considering that Jesus says (in the first two gospels) that the story of the woman will be told "wheresoever the gospel shall be preached", this is a significant deletion, but its deletion is clearly necessary to remove all "ordinary" motivation for Judas' actions, leaving only imponderable Satan as the explanation.

In the gospel according to John, yet another element is added to the story, transforming the meaning in a still more profound way.

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father... and supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot... to betray him, Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands... for he knew who should betray him; therefore said he "Ye are not all clean... Verily, verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me... He it is, to whom I shall give a sop when I have dipped it". And when he had dipped the sop, he gave to Judas Iscariot... and after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, "That thou doest, do quickly".

This final version seems slightly conflicted, because it says the devil has "put into the heart of Judas" at the beginning, prior to his being identified as the traitor by Jesus, but then "Satan enters into him" after Jesus identifies him. Do these represent multiple entries of Satan into Judas' heart, or is there some confusion on the part of the author as to the precise sequence of events? In any case, the main feature of this version is that everything is explicitly known to Jesus in advance, and in fact Jesus seems to be almost appointing Judas as his betrayer, to fulfill the purposes of the Father. The distance from Mark to John is immense. In Mark, the earliest gospel, we have something that closely resembles a realistic story about actual men with comprehensible human motivations, a story of argument, disappointment, misunderstanding, and betrayal. By the time we reach the gospel of John, the story has become entirely supernatural. The incident of the alabaster box and the argument between Jesus and Judas has been removed to an earlier point (12:4), and modified so that it is Mary who annoints the feet of Jesus with a pound of ointment. (This is, however, the only gospel to explicitly tell us that it was, indeed, Judas Iscariot who voiced the objection to the perceived extravagance.) Even the base motivation of greed, emphasized by Matthew, is absent in this version, and the role of Satan, emphasized by Luke, is here confused, and treated more as an effect than a cause. In John's version, the events leading up to the betrayal and execution of Jesus are all pre-ordained, with Judas designated as the necessary traitor.

It's interesting that the evolution of Judas through the four gospels closely parallels the main stages of coping with grief. Initial perceptions are "of the moment", and reflect the immediate unvarnished and uninterpreted version of events, as in Mark. Then there is a closer examination of the circumstances and critique of motives, as in the 30 pieces of silver in Luke. Following this is a stage of incomprehension, during which the tragic events can only be attributed to the existence of evil in the world, e.g., "the devil entered his heart" in Luke. Then, finally, we arrive at the stage exemplified by the gospel of John, in which every action and event is seen and re-interpreted in the context of a higher purpose.

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