Judas, The Saint That Wasn’t

The Enigmatic Apostle Who Betrayed Jesus

By Dr. Lorin Swinehart



He is remembered as one of the world’s greatest traitors, a figure of scorn and loathing, ranked alongside Benedict Arnold and Vidkun Quisling. In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri places him at the lowest level of Hell, a dark frozen lake, farthest removed from the light of God, alongside Brutus and Cassius, fellow traitors to lords and benefactors.

We know very little about him. He hailed from the Judea, while most of the other Apostles were Galileans. His father was Simon Iscariot. He came from the village of Kerioth, which may account for his name, but some scholars have concluded that his name originated with the Greek word “sicarios,” meaning dagger.

The name Judas was once much respected. Judas Maccabeus was an Old Testament hero, and one of Jesus’ brothers was named Judas, ever since called Jude. Now, no one names a child Judas. No cathedrals, hospitals, medical centers, monasteries, islands, mountain peaks nor even volcanoes bear his name. Only a goat that is trained to lead unsuspecting sheep to the slaughter is called a Judas goat.

The authors of the Gospels make no real attempt to explain why Judas chose to become a traitor. In John 17:12, he is described as one headed for destruction. Matthew 26:24 tells us that he would have been better if he had never been born. In John 6:70, we are told that Judas, one of the Twelve, was a devil.

It is suggested that he was a thief and embezzled the money given to his fellows. It seems that he was greedy, self centered, resentful. And yet, none of the Apostles were without fault, not even St. Peter who vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus when questioned by mob members. The Arabic Gospel of the Infancy asserts that Judas was demonically possessed from birth. The non-canonical Gnostic Gospel of Judas attempts to explain that in choosing to sell out Jesus, Judas was actually following the orders of his Master, that it was all a part of the divine plan.

Some scholars have suggested that Judas was a member of the Jewish Zealots at the time, that he hoped Jesus would, once arrested, emerge as the long awaited military leader and perhaps call in legions of angels and restore the Davidic kingdom.

Was Judas, then, a devil? Apparently, he did not look like a devil. He did not appear in horns and a tail, as medieval artists portrayed the Prince of Darkness, and he did not resemble Freddy Krueger or the Dark Lord on his dark throne in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He succeeded in deceiving all the other Apostles, but he did not deceive Jesus, who knew him for the avaricious, hateful person that he was. Why he selected such a one to live and serve among the others remains yet another mystery. Perhaps there had to be a Judas in order for the story of Jesus to play out.

In 1974, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram published his study Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. In a series of experiments conducted in the 1960’s, Milgram selected a number of average citizens who were told to deliver a series of ever more powerful electric shocks to a subject who was tightly secured in a chair behind a glass window. The subjects were unaware that their victim was an actor and that there was no actual electricity involved.

In the earliest studies, all of the subjects, in response to the commands of an authority figure, administered 300 volts of electricity to the hapless victim, who realistically shrieked in apparent agony, and 65% of those who participated delivered what they believed to be a lethal dose of electricity. They acted with extreme cruelty, apparently unquestioningly and without conscience, because an authority figure told them too.

One cannot help but conclude that the average man on the street is as much a potential devil as the hapless Judas was. However, the perfidy of Judas cannot be laid at the feet of any authority figure. He was a normal human being who opted to do evil. To suggest that Judas was created specifically in order to betray Jesus and then suffer eternally for his offense is to make God the author of evil. While blasphemy is vaguely defined in Holy Scripture, it seems to involve attributing evil to the Holy Spirit, an offense that demands a severe consequence.

Why some people choose evil, while others do not is one of life’s perennial mysteries. Why, for instance, do some care for and protect children, while others profit from child labor or the sexual trafficking of children? Why does one man brutally kill a beautiful African lion, while others strive to save wildlife from such acts of cruelty? Egotism, jealousy and greed seem to lie at the root of most human misbehavior.

In her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, the political theorist Hannah Arendt concludes that those who commit acts of cruelty and destruction do not stand out from the crowd as visibly different from others. Evil is dull, plodding, shallow, and, in her words, banal. The perpetrators of the Nazi death machine were indistinguishable from the average man on the street, from the participants in Migram’s experiment, from Judas.    

Many years ago, I was invited to speak to the student body at a large state university. My topic, taken from the writings of Elie Wiesel, was “Neither Hangman nor Victim Be.” Echoing Wiesel, I asked, “Who will be the hangman? Who the victim? Who the indifferent bystander?”

It is frightening to learn from Dr. Milgram that so many of our countrymen would eagerly put aside all ethical considerations willingly torture an innocent victim to death. So, a frightening question might be who will be the next Heinrich Himmler, the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Raoul Wallenberg, who the compliant members of the mob cheering and shouting, “Sieg Heil!”

Why all the Apostles but Judas were later willing to die mostly horrible deaths in order to spread Jesus’s message, while he chose to betray him will perhaps forever remain a mystery. Given that he later threw the infamous thirty pieces of silver at the feet of the members of the Sanhedrin implies that he was motivated by factors other than filthy lucre. That he committed suicide without repenting of his offense would seem, in the minds of many, to preclude any possibility of atonement.

The manner of his death even leaves questions. It is said not only that he hanged himself but that he burst and his bowels came tumbling out. Papias of Hierapolis wrote in the first century that Judas may have been infected with elephantiasis. Others speculate that he was left hanging until his rope broke and he exploded upon impact.

No one loves a traitor. Benedict Arnold spent his remaining years in the shadows, ostracized by the British people after the Revolution, French collaborationists were dealt with most harshly after the defeat of Nazi Germany, Quisling was shot by a firing squad. It would seem that Judas was so filled with remorse that he hanged himself, implying a desire to repent of his bad choices. Perhaps there is hope even for the arch-betrayer Judas.


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