Saturday, August 6, 2011

Judas Iscariot as a literary device?

So, it's always dangerous to watch shows on the History channel that touch on religious topics. I know this very well. As a theology and world religions student, I've seen many specials on television that I could tear apart for inaccuracies and for simplifying things that can't be simplified. This particular special was about Masada. Judas' name came up because there is a theory that he was a member of the Sicarri rebels. The expert being interviewed argued that Judas' name had nothing to do with the Sicarri but his last name actually means "from the place," making his full name meaning "the Jew from the place." Now, I haven't heard this theory before. Looking at my textbooks, this idea doesn't come up. It's entirely possible that it's a case of a History Channel "expert" saying nonsense. However, this made me wonder, what if Judas is a literary device? Could this be true? What would it mean to me as a Catholic?

This idea is not a new one. Scripture scholars as of late have played with the idea for various reasons. They see that some of the earliest Biblical materials don't mention him (i.e. Paul and the disputed Q). They see some very good reasons to make a character like that up. The one reason that I find to be the most provocative is that Judas draws even more blame away from the Romans. The early Christian church was in a difficult position. They didn't want to emphasize that the Romans killed Jesus because they wanted to be in the Romans' good graces. Rome was already persecuting them, they didn't need to make more barriers between themselves and Rome. They were also very angry at the Jews who had recently kicked them out of the synagogues. So, what better way to deflect blame from the Romans than to blame the Jews for Jesus' death.

Now let's look at the story of Judas from that perspective:

Here we have a clearly Jewish disciple of Jesus who betrays his rabbi for money to the Jewish leadership who aren't painted in a very positive light either. This group turns Jesus over to the Roman leadership. The Roman leadership are not portrayed as the good guys, but they aren't portrayed as the bad guys either. Pilate washes himself of his guilt, and the crowd is given a second chance to free Jesus from his fate.

Seeing the story of Judas' betrayal in light of the situation of the early Christians does not make a convincing case for Judas being a real person. It would make sense for the early Christians to make such a character up in order to place blame for Jesus death on the Jews.

What does this mean to me as a Catholic? I don't think that questioning the existence of Judas is heretical. Judas isn't in the Nicene Creed. The important thing for Christianity is the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified and resurrected. [Edit: Joe Heschmeyer has corrected me as far as the previous flawed 2-3 sentences: His blog is here.] The story of Judas still has some value as a reminder of the dangers of greed and the importance of trust and friendship. It also brings about fruitful reflection on questions such as, "If a particular sin is preordained by God, is it really a sin?"

Also, it serves as a reminder of the painful history of Jewish/Christian relations. May we never forget that the Jewish people are our brothers and sisters. The Christian faith does not supersede the Jewish faith. The Jews did not kill Jesus, the Romans did.


  1. Bethanie,

    This post raises a good question. I did my best to answer it here:

    In Christ,


  2. This is such an interesting blog post. I especially like the last few lines and how you are able to put it into perspective as a Catholic. Thanks for writing!


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