What can Christians learn from Judas?

Portraying one of the most notorious villains in the Bible can get a man thinking about his faith.

David Berger did that a lot when he played Judas Iscariot in Lake Harriet United Methodist Church’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The musical’s Judas is not so easy to write off as history’s greatest monster. Instead, he comes across as a man agonized about his decision to betray his friend, even as he rationalizes that it is for his friend’s own good.

“I am more inclined to cut Judas some slack,” said Berger, a member of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.

“But I think his own self-righteousness, his sense that ‘I know what’s right,’ really got him into trouble. Of course, it got Jesus into trouble, too.”

At the same time, Berger said, Judas set in motion Christ’s Passion — the sacrifice that would be the world’s salvation.

So how should Christians view Judas: As a traitor or an essential help to the Crucifixion and Resurrection? Or perhaps he is something else. Like the Beatles’ tune his name resembles, is Judas an example of God taking a sad song and making it better?

One of the Twelve

All four biblical Gospels agree that Jesus called Judas as one of the Twelve. Not one presents Judas’ actions in a sympathetic light.

In Mark — widely believed to be the oldest Gospel — Jesus tells the disciples: “How terrible it is for that person who betrays the Son of Man! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

Many Christians historically used such passages to dehumanize Judas. They equated Judas with Judaism, and throughout the Middle Ages exploited Judas to justify attacks on their Jewish neighbors.

Today’s scholars reject such anti-Semitism and generally argue for a more nuanced view of this troubled disciple.

Judas, even in his sinfulness, has something to teach Christians, scholars say.

“Part of what I believe Lent is about is the recognition of our own frailty and our profound fault in so many ways,” said Jennifer W. Knust, associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology. “It’s an invitation to extend compassion as Jesus did in the Passion.”

One way to do that, she said, is revisiting Judas’ story.

Why did he do it?

Little is known about the historical Judas beyond that he was a disciple and had a hand in turning Jesus in to authorities.

The Gospels disagree about why. In Mark, the chief priests promise to pay Judas only after he offers to give Jesus up to them. In Matthew, his motive appears to be greed. Both the Gospels of Luke and John simply say that Satan entered Judas before the betrayal, though John earlier notes that Judas was a thief who pilfered from the disciples’ common purse.

“You can see the Gospel writers struggling themselves to understand why Judas did what he did,” said James Barker, a recent recipient of the Paul J. Achtemeier Award for New Testament Scholarship.

Barker noted that the 30 pieces of silver Judas receives is actually slightly less than a week’s wages at the time.

One possible clue to Judas’ motives is his last name, said the Rev. Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a member of the faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

The name Iscariot could be a corruption of the word “sicarii,” which referred to the “dagger men” or hit men of the Zealots who wanted to overthrow Roman rule.

Witherington, a United Methodist elder, said Judas may have felt betrayed when he realized Jesus intended to die at the hands of the Roman occupiers instead trying to overthrow them.

“Imagine early in the week what a riding into Jerusalem in triumph and a cleansing of the temple would have done to the hopes of a Zealot and contrast that with what Thursday's pronouncements would have done — namely dashed zealotic hopes,” Witherington said.

Another possibility, he said, is that Judas feared Jesus was a false messiah. That’s the theory put forth in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and one that Berger, who played Judas, finds plausible.

First-century Judaism was replete with men claiming to be God’s anointed king, most with disastrous results.

Bad deeds and a happy ending Still, none of Judas’ possible reasons justifies his actions, scholars say. Neither does the joy of the Resurrection.

“Nowhere in the Gospels does it suggest that because the cross is a good thing, it was therefore a good deed of the people who delivered Jesus up to death,” said the Rev. Charles Cosgrove, professor of early Christian literature at United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He is also a United Church of Christ minister.

Nonetheless, he said early Christians struggled to reconcile the bad guys with the good news.

“The answer, according to most of those ancient theologians, is that they were doing God’s will without knowing it,” Cosgrove said. “What they really thought they were doing was opposing God. But God is smarter than them and worked out good through it.”

The Acts of the Apostles — the sequel to Luke — leaves little hope for Judas. In Acts 1:18, Peter says Judas bought a field with the blood money he received. But then he fell headfirst, and his guts spilled out.

The Gospel of Matthew offers a very different account. When Judas realizes Jesus has been condemned to die, he repents deeply of betraying “an innocent man.” He then throws the silver pieces into the temple. It is the chief priests who use the money for a field.

Judas, meanwhile, hangs himself.

While the church eventually condemned suicide, ancient Judaism taught that in certain situations, it could be an honorable act.

“It’s a tragic story of someone who did a horrible thing and did what he could see himself doing to try to make it right,” Cosgrove said. “Although we have no words from him, I would say he was in effect throwing himself on the mercy of God.”

Lessons for Lent

The Rev. Sarah Conrad Sours, a United Methodist elder and religion instructor at United Methodist-related Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, said that all the disciples pre-Pentecost give material for rather sobering Lenten reflections.

“The accent in all the Gospels is on the disciples’ failures and misunderstandings,” she said. “While the author of Luke goes on to give us a rousing story of their eventual faithfulness in Acts, all four Gospel writers remind us over and over that all of Jesus’s followers (or, at least, all of his male followers) misunderstood, betrayed and rejected him.”

She especially finds intriguing the possibility that Judas was trying hurry Jesus along the path of becoming a military messiah. Even now, she said, Christians often succumb to similar temptations.

“We are prone to believe that Jesus, or God, or the Gospel needs our machinations to make it work in the modern age,” she said.

Berger, for his part, can sometimes see himself in Judas.

“I think of those times I’ve had the best intentions in mind but those intentions hurt others, or they actually turned out not to be the best intentions. But even through that, there’s grace. I think Judas experienced Jesus’ grace.”

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

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