Why Did Judas Really Betray Jesus?

April 15, 2019

As one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends you have to wonder what he was thinking when he betrayed Jesus. What did Judas know that we don’t?

With Easter right around the corner, Christians are thinking about the death and resurrection of Jesus. The events that took place during what is now called “Holy Week” certainly transformed the history of the world, but they also created a new villain: Judas. As one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends you have to wonder what he was thinking when he betrayed Jesus. What did Judas know that we don’t?

For much of history, we have been led to think that Judas betrayed Jesus for a payout. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Judas received 30 pieces of silver for betraying Jesus. But in modern terms, that’s the equivalent of about six weeks of work for a day laborer: not a huge amount, and certainly not enough money to compensate you for betraying someone you had spent years following.

If you were already annoyed and planning on leaving the movement, then perhaps this sweetener could help push you further along the path to betrayal. But the general impression that Judas betrayed Jesus for the money doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

The Gospel of John, which is almost certainly the last of the canonical gospels to be written, doubles down on the idea that Judas was motivated by financial reward. John adds that Judas was a thief who had stolen from the common resources of the group. Some of the gospels introduce the idea of demonic inspiration and possession. According to Luke 22:3, it was during the final week in Jerusalem that the devil placed the idea of betraying Jesus into Judas’s heart.

This isn’t just a literary flourish or theological window-dressing; the demonization of Judas has a long history in influencing how people, medieval Christian in particular, have thought about Jews in general. Add this to ahistorical scenes in which the Jews called for the crucifixion of Jesus and say that the blood of Jesus rests on them and their children, and the Jewish people end up as the villains of the piece. The intertwining of antisemitism, the passion narrative, and violence is one of the reasons that it is important we get the historical pieces of the passion narrative correct.

If it wasn’t about the money then, historically speaking, why did Judas do it?  In truth, no one knows. But there are a number of historically and narratively responsible explanations.

In the first place, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus takes place at the tail end of a difficult few days for Jesus’ followers. According to the Gospel of Mark, the first gospel to be written and thus the one closest to the actual events, Jesus and his followers spent an evening at the home of Simon the leper in Bethany two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

As the group is at dinner, a woman comes in with a jar of extremely expensive perfume and pours it out on Jesus’s head. Mark says that “some” of those who were present were angry at her actions and asked, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? [It] could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” Mark does not say exactly which of the disciples are indignant, but immediately afterwards, we are told, Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the chief priests.

If, as the Gospel of John writes, Judas was the group ‘treasurer,’ it would make sense that he was angered by this event. During his ministry Jesus and his followers lived close to what we could call the breadline. They received some financial support from his wider group of supporters (particularly women), and they could depend on friends and community members for occasional food and lodging, but life was hard.

Organizing the group’s limited funds and resources would have been a difficult task. In addition to which, Judas, like the other disciples, had left behind his family (whatever that looked like), home, and hopes of reliable employment when he had decided to follow Jesus. After years of struggling to make ends meet it might be frustrating to watch one’s leader do something so wasteful. Modern readers (who, let’s face it, know the ending when they first read the gospels) can see all the moments at which Jesus seems to be warning the disciples that he will be arrested and executed, and can therefore understand the scene as an anointing before death. But to the disciples none of this was immediately clear.

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