What was Judas thinking?
Tomorrow is “Spy Wednesday,” it is the day when Judas Iscariot is said to have agreed to betray Jesus of Nazareth. I remember as a child that I couldn’t quite understand this bit of the story.
Jerusalem at the time was a very unstable place. Hundreds of thousands of people were there for Passover – a time when the Jewish people remembered their liberation from Egypt; a time when passions were high; a time when there would have been great resentment about the fact that Israel was occupied by Roman armies. Into this boiling pot comes Jesus. There is a great commotion and no-one quite knows what to expect. The authorities wanted a chance to arrest Jesus, but who could they do so without causing a riot? This was where Judas came in: he could tell them the right moment, the time when Jesus would not be able to call on the crowds for help or stir up a riot.
But why did Judas do what he did? Why did he give the authorities the chance they needed? Why did Judas lead the authorities to the garden where they arrested Jesus? Three explanations have been suggested:
Firstly, that Judas was a relative of Caiaphas, the Jewish High Priest, perhaps even his nephew. The Jewish religious leaders didn’t like Jesus. Jesus challenged the authority and the influence of the Temple, and if the Temple was reduced in the influence it had, then the religious leaders influence and power would also be reduced. People have killed for a great deal less. The suggestion is that Judas was planted amongst Jesus’ followers to keep the authorities informed. The explanation is that Judas was a small-time secret agent, a petty informer, who was working on behalf of his family. Perhaps Judas wasn’t bad, perhaps he was just doing what he believed to be right for the family.
The second explanation is that Judas wasn’t a petty informer, instead he was a petty crook. This is the explanation that John gives in his Gospel account, “he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it”. Perhaps Judas’ only concern was to make a bit of money for himself. If this was the case, he didn’t do very well for his dealings. The payment he got for betraying Jesus would only have paid for a single slave in the market.
If Judas was an agent for his family, if he was working for uncle Caiaphas, then he had done what he wanted. If he was a criminal, he had got his money. If one of these is the full explanation of Judas’ part in the story, then why did the story turn out the way it did? Why did Judas suddenly return the money and then hang himself? The idea that Judas was an informer or the idea that he was a thief don’t explain why he should be so overcome with guilt that he died by suicide.
There is a third explanation, seems a more satisfactory answer. It says that Judas was a member of a group of Jewish freedom fighters; Judas was a man who wanted to see the Roman armies thrown out and Israel a free country. John was obviously aware that money was disappearing, but what was Judas spending it on? He shows no signs of wealth or the disciples would have commented, perhaps the money is going towards the cause. If Judas was a freedom fighter he would have seen Jesus as the great leader that they needed, Jesus could work miracles, he could control huge crowds of people, he could speak in a way that couldn’t be matched. Judas may have been expecting great things in Jerusalem, a great rebellion; but nothing happens. Jesus gets the crowd behind him on Sunday, but doesn’t do anything except to cause commotion in the Temple. So what does Judas do? He believes that Jesus is the man for whom they had been waiting, he believes that Jesus has power to change the country; all it needs is something to make Jesus act. So Judas arranges to bring the authorities to arrest Jesus. “Now is the time”, he thinks, “now Jesus will do something”. But Jesus does nothing, instead he allows himself to be arrested.
In the third explanation, Judas realises he has made a catastrophic miscalculation. He thought he could make Jesus fit in with his plans and the whole thing has gone disastrously wrong. Judas has made a most terrible mistake and he hangs himself as a failure. Judas’ name has become a byword for treachery, yet his guilt is that of political naivete, psychological misjudgement, and hubris that brought tragic consequences. In two millennia, the church might have acknowledged that Judas’ greatest failing was in being human.
Given what’s going on it was that I thought about first.
To admit that Judas may have been a very complex character with motives that were not entirely selfish would not have suited the church’s narrative.