RLST 23/260, 11 October 2001, Vered Arnon
Judas is, without much question, the most maligned character in Christianity. But the role he plays in the events in the Gospels is that of a martyr, rather than a traitor. Jesus’ death and resurrection was, according to the Gospels, the best thing that ever happened. His death was part of God’s plan, and Judas’s sacrifice helped to carry out the divine plan. Jesus knew all along what his fate would be, so it could even be argued that Judas had no choice in the matter.
In the Gospels, Jesus continually tells his disciples what is going to happen to him, but none of them seem to understand him. His death was pre-ordained, and he tells them that it’s God’s will.
“While Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.’” – Matt, 20:17-19
Here Jesus is introducing the situation to them and telling them all the details. He knows the details and he even knows the specific way in which he will be tortured and crucified. In this version, he doesn’t even say he will be betrayed. He merely tells all twelve of the disciples what the future holds in store.
“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” – Mark, 8:31
Here Jesus’ emphasis seems to be more on what he will experience as an individual. He will suffer, he will die, and he will rise again. The gospel claims that he’s teaching his disciples. He’s not warning them. He’s just stating things very plain and simply, not the way someone would announce an impending tragedy.
“While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying…” – Luke, 9:44-45
The disciples don’t understand what Jesus is talking about, but he explains things to them very clearly. Jesus was proclaiming the “good news” to them, but none of it had any meaning until after Jesus had died and risen again.
“… for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” – John, 6:38
God sent Jesus down to earth to die and rise again, in order that people might be saved. If it’s God’s will, rather than Jesus’ will, that Jesus was to be crucified, then it’s also God’s will, rather than Judas’s will, that Judas betray his teacher.
Before Judas even decides to “betray” Jesus, Jesus knows that one of his disciples has to betray him. The Gospel accounts of Judas’s decision to betray Jesus don’t occur until Jesus has already mentioned to his disciples that he must be killed. In Matthew, Judas doesn’t make the decision until 26:14-16. In Mark, Judas makes the decision in 14:10. In Luke, he makes the decision in 22:3-6, and in fact in Luke, the gospel reads “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot” (Luke, 22:3). This implies that Judas didn’t even make the choice of his own free will. In the Gospel of John, as well, the text reads “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him” (John, 13:2). How can Judas be responsible for an action that was pre-ordained and in some cases not even attributed to him, but to the actions of “satan”? The malignment of Judas is understandable in the context, but unjustified. Those who loved Jesus would obviously feel bitter towards someone who killed him. But once emotional responses are explained, it’s clear after rational analysis that Judas’s actions were actually just a part of God’s own plan. Jesus says,
“I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John, 10:17-18).
When the guards apprehend him in the garden before they arrest him, Jesus tells his disciples not to fight the guards or try to hinder them in any way. His arrest is part of God’s plan. He had always evaded the people who tried to arrest him in the past, and if God so willed, he could have evaded them again.
“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen this way?” – Matt, 26:53-54
God sent Jesus into the world with a purpose. Nothing can compromise that purpose. If Judas’s “betrayal” was a “bad thing” then Jesus would have prevented it through God’s power. Jesus lost his life to save the world, and Judas did the same, because he lost everything in order for Jesus to die. Judas lost his place as an apostle by turning his teacher in to the authorities. He lost his reputation and respect of all his peers and everyone else who would learn about him. He even lost his life, since he couldn’t bear to have caused the death of his beloved teacher. Yet, Jesus says, “If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I” (John, 14:28). Within the limited scope of human emotions, Jesus’s death as a result of Judas’s actions was a painful tragedy. But in the larger scope of the divine plan for the world and Salvation, Judas was a martyr, and without his sacrifices Jesus wouldn’t have been able to be resurrected, since death is a necessary precondition for resurrection. The Gospel stories are the stories of the “good news”, and that good news is Jesus’s death and resurrection. Judas was instrumental in bringing about the occurence of this good news, so his malignment is not justified by the Gospels.