The Matthean Judas

One of the key differences between the story of the death of Jesus in Matthew and that of Mark is the narration of the fate of Judas in Mt. 27:3-10.  This story plays a variety of roles in Matthew’s story.  It’s another of Matthew’s famous fulfillment citations.  It fills a narrative gap in the Marcan version, which mentions the perfidy of Judas but not his fate.  And along with the story of the dream of Pilate’s wife, it also affirms the innocence of Jesus. 

There is, however, more to the story than this.  Here are the pertinent verses from the NRSV: 

3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.

Many readers are struck by the first line, “when Judas…saw that Jesus was condemned…”  This has engendered a great deal of speculation about Judas’ motives in the matter since it almost seems that Judas is surprised to find that Jesus has been judged guilty.  This reading, however, is not really indicated.  What is interesting is the temporal imprecision of Matthew’s “when.”  There is nothing in this story to indicate that Jesus is still alive when Judas goes back to the Jewish leadership.  As is so often the case with the Gospels, perhaps Matthew has placed this story in its current location in order to invite comparison.

Comparison with what?  Judas’ activity is a whirlwind of verbs reflecting his emotional state.  In rapid sequence, he:

1. Repents (metamelhqei,j)
2. Returns the money
3. Declares his guilt
4. Affirms the innocence of Jesus
5. Throws the money back
6. Departs
7. Hangs himself

The key questions are these: Does Judas repent sincerely?  And how should we read his suicide?  For a detailed analysis of the various points, see Davies and Allison’s Matthew in the ICC series.  For my purposes here, what follows is an eclectic selection of some points pertinent for my discussion.

Folks very often suggest that Judas did not repent sincerely.  Two “factors” lie behind this idea.  First, the other two versions of the death of Judas in Acts and in Papias both make his demise as “act of God.”  This allows no room for repentance.  Those who find it necessary to harmonize must force Matthew’s account into this mold.

Second, the word Matthew uses to describe Judas’ repentance is not metanoe,w, the normal word for this activity in the NT.  And since it’s used in Ex 13:17 to describe a change of mind that turns away from God, it doesn’t have uniformly positive connotations.  Within the First Gospel, however, it is used in Mt 21:29, 32 in association with the work of John the Baptist.

Beyond these two points, there’s the matter of Judas’ speech and actions.  He declares his own responsibility and the innocence of Jesus, then returns the money in a very public and damning fashion.  It takes a real act of will to find anything but genuine regret  in these actions.  So…I’ll read this as sincere repentance on Judas’ part.

Judas might have repented but his part in the death of Christ was sin for which the Law prescibed a specific punishment.  That punishment, according to Lev 24:17; Num 35:33; and Deut 19:11-13, was death.  Denied his punishment under the Law by the Jewish leadership, does Judas now seek to make expiation through his own death?  This brings us to the matter of suicide.

Suicide.  Judaism and Christianity are alike in their disapproval of this behavior but the Bible has no prohibitions or condemnations directed toward suicide.  The Biblical suicides are Samson, Saul, Zimri, and Ahithtophel.  Of these, it is the death of Ahithtophel that is significant for my purposes.

Ahithtophel was David’s confidant and advisor.  In Absalom’s revolt, however, he sided with Absalom.  When Absalom did not take his advice to attack immediately and destroy David’s forces before they could regroup, Ahithtophel knew that the cause was lost.  He returned to his hometown, hanged himself, and was buried with his family.

David and his famous son Jesus share a number of similarities in Matthew’s version of the story.  Both men are betrayed in Jerusalem, then leave by way of crossing the Kidron.  Both pray on the Mount of Olives, asking God to intervene.  Both are betrayed by close associates and their final doom is plotted for the dark of the night.  Perhaps Matthew is suggesting that the betrayal of David is the model for the betrayal of the Son of David.

So…  Let’s consider the possibility that Judas did repent.  Perhaps he did hang himself in an effort to carry out the sentence of the Law on himself.  And let’s leave aside our own distaste for suicide.  How does Judas compare with the rest of the characters who play various roles in the story of the death of Jesus?

The Jewish leadership are definitely the “low-hanging fruit” in this effort.  As Brunner notes, their harsh “‘What does that have to do with us?’ denies justice to Jesus, mercy to Judas, and any kind of responsibility before God.” (As quoted in Davies and Allison, vol. 3, p. 564.  Original citation is Brunner, 2, p. 1021.)  In a couple of verses, the Roman leadership, in the person of Pilate, will condemn Jesus to death.  Pilate’s attempt to disassociate himself from his decision by washing his hands is no less craven and futile than that of the Jewish leadership.

To my mind, however, the most interesting comparison is between Judas and Peter.  The story of Peter’s denial is separated from the death of Judas by two verses and the artificial division between chapters 26 and 27.  In a way, the stories of the two men are woven together throughout the passion narrative.  So now…how shall we read them if we read them together?    

20 Replies to “The Matthean Judas”

  1. Hello Mogget,

    Below is a quote from Philip Yancey’s book, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” I have been wondering about Judas for some time, and I still do not have an answer I am comfortable with. But I like the idea that if Peter can be forgiven, why can’t Judas as well?

    “Forgiveness – undeserved, unearned – can cut the
    cords and let oppressive burden of guilt roll away.
    The New Testament shows a resurrected Jesus leading
    Peter by the hand through a three-fold ritual of
    forgiveness. Peter need not go through life with the
    guilty, hangdog look of one who has betrayed the Son
    of God. Oh, no. On the backs of such transformed
    sinners Christ would build his Church.” I like that.

  2. Yeah, me too. For the reality of the situation, you will have to ask the theologians, the philosophers, and the prophets.

    For my part, I like the idea that sin has no depths that God cannot plumb in his gracious will to save a human soul. This is also known as the love of God.

  3. For my part, I like the idea that sin has no depths that God cannot plumb in his gracious will to save a human soul. This is also known as the love of God.

    I think of it though as not a question of what God can do, but what he will do. Will God plumb my depths of sin if I do not want him to? What if the reason I do not want him to is because I do not think I deserve forgiveness? it’s sort of a catch-22.

    Anyway, thanks for making me think about this all day… 🙂

  4. I am trying to remeber the reference, but I read in an LDS book the idea that Peter never sinned in denying Christ, but that Christ’s “warning” was in fact a commandment – “Peter, you must deny me three times before the cock crows.”

    Personally I don’t like this interpretation. It dehumanizes Peter and makes it seem that any doubt of faith in times of stress are unforgivable. I like the Peter, who when scared, caved. He then learned from the weakness and was forgiven.

    I alos like the idea of Judas thinking he was doing Christ a favor by turning him in, only to realize his mistake and plead for forgiveness. I love the comparison of this story with David’s.

    Maybe one of the ironies here, just thinking aloud, is that both Peter and Judas thought the Lord’s warnings were commandments. The Peter – you will deny me” and Judas – “one of you will betray me” statements may have been misinterpreted. When Peter denied Christ, he realized he did not HAVE to do so, he was a free agent, and that is where his sorrow lay. When Judas betrayed Christ, he also realised he did not HAVE to, and innocent blood was shed. It is a great lesson against predestination and fatalism. We are each agents unto ourselves, and the warnings of the Lord do not condemn us to the actions the Lord is warning against, but instead they call us to become exercise our agency adn make a difference.

  5. I read somewhere (was it the unpopular-around-here Bart Ehrman?) that the suicide of Judas was probably added later, and was not part of the original story. Speculation is that people wanted to show what would happen to the wicked betrayer of the Savior, his body left to be devoured in a field.

    “Personally I don’t like this interpretation. It dehumanizes Peter and makes it seem that any doubt of faith in times of stress are unforgivable…
    “I alos like the idea of Judas thinking he was doing Christ a favor by turning him in, only to realize his mistake and plead for forgiveness.”

    Is this not a contradiction? I don’t find it truly beneficial to us to say Christ told Judas what to do, (an idea popularized by the Gospel of Judas) making him less human in his sin–and on the same token say he didn’t tell Peter what to do.

  6. Personally, one has to ask why Satan is miserable. Why? because of the guilt of truth staring him forever in the eye. This same guilt is what brought Judas to plead forgiveness- does not all the wicked plea for that forgiveness not knowing their fate which is their worm, their very torment!

    Twice spoken, the Lord calls or refers to Judas as the son of perdition. Sons of perdition cannot be forgiven because they sin against the holy ghost by shedding innocent blood after knowing the love of god towards them.

    So maybe the real question should be- Will people like David and Judas ever be forgiven of their son of perdition status and be redeemed from the second death in the eternities to come?

  7. I don’t see the contradiction if Christ did not tell Judas what to do. He prophesied a potential future, but did not command it. Judas may only have misinterpreted the prophecy, and, in turn, recognized his guilt and kileed himself. This makes him like any fallible person in my eyes. He was overcome as a religious zealot. We have many of those in our own tradition, that have sinned, but may be in a position to be forgiven based on their misunderstandings of God’s words.

    So to reiterate – I don’t think Christ commanded Judas (or Peter) to do anything. He showed them a potential future that they had the choice to avoid. Neither avoided it. Peter denied Christ, Judas betrayed him. Neither differentiated themselves from the Savior’s statements. Both sinned in their denials. Peter recognized it, was ashamed and sought out his community for support and eventual forgiveness on the banks of Galilee. Judas not only betrayed Christ, but also his community, and recognizing it took the only option he felt would rectify the sin.

    So yes, both individuals were human. Both made bad judgements, and, in my opinion, both are forgivable.

  8. David Hall of BYU says that in some texts of the original “You will deny me three times.” You will deny is in the command form… At least he said this a few years ago in a fireside given locally. So it is probably from one of his books you got that. I don’t think it dehumanizes Peter at all, but I am fine with the story either way, and wouldn’t reject either version based on my own personal preference of it.

  9. Very interesting questions and thoughts.

    FWIW, the prediction of Peter’s betrayal is most definitely NOT in an imperatival form in the critical edition. There’s probably an apologetic interest at work if variant readings are preferred. If you would like an argument from authority, you might consult the GD manual for the NT. The citations are for President Hinckley’s remarks on the matter; Peter’s denial is a denial.

    For my part, I think that making Peter’s denial a command fails to fulfill Christ’s prediction of the scattering of the disciples and makes the story incoherent.

    With respect to the historicity of the death of Judas, it is impossible to say with any accuracy just how he died. Luke says he fell and his bowels gushed out. Papias, in the shorter version, says that he was hit by a wagon. In the longer version, some True Christian has gotten hold of the story and dwelt at loving length on the agonies suffered by a very fat Judas including pus, excrement, and smell. Matthew opts for death by hanging.

    If Matthew added the death by hanging to a pre-existing tradition, it was probably to complete the parallels between Judas and Ahithtophel. Since he didn’t do anything else along these lines, it is more likely that the tradition he received included the idea that Judas hanged himself.

    Luke’s tradition seems similarly old and Palestinian in origin. He uses different OT quotations and has a different mode of death. Both have more than a faint whiff of the venerable “horrible death for a horrible person” motif but Luke’s seems to be more developed down this line. I agree with Benoit; if Judas did indeed die an early and ugly death, Matthew’s version is least objectionable. FWIW, the JST conflates the two NT readings.

    What interests me, however, is that both men died for their testimony of Jesus.

  10. Ah, I forgot one thing that Gilgamesh brought up. The NT is very clear about two things: that the death of Jesus through the agency of a traitor was the plan of God and that the traitor who betrayed Jesus is fully culpable for his actions regardless of their necessity.

    Very striking bit of work there.

  11. Thanks Mogget! (and all)
    So I am wondering, if as you said, Judas is fully culpable for his betrayal of Jesus,is that because he knew what he was doing? or is he culpable even if he simply musunderstood the words of Jesus (as Gilgamesh implies)?
    Does it matter?

  12. Heheh. What did Judas know and when did he know it?

    The only motive Matthew attributes to Judas is linked to the thirty pieces of silver.

    Did Judas know that Jesus was the Messiah? Dunno. His confession says that he knows that Jesus is innocent. Innocent of what? If Judas knew of the interaction between Jesus and the high priest in which Jesus claimed his status as Messiah and Son of God, then he is affirming that Jesus is precisely what he claimed to be and innocent of blasphemy. This is the way the narrative, in its present order, “naturally” reads.

    What really happened, however, is beyond our recovery. It’s just interesting that we have a story in which Judas is the first of the disciples to die for his testimony of Jesus.

  13. The first of the disciples to die for his testimony? I don’t know, it seems as if you make Judas out to be a hero in that light. Judas killed himself because of his torment and anguish over knowing he had murdered against the light and truth!

  14. Nah, not a hero. Bad boy characters like Judas can easily slip out of a simple “analysis.” He’s neither a hero nor a horrible person. Like Peter, he subverts simplistic and rigid ideas of Biblical characters as role models for either good or bad.

  15. Um, but I have a hard time really seeing the good. Tragic character, yes. (so tragic he could be the climax of an opera) Horrible, not so much. Good, not so much.

  16. Ehrman

    Slow down, HP. I think Ehrman is garbage, and I’ve read all his top-sellers for classes. If anyone is going to the prom with him, it should be Margaret Barker. Now all we need is a wack-o pseudepigrapha/apocrypha/intertestamental person to act as chaperon and we’ll have the entire canon covered – prime candidates for BYU Education Week lectures!

    Gilgamesh (#4) – Agreed. The idea that Jesus commanded Peter (and perhaps Judas) to betray him is ludicrous. If that were the case, the text would have said so. Something that heinous isn’t supposed to found while reading “between the lines.”

    David Hall of BYU says that in some texts of the original “You will deny me three times.” You will deny is in the command form… At least he said this a few years ago in a fireside given locally.

    Stating this stuff at “a local fireside” – how convenient. Especially if you want to make stuff up and then be able to hide from proving it later. I don’t see that variant in Metzger’s… Hmmm…

    one has to ask why Satan is miserable. Why? because of the guilt of truth staring him forever in the eye.

    Rob, what makes you think Satan is miserable? Because Christianity says he is? You’re only hearing one side of the story, and it’s a very, very biased side at that. Remember – one third part of heaven thought the guy was a-okay – his approval rating was higher than Bush/Cheney’s… 😉

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