The Apostle who betrayed his Divine Master. The name Judas (Ioudas) is the Greek form of Judah (Hebrew “praised”), a proper name frequently found both in the Old and the New Testament. Even among the Twelve there were two that bore the name, and for this reason it is usually associated with the surname Iscariot [Heb. "a man of Kerioth" or Carioth, which is a city of Judah (cf. Joshua 15:25)]. There can be no doubt that this is the right interpretation of the name, though the true origin is obscured in the Greek spelling, and, as might be expected, other derivations have been suggested (e.g. from Issachar).
Very little is told us in the Sacred Text concerning the history of Judas Iscariot beyond the bare facts of his call to the Apostolate, his treachery, and his death. His birthplace, as we have seen, is indicated in his name Iscariot, and it may be remarked that his origin separates him from the other Apostles, who were all Galileans. For Kerioth is a city of Judah. It has been suggested that this fact may have had some influence on his career by causing want of sympathy with his brethren in the Apostolate. We are told nothing concerning the circumstances of his call or his share in the ministry and miracles of the Apostles. And it is significant that he is never mentioned without some reference to his great betrayal. Thus, in the list of the Apostles given in the Synoptic Gospels, we read: “and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed him”. (Matthew 10:4. Cf. Mark 3:19; Luke 6:16). So again in St. John’s Gospel the name first occurs in connection with the foretelling of the betrayal: “Jesus answered them: Have not I chosen you twelve; and one of you is a devil? Now he meant Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon: for this same was about to betray him whereas he was one of the twelve” (John 6:71-2).
In this passage St. John adds a further particular in mentioning the name of the traitor Apostle’s father, which is not recorded by the other Evangelists. And it is he again who tells us that Judas carried the purse. For, after describing the anointing of Christ’s feet by Mary at the feast in Bethania, the Evangelist continues:
Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, he that was about to betray him, said: ‘Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?’ Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and having the purse, carried the things that were put therein (John 12:4-6).
This fact that Judas carried the purse is again referred to by the same Evangelist in his account of the Last Supper (13:29), The Synoptic Gospels do not notice this office of Judas, nor do they say that it was he who protested at the alleged waste of the ointment. But it is significant that both in Matthew and Mark the account of the anointing is closely followed by the story of the betrayal: “Then went one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, to the chief priests, and said to them: What will you give me, and I will deliver him unto you?” (Matt., xxvi, 14-5); “And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the chief priests, to betray him to them. Who hearing it were glad; and they promised him they would give him money” (Mark, xiv, 10-1). In both these accounts it will be noticed that Judas takes the initiative: he is not tempted and seduced by the priests, but approaches them on his own accord. St. Luke tells the same tale, but adds another touch by ascribing the deed to the instigation of Satan: “And Satan entered into Judas, who was surnamed Iscariot, one of the twelve. And he went, and discoursed with the chief priests and the magistrates, how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and convenanted to give him money. And he promised. And he sought opportunity to betray him in the absence of the multitude” (Luke, xxii, 3-6).
St. John likewise lays stress on the instigation of the evil spirit: “the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him” (xiii, 2). The same Evangelist, as we have seen, tells of an earlier intimation of Christ’s foreknowledge of the betrayal (John, vi, 71-2), and in the same chapter says expressly: “For Jesus knew from the beginning, who they were that did not believe, and who he was, that would betray him” (vi, 65). But he agrees with the Synoptics in recording a more explicit prediction of the treachery at the Last Supper: “When Jesus had said these things, he was troubled in spirit; and he testified, and said: Amen, amen I say to you, one of you shall betray me” (John, xii, 21). And when St. John himself, at Peter’s request, asked who this was, “Jesus answered: He it is to whom I shall reach bread dipped. And when he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the morsel, Satan entered into him. And Jesus said to him: That which thou dost, do quickly. Now no man at the table knew to what purpose he said this unto him. For some thought, because Judas had the purse, that Jesus said to him: Buy those things which we have need of for the festival day: or that he should give something to the poor” (xii, 26-9). These last details about the words of Jesus, and the natural surmise of the disciples, are given only by St. John. But the prediction and the questioning of the disciples are recorded by all the Synoptics (Matt., xxvi; Mark, xiv; Luke, xxii). St. Matthew adds that Judas himself asked, “Is it I, Rabbi?” and was answered: “Thou hast said it” (xxvi, 25). All four Evangelists agree in regard to the main facts of the actual betrayal which followed so closely on this prediction, and tell how the traitor came with a multitude or a band of soldiers from the chief priests, and brought them to the place where, as he knew, Jesus would be found with His faithful disciples (Matt., xxvi, 47; Mark, xiv, 43; Luke, xxii, 47; John, xviii, 3). But some have details not found in the other narratives. That the traitor gave a kiss as a sign is mentioned by all the Synoptics, but not by St. John, who in his turn is alone in telling us that those who came to take Jesus fell backward to the ground as He answered “I am he.” Again, St. Mark tells that Judas said “Hail, Rabbi” before kissing his Master, but does not give any reply. St. Matthew, after recording these words and the traitor’s kiss, adds: “And Jesus said to him: Friend, whereto art thou come:” (xxvi, 50). St. Luke (xxii, 48) gives the words: “Judas, dost thou betray the Son of man with a kiss?”
St. Matthew is the only Evangelist to mention the sum paid by the chief priests as the price of the betrayal, and in accordance with his custom he notices that an Old Testament prophecy has been fulfilled therein (Matt., xxvi, 15; xxvii, 5-10). In this last passage he tells of the repentance and suicide of the traitor, on which the other Gospels are silent, though we have another account of these events in the speech of St. Peter: “Men, brethren, the scripture must needs be fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was the leader of them that apprehended Jesus: who was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry. And he indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the midst: and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: so that the same field was called in their tongue, Haceldama, that it to say, the field of blood. For it is written in the book of Psalms: Let their habitation become desolate, and let there be none to dwell therein. And his bishopric let another take” (Acts, I, 16-20). Cf. Ps., lxviii, 26; cviii, 8). Some modern critics lay great stress on the apparent discrepancies between this passage in the Acts and the account given by St. Matthew. For St. Peter’s words taken by themselves seem to imply that Judas himself bought the field with the price of his iniquity, and that it was called “field of blood” because of his death. But St. Matthew, on the other hand, says: “Then Judas, who betrayed him, seeing that he was condemned, repenting himself, brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and ancients, saying: I have sinned in betraying innocent blood. But they said: What is that to us? Look thou to it. And casting down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed: and went and hanged himself with an halter.” After this the Evangelist goes on to tell how the priests, who scrupled to put the money in the corbona because it was the price of blood, spent it in buying the potter’s field for the burial of strangers, which for this cause was called the field of blood. And in this St. Matthew sees the fulfillment of the prophecy ascribed to Jeremias (but found in Zach., xi, 12): “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was prized, whom they prized of the children of Israel. And they gave them unto the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed to me” (Matt., xxvii, 9, 10).
But there does not seem to be any great difficulty in reconciling the two accounts. For the field, bought with the rejected price of his treachery, might well be described as indirectly bought or possessed by Judas, albeit he did not buy it himself. And St. Peter’s words about the name Haceldama might be referred to the “reward of iniquity” as well as the violent death of the traitor. Similar difficulties are raised as to the discrepancies in detail discovered in the various accounts of the betrayal itself. But it will be found that, without doing violence to the text, the narratives of the four Evangelists can be brought into harmony, though in any case there will remain some obscure or doubtful points. It is disputed, for instance, whether Judas was present at the institution of the Holy Eucharist and communicated with the other Apostles. But the balance of authority is in favour of the affirmative. There has also been some difference of opinion as to the time of the treachery. Some consider that it was suddenly determined on by Judas after the anointing at Bethania, while others suppose a longer negotiation with the chief priests.
But these textual difficulties and questions of detail fade into insignificance beside the great moral problem presented by the fall and treachery of Judas. In a very true sense, all sin is a mystery. And the difficulty is greater with the greatness of the guilt, with the smallness of the motive for doing wrong, and with the measure of the knowledge and graces vouchsafed to the offender. In every way the treachery of Judas would seem to be the most mysterious and unintelligible of sins. For how could one chosen as a disciple, and enjoying the grace of the Apostolate and the privilege of intimate friendship with the Divine Master, be tempted to such gross ingratitude for such a paltry price? And the difficulty is greater when it is remembered that the Master thus basely betrayed was not hard and stern, but a Lord of loving kindness and compassion. Looked at in any light the crime is so incredible, both in itself and in all its circumstances, that it is no wonder that many attempts have been made to give some more intelligible explanation of its origin and motives, and, from the wild dreams of ancient heretics to the bold speculations of modern critics, the problem presented by Judas and his treachery has been the subject of strange and startling theories. As a traitor naturally excites a peculiarly violent hatred, especially among those devoted to the cause or person betrayed, it was only natural that Christians should regard Judas with loathing, and, if it were possible, paint him blacker than he was by allowing him no good qualities at all. This would be an extreme view which, in some respects, lessens the difficulty. For if it be supposed that he never really believed, if he was a false disciple from the first, or, as the Apocryphal Arabic Gospel of the Infancy has it, was possessed by Satan even in his childhood, he would not have felt the holy influence of Christ or enjoyed the light and spiritual gifts of the Apostolate.
At the opposite extreme is the strange view held by the early Gnostic sect known as the Cainites described by St. Irenaeus (Adv. Haer., I, c. ult.), and more fully by Tertullian (Praesc. Haeretic., xlvii), and St. Epiphanius (Haeres., xxxviii). Certain of these heretics, whose opinion has been revived by some modern writers in a more plausible form, maintained that Judas was really enlightened, and acted as he did in order that mankind might be redeemed by the death of Christ. For this reason they regarded him as worthy of gratitude and veneration. In the modern version of this theory it is suggested that Judas, who in common with the other disciples looked for a temporal kingdom of the Messias, did not anticipate the death of Christ, but wished to precipitate a crisis and hasten the hour of triumph, thinking that the arrest would provoke a rising of the people who would set Him free and place Him on the throne. In support of this they point to the fact that, when he found that Christ was condemned and given up to the Romans, he immediately repented of what he had done. But, as Strauss remarks, this repentance does not prove that the result had not been foreseen. For murderers, who have killed their victims with deliberate design, are often moved to remorse when the deed is actually done. A Catholic, in any case, cannot view these theories with favour since they are plainly repugnant to the text of Scripture and the interpretation of tradition. However difficult it may be to understand, we cannot question the guilt of Judas. On the other hand we cannot take the opposite view of those who would deny that he was once a real disciple. For, in the first place, this view seems hard to reconcile with the fact that he was chosen by Christ to be one of the Twelve. This choice, it may be safely said, implies some good qualities and the gift of no mean graces.
But, apart from this consideration, it may be urged that in exaggerating the original malice of Judas, or denying that there was even any good in him, we minimize or miss the lesson of this fall. The examples of the saints are lost on us if we think of them as being of another order without our human weaknesses. And in the same way it is a grave mistake to think of Judas as a demon without any elements of goodness and grace. In his fall is left a warning that even the great grace of the Apostolate and the familiar friendship of Jesus may be of no avail to one who is unfaithful. And, though nothing should be allowed to palliate the guilt of the great betrayal, it may become more intelligible if we think of it as the outcome of gradual failing in lesser things. So again the repentance may be taken to imply that the traitor deceived himself by a false hope that after all Christ might pass through the midst of His enemies as He had done before at the brow of the mountain. And though the circumstances of the death of the traitor give too much reason to fear the worst, the Sacred Text does not distinctly reject the possibility of real repentance. And Origen strangely supposed that Judas hanged himself in order to seek Christ in the other world and ask His pardon (In Matt., tract. xxxv).