In 2004 I was invited to serve as "theological adviser" to a production of a new Off-Broadway play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, written by the playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. The playwright put Judas Iscariot on trial for his betrayal of Jesus. In 'A Jesuit Off-Broadway', just released in paperback last month, the discussions with the playwright and the cast led to a conversation over a key aspect of the play: Why did Judas betray Jesus? Early on, the actor portraying Judas, Sam Rockwell, asked me what could be known about Judas and his motives.
There is very little known about Judas. The Rev. John Meier, a professor of New Testament at Notre Dame and the author of a multivolume study on Jesus called A Marginal Jew is one of the leading contemporary scholars on the "historical Jesus." In the third volume of his work, entitled "Companions and Competitors," Meier notes that there are only two basic things known about Judas: Jesus chose him as one of the twelve apostles, and he handed Jesus over to the Jewish authorities.
"Those two bare facts enunciated above," Meier writes, "are almost all we know about the historical Judas. Beyond them lies theological speculation or novel writing, with the dividing line with the two activities not always clear-cut."
In other words, many of the standard traits of the Judases who appear in films and on stage, like his reddish hair color (Harvey Keitel in "The Last Temptation of Christ"), his fiery disposition ("Jesus Christ Superstar") as well as various "facts" that appear in supposedly historically-minded narratives (Judas is the first disciple called by Jesus in "The Greatest Story Ever Told") are almost purely speculative, invented more for artistic purposes.
Many of these artistic speculations can be traced back to varying interpretations of a single word in the New Testament: Judas's last name, "Iscariot."
There are four main theories about the name. And from these interpretations came two millennia of artistic representations of Judas. In turn, these representations have influenced how Western culture has come to think about the man and his actions.
First, the name is said to derive from Judas's membership in the sicarii, or "dagger wielders," a band of religious terrorists of the time. In this speculation Judas was aligned with the Zealots, a fanatical group that had included another apostle, Simon. As a result, Judas is sometimes portrayed, as in "The Last Temptation of Christ," as an apostolic hothead. But, as Meier notes, the sicarii did not emerge until around 40 or 50 A.D., well after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Also, if Judas was a sicarius, then it would have been likely that he would have assassinated Jesus by stabbing him in a crowd -- the approved method among the sicarii -- rather than handing him over to the detested authorities.
The name Iscariot is also said to have come from the Semitic root verb sqr, meaning "to lie." But here the problem is more subtle: Judas is not portrayed throughout the New Testament as a liar as much as a betrayer. (An even more tenuous linguistic connection is to the Semitic verb skr, or "to hand over.")
Others see in the name a link to a Semitic word describing the man's occupation, a red dyer, or a reference to his supposed reddish hair color. (Near the end of the play, Sam Rockwell would sport a full reddish-brown beard, a feature that prompted one of my Jesuit friends to ask if he had dyed it for the part.)
Finally Iscariot may refer to a place of birth, a village named Keriot in Judea. Therefore he would be, in Hebrew, "a man from Kerioth" ('ish qeriyyot). In this construct Judas would have been the only apostle not from Galilee, but from Judea, a tantalizing possibility: it would make Judas an obvious outsider among the Galilean apostles. Unfortunately, it is not clear that a town called Kerioth ever existed.
The best explanation may be the simplest: Iscariot was the name of that Judas had taken from his father, who is identified three times in the Gospel of John as "Simon Iscariot." Where the father got his name, however, remains a mystery. And whether John's narrative is authoritative on the matter is also doubtful. In the end, says Meier, "the nickname, like the person, remains an enigma."
The lack of historical information would be -- to borrow a line from the Old Testament -- both a blessing and a curse to the play's creative team. It offered the playwright, director and actors a great deal of creative freedom with the story. On the other hand, it made research into the title character's "motivation" more difficult. As one character in the play says, referring to the sparse record: "Not a lot to go on -- especially when we're meant to rely on facts." Especially when even the "facts" come from writers intent on convincing us of the underlying truth of their story.
There was one thing I could tell Sam unequivocally: Judas was not always as villainous as he has historically appeared in art and literature. (Early and late Renaissance painters often portrayed Judas with grotesque, even animalistic, features: Giotto's painting of the Betrayal of Jesus has a simian-looking Judas kissing his teacher.) Judas Iscariot was, after all, chosen to be one of the twelve apostles. This means that Jesus, supposedly a shrewd judge of character, must have seen some redeeming qualities in him. Likewise, Judas identified Jesus as someone worthy of following and initially accepted the sacrifices required to become his follower.
This alone argues for a more sympathetic portrayal of Judas. In other words, how could someone who was supposedly so irredeemably evil decide to leave everything to follow Jesus of Nazareth? And if any of the traditions have any factual basis, and Judas was a passionate man, we can speculate that he could have been one of the more devoted followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Needless to say, the writers of the gospels were unlikely to include any material in their narrative that would cast Judas in a positive light. Evidence of Jesus's early affection for Judas or any stories showing Judas's initial devotion to Jesus would probably have been set aside by the evangelists in their writing and editing. (A more recent historical analogy might be that fans of George Washington have little stake in making Benedict Arnold look good.)
Consequently, the generally accepted understanding of Judas begins with sources that painted him in the darkest tones possible. And the writers of the four gospels were also good story tellers who knew that for simple dramatic effect, the story of Jesus requires an archvillain: a divine protagonist requires the wickedest of opponents.
Later Christian traditions built on such presentations, and were also influenced by nascent anti-Semitism, as the early church distanced itself from its Jewish roots. Saint John Chrysostom, patriarch of Constantinople, writing in the fourth century, used Judas as an example of the wickedness of Jews in general. Chrysostom (the name means "golden mouth," a tribute to his skills as a preacher) was one of several saints whose writings were tinged with -- and contributed to -- the virulent anti-Semitism common at the time. Judas was evil not only because he had betrayed Jesus, but because he was Jewish.
Chrysostom sees the suicide of Judas as foreshadowing the suffering of the Jews, and comments on this approvingly. In his Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, he writes: "This desolation [his fate] was a prelude to that of the Jews, as will appear on looking closely into the facts." That one of the most influential figures in the patristic era could write so cruelly shows not only the rapid assimilation of anti-Semitism into Christianity, but the hardening of the Christian imagination against Judas.
These characterizations would in turn influence the early and late Renaissance writers and artists, and continued throughout the medieval Passion plays. Dante, for example, places Judas in the lowest circle of hell in his Inferno, where the arch-sinner is torn apart by a three-headed Satan. In his wide-ranging historical study Judas: Images of the Lost Disciple, Kim Paffenroth, a religious studies professor at Iona College in New York, writes: "For Dante, Judas is an example of the worst sin possible, betrayal, and therefore places him at the center of hell, the worst of human sinners."
The poet's guide to the underworld, Virgil, explains the sight of the man who is being chewed upon by one of Satan's mouths while his back is being "raked clean of skin" at the same time:
"That soul up there who suffers most of all," my guide explained, "is Judas Iscariot; the one with the head inside and the legs out kicking."
As Paffenroth notes, most of the medieval Passion plays popular throughout Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries accentuated the ties between Judas and the Jewish people. The development of the most famous of these plays shows how central that identification was.
In 1634, the Bavarian town of Oberammergau fulfilled a vow to stage an elaborate Passion play every ten years as a sign of thanksgiving for being spared the ravages of a terrible plague. Until the end of the seventeenth century, writes Paffenroth, the Oberammergau play was similar to other European versions, with its crowd-pleasing depictions of many devils tearing Judas apart for his perfidy. But in 1811 a rewrite excised the devils, and prompted what Paffenroth calls an "amazing transformation."
With the excision of the multiple devils, the Oberammergau play began to blame the Jews exclusively for the death of Jesus, instead of devils, or the devil, thus "elaborating and accentuating Jewish evil as completely human but utterly and irredeemably evil." The Oberammergau Passion continues to be staged; only in 2000 were any "substantial" changes made to the script regarding anti-Semitism, according to Paffenroth.
Over time, then, the stereotype of Judas as the wickedest of all human beings, as well as layer upon layer of historical anti-Semitism, made it difficult, if not impossible, for later generations to gain any distance from his story, and to understand his motivation. The historical Judas was buried under his artistic representations. As Graham Greene wrote in his novel The End of the Affair, "If we had not been taught how to interpret the story of the Passion, would we be able to say from their actions alone whether it was the jealous Judas or the cowardly Peter who loved Christ?"
An edgier interpretation comes from David A. Reed, a Scripture scholar writing in the Biblical Theology Bulletin. Perhaps, says Reed, one could see in Judas a kind of offbeat heroism. Reed suggests that in the first century, his suicide would have been understood as a calculated decision to shame the Jewish religious leaders for refusing to take back the money that they had given to Judas in payment for his betrayal, as well as a means for Judas to atone for his own sin.
"Like many figures in the Hebrew Bible," writes Reed, "he has experienced atonement in the best sense of the word, though it shocks us that the atonement came about by suicide."
In lengthy conversations, Sam and I explored some of these insights into the life of his character. Without a real understanding of Judas's history, it would be impossible to portray him accurately or compellingly on stage, and so Sam was interested in learning anything he could about his character. Over time, the actor's questions helped me see a familiar story from a fresh perspective. An appreciation, for example, of Judas as initially supportive of the ministry of Jesus was critical for Sam's ability to portray him as something more than the monster that most Christian writers have described.
Eventually, we had to sift through the traditional explanations for and biblical descriptions of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. One Saturday afternoon, I made my way to Sam's apartment downtown. Fortified by a few cups of strong tea, we turned our attention to the act that defines Judas in the popular imagination. Unfortunately, as Meier points out in A Marginal Jew, the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) offer confusing and even contradictory explanations for his motives.
The Gospel of Mark, for example, gives no motivation for Judas's sudden betrayal. Confusing things even further, Mark has Jesus telling Judas at the Last Supper, "Do what you must do," implying coercion on the part of Jesus. Matthew, writing a decade or so later than Mark, attempts to clarify things in his account by introducing the motive of greed: "What are you willing to give me?" asks Judas to the Jewish high priests.
The theme is taken up by the Gospel of John as well: long before the Last Supper, Judas is depicted by the evangelist as the greedy keeper of the common purse. When Jesus, for instance, is anointed with costly perfume by a woman in the town of Bethany, shortly before his crucifixion, John's gospel has Judas complain, asking why the money was not given to the poor.
In an aside, John says to the reader, "Now he [Judas] said this not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief. Being in charge of the money box, he used to steal what was put into it." So John paints Judas as exceedingly greedy, and a thief as well. Finally, Luke's gospel tells us that at the Last Supper "Satan had entered into Judas." Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., a renowned New Testament scholar, told our class in graduate school that for the interested reader this phrase from Luke explained "either everything or nothing."
There is another hypothesis that sometimes remains unstated by Scripture scholars: the evangelists simply concocted the entire story of Judas's betrayal for dramatic purposes. Some have posited that the one who betrayed Jesus could have come from outside the circle of twelve, and that Judas was simply a convenient fall guy. Similarly, Judas may have been invented as a generic "Jewish" character in order to lay the blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish people.
But this wholesale invention is unlikely. By most accounts, Mark wrote his gospel around 70 A.D., only forty years after the death of Jesus. Luke and Matthew wrote some ten to fifteen years later. The early Christian community, therefore, would have still counted among its members those who were friends of Jesus, who were eyewitnesses to the Passion events, or who knew the sequence of events from the previous generation. All these would presumably have criticized any wild liberties taken with the story. Rather, as Father Harrington told me recently, "Judas's betrayal of Jesus was a known and most embarrassing fact." In other words, the ignominy of having Jesus betrayed by one of his closest friends is something that the Gospel writers would most likely have wanted to avoid, not invent.
Overall, though, none of the four Gospels provides a clear or convincing reason for why one of the inner circle of disciples would betray the teacher he esteemed so highly. Greed, for example, fails miserably as an explanation. After all, why would someone who had travelled with the penniless rabbi for three years suddenly be consumed with greed?
One Scripture scholar, the late William Barclay, professor of divinity at Glasgow University, and author of the widely used multivolume Daily Study Bible, suggested that the most compelling explanation is that in handing Jesus over to the Romans, Judas was trying to force Jesus's hand, to get him to act in a decisive way. Perhaps, he suggests, Judas expected the arrest would prompt Jesus to reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah by overthrowing the Roman occupiers. Barclay noted that none of the other traditional explanations (for example, greed, disillusionment, jealousy) explain why Judas would have been so shattered after the crucifixion that he committed suicide. In other words, only if Judas had expected a measure of good to come from his actions would suicide make any sense.
"This is in fact the view which best suits all the facts," Barclay concluded.
After we had batted around Barclay's theory for a while, Sam thought for a moment and remarked, "Maybe Judas was throwing Jesus into the deep end of the pool, hoping he'd swim." I liked his analogy so much that I used it in a homily at a Mass the following Sunday at a local Jesuit church. After Mass, one of the parishioners approached me on the steps of the church and said, "That was a great insight about Judas. Where did you get that from?" (It was all I could do not to say, "Do you go to the movies a lot?)
Sam's insight would eventually find its way into Guirgis's play, on the lips of Simon the Zealot, one of the twelve apostles, who provides the main defense for Judas: he hoped to help Jesus fulfill his destiny. "I think Judas was trying to throw Jesus into the deep end of the pool," says Simon. But the playwright doesn't let Simon off easily, and provides a trenchant rejoinder to Barclay's hypothesis: "Jesus was there to lend zee helping hand?" says the Egyptian-born prosecutor sarcastically. "Why yes! I'm sure [if I were Jesus on the cross] my first thought as I gasped for air and bled to death would be: Really, that Judas -- what a helpful guy!"
This piece was adapted from 'A Jesuit Off-Broadway' and first published by America Magazine.