What can Christians learn from Judas?

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Portraying one of the most notorious villains in the Bible can get a man thinking about his faith.

David Berger did that a lot when he played Judas Iscariot in Lake Harriet United Methodist Church’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The musical’s Judas is not so easy to write off as history’s greatest monster. Instead, he comes across as a man agonized about his decision to betray his friend, even as he rationalizes that it is for his friend’s own good.

“I am more inclined to cut Judas some slack,” said Berger, a member of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.

“But I think his own self-righteousness, his sense that ‘I know what’s right,’ really got him into trouble. Of course, it got Jesus into trouble. too.”

At the same time, Berger said, Judas set in motion Christ’s Passion — the sacrifice that would be the world’s salvation.

So how should Christians view Judas: As a traitor or an essential help to the Crucifixion and Resurrection? Or perhaps he is something else. Like the Beatles’ tune his name resembles, is Judas an example of God taking a sad song and making it better?

Is Judas Redeemed?

While rehearsing “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the director of the Lake Harriet United Methodist Church production one night asked his team if they thought Judas ended up in Hell.

Simultaneously, the producer said “yes,” and the music director said “no.”

For much of Christian history, few questioned that if anyone deserved to be condemned for eternity, it was Judas.

Dante’s “Inferno” famously depicts Judas as the sinner “who suffers most of all” — quite literally reduced to Satan’s chew toy, his head gnawed perpetually in one of Lucifer’s three mouths.

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, also did not seem to hold out much hope for Judas’ fate. In fact, Wesley sometimes used the wayward disciple as a warning to his burgeoning movement. In his 1789 sermon “Causes of Inefficacy of Christianity” — two years before his death — Wesley urged the people called Methodist to give all they can “otherwise I can have no more hope of your salvation, than of that of Judas Iscariot.”

Many Wesleyans are not so quick to give up on Judas. In a Bible commentary written decades after Wesley’s death, British Methodist Bishop Adam Clarke wrote that Judas “committed a heinous act of sin and ingratitude.” But because Judas repented, Clarke wondered if mercy “could not be extended to wretched Judas?”

We simply don’t know whether Judas was saved in the end, said David Berger, who played Judas in the Lake Harriet production. But he noted that Jesus died for him too.

The Rev. Thomas E. Phillips, a New Testament scholar and dean of the library at United Methodist Claremont School of Theology, said it’s significant that Jesus allowed Judas to participate in the Last Supper.

“Grace above all,” said Phillips, ordained in the Church of the Nazarene. “Imagine this scenario: Judgment day. God looks at Judas and says, ‘Aw, what the heck? You can come on in too.’ Who would have the right to object?”

One of the Twelve

All four biblical Gospels agree that Jesus called Judas as one of the Twelve. Not one presents Judas’ actions in a sympathetic light.

In Mark — widely believed to be the oldest Gospel — Jesus tells the disciples: “How terrible it is for that person who betrays the Son of Man! It would have been better for him if he had never been born.”

Many Christians historically used such passages to dehumanize Judas. They equated Judas with Judaism, and throughout the Middle Ages exploited Judas to justify attacks on their Jewish neighbors.

Today’s scholars reject such anti-Semitism and generally argue for a more nuanced view of this troubled disciple.

Judas, even in his sinfulness, has something to teach Christians, scholars say.

“Part of what I believe Lent is about is the recognition of our own frailty and our profound fault in so many ways,” said Jennifer W. Knust, associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins at United Methodist Boston University School of Theology. “It’s an invitation to extend compassion as Jesus did in the Passion.”

One way to do that, she said, is revisiting Judas’ story.

Why did he do it?

Little is known about the historical Judas beyond that he was a disciple and had a hand in turning Jesus in to authorities.

The Gospels disagree about why. In Mark, the chief priests promise to pay Judas only after he offers to give Jesus up to them. In Matthew, his motive appears to be greed. Both the Gospels of Luke and John simply say that Satan entered Judas before the betrayal, though John earlier notes that Judas was a thief who pilfered from the disciples’ common purse.

“You can see the Gospel writers struggling themselves to understand why Judas did what he did,” said James Barker, a recent recipient of the Paul J. Achtemeier Award for New Testament Scholarship.

Barker noted that the 30 pieces of silver Judas receives is actually slightly less than a week’s wages at the time.

One possible clue to Judas’ motives is his last name, said the Rev. Ben Witherington III, New Testament professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, and a member of the faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

The name Iscariot could be a corruption of the word “sicarii,” which referred to the “dagger men” or hit men of the Zealots who wanted to overthrow Roman rule.

Witherington, a United Methodist elder, said Judas may have felt betrayed when he realized Jesus intended to die at the hands of the Roman occupiers instead of trying to overthrow them.

“Imagine early in the week what a riding into Jerusalem in triumph and a cleansing of the temple would have done to the hopes of a Zealot and contrast that with what Thursday's pronouncements would have done — namely dashed zealotic hopes,” Witherington said.

Another possibility, he said, is that Judas feared Jesus was a false messiah. That’s the theory put forth in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and one that Berger, who played Judas, finds plausible.

First-century Judaism was replete with men claiming to be God’s anointed king, most with disastrous results.

What About the Gospel of Judas?

In 2006, the National Geographic Society had a blockbuster on its hands. It provided the first English translation of “The Gospel of Judas,” an ancient text that at first appeared to offer sympathy for the long-reviled disciple. The text appears to have Judas acting on Jesus’ request to be handed over to the authorities.

Likely written sometime in the second century A.D., long after the New Testament's Gospels, the text excited scholars and grabbed international headlines for showcasing the varied thought among early Christians.

The Rev. Thomas E. Phillips, lead editor of Luke in the Common English Bible, likened the Gospel of Judas to an ancient conspiracy theory. It postulates that “the story which everyone knows is a sham; here's the real story from a guy who was there and who knows the real scoop.” 

The text does reveal squabbles among early Christians, but not necessarily the way first reported, argued April D. DeConick, a New Testament professor and chair of the religion department at Rice University in Houston. As she describes on her website, she also translated the text from the Coptic, and she concluded that parts had been mistranslated. Where the English translation called Judas a “spirit,” she decided a more accurate interpretation would be "demon."

The Rev. Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary, agrees with DeConick.

“Judas is not rehabilitated in the Gospel of Judas; he is demonized!” Witherington said.

Bad deeds and a happy ending

Still, none of Judas’ possible reasons justifies his actions, scholars say. Neither does the joy of the Resurrection.

“Nowhere in the Gospels does it suggest that because the cross is a good thing, it was therefore a good deed of the people who delivered Jesus up to death,” said the Rev. Charles Cosgrove, professor of early Christian literature at United Methodist Garrett-Evangelical Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He is also a United Church of Christ minister.

Nonetheless, he said early Christians struggled to reconcile the bad guys with the good news.

“The answer, according to most of those ancient theologians, is that they were doing God’s will without knowing it,” Cosgrove said. “What they really thought they were doing was opposing God. But God is smarter than them and worked out good through it.”

The Acts of the Apostles — the sequel to Luke — leaves little hope for Judas. In Acts 1:18, Peter says Judas bought a field with the blood money he received. But then he fell headfirst, and his guts spilled out.

The Gospel of Matthew offers a very different account. When Judas realizes Jesus has been condemned to die, he repents deeply of betraying “an innocent man.” He then throws the silver pieces into the temple. It is the chief priests who use the money for a field.

Judas, meanwhile, hangs himself.

While the church eventually condemned suicide, ancient Judaism taught that in certain situations, it could be an honorable act. In any case, most Christian denominations today — including The United Methodist Church — no longer teach that suicide is an unforgiveable sin.

“It’s a tragic story of someone who did a horrible thing and did what he could see himself doing to try to make it right,” Cosgrove said. “Although we have no words from him, I would say he was in effect throwing himself on the mercy of God.”

Lessons for Lent

The Rev. Sarah Conrad Sours, a United Methodist elder and religion instructor at United Methodist-related Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama, said that all the disciples pre-Pentecost give material for rather sobering Lenten reflections.

“The accent in all the Gospels is on the disciples’ failures and misunderstandings,” she said. “While the author of Luke goes on to give us a rousing story of their eventual faithfulness in Acts, all four Gospel writers remind us over and over that all of Jesus’s followers (or, at least, all of his male followers) misunderstood, betrayed and rejected him.”

She especially finds intriguing the possibility that Judas was trying to hurry Jesus along the path of becoming a military messiah. Even now, she said, Christians often succumb to similar temptations.

“We are prone to believe that Jesus, or God, or the Gospel needs our machinations to make it work in the modern age,” she said.

Berger, for his part, can sometimes see himself in Judas.

“I think of those times I’ve had the best intentions in mind but those intentions hurt others, or they actually turned out not to be the best intentions. But even through that, there’s grace. I think Judas experienced Jesus’ grace.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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