Monday, March 29, 2010

Judas Iscariot

If you lean to the right theologically, you might want to skip this post. Actually, maybe you should just skip this week. Come back after Easter.

I'm one of the few Christians who really, really wants to skip Easter. Since that's impossible, I'm going to do a few posts about thinking through different aspects of the Holy Week story.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday. For those of you not in tune with the church calendar, that's the week before Easter and celebrates Jesus's triumphal entry (it's always described like that--Triumphal Entry) into Jerusalem. Everybody* is thrilled that Jesus is here. He's the Messiah! He's going to kick Rome's ass! Finally we'll get our country back.

For that's what they thought. "Messiah" was a term for a political king. It didn't become connected to this spiritual savior idea until much, much later. Most of the Jews who followed Jesus saw in him someone who could lead them to overthrow Roman rule, and they were thrilled.

Granted, Jesus had been confusing them a lot over the course of the last three years--encouraging people to forgive and just generally not doing a lot of ass-kicking. Still, they were hopeful that he was the One.**

Then he was betrayed by one of his own followers, and he was executed.

There's a fascinating theory about Judas Iscariot that I love. Judas has been villified as a traitor, but what if we're wrong? What if Judas was expecting Jesus to be a political messiah, and he was frustrated that Jesus was taking so long to get the revolution going? If this was the case, then it makes some sense that Judas tried to force Jesus's hand by creating the confrontation with the leaders of the day. When it backfired--when Jesus insisted that instead of fighting, his disciples should allow him to be taken quietly and then he is executed--Judas is so devastated that he commits suicide.

This makes sense to me. Judas was one of Jesus's closest followers. His treachery appears out of nowhere.*** It's possible that Judas even felt that he was doing what he was supposed to do--that Jesus wasn't just letting Judas know that Jesus knew Judas had some betrayal planned when Jesus called him out at their Passover seder. Judas could have thought that Jesus was giving him the nudge. In fact, in Luke 22:36-37, Jesus is telling the disciples that they need swords. Why do you need a sword if you're not going to fight?

The text has this happening at the seder, shortly before the sword discussion:
"But see the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!" Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.
Luke 22:21-23

Then they promptly begin arguing about who is the greatest, so there's some continuity issues here. That's for another day.

Now, I'm really going to shake some people up, but what if this was written this way by the early Christian community looking back and trying to make sense of what Judas had done? Nobody should be shocked that I'm left-leaning--see blog title--and I maintain that all sacred texts have been filtered through human experience. We know that the obsession with historical factuality didn't come about until the Enlightenment. Before that, stories were told with more emphasis on the wisdom they imparted than the historical accuracy of the events. There's nothing wrong with that until we forget it when we read old texts.

If Jesus said something at that seder that indicated he knew there was going to be a betrayal, it's possible that Judas heard him and believed he was being asked to do the "betrayal"--to light the blue touch paper that starts the political revolution. As the early church looks back, all they are able to see is Judas as a traitor, and the text gets written this way.

But what if we're wrong.

*Except the Pharisees, who are working diligently not to get the Romans pissed off. This is a laudable goal considering what the Romans were known to do to those who pissed them off. See: Crucifixion

**Yes, like Neo. Watch that third Matrix installment again and tell me that's not a retelling of the traditional understanding of the crucifixion. In one scene, he's even got his arms out in the crucified pose. I love you, Wachowskis, but subtle you are not.

***Do not tell me that "Satan" got into him. Seriously. Don't.


  1. Really interesting! Looking forward to reading the next posts.