Judas Iscariot was the disciple who betrayed Jesus. According to the gospels, he led a group of armed men to a garden where Jesus was praying and identified him with a kiss. After a brief scuffle, Jesus was seized and taken to the Jewish religious leaders. They put him through a long interrogation, then turned him over to the Romans and pressured the Roman governor Pontius Pilate into ordering his crucifixion.
The Jewish leaders paid Judas a bribe for his help. Matthew 26:15 says that it was “thirty pieces of silver”, possibly referring to a silver coin known as a Tyrian shekel. But Judas didn’t get any benefit from the money, because he died shortly after the betrayal.
The New Testament contains two accounts of how he died. Matthew 27:3-5 says that he felt so much remorse over what he had done that he returned the bribe money and then hanged himself. And Acts 1:18 says: “with the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.” Because these accounts appear to differ, there is some uncertainty about how he actually died.
Note: Another idea about how Judas died can be found in the non-biblical Gospel of Judas (discussed below). It says that Judas had a vision in which the other eleven disciples stone him to death after they find out about the betrayal. It isn’t clear where this shocking idea came from, but it probably isn’t what really happened, since the bible most likely would have reported it too.
Because Judas was a common name in ancient Palestine, the gospel writers usually added the surname Iscariot to make it clear who they were talking about. John 6:71 calls him “Judas Iscariot the son of Simon.” He was put in charge of the disciples’ money, keeping it in a special box and making purchases for the group as needed. John 12:6 says that he sometimes stole money from the box for his personal use.
Matthew 26:14-16 suggests that Judas betrayed Jesus out of simple greed for the bribe money, whereas Luke 22:3 and John 13:27 say that the Devil entered into him and made him do it. But some biblical scholars have put forward another theory. They say that Judas wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans and got angry when it became clear that no revolt was planned.
Jesus was fully aware of the coming betrayal. He talked about it several times, and though he never mentioned Judas by name, he did identify him indirectly. This fore-knowledge has led some people to argue that the betrayal wasn’t an act of free will, but was imposed on Judas as part of a divine plan for the atonement between God and humankind.
But most theologians believe that Judas did act in free will and should be punished for it. And in Matthew 26:24, Jesus says “woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” The medieval writer Dante Alighieri apparently agreed, because in his Inferno he condemned Judas to the lowest circle of Hell, doomed to be chewed for eternity in the teeth of Satan.
Yet some people still argue that Judas shouldn’t be blamed. Several scholars have suggested that he was merely the negotiator in a secret prearranged surrender, and that his later portrayal as a traitor is a historical distortion. Variations on this idea were put forward in the book The Passover Plot by Hugh J. Schonfield, and also in the controversial film The Last Temptation of Christ.
This idea surfaced again with the discovery of an ancient copy of a previously lost Gospel of Judas. This book appears to depict Judas as the most trusted of all the disciples. It also says that Jesus told him about the necessity for a betrayal and asked him to take the blame for it. But the only existing copy of this gospel is badly damaged, and much guesswork is involved in determining the correct translations of some key passages. As a result, questions have arisen as to how it really depicts Judas. In any case, because it probably wasn’t written until the second century, most scholars doubt that it is a trustworthy source of information.
Another unorthodox view of Judas can be found in a fraudulent book called the Gospel of Barnabas. This book makes the preposterous claim that Judas, not Jesus, was the person who died on the cross. It alleges that this happened because Judas was miraculously transformed to look like Jesus shortly after the betrayal and was accidentally crucified in his place. Of course this entire story is an obvious fabrication.
The origin of the surname Iscariot is uncertain. According to one theory, the name means “man of Kerioth”, and refers to a town or area in ancient Judea. If correct, this would suggest that Judas came from southern Palestine, whereas the other disciples were probably Galileans from the north. According to another theory, the name Iscariot comes from the Latin word “sicarius”, meaning “dagger-man”. The Sicarii were a group of rebel assassins who were resisting the Roman occupation of the country. Thus Judas might have originally been a member of this group. (The released prisoner Barabbas also may have belonged to this group.)
Perhaps the best-known artistic depiction of Judas is The Kiss of Judas by Giotto di Bondone, c.1306, a fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Another well-known depiction can be found in Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Here the artist shows Judas as somewhat smaller and darker than the other disciples, and he appears to be clutching a bag which may contain the bribe money.

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