Judas Iscariot : Traitor Or First Martyr?
Judas Iscariot has traditionally be viewed as the betrayer of Christ. But some now believe that Judas was only fulfilling God's plan, and was a true martyr. Here are both sides of the argument.
In the late 1960s, two young high school students wrote a musical that would soon ignite a serious theological debate on one of the most hated figures in Christianity, Judas Iscariot. The rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, entitled "Jesus Christ Superstar", used the character of Judas as both narrator and antagonist to a Jesus Christ who had begun to believe the hysteria surrounding him. Judas is portrayed as sympathetic to the plight of Jesus, but ultimately disillusioned by the celebrity atmosphere surrounding him. His betrayal is seen as one essential step in the ultimate sacrifice of the Messiah, and he appears to receive forgiveness from God following his tragic suicide at Aceldama, the field of blood. The implication is that Judas had no choice but to betray Christ, which set in motion the events that had to take place before God's son could be sacrificed and resurrected. Without his seemingly selfish and despicable act, the rest of the Scriptures may not have been fulfilled.
But this revisionist view of Judas is contrary to the tradional role of Judas Iscariot as the ultimate betrayer of the Messiah. Many believe that Judas Iscariot became convinced that Jesus would be the leader of a politically motivated uprising against the oppressive Roman occupation. As a Zealot, Judas was more than willing to fight for his people's freedom, but he also knew that it would take a leader with Jesus' charisma and skills to sell revolution to the people. When Jesus refused to take direct action against Rome, Judas felt betrayed himself. When the Sanhedrin approached Judas with the idea of exposing Jesus, he saw an opportunity to exact some revenge for Jesus' perceived lack of resolve concerning the Romans. It was only after Jesus fell into the hands of the hated Romans that he felt remorse, and his suicide was a final and desperate act of a traitor. So which viewpoint is the correct one? No one can really say with certainty. But let us examine the recorded acts of Judas from both viewpoints, in order to reach a better understanding of this tragic figure in Biblical history.
The choice of disciples is a very interesting study in group dynamics. The majority of disciples worked as fishermen, but there was also a middle-class tax collector and an upper-class physician. Some disciples were unmovable believers in the divinity of Jesus while others were pragmatists or outright skeptics. Some wanted the Messiah to be a political and military leader while others wanted an enlightened Rabbinical teacher. So there was at least one disciple that appealed to whatever crowd that was faced. If this selection process was divinely inspired, then the inclusion of the Zealot Judas Iscariot was no mistake in judgment. He had a specific purpose, one that even Jesus may not have been fully aware of in the beginning of His ministry. Judas was destined to become one of only a dozen men who would be privy to all of Jesus' teachings and activities on Earth. Thus, such a man would have to be following the will of God, even if he wasn't aware of his calling.
But then again, the calling of the Twelve Apostles may have been left to Jesus' human intuition. He was led to the men who would form his tightest inner circle based on his impressions of their human hearts. Many of the chosen disciples were working class, much like Jesus was as a young man.
Jesus may have seen a quality in Judas that expressed His own desire to see the Jewish people free from Roman oppression. Judas' unbridled passion and dedication to the Zealot cause probably appealed to Jesus' activist side. This did not necessarily translate into undying loyalty, as Jesus and the other disciples would discover too late.
As the ministry continued to grow, the actions of Judas as an Apostle do not show a man who contemplated a betrayal of his teacher and friend. The scriptures show Judas to be a pragmatist, genuinely concerned with the expenditures of a small ministry. He was keenly aware of how certain events played to a public audience, and was quick to rebuke Jesus for any behavior that appeared hypocritical or could have been misconstrued. When Jesus reminded Judas that the poor will always be here, but His time is limited, Judas appears to accept the explanation with no rebuttals. This is not the behavior of a resentful and disillusioned man.
But one could also view Judas' acts as the warning signs of a disgruntled follower. He has been trying to pin down a definitive plan from the Messiah concerning the overthrow of Roman oppression. Meanwhile, the man he has come to admire is preoccupied with questionable women and the trappings of a successful ministry. When Judas tries to complain about the excess, he is soundly rebuked. One could easily see where Judas' hot temper might have overwhelmed him, and betrayal of a man who has already betrayed his trust is very conceivable indeed.
Those who believe that Judas' betrayal was pre-ordained point to his actions immediately following the exposure of Jesus. Instead of using his sudden wealth to better his lot in life or finance his own political goals, Judas is immediately wracked with guilt. Jesus already foresaw his betrayal, and encouraged him to move swiftly. This clairvoyance must have been extremely debilitating for Judas. Even before Judas could formulate an acceptable post-betrayal plan, Jesus already knew the actions he was contemplating. It was as if Jesus was giving him absolution for such a despicable act of betrayal- forgiveness he would have wanted desperately. Without his 'betrayal', the Messiah could not have fulfilled the Scripture's foretelling of a trial and rejection by His people. Judas was instrumental in bringing about the people's ultimate salvation from Rome, only he did not comprehend the enormity of his actions at the time. The angry return of the money only solidified his guilt, and his decision to commit suicide was a last, desperate human effort to allay his shame. By providing the mechanism by which the Resurrection could be fulfilled, Judas became the first true martyr for the church.
For those who feel that Judas was inspired by evil, these same events can be seen as even more proof of Judas' unholy intentions. He willingly accepted 30 pieces of silver to betray someone he knew to be the Messiah. This amount of money would not have insured his safety following the betrayal, nor would it have provided him with a lifestyle free from guilt. His motivation was clearly not financial- it was political. Jesus Christ was proposing that the Jews view Roman occupation as a temporary evil, one that can be survived with a more charitable mindset. He never espoused a violent uprising- a philosophy clearly not shared by the Zealots. What good would a non-violent Messiah be to the Jewish movement? Judas could not accept yet another spiritual bruising from an increasingly distant leader. If the Sanhedrin wanted to expose Jesus as a fraud, he would be more than willing to provide the body.
It was only when the Romans gained control of Jesus that Judas had a loss of resolve. His angry scene with the Sanhedrin shows a man feeling betrayed on all sides. The return of the silver pieces was meant to be a slight against the Sanhedrin. In essence, the money was cursed and Judas did not want it in the first place. Angered by the betrayal of the Sanhedrin, Judas spent the next few days contemplating his future. Following the crucifixion death of Jesus, he felt such incredible guilt that suicide was the only solution. The Bible records that Judas was troubled with a dark (evil?) spirit right up until his tragic death.
The debate over the true nature and purpose of Judas Iscariot continues to this day. While both sides present compelling arguments, the true nature of the debate is whether or now we should view Judas Iscariot as a misguided betrayer of Jesus Christ or as a preordained gear in the mechanism that would ultimately free the world through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we should accept the fact that many fallible human beings all came together in imperfect ways to create what many believe to be the most perfect gift mankind has ever received.