(Essay on the moral value of Judas Iscariot)
Throughout the centuries, there is a character that has been studied, examined and dissected constantly by the theological, philosophical and artistic thought. A character that haunts the mind since one is young and that keeps on coming back till one’s old age. Judas Iscariot: the fallen Apostle. But, what is it about this man who betrayed Jesus Christ that attracts the mind so much throughout the ages? It is not because the Gospels portray him as the human representation of pure evil; it is not because he is defined by the institution of the Church as the antonym of everything that is good and pure. The reason why one cannot stop thinking and reflecting about him, is because of his ambiguity. Even though, throughout time, Christians have always shown him as the bad one, the stories told about him are not always precise in their meanings, leaving a lot of space to interpretation regarding Judas’ actions and intentions.
Despite the fact that the Christian Church has always stated that Judas was undeniably guilty of treachery because he decided on his free will to betray Jesus, it is impossible not to find gaps in these Christian perceptions of ‘free will’ and ‘guilt’ because it is evident that the excuses used by the Church for condemning the character of Judas tend to contradict in many ways what is actually written in the Bible. For this reason, not only artists, but also archaeologists, philosophers and even theologians in the last couple of centuries have taken the job of trying to restitute the image of Judas and make amends with his cursed name.
So, this text intends to give a brief summary of the interpretations of the character of Judas throughout the different ages, starting with the traditional ones that brand him as the representation of Evil, but focusing on those that have tried to look past the canonical Christian version, in search to find a more rational explanation for the character and a less fanatic solution to the question of his moral value.
In the four canonical Gospels included in the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), Judas is always portrayed as “the betrayer”; his name never appears without mentioning his last horrible deed. It is interesting to note that his demonical portrayal becomes stronger in the most recent Gospels (Matthew and John), while in the older ones he is barely mentioned, as if the necessity for an evil antagonist to Jesus grew stronger in the later stages of the development of the proto-Christianity. But, in spite of the fact that Judas is almost not mentioned in Mark and Luke, the few times that he is mentioned, he is shown as the betrayer. The Gospel of John is the one that intends to show a darker and more detailed image of Judas, not only referring constantly to his betrayal, but also branding him as a greedy thief and as being possessed by Satan. The matter of the fact is that the canonization of the books for the New Testament, developed during the II and III centuries, clearly centered on the gospels that made reference to Judas and that showed him as the evil doer in the story. This can be said because in the apocryphal books and gospels of the time (such as de Nag Hammadi texts) there is either no reference to Judas Iscariot or they portray him as a good apostle. Be it as it may, due to the canonization of those four gospels and to the persecution of the heretic Christian movements from the first centuries of Christianity and the consequent destruction of their gospels and books, the image given of Judas by the institution of the Christian Church from then on would grow even worse and darker throughout the centuries.
Judas Iscariot started being used as the symbol of the Jewish community, as a way for the Christians to separate themselves from their roots. This probably began in the times of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Roman occupation of the province of Judaea between the years 66 and 73 A.D. that ended with the destruction of the Second Temple. Early Christians thought necessary to divide themselves from the Jewish community in revolt to be able to escape from the Roman persecution and also as means to attract the Gentile communities that were hostile with the Jews. Judas, then, started to be seen as the representation of the Jews, portraying them (and him) as avaricious, greedy and treacherous; opposed to the charitable and pure true followers of Jesus. This reciprocal demonization of Judas and the Jewish community continued throughout the Medieval Ages where Judas’ image kept on getting worse.
The clearest example of the medieval perception of Judas can be found in Dante’s Inferno where he is condemned as the worst of all sinners, being located by Dante in the last circle of Hell (the ninth) where his head and upper body are eternally chewed by Satan, while his lower back is skinned by Satan’s claws. For Dante, and possibly for the great part of the people in that time, Judas was considered the representation of the cruelest evil imaginable for having betrayed the “savior” of mankind. Another example of the depiction of the character of Judas in the Medieval Ages is in the Golden Legend (Legenda aurea) by Jacobus de Voragine. In this compilation of the life of the Saints written in 1275, de Voragine not only tells what is already written in the canonical Gospels, but also tries to go even deeper into Judas’ mind. He develops a story inspired between “The Tale of Moses”, “Cain and Abel” in the Old Testament and the “King Oedipus” of Sophocles: Judas is cast in a river as a baby by his birth parents and is rescued by a queen. When he grows up, he kills his half-brother, runs away and comes to the Court of Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem. Here he will eventually end up killing his birth father and marrying his birth mother. This is obviously a tale written explicitly to portray Judas as the worst possible person, not only for what he did to Jesus, but for what he had done before.
Till today, this point of view of the Christian Churches has not changed much in relation to the image of Judas. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1910 states that Judas is nothing more that “The Apostle who betrayed his Divine Master [and] we cannot question the guilt of Judas”. Even in this century, the pope Benedict XVI declared that Judas was free to choose to let Satan tempt him, reason why he is guilty of the act of treachery. Christian cinematography still depicts him the same way, such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), where Judas is depicted in a similar way as in the Middle Ages (as a greedy and cowardly man), in an attempt not only to show him as evil, but intending to use that hate of Judas as a reflection of the Jewish community (Mel Gibson is “openly” anti-Semitic).
In spite of the orthodox Christian portrayal of Judas Iscariot, since the beginnings of Christianity there have been religious movements that have defended Judas from the accusations of the institutionalized Church. Also, the developments of the philosophical and theological thought in the Renaissance and during the Protestant Reformation opened new possibilities to the debate about Judas’ moral value. But the moment that the conception of Judas as the representation of “pure evil” changed radically was after the secularization of Western society during the XIX and XX centuries, when the personality of Iscariot was opened to a wider range of interpretations given by a less fanatical and a more secular approach to his character.
The Gnostic writings of the early steps of Christianity give an interesting perception of Judas and the life and teachings of Jesus outside of the institutionalized Church. Today it is easy to talk about Christianity as a relatively homogeneous group, but in its early stages there wasn’t one Christianity, there were many. Around the second century A.D., there coexisted around thirty different Gospels that were being used as “revealed texts” for learning the teachings of Jesus. All of them gave different views of the “good news” and just because the Biblical Canon only accepted four of them it does not mean that the others did not exist and were not seen as “The Word of Jesus”. In the first century of Christianity, these called “Gnostic Gospels” were as accepted and as well regarded as any other. It just happened that the proto-orthodox Christianity stepped upon the other Christian movements of the time, making them forbidden and banned: “Men had silenced women, colonialists had silenced the colonized, and now we saw the Christian Church establishing itself by silencing other Christian voices”.
It is stated in the book Against all Heresies (Adverusus Haereses, 180 A.D.), written by the theologian Irenaeus of Lyons (one of the men responsible for the election of the texts canonized in the Bible) that there existed in his time a “heretic” group called the Cainites who believed, between other things, that Judas was the only apostle of Jesus who actually understood him, that he alone was given the answer to the great mysteries of the world and that he had betrayed Jesus as an act of God (and good) and not as an act of evil. He also made allusion to a text called “The Gospel of Judas” that was considered inexistent till a copy of it written around the year 230 A.D. was found in a cave in Egypt during the 1970’s and translated by The National Geographic Society in 2006.
In this text, Judas passed from being “the Betrayer” of the four canonical Gospels, to becoming the closest Apostle of Jesus. Jesus had given Judas the task to betray him because it was God’s will for him to redeem mankind, and this was the way that it had to happen. From this point of view, Judas was not acting against Jesus, but following his will. The Gnostic ontological views seem to be strongly influenced by Plato’s and Socrates’ philosophy, considering that the body was nothing more than a jail to the Soul, reason why the body had to be destroyed so that the soul could be purified of the senses and be finally free. In this sense, Judas was saving Jesus when he eliminated his body, he was not betraying him.
From the Cainites’ point of view, then, Judas was not a traitor; on the contrary, he was the one chosen to fulfill the destiny of Jesus, giving him as a sacrifice for all human kind: “you will exceed all of them. For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me”. Jesus states in this Gospel that Judas, of all the twelve apostles, was the only one who really understood his message, reason why he would be the only one to ascend to Heaven with him. That’s the reason why the Cainites presume that the canonical Gospels show him as evil: because of their envy to the close one, to the chosen one, to the only one; “you will be cursed by the other generations –and you will come to rule over them. In the last days they will curse your ascent to the holy generation”. They would make him grieve; they would dishonor his name and stone him because they would not be able to understand why did Judas get to know the mysteries of the world and they did not.
This text shows that the debate about Judas’ guilt and his position as the great evil doer of the New Testament has existed since the beginning of Christianity and it is not a contemporary creation. It opens the theological and ethical question of the conflict between free will and predestination: if one believes in predestination, is a man guilty of his actions if he was predetermined to do them? And, is it possible for free will and predestination to coexist as it is stated in the New Testament regarding to Judas? This is an important question because in the four Gospels it is constantly affirmed that Jesus was destined to be betrayed and killed in the cross for the redemption of mankind, so how can one judge a man as evil if he was nothing more than a scapegoat to God’s Will?
This is a question that has kept philosophers and theologians in constant debate because it is fundamental for the definition of guilt, the dimensions of free will and the concepts of good and evil. In the heart of the Protestant Reformation, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther engaged in a strong dialectical war concerning this question; a debate that will be of incredible importance for approaching the character of Judas developed from then on. While Erasmus declared in his De Libero Arbitrio (1524) the necessity of the existence of Free Will and the consequent responsibility of men for their actions; Luther, in his response to Erasmus, De servo arbitrio (1525), affirmed the absolute sovereignty of God over men, having absolute control over their decisions and actions. Man, for Luther, was controlled by sin and evil and it was only God’s will that could liberate him from that natural evil state and take him to his side, meaning that only if God wanted to, we could change our actions into good actions. In relation to Judas, this would mean that, from Erasmus’ point of view, even though God foresaw Judas’ act of betrayal, it was Judas, and Judas alone, who decided to do what he did, so it was he who cast the sin upon himself. From Luther’s point of view, Judas was predestinated to do what he did; sin was natural in him and there was nothing he could do to change that. He sinned because God didn’t decide to guide him into the “good side”. This debate, anyhow, still leaves the question open and even contemporary theological writings about the subject haven’t been able to arrive to a consensus.
This is why, in the last couple of centuries, artists and philosophers have pushed aside the theological debate about the character of Judas, so to focus on his moral value from a less religiously fanatic point of view, concentrating on the ethical interpretation of his intentions and not on God’s purposes. Bertrand Russell’s theory on “the subjective value of actions” is interesting for letting to see a wider range of possibilities for Judas’ moral judgment. While stating his theory of the “subjective values”, in his essay “Science and Ethics”, Russell intends to show the impossibility of affirming a precise moral judgment (as evil or good) objectively. Ethic value, for Russell, depends on a personal desire: man’s desire of humanity wanting the same as one does. Then, the discussion about the consequences of an action as evidence for a good or an evil act cannot apply in Ethics because this depends only on feelings and desires, not on its effects. He states that there are three categories for moral judgment: the first one is the status of the action in front of the established moral code; the second is the intention of he who acts; and the third is its consequences. Even though, in theory, these three categories could objectively define a moral judgment, in practice it is impossible because sometimes what is stated as ‘good’ in a moral code does not have positive consequences or vice versa. Russell shows that Judas’ case is inside this situation: despite that the consequence of his actions (the Atonement) was necessary and ethically positive; the means by which he acted (treachery) were against the moral code. The consequences are ethically good, but the means by which this is accomplished are immoral. Seeing it this way, there would be no sin or virtue in its absolute sense because there is no intrinsic value in any action; just the subjective value that each person or group give to it. This way, Russell is opening the possibilities of Judas’ ethical value to the subjective opinion of a person or group; his action of betrayal cannot be condemned objectively as good or as evil because individual value does not allow it.
From the nineteenth century, with the new political and social conceptions of man that came with the secularization of society, Judas’ intentions for his betrayal of Jesus started being studied from a more historicist point of view. He started being seen as a political activist, as a revolutionary who was fighting for the political and social restitution of his nation (Judaea) from the Romans, and believing that Jesus had his same political intentions he decided to join him. In his essay “Judas Iscariot” (1852), Thomas de Quincey approaches Judas from this point of view. He considers that there was a social pressure of the Jews against the Roman domination and a popular desire for recovering their land and their autonomy. Judas, as many others, saw Jesus as a possible leader that could unify the masses into revolting against the Romans: Jesus had promised a kingdom and Judas had believed it to be an earthly one. But Jesus’ methods did not seem to be going through the road that a political activist like Judas would hope. From de Quincey’s outlook, Judas saw Jesus as Shakespeare’s Hamlet: full of potential but without the strength of will for turning his power into real action; “Indecision and doubt (such was the interpretation of Judas) crept over the faculties of the Divine man”. That was the reason why Judas considered that Jesus had to be pushed, precipitated, or forced into action by an external force. He did not intend to send him to his death; he just thought that by making Jesus be arrested, he would stop doubting, he would force the Jewish people to revolt and the people would stand up for Jesus and take out the Romans.
This same perception of Judas as a political activist who did not want to betray Jesus but desired only to force him into violent action is very common on twentieth century literature and on cinema. John Brayshaw Kaye’s poem The Trial of Christ (1909) shows that Judas doesn’t intend to make Jesus get executed. He only wanted, relatively following de Quincey, to push him into the point where he was compelled to use his divine powers to save himself and free the Jewish people from the Romans. Norman Jewison’s motion picture musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), analyzes Judas’s mind, troubles and intentions very deeply, portraying him as the most concerned and committed of all of the Apostles (including Jesus) to the proto-Christian sociopolitical cause. He believed that the ideals of the movement were being erased little by little by the “cult of personality” of Jesus and his concern of fame and megalomania. That’s the first reason why he decided that the right thing to do was to give him away so that the message would live on before it went too far. The fact that Jesus had stopped being portrayed as a man and had started being mythicized into a God was making it politically and religiously dangerous (the Romans and the Jewish priests had started to be concerned with the man who was said to call himself “King of the Jews”), so the only thing to do was to let him go for the wellbeing of humanity. Judas is not shown as an evil or a greedy man who uses Jesus for his own monetary desires: he is shown as a committed and rational person, who doesn’t let the religious fanaticism blind him from the true message of the movement. He betrayed Jesus because he believed that this would be the best way for making the “Word of Christ” live eternally.
Apart from this still ambiguous interpretation of the intentions of Judas Iscariot, there has been developed throughout the twentieth century a reading of Judas’ character that intends to restore an absolute positive image of Iscariot, such as the one found in “The Gospel of Judas”. The case that best illustrates this renovation is Jorge Luis Borges’ short-story “Tres versiones de Judas” (1944). In this apologetic story, Borges opens the question about some very interesting “possible characters of Judas”. The first is his perception of Judas as a reflection of Jesus. God has lowered himself into flesh, into human form to redeem mankind; Judas has done the same reducing himself into the lowest type of human from Dante’s outlook: the traitor. What God does to himself, Judas does also. Their actions reflect each other. This reciprocity of Judas and Jesus can also be seen in a later short story also written by Borges titled “La Secta de los Treinta” (1975) where a sect in the beginnings of Christianity (relatable to the Cainites) consider the martyrdom of the cross as a voluntary act done by both Judas and Jesus, reason why they are both venerated in the same way.
This takes to Borges’ second point: Judas’ condition is far from that of a sinner. On the contrary, he is the representation of an unlimited asceticism that goes farther than the depravation of physical wellbeing: he represents the depravation of spiritual wealth. Borges considers Judas the symbol of absolute humbleness because “se creyó indigno de ser bueno”. He did not do what he did for an evil and selfish cause: he has done what he has done as the supreme act of unselfishness and philanthropy. He is the great representation of the humility in mankind because he has given up all possible positive retribution for the good of humanity; he achieved redemption for everybody but for himself. Because of this, Borges declares that it is Judas the fleshly body of God and not Jesus. It is Judas the one who has sacrificed himself, his name and his honor for humanity. Jesus got the good out of it; he was the positive given image; Judas is the real martyr, the one who not only suffered the Passion of Christ, but is still and will always suffer the condemnation for having saved humanity from sin.
It is very similar the interpretation given in Martin Scorsese’s motion picture The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), an adaption of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel of the same name. Here, Judas is characterized as the one who has the will, the strength, the decision and the power to act. Jesus is weak: he doubts and suffers. That is why he needs Judas to be the heavy hand who keeps him on his tracks. Jesus is scared of what he has to do, so he needs Judas’ company, his support and his constant pressure for being able to accomplish what he must do. Following what would be found in the Gospel of Judas, it is Jesus who directly asks Judas to betray him. Judas has the power that has not been given to Jesus: Jesus is just the sheep to be sacrificed for humanity; Judas must be the hand that makes the sacrifice, he is the one responsible. But he not only sacrifices Jesus in the cross; he sacrifices his own name and pride in order to save that of his Master. Somehow Judas is not God’s scapegoat anymore; he is the Atonement’s main character.
Carl Gustav Jung’s psychoanalytical hypothesis of the “achievement of the Shadow” is strongly connected with this martyr conception of Judas. The “achievement of the Shadow” means that a man understands that there is more to him than what he perceives consciously and this way he is able to confront this deep dark instinct inside of him and take the responsibility for the actions that he is “destined” to do. He then will be capable of accomplishing what is expected of him. “Achieving the Shadow” will let a man come in peace with himself, cope with the reality that he has to face and have the possibility of finding a kingdom that it is not of this world. In relation to Judas, this can be seen as he arrived to the point of being able to understand that he had a horrible deed that he had to carry out: the betrayal of his beloved Master. He, then, accepted this unconscious reality superior to his will (such as Jesus did with his) and carried it out as he was expected to, despite the horrible physical consequences that it would bring to him and to Jesus, in the hope that he would be able to come in peace with himself, with his responsibilities and with God.
The problem that comes with the study of the character of Judas and his moral values throughout the ages and through the different currents of thought is that, despite the canonization that has been done by the Christian Churches which intends to transform the actors in their book (the New Testament) into historical and static people, the fact of the matter is that Judas Iscariot is a literary myth as any other (be it Hercules, Don Juan or Faustus), and should be seen as such. Characters change and transform depending on the traditions and of the emotional necessities of a given social group. Some myths are born with the intention of being good characters, some of being evil but, following Bertrand Russell’s above said theory of “subjective value”, there is no possible way of defining anything with an objective ethical value because this is not a fact intrinsic to the exterior object but just a subjective value given by an individual’s mind. Man gives moral judgments as if the ethical principle of the universe was in sync with his own personal opinions and that is how he judges something or someone as good or evil. But it is impossible for every social group of every age to agree in a moral judgment and even more if it is of a fictional or mythicized character such as Judas. For this reason, it is best to go with morals as it is done with tastes: Suum cuique, says Cicero.
BIBLIA DE JERUSALÉN, Alianza Editorial, Bilbao 1994. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and Acts of the Apostles in the “New Testament”.
ACOCELLA, J. “Should we hate Judas Iscariot?” in “The New Yorker”, August 3, 2006, New York 2006, pp. 68-69.
ALIGHIERI, D., Commedia: Inferno, edition and translation by Ángel Crespo, Seix Barral, Barcelona 2004, pp. 377-387.
ANONYMOUS, “The Gospel of Judas”, edited and translated by Kasser, Meyer and Wurst for The National Geographic Society, 2006.
BENEDICT XVI, “Speech presenting Judas Iscariot”, 18th of October 2006. Published by Innovative Media, 2006. http://www.zenit.org/article-21452?l=spanish.
BORGES, J. L., “Tres versiones de Judas” in Ficciones, Oveja Negra, Bogotá 1984.
— “La Secta de los Treinta” in El libro de arena, Alianza Editorial, Madrid 1998.
FEINBERG, J., GEISLER, N., REICHENBACH, B., and PINNOCK, C., Predestination and Free Will: four view of divine sovereignty and human freedom, Inter Varsity Press, Madson 1986.
JEWISON, N. Jesus Christ Superstar, Universal Pictures, 1973, 108 minutes.
JUNG, C. G., “Patrones de conducta y arquetipos” in Arquetipos e inconsciente colectivo”, Ediciones Paidós, Barcelona 2009.
KAYE, J. B., “Preface” to The Trail of Christ in Seven Stages, Sherman, French & Co., Boston, 1909.
KENT, W., “Judas Iscariot” in the Catholic Encyclopedia Vol. 8, Robert Appleton Company, New York 1910. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08539a.htm.
DE QUINCEY, T. “Judas Iscariot” (1852) in Theological Essays and Other Papers: Volume One, Penn State Electronic Classics, 2005.
RUSSELL, B., “Science and Ethics” in Religion and Science, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1961.
SCORSESE, M., The Last Temptation of Christ, Universal Pictures, 1988, 164 minutes.
DE VORAGINE, J., The Golden Legend. “XLV: Of Saint Matthias the Apostle”, Temple Classics, Philadelphia 2004.
 Mark 14:10, 21, 43-46, Luke 22: 3-5, 22, 47-48.
 John 12: 4-7, 13:2, 27.
 The term “orthodox” will be always used in this text in the sense of ‘the traditional or generally accepted rules and beliefs’, and not as the ‘Orthodox Church’.
 Acocella, J. “Should we hate Judas Iscariot?” in “The New Yorker”, August 3, 2006, New York 2006,
 It is not the intention of this text to analyze or defend any position in the debate generated around the discovery of the codex that contained “The Gospel of Judas”; here it is only seen for its sociological and philosophical value, not for its historical validity.
 Anonymous, “The Gospel of Judas”, edited and translated by Kasser, Meyer and Wurst for The National Geographic Society, 2006, p. 56.
 Ibid, pp. 46-47.
 “todo esto ha sucedido para que se cumplan las Escrituras de los profetas” (Matthew 26:56). Similar allusions are made in Mark 14:21, 49, Luke 22:21 and John 18:11.
 De Quincey, T. “Judas Iscariot” (1852) in Theological Essays and Other Papers: Volume One, Penn State Electronic Classics, 2005, p. 105.
 – Borges, J. L., “Tres versiones de Judas” in Ficciones, Oveja Negra, Bogotá 1984, p. 151.
 Jung, C. G., “7. Patrones de conducta y arquetipos” in Arquetipos e inconsciente colectivo, Ediciones Paidós, Barcelona 2009, pp. 230-258.