There are basically two types of people in this world: those who think Judas is evil, and those who think he’s the absolute worst villain in the history of humankind. There’s almost no one that thinks Judas was even slightly decent in his betrayal of the Messiah. Jesus would agree. In Matthew 26:24, Jesus says “The Son of Man is to go…but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
Even Judas himself acknowledges that what he did was wrong. Immediately after the betrayal, he runs into the Council, throws the money at the feet of the Chief Priests and elders, and admits, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
Recently, there have been attempts to whitewash his behavior and make it appear less sinful, such as the discovery of the so-called Gospel of Judas. This extremely short “gospel” has Jesus taking Judas to the side and comforting him for his role in the crucifixion story, saying that it’s “all a part of the plan.” If that seems completely bogus to you, know that those who were closer to the time of Jesus than we were viewed it the same way as well. It belongs in the trash.
But just because Judas is 100% at fault for what he did to Jesus, it doesn’t mean that he’s crazy. He had to have some motivation for what he did, or else why did he do it? And why after 3.5 years of “faithfully” standing by Jesus’ side?
Leading Up to Judas’ Betrayal
On the surface, the facts just don’t add up. Before Judas was an Apostle, he was a disciple first, which means he willingly followed Jesus for a time before being called into the inner circle. As an Apostle, however, Judas would have seen countless miracles that were beyond natural explanation (John 3:2), heard teaching that was with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), and even healed and taught others himself (Luke 9:1-6). And then, at the end of those 3.5 years, he waits until Jesus is at the height of His popularity, in the holiest city in Judaism at the most holy feast, to betray Him to people everyone knows is trying to kill Him (John 7:1)?
And he only got 30 pieces of silver for it? You would think a Teacher of Jesus’ popularity would fetch a higher price than that.
But what we do know is that, at least on some level, Judas’ motivation is partly financial. John records rather bluntly that Judas was a “thief” and stole regularly from the group’s collective money box (John 12:6). We can also measure his reaction to the anointing of Jesus that happened immediately before that. Incredulously, Judas asks aloud why Mary didn’t sell the costly perfume for 300 denarii and give to the poor, instead of “wasting it” by dumping it over Jesus’ head (John 12:1-5). If we assume that a piece of silver is worth roughly the same as a denarius in Bible times (an assumption that’s admittedly tenuous, at best), then the price that Judas could have received from selling (and stealing) Mary’s perfume would have been around 10 times higher than what he received from betraying Jesus. No wonder he was so mad.
Possible Motives for Judas’ Betrayal
Financial reasons notwithstanding, Judas had a few other reasons he could’ve chosen to betray Jesus.
- Ignorance: In hindsight, it seems obvious that the Jewish rulers would arrive at the point where they would nail Jesus to a cross, but it has to be remembered that even as late as John 11:47-50, it seems as if they were still uncertain as to what exactly they should do with Him. Indeed, it appears that only Jesus really understood what was going to happen to Him – based on His repeated statements concerning His death – so it’s possible that Judas also didn’t foresee the crucifixion. In that sense, it may have been that Judas simply thought Jesus would be arrested, dragged before a court, and languished in prison for a few days. Who knows, maybe Judas thought that popular approval (that he had just witnessed in Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem) would have won Jesus His freedom. In that scenario, the opportunity to make a few bucks off the event seems like a no-brainer.
- Politics: Judas’ surname has posed a lot of issues. There are some that take “Iscariot” to mean “of Kerioth,” which is in the Southern part of Israel, rather than in Galilee, where the rest of Jesus’ Apostles are from. Alternatively, others propose that “Iscariot” refers to Sicarii, which is a type of dagger associated with Jewish rebels who were violently opposed to Roman occupation (akin to a group that Simon the Zealot might have come from – Luke 6:15). If either (or both) of these are true, Judas’ betrayal might have originated from observing Jesus’ dismissal of a physical Kingdom (Luke 17:20-21). If Judas’ interests in following Jesus were politically motivated, then once it became apparent that Jesus wasn’t going down the route of rebellion, Judas would have had little use for Him. This might also explain why, in his confession to the Priests, he didn’t say “I’ve betrayed God,” but rather, “I’ve betrayed innocent blood.”
- Coup D’Etat: Since most of Jesus’ disciples believed that Jesus would ascend to some kind of a physical throne (Matthew 20:21), what better time for Jesus to do so than after the Passover, in Jerusalem, in front of a mix of both Jewish and Roman military? Perhaps Judas anticipated the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane to go differently: Judas identifies Jesus, the guards move to arrest Him, Jesus overpowers them and leads them to victory over the Roman occupiers. This one is definitely the weakest argument, but it at least contains a smidgeon of possibility.
So Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?
The answer is probably a mix of the above. There’s no doubt that Judas was financially motivated, but you also can’t deny that for a while, Judas had an interest in Jesus for other reasons. The reasons where that changed and why unfortunately died with Judas.
But Judas’ actions do show the power of prophecy. In Zechariah 11:12-13, a shepherd is rejected by his people and given his wages for his “service”: 30 pieces of silver. Furthermore, that “magnificent price” is given to the “potter int he house of the Lord.” The meaning of the thirty pieces is amplified further when you realize that it’s also the exact price of a slave, according to Exodus 21:32. In their mind, the prophet is worth no more than one who performs the most menial form of service.
Somehow, Judas came to view Jesus similarly.Last modified: January 6, 2020