The question is not why Judas betrayed God, but why God betrayed Judas.
In “the plan” that God is alleged to have put into motion with Jesus, He is said to have sent “His only begotten son” to be sacrificed on behalf of humanity; i.e. salvation. But this bids the question, why did Jesus have to be sacrificed? In the narrative structure of the Bible the implication is that Jesus was being sacrificed to atone for original sin, the violation of God’s command and betrayal of His trust by Eve and Adam when they ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. These are otherwise and utterly unrelated events, ones which do not seemingly correspond to those who are not familiar with modern theology. And if you think that seems a bit odd, the Old Testament is replete with story after story of sin and the subsequent demand for sacrifice under threat of God’s furious wrath.
There are rewards from the Almighty, but they are few and only given after the most extreme of tortures: Allowing Abraham to release Isaac from the human sacrifice demanded by God. The Promised Land to the Israelites after forty years in the wilderness for violating God’s command. Prosperity and family to Job after the destruction of his entire life and well-being in a bet between God and Satan (in the original “Devil”). This God regularly meddles in the lives and happenings of His followers, like a god in Greek mythology or an especially petulant teenager. He tests their loyalty to Him and Him alone, jealously punishing all who worship other deities “before [Him]” or who simply disobey his every command — mercilessly turning Lot’s wife to a pillar of salt for violating his command to not look back in their flight from the destruction of Sodom, a mundane and very natural reaction to having a city destroyed at your back.
And yet it is humanity which is held responsible for original sin. The very same humanity which was created unbidden by this God in “His image” and who are given the freedom to make incorrect decisions at the cost of utter damnation. It is difficult to fathom the idea of creating mortal beings and requiring them to follow rules put down by an immortal being in a world created by one particularly sensitive immortal being which may actually lie within a larger universe of immortals… Perhaps this is more like the way in which we treat breeding among domesticated animals, we the gods and they the mere mortals. But imagine if the dairy farmer suddenly took offense to a cluster of milk-cows and tests them to see if they return to their barn — while crossing a life-fire obstacle course. For those who make it through, only a life a near-luxury awaits them — but those who go refuse to cross the course or who are simply incapable are shots. Those still alive afterward are butchered alive to feed an appetite for “beef sashimi.”
So, out of mercy and grace, God delivered His son to be killed, whose sacrifice would cleanse humanity from the stain of original sin and permit them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, saved from eternal damnation. What makes this sacrifice more poignant is the alleged supernatural character of Jesus, who is both “the son of God” and God-incarnate. The doctrine is not confused on the question of whether or not Jesus was God or just a man, it’s just that the question was relevant until a council of men decided by consensus that Jesus was divine. The decision was made not to a concern regarding doctrine, but in order to address political concerns put into motion by the Roman emperor, whose own relationship with Christianity and its god had only recently been forged in the midst of civil war. It’s not hard to see a connection between winning a civil war and likewise pushing society to a consensus of opinions regarding ultimate authority, helping ensure future unity and thus the integrity of authority from the top. Indeed, the council which decided the matter was called together to action by the victor and Roman emperor Constantine, whose interests were inherently sociopolitical. This would be the equivalent of the President of the United States ordering a council of religious leaders across the country to form a polyglot American religion made up of the disparate philosophies of the most prevalent or most well-connected religious communities in the country; thus we have the Roman Catholic church, Roman for the Roman empire — or more accurately, for the Roman emperor. Christianity was thenceforth used as the unifying power in the Roman empire because of the top-down approach of both Roman and Church authorities, a distinction that would become increasingly vague.
Why did God send Jesus to be sacrificed on our behalf? It was allegedly to save humanity from its own sinful nature, but consider the situation humanity is in — or more precisely, the situation into which God thrust humanity: He created them without asking Himself if it would be responsible to do so; put them in a garden populated by, among other things, an enchanted serpent capable of psychological manipulation; kicks them out of the garden when they make a single mistake; mercilessly tests and punishes their descendants like a paranoid lover; and then, out of the blue, sends someone alleged to be His son to die on our behalf. Does that sound fair — or even make sense — to you? To me, that does not sound like grace or mercy. If we continue with the ‘paranoid lover’ metaphor, it’s as if God, after years of delusions and violent outbursts, suddenly realized how immature He had been acting all along. But still incapable of coming fully to terms with His own sins, God initiates a plan of psychological and emotional manipulation aimed at drawing humanity ever closer to Him: a sacrifice. So now imagine that the paranoid lover says to you, “I’ve decided to kill our child as a way of showing you how truly sorry I am and how much I love you.”
You can imagine the crazy grin, the half-laugh/half-cry that follows, and the inevitable, “See how much I love you?”
Kill your kid to show me how sorry you are?
To show me how much you love me?
That’s not grace, that’s not mercy — that is madness! Unmitigated madness. Such a person would be imprisoned or hospitalized, and would very much need the inherent around-the-clock surveillance and/or care such facilities provide. Such a person is neither stable nor safe to be around without a great deal of treatment.
We now return to the matter of Judas “Iscariot,” the apostle who betrayed Jesus to the authorities who in turn executed Jesus and thus, it is alleged, unwittingly fulfilled God’s plan. It stands to reason that God knew Judas would betray Jesus; otherwise God’s plan for humanity’s “salvation” does not work. It is fair to assume that perhaps God did not settle on His plan until some point during Jesus’ lifetime, specifically when He (Jesus) was baptized by John the Baptist, who himself is alleged to have witnessed the Holy Spirit descending from the heavens and God’s voice declaring Jesus to be His son. This has the side effect of more-or-less negating some, if not all of the Christmas Nativity story — though that story is of doubtful historicity and of questionable relevance to the teachings of Jesus. The Nativity story is most likely a later addition meant to demonstrate the divine nature of Jesus, a convention used, for example, in ancient propaganda to mark the life, birth, or death of a particularly important person such as a Roman emperor, but likewise used for the biographies of mythological and legendary figures. It’s a Roman addition to the narrative, no doubt intended to appeal to potential converts among Roman pagans, and therefore must be dated to sometime after the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
So what are we left with? In the canonical gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, we have the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection tells us little about Judas and his place in the Almighty’s plans. Has Jesus forgiven Judas? Can Judas ever be saved? All we have in the latter portion of the gospels is that Judas was replaced by Matthias among the Twelve, and this we are told from the Acts of the Apostles, not itself a gospel so much as a history.
It is in the ministry and death of Jesus that we find something about Judas. In Mark he betrays Jesus to the authorities in Jerusalem and is offered money for doing so, which has led many to assume that greed is at the core of Judas’ motivations. Interestingly, John does not attribute avarice among the reasons for Judas’ betrayal; the Gospels of John and Luke both attribute the work of Satan, who possessed Judas and acted through him. The Gospel of Matthew alone attributes greed to Judas’ decision to betray Jesus to the Sanhedrin, which may be attributed to (or an inference) the connection between the Apostle Matthew and tax-collecting. To me — and I could very well be wrong — the varying narratives of the betrayal ring of a community attempting to rationalize a traumatic event. The betrayal of all they believed in and fought for by one among their number! How could one of the hand-picked twelve disciples of Jesus betray their Lord and Savior, the Messiah, God’s son? For the ones who recalled those early days, the question was even more poignant: how could their friend betray them…?
Based purely on their presumed date of composition, Mark has traditionally been seen as the oldest of the four canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke in particular taking after the narrative in Mark. Mark is noteworthy as the only gospel to give no clear motivation for Judas’ betrayal, and as the earliest I am tempted to give it power of primacy. All we have from the Gospel of Mark is that Judas betrayed Jesus, for which the temple authorities in Jerusalem were willing to pay him, though there is no indication of what becomes of Judas afterward. His premature death seems likely, but by what means or by whose hand remains uncertain; but what does seem certain is that after betraying Jesus he had no further meaningful contact with the other eleven apostles. Did he ever explain himself to them? The narratives preserved in the canonical gospels seem to indicate that he did not, and that as a result, later members of the Christian community rationalized Judas’ betrayal in one way or another; thus the respective narratives in Matthew and Luke. The fact that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest and notably silent on the matter, it seems evident that Judas’ motivations remain as mysterious to us as they were to the other eleven in Jesus’ day.
But Jesus knew of the betrayal and expected it. Is this just divine omniscience, or is there more to the matter? If we accept that Judas’ betrayal was “the plan” all along, could it be that this plan originated not with some supernatural entity, but in the minds of Jesus and his closest followers? It was understood by them, in some form, that Jesus was a fulfillment of prophecy which predicted the coming of the Messiah, but only a few seemed to have understood — based on their reactions to his death — that their teacher’s annihilation would be required to fulfill prophecy and the promise of salvation. Was Judas among these few “in the know”? Were the Twelve all part of this plot, or just as Jesus had handpicked them, so had he also handpicked Judas for the thankless task of betraying the son of God?
Leaving aside reasoning based on the powers of an unknowable supernatural being, if Jesus knew that he must be martyred in order to fulfill God’s promise of salvation (and his place as God’s son), then it stands to reason that he likewise knew that someone must betray him. Why could a third party or a minor follower not tasked with this unhappy chore? Jesus might naturally gravitate to a member of his inner circle because of the close personal relationship he had forged with them, one in which he could trust and confide — these were stable relationships, and therefore could be relied upon to follow through. This leads me to believe that Judas was, in fact, commissioned by Jesus himself to betray him to the Jerusalem authorities and ultimately the Romans.
There is one other reason that a member of his inner circle was ideally suited to the task of betrayal: It was only these members who knew the secret teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Secret teachings — or mysteries, as they are known in Classical scholarship — was doctrine shared by a leader with his followers which promised some form of salvation from the woes and misery of mortal life. Contemporary teachings, or mystery cults, included the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Dionysos, all of which share the Roman east as their birthplace. Jesus and his teachings fall into this same category, he himself coming from a Jewish/Palestinian background, where Egyptian, Anatolian, and Greek backgrounds were the origins of the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Dionysos, respectively. Thus fitting with the theme of mystery cults then present across the Hellenistic world, the numerous names of contemporary Jewish sects present in the New Testament (e.g. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes) can and should likewise be understood in a similar context. Christianity was just the most successful of a series of such sects.
Unlike many of the other mystery cults, we know the secret teachings of Jesus; they are preserved for us in the New Testament: Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, and son of God. Jesus was the fulfillment of ancient Hebrew prophecy, the sign of a new beginning as much as the end to the old order. In betraying Jesus, Judas did not simply tell the authorities where his rabbi could be found; he revealed to them the truth of Jesus as he understood it — as he was told it by Jesus himself. Claiming to be the son of God was among the highest orders of blasphemy as it implied the destruction of standing Jewish authority, which was itself already poised on the razor’s edge of chaos while under the supervision of Romans possessing little patience for internal squabbles in such backwater provinces at Judea. If the authority of the Temple could be questioned, it could be dismantled, and disaster was expected to follow were that authority dismantled. Imagine the alarm felt by the priests and scribes hearing Jesus declare that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Leave aside the metaphor to his own body — which we with hindsight can see clearly — and you might understand the joy with which they greeted a member of this troublemaker’s inner circle offering to turn him over to them. If Jesus was indeed at that time acclaimed “King of the Jews,” then the alarm would have risen to a sheer wail as such an appellation invited further violence from Romans, who would never tolerate an upstart kingdom, and the consequent civil war. To use a Tacitean expression, the Romans in Palestine would rather make a desert and call it peace than deal with more troubles. If Judas betrayed Jesus based on Jesus’ secret teachings, this would explain why the priests decry his blasphemy, but when turning him over to Pilate — i.e. civil authority — they relate only the political concerns regarding his supposed acclimation to be king as the grounds for prosecution.
Judas betrayed Jesus in order to fulfill prophecy. Without the betrayal, there would be no crucifixion and ultimately no salvation. I have purposefully avoided the question of resurrection because many of our earliest sources, such as the Gospel of Thomas, contain nothing regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Even the Gospel of Mark, our earliest canonical gospel, appears to have originally terminated at 16:8 with the angels appearing to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome to declare the resurrection before departing, leaving the women in fear who in turn flee. The Gospel of Mark ends eerily:
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
So I have decided to leave the question of resurrection aside, for it is first dubious and second inexplicable; how can one reasonably state the intentions and happenings of the supernatural, nor can one verify the accounts of others, so it is not worth our time at present. What we are concerned with is the fact that Jesus’ contemporaries and followers thought about salvation. Jesus’ death and resurrection were evidently a surprise despite Jesus’ multiple “warnings” of his coming fate.
Can we therefore accept that Jesus and Judas were truly at the heart of the plan? One might say that when Jesus decries the one who will betray “the son of man” (himself), he is referring to eternal condemnation and damnation awaiting Judas. But what of this? Jesus earlier in the Gospel of Mark predicts his own torture and execution; why should he not also predict the misery of the one who betrays him? There is nothing in his statement to indicate that he is actually opposed to the betrayal; it is only a statement of fact, just as his death is only a statement of fact. We might infer that Judas was meant to suffer as Jesus would suffer, bringing to mind Judas’ vision of being pursued and stoned to death by the other apostles contained within the Gospel of Judas. This is unlikely to be historical, but the very fact that a tradition of apologia for Judas existed in the latter part of the 2nd century CE may indicate that early Christians struggled with this matter — just as Christians of the 1st century CE sought to rationalize Judas’ motivations as being driven by either greed and the supernatural (the devil).
If Judas and Jesus are indeed historical figures, then I am led to believe that the sacrifice committed for the salvation of humanity was not committed by one man alone, but by two. Judas acted and died for his necessary betrayal of Jesus. Jesus in turn acted and suffered in order to fulfill his necessary death. It is a great shame that Judas has become synonymous with the worst of sins, for in many ways he deserves the appellation of “saint” as his eleven fellows received from the Church — and just as Judas had been designated a throne in Heaven alongside the other eleven.