Monday, August 8, 2011

Was Judas a Real Person?

Places like the History Channel and certain liberal theology programs float wild ideas about the Bible and early Christianity. Many good Christians hear these ideas and quietly struggle with them. To ask them aloud seems heretical, but precisely because we're afraid to talk about that, the questions never get answered. So we end up with Christians who are well-educated in all areas but one: on the topic of religion, they only hear the liberal case on a whole litany of issues. What's particularly sad about this situation is that these questions often have simple answers.

It's because of that that I was glad to see Bethanie Ryan's blog. In her most recent post, she asks whether Judas Iscariot could be considered a mere literary device. Some scholars claim that his name means nothing more than  “The Jew from the place,” and that he likely existed as a stock character to represent anti-Judaic sentiment in early Christianity. As evidence, Bethanie offers the following:
This idea is not a new one. Scripture scholars as of late have played with the idea for various reasons. They see that some of the earliest Biblical materials don't mention him (i.e. Paul and the disputed Q). They see some very good reasons to make a character like that up. The one reason that I find to be the most provocative is that Judas draws even more blame away from the Romans. The early Christian church was in a difficult position. They didn't want to emphasize that the Romans killed Jesus because they wanted to be in the Romans' good graces. Rome was already persecuting them, they didn't need to make more barriers between themselves and Rome. They were also very angry at the Jews who had recently kicked them out of the synagogues. So, what better way to deflect blame from the Romans than to blame the Jews for Jesus' death.
Like I said, I'm glad that she's asking the question aloud.  If Judas isn't real, it seems to me that we couldn't trust even basic things about Apostolic Christianity, since at least one of the Twelve Apostles themselves was fake. Fortunately, I think that this theory is answered easily enough:

I. What's the Deal with Judas Iscariot's Name?

Who is this man?
First, on the subject of Judas' name: It's true that the name Judas literally means “Hebrew” or “Jewish,” but it's also an actual name, just like Christian Slater's first name actually means “Christian.”  In fact, while we're on the subject, the last name “Slater” literally means one who splits rocks into pieces.  By this same logic, perhaps we should conclude that the actor isn't an actual person, but an anti-Protestant literary device, since Protestants are the Christians who broke off from the Rock, and have split into countless denominations.

There are two other Judases in the Bible, both of them beloved.  First, there's Judas Maccabeus, the hero of 1 and 2 Maccabees, who was held in high esteem long before Judas the Iscariot soiled the name.  And the Apostle we call St. Jude was actually named “Judas.” This is really clear in John 14:22, when John has to explain that he's talking about the good Judas.  

Nowadays, we call him “Jude” because people felt funny about praying to “St. Judas” (which is also why he's the patron saint of lost causes... by the time you're asking St. Judas for things, things are probably not looking good for you), but the Greek word is Judas.  As for “Iscariot”, Strong's Concordance lists the name's meaning as “inhabitant of Kerioth.” 

This raises a related point: if Judas was a literary device, why in the world would the authors of the Gospels give another character that name?  Are there any examples in literature in which the villain has the same name as one of the heroes?  If there are, I can't think of any, because it's bad writing.  So that's a strong clue that this is real life (Lutheran Satire notes that this is also the case with the countless women named Mary).

II. Did Saint Paul Talk About Judas?

While St. Paul doesn't mention Judas by name, he refers to him pretty clearly in First Corinthians.  Look at 1 Corinthians 11:23, in which he says, “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread...”  The “betrayal” seems like an obvious reference to Judas.  After all, Jesus being persecuted by the Romans or even the Sanhedrin isn't “betrayal,” since they were openly hostile to Him. But Jesus being sold out by one of His own Disciples... that's betrayal.  So as early as the writings of St. Paul, we see reference to the fact that Jesus wasn't just killed, but betrayed.


The passage appears to be part of a formulaic Eucharistic prayer, suggesting that it's older even than First Corinthians itself.  St. Paul also describes it as something he's already taught to the Corinthians, and something which he didn't create “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you.”).

Israeli flag, with the Star of David
A few Chapters later, St. Paul also mentions “the Twelve” in 1 Corinthians 15:5.  If Judas didn't exist, then he obviously wasn't one of the Twelve, and we're one Disciple short.

Both of these references come from 1 Corinthians, which was indisputably written by St. Paul, probably in the 50s A.D. At this point, the Christians hadn't been ejected from the synagogues, so the whole idea that Judas Iscariot was payback for an event which hadn't happened yet falls apart.

But let's go back well before St. Paul.  In Psalm 41:9, we see a prophesy of Judas' betrayal, which Jesus references in John 13:18.  Here's where the anti-Semitic literary device thing completely explodes.  It would be strange for the human author of Psalm 41 to be simply venting his anti-Semitism, because the human author of Psalm 41 is King David.  You may recognize his star on the Israeli flag over there.  He's widely considered the greatest king the Israelites ever had.  You might as well claim that Moses was anti-Semitic. Watch out, Father Abraham, you're next.

III. An Obvious Solution

The reason we hear more about Judas in the Gospels than in the Pauline epistles is that the Gospels are biographies of Jesus' time on Earth (where Judas played a pivotal role), while the Pauline Epistles deal with specific problems facing the early Church (at which point, Judas was already dead - Acts 1:18).

 Likewise, if you were to compare a modern book about World War II, with a book written twenty years ago about the early 90s, you'd probably see certain figures (like FDR or Churchhill) only in the World War II book.  That doesn't mean people didn't know who FDR was twenty years ago (or that FDR is a made up character).  In fact, you might even seem fleeting references to things like the New Deal in the book about the 90s. It's the same situation here. The Gospels, while likely written later, are written about an earlier period of time.

Conclusion

Judas Iscariot's first name actually points to his authenticity, since it'd be awfully strange to give him the same name as the good Judas.  And his last name is pretty boring.  He's also referenced in some of the earliest writings of Christianity.  The major motive to create a Judas Iscariot stock figure -- to get back at Jewish people for ejecting Jewish Christians from the synagogues -- doesn't work, since Judas' betrayal is talked about (and apparently, referenced in the Liturgy), before this ejection even occurs.

So there seems to be no particular reason to think that Judas was made up, and plenty of reason to think that he actually existed.  He's numbered amongst the Twelve, his betrayal is prophesied in the Old Testament, and he's spoken of throughout the Gospels as an actual person, not a character. Jesus says things to him.  Based on the weight of the evidence, I think one has to conclude that Judas existed, and that liberal scholars are grasping at straws on this point.

7 comments:

  1. Great post, Joe. I particularly enjoyed the part of the original post which says, "...because they wanted to be in the Romans' good graces." Really? Someone should have sent Ss. Peter and John that memo before they went referring to it as 'Babylon', that most hated of cities.

    That bit about Christian Slater's name was funny - have you heard that somewhere else, or is it original material? My hats off to you, if the latter!

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  2. Chatto,

    Great point re: Babylon. "Babylon" is not exactly the term of endearment one might expect if the liberal theory were true. And for better or worse, the "Christian Slater" bit was the product of my own brain.

    God bless,

    Joe.

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  3. Is the ending of your post a cliffhanger? :-)

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  4. Otepoti, all I can say is that it's Monday! I've fixed it. Thanks for the heads up.

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  5. In fact, while we're on the subject, the last name “Slater” literally means one who splits rocks into pieces. By this same logic, perhaps we should conclude that the actor isn't an actual person, but an anti-Protestant literary device, since Protestants are the Christians who broke off from the Rock, and have split into countless denominations.

    That gave me a very good laugh on a wearisome Monday. Thank you Joe.

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  6. Thank you very much. You make a number of good points. I'd forgotten about the passage from 1st Corinthians. Apparently the special I saw really was an example of a History Channel special "expert" saying ridiculous stuff. And I have to agree with Brent Stubbs, the Christian Slater analogy was priceless.

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  7. No problem! I glad I could help. I've given up on watching History or Discovery Channel on anything religious. It just gets my blood pressure up because they pack an amazing number of errors into a thirty minute slot.

    I think someone who devoted their time to debunking silly things said about God or the Church on those two channels would have a full-time job on their hands.

    It makes sense, though. Most people aren't watching TV to hear the Gospel. They want controversy! So the folks who make TV programs give it to them, even if they have to ignore the facts to do so.

    God bless, and thanks for sparking a good discussion,

    Joe

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