Jesus OriginsDiscovering the original Christianity
Judas Iscariot: Did he exist?
(And why he is a pot.)
There has always been a fascination with Judas, the betrayer.
In the New Testament Gospels, Judas is one of Jesus’ inner circle of twelve disciples. He goes to the priests and offers to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. The priests send him with a group of armed men to arrest Jesus. He goes up to his teacher and marks him out with a kiss, the standard form of greeting. Jesus is arrested, put on trial and crucified. Judas is filled with remorse. He throws the thirty pieces of silver into the temple and hangs himself.
Many Christians have seen Judas’ betrayal as part of God’s plan. At the last supper in the gospels, Jesus tells Judas to do what he must. Some early gnostic Christians even wrote a “Gospel of Judas”, which was only rediscovered and published in 2006. It was widely regarded as claiming that Judas was Jesus’ most faithful disciple and that Jesus had appointed him to do what must be done. But the Gospel of Judas is relatively late and does not help us to understand the real Judas.
There is a more fundamental question—did Judas even exist?
Much of his story is odd. Consider that kiss in the earliest source, the Gospel of Mark:
Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is he. Take him and lead him away under guard.” And having arrived, he went immediately up to him and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him. (Mark 14:44-5)
What does Judas’ betrayal amount to? Nothing, basically. According to the gospels, Jesus was a well-known figure going about in public every day. The priests could have arrested him at any time. He is now in a lonely place at night but still accompanied by a large and noisy crowd of followers. The priests don’t need Judas to find or identify Jesus.
What the priests would have needed was testimony. Someone to dish the dirt. But Judas does not testify against Jesus in either of his trials. He betrays Jesus with nothing more than a symbolic kiss.
Something is going on here that we are not being told. Judas betrays Jesus – the word used for “betray” actually means to “hand over”. But why does Judas possess this power to hand Jesus over for execution? Isn’t he supposed to be just a disciple?
Judas did not exist as a real person – he is a satirical character intended to represent the court and priests of Judah.
This is the conclusion from analysing the stories about Judas. If we place them in the time frame of King Ahaz of Judah c.732 BC then everything fits perfectly. At this date, Ahaz paid a large tribute to the Assyrian king to invade the sister kingdom of Israel. As a result of this intervention, Israel was utterly destroyed, its people exiled.
Israel and Judah were one people divided into two nations. The handing over of Israel to the Assyrians was the real Judas betrayal.
How do we know this? Because almost everything about Judas from the New Testament fits into this picture.
Let us start with the name.
“Judas” means Judah
The meaning of Judas is not in doubt—it is the same as “Judah”. Apart from the listing of his name among the disciples, Judas only appears in Mark in the story of the betrayal. Judas is described in a way which shows that he is intended to indicate the tribe, and hence kingdom, of Judah:
“And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the chief priests …” (Mark 14:10)
“It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” (Mark 14:20)
“… while he was yet speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, approached …” (Mark 14:43)
At every appearance of Judas, he is called “one of the twelve”. This is not a common phrase in Mark, and no other disciple is ever described as “one of the twelve”. So why is Judas called this three times within twenty-four lines? Because Judas was not originally one of the twelve disciples (a real group) but one of the twelve tribes of Israel.
The Jews were divided into these twelve tribes. Judah and its satellite Benjamin formed the kingdom of Judah with its capital of Jerusalem. The other ten tribes made up the kingdom of Israel.
“Iscariot” indicates Jerusalem
Judas is a common name, but Iscariot is very rare. The only other Iscariot we know about is Simon Iscariot, supposedly Judas’ father. The only source for this is the Gospel of John which was written around 100 AD. It would be odd for a Jewish man to bear the same name as his father. Most likely, the author of John knows of a “Judas, son of Simon”, for they were common names, and has confused this person with the Iscariot.
One popular explanation of Iscariot was that the name came from the Latin sicarius meaning dagger-man. If so, then Judas would have been one of the notorious Sicarii assassins who resisted Roman occupation. What could better fit the traditional picture of Judas? He was an assassin, a man of violence, who rebelled against Jesus’ gospel of peace. But it has no basis in truth. The Sicarii did not even exist at this time.
The name is now generally accepted to have come from “ish qiryah”. Traditionally this has been interpreted as “man of Kerioth”, and there is a place called Kerioth-Hezron mentioned at Joshua 15:25. But Kerioth actually means “town” or “city”, and the place mentioned in Joshua would seem to have been called Hezron.
The most likely entomology is that suggested by Gunther Schwarz—Iscariot means “man of the city”. He came to this conclusion from studying the Jewish Targum, in which he found that a closely related term meaning “men of the city” is used frequently. Kerioth, “the city”, was a common expression for Jerusalem.
So “Judas Iscariot” means “Judah, man of the city (Jerusalem)”. This conflicts with the scholarly consensus of the historical Jesus. The purpose of a second name was to distinguish people at a time when they did not have surnames. But how could anyone be distinguished by saying they came from “the city”? The capital was completely dominant within first-century Judea, so it made no sense to say that someone came from Jerusalem.
But then Judas Iscariot was not a disciple. It is a made-up name representing the kingdom of Judah and the elites of Jerusalem. At the time, the people who lived in the city were those in the king’s court, the priestly temple hierarchy, and the artisans and merchants who served them. Judas Iscariot represents this elite group who would have been despised by the people of Israel and by the ordinary farmers of Judah.
In prophetic writing, a character such as Judas represents a group
It is a mistake to think that biblical prophecy related to the future. Prophecy is difficult, especially when it is about the future. The few surviving prophecies that were genuine predictions of future events go hilariously wrong.
Literary prophecy, such as that in the scriptures, was a way of analysing the causes of past events by showing God’s hidden purpose. The analysis was usually political and highly biased against the opposing group. The writer of the prophecy would place the words back in time to a prophet living before or during the event. The first readers would know that this was just a literary convention. But those who lived hundreds of years afterwards believed that it was a genuine miraculous prediction of the future.
The first prophets of Israel enacted their prophecies like pieces of performance art. When people began to write things down, they followed a similar tradition of enactment. They often invent characters and have them carry out actions that illustrate the prophecy. The characters would be given a name that told the audience which faction or group that character represented.
Immanuel (“God is with us”) represents those in Judah who the author saw as being faithful to Yahweh.
Maher-shalal-hash-baz (“Swift is booty, speedy is prey”) are the opposing faction who had taken to pro-Assyrian ways and who are doomed.
Shear-jashub (“a remnant shall return”) represents those who are faithful and who will return after the exile.
Gomer (“consummate”), the unfaithful wife whose name alludes to both her sexual skills and the end of Israel. Her father’s name is an allusion to the sweet cake offerings to the goddess and a woman’s breasts. Gomer represented those who had strayed from Yahweh to the promiscuous worship of other gods.
Her children are Jezreel (the city where an infamous massacre took place), Lo-Ruhamah (“no mercy”), and Lo-ammi (“not my people”).
All these characters are presented as if they were real people, and they have been believed to be real by countless readers over the ages, right down to the present day. Judas Iscariot and perhaps even Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) are of the same type.
Judas Iscariot follows the phrase “Judah and Jerusalem” for the kingdom of Judah
It was normal in prophecy written around the exile to call the kingdom of Judah either “Judah and Jerusalem” or “Jerusalem and Judah”. Both forms are used repeatedly in First Isaiah. A couple of examples:
For Jerusalem has stumbled, and Judah has fallen, For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom… (Isaiah 3:8-9)
And now, dweller in Jerusalem and man of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. (Isaiah 5:3)
Not only is the parable addressed to those of Jerusalem and Judah, but the phrase “man of Judah” is very similar in form to “Iscariot”, “man of the city”. (Translations will invariably have “men of Judah”, but the literal sense is singular.)
The suicide of Judas is the destruction of the kingdom of Judah
How does the suicide of Judas fit in with his picture? A little over a hundred years after the destruction of Israel, Judah fell to the Babylonians. Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, sharing many aspects of culture with Assyria. The Jews saw Babylon as the continuation of Assyria. Ahaz’s meddling had secured Assyrian intervention into the affairs of the Jews, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of Judah as well as Israel. So “Judah and Jerusalem” brought about its own death by a betrayal.
In Mark, we hear nothing more about Judas after he betrays Jesus. But in Matthew, Judas is remorseful and attempts to return the thirty pieces of silver the priests have paid him.
Then when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he regretted it and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned having betrayed innocent blood.”
They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”
And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he left and went and hanged himself.
And the chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury since it is the price of blood.” And they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field for a burial place for strangers. Therefore, the field is called the Field of Blood to this day.
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him who had been valued, whom they the children of Israel did price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Matthew 27:3-10)
The account is strange and raises several questions:
- Why does Judas pay back the money into the temple? This shows ambiguity over the direction of the money. Did Judas receive the silver or pay it out? But how could Judas betray Jesus by making a payment?
- Why would the priests buy a field with the thirty pieces of silver? The amount, the price of a gored slave, is hardly sufficient. Why not give the money away rather than commemorate Judas?
- And why is it a “potter’s field”? Is this significant?
The only other mention of the death of Judas comes from Acts and is even odder:
Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle, and all his intestines gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is Field of Blood. (Acts 1:18-19)
Although partly based on Matthew, the author of Luke seems to have a different source of information. Judas does not commit suicide. He takes his profits from the betrayal and invests them in a field. But while he is enjoying his field, he falls and “bursts open” so that his guts spill everywhere.
Those who believe in the literal truth of the New Testament have difficulty reconciling the two accounts. Some have proposed an unsavoury scenario where Judas hangs himself from a tree, and his partially decayed body falls down and bursts open. The second-century writer Papias came up with an explanation that Judas was torn apart by the blades on a passing chariot. Yet it is clear from a comparison with other episodes in Acts that a miraculous splitting open is intended.
How can we make sense of these confusing stories? The clue lies in Matthew’s reference to a prophecy.
The prophecy quoted in Matthew is about Ahaz’s betrayal of Israel
Matthew says that the thirty pieces of silver thrown into the temple fulfil a prophecy by Jeremiah, but the prophecy is actually in the Book of Zechariah. This is a composite work, with the prophecy coming from Second Zechariah (chapters 9-14).
The key text is a complex allegory in Zechariah 10-11 concerning shepherds and a “flock of slaughter”. This dates between the exile of Israel and that of Judah. Like all the books of scripture, it has received a later pro-Judean makeover, but it is comparatively light in this case.
In the prophecy, Zechariah acts out the role of the shepherd (Yahweh). He takes up two staffs. One is called Favour, signifying the divine favour of Yahweh; the other is called Union, signifying the bonds between Judah and Israel. There is an enigmatic reference to three shepherds (kings) being cut-off in one month (explained in The Judas War). These kings have angered Yahweh, and he breaks the first staff:
So I said, “I will no longer be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die. What is to perish, let it perish. And let those who remain devour the flesh of each other.” And I took my staff Favour, and I broke it, annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples [ammim]. (Zechariah 11:9-10)
The word used for “peoples” here, ammim, indicates the twelve tribes of Israel rather than the nations. The covenant between Yahweh and the Israelites is broken, and Yahweh renounces his role as shepherd of the flock. This is the critical moment, for it initiates the events which lead to exile. A monetary transaction follows:
Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; and if not, keep them.” And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver. And Yahweh said to me, “Throw it to the potter, the magnificent price at which I was valued by them.” So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter in the house of Yahweh. (Zechariah 11:12-13)
The thirty pieces of silver are the wages of Zechariah/Yahweh to be thrown dismissively into the temple “to the potter”. Immediately after this payment, the other staff is broken:
Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. (Zechariah 11:14)
This shows that the prophecy relates to a time when Israel was still in existence. The breaking of the union between Judah and Israel can only mean the betrayal of Israel by Ahaz. After this break, a new, brutal shepherd is raised:
For behold, I am raising up in the land a shepherd who does not care for those who are cut-off, or seek the young or heal the broken, nor nourish the healthy, but devours the flesh of the plump ones, tearing off even their hoofs. (Zechariah 11:16)
This shepherd is Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king, brought in by Ahaz to conquer Israel. He will feed off the flock, exiling Israel’s people to serve his empire.
We can summarise the allegory:
- The old shepherd is Yahweh.
- The flock of slaughter is Israel.
- The sheep traders are the Jerusalem elite (Judas Iscariot).
- Yahweh breaks his covenant with Israel/Judah due to the actions of their kings.
- The flock (Israel) is bought and sold. Yahweh, the old shepherd, is paid his wages by flinging thirty pieces of silver into the temple.
- The union between Israel and Judah is broken.
- The flock is given to a new shepherd. In human terms, this is Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king. In divine terms, the new shepherd is the angelic king of Assyria and Babylon, better known as “Lucifer”.
Judas’ thirty pieces of silver is an ironic reference to the tribute paid by Ahaz to destroy Israel
Those who buy and sell the flock pay the old shepherd his wage of thirty pieces of silver which is thrown into the temple “for the potter”. These are the Jerusalem court of Ahaz, as represented by Judas Iscariot. Which is why Judas throws thirty of pieces of silver into the temple, which is then used to buy “the potter’s field”.
So who is the potter? He is God, Yahweh. In prophetic literature, people are likened to pots created by Yahweh, the supreme maker. And we will see that one of these prophecies directly relates to Judas.
As for the thirty pieces of silver thrown down as the “wage” of the potter, it is a satirical allusion to the enormous bribe paid by Ahaz to the Assyrian king. The writer employs a technique of ironic reversal:
- Ahaz paid the new shepherd, Tiglath-pileser, an enormous “wage” in gold and silver.
- The “wage” was taken from the temple treasures and paid to the Assyrian king, who was treated with great reverence.
- The old shepherd Yahweh is paid a wage equal to a low slave price.
- His wage is flung down into the temple for the “potter”, a disparaging name for the creator of the universe.
So the thirty pieces of silver allude to the vast bribe paid by Ahaz to betray Israel. It is this transaction that is the buying and selling of the sheep.
Judas the pot
What about the strange story in Acts in which Judas fell down and burst open? It must take place in “the potters’ field”, which gives us the key. The idea of Judas bursting comes from an enacted prophecy in Jeremiah about the coming destruction of Judah and Jerusalem.
Jeremiah is told by Yahweh to visit a potter who he watches make a pot, symbolising how Yahweh has made the house of Israel. Then he is told to buy a pot and take with him the “elders of the people and the elders of the priests” (1 Jeremiah 19:1):
“And go forth to the valley of the son of Hinnom, which is by the entry of the Potsherd gate, and proclaim there the words that I shall tell you.” (Jeremiah 19:2)
The prophet leaves the potter’s house and goes through the Potsherd/Potter’s gate. He would then come to the potter’s field, a rubbish tip where they would discard their broken potshards. It leads to the valley of the son of Hinnom, the notorious Gehenna, the gospel name for hell.
Jeremiah addresses his audience as “kings of Judah, and inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Jeremiah 19:3). Note the similarity with Judas Iscariot, “Judah and man of the city (Jerusalem)”, representing King Ahaz and the court. Jeremiah makes a prophecy that “Judah and Jerusalem” will fall by the hand of their enemies (the Babylonians).
To illustrate their fate, Jeremiah throws down the pot, and it bursts into pieces. Just as Judas falls down in the potters’ field and bursts open.
“Thus said Yahweh of hosts; Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, that cannot be made whole again: and they shall bury them in Tophet, till there be no place to bury.” (Jeremiah 19:11)
Tophet was another name for the valley of the son of Hinnom. The pot represents Judah, and it is shattered in the field to demonstrate the coming destruction. The people of Jerusalem will be buried in this same field. And so, in Matthew, Judas’ field becomes a burial place.
Judas’ betrayal results in Christ’s death in heaven
If the Judas betrayal was the betrayal of Israel by Judah, then why does Judas betray Jesus in the gospels? Christ, in the original myth, was the divine king of all the twelve tribes, both Israel and Judah. The pre-exile Jews believed that all the nations had a heavenly “king”, an angel who represented that nation in heaven. The king of Israel and Judah was not an angel, like the other nations, but the son of the ultimate god.
When the kingdoms of Israel and Judah were destroyed, it made sense to the ancient mind that their heavenly king must have died. He was executed by the angels who represented the nations responsible for the destruction, namely Egypt and, above all, the angelic king of Assyria/Babylon, called Lucifer.
So at the divine level, Ahaz and his court, Judas Iscariot, had betrayed Christ to death.
In summary, there was no disciple Judas Iscariot living in the first century. He is a satirical character from anti-Judean prophetic literature relating to the exile.
- The name Judas Iscariot indicates Judah and Jerusalem, the Jerusalem elite of the kingdom of Judah.
- Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is the betrayal of Israel to the Assyrians by King Ahaz of Judah.
- Judas’ death by suicide (Matthew) or bursting open (Acts) represents the later destruction of Judah by the Babylonians.
- The thirty pieces of silver thrown into the temple by Judas come from Second Zechariah, where the payment it is an ironic allusion to Ahaz’s bribe to the Assyrian king.
- The story of Judas bursting open in his field comes from a prophecy in Jeremiah. The prophet throws down and smashes a pot representing Judah and Jerusalem (Judas Iscariot) in the potter’s field.
- The destruction of the two nations of Israel and Judah on earth corresponds to the death of Christ in heaven. So Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ to death.
(Image AI generated by Midjourney.)
You can read more about Judas in “The Judas War”.