Judas Iscariot has long been one of the most fascinating characters in the New Testament. As Jesus’betrayer, he has an unequaled notoriety — and rightly so.
Scripture is clear in naming him as the turncoat, but his motivation has long been the subject of speculation. How could anyone knowingly, willingly commit such a horrible act against the innocent Lamb of God, the Savior of the world? Some explanations seem designed to mitigate Judas’ guilt by portraying him as one who was not so much sinister as weak, confused or simply trying to be helpful.
Let’s examine first the main theories, all derived from Scripture.
Theories About Motives
First is the theory that Judas betrayed Jesus because he was greedy for money. All four Gospels point to this as at least a contributing motive.
Matthew’s Gospel is unique in mentioning the 30 pieces of silver as the price Judas was paid for the betrayal (see 26:15). It also is the only account that tells of how Judas later regretted his actions, threw the money back at the chief priests and hanged himself (27:3-5).
Mark and Luke also tell about Judas selling out Christ to the high priests (see Mk 14:10-11; Lk 22:1-6). But Luke offers a new wrinkle: Satan first “entered into Judas” (22:3) before he met with the chief priests and scribes to plot Jesus’ arrest.
John’s Gospel is harshest in its treatment of Judas. It is the only Gospel that names Judas as the one who was outraged at the waste when a woman poured perfume on Jesus’ feet, estimating that it could have been sold for a year’s wages and the money be given to the poor (see Jn 12:1-8).
John also assigns Judas a motive for his objection: “He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions” (12:6). John, like Luke, also mentions Satan’s role in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (13:27).
So, lust for money and the devil’s influence are the clearest reasons given for Judas’ sin in scriptural accounts. He knew the value of a buck, and he was a man who could be bought. His orientation toward greed made him a relatively easy target for Satan. Perhaps the high priests’ reward represented for him “an offer he couldn’t refuse.”
The Gospels also hint at other contributing factors.
In Matthew, for example, Judas always addresses Jesus as “Rabbi,” but never as “Lord.” Some scholars see this as a sign of Judas’ failure to understand Jesus’ identity and saving role.
The designation “Judas [the] Iscariot” appears in more than one Gospel. “Iscariot” may be a conflation of the Hebrew ish Kerioth, or “man from Kerioth,” a town in the southern part of Judea. If so, it has been weakly speculated, Judas was the only non-Galilean among the Twelve and may have felt like the odd man out, an isolation that could conceivably have heightened the temptation to commit treason.
“Iscariot” also closely resembles a Greek word meaning “dagger-bearer.” This would suggest that Judas was a member of the Dagger-Bearers, the most radical arm of the Zealots.
The Zealots believed the Messiah would come as a military leader who would liberate the Jews from their Roman oppressors. The Dagger-Bearers among them were willing to free the Jewish people through what we would regard today as acts of terrorism. This theory holds that Judas was disillusioned by Jesus and believed that having Jesus arrested might force Him to start the revolution.
A Lesson for All
Which theory is correct? No doubt several of these factors, and perhaps others as well, played a role. In his weekly general audience of Oct. 18, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Judas and mentioned some key theories. But, ultimately, he said, Judas’ motives remain a mystery.
The fundamental reality, the Pope noted, is that Judas “yielded to a temptation from the evil one.” He went on to point out a lesson for all believers by noting that as close as Judas was to Jesus, he was not invulnerable to sin.
“It is a mistake,” said Pope Benedict, “to think that the great privilege of living in company with Jesus is enough to make a person holy.
“Jesus does not force our will when He invites us to follow Him along the path of the beatitudes. The only way to avoid the pitfalls that surround us is to give ourselves entirely to Jesus, to enter into full communion with Him, so that we think and act as He did, in total obedience to the Father.”
Gerald Korson writes from Indiana.