Who is Judas, according to John? Part 1

This text was traditionally attributed to the author known variously as the “Apostle”, “St. John”, or “John the Evangelist”. It seems that after Pentecost he made his home on the West Coast of Asia Minor and his students compiled this work as well as those given under the name of John in the New Testament, the three Epistles of John and the book of Revelations.

It seems that these are among the latest of the works in the New Testament, and the Gospel of John has a well-known contrast from the other three who are known collectively as the “Synoptic Gospels”, either because they seem more similar or because they see things similarly to each other and thus differently from John. While there are a few details of the story that differ in John, none of these are very important in my view and we shall not focus on them in this work.

The basic background to this story comes out when we consider the recent history of this time. At this Beginning with the life of Jesus, there were differences between the three main factions that we find in the New Testament: “the Jews”, the Romans, and the Christians. Now of course during the life of Jesus, all or most Christians were Hebrew, and all Romans were non-Christian. However, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John this was no longer the case; numerous Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans had accepted Christianity and the divide between Christians and what became known as “the Jews” became wider. In the works of John, we find that Jews and Christians are somewhat enemies. Now of course this has been the case since the earliest written works by Christians, the letters of Paul. Paul’s own backstory is itself part of this violent persecution, and the Gospel of John seeks to tell a story that dramatizes the relations between these three factions. I will comment on this story in the blocks of story given in my own New American Standard Bible.

Judas is an interesting character in this story, and it would be useful to write an entire book on him, especially since there are noncanonical and heretical “Gospels of Judas” that have recently been rediscovered. I will ignore these for the moment. My own interpretation begins with the idea that most of the narrative of this and other Gospels was written as a Christian supplement to the Jewish liturgical readings of the day. Both Jews and Christians (then as now) have a series of readings at various times during the year; for example at one time (the holiday of Shavuot, the Hebrews would celebrate the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, and the early Christians at that same time would supplement the reading of the Mt. Sianai story with the reading of the Beatitudes of the Gospel’s “Sermon on the Mount”. Likewise on passover the Jewish reading is of the original Passover story of the Tenth Plague of Egypt which killed the firstborn. According to my own view the first Christians would read this during that same holiday and supplement it with the Easter story as given in the Gospels, which took place at Passover and elaborated on it. Now Judas was one of the Twelve Apostles who were taught and led by Jesus. Since everything in the New Testament is in our view a recapitulation of something from the Old, it seems to me that this is God’s new version of the Twelve Sons of Israel (Jacob), each of whom were given a part in the Holy Land. The founding of Christianity is meant to be a recapitulation of this. While each Israelite could trace their own descent from one of the sons of Israel, each Christian could trace another sort of descent from one of the Twelve Apostles. A descent not “of the flesh” but one “of the spirit”.1 By this I refer to the idea that the Twelve went out into the world and preached the gospel and founded churches in nations as far away as India (for St. Thomas) and Russia (for St. Andrew). People of that time knew who brought the gospel to their area by what their parents and elders told them. Take for example the author of the Gospel of John, who would have been remembered as the person who brought the Gospel to the area of what we now call Turkey where the cities of Laodicea, Thyatira, Ephesus, et cetera. While we cannot be sure whether the New Testament works assigned to the authorship of John werr actually written by the same person, we can be sure that the authors of these works all traced their apostolic succession to this person and that they were from the general geopraochic region of those paces where John brought the Gospel: Western Asia Minor and the nearby islands such as Patmos. In many cases, the exact locations where the Twelve preached has been lost to us, but at that time people knew and even kept relics to make such claims more concrete and legitimate. So in this sense the Christians were descended not only from their earthly parents according to the flesh but also part of a line of descent form Jesus to the Apostles and to their disciples in succession.2

So we can see that the Twelve Apostles all represented the Twelve Tribes of Christianity, for whom the entire world was the “promised land”, which land of promise and its intended divine regime was referred to as the “Kingdom of Heaven”. Now Judas is unique among the Twelve in that he betrayed Jesus, not merely by denial in word as in the case of Peter’s denial that he knew or followed Jesus, but by Judas’ far more traitorous action of betraying Jesus to his enemies and bringing about his conviction, suffering, and execution.

Judas knew where Jesus would be at the right time, and leads the temple guards there to arrest him. The Gospels seem to imply that this is all part of Jesus’ plan to further God’s salvation history for all humankind, but still we are obviously meant to see this as a betrayal to his enemies and a very bad breach of faith on Judas’ part. There are in fact repeated episodes in this gospel that lead us to think very ill of Judas. For example, the Gospels all claim that he was punished in various ways, and that “it were better for him that he had never been born.”

So granted that Judas is one of the Twelve Disciples, which of the Twelve “Tribes-Nations-Churches” of Christianity does Judas represent? Unless we find that Judas founded a church somewhere where some bishop claimed apostolic authority from Judas, we a should see Judas as the “tribe” of those who rather than accepting and preaching the Gospel, were initially party to its promise, but who then rejected and fought against it. These people are the villains of John’s Gospel and they use their influence with the Romans to kill Jesus. 

This view is supported by the opening of the work where we read:

He [Jesus] came to his own, and those of His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God,, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)

So the new covenant was extended as an invitation to everyone, but one group rejected him. In the present work I will claim that this was what I will call “tribe of Judas”, which usage is not found in the NT but which I will argue follows from the most obvious interpretation of John’s views. This “tribe” was then replaced by another Apostle who was not numbered among the original Twelve: St. Matthias (Acts 1:24-26).3
Curiously, there was another Apostle who as also not one of the Twelve but whose might well claim to be a more suitable replacement for Judas. I say this not to contradict Luke’s testimony in Acts but rather to point out that St. Paul was an inversion of Judas in the following ways:

  1. He was not one of the original, while Judas was.
  2. Judas was the treasurer of the Twelve, while Paul renounced payment in cash but only in room and board.
  3. Paul was a persecuter who then became an Apostle, while Judas was an Apostle who then betrayed Jesus to a violent death.
  4. Judas simply means “Jew”. Of the Apostles, Paul rejected his own Judaism more than any other easpecially in writings such as Romans ch. 6 and 7, where life as a Jew is contrasted with life as a Christian in the same way that life according to the flesh is to life in the spirit.

In the Hellenistic world twelve was considered an auspicious number of members for a group; for example cities formed a “dodecapolis” like the Ionian or Aeolian leagues for mutual defense and free trade.

So in this light we should read that Judas’ actions are to some extent allegorical for the habits and actions of a certain group of people who might be said to follow Judas in the same way that the Seven Churches of Asia follow John or that the churches founded by Paul follow him.4 So what is the nature of this tribe of Judas? Who are they and what do they do? This is what we shall deal with in our next blog post.

1 Note that in Romans ch. 7 and 8, this dualism of flesh vs. spirit maps onto that of Jewish Law vs. Christian “Law”, especially in ch 7:5-7, 14, and 25. All references to spirit vs, flesh in the following chapters should be seen in this light; not in the Platonic sense typical of Western philosophy but rather in terms of the primary conflicts in the Hellenistic Eastern Mediterranean at that time.

2For example, according to early Christian tradition John the Evangelist went to Western Turkey (where the Seven Churches of the Book of Revelations are), and he there preached the Gospels and made many converts. St. Polycarp (who became bishop of Smyrna) was among his disciples, and among his disciples in turn was St. Irenaeus, the author of Against the Heresies, which book has been dated to around A.D. 180, and is an important source of debates among various sects of competing “gospels” being propagated at that time.

3This St. Matthias is not mentioned again in the Bible, but early church authors record that he evangelized first in Cappadocia in Central Turkey and then was martyred in what was to become Armenia, although his mission was not successful and other saints get the credit for Christianizing the Armenians.

4This is not to say that “Paulism” is a separate religion or sect from that of John, only that they are two of the churches founded on the orders of Jesus just as the tribes of Judah and Mannaseh were two tribes with their own territory and descent. My treatment of this topic is only intended to point out the symbolism of the 12 tribes/apostles that would have been readily appraent to the original readers of the NT, which would then throw light on the curious character of Judas.

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