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.

God’s Blessing on Abram in Genesis 12 and the “Jewish Question”.

.

I. Introduction.

The Bible is the most read and most published book in the world by peoples of all nations. In a globalized world, it is clearly the most-global book of scripture. In spite of this there is one factor that might seem to undermine its relevance to most of those who read it: it seems to clearly address itself only to one small group of people in a tiny nation very much unlike ourselves and might not seem to be a good example to us. Furthermore, I have often read the view that this “tribal desert cult” was wrongly converted to an imperial cult in for problematic political purposes. Now rightly viewed almost any Bible story can be seen to clearly contradict this claim, and it is really hard to choose where to start since all of these stories are so anti-imperialist and, in my view, somewhat nationalist in its import. By “nationalist” I do not mean that this story is Zionist or perhaps focused on designating some Master Race chosen by God; rather in my view the message of the Bible seeks to undermine the idea of empire and, by implication, pluralism or multi-culturalism. While we think of these as being uniquely modern, they both have a long history in imperialist politics, and the Bible criticizes them in nearly every book. While any of the Bible stories serves to undermine the imperial idea of multiculturalism, the story of Genesis 12 is as good a place as any.

II. The historical background.

The books of the Bible span many centuries and most scholars date the book of Genesis to the time after the Exile in Persia. Now this time was when the Hebrew nobility with their families and slaves were taken as “hostages” in Babylon. Now this practice was common among ancient empires, dating back to the Assyrians. Even medieval European kingdoms would cement a peace agreement through a marriage or by one side “adopting” a member of the immediate household of one or both of the kings, which adoption was often merely a euphemistic synonym for “hostage”. In the time when Genesis was likely written, the Persians has taken a more significant number of the defeated nation such that it permanently altered the thought and culture of the Hebrews, and that this can be seen in almost all of the Bible (which was written afterward). Now as the Persians and Hebrews became more amicable with each other, the latter gradually began to return to their homeland and to establish what we now call the “Post-Exilic Kingdom”. We can safely assume that not only did a great many return to the land of Israel, but that a great many remained in Babylon. I will also assume that a significant portion also remained in other nations in Asia Africa and Europe, and that these people all thought of themselves as parts of one race or nation and that they conferred with each other either through travel or through the written word. It is my view that much of the Old Testament is a discourse on how people of a single race would make sense of their being divided into many countries or Empires.

A good example of this sort of discourse is found in the immediately preceding chapter, Genesis 11 which contains the story of the “Tower of Babel”. This story really makes very little sense to the modern reader save in light of the political situation described above. We know that the great empires of the ancient world very often had the effect of establishing a lingua franca or “common tongue” that people used within Empires regardless of the local languages. The most obvious example of this is the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s Empire made Greek the unifying language of everyone from Greece, to Egypt, to Afghanistan. Long after the demise of this empire, Greek continued to be the lingua franca for the Roman Empire and many books of the Bible are written in it. Thus we may take it as established that the reality of a unified imperial language in an Empire was well known to the authors of the Bible. Given this, it seems that the most likely interpretation of the story of the Tower of Babel is that it is reminding the people of God that Empires are temporary institutions not recognized under God’s law, and that once they fall apart under God’s judgement, then people will once again have separate nations, languages and cultures. It is our view that the following chapter of Genesis will elaborate on this theme of coming out of the Empire and back to the land.

III. The First Promise of God to Abram.

Chapter 12 contains as it main theme the first promise of God to Abram. The second promise comes much later after making the Covenant of Circumcision. In this chapter, all we have is the promise othat God will give to Abram a new land in the west which was currently occupied by other nations. The steps in this chapter’s narrative are as follows:

In verse one, God simply commands Abram to leave his country and go somewhere else “to the land which I will show you”. We do not often focus on how strange this is as an origin myth. In my view, the crucial feature of this can be seen in opposition to the idea of “autocthony”. Every nation has an origin myth, and this is especially true of pre-modern nations. While the origin myths of near-Eastern peoples known the Biblical authors may be in doubt, it is well attested that other nearby cultures considered themselves “authothonous” in the sense that their founders were alleged to have “sprung from the earth” (“autochthones” from Ancient Greek αὐτός autos “self,” and χθών chthon “soil”; i.e. “people sprung from earth itself”). Of course, we know that the Greek people were not native to their lands, as can be seen from their own writings and the fact that their place-names are rarely Greek or even Indo-European. Now the Biblical origin myth for the Israelites differs from this is openly admitting that they were not sprung from the Earth, and that the people who gave their name to Canaan land were almost completely slaughtered by the ancestors of the people for whom the Bible was written. This feature make it all the more relevant to us today, who know that there is not a single group of people alive who are autocthonous but that we are all conquerors who should openly admit this fact. This theme is not local to Genesis, but rather is consistently maintained through to the end. Arguably, the main thrust of the Bible is to inspire its readers to be worthy of the sacrifices of these conquerors. This applies just as much to the Christians. Take for example Paul’s telling of the tale of the “cloud of witnesses” – past heroes of faith who should inspire the faithful of his day:

By faith the wall of Jericho fell down after they ha been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. (Hebrews 11:30-34)

Thus it makes sense that, far from renouncing the conquests of great heroes of old, Paul accepts that the people of his generation should accept their own place in a lineage of conquerors whose only title to land is derived from the fact of conquest by just war. Of course, the Bible is notoriously silent on what exactly a just war is, so we shall leave this topic to the side for the time being. While it is clear that God’s people have many other things to do besides conquering territory and founding nations, it is also clear that such warfare is “on the table”, by which we mean that God has revealed to us that he has, as a matter of fact, told some people to conquer some lands, and this for reasons he has elected to either keep to himself or perhaps to reveal only indirectly in the course of a narrative such as we find in the Bible.

V. God’s blessing and promise.

God’s promises in Genesis 12 come after the command to leave Ur and are as follows:

  1. You shall become a great nation.
  2. You shall be blessed.
  3. You shall have “a great name”.
  4. You shall be “a blessing” (to whom?).
  5. God will:
    1. “Bless those who bless you…”
    2. “Curse those who curse you…”
  6. “To your descendants I will give this land…”

Now these verses are often quoted to the effect that anyone who criticizes Israel and or modern Jewry are in effect contradicting the revealed Word of God. I shall disagree with this, but rather shall not focus on this issue here; however my interpretation for which I argue will clearly tell against this charge. For God has on numerous occasions punished or threatened to punish the children of Abram for not keeping up their part in the covenant.

V. The First Sojourn in Egypt.

It’s interesting to note that immediately after God’s first revelation concerning the “Promised Land”, Abram immediately goes somewhere else. Now this in itself is not obviously wrong; for “To every thing there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”, and this applies to conquest no less than planting and reaping crops. However, it will be come clear that Abram’s detour is rather his going against God’s plan. Thus it fits perfectly a consistent design pattern of Biblical narrative:

  1. God reveals his will by giving commandments or making a covenant with someone.
  2. They accept the terms.
  3. Then immediately they decide on an alternative plan of action that “seems right in their eyes”. (This turn of phrase is a signal from the Hebrew author that this character is getting ready to make a mistake and rebel against God’s will as found in step #1 above.
  4. Then the people to whom God gave his will or command then suffer the consequences of their actions.
  5. Return to #1 and repeat..

While the Fall of Adam and Eve is clearly the prototype of this design pattern, many other Biblical narratives follow this as well: Cain and Abel, Noah, the Tower of Babel, and of course the present story, where Abram leaves the Promised Land and goes somewhere else. The Bible of course makes it clear that doing so was not obviously wrong (i.e. the famine), but even so this diversion leads directly to trouble. In this case, those living in another country/empire were faced with a choice of either one of these two options:

1) Accept a subordinate position to the natives – e.g. being slaves or an underclass as we find in the Exodus narrative.

2) Brokering a unearned position of power – blending into the native ruling class by deception and deriving weath and security therefrom.

It is clear that Abram chooses the latter (12:12-15). He deceives the native rulers by presenting his wife as his sister. This puts one of his people “on the inside”, and it is clear that she manages to greatly benefit her people on th outside with a lot of wealth and security. (12:16) In our view, this part of the story is not merely a tale of legend or historical detail, but is also directed at the people living abroad in other empires during ancient times. If we are correct, even at this early period, there were many Hebrews who have already adopted that way of life that many now allege to be the dominant one for those whom we now call “the Jews”; that of living in other people’s countries and negotiating with their governments for various preferential policies and considerations.

That this strategy is against God’s will is clear from the fact that it brings plagues upon Egypt (12:17-19), and somehow it become clear to Pharaoh that Abram has lied to him and that this is the cause of the plagues. As a result, Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews out of the country. This is the very first time in any literature that the children of Abraham (in the person of their ancestor Abram) were expelled from a country. The acknowledged fact of the matter is that those who we now called “the Jews” have, uniquely among all nations, such a history of being expelled from other lands not their own. And it is curious that in the Bible itself the cause of this very first expulsion is due to Abram lying to the natives of that land in order to become wealthy there. Now of course, the tone of the Bible is not so bitter and nasty as what we find in so many latter writings “against the Jews”, on the contrary, this is written by Hebrews for Hebrews telling them to return to their homeland and not do that which only “seems right” but which alone will fulfill God’s promise to them.

Conclusion

Of course this is not the end of the story; we have not at all dealt with the radical “plot twists” of the later Prophets and the Gospel. But any interpretation of these latter writings cannot stand to ignore the historical context of that we discuss above. Just as the first sin of Adam is meant to be the prototype of all further sins, and the salvation of Noah from the Flood the prototype of all future instances of salvation, so also in our view this first Sojourn in Egypt is meant to be the prototype of all future sojourns in other empires down to the present day. In our view, only this context can make sense of the mission of the Gospel with respect to “the Jews” and “the Gentiles”. We shall return to this topic in another work soon. In the meantime, I am eager to hear any criticisms you may have, since I am only too aware of my inexperience in Biblical studies, and I know that my views are unorthodox among modern scholars, however, I think that I am more in tune with the bulk of interpretation in pre-modern times. If you disagree, please let me know in the comments below. Thanks!