"Did Judas Iscariot Exist?" by Bishop John Shelby Spong

Some Christians think John Shelby Spong isn't worth reading, but if William Lane Craig can debate him then he's worthy to read, and he did...

I think the problem with most Christians about Spong is that they wonder to themselves how someone like him can continue to believe even though he debunks the foundations of their evangelical faith, and I agree with them about this. But he presents the results of scholarship on the issues that divide us very well. I recommend his writings. See for yourselves. Here's an excerpt from his book The Sins of Scripture:


I am suspicious of the historicity of Judas Iscariot and of his role in the Christian story as the traitor. That suspicion has been created by five easily identifiable, documentable facts.

First, a careful reading of the New Testament reveals the not-fuIly suppressed memory of a man named Judas, in the inner circle of Jesus' disciples, who was not evil and who was not a traitor. In the Fourth Gospel John refers to a disciple named Judas, who is not Iscariot (14:22). Luke in his list of the twelve disciples names, in addition to Iscariot, another disciple named Judas, identified only as the brother of James (6:16). This Judas replaces Thaddaeus in the list recounted by Mark (3:14-19) and Matthew (10:2-4). In addition to this, there is an epistle that bears Judas' name that was included by the Christians in the New Testament. The author of this book is identified as Jude, which is simply another variation of the name Judas, and he is called in that epistle "a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James" (Jude 1:1). There is clearly an early Christian memory of a faithful Judas in the inner circle of the Christian movement.

The second source of my suspicion comes from the fact that the act of betrayal by a member of the twelve disciples is not found in the earliest Christian writings. Judas is first placed into the Christian story by Mark (3:19), who wrote in the early years of the eighth decade of the Common Era. Prior to that time, we have the entire Pauline corpus, which was written between the years 50 and 64 CE. We may also have what scholars call the Q (or Quelle,i.e., "source") document, which many believe to be a lost "sayings gospel" that both Matthew and Luke are said to have incorporated into their narratives as a supplement to their use of Mark. Because we still have Mark, we can easily show that Matthew and Luke copied some of the content of Mark almost verbatim into their gospels. But when all of this Markean material is removed from Matthew and Luke, these two gospel writers still have material so identical that it has to have had a common source. That shared material has led many to the assumption that both Matthew and Luke had a second written source other than Mark, a source that is now lost. When these identical or nearly identical passages are lifted out of Matthew and Luke and studied separately, they appear to be largely a collection of the sayings of Jesus. Hence Q is assumed to be an early collection of Jesus' sayings. Some scholars date this Q material as early as the 50s. If that is accurate, then this is a second major pregospel source that must be examined."

Turning first to Paul, we discover that the concept of betrayal prior to the crucifixion enters Paul's writings merely as a dating device, with no content whatsoever. Addressing a letter to the Corinthians in the mid-50s Paul says, "For I have received from the Lord, what I also delivered to you; that the Lord Jesus Christ on the night when he was 'betrayed'; took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body which is broken for you.'" (1 Cor. 11 :23-24). Paul's intention here was simply to tell the story of the inauguration of the Last Supper. However, in doing that he used a word that the English translators in the seventeenth century said means "betrayed." In the Pauline quote above, I placed 'betrayed' into a single quote because this word literally means "handed over," which does not project the same meaning that comes to mind when we hear the word betrayed. It is worth noting that in his entire written corpus Paul gives no evidence that he was aware of a betrayal that took place at the hand of one of the twelve disciples, but the English translators knew the later gospel stories, and so they placed that meaning into their rendition of this word. It was one more of many examples in which later Christians were guilty of reading Paul through the eyes of the gospel narratives. We need to keep in mind that Paul had died before the first gospel was written. While in this particular text Paul does not rule out the betrayal possibility, he does appear to do so just four chapters later.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1-6, Paul once again declares that he is passing on to his readers the sacred traditions that he has received. Then he gives the barest outline to the details of the final events in Jesus' life. He says that "Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter]' then to the twelve."

"He appeared to ... the twelve." Judas was still among them when Easter dawned: that is Paul's testimony! When Matthew related the first biblical story of the risen Christ appearing to the disciples on a mountaintop in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20), he asserted that it was only to "the eleven" that Christ appeared. Sometime between when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians (ca. mid-50s CE) and when Matthew wrote this account of a resurrection appearance (ca. 82-85 CE), the story of Judas as a traitor appears to have entered the Christian story. Paul did not know about this tradition. His writings in 1 Corinthians make that perfectly clear.

When we turn to the Q source, we discover that it is in this common, and presumably earlier, tradition that both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying to the disciples, with Judas present, "At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Matt. 19:28). Luke has this text read, "You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of lsrael" (Luke 22:28-30). The assumption here is that among the twelve disciples who will judge the twelve tribes of Israel, Judas is included. The editors appear to forget that one of the twelve will be judged unworthy. The Q material, if it was indeed a separate and earlier source, seems to have been collected before the story of Judas the traitor came into the tradition, and both Matthew and Luke failed to make their source fully conform to the changing tradition that now included the story of a traitor among the twelve. That is additional evidence that the story of the betrayal of Jesus by one of the twelve, named Judas, was not an original part of the Christian narrative. It was added later, which of course begs the question as to when and why it was added.

The third reason I am suspicious about the historicity of the betrayal story is the way the Judas account so obviously grows once it has been introduced by Mark, somewhere between 70 and 75 CE. Mark has Judas go to the chief priests to betray Jesus. They "promise to give him money," but no amount is stated, and "he sought how he might conveniently betray him" (Mark 14:10-11, KJV). In Mark's version of the Last Supper, Jesus identifies the traitor as "one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me" (14:20, NRSV). Mark then has the act of betrayal take place at midnight in the Garden of Gethsemane with a kiss (14:44-45). That is the last time we see Judas in Mark's gospel.

Matthew, writing about a decade after Mark, builds on Mark's meager details. In his growing story Matthew adds the price paid for the betrayal. It was, he says, thirty pieces of silver (26:15). Matthew also introduces dialogue between Judas and Jesus at the moment of betrayal that Mark does not mention (26:25). The disciples, Matthew tells us, resisted those who would take Jesus after this betrayal, but Jesus rebuked them (26:51-54). Matthew then tells the story of Judas repenting and trying to return the blood money. The temple leaders refused to receive the money back, so Judas cast it into the temple and, according to Matthew proceeded to hang himself. Matthew then tells us that the chief priests used the money to buy a potter's field in which strangers could be buried (27:3-10). That is the end of Judas for Matthew.

Luke, writing some five to ten years after Matthew, portrays the chief priests and scribes as aggressively seeking to lay hands on Jesus but being restrained by their fear of his popularity with the people. So they sent spies pretending to be righteous messengers trying to entrap him (Luke 20:19-20). Judas, as the traitor, is introduced against this background. Luke explains Judas' treachery by saying that "Satan entered [him)" (22:3) and caused him to strike a deal with the chief priests and officers. Finally, what it was that Judas actually betrayed is introduced in Luke for the first time: Judas was to lead them to Jesus apart from the crowd (22:6). This is a rather weak explanation. Surely the authorities could have followed Jesus at night and discovered where he slept apart from the crowd. He was easily identified, after all. When he was arrested, he reminded his accusers that he had been daily in the temple teaching (22:53). It is worth noting that what Judas actually did for them could have been accomplished without his assistance. It thus has the feel of a manufactured story. There Judas exits Luke's gospel.

However, in the book of Acts Luke adds, in a speech delivered by Peter to the disciples, that it was Judas rather than the Jewish authorities who used the reward of iniquity to purchase a field. When inspecting that field Judas fell "headlong," Luke says; "he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out" (Acts 1:16-18). It was a rather more gross way to die than simply by hanging and it quite specifically contradicts the hanging account. Both situations might bring death, but one's bowels do not gush out when one is hanged by the neck. The story obviously was still growing.

John paints Judas with an even more sinister brush. Judas was really a thief, he says (12:6). He was filled by a satanic spirit (13:27). There is no Last Supper in John, but after the foot-washing ceremony that is substituted for it, John describes a discussion that took place in which Jesus identified the traitor as "he who ate my bread" (13:18). The disciples wondered and looked around at one another. The beloved disciple then asked Jesus quite specifically the "who" question, and Jesus responded, "The one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish" (John 13:26, NRSV). Then dipping the bread into the common food supply, he handed it to Judas and said, "Do quickly what you are going to do" (John 13:27, NRSV). Judas then went out of the upper room, and as he did, John comments, "It was night" (13: 30). After the Last Supper was concluded, Judas arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane at the place where Jesus was praying, accompanied by a band of soldiers from the chief priests, and the traitorous act was accomplished (18:2-9). Peter fought back with a sword, John says, cutting off the ear of the servant of the high priest (John 18:10-11). That was Judas' last appearance in the gospel tradition.

The distinctions are fascinating! Clearly the story was evolving, the details supplied as each phase of the narrative entered the tradition. The whole story of Judas has the feeling of being contrived. My suspicions are not alleviated by the details.

The fourth reason for my suspicion is that the story of the act of betrayal is set very dramatically at midnight. It is just too neat a detail to have what the gospel writers believed was the darkest deed in human history occur at the darkest moment of the night. That looks more like a liturgical drama than it does a fact of history.

My fifth and final source of suspicion is the name of the traitor itself. Judas is nothing but the Greek spelling of Judah. The name of the traitor is the very name of the Jewish nation. The leaders of the orthodox party of that nation, who defined the worship of the Jews, were by the time the gospels were written increasingly the enemy of the Christian movement. It is simply too convenient to place the blame for Jesus' death on the whole of orthodox Judaism by linking the traitor by name with the entire nation of the Jews. When that fact is combined with a specific attempt to exonerate the Romans by portraying Pilate as washing his hands and saying, "I am innocent of this [just] man's blood," then we see the shifting of blame. It simply looks made up. The Romans killed Jesus, but by the eighth decade of the Christian era, when the story of Jesus was being written, something compelled the gospel writers to exonerate the Roman procurator, Pilate, and to blame the Jews. That was when Judas the traitor, identified as one of the twelve, entered the tradition. That identification sealed the fate of the Jews as the perennial object of a violent and persecuting Christian anti-Semitism.