The Judas Enigma: Legendary Fiction and the Unbelievability of Judas Iscariot
Throughout history almost every culture’s folklore has had a trickster or devil character. These are the mischievous problem causers who often pull the wool over our eyes, challenge the protagonist, and give us a good yarn. It’s true that no hero would be complete without his opposite and rival force, that is to say their infernal foil. Without Wiley E. Coyote the Road Runner would just be aimlessly jogging around the desert with nobody to meep meep! at. Without Loki the Norse god Thor would just be a disgruntled dude with a big hammer. Without the Joker Batman would just be the most mentally unbalanced superhero of all time. Without Tom there would be no Jerry. Interestingly, I feel this is where Christianity lacks the most; in its desperate need for there to be one true villain. Rather, the antagonists’ role is divided up between historical figures like King Herod the Great, Pontius Pilate, and the more mythological characters of Judas Iscariot and Satan.
I consider Judas Iscariot a fictional character simply because all we do know is that he maybe was an Apostle to Jesus Christ, but everything about him and his story of betrayal falls into the realm of the fictitious. Historically speaking we do not know whether anyone, let alone Judas, actually betrayed Christ or not. The Bible may say Judas did, but here is where part of the problem lies. The Bible isn’t always internally reliable and should not be trusted as the definitive word without further investigation of the uncovered evidence. So let us look at what some of the evidence is and what it reveals about the Judas figure of Christian storytelling traditions. As we shall see, these added insights will also prove that Judas Iscariot is a fictional character, at the very least a legendary figure without historical ties.
Gnostic Christian tradition as well as Islam suggests Judas died in place of Christ upon the cross, that in actuality it was Judas Iscariot who died for mankind’s sins. This coincides with the idea that Jesus had a twin brother, which the Gospel of Thomas, a third century Gnostic text, names Judas Dydimus as the apostle Thomas. According to Biblical historian and New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman, in his book Lost Christianities, he affirms, “The name Thomas is an Aramaic equivalent of the Greek word Didymus, which means “twin.” Thomas was allegedly Jesus’ identical twin, otherwise known as Jude (Mark 6:3), or Didymus Judas Thomas.”[i] If true, it would be easy to see how all the confusion arises as to whether Judas (Thomas the twin) or Jesus really did or did not die on the cross. Yet most Christians deny these apocryphal accounts of the Christian story as it is not canonical, so let’s keep these conflicting variations in mind as we consider the various accounts as rigorously as possible.
The bulk of these divergent accounts of Judas’ death are contained in the Christian scriptures, and another resides in Christian oral tradition. If we include extra biblical Christian sources such as the long lost Gnostic text of the Gospel of Judas, then of Judas Iscariot’s deaths there are a total of five separate death scenarios including:
1) Death by hanging.
2) Death by plummeting to the bottom of a field and meeting his demise.
3) Death by getting run over by a chariot and being split in two in gory detail.
4) Death by a riotous stoning by the other disciples.
5) Judas dies upon the cross in place of Jesus (as mentioned about in the Didymus Judas “Twin” debacle above).
Ehrman is keen to point out, “More interesting yet is the question of what happened to Judas after he performed the act of betrayal. Mark and John say nothing about the matter: Judas simply disappears from the scene.”[ii] And as we already know, disappearing characters (such as talking snakes) are a sure sign of myth or fable. At any rate, according to Christian scripture, immediately after betraying the Messiah Judas Iscariot takes it upon himself to die two different ways two different times. According to the Gospel of Matthew (27:3-10) of the New Testament, Judas feeling distraught over his betrayal of the savior proceeds to hang himself. Whereas the book of Luke (22:3) claims Judas was possessed by Satan and enacted the evil deed before taking his own life (presumably driven mad by his supernatural demonic possession). Meanwhile the book of Acts (1:18) claims that Judas fell down in a field where he “burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” These two Biblical accounts are inconsistent and incongruous with each other, and as such, negate each other’s probability of either one being a trustworthy account.
Similar to Luke’s account in Acts, the recovered Papias fragment of the early Christian leader Papias, writing roughly seventy years after the first Gospels were written (circa 110-140 CE), confirms this claim of Judas lying split open in a nearby field, albeit it this time death by chariot. In a slight variation of the theme, Papias points out, “Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.”[iii] Last but not least, the Gnostic Gospel of Judas (9:7-8) tells that the other disciples stoned Judas for his traitorous act.
Now common sense logic dictates that Judas could have died but in just one way. Three, four, or even five deaths for the same man are literally impossible, unless everyone is mistaken, or else, he resurrected multiple times only to die again and again repeatedly, each time with increasing disparity, which is even more unfeasible. In Raymond E. Brown’s An Introduction to the New Testament the Biblical scholar states that the contradictory accounts of the death of Judas are an example of an obvious contradiction in the Gospel texts, observing, “Luke’s account of the death of Judas in Acts 1:18 is scarcely reconcilable with Matthew 27:3-10.”[iv]
If you are the type of believer who believes in Biblical inerrancy then this overwhelming contradiction needs to be confronted. In fact, many have tried to amend or harmonize the events surrounding Judas’ death scenarios by supplementing conjecture or theory as to the timing or particular details of the death of Judas the betrayer. Ehrman retorts:
Over the years readers have tried to reconcile these two accounts of the death of Judas. How could he both hang himself and “fall headlong” so that his stomach split open and his intestines spilled all over the ground? Ingenious interpreters, wanting to splice the two accounts together into one true account, have had a field day here.[v]
The bottom line is, without altering the literal interpretation of the available text with ad hoc theological assumptions, it remains a blatant contradiction of scripture. “The point is,” Ehrman goes on to explain, “that the two reports give different accounts of how Judas died. However mysterious it may be to say he fell headlong and burst open, at the least that is not “hanging” oneself.”[vi] Judas died by hanging or else fell to his gut splattering demise, and as Ehrman has pointed out, having one’s neck broken by the noose and being asphyxiated is noticeably not the same as being disemboweled.
Adding to the confusion are the extrabiblical accounts which state Judas was stoned to death by his compatriots, flattened and sawed in two by a razor sharp speeding chariot, magically vanished in the confusion of the aftermath of Jesus’ arrest, or died upon the cross in lieu of the Christ (which would technically make Judas the savior of all mankind, not Jesus, so it’s no wonder Christians dismiss these apocryphal accounts without so much as giving them a simple consideration). All of these simultaneously, or as alternate scenarios for the same sequence as I have heard it suggested (i.e. being stoned, escaping, hanging himself, slipping out of the noose only to get run over and cut into bits, with bowels gushing out), is not a sufficient answer to the problem given the information we have. This is not Alfred Hitchcock’s version of The Trouble with Harry we are talking about.[vii]
More precisely, the Bible itself does not say that Judas brutally died by multiple methods of violence inflicted upon him, it specifically says he died once and gives various, conflicting accounts of it. This irreconcilable difficulty was one of the points that caused C. S. Lewis in his letter to Clyde S. Kilby to reject the view that every statement in scripture must be historical truth.[viii] Accordingly, in light of what we now know, we must assume Judas Iscariot is a legend loosely veiled around, at the most, an unknown Apostle who may have followed Jesus, but all that is truly known of him is not accurate and may altogether be false, making Judas Iscariot purely a legendary figure. Any speculation beyond this point is pure conjecture.
If the canonical accounts of Judas’ multiple deaths cancel each other out, what are the odds that one of the deaths in the Gnostic sources is the accurate one? It’s highly improbable, and so it is just as unlikely that any of them are true depictions of Judas Iscariot’s demise; especially since it is always going to be five to one odds against any of them being right, and especially when it is not a stretch of the imagination to assume they may all be wrong and that Judas never existed in the first place. And yet Judas Iscariot’s literary importance is a genuine one, for he acts as a true foil for the heroic Christ and puts the moral into the story.
Without Judas’ kiss and betrayal of Jesus there could be no atonement, no redemption, the story would just end with Jesus being arrested for his crimes, while Judas, on the other hand, would be deemed a national hero for infiltrating the ranks of the insurgents, taking down their seditious leader, and preventing a full blown insurrection. Where’s the moral in that? Somehow we need to make Jesus the hero, not the criminal.
The Judas Enigma Continued: It Started with a Kiss
Hence the necessity of Judas’ betrayal becomes abundantly clear—without Judas acting as the foil Jesus could only be deemed a fiend. No Christian would have it, therefore the early sects of Jesus’ followers searched the ancient Hebrew texts for ways to make Jesus come out on top, borrowing from Psalm 41, the Gospel authors provided an expedient means to make Jesus the underdog and simultaneously link him to Davidic prophesy. If you want to keep your reader’s attention, you make your underdog come out on top, then you one up it by supplying a hook (a literary technique), in this case the betrayal. The Roman guards, having lain hidden in wait, swarm the unsuspecting rebels! Jesus is caught plotting against the state in a secret meeting, Judas reveals the leader with a kiss, and then… and then? Stay tuned, same Bat-time! Same Bat-channel.
How convenient that the story exploits a literary trope already made popular in the epics. Not to mention the fact that Jesus getting apprehended fits the reversal of expectations style unique to the author of Mark. Only he would do the thing the audience least expected, have the hero arrested! Could there be a more cunning way of leading into the third and final act? And it all started with a kiss.
As for the relevancy of the betrayal itself, Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, authors of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, have this to say:
Even when dealing with events they knew had happened… the gospel writers searched through the Jewish Scriptures for prophecies that seemed to fit them, just as King David’s lament over a friend’s betrayal in Psalm 41 could be read as prophesying Judas betraying Jesus. Often we can see that the historicity of events matters less to the gospel authors than the moral lesson they want to convey—in the case of Judas’s suicide, for example, that evil brings ruin.[ix]
Only after the third act begins do things get really interesting, there is a suicide, Judas kills himself (which reads as some timely foreshadowing), the apostles are disbanded and in hiding, the disciples have fled for fear of their lives, things look grim. Darkness descends upon the world, Jesus is put on trial and condemned, Peter denies him three times and fails to come to his defense, Jesus then gets sentenced to death for crimes against Imperial Rome, and is eventually flogged, beaten, and crucified. It ends with a clap of thunder and Jesus’ crying out with his dying breath to a silent God, pleading, “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) Dark times indeed.
Once the ash has settled from the political upheaval and turmoil, our dead hero is lamented by his closest followers. Now how to end it? Mark ends it on a cliff hanger, once again fitting the reversal of expectations style he employs throughout the book. Historians have debated hotly the issue of whether or not Mark intended to leave it that way or if he had written a version with a complete ending. I like to think he left it open ended on purpose. As someone trained in literary criticism, it just seems the obvious move to me. The people wanted resolution—people like resolution—Mark wasn’t going to give it to them. The message being, sorry folks, you’ll just have to wait for the sequel.
While Mark’s sequel never came, a whole series of remakes followed, each one taking liberty—improving upon Mark—and giving the audience the happy ending they were yearning for. Not being satisfied with Mark’s original ending the later Gospel authors touched it up. Christ dies, but in the rewrite they give the audience what they’ve been demanding, up from the ashes he rises! The Son of God, Jesus the Christ, alive again. Triumphant! Even death couldn’t defeat him. To be sure, it’s a powerful ending—a powerful story.
As we’ve been thoroughly engaged with the resurrection narrative, you’ve probably already forgotten to ask yourself, “What happened to that guy named Judas Iscariot?” I’ll tell you what happened, he disappeared. Gone. Forgotten. And that’s why I can’t help but shake is the feeling that Judas was invented just for that little bit of drama. When you pause to think about it, he was a rather unimportant figure lurking in the background, indistinguishable from the rest of the disciples, until we needed a foil to drive the moral home. After the whole affair Judas, like an old dusty library book, is quickly put back on the shelf and filed into the obscurity from whence he came.
Considerably, the subtle hint which lies just beneath the surface of the text and reveals the startling fact that Judas Iscariot may be nothing more than a fictionalization—a devised plot point to fathom a believable antagonist to move along the moral of the parable and bridge the second act with the third act.[x] In fact the best evidence which suggests that Judas the betrayer is a complete imaginary tale is the Bible itself!
The Judas Enigma Concluded: Abracadabra! The Disappearing Apostle
In Paul’s account of the resurrection (I Corinthians 15:3-8) he claims that after Jesus resurrected on the third day the revitalized Christ appeared to Peter and then to the full twelve. Twelve? But wasn’t Judas the betrayer already dead; long gone, deceased, kaput, six feet under, pushing up daisies, busy meeting his maker? How in the world could there still be twelve?
Some Christian critics have suggested that Paul is referring to “the twelve” as an honorary title representing a symbolic allusion to the twelve tribes of Israel. If so, why do the New Testament authors continually attempt to harmonize their lists to prove the validity of “the twelve” by citing specific members (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5, 15:5-7; 3 John 3, 5, 10; Gal. 1:119), thus handing down leadership roles to twelve apostles if in fact there were not exactly twelve positions to fill?[xi]
Knowing that Paul’s writings predate the Synoptic Gospels, and according to most Biblical scholars is more reliable than Acts (which inconveniently misquotes Paul on numerous occasions getting basic information about his life wrong), this begs the question: if Judas had really died before the resurrection on Easter Sunday why does Paul’s post-resurrection tale have no account for it? Did some mysterious new Apostle take Judas’ place? If in fact someone new had come onto the scene just three days later during these unusually dark times, wouldn’t the Gospel writers have found it an important enough event to write about? Yet this information is missing, which suggests that it is more likely that the first record of Jesus’ appearance after his death speaks about the entire twelve Apostles because Judas never actually died in the first place, perhaps because such a character was nonexistent, that is to say fictitious.
Of course if Judas did exist, and in reality met his untimely end, there are also huge theological ramifications not to go unnoticed. Great philosophical minds have tackled this debate before, including the likes of Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, Bertrand Russell in his The Problem of Natural Evil, and also by Jorge Luis Borges in a short story entitled “Three Versions of Judas” just to name a few. They all reference the various problematic theological riddles and incongruity having to do with the cause and effect of Judas’ actions, be them willful or not, and his eternal punishment.
Since Judas was predestined to sin, isn’t the person who forced the crime equally as culpable? Logic dictates that a loving God wouldn’t punish someone who was forced by that same God into committing a crime against that God. This is simply incoherent. Therefore the retribution against Judas for events which were out of his control would be unjust, and would indicate—contrary to what Christians espouse—a God is cruel and psychotic. Luke gets around the issue by having Satan possess Judas and doing the deed. But even if we were willing to grant this much, this would still be Satan’s crime, not Judas’s.[xii]
It would seem that Judas’ destiny directly interferes with Christ’s purpose, in more ways than one, and ever since Christians have realized this they have been desperately trying to repair the problems while keeping the moral as well as the Messianic message intact. Over time this modification and reformulation of the Judas narrative has conglomerated to create a confusing, conflicting, impossible to reconcile, discombobulated story of mythic proportions.
This ability for one man to throw off the entire theological premise of the atonement and everything involved therein, I have deemed the Judas Enigma.[xiii] If you’re devoutly religious then it’s easy to dismiss this highly problematic ordeal and simply claim it is enough the traitor died and, evasively, are free to continue believing in whatever you want on the subject. But this is simply glossing over the difficult facts because you refuse to face them squarely. If you depend upon solid evidence and good reasons for believing in Christianity it is quite obviously a quandary, and one that can’t help but cause you to question the rumored “historical” reliability or “infallible” nature of the Christian Bible.
Perhaps, we may find it does more by unveiling the very man-made nature of the text, its borrowing of myth, as well as its deliberate attempt to transform history by rewriting it to fit with Christian aspirations, thus turning Jesus into the savior and making Judas into the traitorous villain.
Let’s not miss the subtle implication of the Judas Enigma, as controversial as it is. If Judas is indeed a fictional character, then it is likely all the events leading up to the Resurrection are either completely untrue or completely unfounded, and that is a big problem for Christians. If we can’t know that it was Jesus who died for our sins, if it was someone else, or if the story is entirely made up—then suffice to say Christianity is not what it seems—and is verifiably false. If Judas was real, as improbable as it is, and did betray the Christ then the theological implications undo Christianity. Christians must address these issues adequately if they wish to keep their faith intact and unscathed by the powers of exacting scrutiny.
[i] There is another oft mentioned theory about how Judas may have died in place of Christ, and once again revolves around the enigmatic name of Judas Iscariot. This time the theory involves the surname Iscariot. Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince point out in their book The Templar Revelation (p.140) that Judas Iscariot may have been part of an extreme faction which sought to enhance Jesus’ political standing, suggesting, “Judas’ second name, which is usually given as ‘Iscariot’ is now believed by the majority of scholars to derive from sicarii , the name of one such group.” This has lead some scholars to hypothesize that Judas Iscariot may have also died in place of his beloved Messiah, a suicide mission to ensure the safety and longevity of the Master, Jesus Christ. This radical theory which suggests Judas died in lieu of Jesus is bothersome, not because it is contrary to the Biblical account, but because it remains so persistently consistent whereas the Biblical account negates itself, three different times, and shows the untrustworthiness of the story causing further confusion for Christians. This revelation lends some validity to the only theory which maintains any resemblance of consistency, basically that Judas died on the cross instead of Jesus—something so shocking that it would radically rewrite the entire meaning of Christianity if true.
[ii] Ehrman, p. 46
[iii] The Papias fragment quote about Judas Iscariot’s death can be found at:
[iv] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p.114
[v] Ehrman, p. 47
[vii] In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 black comedy “The Trouble with Harry,” the story focuses on the death of a man named Harry in which three of the main characters in the film imagine that they are the one who actually killed this person. Captain Albert Wiles is sure that he must have killed the Harry with a stray shot from his rifle when rabbit hunting. Miss Ivy Gravely feels that Harry died after an accidental blow from her hiking boot, while the recently widowed young wife Jennifer Rogers, thinks that her husband may possibly have died after she hit him with a bottle.
We may grant such confusion and existence of multiple theories surrounding the mysterious death of a person as something not entirely out of the realm of possibility, but where the events of the film surround a local incident we must realize the reality of the situation when talking about the death of Judas Iscariot. The reported deaths of Judas would not seem any more farfetched than the death of poor old Harry, except for when we consider that the multiple variations of “Judas’ death” span over the course of two centuries, between c. 70 CE to 200 CE. But to determine which account of Judas’ death is the most trustworthy is impossible, since the earliest account of Judas’ death happens forty years after his supposed death, and should cause us to suspect the credibility of the event altogether. Clearly every version of the story surrounding the death of Judas, just like Harry, is undoubtedly hearsay.
[viii] Letter to Clyde S. Kilby, 7 May 1959, quoted in Michael J. Christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, Abingdon, 1979, Appendix A
[ix] Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King, Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity, p.30
[x] Robert M. Price, The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, p.307
[xi] See: James the Brother of Jesus by Robert Eisenman and The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran: The Essene Mysteries of John the Baptist by Robert Feather.
[xii] So the question we must ask is: why is god punishing Judas for crimes he was forced to commit against his will under the influence? If you were kidnapped by the Mafia, force-fed crystal-meth (i.e. Ecstasy) then manipulated into killing your best friend, nobody in their right mind would blame you. Incidentally, you were out of your mind at the time, temporarily insane, and coerced by external agents of evil intent to commit such an atrocity. Certainly you wouldn’t be held accountable for that crime, let alone the crime of the Mafia too! You’d be exonerated.
Yet the NT seems to be confused about the Judas ordeal. It doesn’t know anything about Judas or his relationship to Jesus prior to the whole Judas’ debacle. It doesn’t know whether he deliberately betrayed Jesus or if it was Satan controlling him against his will. It doesn’t know how Judas may have died or in what way. It doesn’t consider the consequences of Judas’ actions, be them willful or not, and the theological ramifications which effectively neutralize Christ’s atonement rendering it meaningless. I posit the NT authors didn’t know any of the actual details of the events surrounding Judas because, in reality, there was no Judas Iscariot!
[xiii] The fact that it’s easier, and more logical, to explain Judas Iscariot as a fictionally developed character rather than historical one never seems to phase the most sincere Christian apologists. It should. The fact that they have the newly arisen challenge to come up with credible proof to show Judas existed and disprove the theory (one which is largely supported by modern Biblical scholarship) but cannot, finding it irreconcilable, is another factor which plays into the Judas Enigma theory. A theory, which if true, would throw into question the entire pre-resurrection (the Passion) through crucifixion (Atonement) onto resurrection and post-resurrection (Ascension) events. In other words, if a major part of Christ’s final hours turns out to be largely a work of fiction, specifically the whole Judas Iscariot bit, then how can we reasonably give any other element to the story any credence of truth? This is the insurmountable challenge which Christian apologists continue to ignore.