Monday, 17 March 2008


Matthew follows Mark’s account of the passion story quite closely but there are some significant changes of emphasis. In particular Judas is given much greater prominence in the narrative. John tells us that Judas kept the money bag, indeed he tells us that Judas stole from it. Matthew tells us that when Judas went to the authorities to betray Jesus at least part of his motive was financial. This interest in financial reward goes strongly against the teaching of Jesus, irrespective of the betrayal: here is a case of mammon seeming to loom too large in a disciple’s affections. The story also shows that the contract he had made with the authorities was stronger than his love for his friend. Having received the money he was duty bound to deliver. With the 30 pieces of silver in the bag he looked for the best opportunity to hand Jesus over to them. When Jesus says at table says “Woe to him by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” it is Judas who is reported as saying “Surely not I Rabbi,” Jesus knowingly replies, “You have said so”.
In Mark’s account once the arrest has been made in Gethsemane we never hear anything of Judas again. He disappears into the night as do all the others. But Matthew gives us a sequel. In this story Judas suffers remorse, and confessing his sin, seeks restitution by handing back the blood money which he throws down on the floor of the treasury in the temple when the priests refuse to take it back. They will not put it to the temple fund since they recognise it to be blood money – so they use it to buy a field from a potter to use as a burial ground for foreigners. In the meantime Judas hanged himself.
Matthew’s account is easily the most sympathetic to Judas. Many commentators have suggested that suicide was a heinous sin in 1st century Judaism quoting Josephus. His story also is a little reminiscent of that of Ahithophel who went home and hanged himself. But there was also a tradition of noble suicide. In some ways the judgment he placed on himself – since the authorities refused to judge him – certainly arouses more sympathy than the stories in Acts and Papias where God seems to smite Judas down peremptorily. But the main ground for sympathy arises out of Judas’s repentance. Again some have objected that it was only remorse: that he went to the priests rather than to Jesus – but Jesus was now before Pilate and hardly available – and the words he uttered were what amounts to a public confession. Besides the word for repent is straightforwardly the word the New Testament routinely uses for a saving change of heart. It would seem that the Christian community never had any real clue as to what had motivated Judas: other than the financial motive – scarcely convincing – offered by Matthew there is not attempt to explain his actions. His reaction on seeing Jesus handed over to Pilate at least suggests that that was not the outcome for which he had been working. Perhaps he had been hoping for a set battle on the Mount of Olives, a popular insurrection and a Messianic war to remove the Romans: that he was in fact leading the authorities into a trap. Jesus was clearly aware of what was going on and would have had time to prepare an ambush. Whatever his intentions Judas, as portrayed by Matthew, hardly deserves the unforgiving infamy that he has received in the literature and art of the Christian community. As far as they were concerned, it would seem that Judas Iscariot had discovered and committed the unforgivable sin. Matthew offers at worst the repentant tragedy of a man who got it wrong.

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