Claim to infamy: Betrays Jesus
And alternate title for the New Testament could be Everyone Hates Judas. We know, he's a creep. He hands his friend, teacher, and messiah over to be arrested and executed. But is Judas really all that bad?
Spoiler alert: yes. Yes, he is.
The Last Shall Be Last
Early on, Matthew doesn't seem to have much use for Judas. He doesn't even mention him until Chapter 10, when he gives us a full account of all the disciples. And there's Judas—last in line, with the helpful added descriptor, "the one who betrayed him" (10:4). A little evil foreshadowing to set the mood.
It's not until very late in the story that Judas gets a chance to shine. And by shine, we mean repulse everyone with his villainy.
Money, Money, Money
Compared to the other gospels, Matthew gives Judas some pretty terrible motivations for betraying Jesus. Luke and John are sure to tell us that Satan entered Judas (so it's not totally his fault, right?). Mark just claims that Judas goes to the Pharisees and offers to give Jesus up free of charge.
But Matthew adds money to the equation, making cash the motive for his dastardly deed. How much for the Messiah's head on a cross? The going price for that is apparently thirty pieces of silver (26:15), which if you're doing your ancient monetary conversions correctly is hardly anything at all. It certainly wouldn't have made Judas rich, though we're guessing it will still make it pretty hard for him to get into Heaven. Camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle hard (19:24).
Just like Holden Caulfield before us, we know a phony when we see one. And in Matthew's Gospel, Judas is king of the phonies. When Jesus outs Judas at the last supper, Judas tries to play it off like he's still one of the inner circle (26:25). Who, me? Betray you for thirty pieces of silver? I would never… but just in case, I think I'll take this bread and wine to go.
He ups the phony factor even more when he comes back with that angry posse to arrest Jesus. "Greetings, Rabbi!" (26:49) he says and plants a big kiss right on Jesus. All this nonsense really seems to be exhausting Jesus (you know how much he hates hypocrites). His response is dripping with irony and impatience: "Friend, do what you are here to do" (26:50). In other words: Cut the crap, Buddy. Let's just get this show on the road.
The Devil's Advocate
Yet, after Matthew gives Judas all this bad press (he's greedy, he's a fake), suddenly Matthew has him do an about-face.
When Judas sees that Jesus has been condemned to die (um, what did you think was going to happen, Judas?), he suddenly starts freaking out. He brings back the money and tells the chief priests, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood" (27:4). You think? The religious authorities play the world's tiniest violin for him, so Judas goes and hangs himself (27:5). A tragic exit.
Matthew is actually the only one who gives Judas this pass (if you consider it a pass). The other gospels all just let Judas go on to live in infamy. Acts of the Apostles even has him die a miserable death just to make us smile. Judas is in his field one day when he falls, bursts open, and "all his bowels gus[h] out" (Acts 1:18). Talk about getting your comeuppance.
So does Matthew's ending change our view of Judas? The Gospel says "he repented" and the language seems to indicate that he truly does feel genuine sorrow (source, 883). So is Judas forgiven? Are things cool between him and Jesus? The Gospel never says, and Christian tradition usually has Judas doomed to destruction.
Didn't Judas Help?
When you think about it, Judas played a really important role in a really important event. After all, Jesus does tell us over and over again that dying is a pretty big part of this whole messiah gig. Jesus kind of needs Judas in order to fulfill God's plans for the world. Judas is sort of a VIP of evil.
Jesus may need Judas, but he doesn't like him much. Even though Jesus is still following through with God's plan, his betrayer is still going to suffer: "Woe to the one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!" he says. "It would have been better for that one not to have been born" (26:24). Yikes. Things are not looking good for Judas.
Judas is right up there among the most popular folks in the gospels. Authors and artists love to write and talk about his role in Jesus's life and death.
Some of them go the "ultimate betrayer" route—like Dante who puts Judas in The Inferno in the ninth circle of hell being chewed on for all eternity by Satan himself. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar uses lots of the Matthew story line, and even includes a whole musical number that ends with Judas hanging himself. It's upbeat. Lady Gaga even has a song called Judas, about the way people are constantly pulled towards the bad guys.
Don't worry, Judas. When Lady Gaga has a song about you, you know all isn't lost.