Why Judas was singled out after Mark’s gospel

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by Neil Godfrey

Judas was not much worse than the other disciples in the earliest gospel but by the time we read about him in Matthew, Luke and John he has become the arch villain. In the first gospel a case could be made that Judas was not singularly worse than the rest of the Twelve.

In Matthew, however:

  1. he is told directly by Jesus at the Last Supper that it is he who is the betrayer;
  2. at the moment of the fateful kiss Jesus twists the knife by calling him “Friend”;
  3. finally Matthew singles out the remorse and suicide of Judas for what he has done.

In Luke:

  1. Judas was possessed by Satan
  2. Judas was addressed personally by Jesus at the moment of the betrayal

In John:

  1. At the Last Supper Jesus singles out Judas as uniquely fated for the dreadful betrayal
  2. Judas is called a thief
  3. Judas is said to have been possessed by Satan himself

Compare Mark’s gospel:

  1. Jesus does not address Judas at the Last Supper
  2. Judas was not possessed by Satan
  3. Judas is nowhere called a thief
  4. Judas and Peter, the last and first disciples of the list of the Twelve, are arguably both representative of the Twelve, with Peter being the “greater” sinner if degrees can be assigned.

The fall of the Twelve

Mark, possibly a “Pauline gospel”, was attacking the credibility of the Twelve (compare Paul’s attacks on the Jerusalem leadership in Galatians and 1 Corinthians).

The redemption of the Twelve – by the sacrifice of Judas

The other evangelists were using their gospels to restore the Twelve, and Peter in particular. To achieve this, they had to sacrifice one of the Twelve as unlike the rest, the fallen singular one. (Luke restored the full quota of the Twelve in Acts by having Judas replaced by Matthias.)

It was no longer the Twelve, represented by the first and last names in the list of the Twelve, Peter and Judas, who were the incorrigibles. Just Judas. The Twelve, or at least the idea of the Twelve, and Peter in particular, were vindicated. Judas became their scapegoat and sin-bearer in the eyes of the redactors.

Reading Mark in his own right

If we read the Gospel of Mark through the perspectives of the later gospels who loved Peter (Matthew, John and Luke) then that “rock” epithet makes him sound solid and strong.

Assume Mark’s gospel is the earliest of the canonical gospels, and that its original ending is 16:8.

Mark lets Judas off fairly lightly. A case can be made that he is little worse than the rest of the Twelve and not nearly as bad as Peter.

But if we try to forget those later gospels and think about that word “peter” exclusively within the context of that first gospel, then the only association we are ever likely to make with that name is the one in the parable of the sower and the seed. As Tolbert shows in “Sowing the Gospel”:

  1. the rocky soil represents the disciples who begin well but whither like the fig tree in the end,
  2. the thorny ground represented those like the rich man,
  3. the wayside represented the Pharisees and such,
  4. and the good soil the hearers of the gospel itself — represented by the nameless many who were healed and responded fruitfully to Jesus.

In that parable “rocky” means shallow, iinfertile, undependable soil. It will sprout famously for a minute but then collapse in the heat. That is how Simon Peter is portrayed in Mark, as are all the disciples, who are led by that “rock”.

Peter follows Jesus immediately as he should, is keen to learn, but by the time we get half way through the plot the central hero suddenly calls the leader of the Twelve “Satan”; at the same time Jesus delivered his warning that whoever will be ashamed of Jesus would be cast out in the last day (Mark 8:33-38); and at the end all disciples, and Peter in particular, did indeed demonstrate their shame in knowing Jesus.

Peter’s tears of remorse were as efficacious as the remorse felt my Matthew’s Judas who was so distraught he hanged himself. A foretaste of the time when there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And the final mention of Peter in Mark’s gospel is a biting twist to highlight the total failure of the Twelve, represented by Peter who denied his Saviour 3 times. The message is for the readers/hearers of the gospel. Don’t be like the Twelve, the rocky soil, who become incapable of understanding spiritual things, betray and flee from their saviour and deny him repeatedly.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “Why Judas was singled out after Mark’s gospel”

  1. Your analysis is insightful. I’ve written something very similar in my new book on the Gospel of Judas (The Thirteenth Apostle: What the Gospel of Judas Really Says). It is due off the press any day now. Continuum (New York, London) is publishing it.

  2. In the first gospel a case could be made that Judas was not singularly worse than the rest of the Twelve.

    Gosh, I find this rather a stretch. In 3:14-19, when Mark is cataloguing the twelve, Judas is put at the end and is given the epithet “os kai paredoken auton.” Mark might not be laying it on quite as thick as the other three, but he is still very much presenting Judas as the worst of the bunch.

  3. Updated 8:50 am:

    Only a stretch if one takes the view of the subsequent evangelists who were attempting to redeem Peter and the Twelve.

    Not a stretch, if one takes Mark’s Peter as emblematic of the rocky soil (Tolbert and others). Mark’s list begins with Simon, surnamed Rocky, and ends with Judas who betrayed him. The first and last names in the list present the list as all of one piece, the would-be disciples who failed under pressure. Yes, “Peter’s” original name (or title) may have been Cephas, Rock, but Mark has inverted that word’s association with foundation-material into unproductive soil.

    Paul (and I’m seeing Mark’s gospel as having affinities with Paul’s position) likewise placed Peter among the Judaizing (that is, false) brethren. Galatians appears to be the first record we have of this Peter, the one who was reputed to be a leader but under pressure joins the false brethren. (Both Paul in Galatians and Mark in the gospel likewise lump James and John with Peter, and Mark gives them the Sons of Zeus/God (of Wrath?) sobriquet — yet they are symbolically impaled at the end. If one reads that as sharing in Christ’s glory, then the author has not placed the crucified Jesus among ignominious company after all; if one reads that as a metaphor for the spiritually dead, then we have a more coherent gospel narrative.)

    From this perspective, Mark’s notes and narrative about Judas are no worse, arguably less censorious, than the notes and narrative about Peter. Both Peter and Judas, along with all the others “in between in that list”, are of the same spiritual cloth: uncomprehending failures, fearful, unfaithful, betrayers and deniers — of whom the Son of Man will be ashamed.

  4. April,

    Look forward to your book. Meanwhile I see you have also written on the gospel of Thomas arguing it represents a very early strand of Christianity. I have not had opportunity to follow up responses to Perrin’s work on Thomas — do you discuss that in your Thomas book, too? If not, are you able to point to where I can catch up relatively “quickly” with how his work has panned out?

  5. I am writing about the parable of the sower, in mark’s gospel and was very happy to find this resource online. It is all very clear now the significance of the parable and how it represents the attitude of peter. But i’m still a bit muddled about where judas comes into the parable? if peter is the rocky soil, the rich man the thorns and the wayside being the pharisee. But then what is Judas?

    1. The way I view it is that Peter, as leader, represents the 12. All 12 are the stony ground. At the beginning they go out and preach and work miracles etc at Jesus’ command, but in the end all desert him when faced with persecution. The character Judas had to be created specifically to make the plot work at the end, and that meant the need for a betrayal. But this betrayal was first hatched in the house of Simon the Leper (compare beginning of gospel when Jesus was in another Simon’s house) and where all the disciples are critical of Jesus. Judas is a product of the disaffection of all Twelve — and they are all symbolically placed in the house of a leper, ironically with Simon’s name. The suggestiveness of the imagery is obvious.

      So Judas’s betrayal is just another facet of the Twelve turning against Jesus at the end. Judas has been particularly demonized since Mark’s gospel, but it could be argued that in Mark’s gospel it is Peter who is the greater sinner. He was their leader, yet Jesus called him (not Judas) Satan, and in the same context spoke of anyone who denied Him before men would meet with a Son of Man who was ashamed to know him at his return. Finally, Peter is singled out by name by the young man in the tomb. Peter is the one singled out as the Satan, the leper, the denier of Jesus — that the other disciples also complained about Jesus and deserted him — and betrayed him — is all part and parcel of what Peter himself represented.

      At least that’s my two bits worth 😉

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