Mark’s Judas problem: binding the kiss and the sword

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by Neil Godfrey

(updated 6:50 am)

If Mark wanted to show that the Twelve were not reliable witnesses and that they collectively withered and died at the Passion of Jesus, he had a problem with Judas. (For background discussion to this see my earlier post.)

Judas (always labeled “one of the twelve” as if that association alone were enough to taint his reputation) worked well enough to stage a betrayal scene. But the betrayal also created a problem.

When Jesus first told his disciples that his job was to suffer and die, Peter took him aside and attempted to change his mind. It seems Peter was acting on behalf of the Twelve when he did this, because Jesus’ response was to address his response to Peter while looking at the disciples:

Get behind me Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men. (Mark 8:33)

James and John were similarly singled out for rebuke and Jesus once again leveled his admonishment at the entire group (Mark 10:41-42).

Whenever Mark has Jesus single out one or two names of the Twelve, he always ensures that the Twelve are part of the picture. The highlighted names are his means of blasting the Twelve together. He is not singling out favourites — whether to love or hate — to be the exceptions.

Right through to the critical moment of truth all Twelve failed and demonstrated that they were really on Satan’s team just as Jesus had earlier claimed. So when the moment came for Jesus to be handed over to fulfill his purpose, one of the disciples proved he was just as mindful of the “things and ways of men”as he had ever been, and that he still stood in opposition to the will of God:

And one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest, and cut off his ear (Mark 14:47)

Thus proving that there had been not one inch of advance in spiritual comprehension since the time Jesus accused Peter of being Satan personified.

But this is also where the Judas problem enters.

Was not Judas setting himself apart from the Twelve by facilitating Christ’s will and plan to die?

Mark seems to me to be very aware of the problem he has set up for himself. He wants to implicate the Twelve together. But how to do that without arousing suspicion that Judas was really the only one who stood with Jesus in his ordained plan?

One of Mark’s methods was the blunt instrument of always insisting that Judas was “one of the twelve”:

  • Then Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went to the chief priests to betray him (14:10)
  • One of you who eats with me will betray me . . . It is one of the twelve . . . (14:18-20)
  • Judas, one of the twelve, with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came . . . (14:43)

Another was to single out his act of betrayal as deserving of death:

The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had never been born (14:21)

With those words Jesus sentenced Judas to the same death row as Peter whom he called Satan:

For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (8:38)

We know of Peter’s shame at being associated with Jesus through his famous three-fold denial followed by his tears of despair — as another evangelist had Judas despairingly hang himself.

The other disciples all fled to save themselves, and the reader recalls Jesus’ earlier warning:

For whoever desires to save his life will lose it (14:35)

So when Mark first listed the names of the Twelve, he place Peter at the top and Judas at the end of the list. Peter was the rock who, as the first named, set the character of the rest of the twelve — they were all the rocky soil of the parable. They all lacked depth and their seed withered.

Judas rounded off the list with the note that he was the one “who also betrayed him” (3:19).

From first to last, the twelve were not a very promising bunch. (Matthew, Luke and John would attempt to redeem Peter and the rest of the disciples, and their efforts have distorted our readings of Mark ever since. But I’ve already had that conversation.)

In these ways Mark has ensured that readers understand the kiss of Judas as a sign of infamy with no suggestion that he was working with Jesus: it was as much a prop of Satan as the sword that cut the ear off the servant of the high priest while attempting to stop Jesus from saving the world.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “Mark’s Judas problem: binding the kiss and the sword”

  1. In these ways Mark has ensured that readers understand the kiss of Judas as a sign of infamy with no suggestion that he was working with Jesus:—-

    Working with Jesus? confused, can you expound.

  2. Jesus rebukes Peter for opposing Jesus’ plan to suffer and die, yet Judas is facilitating that very desire of Jesus. Does not this open the possibility that Judas was “working with” Jesus to help him fulfill what he has come to achieve? At least one rival Christian school did once teach something like this.

    (This theme has also been the focus of the recent publication of the Gospel of Judas — although April DeConick’s new book, The Thirteenth Apostle, which is about to be released, is apparently taking issue with some of the translation of that Gospel.)

    This may sound a bizarre idea if we have only known the canonical views. But it is worth remembering that Mark’s gospel is related to a number of other “nonorthodox” ideas, including adoptionism, and the origin of the interpretation that Simon of Cyrene died in Jesus’ place, not to mention its anti-twelve (pro-pauline?) stance.

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