The historical truth about Judas Iscariot

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by Neil Godfrey

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Maurice Casey has explained the motive of Judas Iscariot, his level of literacy, his religious interest, his worship customs before he met Jesus, and along the way has proved the historical factness of Mark’s account of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. This is all included in Jesus of Nazareth.

Firstly, the key to understanding Judas’s motive lies in understanding his place of origin. Casey begins by explaining that his point is only a “may have been”, but by the time he finishes his explanation all such qualifiers have disappeared.

The last man in Mark’s list is Judas Iscariot. . . . This means that his name was Judah. His epithet [of Kerioth]. . . locates him as a man from a village in the very south of Judaea rather than Galilee. It is accordingly probable that he could speak and read Hebrew as well as Aramaic. His origins may have been fundamental to his decision to hand Jesus over to the chief priests, for he may have been more committed to the conventional running of the Temple than the Galilaean members of the Twelve. (pp. 191-2)

Some biblical scholars have argued that the absence of any motive appearing in the earliest narrative of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus is one of the signs that the story is fictitious. It does not cohere with the rest of the narrative. Even the need for a betrayer is not apparent. No reason is given why the priests could not have had Jesus arrested without him.

But Casey believes that Mark clearly thought he had explained everything, including the motive.

Mark assumed that he had provided enough information for his audiences to see this. . . .

He [Mark] thought . . . that he had said enough for people to see what Jesus’ opponents thought the problem was, and it was enough to cause one of the Twelve to change sides and betray his Master. . . .

It . . . ought to be obvious that Mark did his best to create a coherent narrative from the traditions which reached him, which were incomplete. (p. 426-8)

So “to understand Judah’s motives”, Casey explains, “we must leave Christian tradition behind and understand him as a faithful Jew.”

He joined the Jesus movement because he saw in it a prophetic movement dedicated to the renewal of Israel. Jesus chose him because he was a faithful Jew, dedicated to God and to the renewal of Israel, and with the qualities necessary to take a leading role in the ministry of preaching and exorcism. (p. 426)

So what was it about Jesus that worried Judah?

Like other faithful Jews, he was troubled by Jesus’ controversies with scribes and Pharisees during the historic ministry. Exactly what he objected to, we have no idea. Perhaps he tithed mint, dill and cumin, and felt the decorated monuments of the prophets were quite magnificent. Perhaps it was something else — it must have been something which did not seem contrary to the prophetic renewal of Israel. While such details are conjectural, the main point is surely secure — Judah was troubled by these controversies, and he did not undergo an overnight conversion. (p. 426)

“No doubt about which event was the final straw” —

I had always thought the final straw for Judas as told by Mark was the waste of the precious ointment used for anointing Jesus. The disciples were indignant and complained that it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. It was at that point that Judas went out to betray Jesus. But no, Casey sees it differently.

For Casey, the seriousness of what Judah undertook, and “the point at which he went to the chief priests”, leaves us in “no doubt” that the trigger was the Cleansing of the Temple. After all, a “faithful member of normative Judaism” believed religiously in the right of the priests to run the temple, and the scribes to interpret the scriptures.

From Judah’s point of view, it was accordingly quite wrong to run the Court of the Gentiles, and upset the arrangements duly made by the chief priests and scribes for the payment of the Temple tax and the purchase of offerings most used by the poor. Moreover, Judah was from Judaea. He will have worshipped in the Temple long before there was a Jesus movement for him to join. How he came to be in Galilee we have no idea. Equally, we have no idea as to whether he had long-standing contacts with the Temple hierarchy. He is likely to have been concerned at what Jesus said when preaching in the Temple on previous visits. (p. 426)

“From Judah’s point of view” —

He was a faithful Jew doing the will of God from beginning to end, and when a most regrettable conflict became unacceptable, his only master was God. Moreover, Mark assumed that he had provided enough information for his audiences to see this.

It is surprising that Casey appears to have been the first since the early Church to have seen what Mark “underlined”.

Mark underlined the connection between Jesus’ action in the Temple and the final action against him.

How did he do this?

  1. After the Cleansing of the Temple Mark says the chief priests and scribes sought a way to destroy Jesus.
  2. Mark then has Jesus and the temple authorities dispute Jesus’ authority — “a question which was bound to trouble many faithful Jews.”
  3. Jesus delivers a parable against the priests and the priests respond by seeking to seize him.
  4. Later again Mark tells us they could not arrest him for fear of the crowd.
  5. Then Judah went of his own volition to the priests to arrange to hand Jesus over.

That is the clear connection.

Historicity is no doubt

Casey laments that some scholars (he singles out Hyam Maccoby) reject the historicity of all of this betrayal story. One reason they do so is the name of Judah being, of course, related to “Jew” itself. The anti-semitism in the choice of name is scarcely subtle.

But even though in later gospels such as that of Luke in which Satan is said to have entered Judas, this does nothing to undermine

Mark’s entirely practical story, which has a perfect setting in the life of Jesus and which neither the early church nor Mark had reason to create. (p. 427)

Casey goes on to dismiss Maccoby’s point that Paul fails to mention Judas at any point. This is easy. Just as Paul had no reason to mention “Jesus of Nazareth” in his letters (Casey speaks of “the supposed absence of Jesus himself from the Pauline epistles”), he had even less to mention Judas. This is an argument that taps easily off a glib keyboard, but like seed sown in rocky soil it does not endure the close scrutiny of light of day.

Nor is Casey moved by Paul’s references to the Twelve, and other Gospels limiting the number to eleven after the betrayal

because ‘the Twelve’ had to be ‘the Twelve’ for as long as the group existed, to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel . . . The early Pauline tradition was not concerned to change “the Twelve”, whereas Matthew and Luke wrote stories when the remaining Eleven were narratively important to them. None of this is sufficient to undermine the accuracy of Mark’s story, because this has such a perfect setting in the life of Jesus. (p. 427-8)

Once again we see Casey deploying his double-barrelled criteria to establish the historical truth of Mark’s account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus: perfect setting and no reason Mark would make it up.

So not even all the Old Testament allusions throughout Mark’s tale that call to mind the Psalms and story of David and the Prophets — the betrayal of a Davidic anointed (messiah) by a close advisor, the kiss, the thirty pieces of silver — is enough to turn on a light in Casey’s mind that the author was casting Jesus as a fulfilment or anti-type of the traditional biblical man of God who is regularly betrayed by those closest to him.

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Neil Godfrey

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18 thoughts on “The historical truth about Judas Iscariot”

  1. Neil, why do you subject yourself to this waste of trees. This Casey guy is simply another quack apologist. The upside is that this author’s apology is even worse than the usual trash, so perhaps desperation is, indeed, setting in.

    What a joke…

  2. It is surprising that Casey appears to have been the first since the early Church to have seen what Mark “underlined”.

    It reminds me of Richard Bauckham’s ability to find those secret codes in Mark that were so obvious to his readers but lost to everyone else who ever read it.

  3. Just astounding. Such confidence on the etymology of “Iscariot” seems to me entirely unfounded, as this is a highly controversial question with no clear consensus among NT scholars. And the sheer circularity in application of this supposed criterion of “perfect setting in the life of Jesus” is so glaring, I just can’t see how he can write this way without any disclaimer. All of the characters and events in Mark Twain’s immortal novel have a perfect setting in the life of Huckleberry Finn, too.

  4. I think Casey might of heard of R.G. Collingwood’s concept of the historical imagination and misunderstood it, believing one could fill in the gaps with anything off the top of his head, just as long it was plausible within the right century or so. Like C.J., I’m astounded by some of his methodology and reasoning. Granted, doing ancient history involves inferring a good deal of stuff from limited source material, but Casey’s work seems nothing but ‘could have been’ speculation.

  5. There is “some advice for doctoral students from a wise scholar” posted on Nijay Gupta’s blog:

    Also, don’t be afraid to take creative risks with your ideas. I feel that many students try to do a ‘safe’ thesis by arguing something that may be relatively simple to argue, but makes a small contribution to scholarship. Besides, your supervisor is an excellent sounding board for these creative ideas and can tell you whether you are stretching your arguments too thin.

    You can guess who the “wise scholar” is. It is curious that one never reads what Casey’s apparent doctorate was in.

    I would not bother with his book if it had not had such a loud pre-press from a couple of his students, both of whom behaved themselves very badly on this blog. (The book is even dedicated to these two students.) These students pour scorn on mythicist arguments (even those from well established biblical scholars), as does Casey himself, and we are informed that Casey will “answer” all the modern day mythicists in a forthcoming book, apparently due out in 2012.

    If this is the sort of intellect that can proudly boast its “independence” and set itself above all other scholarly studies on the historical Jesus, and that promises to demolish once and for all any mythicist argument, then I’d like to think we can say good riddance to the academic sham of most historical Jesus and early Christian studies.

    These are theologians writing, not historians. They have absolutely no idea what they are doing when they profess to be writing “history”. No wonder their strongest responses to serious and informed criticism are mockery, insult, avoidance and wilful ignorance.

    1. Neil: …we are informed that Casey will “answer” all the modern day mythicists in a forthcoming book, apparently due out in 2012.

      Now why would this independent scholar want to sully his hands on such an endeavor? Didn’t he slam the door shut on mythicism in the conclusion? To wit:

      “[T]he opinion that Jesus did not exist . . . is demonstrably false. It is fuelled by a regrettable form of atheist prejudice, which holds all the main primary sources, and Christian people, in contempt. This is not merely worse than the American [sic] Jesus Seminar, it is no better than Christian Fundamentalism. It simply has different prejudices. Most of its proponents are also extremely incompetent.” (p. 499)

      Let’s get this straight. A man who thinks one of Jesus’ brothers wrote the Epistle of Jude, who believes he can read the Aramaic documents “behind” Mark and Q, who contends that declaring something plausible makes it a fact, who calls Mark’s brilliant gospel “unfinished from beginning to end,” who dissembles about the people who dare point out that Nazareth was uninhabited in the early first century CE — this man has the guts to call other scholars incompetent? I knew things had gotten bad in the world of NT studies, but we’ve surely hit rock-bottom now.

      1. This is classic. It makes clear that Maurice Casey has no time for certain arguments because he is convinced from the outset that they have no intellectual credibility and are nothing more than rationalizations of ignorant and/or incompetent prejudice. He is stating here that there is no possibility of dialogue. He is incapable of reading the arguments without his own prejudice against any person who delivers them.

        This is why Steph and McGrath let loose their accusations that I and others who argue for a nonhistorical Jesus are hostile anti-Christian bigots. Of course they cannot support such accusations but that only convinces them how sly we are in supposedly hiding our true colours. I was surprised to find that even my post on the lack of evidence for long-held assumptions about Jewish messianism — a belief that is wedged to “prove” something dramatic happened after Jesus’ death to his disciples — was enough to be implicitly charged with anti-semitism.

        As you say, why does he even bother with a book arguing against mythicist views. If Steph’s little forays into attacking Doherty are any indication we can expect the same sort of outright “inconsistencies”. (She faulted Doherty for the literary rhetoric in is introductory blurb for not being accurate at a detailed level of analysis, even though Doherty clearly discusses accurately that detail in his book. When I drew a similar over-generalization in an opening rhetorical flourish by Paula Fredriksen, the response was essentially that Paula is a “real scholar” and therefore can be judged by different standards.)

  6. JW:
    I have faith that you have seen/used the Legendary Vorkosigan’s related information here:


    As usual, I think “Mark” is fleshing out here Paul’s “handed over”. With Apologies to Mikhailoseo, I think “Mark” is once again using A’s pleasing language to highlight Judas’ name:


    “”Iscariot”. Sounds similar to “Christ”. The Greek:

    Iscariot = Ἰσκαριώθ

    Christ = Χριστοῦ

    Letters from “Ἰσκαριώθ” that match/approximate letters from “Χριστοῦ”:

    Ἰ (capital ι)
    κ (“k” sound approximates “X” ch sound)
    ώ (variation of our “o” sound as is “ο”)
    θ (“th” sound similar to “τ” = t sound)

    That leaves Ἰσκαριώθ has an “α” = “a” verses “Χριστοῦ” has an “ο” = o.


  7. “Maurice Casey has explained the motive of Judas Iscariot, his level of literacy, his religious interest, his worship customs before he met Jesus, and along the way has proved the historical factness of Mark’s account of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus.”

    All from the verse that says he carried “the purse” right?

    1. Nope, all from his “epithet”, Iscariot! That means he is from Kerioth way down in southern Judaea. That means he could probably read both Hebrew and Aramaic. It also means he was a devout practicing Jew. That means he went to the Temple to worship before he moved later to Galilee where he met Jesus. That means he had a very close affection for the Temple establishment and the right of the priests and scribes to run it all. That means he was very disturbed by Jesus confronting the the Pharisees over quibbling things. That means he may have tithed on mint and dill and cumin himself and objected to Jesus cleansing the temple and upsetting a legitimate priestly function. That means that when the priests planned to kill Jesus, Judas somehow knew about this (Casey concedes we can’t know if he had close ties with the priesthood) so colluded with them — for the same reasons — to get rid of Jesus.

      All that from “Iscariot”.

      Casey would probably frown on you for daring to mention the purse he looked after. He might suspect you are attempting to introduce some anti-semitic prejudice to the picture. You should, he would say, see Judas in a “typically Jewish” setting. And we all know that Judas was a typical Jew and therefore very devout.

      1. “He might suspect you are attempting to introduce some anti-semitic prejudice to the picture.”

        I was just going to suggest that if Judas carried a purse, he must have been part of some unorthodox sect of Judaism that practiced ritual homosexuality and that Iscariot means “gay,” and that Judas’ famous catchphrase was “oh Jesus, that fabulous!” And therefore, the reason Judas turned Jesus over to the priests was because Jesus condemning his cross-dressing. Or perhaps he was mad that Jesus turned him down. That explains why he kissed him when he betrayed him. The whole betrayal was due to unrequited love. Jesus had said something like “Judas, I don’t swing that way. But the gates of hell will swing wide open to receive you.” (Its just as sound of a theory, I think.)

      2. Also, Casey’s Judas seems rather anti-goyic. His main issue was that there was court of the Gentiles in the temple? Really? There is obviously no way to get that out of ANY of the gospels. And obviously it makes Judas look like a racist. If Judas was an invention by the church fathers or whoever to represent a typical unbelieving Jew (as some suppose) they clearly didn’t do a good enough job!!! Casey has them beat! If only they had included this stuff in the gospels. If they had made Judas an anti-goyic racist scumbag (like Casey does) they would have been able to further their anti-semitism much more than they did (if in fact there was such an agenda). The kinda dunce thief sap Judas who is forced to betray Jesus because Satan takes possession of him at the end, who repents and hangs himself in some sort of sympathy pains for the cross (the Judas of the gospels) is much more an object of pity. Casey’s Judas is much more an object of hatred. And Casey is the one who isn’t anti-semitic, right? Palease!!!!!

  8. On page 402, Casey claims that it is not enough to show that something is made up.

    To show something is fictional, you not only have to show that it is made up (that would be a mere fact), you also have to explain why it was made up.

    On the other hand if something is ‘entirely plausible’, the ‘only reasonable explanation is that it happened.’

    Casey explains that Jesus had to be betrayed because he could not be arrested in public without creating a riot.

    Of course, he could be killed in public without creating a riot….

    How does Casey know that what is plausible is historical?

    That is easy.

    If you remove the ‘improbable’ stories of Judas’s death, then what is left is plausible.

    And if you remove the improbable from Harry Potter, you are left with the entirely plausible story of a teenage boy going to an English boarding school…

    You don’t turn fiction into history by removing the obviously fictional.

    1. I’m still trying to figure out why the priests didn’t just have Jesus followed and arrest him any old time of day or night he was away from the crowds!

      I guess that’s just not a plausible or coherent option. Much more coherent and plausible is that they needed an insider to identify a person whom everyone had seen day after day in full public view.

      1. Why would there have been a riot?

        Hasn’t Casey just explained that devout Jews would have wanted Jesus dead after the demonstration in the Temple?

        So who was going to object to Jesus being arrested?

        Perhaps the rioters would have been these magical crowds in Mark who congregate and dissipate for dramatic effect, at the behest of the narrator?

        1. Obviously the same exact crowd that cried out “crucify him, crucify him” would have rioted if they had arrested him publicly. Come on. Isn’t it obvious! Its just as obvious as the fact that the Jews couldn’t just stone him themselves (despite Pilate’s permission in John 18:31 “You take him and judge him by your Law”) because it wasn’t lawful for the Jews to execute anyone without Roman permission (which per John 18:31 they had) even though in Acts we find Paul executing people with permission merely from the High Priest and not from Rome. The Sanhedrin beats the apostles and stones Stephen without asking a Roman governor for permission, but they can’t stone Jesus without Pilate’s permission (which he gives them but they refuse to use). And yet Peter in Acts speaks of Jesus as if he was stoned “whom you slew AND hanged on a tree.” So obviously there are absolutely no holes in the Biblical narrative.

  9. I found this rathr interesting from the Wikipedia article on Judas Iscariot.

    “Mark 16:14 and Luke 24:33 state that following his resurrection Jesus appeared to ‘the eleven.’ Who was missing? After all that had transpired one would just naturally think it was Judas. Apparently not, because in John 20:24 we learn that the one missing was Thomas. Therefore the eleven had to include Judas. Furthermore, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5 that following his resurrection Jesus was seen by ‘the twelve.’ This had to include Judas because it wasn’t until after the ascension, some forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), that another person, Matthias, was voted in to replace Judas (Acts 1:26).”

    I’ve never thought about the fact that according to a harmonization of the snyoptics with John, the missing man that made it only be the 11 that Jesus appeared to, was Thomas who was graced by a later appearance. But it kinda blasts the whole Judas story to smitherines, along with Paul’s mention of Jesus appearing to the 12.

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