In the weeks leading up to Easter, the church where I work dedicated four weekends to an examination of four characters who encountered Jesus. I was tasked with writing monologues for Nicodemus, James, Peter, and Judas, with the goal of giving people a chance to identify with each character’s very human response to Jesus.
The Judas monologue, as you may be able to imagine, proved challenging. So many portrayals of Judas demonize him, and perhaps rightly so, because he is the quintessential arch-villain. But he’s also a man who lived in a context not altogether different from ours, and my job was to show that context so that people could connect their lives with his. My job was to humanize him.
In a world of complex religious and political strife, Judas’s theology visibly identified him. Kind of like a profile picture of the cover art from your favorite band’s new album. Or Kony 2012. Or a red equals sign. Or a red equals sign with a cross through it…
I can almost hear Judas quoting the once-again-familiar, tweet-friendly quip from Isaiah 7:9 – “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.”
This may sound odd, but I love the story of Judas Iscariot.
I love it because it’s human. Because it’s so deeply true.
And when I say it’s true, I don’t mean only that it’s historical. It is that, but it’s also a very real story. It’s a story that I can believe because I’ve seen it.
The story starts with a young man looking for significance. He wants to make a dent in the world. And like many young men, the first place he looks is for a fight. He finds a fight he can believe in, and he joins the cause. He’s a revolutionary. His life is going to make a difference, and people will remember him, because he’s joining a revolution that will change the world forever.
But his revolution doesn’t work out the way he planned it to. His hero – the guy he signed up to follow – betrays him. He changes the rules and decides it’s not going to be a revolution after all. It’s going to be a martyrdom instead. But not the glorious kind.
Understandably, the kid with the dream of making a dent in the world is beyond disappointed. Then he realizes he can do something about it. He can give a little, motivating push. He can remind the guy why they all joined up with him in the first place. He can make sure he sees the enemy face to face and remembers what they’re all fighting for.
So he tells the cops where to find him, thinking he’ll pull out all the firepower when things hit the fan. When push comes to shove, he won’t let the tyrants win.
But the guy doesn’t fight. He just lets them take him away. And worst of all, he calls the young man a traitor.
And that’s when the young man realizes he’s been wrong from the beginning. A bloody revolution was never the plan. Which means he really is a traitor.
He tries to get rid of the money he was paid for making the deal that he thought would spark a revolution, but the creeps that gave it to him won’t take it back. They don’t want anything to do with him now – he’s already done what they wanted him to do. And now he’s not just a traitor – he’s also a pawn.
So, he goes out into a field and kills himself.
I wish it wasn’t such a true story. I wish I didn’t know that this is how a young man like Judas really would respond. I wish I didn’t know that the shame of being wrong and of being used as a pawn by people you hate is enough to drive a man to suicide. But I’m guessing you know as well as I do that the story of Judas is true. Whether it actually happened in history or not, it’s exactly the kind of thing that teachers and professors all over the world see every day. Or, as Rob Bell once said about the beginning of the book of Genesis, the point is not whether or not it happened, but that it happens.
In literary study, some people call this a mythic element in a story. This means that there’s something so true, so powerfully symbolic, and so human about a story that it gives us the ability to understand and talk about ourselves or our experiences in a way we may not have before we read the story. We call it myth because it’s what the myths of nearly all ancient cultures did for people. Romeo and Juliet is one of our culture’s most recognizable myths. It’s a story that’s so true to our experience of complicated romance that we use it to describe and interpret real life.
Now, I’m aware that by this point a number of you are quite upset with me for suggesting that the story of Judas is a myth. But before you skip the rest of this post and go straight to blasting me in the comments section, let me explain something. In literary study, and particularly the literary study of the Bible, the terms “myth” and “history” are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the Judeo-Christian worldview affirms quite strongly that it is stories that most profoundly define meaning in our lives and experiences. And in literary terms, a story that defines meaning in this way is called a myth, regardless of whether or not it is historical.
When I was in elementary school, some younger kids from my neighborhood decided it would be fun to start a snowball fight with my sister and me as we walked home from school. It started out fun, but when they ran out of snow, they started throwing rocks. Being older, and being a baseball player, I had little trouble keeping them at a distance without actually hitting them with any rocks, but as we rounded the last corner right in front of my house, one of them proved a bit stronger than I thought he was and tossed a rock that hit my sister right in the nose. Being the protective older brother that I was at the time, I started crying and ran into the house.
As my dad cleaned the blood off her nose, he asked me what had happened. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember the hot tears burning my face as I watched her cry. She wasn’t just crying because of the pain in her nose. She was also crying because I had failed to protect her.
I remember the empty feeling in my stomach, the feeling of wanting to crawl in bed for days and never walk to school again. And I remember when my older brother talked to me about it, when he explained to me what I could, what I should have done. He was gracious. He did exactly what an older brother should have done. He told me how I could have stepped in, and even if I couldn’t have kept it from happening, I could have made sure it never happened again. I was older, bigger, stronger. I could have made sure they knew that next time I would not be so gracious with them if they messed with my sister.
My brother handled it perfectly. So did my dad. But they were too late. As soon as I turned away from the fight and ran home instead of defending my sister, that story, that history, became myth for me. I had chosen weakness. I had chosen not to protect her. And for years, that story would define me. Even into marriage and becoming a father, I knew for a fact that I wasn’t a protector.
I’m guessing that you have similar stories – events in your life that were once just events, but have grown to become myths that define who you are. You know as well as I do that C.S. Lewis was right when he said that myth and fact work side by side to shape us into who we become.
Like the historical stories of the Bible, the histories of our lives become mythic for us when they take on significance beyond just the facts of the events.
There’s a second reason I love the story of Judas’s death. I love it because it contains two clear contradictions that remind me that the writers of the New Testament, and the people who edited it and put it together later, were very honest people.
Yes, you read that right. I said there are two contradictions in the story.
But maybe you know me well enough by now to know that I think contradictions in the Bible are simply wonderful, because every time I find a new one, it teaches me how trustworthy the Bible really is.
I guess I should explain…
Matthew 27 tells the story of Judas’s suicide, as does Acts 1.
In Matthew, we read that Judas threw the money he’d received from betraying Jesus into the temple and then went out to a field and hung himself. The priests couldn’t legally put the money into the temple treasury because it had been used to fund an illegal bargain that led to a very sketchy conviction of an innocent man. As you can imagine, the accounting ledgers would have had to have been quite creative. So, instead, they bought a field with it, which happened to be the field where Judas died. It makes sense for them to do this, because by using Judas’s money, they were in effect buying the field in his name. The official record would then show that Judas himself bought the field where he committed suicide. Not only would this logical connection dampen questions, it would also benefit them in the end, because in ancient Israel, when a man died with no heir, his property was surrendered to the state, that is, the temple, that is, the priests who bought the field in the first place. They couldn’t put the money directly into the treasury, but they could buy a piece of property that they knew would immediately be surrendered back to them because the man who owned it was already dead. Today we call this money laundering.
Luke (the writer of Acts), however, tells us a significantly different story. He says that Judas bought the field and fell on some sharp rocks there, where his guts all gushed out onto the ground.
So we have two problems. Luke and Matthew can’t seem to agree on who bought the field, and they can’t seem to agree on how Judas died.
Before I tell you what I think really happened, I want to call attention to the fact that this problem is still in the Bible. I certainly think it can be reconciled, as I’ll show in a minute, but it’s a real problem, and it’s a problem that’s clearly evident to anyone who can read. It’s a problem that has caused a large number of Christians to question whether or not they can trust the Bible. It’s a problem many of us would rather do without, in fact I can be quite confident there are a whole bunch of Christians, and even pastors and teachers, out there who wish this one would just go away.
But I’m glad it’s there.
In fact I’m really glad it’s there.
Because it means that Luke and Matthew weren’t in on this thing together. They never sat down and compared notes to make sure their stories matched up. Apparently, they were more concerned with telling the truth than they were with making sure that the Bible was free from errors and contradictions. Their goal does not seem to have been to start a new, easy-to-swallow, theologically airtight religion. Their goal seems to have been to tell the story of Jesus as they had seen it and heard it and then let us decide what to do with it.
And it also means that they people who actually compiled the New Testament – the people who edited the final version and decided which books to keep in and which books to leave out – didn’t edit out the difficult and contradictory parts either. They seem to have been more concerned with preserving the words that had been written than they were with making sure their own religious agenda survived. It would have been very easy for them to change one of the records of Judas’s death, and they could certainly have justified doing so – such a glaring difference would most certainly cause many to question, and perhaps even cause some to fall away from the faith entirely. But they chose faithfulness instead. They chose to pass on the books just as they came to them.
Despite this confidence in the integrity of both the writers and the compilers of the New Testament, we still have to deal with these stark differences in the two records of the story. And unless we’re going to throw out the claim to biblical inerrancy, which is a major tenet of orthodox Christianity, these discrepancies are a problem.
Historically, most scholars have explained away the problem of how Judas died by saying that he hung himself, and then some time later the rope he was hanging from broke and he fell onto the rocks below him. Without any further explanation, such a story seems possible, but likely little more than an attempt to excuse the problem.
We have to remember, however, that when Judas disappeared, there are no logically defensible reasons to think that anyone would have gone looking for him for at least three days. And the day after he went to the field to hang himself was a Sabbath, which means that any law-abiding Jew would have spent the day counting his steps to assure he didn’t go over the allotted number and transgress the Sanhedrin’s interpretation of the law against work on the Sabbath. Such strict adherence to the law, which was quite common then, makes it unlikely that anyone would have been wandering aimlessly through someone else’s field that day. There would likely have been no one around to stumble upon the carcass of Judas hanging from a tree. And even if they did, two other regulations barred them from cutting him down – first, to do so was defined as work, which would have defiled the Sabbath, and second, to come into contact with a dead body made a person unclean, which would have kept him or her from participating in Sabbath worship at the temple or local synagogue. Most likely, even if someone did find Judas that Saturday, his body would have been left hanging until at least the next day. And when a dead body hangs from a rope in the sun, it bloats. The skin thins and dries, and it becomes a putrid balloon that would certainly “pop” if it happened to fall on sharp rocks.
So let’s say we accept that Judas really did hang himself, and then some time later he was cut down or fell down and his guts really did spill out all over the rocks. Why wouldn’t either Matthew or Luke give us the whole story?
Matthew, as a Jew writing to a Jewish audience, chooses the image of Judas hanging from a tree. Like his fellow Jew Paul (see Gal. 3:13), Matthew knew the importance of Deuteronomy 21:23 – anyone who dies by hanging on a tree is cursed by God. Matthew also knew that the people who would be reading his book knew this curse. So Matthew chooses the strongest image available to him – the image of a man hanging from a tree.
And so does Luke, who, being a gentile, has no connection to Deuteronomy’s curse. Like him, his audience will not be overly moved by such an image. So instead, Luke chooses the grisly image. He shows us Judas’s body splattered all over the rocks. And I’m guessing that unless you’re a Jew with an intimate understanding of Deuteronomic law, you, like me, connect more strongly with Luke’s image than Matthew’s. You’re his target audience, and you respond exactly how he hoped you would. Apparently, Luke was a good writer.
The point, though, is that each writer chose to portray Judas’s death by giving us the most shocking image available to him.
Our second problem is the purchase of the field. Did Judas buy it, or did the priests buy it?
Though I’ve already given myself away somewhat on this one, we haven’t accounted yet for the importance of source material.
Where Matthew was writing his own eyewitness account of these events, Luke was dependent on the retelling of others, and would certainly have consulted public legal records to build what he intended to be a full-fledged historical account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus and the birth of the Christian church. Matthew’s book is based primarily on his own observations, whereas Luke’s books are built upon his research of public documents and the compilation of multiple eyewitness interviews.
Luke’s examination of public records would have shown Judas as the owner of the field, because legally, he did buy it. But Matthew knew better. Matthew chose to expose the corruption of the religious leaders by showing how they worked the loopholes in their own system for the sake of financial gain.
Perhaps you’re still not convinced. Think of it this way. Let’s say that Jason and I are going to have lunch together at the office. I give him a $20 bill and ask him to go pick something up for both of us because I’m swamped with work and don’t have time to leave. While he’s gone, Peter comes in and asks me if I have lunch.
“Jason’s out buying it,” I say.
When Jason returns (most certainly with two Quizno’s subs) and we’ve begun to eat, Steve pops his head in. Seeing our delicious sandwiches, he inquires, “Who bought lunch?”
“Paul did,” Jason responds.
We’ve both told the truth, even though we’ve given different, and seemingly contradictory, accounts of the same event. I bought lunch because it was my money, but Jason bought lunch because he went to Quizno’s to get it.
In the same way, Judas bought the field because the money was still legally his when it was purchased in his name, but the priests performed the transaction.
So, why do I love the story of Judas so much? I love it because it gives me everything I need from the Bible. It gives me myth – a story that touches my soul because of its sheer, human honesty. And it gives me fact. It gives me a presentation of history that stands strong the face of my most vigorous skepticism and proves itself to be far greater than what I hoped it would be when I first began wrestling with its logic and its claims. It could have been a weak link, but proves instead to be the strength of the entire chain. It proves to be one more addition to the breathtaking marriage of philosophical profundity and gritty, concrete fact that is the Bible. Surely such a blending of art and instruction can only be the gift of God to us who so desperately need both.
***If you’re interested in pursuing the topic of myth and history and how they interact with the Judeo/Christian worldview, start with the C.S. Lewis essay linked above. And if you’re really ambitious, pick up a copy of N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God. Part II of that book deals with the interactions referenced above in full-fledged academic detail.