‘Finding Jesus’: Judas Q&A

My name is Mark Goodacre, and I am a professor of New Testament and Christian origins in the Department of Religious Studies at Duke University. I was series adviser and one of many on-camera experts on CNN’s “Finding Jesus,” which airs on Sundays. I also appear in each episode of the program.

Viewers were invited to tweet and post their questions on the “Finding Jesus” Facebook page during the latest episode, “The Gospel of Judas.”

Below are some of the most interesting, and my answers to them. They have been edited for style and clarity for this article:

Yalanda M. Price: What do scholars know about the man named Judas? What is his story?

Mark Goodacre: Judas is actually a pretty mysterious figure in the New Testament. In fact, the relative lack of information about him in the Gospels has provided the invitation, across the centuries, for people to speculate about who he was and what could have possibly motivated him to hand Jesus over to the authorities.

We know very little about his back story from the Gospels.

He does not become a character in the drama until the Passion Narratives. In John’s Gospel, he is the disciple who is concerned about Mary wasting money anointing Jesus (John 12.4-6). Soon afterward, he is arranging to hand Jesus over to the authorities. His story ends with his dramatic suicide (Matthew 27.3-10), and Luke tells us that his stomach burst open and his intestines gushed out when he died (Acts 1.18-19).

Kristine Spillman Adams: My understanding was always that Judas betrayed Jesus not because he was a villain, but he thought Jesus would start an earthly war when arrested. He was trying to get Jesus to establish a literal, physical kingdom on Earth.

Goodacre: This is one of the great mysteries of the last week of Jesus’ life.

What motivated Judas to betray Jesus? John hints that it was financial greed (John 12.6), and Matthew says that he betrayed Jesus for “thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 27.14-15). It is true, though, that many have speculated that Judas may have been some kind of zealot or freedom fighter, and he has often been depicted in this way in film and fiction. With this theory, he was trying to force Jesus’ hand.

It has sometimes been said that perhaps the word “Iscariot” is a corruption of the word “sicarii,” which means “dagger bearer,” and that would provide some backing to that theory. However, John identifies Judas as “Son of Simon Iscariot”, which makes the “sicarii” theory less likely. In the end, we may have to accept that we simply will never know the answer to the question about Judas’ motivation.

Betsy Wilson-Roark: Are you confident that you now have all of the pages and the current translation is accurate? Are there still words or phrases that are missing or ambiguous?

Goodacre: That’s a good question. Well, we probably have as much of the Gospel of Judas as we will ever have. Several additional fragments of the Codex Tchacos, in which the Gospel of Judas is featured, came to light after Bruce Ferrini, the dealer who owned the codex for some time, went bankrupt. Now, it is estimated that we have something like 90% to 95% of the text.

With regards to translation and interpretation, this process will continue for years to come, as it always does with newly discovered ancient texts. I think the original translators in 2006 did a sterling job, all the more so as they were working with an incomplete, damaged and very complex Coptic text that had been lost for centuries.

But I also greatly admire April DeConick’s important contribution and the key adjustments in our understanding of the Gospel that this has brought about. I was delighted to see both the earlier and the newer interpretations of the Gospel of Judas dramatized so effectively in “Finding Jesus.”

Amarylis Didley West: Is there a place that we can find and read the Gospel of Judas?

Goodacre: The National Geographic website on the Gospel of Judas does feature the original translation from 2006.

As far as I am aware, there is no online version of the newer edition featuring the newer fragments and the revised translation.

NJ Robinson: Good question would be did Jesus know Judas would betray him when/before he chose him?

Goodacre: The Gospel writers themselves single out Judas as the one who would betray Jesus (more accurately “hand him over”) as soon as they introduce him (e.g. Mark 3.19), but they, of course, are writing with the benefit of hindsight. We can only guess as to what was in the mind of the historical Jesus. Our lack of knowledge about this and many other aspects in the life of the historical Jesus are what makes the story so compelling for writers of historical fiction.

If you would like to read more about Judas, a good starting point is provided in this article on the Society of Biblical Literature’s Bible Odyssey website. It is written by “Finding Jesus” contributor Bruce Chilton.

And if you would like to read more about the Gospel of Judas, “Finding Jesus” contributor April DeConick discusses it on Bible Odyssey.

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