Do we walk in the footsteps of Judas?

judas_3594512bOn Good Friday morning, at 9 am, Kate Bottley (known as the Gogglebox vicar) presented a new angle on the Easter story—told from the perspective of Judas. I have to admit to having some misgivings about the approach, mostly because of the Telegraph’s promotional pre-article. There has been a consistent trend in scholarship to prioritise marginal documents, including the gnostic Gospel of Judas, over the New Testament documents both in relation to theology and history, and I wondered whether this programme would be drawn into the debate.

As it happened, I was pleasantly surprised. Kate did a great job of introducing the question about Judas in a creative way, with a display of information in her church building. She rather nicely kept referring to the Easter message about Jesus in putting her questions:

The story of Easter is about Jesus dying for our sins. Is Judas to be excluded from that?

From the outset, she was also refreshingly direct about the importance of the NT documents.

The accounts of the gospel writers sometime differ, and sometimes overlap, but they are the most reliable source.

And throughout the programme, she acted as a practical and pastoral foil to the various scholarly voices that were included—as I think a presenter on this kind of programme should do. And the selection of scholars was very good—chief amongst them Simon Gathercole of Cambridge, who was named in the credits as academic consultant (or some such). It included Helen Bond from Edinburgh, Joan Taylor from King’s London, Anthony Cane from Chichester Cathedral, and the entertaining Peter Stanford who has written a book on Judas, The troubling history of the renegade apostle

The scholarly input was, like Kate, consistently positive about the value of the NT documents as reliable sources for understanding Easter and the story of Judas. Simon Gathercole emphasised the contact of writers of the gospels with eyewitnesses of the events that they recount, in line with a strong, positive current trend in scholarship, largely promoted by the work of Richard Bauckham. Peter Stanford was even stronger: the non-canonical documents, like the Gospel of Judas, are late, unreliable, and composed specifically to contradict the emerging orthodox view—we should read them ‘at our peril’!

There was a useful exploration of the meaning of Judas’ name ‘Iscariot’. Was he a member of the violent revolutionary Sicarii? Probably not—his name most likely means ‘man from Kerioth’, but if this is a town in the south of the country, then it means he was an outsider amongst the group of Galilean disciples, who are northerners. We were reminded of the challenge that, although named last and from the beginning introduced as ‘the one who betrayed Jesus’ in the list of apostles, he must have been involved in preaching Jesus’ message of the kingdom, in healing and in deliverance in Jesus’ name, just like all the others.

The narrative shape of the gospels was taken seriously throughout—at some points too seriously, I felt, amongst the other historical information. Jesus’ decision to go to Jerusalem was key, we were told—but that is true only if you stick with the shape of Luke’s gospel, who sets much of Jesus’ ministry in the context of being ‘on the way’ to Jerusalem. The historical shape of John’s gospel, which is more likely, sees Jesus in the holy city three or four times. We were, though, reminded that Passover was a time of celebrating the liberation of God’s people from oppression, creating high political tensions in relation to the occupying Roman forces at the festival. It was a helpful reminder of how close the language of the NT (which we have tended to spiritualise) was to the political hopes and aspirations of the time.

The historical reconstruction scenes appeared to have been created for the programme, rather than borrowed from another source, and I hope it isn’t unkind to suggest that they did not have a large budget. I was disappointed by one or two of the historical realities, such as the Last Supper appearing to take place on the floor, rather than around the more likely triclinium (which makes more sense of John’s narration of events in particular).

51YAdj8ll6LAs the programme moved into the exploration of Judas’ motive, there was an impressive convergence between scholarship and pastoral perspectives. The financial incentive (highlighted in the mediaeval period as early capitalism developed) seemed historically implausible, since the symbolically significant 30 pieces of silver was not large amount of money. Being possessed by the devil, inferred from some comments in the gospels, was also unsatisfying, since (according to Kate) ‘evil is part of our human story.’ More likely is that Judas, longing for a political revolution, was disappointed and frustrated by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself.

The most poignant part of the programme came towards the end, with the exploration of Judas’ despair. Stanford comments:

There’s a lot of despair in the world and in human life. I don’t see it much in the gospels—but I see it here.

Kate expressed both her sympathy and frustration with the character of Judas, but used that to confront the question of choice and decision:

I am disappointed that the light of world was in front of him and he stepped into darkness.

Her final discover, of a hidden church window in which Judas, as he is hanged, turns to the light, echoed the poem about Judas written by Ruth Etchells:

In Hell there grew a Judas Tree
Where Judas hanged and died
Because he could not bear to see
His master crucified
Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever haning on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept
In three days’ time I must return
To make the others glad
But first I had to come to Hell
And share the death you had
My tree will grow in place of yours
Its roots lie here as well
There is no final victory
Without this soul from Hell”
So when we all condemned him
As of every traitor worst
Remember that of all his men
Our Lord forgave him first.

The poem is cited by Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart in their study of people At the Cross. Some react against it as an implausible argument for a kind of universalism—but in the programme Kate held back from that, suggesting that it was Jesus’ offer of forgiveness that was universally extended.

The programme turned out to be a refreshing engagement with the Easter story, offering all sorts of pastoral possibilities in reflecting on which aspects of Judas’ story (greed? being an outsider? disappointment? frustration?) we see in ourselves. If you missed it last week, watch it while you can.

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25 thoughts on “Do we walk in the footsteps of Judas?”

  1. It was one of the best programmes engaging with the NT that I’d seen in a long time, and it was great to watch something without sensationalist claims one way or the other.

  2. Judas performs such a vital role in the fulfillment of scripture that another view might be that, at the last supper Jesus’ words about one betraying him might be seen as a commision (Only Mark places the betrayal before the supper) Judas’ reaction as he dips bread into the same bowl as Christ is “Surely not I Rabbi?” to which Jesus replies, “Yes, it is you”. Without Judas there is no crucifixion and consequently no redemption. Judas for me is like every man, capable of both loving and betraying Jesus. Thankfully Jesus understands this and we are forgiven none the less through His terrible death.

  3. Thanks for this critique, Ian. I, too found it refreshing and a thoughtful and accessible view of Judas without offering some easy and nice answers. Heartily recommended.

  4. Ian,

    What I always find breathtaking about such reflections on the story of Judas is how they inevitably and repeatedly intertwine scholarship and rank speculation in order to press the case (once again) for universalism.

    The vain hope and appeal of this line of inquiry is that, in spite of Judas despising his privileged and unobscured witness to the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, if he did not sin unpardonably, then no-one is capable of any choice which would render them irredeemable.

    What’s missing from these universalist notions is any real acceptance of Judas’ eventual unbridled and unyielding enmity against Jesus.

    Jesus considered the fear and disbelief to which the other apostles succumbed, though unworthy of their calling, to be forgivable. These emotions provoked them simply to disperse and abandon their calling to spread the news that the Kingdom of God was drawing near.

    In contrast, Judas’ apostasy was an eventual decisive, hostile and overt defection from Christ.

    As treasurer, Judas had already betrayed the group’s trust by pilfering their funds. Under the guise of concern for alleviating poverty, his hostile contempt had also provoked him to criticise the Messiah’s acceptance of anointing as an extravagant waste.

    Some could choose to reject these aspects of the gospel accounts, but why?

    In marked contrast with St. Peter’s self-preserving denial when accused of belonging to the movement, Judas’ hostile contempt for Jesus led him to maintain overt allegiance, while covertly organising for the capture of Jesus when the group would be at its most defenceless and vulnerable. His behaviour was predatory opportunism.

    He worked as a paid informant on behalf of Jesus’ detractors: none of whom had managed to expose a single flaw in the Messiah’s teachings. He had also despised the many signs and wonders, which confirmed Jesus’ messiahship.

    All of this shows that there is a point of no return for those made partakers of the Holy Ghost who set at nought the gift of life. It also reveal universalism to be groundless heresy.

    Judas’ ultimate ‘remorse’ could manage no more than to acknowledge that he had betrayed an innocent life, but not that his victim was the Son of God.

    Yeah, I can see why Jesus called him ‘the son of perdition’. No, we don’t walk in the footsteps of Judas.

    • David, thanks for this interesting reflection. A couple of observations.

      First, yes, I am well aware of the temptation to universalism, and the use of Judas in this. I think the Etchells poem could be accused of this. But I was fascinated that the programme mostly held back from this—despite the fascination with the final etched glass, Kate continued to talk about Judas’ choice to step into the darkness despite being invited into the light.

      Secondly, there has been a long tradition of seeing Judas not only as unredeemed, but as unredeemable, having committed an unforgivable sin. I think this gets us into worrying theological territory, not least because it contradicts Paul’s ‘all’ in 1 Cor 15 and elsewhere. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all [who accept the invitation] be made alive. Kate is surely right pastorally to note how many people hold back because they think that they cannot be forgiven. This was very pertinent for me when visiting and preaching to sex offenders a couple of weeks ago.

      Thirdly, we must take seriously the evaluation of Judas in the NT as post hoc. I was very challenged to consider, with Kate, the fact that Judas did indeed go out and preach the good news, heal people and deliver them from demons, along with the others in Luke 9 and 10.

      Most challenging is the fact that Jesus didn’t call Judas to repent so much as invite him into friendship. We are all subject to the temptations of Judas—greed, personal gain, frustration and despair—and in that sense *do* walk in his footsteps. The antidote to this is not to try harder, but to come closer.

      • Ian,

        My criticism was directed at the inevitable trajectory of the programme’s reflections. Kate Botley’s personal beliefs about salvation were not my focus.

        The programme may have resisted explicit support for universalism. Nevertheless, the speculation began with a question relating it to Christ’s sacrifice for salvation to Judas’ eternal fate, which typifies the Easter message‘Is Judas to be excluded from that?’

        At the very least, the programme’s key question was posed as a rhetorical device, aimed at prompting the viewers to join in the inquiry about whether, despite his horrific betrayal, Judas could do anything to place himself beyond salvation. Were his motives as appalling as the gospels indicate?

        Yet, the very notion is at odds with Christ’s testimony in the gospel: The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” (Matt. 26:24) Was that just further post hoc hyperbole?

        And surely, it’s but a short hop from Judas being incapable of anything which could place him beyond redemption to the universalist notion of a gospel without a real choice: that all will be saved, including Judas.

        The closing poem yields further evidence of the programme’s uncritical airing of the universalist wish-fulfilment.

        In terms of the providing pastoral engagement with those plagued with irredeemable guilt, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a worse example than a suicidal Judas…except perhaps, King Saul, or Pharoah. These are all examples of hardened, obdurate hearts. Like Esau, they all sought a new resolve, while being incapable of recovering the utter contempt by which they set at nought God’s gift for some short-lived gain.

        As a truly contrite sex offender and murderer, David provides a better model of ‘metanoia’ confessing to the guilty secrets that Nathan exposed.

        You also mention 1 Cor. 15: ”As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.’ However, the passage continues: ‘“But each one in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.
        ??(1 Corinthians? 15:23)

        This qualifies ‘all’ by comparing the entire old creation destined to die through Adam with the entire new creation being made alive through Christ.

        I’m not clear what you mean when you write: ‘Secondly, there has been a long tradition of seeing Judas not only as unredeemed, but as unredeemable, having committed an unforgivable sin. I think this gets us into worrying theological territory, not least because it contradicts Paul’s ‘all’ in 1 Cor 15 and elsewhere. As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all [who accept the invitation] be made alive.

        The far more worrying theological territory is the notion that a person’s
        eventual defection against Christ does not evidence a fundamental lack of effectual faith.

        St. Paul provides a lesson from Israel’s history: ‘For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.’

        They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did…These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (?1 Corinthians? ?10?:?1-6, 11? NIV)

        Again, in Hebrews 4, the writer reflects on those Israelites who, despite witnessing the miracles of liberation, eventually lost out on the Promised Land: ‘Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. (?Hebrews? ?4?:?1-2? NIV)

        After his description of apostate ruin, the writer of Hebrews is keen to differentiate his Christian readers from that: ‘Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case–the things that have to do with salvation.’

        Their lives couldn’t have been further from the footsteps of apostate Judas. The same is true of many Christians today.

          • Hi Ian,

            The acknowledgement that Judas was ‘stepping into darkness’ does not negate universalism.

            Universalism means that Judas (and, by implication, all others who switch their allegiance from Christ to oppose His light) can be redeemed beyond this life from ‘stepping into darkness’.

            Even Christ’s parable of the Rich man and Lazarus intimates at the impossibility of reversing, beyond the grave, the consequences of repeatedly despising the light of God on our consciences.

  5. I found the programme interesting, but light.

    It never investigated the aspect of pre-destination at all, that is intriguing, perhaps unanswerable, but nevertheless worthy of thought.

    The programme offered no real new insights, it just went over old tried and tested ground.

    The newest aspect of the programme were the Whistler windows in the church.

    Most programmes these days, on TV, are very light in actual content and have little depth.

    • Arwyn, thanks for commenting…but I am not sure you have remembered the audience for this programme. It was a general audience on BBC TV, not a church group.

      I do think the question of predestination was addressed, though not using that term, in the debate about whether Judas was possessed. There is a long discussion to be had there on how we categorise evil.

      And, again I am not sure if you realised, the experts there included some of the leading scholars in New Testament in the UK at present. So it wasn’t lightweight in that sense at all.

  6. I also agree with David. The BCP implores “take not thy spirit from us”. To grieve the Holy Spirit is to be expelled from God’s presence. To have been one of the twelve and betrayed God Incarnate means expulsion from his presence.

      • Thanks for your reply. As Phill pointed out the early church were in no doubt, in fact Peter in Acts 1:20 speaks on this. Peter was indeed a flawed human being who denied Christ but was reinstated 3 times after Thecresurrection. There is no mention of reinstatement for Judas – indeed the opposite in v25. I am delighted when someone turns to Christ as on Easter Sunday when I witnessed 5 young people being baptised by full immersion and give testimony for their reasoning. There was also an older man who had been on a downward spiral but had come to Christ. God is a God of judgement but so many in the church want to major on mercy and forgiveness and leave out judgement. It does not sit well with our individual autonomous society. I don’t think the take on Judas reflects biblical authority, it is a wishful thinking.

          • Apologies. You did not, the Etchells poem did. The thief crucified with Christ shows that forgiveness is open to all and certainly I would agree with you regarding sex offenders as it seems to be the only unacceptable sin left in society and is unforgivable as far as the world is concerned, but the Church is about repentance, redemption from sin and hope for the hopeless. However, Scripture and liturgy are clear about taking the Holy Spirit from us in exceptional circumstances and the early church certainly took that view.

  7. I wasn’t able to watch it till yesterday, I thought it was so very refreshing …. It was sensible without being obviously biased…… However what I liked the most was it was almost evangelical!!!!

  8. John 17:12. The words of Jesus here seem to dismiss any thoughts that Judas was forgiven. Along with the scripture that says that it would have been better for Judas that he had never been born. Matthew 26:24. We cannot build an accurate theology from paintings and stained glass windows any more than we can build it from the writings of philosophers no matter how great they are considered to be. Ultimately God’s word is is the highest authority on all matters pertaining to the Christian faith. I did enjoy the programme as a whole though.

    • Yes I think you are right…but I am not sure anyone in the programme actually claimed he was forgiven. The question is: could he have been had he repented? If not, then I think we have some difficulties: that God created a human being whom he predestined to damnation.

      • Isn’t that what Calvinists believe? -God creates some for perdition? They don’t seem to have any difficulties with it.

          • Hi Ian,

            As one who espouses the doctrine of predestination, I think that Calvinism gets a bad rap on that score. St. Paul’s examples of Pharoah, Esau and Jacob in Romans clarify what the doctrine actually means.

            The TULIP acronym might help to explain that predestination is inferred from God’s foreknowledge and almighty power, and the lack of human merit in attaining redemption.

            Is God ever shocked and surprised when a person eventually responds to His grace with saving faith? Does that faith originate from some virtue in the person? or is it a gift bestowed through God’s free exercise of sovereign grace, unprompted by any human virtue.?

            To explain this properly would deserve a whole post by itself (and lengthy discussion thread).

            Can’t wait!

          • I have always thought that Calvinism is suspect as a doctrine to some degree but I can’t quite put my finger on it. .

            I strongly second David’s suggestion for a discussion thread on this issue!

          • Hi Ian,

            could i ask you to expand on this – at a glance it looks rather terrifying? On what basis do you believe this, and where does 2 Peter 3:9 fit in….?

            in friendship, blair

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