We do not have much information on Judas Iscariot’s life prior to turning Jesus in to the Pharisees & Romans in exchange for silver. In order to understand who he was, we are forced to create his story for ourselves based on what information we do have, both in the Bible and in history, for the purpose of understanding, not justifying, his action. As I typed the previous sentence, I nearly included the word “treacherous” to describe the action, which in and of itself is interesting. When I think of the word “treachery”, I almost always think of it in a political sense, such as Brutus’s treachery against Caeser or Benedict Arnold’s treachery against the American rebels. Yet Judas’s betrayal in this political sense would have no doubt been praised by the Pharisees and other nationalist Jews at the time. Thus, I think it’s intriguing to think about WHY Judas did what he did. It’s easy for us, having full knowledge of the story, to view the betrayal as an inexplicable, intentionally evil act, but let’s try to put ourselves in his sandals for a moment.
Up to Judas’s point in human history, the foundational element of human civilizations was the society’s theological belief. From the Mesopotamians & Sumerians to the Greeks, each civilization first decided what they believed about who God was/the gods were and formed social hierarchal power structures based on that belief (i.e. god-kings). Of all these early civilizations, none have been or ever will be prouder than the Jewish people. Since the days of Abraham, the Hebrew people have boasted the “There is only one true God and He’s on our side” message (despite God constantly trying to tell them that’s not how it works [Hosea 1:9-11, Amos 5:21-25]). As time passed, the Jewish people were passed into the hands of mankind’s more powerful civilizations, yet they constantly taunted their conquerors like a winless fighter proclaiming himself better than Muhammed Ali. In fact, by this point in time, the Jews had literally convinced themselves that they had not, in fact, EVER been enslaved at all (John 8:33)…
Enter the Roman Republic/Empire/it’s complicated, mankind’s first major civilization that conquered not in the name of its god, but rather in the name of, well, itself. After defeating the Phoenician empire in the Punic Wars, the Greek empire put up little resistance before willingly handing its lands over the Romans. As they went on setting up control of the entire Mediterranean world, they allowed each civilization to keep its customs, religion, culture, and rules so long as it conceded one thing: Caesar is lord and Rome the boss. So they send one of their best guys, Pompey the Great, over to Judea to see what’s happening, and upon arrival, they find the Jews in the midst of yet another of their civil wars. After making quick work of the Jews, I’d imagine it was a quick first meeting between the Jewish leaders and their new Roman conquerors:
Pompey: “Alright, you have two options here.
- We lay waste to the rest of your plebian armies and use your precious temple as our newest palace.
- We let you stay in control of your people and continue practicing your religion so long as you bend the knee to Rome when we say so. You may take a moment to weigh your opt—“
Jewish leaders: “We’ll take #2, please.”
Fast forward to 29 AD. Judas’s entire generation is the first generation to be born into and grow up entirely under Roman rule. Undoubtedly, they were told their entire lives that their people were God’s chosen people, and one day God would lead them in rebellion against their Roman conquerors to make a united Israel into a world political power (They attempted to do this three times in the years following Jesus’s death, and were humiliated each time). Now be Judas Iscariot, whose surname is most likely derived from the Hebrew word qiryah, a word that many believe to be a common reference to the southern Jewish city of Kerioth. If there’s anything I know about America, it’s that growing up in a middle-of-nowhere city is a great way to insulate yourself from other cultures and be fully indoctrinated into a worldview consumed by a nationalist agenda. I’d imagine it was no different for Judas, who, now a middle-aged man, adamantly believes that they are still the true God’s chosen people, and God’s chosen conqueror could rise up any day to lead the rebellion against the Romans.
Now this Jesus of Nazareth, a no-name town just like Kerioth, starts getting attention throughout all the no-name Judean towns. Like Vladimir Lenin & the Soviet Union, L. Ron Hubbard & The Church of Scientology, and countless over revolutionary leaders throughout history, Jesus was gaining influence not by rising through the established power hierarchy or by acquiring wealth, but by mobilizing the marginalized peoples: the sick, the poor, the weak, and the uneducated. As Jesus begins His ministry, He intentionally selects Judas by name to be part of His inner circle, and Judas probably couldn’t say yes fast enough. Things are going great in the beginning as Jesus keeps talking about things like love & peace and performs a bunch of crazy miracles. People love it. Judas loves that people love it.
Then the red flags start to come up for Judas. Jesus’s words are clearly controversial and critical, but He keeps directing them at the Pharisees instead of the Romans. “Okay, the Pharisees aren’t the best leaders,” Judas probably thought to himself, “but we’re going to need some sort of power in our corner when the big rebellion day comes.” But it gets worse. Every time they get moving with a substantial crowd, Jesus turns around and says something that makes most of the crowd want to leave. Things now appear to be going the wrong direction. Judas then goes off on his own for a little while one day to reflect on the past couple of years. He thinks about how every time Jesus brings up concepts like fighting and waging war, it’s always directed at things like sin and the devil rather than the Romans. Come to think of it, one of the only times Jesus has mentioned the Romans thus far was when He was talking about paying taxes to Caesar (not a very rebellious thing to do), and He couldn’t have cared less about the question. In fact, He almost seemed frustrated that He was interrupted in the middle of another one of his “Kingdom of Heaven” parables to be asked about the Romans.
A scary thought enters Judas’s mind: What if Jesus isn’t the one? Sure, all the peace & love talk was great for getting people on board, but he thought surely that was only intended for fellow Jews rather than the whole world. He’d been the crew’s treasurer this whole time, which was quite a simple job considering they never had hardly any money in the first place, but that was supposed to change at some point, right? As Jesus continues preaching about things like “the Day of the Lord” and “the Kingdom of Heaven”, it’s starting to sound more and more like Israel isn’t necessarily part of that whole event. What if…what if Jesus plans to continue doing this forever?! They were about to enter Jerusalem for Passover, a time Judas had circled on the calendar as the “now or never” time for Jesus to begin the operation. It was all too perfect: they were going to be in God’s Holy City on God’s Holy Day, and just like in Egypt, God would deliver His people through a violent rebellion led by Jesus of Nazareth. But nothing could have prepared Judas for the bombshell Jesus would drop after they entered the city:
“If you (Jerusalem) had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” –Luke 19:42-44
That was it. Not only was Jesus saying Israel wouldn’t rise again, but now He’s saying Jerusalem will fall! And He went out of His way to be pretty graphic about it, too. Judas realized in that moment that these last three years of his life had been nothing but a waste of time. Instead of being part of the rise of Israel about all the other nations, the thing he’d been taught for his entire life was Israel’s destiny, he’d assisted a man who had been intentionally subverting this exact agenda. Jesus couldn’t be sent from God, much less be God Himself as He claimed, because God wants Israel to be on top in this life. Judas knew what he had to do now. It was his duty as Jew to have Jesus silenced for the good of Israel.
I tell this story to make a point that I will now state bluntly: the ideas of nationalism and patriotism, whether for the sake of ideological advancement or self-preservation, will almost always be at odds with Jesus’s mission for His people. His people are not represented by a single flag, culture, song, race, gender, border, name, or any other qualifier mankind invents for itself. “One nation under God,” but which god is it? America is simply repeating the sins of the Holy Roman Empire, an empire that justified its sinful actions by performing them in the name of a God who doesn’t care about who the biggest ant on top of the dirt pile is.
If you’re reading this and you’re not a Christian, don’t write this off as another Christian saying “those Christians aren’t the REAL Christians.” I ask that you judge the actions of Christians based on the words of Jesus rather than judge the words of Jesus based on the actions of Christians. If you are a Christian and you’re reading this, I hope you’ll reflect this story on your own life and, if necessary, repent & turn from the divisiveness of extreme nationalism. But whoever you are, thanks for reading.