I couldn’t find Judas in the most popular baby names on babynames.com. It wasn’t there in between Joshua and Justin. It’s just not a name you want to give a kid. Even though other biblical names, like Sarah and Jacob, have become popular again, not so Judas. Although it was a common first name in 1st century AD, the name Judas has since become synonymous with betrayal and treachery.
I got to thinking about Judas because of the story in Acts about the need for Jesus’ disciples to hold an election in order to bring their number back up to twelve. So Matthias is chosen to replace Judas, and Judas disappears into infamy. Or into Hell (or according to Dante, the lowest ring of hell, being eternally gnawed on by Satan).
But wait! I’ve got a lot of questions about what went down with Judas. There are conflicting stories of how he died: either he hanged himself, or (in Luke’s grosser version) he fell and “burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” So which is it? And how come, if Jesus’ death was all part of God’s plan, Judas had to take the fall (so to speak)? Why would he be condemned?
And then there’s the dilemma posed by Paul’s letters, the earliest writing of the New Testament. First of all, Paul has no negative references to Judas at all, oddly does not name Judas as the one who handed Jesus over to the authorities. Secondly, in 1 Cor the risen Christ appeared, first to Cephas (Peter) and then to “the Twelve” – not “the Eleven.” Since this supposedly occurred after Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Judas’ death and before the election of Matthias, one has to wonder what’s going on here.
The more I looked into it, the more curious I became. But then I became more than curious; I became alarmed. The trajectory of the notoriety of Judas begins with zero mention in Paul, increasing negativity in the gospels in the order they’re written, until its culmination in John. In the context of John’s gospel, which reflected the painful separation of Christianity from Judaism, Judas becomes the focus of hostility towards ’the Jews.’ We are painfully aware of how this became the seeds in western Christian history from which sprung the Inquisition, Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic rants, and the Holocaust.
So is our treatment of Judas also a result of character assassination? Can it be a coincidence that the name Judas is similar to Judah, the name of the entire Jewish nation? Can it be, as John Shelby Spong queries, that “Judas is a literary figure, a corporate symbol developed for an interpretive purpose to serve some apologetic Christian need?”
I don’t know. But there are enough questions to keep me from making assumptions about Judas, what he did and why, and if he ended up in heaven or hell. And to remind me that Christianity was born in the womb of Judaism, and even though there was a parting of ways, the conflict of the 1st century and the ensuing hostility towards ‘the Jews’ since, should not continue into the 21st. As my friend Rita likes to say about Jesus: “He was one of our guys!” And so he was. Maybe we can also make that claim for Judas.