Friday, April 06, 2007

The Gospel According To Judas?

If you enjoy this essay, please consider purchasing a copy of Where Dawkins Went Wrong and Other Theological Blockbusters from this address - a collection of  some of the best and most-linked-to essays from this blog and its predecessor. It contains my five part assault critique of 'The God Delusion', along with essays on gay bishops, the 'gospel' of Judas, the 'legend' of the three wise men. 

Or pledge $1 an essay on Patreon

Last Easter, the newspapers got very excited about the publication of a book called The Lost Gospel of Judas. And if you know the difference between a Valentianist and Sethian, then a new Coptic codex from the third century is indeed a very exciting discovery. If, like me, you couldn't define 'Coptic' or 'Codex' with any confidence, then it isn't. Perhaps the most interesting question arising from the book was 'How did National Geographic manage to convince the press that it could possibly be the kind of thing that their readers would be interested in?'
The manuscript that caused all the fuss is neither lost, nor a gospel, nor by Judas. The publishers managed to give non-specialist readers the impression they had discovered some important new information about The Historical Jesus. A writer in Edge -- of all places – remarked that someone had recently published "Jesus' life, as portrayed by the man who grassed him up.". The book isn't written by Judas, and it certainly doesn't tell the story of Jesus' life. The Guardian, reporting the Pope's Easter sermon, mentioned that:
The National Geographic Society unveiled a leather-bound papyrus written in around AD300 that gives Judas's side of the story behind the most notorious deception in religious history.'
It doesn't.
It went on:
The 26-page manuscript says Judas was singled out by Christ from the other apostles and entrusted with revealing his whereabouts to the Romans.
It doesn't say that, either.
Of course it would be exciting to discover an account of the Crucifixion which was independent of the four Biblical Gospels. But the National Geographic's manuscript is no such thing. It's simply another work of fourth century religious fiction, in which a minor character from the New Testament is the imagined recipient of 'new' and 'esoteric' teachings by Jesus. Philip, Thomas, Mary Magdalene, Joseph of Arimethea, Nicodemus, Matthew, Pilate -- if we were to believe the 'apocryphal' literature, Jesus gave secret teachings to the lot of them, all more or less at the level of:
The twelve aeons of the twelve luminaries constitute their father, with six heavens for each aeon, so that there are seventy-two heavens for the seventy-two luminaries, and for each of them five firmaments, for a total of three hundred and sixty firmaments. They were given authority and a great host of angels for glory and adoration, and after that also virgin spirits, for glory and adoration, of all the aeons and the heavens and their firmaments. The multitude of those immortals is called the cosmos -- that is perdition -- by the Father and the seventy two luminaries who are with the self-generated and his seventy two aeons....
So now you know.
A document in which the living Jesus appears and disappears at will, manifests in the form of a child, and claims to come from the 'immortal realm of Barbelo' is rather an odd one to be reading if you want to know out what 'really happened' in Jerusalem circa 33 CE. In fact, only two lines in the text seem to point, even obliquely, to Judas' rehabilitation. In one 'Jesus' says of 'Judas':
You will become the thirteenth, and you will be cursed by the other generations, and you will come to rule over them.
This doesn't really tell us anything more than that the author of the manuscript thought that Judas was eventually going to be regarded as Top Apostle: we're not told why. The gnostics did a lot of reversals of this kind. In some of their cosmologies God is the baddie, and Satan is the goodie.
In another passage 'Jesus' says:
You will exceed all of them, for you will sacrifice the man who clothes me.
Weird as the gnostics undoubtedly were, they didn't think that Judas was going to execute Jesus' tailor. We are dealing with a form of Christianity in which 'Jesus' and 'Christ' are two separate beings: the divine 'Christ' hitched a ride in the body of the mortal 'Jesus'. The gnostic 'Judas' is going to arrange for 'Jesus' to be killed, but this won't effect the divine 'Christ'. 'Judas' won't kill 'Jesus' but only the body which Jesus is temporarily inhabiting. The manuscript doesn't give any further information about how this sacrificed will be achieved. There is no account of the Last Supper, no description of Jesus' arrest, and no hint of what became of Judas in the end. It does describe how Judas went and agreed to help the Priests arrest Jesus in return for money, but the account is not that different from the standard version in the New Testament.
Their high priests murmured because he had gone into the guest room for his prayer. But some scribes were there watching carefully in order to arrest him during the prayer, for they were afraid of the people, since he was regarded by all as a prophet. They approached Judas and said to him "What are you doing here? You are Jesus' disciple." Judas answered them as they wished. And he received some money and handed him over to them.
And, unless you are fascinated by the various iterations of gnostic cosmology, that is pretty much all there is to say about the 'Lost' 'Gospel' of 'Judas': as a contribution to gnostic studies, doubtless very important; but as a contribution to our understanding of the character of Judas Iscariot, not very interesting at all.

While the newspapers were full of this, and while the Pope and the Archbishop were preaching sermons upholding the 'orthodox' account, I decided I had better check my Bible and see what the canonical Gospels actually say about Judas Iscariot. I thought I knew the story. Judas saw things only in terms of worldly power; he was greedy and sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver; he led the priests to the garden of Gethsemane and identified Jesus to them by kissing him; he was filled with remorse, threw the silver back in the priests' faces, and hanged himself.
To my surprise, I found that I was wandering into a textual minefield. It seems to me that there is a case for saying that at least one of the canonical Gospels does indeed set out to exonerate the most notorious traitor in history.

What follows is very long and boring. I strongly advise you not to read it.
Incidentally, a happy Easter to all of you at home.
1: Betrayal
2: The Woman With the Jar
3: Why do the Priests need a betrayer?
4: 'One of you will betray me'
5: How many thrones?
6: What does Judas do?
7: Thirty pieces of silver
8: Where have we got to so far?
9: The feast of unleavened bread
10: The fourth Gospel
11: The Elephant in the Upper Room

1: Betrayal
Jesus was betrayed. Paul's description of the Last Supper begins:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you: That the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: and when he had given thanks, he brake it...
This is almost the only bit of narrative about Jesus that Paul reports. Paul doesn't say who betrayed Jesus, or why, or how -- but he takes it for granted that someone betrayed him, and that this betrayal was in some way connected with the Last Supper.
Jesus expected to be betrayed. On several occasions he predicted that he would die in Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark and Luke report his words with minor variations. In Matthew, he says that he will be 'betrayed unto the chief priests' and later that he will be 'betrayed to be crucified'; Luke has 'delivered unto the gentiles'; and Mark has both: 'delivered unto the chief priests...and they shall deliver him to the gentiles.'
The words 'betrayed' and 'delivered' are used interchangeably. When Paul says that he delivered to the Corinthians the story about what had happened on the night Jesus was betrayed he uses the same Greek word paradidomi in both cases. This word doesn't necessarily imply duplicity: elsewhere Paul can say that God 'did not spare his own son, but delivered him over for us all'.
Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot. The four canonical Gospels all agree on this point. We know practically nothing else about Judas. When Matthew and Mark list the names of the twelve disciples, Judas is introduced as 'Judas Iscariot, which also betrayed him'. Again, the word is paradidomi: 'Judas Iscariot who handed Jesus over'; 'Judas Iscariot who delivered Jesus up.' Luke says something slightly different. 'Judas Iscariot, which also was the traitor.' The word here is prodotes, which seems to be much stronger, and to imply breaking faith or being untrue (e.g. 'traitors and murderers' in Acts 7). It almost looks as if Luke has deliberately strengthened Mark's description of Judas? i.
"But Luke says something slightly different." This will become something of a refrain in this discussion.

2: The Woman With the Jar
At some point during his ministry, Jesus is a guest in someone's house. After the meal, a woman comes in with a very expensive jar of perfume. She pours the contents of the jar over Jesus. One of those present objects: but Jesus praises the woman and says that she has done the right thing.
This is one of the relatively few stories which occurs in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark the story is sandwiched between the priests' decision to have Jesus killed and Judas' decision to help them. It is therefore hard to avoid thinking that the woman's actions had something to do with Judas' betrayal. If so, it is the only hint we have about his motivation.
This is how Mark tells the story:
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take (Jesus) by craft, and put him to death. But they said, 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people'.
And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard, very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head. And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, 'Why was this waste of the ointment made? For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor.' And they murmured against her.
And Jesus said, 'Let her alone; why trouble ye her? She hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always. She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying. Verily I say unto you, wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.'
And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
Matthew tells the story in almost exactly the same words. He says that the ointment could have been sold 'for much' rather than for three hundred pence; and that it was 'the disciples', rather than people in general, who objected to the waste.
The connection between this story and Judas betrayal is not accidental juxtapositioning. John tells a slightly different version of the story. In his gospel, the person who anoints Jesus is not 'a woman' but Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. (Who is NOT (necessarily) the same person as Mary Magdalene.) The location of the event is still Bethany, but since John says that 'Martha served' I think he implies that the meal takes place at the house of Martha and Mary rather than that of the mysterious Simon the Leper. And the person who objects to the waste is not 'some of those present' or 'the disciples' – but Judas Iscariot himself. In other respects, John agrees with Matthew and Mark: the ointment is worth 300 silver pieces, Judas wants it sold for the poor, and Jesus says: 'Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you: but me ye have not always.' John does not specifically say that Judas went to the priests as the result of this event: indeed, he doesn't report any meeting between Judas and the priests prior to the Last Supper. But he seems to agree with Matthew and Mark that there is some connection between the anointing of Jesus and Judas' betrayal.
What's the link? I can think of the following possible explanations:
a: Judas the Communist
Judas is genuinely shocked at the waste of 300 silver pieces. (An astronomical sum: one silver piece is a fair wage for a whole day's grape-picking; 200 silver pieces will pay for a light fish supper for five thousand.) Judas must have been under the impression that the Kingdom or God meant helping the poor, the disabled and the excluded. It is now plain to him that what he thought was a revolutionary message is simply a personality cult. Many people still think that 'the poor are with you always' is a shocking message: perhaps Judas was even in the right?
b: Judas the Shylock
John pours cold water over the Socialist Judas idea. Judas was a hypocrite: 'This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.' All he cared about was getting his hands on Mary's cash. John doesn't make any explicit connection between the anointing, Judas greed, and the betrayal: indeed, John doesn't even say that Judas was paid by the Priests. But many people have conflated Matthew (who says that Judas was paid 30 pieces of silver) and John (who says that Judas was a thief) and concluded that he was taking a 'tithe' of the disciples' money and keeping it for himself. He sold his Lord simply to make up the 30 s.p he had personally lost through not auctioning the 300 s.p ointment. Business is business.
c: Judas the Logician.
Judas had thought of Jesus as a great spiritual leader. But when he says 'Right now, I am more important than the poor', Judas correctly infers that Jesus is making a direct claim to godhood. And Judas has read Josh McDowell: if a man claims to be God, then he has either mad, bad or a poached egg. And the right thing to do with a raving madman is to hand him over to the authorities.
d: There is no causal link
The woman's actions didn't cause Judas to betray Jesus. Matthew and Mark put the stories side by side (and John incorporates Judas into his story of Mary) in order to make a thematic point: 'Contrast' they are saying 'Mary's fantastically generous act with Judas' absurdly mean one.'
Whatever interpretation we put on the story, it is the only hint that the New Testament gives us about Judas' motivation in betraying Jesus. And Luke omits it altogether.
In his account, Jesus is indeed anointed, but the details of his story are entirely different. He puts the story at the beginning of his Gospel, out of the context of the betrayal and the Passion. It doesn't happen in Bethany. The host is a Pharisee named Simon, but we are not told if he is a leper. The gatecrasher is said to be a 'sinful woman'. (Not a prostitute, incidentally: C.S Lewis remarks that for all we know her sins could have been shop-lifting or tax-evasion or cruelty to children.) This woman does not anoint Jesus' head; rather, she pours the oil on his feet 'and wiped them with the hairs of her head'. No-one objects to the waste of ointment: but Simon the Pharisee think that Jesus ought not to have allowed himself to be touched by a sinner. Jesus replies with a parable about two debtors, one of whom had a small debt cancelled, and the other a big one. He concludes
Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
Where the message that Matthew, Mark and John seem to draw from the story is that true worship is even more important than practical good works; Luke's version is a re-iteration of the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee: sinners will find it easier to enter the Kingdom than 'good' people because the former know that they are totally reliant on God's grace where the latter may think that they are not. As a storyteller, Luke wins hands down, since he adds the telling detail that the woman 'wiped Jesus feet with her hair' (a detail which appears to have been taken up and used by John.) ii
Matthew and Mark place the story of the anointing in between the Priest's decision to kill Jesus and Judas' offer to deliver him to them. What does Luke put in its place?
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people.
Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot, being of the number of the twelve.
And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them. And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money.
So: not only does Luke make Judas a traitor, rather than merely a deliverer-upper; he also excises the story which may possibly hint at an explanation for what Judas did, and replaces it unequivocally with the statement that he was a vessel for Satan himself.

3: Why do the priests require a betrayer?
Here, the three synoptics are in agreement. Matthew and Mark say that the priests -
Consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty and kill him. But they said 'Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.'
Luke simply says that they 'sought how they might kill him, for they feared the people' but adds later that Judas was to 'find opportunity to betray him unto them in the absence of the multitude.' This is pretty clear: Jesus is a popular figure and the Priests think that if they arrest him while Jerusalem is full of pilgrims they will provoke a riot. The problem isn't that they can't kill Jesus, but that they can't kill him yet. If they had a stooge who could lead them to a place where they could arrest him with minimal fuss, it would be a different matter.

4: 'One of you will betray me'
All four writers agree that during the Last Supper, Jesus indicated that one of the twelve would betray him. The synoptics very strongly imply, and John says explicitly, that Judas left during supper to fetch the priests and thus facilitate Jesus' arrest.
Mark describes it as follows:
And as they sat and did eat, Jesus said, 'Verily I say unto you, One of you which eateth with me shall betray me.'
And they began to be sorrowful, and to say unto him one by one, 'Is it I?' and another said, 'Is it I?'
And he answered and said unto them, 'It is one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in the dish. The Son of Man indeed goeth, as it is written of him: but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! Good were it for that man if he had never been born.'
Matthew repeats Mark's version verbatim, but he adds one further point:
Now when the even was come, he sat down with the twelve. And as they did eat, he said, 'Verily I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.'
And they were exceeding sorrowful, and began every one of them to say unto him, 'Lord, is it I?'
And he answered and said, 'He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me. The Son of Man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.'
Then Judas, which betrayed him, answered and said, 'Master, is it I?' He said unto him, 'Thou hast said.'
Matthew and Mark are very clear about what happened: the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus 'Is it I?' Mark seems to go out of his way to underline this point: he says that they asked the question 'one by one' and that 'another' said it. We have to imagine the same fatal question being asked twelve times in succession. Matthew seems to say that Judas takes his turn last, and that when he asks Jesus 'Is it I?' Jesus replies, in affect 'Yes, it is.' ('Thou hast said' seems to be a simple affirmative, more like 'You said it!' than 'So you say...' When Caiaphas asks Jesus directly if he is the Son of God, he takes 'Thou hast said' to be an admission of guilt, not an evasion of the question.)
As long as we believe in the version which 'everybody knows' – Judas is a selfish sinner who betrayed Jesus for cash – this makes no sense. Why should the disciples take turns to ask 'Is it I?' Thomas may over-inclined to doubt things; Peter may find it hard to open his mouth without putting his foot in it; James and John may be too enthusiastic about incinerating villages. But they know that they are not traitors: so what are they asking?
I cannot get out of my head the idea that Matthew's version of makes more sense if we suppose that Jesus is not making a prophecy but asking for a volunteer. When Judas says 'Master, is it I?' and Jesus replies 'You said it!' Jesus is selecting Judas to perform the terrible, but necessary, task.
Luke's version is slightly different:
But, behold, the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table. And truly the Son of man goeth, as it was determined: but woe unto that man by whom he is betrayed!'
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
He gives no impression that the disciples ritualistically ask Jesus 'Is it I?'; and certainly no sense that Jesus singles out Judas. They don't ask Jesus who is going to do it: they 'enquire among themselves'. It feels to me as if Luke is describing an agitated discussion: we can easily imagine the disciples saying 'What does he mean? Who can it be?' Luke's version is the one we naturally think of when imagining the story, perhaps because the implications of Matthew's account are too disturbing.

5: How many thrones?
All three synoptics tell a story in which Jesus advises a rich man to donate everything he owns to charity; drawing the famous conclusion that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark continues the story like this:
Then Peter began to say unto him, 'Lo, we have left all, and have followed thee.'
And Jesus answered and said, 'Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel's, But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.'
Matthew quotes Mark exactly, but he adds an additional saying:
Then answered Peter and said unto him, 'Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?'
And Jesus said unto them, 'Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.'
This is a hugely embarrassing passage. Is Peter is going to sit in twelve thrones simultaneously? Perhaps eleven disciples are going to share twelve thrones between them? Or maybe the many millions of Jesus disciples that there are going to be over the centuries will each get a turn in sitting in one of the twelve thrones? Unless you work very hard indeed, the plain meaning seems to be that Matthew thought that Jesus thought that Judas would share with the other disciples the task of ruling the new Israel -- or else that Matthew thinks that at this point in the story, Jesus had no foreknowledge that Judas would turn traitor.
Luke seems to have spotted the problem. He sticks with Mark's version of Jesus' conversation with Peter, that is, with no reference to the disciples sitting in thrones. He does quote this prophecy in his gospel, but he places it in a completely different context. Luke has Jesus saying the words during the Last Supper itself – after he has announced Judas betrayal. And there is one other striking difference:
And they began to enquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing.
And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so [...]Ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations. And I appoint unto you a kingdom, as my Father hath appointed unto me; That ye may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.'
Although the synoptics do not say so, it is logical to assume that Judas left the Supper at some point and went to fetch the priests. This has to have happened after he said to Jesus 'Is it I?' (John makes this very explicit: Judas left after supper, and isn't present for Jesus long and intimate discourse which the above passage from Luke somewhat resembles.) If this is correct, then Judas must leave somewhere between verses 23 and 24 of Luke 22: that is, he is can't be present when Jesus talks about giving the disciples a kingdom.
Presumably, the 'twelve thrones' prophecy was part of the hypothetical 'Q' document, and Matthew and Luke independently looked for places where they could logically fit it into their narratives. The fact that Luke puts this passage in the context of announcement of Judas' betrayal; and the fact that he has 'thrones' where Matthew has 'twelve thrones' is too striking to be a co-incidence. Luke must have been aware that the prophecy presents a huge problem, and has recast it in a setting where it can't do any harm. Matthew either fails to see its significance; or understands its significance and doesn't have a problem with it. This makes Luke seem slightly more hostile to Judas than Matthew is: Luke goes out of his way to exclude Judas from a leadership position in the New Israel, Matthew seems to leave this open as a possibility.

6: What does Judas do?
'Everyone knows' that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss. Here is Mark:
'....It is enough, the hour is come; behold, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.'
And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. And he that betrayed him had given them a token, saying, 'Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is he; take him, and lead him away safely'. And as soon as he was come, he goeth straightway to him, and saith, 'Master, master'; and kissed him. And they laid their hands on him, and took him.
Jesus says 'The Son of Man is betrayed': not, for example 'The Son of Man has been betrayed'. The act of delivering Jesus up is what is happening now, in the Garden, not what happened yesterday afternoon when Judas went and made a pact with his enemies.
Matthew follows Mark exactly, with one addition:
And forthwith he came to Jesus, and said, 'Hail, master'; and kissed him. And Jesus said unto him, 'Friend, wherefore art thou come?' Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him.
Mark says that Judas greeted Jesus as 'master'; Matthew adds that Jesus replied by calling Judas 'friend'. (The Greek seems to be ambiguous. The New International Version translates it as 'Friend, do what you came for', but quotes 'Why have you come?' as an alternative in a footnote. The New English Bible quotes 'Do what you are here to do,' but footnotes 'What are you here for?' The Good News Bible –as ever, paraphrasing rather than translating - offers 'Be quick about it, friend' and footnotes 'Why are you here, friend?')
Luke is slightly different. Judas and Jesus do not greet each other: there is no 'friend' or 'master'. He doesn't mention that the kiss was a pre-arranged symbol from Judas to the Priests. And he adds a superb dramatic detail:
And while he yet spake, behold a multitude, and he that was called Judas, one of the twelve, went before them, and drew near unto Jesus to kiss him. But Jesus said unto him, 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?'
So far as I can see, this means that Luke thinks that Judas tried to kiss Jesus: but Jesus wouldn't let him. Presumably, he turns away. And the words 'Judas, betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?' are far more memorable than 'Friend, do what you came to do?', which is presumably why Luke has, again, become the received version.
But I am tempted to ask... How did Mark know that Judas had told the Priests to arrest the man he kissed? Traditionally Mark is recording Peter's recollections -- but how did Peter know? Judas was busy committing suicide and/or getting into real estate; certainly not on speaking terms with the Eleven. Caiphas would hardly have told them. And in any case, why did the authorities need Jesus pointed out, when they already knew who he was and only required Judas to lead them to a quiet place where they could arrest him without a riot?
Remove Mark's comment, and Judas actions might have a quite different meaning. He still regards Jesus as Master; Jesus still regards him as Friend; they exchange a kiss of friendship to show that there is no ill-will between them. Perhaps the disciples saw Judas kiss Jesus, and Peter, when he told the story, or Mark, when he wrote it down, drew the inference that it must have been some kind of signal -- because the more obvious explanation was simply too shocking.

7: Thirty pieces of silver?
"Everybody knows" that Judas sold Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. However, this detail only occurs in Matthew's gospel. In Mark and Luke, Judas goes to the priests and offers to deliver Jesus up to them; and the Priests respond by promising to give him 'money'. In Matthew, it is Judas who asks for money, and the priests come up with the figure of thirty silver pieces.
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests and said unto them, 'What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?' And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.
Matthew is particularly interested in drawing connections between Jesus life and events in the Old Testament. He might have noted that, in the book of Exodus, it is laid down that if your bull accidentally kills someone else's slave you have to pay 30 silver pieces in compensation. (You also have to stone the bull.) Or he might have pointed out that in Genesis, someone called 'Judah', also one of a group of twelve, has the idea of selling his brother Joseph into slavery. He gets a more generous 300 silver pieces for the transaction. But instead Matthew refers us to a minor prophet, Zechariah. Once, after a preaching engagement, Zechariah suggested that his congregation take up a collection to cover his expenses. Thirty silver pieces was the sum they came up with. God says, in effect: 'Well, if that is all they think I am worth, then throw the money back in their faces.'
And I said unto them, 'If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear.' So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said unto me, 'Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them.' And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD.
Matthew quotes the passage slightly differently, presumably because he's working from the Greek translation:
And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.
But his point is still clear: the people in Zechariah's time thought that God was only worth thirty silver pieces (the price of a slave?) and now, here they are literally buying and selling Jesus for the same sum.
To add to the general sense of confusion, Matthew attributes the quote to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah. The New International Version, rather desperately, cites some verses in Jeremiah which refer to fields, potters, and money that Matthew might have had in mind -- which seems a lot of trouble to go to to explain away a very obvious slip of the pen.
Matthew goes on to say that Judas 'repented himself'; returned the money to the priests, and committed suicide. Luke says something different: Judas used the 'reward of his iniquity' to buy land; and at some subsequent time 'he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.' About the only thing that Matthew and Luke are agreed on is that there was a field involved. Matthew has the priests using the 'blood money' to buy a graveyard for strangers called the 'potters field'; Luke has the land that he bought being called the 'field of blood'. The 'Potters Field' is Matthew's attempt to link the story with the Zechariah prophecy. Luke points us to Psalm 69 'Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein' and tells us that the disciples appointed a new disciple, Matthias, to make the number up to twelve

8: Where we have got to so far
Matthew consistently presents Judas in a better light than Luke.
  • Matthew uses the neutral word 'deliver up' to describe Judas action; Luke says unambiguously 'traitor'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus and Judas called each other 'friend' and 'master'; Luke omits this.
  • Matthew says that Jesus let Judas kiss him; Luke says that he didn't.
  • Matthew says that Judas got no benefit from his fee, was filled with remorse, and killed himself; Luke says that he kept the money, invested it in real estate, and then exploded.
  • Luke describes what Judas did as 'his iniquity'.
  • Matthew says that Jesus said that all twelve disciples would sit on twelve thrones; Luke omits the word 'twelve'.
  • Matthew's account of the Last Supper depicts a strange ritual in which each of the disciples take it in turns to ask Jesus if they are the betrayer, and Jesus selects Judas. Luke merely says that the disciples talked among themselves, before having one of their perennial squabbles about who was the greatest.
  • Matthew implies that Judas is provoked into his actions because of something which happened when the woman anointed Jesus; Luke omits this story, and instead tells us that he was prompted by Satan.
  • There is only one point at which Matthew seems to present Judas in a worse light than Luke: Matthew says that Judas asked the priests for money; Luke says that they volunteered it. But Matthew is presumably making a theological point 'The Priest's regarded Jesus as not having much value – he was only worth the price of slave, just as God was only worth the price of a slave at the time of Zechariah' rather than recording a piece of historical data.

9: The Feast of Unleavened Bread
Matthew, Mark and Luke have all shown Jesus in conflict with the priesthood: only recently he has used violence to drive the money lenders out of the temple. But why have the priests suddenly decided that killing Jesus is a matter of urgency? Matthew, Mark and Luke show us the reason very clearly, but I think that we are inclined to miss it, because we are reading the Gospels in the wrong way.
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, "Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified". Then assembled together the chief priests.... (Matthew)
After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. (Mark)
Now the feast of unleavened bread drew nigh, which is called the Passover. And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people. (Luke)
This seems to be a non-sequential jump: it's two days before the passover, so the Priests decide to kill Jesus. What is the significance of the date? Mark and Luke make the point for us:
And the first day of unleavened bread, when they killed the passover, his disciples said unto him, "Where wilt thou that we go and prepare that thou mayest eat the passover?" (Mark)
Then came the day of unleavened bread, when the passover must be killed. And he sent Peter and John, saying, "Go and prepare us the passover, that we may eat." (Luke)
'When they killed the passover'; 'When the passover must be killed'. The synoptic writers are not, at this point, interested in the human motivations of the Priesthood. Jesus identifies himself with the passover lamb; therefore, the passover is the day when Jesus must be killed. The Priests have decided to kill Jesus, because killing Jesus is their role in the drama. (Priests kill sacrificial lambs; that is what 'Priest' means.) We make a mistake if we try to uncover the content of a political or psychological intrigue from what is at this point a mythological, even a magical story.
But the Priests can't kill Jesus during the passover, because they fear 'an uproar' of the people. Does this mean that they are afraid of provoking a revolution? Or does it mean that arresting Jesus is simply impossible – he is now so popular that they can't get near him? Either way we have a impasse, a deadlock between the mythological imperative to kill the Passover lamb at Passover itself; and the practical reality which makes this impossible.
Jesus has to be killed by the Priests at passover, but passover is the one time when the Priests can't kill Jesus. So why doesn't he turn himself in? T.S Eliot famously expounded the paradox that although martyrdom is the highest calling a Christian can have, if you choose it, or even desire it, then you aren't a martyr. When Christians were a persecuted sect, they recognized this problem: to be thrown to the lions for being a Christian was a Good Thing; but if you walked into the market square and shouted 'Look at me, I'm a Christian!' you weren't martyr but a suicide. The problem has acquired a horrible modern relevance: can someone who commits suicide in order to kill his enemies be regarded as a martyr? So perhaps, in order to be the Passover lamb, Jesus has to be handed over or delivered up -- not hand himself over or deliver himself up. His sacrifice has to be something which is done to him. So he needs a deliverer-upper.
And this, I think, is the significance of the woman who anointed Jesus. What provokes Judas into action is not the waste of money, but Jesus' words:
"She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying." (Mt)
"For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial." (Mk)
"Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this." (J)
Jesus is not merely expecting to die; he regards himself as already dead, and thanks Mary for embalming him. If we want to look at this psychologically, we could say that Jesus is giving the disciples a signal. 'It's time. Arrange for me to be delivered up.' But it is mistake to look at these stories in terms of cause and effect. At the end of Jesus ministry a woman anointed his body for the burial; once he had been prepared for burial someone went to arrange for his arrest; the arrest of Jesus happened because it was the right time for it to happen; the fact that he had been embalmed showed that it was the right time.
And of course, the next day, Jesus continued to talk in the same way. Having met with his disciples to eat the Passover, Jesus gives them all a pieces of bread and said 'This is my body.' He is not saying that he expects to die: he is saying that (mythologically and magically) he is a dead man. By telling them to eat his body on Passover night, he is is saying that he regards himself as the Passover lamb. In the magical paradigm, the natural order of events has been reversed. Having eaten the Passover Lamb, all that remains is to slaughter him.

10: The Fourth Gospel
John's version of events contains a number of differences from the synoptics.
1: Jesus has always known that Judas is going to betray him.
After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus gives out some particularly obscure teachings. Jesus comments: 'There are some of you that believe not', and John adds:
'For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him.'
A little later, as a result of the same sermon, some of his followers desert him. Jesus asks if any of the Twelve are also planning to defect.
Then Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.'
Jesus answered them, 'Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil?' He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.
John says that this miracle happened around the time of Passover. And Jesus follows it up with a strange message in which he identifies himself with the manna that the Jews ate during the exodus.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him."
Understandably, some of those present say 'This is an hard saying' -- that's why some of them decide to leave. John clearly wants us to make a connection between the feeding of the five thousand and the Last Supper: it is therefore very interesting that this is the context in which he first mentions Judas forthcoming betrayal.
2: John gives a slightly more naturalistic account of the circumstances of Jesus arrest
As we have seen the synoptics don't give any literal reason why the Priests decided to kill Jesus as a matter of urgency. John offers a very specific explanation. Jesus has become very popular following the resurrection of Lazarus. The Priests see that if this provokes the occupying forces to have a crackdown, they aren't likely to distinguish between this charismatic preacher and the official priesthood -- so it is vitally important that they do something to emphatically distance themselves from the Jesus movement.
John also gives us a more rational explanation as to why the Priests need Judas' help. Jesus knows that the Priests are plotting to kill him:
Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness.
This strongly implies that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests actually need a mole who will direct them to his hide-out. This is slightly different from the synoptics who say that he's still a public figure, and the priests are just looking for somewhere quiet to take him into custody.
3: John does not say that Judas went to the Priests in advance, or that they gave him money.
4: John's version of the Last Supper story is unique
John describes the Last Supper as follows:
When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, 'Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me'. Then the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him, that he should ask who it should be of whom he spake. He then lying on Jesus' breast saith unto him, 'Lord, who is it?' Jesus answered, 'He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it.' And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.
Then said Jesus unto him, 'That thou doest, do quickly' Now no man at the table knew for what intent he spake this unto him. For some of them thought, because Judas had the bag, that Jesus had said unto him, 'Buy those things that we have need of against the feast'; or, that he should give something to the poor. He then having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night.
As in the other three versions, Jesus says that he is going to be betrayed – indeed. John cites exactly the same words that Matthew does. As we have seen, in Matthew and Mark all the disciples ask Jesus to identify the betrayer; in Luke, they talk among themselves. In John, they merely look at each other. However, Peter asks John to ask Jesus to point out who the betrayer will be.
Jesus singles out Judas by giving him a small piece of bread. Although some details are different, this feels very similar to Matthew's account: in both versions, it appears that Jesus is selecting Judas, rather than merely identifying him. 'And when he had dipped the sop, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon. And after the sop Satan entered into him.' Although Jesus says during the 'bread from heaven' discourse that Judas 'is' a devil; and John says at the beginning of the Last Supper 'the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him....' this appears to be the point at which Judas makes his decision irrevocably.
So the overall structure is essentially the same as the synoptics: Judas goes to the Upper Room having taken the first steps to becoming a betrayer (Satan as put it into his mind; he has discussed it with the Priests) but now, Jesus singles him out (gives him the sop, uses the words 'Thou hast said') and he makes the decision irrevocably.
The 'sop of bread' is rather interesting. Matthew and Mark both have Jesus say that the betrayer will be 'one of the twelve, that dippeth with me in this dish' ('he that dippeth his hand with me in the dish'); but neither of them seem to know that story about Jesus giving Judas a sop. There doesn't seem to be any Old Testament prophecy which they are both drawing on: John quotes Psalm 41 'Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me' – but this doesn't mention dishes, and is in any case covered by the presence of Judas at the Last Supper itself. Is it possible that a traditional account, known to all four evangelists, implied that dishes were in some way important, but that only John, the eye-witness, could explain what their significance was? Luke seems to go out of his way to avoid sops: 'he that dippeth his hand with me in this dish' has become : 'the hand of him that betrayeth me is with me on the table'. Is it possible that he knows that the 'sop' is associated with the idea that Jesus selected and endorsed Judas and therefore stays away from it?
The idea that Jesus has selected Judas may also be implied by the words 'That thou doest, do quickly.' John is specific that Judas leaves the last supper at this point, and adds the dramatic detail 'And it was night.'
5: Judas does not identify Jesus to the priests; he does not kiss him or try to kiss him; and no words pass between them in the garden.
For Matthew and Mark, the act of 'betraying Jesus' is the act of 'pointing him out to the troops.' In John, it seems to mean 'bringing the troops to the place where Jesus is'. The key point is that Judas knows the location of the garden where Jesus can be found.
When Jesus had spoken these words, he went forth with his disciples over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, into the which he entered, and his disciples. And Judas also, which betrayed him, knew the place: for Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with his disciples. Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons. Jesus therefore, knowing all things that should come upon him, went forth, and said unto them, 'Whom seek ye?' They answered him, 'Jesus of Nazareth'. Jesus saith unto them, 'I am he'. And Judas also, which betrayed him, stood with them.
If we read John in isolation from the synoptics, I think that we would conclude that Jesus is in hiding, and that the Priests need an informer to lead them to his hide-out. When they come to the garden; Judas work is done. (According to Luke (in Acts) this is how Peter understood Judas role. 'This scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the holy ghost by the mouth of David spoke concerning Judas which was guide to those that took Jesus.' Luke, as we've seen, doesn't say that the kiss was an agreed sign between Judas and the troops.)
6: Jesus thinks that Judas' actions were predestined
Just before his arrest, when Jesus is praying, he seems to say that it was inevitable that Judas – or at any rate, that someone – would betray him:
"Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are. While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled."
'Son of perdition' seems to mean something like 'son of lostness': the New English Bible suggests 'Not one of them is lost except the man who must be lost, for scripture has to be fulfilled'; the GNB has '...except the man who was bound to be lost – so that the scripture might come true.' This could be taken in two ways. It could be a straightforward statement of pre-destination: there was a prophecy that one of Jesus followers would betray him; and Judas couldn't buck the prophecy. But 'the scripture' which had to be fulfilled could just as well be the scripture which said that Jesus would take on himself the role of the Pascal Lamb. One of the disciples had to volunteer to be lost in order to facilitate the fulfilment of that prophecy; and Judas was chosen for that role.

11: The Elephant in the Upper Room
People got excited about the phony Judas gospel because they had been misleadingly told that it contained new information about the trial of Jesus. They thought that, put alongside the Christian gospels, it might enable us to work out what really happened.
Something certainly happened. The four Gospels -- all five, if you count Paul – are agreed on the basic events. Jesus was in the garden...someone led the Priests to him. There was a kiss...there was a sop or a dish....there was a field...a potter was involved somehow. Money changed hands...Jesus knew it was coming....the disciples asked who was going to do it...Jesus told was Judas fault. Either these are different accounts of the same set of events, or they are different takes on a story which they'd all heard.
But in telling their different versions of the story, they seem to be very uninterested in the naturalistic, political, psychological detail: they are rehearsing a story which "everybody knows", but they are also conducting a theological debate. Why did these things happen? Who was to blame? How did it come about that the YHWH's Messiah died on a cross? Why did Jesus choose a traitor to be in his group in the first place?
For Matthew the answer seems to be: "Jesus knew that he was the paschal lamb, and that he had to die at Passover. He selected Judas to hand the Lamb over the Priests, because it was time for the Priests to sacrifice the Lamb." Luke's answer is more like "When it was time for Jesus to be handed over to Satan, Satan took possession of one of his followers; who was a pretty bad sort to begin with." John says something more complicated: "From one point of view, Jesus was in hiding and the Jews needed an infiltrator to lead them to a secret garden. But from another point of view, what was really happening was that God was giving himself over to the power of Satan: Judas was the vessel for Satan and Jesus was the vessel for God."
Jesus was sentenced to death by a Roman and executed by Roman soldiers. But the Gospels are adamant that it was not the Romans' fault. In John's Gospel, the Priests say to Pilate "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee."; Pilate says to Jesus "Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me" and Jesus says to Pilate "He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin". Responsibility for Jesus death rests with the person or people who did the "delivering up": the Jewish priests; the Jews in general; Judas.
The name "Judas" is the same as "Judah" -- the brother of Joseph who was the ancestor of King David, who gave his name to the country (the land of Judah) and its religion (Judasim). It was also the name of the hero whose liberation of the temple is celebrated at Hanukkah. Hyam Maccabee asks us to imagine that there was a single English name that was the equivalent to 'England', 'The Church of England', 'Queen Elizabeth I' and 'Nelson' – and that some writer then gave that name to the worst traitor in history!
When we say "Judas/Judah caused the death of Jesus," are we in fact repeating the old libel that "The Jews are Christ killers"?
Well, yes, obviously we are. And surely this is why Matthew and Luke's versions of the story are so different. Luke is a gentile convert; a friend of St. Paul. He doesn't see question of Jewish guilt as a particular problem. "Judah" delivered-up Jesus: well then, "Judah" was a vessel of Satan, a traitor, or a son of iniquity. He didn't repent, or commit suicide, or try to repent his sin. He tried to profit from it, but God struck him down. The temple has been destroyed, and the church is in its place; Judah was struck down by God and replaced by Matthias. His part in the story is over, and now we have no particular interest in him.
But Matthew is writing for Jewish Christians: he regards the fact that "Judah" delivered-up Jesus to be a stumbling block. So he makes it very clear that while "Judah" did indeed hand Jesus over, he didn't do so out of malice, but because Jesus selected him for the role. He didn't gain anything from the transaction, and was indeed filled with remorse when he saw its consequences. Far from blaming him, Jesus called him "friend" and they exchanged a kiss of friendship at the very last. And Jesus acknowledged that "Judah" would participate in the Messiah's reign at the end of time.


i Matthew and Luke are generally thought to be independent of each other, but to have both used Mark as a source. They are also thought to have had access to a separate collection of Jesus' sayings ('Q') which was unknown to Mark. John is thought to be independent of all three, although I find it hard to believe that he wasn't at least familiar with the synoptic accounts of the Passion. I don't think that my argument crucially depends on this standard model, but it is easier to type 'Luke added to Mark' than 'Luke added to Mark, or Mark deleted from Luke, or both of them independently changed a third lost document'. Similarly, 'Mark' has fewer keystrokes than 'the author or redactor of what has come to be known as Mark's Gospel.' Matthew, Mark and Luke are the 'synoptic' gospels, but you knew that already.
ii Luke also tells a story about Jesus visiting the house of Martha and Mary. In this story, Martha is 'cumbered with much serving' while Mary sits at Jesus feet and 'hears his words'; Martha reprimands Mary, but Jesus says that she is doing the right thing. The message of this story is roughly the same as that of Matthew's: spiritual acts (listening to Jesus words, anointing him) are more important than practical ones (feeding the poor, preparing the meal). John's version of the anointing seems to be conflation of the two stories: note that he points out that while Mary is pouring ointment over Jesus 'Martha served'. But while Matthew and Mark say that Jesus head was anointed; John seems to have taken from Luke's story of the sinful woman the vivid detail that the woman poured oil on Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair. Alternative theories, such as 'Mary, having heard about a sinner wiping Jesus feet with her hair, wanted to show that she, a friend, was prepared to be just as generous' have the whiff of after the fact rationalizations, not to say fan-fiction.


Pearse Sheehan said...

Hang on, I'm confused. I thought Easter was about the *birth* of Christ. Why would Somerfield lie?

(More coherent thoughts tomorrow)

Michael Mornard said...

Interesting essay, Andrew.

By the way, thanks for "taking a bullet" for me in reviewing the "Gospel" of Judas. I find most Gnostic writings to be unbelievably tedious.

Although it can be instructive to have someone read both the early and late versions of Thomas just so they can see how ham-handed some of the Gnostic works are.

(By the bye, I hang around RPGnet as "Old Geezer".)

Michael Mornard said...

Well, you poked my conscience until I went and read the document.

I forgive you. ;)

Gah. I have a headache. That's worse then most.

Mike Taylor said...


Just to say a big thank-you for this careful and fascinating analysis. It may well be the most enlightening thing I read or hear this easter. Much appreciated.

Gareth McCaughan said...


Pearse Sheehan said...

And you've actually made me re-read my gospels. This is brilliant. As exegesis goes, it's better than I heard in my Easter Sermon (which was mostly about love and sacrifice, I seem to remember, and dull at that)

Mark is still the best, right?

toxicfur said...

I have just been made aware of your blog, and this article made me add it to my bookmark bar. Nicely done analysis, and it reminded me of a lot of things I'd forgotten, and that I should think about more coherently.

I certainly found the whole media firestorm around the Gospel of Judas (as well as the recent "documentary" on the tomb of Jesus) to be a lot of sound a fury, signifying very little indeed. Thanks for going into a bit more detail here.

Mark said...

Matthew, Mark and Luke show us the reason very clearly, but I think that we are inclined to miss it, because we are reading the Gospels in the wrong way.

Andrew, you seem to be turning into Dave Sim.

Your analysis is little more cogent, however.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Andrew, you seem to be turning into Dave Sim.

You mean I'm a genius?

I. Dall said...

So: the Gospels themselves can be far more controversial than any occult "revelation" about them could ever hope to be?
What a strange idea.

Of course, being an artistic genius by no means makes one, say, an exegectial one. Sims decision to make an "independant" first reading, (wich, granted, can give some unusual insights)then refuse to compare it with the readings of others is the classical way to get caught up in some pet theory (often one given up by other exegetics centuries ago, such as, say, gnosticism) wich quickly develops into outright insanity.
Not that Sim is prone to that otherwise, of course;)

chrisstiles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
chrisstiles said...

Excellent. Just to stir in some adiaphora into the mix:

Was Lazarus the Beloved Disciple?

and this quote (from Touchstone):

"Another passage from Zechariah invoked by Matthew in connection with the Lord’s Passion is Zechariah 11:13 — "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me" (Matthew 27:9f). Matthew cited this text as a prophecy fulfilled by Judas Iscariot in his betrayal of the Lord for 30 pieces of silver, the prescribed price of a slave (Exodus 21:32).
There is a curious confusion of words in this text of Zechariah, however, apparently seen by Matthew as pointing to deeper layer of meaning. In the traditional Hebrew reading, the Lord tells the prophet: "Cast it to the potter (el-hayoser)." Zechariah goes on to say, "So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, to the potter," a reading reflected in several modern translations. With the change of only one letter, however, the Hebrew text would read: "Cast it into the treasury (el-hahoser)" and "So I cast it, in the house of the Lord, into the treasury." This latter reading is followed by other translations.
Rather than choose between these two possible readings, however, the Gospel of Matthew conflates them, maintaining both the Temple treasury and the potter. Thus, Judas Iscariot, realizing the gravity of his betrayal but despairing of God's mercy, returns to the Temple and throws in the 30 shekels.
The Temple officials collect the coins. Their first thought is to put them into the Temple treasury (hahoser), but they are afflicted by a hypocritical scruple about such a use of blood-money. Instead, they take the coins and purchase the "field of the potter (hayoser).""