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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot

By James Stalker


      To the civil trial of our Lord there is a sad appendix, as we have already had one to the ecclesiastical trial. Christ's great confession in the palace of the high priest was accompanied by the great denial of Peter outside; and the proceedings in the court of Pontius Pilate were accompanied by the final act of the treachery of Judas. Only in the latter case we are not able with the same accuracy to fix the circumstances of time and place.

      I.

      Judas is one of the darkest riddles of human history. In the Vision of Hell the poet Dante, after traversing the circles of the universe of woe, in which each separate kind of wickedness receives its peculiar punishment, arrives at last, in the company of his guide, at the nethermost circle of all, in the very bottom of the pit, where the worst of all sinners and the basest of all sins are undergoing retribution. It is a lake not of fire but of ice, beneath whose transparent surface are visible, fixed in painful postures, the figures of those who have betrayed their benefactors; because this, in Dante's estimation, is the worst of sins. In the midst of them stands out, vast and hideous, "the emperor who sways the realm of woe"--Satan himself; for this was the crime which lost him Paradise. And the next most conspicuous figure is Judas Iscariot. He is in the mouth of Satan, being champed and torn by his teeth as in a ponderous engine.

      Such was the mediaeval view of this man and his crime. But in modern times opinion has swung round to the opposite extreme. Ours is an age of toleration, and one of its favourite occupations is the rehabilitation of evil reputations. Men and women who have stood for centuries in the pillory of history are being taken down; their cases are retried; and they are set up on pedestals of admiration. Sometimes this is done with justice, but is other cases it has been carried to absurdity. Nobody, it would appear, has ever been very bad; the criminals and scoundrels have been men whose motives have been misunderstood. Among those on whose behalf the attempt has thus been made to reverse the verdict of history is Judas Iscariot. Eighteen centuries had agreed to regard him as the meanest of mankind, but in our century he has been transmuted into a kind of hero. The theory is of German origin; but it was presented to the English public by De Quincey, who adorned it with all the persuasiveness of his meretricious genius.

      It is held that the motive of Judas was totally different from the one hitherto supposed: it was not filthy lucre. The smallness of the price for which he sold his Master--it was less than four pounds of our money, though the value of this sum was much greater then--proves that there must have been another motive. The traditional conception is inconsistent with Christ's choice of him to be a disciple; and it is irreconcilable with the tragic greatness of his repentance. His view of Christ's enterprise was no doubt of a material cast: he expected Christ to be a king, and hoped to hold a high place in His court: but these ideas were common to all the disciples, who to the very end were waiting to see their Master throw off the cloak of His humble condition and take to Himself His great power and reign; only they left the time and the means in their Master's hands, not venturing to criticise His proceedings. Judas was not so patient. He was a man of energy and practicality, and he allowed himself to believe that he had discerned a defect in the character of his Master. Jesus was too spiritual and unworldly for the enterprise on which he had embarked--too much occupied with healing, preaching and speculating. These would be well enough when once the kingdom was established; but He was losing His opportunities. His delay had turned against Him the authoritative classes. One vast force, indeed, was still on His side--the enthusiasm of the populace--but even of it He was not taking advantage. When, on Palm Sunday, He was borne into the capital by a crowd throbbing with Messianic expectation, He seemed to have in His hand what Judas supposed to be the object of His life; but He did nothing, and the crowd dispersed, disappointed and disheartened. What Jesus required was to be precipitated into a situation where He would be compelled to act. He lacked energy and decision; but, if He were delivered into the hands of the authorities, who were known to be seeking His life, He could hesitate no longer. When they laid hands on Him, He would of course liberate Himself from them, and His miraculous power would exhibit itself in forms so irresistible as to awaken universal enthusiasm. Thus would His kingdom be set up in magnificence; and the man whom the king would delight to honour would surely be the humble follower by whose shrewdness and audacity the crisis had been brought about.

      II.

      Even if this were the true history of Judas, his conduct would not, perhaps, be as innocent as it looks. In the course of His life our Lord had frequently to deal with persons who attempted, from what appeared to themselves to be good motives, to interfere with His plans--to precipitate Him into action before His time or to restrain Him when His time had come--and He always resented such interference with indignation. Even His own mother was not spared when she played this part. To do God's will exactly, neither more nor less, neither anticipating it nor lagging behind it, was the inner-most principle of the life of Jesus; and He treated any interference with it as a suggestion of the Evil One.

      Still the theory will not hold water. The Scriptures know nothing of it, and it is inconsistent with the tone of moral repulsion in which they speak of Judas. Besides, they assign a totally different motive. They affirm that Judas was a thief and stole out of the bag from which Jesus gave to the poor and supplied His own wants--a sacrilege which most thieves would have scorned. It is in entire accordance with this that the word with which he approached the Sanhedrim was, "How much will ye give me?" That he was willing to accept so little proves how strong his passion was.

      It is altogether impossible that a character of this kind can have been combined with the generous although mistaken enthusiasm which the theory attributes to him.[1] But, on the other hand, the passion of avarice may easily have been nourished by brooding with disappointment on Messianic visions; and the theory of De Quincey may supply important hints for unravelling the mystery of his career.

      There can be no doubt that at one time the life of Judas seemed full of promise. Jesus, who was so strict about permitting any to follow Him, would not have chosen him into the apostolic circle unless he had exhibited enthusiasm for His person and His cause. He well knew, indeed, that in his motives there was a selfish alloy; but this was the case with all His followers; and fellowship with Himself was the fire in which the alloy was to be purged out.

      In the other apostles this process actually took place: they were refined by fellowship with Him. Their worldliness, indeed, remained to the end of His earthly career, but it was growing less and less; and other ties, stronger than their hopes of earthly glory, were slowly but surely binding them indissolubly to His cause. In Judas, on the contrary, the reverse process took place: what was good in him grew less and less, and at last the sole bond which held him to Christ was what he could make out of the connection.

      When the suspicion first dawned on him that the hope of a Messianic kingdom was not to be fulfilled, the inner man of Judas underwent a critical change. This happened a year before the end, on the occasion when Christ resisted the attempt of His followers to take Him by force and make Him a king, and when many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him. At that time Jesus warned Judas against the evil spirit which he was allowing to take possession of his mind by the strong saying, "Have I not chosen you twelve? and one of you is a devil." But the disciple did not heed the warning. Perhaps it was at this stage that he commenced to steal from the bag which he carried. He felt that he must have some tangible reward for following Christ, and he justified his peculation by saying to himself that what he was taking was infinitely less than he had been led to expect. He regarded himself as an ill-used man.

      Under the practice of this secret sin his character could not but rapidly deteriorate. Jesus dropped a word of warning now and then; but it had the reverse of the desired effect. Judas knew that Jesus knew; and he grew to hate Him. This was by far the worst aspect of the case. The other disciples were becoming more and more attached to their Master, because they felt increasingly how much they owed Him; but Judas did not feel that he owed Him anything: on the contrary, his feeling was that he had been betrayed. Why should he not betray in turn? There may even have been an element of scorn in selling Christ for so little.

      More than one of the Evangelists seem to connect the treachery of Judas directly with the scene at Bethany in which Mary anointed Jesus with costly ointment. Apparently this beautiful act brought all the evil in his heart to such a head that an outbreak could no longer be deferred. His spite found vent in the angry contention that the money ought to have been given to the poor. It was a large sum, off which he could have taken an unusually large slice of booty. But probably there was more in the occasion to incense Judas. To him this feasting and anointing, at the moment when the crisis of Christ's fortunes had obviously come, appeared sheer folly; as a practical man he despised it. It was manifest that the game was up; a leader loitering and dreaming in this fashion at the crisis of his fate was doomed. It was time to get out of the ship, for it was clearly sinking; but he would do so in such a way as to gratify his resentment, his scorn and his love of money all at once.

      Thus the master-passion of Judas was nourished from potent springs. But, indeed, avarice in itself is one of the most powerful of motives. In the teaching of the pulpit it may seldom be noticed, but both in Scripture and in history it occupies a prominent place. It is questionable if anything else makes so many ill deeds to be done. Avarice breaks all the commandments. Often has it put the weapon into the hand of the murderer; in most countries of the world it has in every age made the ordinary business of the market-place a warfare of falsehood; the bodies of men and the hearts of women have been sold for gold. Why is it that gigantic wrongs flourish from age to age, and practices utterly indefensible are continued with the overwhelming sanction of society? It is because there is money in them. Avarice is a passion of demonic strength; but it may help us to keep it out of our hearts to remember that it was the sin of Judas.

      III.

      The repentance of Judas is alleged as the sign of a superior spirit. Certainly it is an indication of the goodness which he once possessed, because it is only by the light of a spark of goodness that the darkness of sin can be perceived; and the more the conscience has been enlightened the severer is the reaction when it is outraged. Those who have in any degree shared the company of Christ can never afterwards be as if they had not enjoyed this privilege; and religion, if it does not save, will be the cruellest element in the soul's perdition.

      It is not certain at what point the reaction in the mind of Judas set in.[2] There were many incidents of the trial well calculated to awaken in him a revulsion of feeling. At length, however, the retributive powers of conscience were thoroughly aroused--those powers which in all literature have formed the theme of the deepest tragedy; which in the Bible are typified by Cain, escaping as a fugitive and a vagabond from the cry of his brother's blood; which in Greek literature are shadowed forth by the terrible figures of the Eumenides, with gorgon faces and blood-dropping eyes, following silently but remorselessly those upon whose track they have been set; and which in Shakespeare are represented in the soul-curdling scenes of Macbeth and Richard III. He was seized with an uncontrollable desire to undo what he had done. The money, on which his heart had been set, was now like a spectre to his excited fancy. Every coin seemed to be an eye through which eternal justice was gazing at his crime or to have a tongue crying out for vengeance. As the murderer is irresistibly drawn back to the spot where his victim lies, he returned to the place where his deed of treachery had been transacted and, confronting those by whom he had been employed, handed back the money with the passionate confession, "I have betrayed innocent blood." But he had come to miserable comforters. With cynical disdain they asked, "What is that to us? See thou to that." They had been cordial enough to him when he had come before, but now, after the instrument has served their turn, they fling it contemptuously aside. The miserable man had to turn away from the scorn of the partners of his guilt; but he could keep the money no longer--it was burning in his hands--and, before escaping from the precincts, he flung it down. This is said to have happened in that part of the temple which could be entered only by the priests;[3] and he must either have made a rush across the forbidden threshold or availed himself of an open door to fling it in. Not only did he desire to be rid of it, but a passionate impulse urged him to leave with the priests their own share of the guilt.

      Then he rushed away from the temple. But where was he going? Oh that it had been in him to flee to Christ--that, breaking through all obstacles and rules, he had rushed to Him wherever He was to be found and cast himself at His feet! What if the soldiers had cut him down? Then he would have been the martyr of penitence, and that very day he would have been with Christ in Paradise. Judas repented of his sin; he confessed it; he cast from him the reward of iniquity; but his penitence lacked the element which is most essential of all--he did not turn to God. True repentance is not the mere horror and excitement of a terrified conscience: it is the call of God; it is letting go the evil because the good has prevailed; it includes faith as well as fear.

      IV.

      The manner of his end is also used as an argument in favour of the more honourable view of Judas. The act of suicide is one which has not infrequently been invested with a glamour of romance, and to go out of life the Roman way, as it is called, has been considered, even by Christians, an evidence of unusual strength of mind. The very reverse is, however, the true character of suicide: except in those melancholy cases where the reason is impaired, it must be pronounced the most contemptible act of which a human being is capable. It is an escape from the burdens and responsibilities of existence; but these burdens and responsibilities are left to be borne by others, and along with them is left an intolerable heritage of shame. From a religious point of view it appears in a still worse light. Not only does the suicide, as even heathen writers have argued, desert the post of duty where Providence has placed him, but he virtually denies the character and even the existence of God. He denies His character, for, if he believed in His mercy and love, he would flee to instead of from Him; and he denies His existence, for no one who believed that he was to meet God on the other side of the veil would dare in this disorderly way to rush into His presence.

      The mode of Judas' suicide was characteristically base. Hanging does not appear to have been at all usual among the Jews. In the entire Old Testament there is said to occur only a single case; and, strange to say, it is that of the man who, in the principal act of his life also, was the prototype of Judas. Ahithophel, the counsellor and friend of David, betrayed his master, as Judas betrayed Christ; and he came to the same ignominious end.

      It would seem, further, that the hanging of Judas was accompanied with circumstances of unusual horror. This we gather from the account in the beginning of Acts.[4] The terms employed are obscure; but they probably signify that the suicidal act was attended by a clumsy accident, in consequence of which the body, being suspended over a precipice and suddenly dropped by the snapping of the rope, was mangled in a shocking manner, which made a profound impression on all who heard of it.[5]

      And this sense of his end being accursed was further accentuated in the minds of the early Christians by the circumstance that the money for which he had sold Christ was eventually used for the purchase of a graveyard for burying strangers in. The priests, though they picked up the coins from the floor over which Judas had strewn them, did not, scrupulous men, consider them good enough to be put in the sacred treasury; so they applied them to this purpose. The public wit, hearing of it, dubbed the place the Field of Blood; and thus the cemetery became a kind of monument to the traitor, of which he took possession as the first of the outcasts for whom it was designed.

      The world has agreed to regard Judas as the chief of sinners; but, in so judging, it has exceeded its prerogative. Man is not competent to judge his brother. The master-passion of Judas was a base one; Dante may be right in considering treachery the worst of crimes; and the supreme excellence of Christ affixes an unparalleled stigma to the injury inflicted on Him. But the motives of action are too hidden, and the history of every deed is too complicated, to justify us in saying who is the worst of men. It is not at all likely that those whom human opinion would rank highest in merit or saintliness will be assigned the same positions in the rewards of the last day; and it is just as unlikely that human estimates are right when they venture to assign the degrees of final condemnation. Two things it is our duty to do in regard to Judas: first, not so to palliate his sin as to blunt the healthy, natural abhorrence of it; and, secondly, not to think of him as a sinner apart and alone, with a nature so different from our own that to us he can be no example. But for the rest, there is only one verdict which is at once righteous, dignified and safe; and it is contained in the declaration of St. Peter, that he "went to his own place."

      [1] Hanna, in The Last Day of Our Lord's Passion, attempts to combine both motives, but without being able really to unite them; they remain as distinct as oil and water.

      [2] If, as St. Matthew seems to indicate, Judas disappeared from the scene long before the end of the trial, this is strongly against the theory of De Quincey, according to which he must have stayed to the last moment, hoping to see Jesus assert Himself.

      [3] En to nao.

      [4] St. Matthew knows best the beginning, St. Luke the end of the story.

      [5] De Quincey's interpretation of the words as a description of mental anguish must be felt by every reader of the brilliant essay to be forced and unnatural.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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