Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

A few years ago the media went wild over the ‘Gospel of Judas,” a gnostic text which (it was claimed) described Judas as a faith disciple of Jesus, chosen to be the betrayer because he was so faithful. I first encountered this idea through William Klassen’s book Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996). Klassen argued that Judas was not the betrayer, but rather the most faithful disciple. Jesus had to be handed over to the authorities, so he entrusted this job to Judas. In order to make this theory work, Klassen has to make the “anti-Judas” statements into “later additions” by the church.  This includes the brief note in Luke that “Satan entered him” and the much later references to Judas as a thief in John’s gospel.  He makes much of the fact that Paul never mentions the betrayal or Judas.

Thirty Peices of SilverKlassen does have a point, the later texts do indeed offer a more pernicious view of Judas.  In John 12:1-8, Judas is described as a thief. He is embezzling from the disciples, and when a woman anoints Jesus’ feet with a precious perfume, he feels that he has been “cheated.” The perfume was not sold, he could have skimmed quite a bit from the sale (in John 13:28-30 Judas is the keeper of the funds for the disciples.) Greed could be a factor in Matthew 26:14-16 as well – Judas asked the priests “What will you give me….?”

Another answer is that the “perfume incident” forced Judas to understand that Jesus was not the Messiah, at least exactly as he understood the Messiah. One option is that Judas was convinced by the anointing that Jesus was not who he claimed, and the Pharisees were right all along. Jesus had to be destroyed as a false teacher. A second option is that Judas was shocked when he finally understood that Jesus was literally going to his death. He may have expected Jesus to go to Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans, but not to die. He may have wanted to ‘force’ Jesus to use his power to destroy the Romans.

At the time of the Last Supper, Judas had already made his choice to betray when Satan entered him (Luke 22:3). Perhaps Satan’s hand in the betrayal was to tempt Judas into making the decision or perhaps to keep Judas from losing his nerve by entering him. This is an extremely unique event:  Satan is never mentioned as “entering” anyone else. Satan has become personally involved because the previous efforts to stop Jesus have failed.

Another angle here is this: What did Satan stand to gain by getting Judas to betray Jesus? Why did Satan want to kill Jesus? He should have been able to understand that it would be Jesus’ death and resurrection that defeated him. Clearly Satan tried to stop him from going to the cross in the temptations, and tried to slow him down or stop him throughout his ministry, so why help him to the cross now? Satan’s role in the killing of Jesus is an indication of the arrogance of the devil. Perhaps he thought that if he could not stop Jesus in the world, that he could stop him in death. Maybe he thought that he could hold Jesus in the grave. Another option, although less likely, is that Satan was playing the role laid out for him, and that he was not truly a free agent in the whole affair.

Thirty pieces of silver was not a great deal of money, he would not have won many friends by betraying his teacher.  I suspect that his motivations were good, he wanted to help Jesus establish himself as the Messiah and to assist him in starting a Kingdom of God in Jerusalem.

But from a purely human perspective, what did Judas hope to gain?

Bibliography: Klassen also wrote the Anchor Bible Dictionary article, “Judas Iscariot”, 3:1091-1096. For a more balanced approach, see D. J. Williams, “Judas Iscariot”, in DJG, 406-408; John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, 3:208-211.

22 thoughts on “Why Did Judas Betray Jesus?

  1. It appears that Judas’s experience was the same as the rest of the disciples. He saw the miracles of Jesus. He even went out evangelizing and healing with the others.But evidently he never saw or understood the way of the cross (perhaps he did when it was too late). Did he succumb to his greed? Perhaps, but I agree there was likely much more behind his betrayal.

    I have been told by a good authority that the majority view of the Eastern Orthodox Church is that Judas was political zealot who would require his messiah to be bent on defeating Rome and establishing a free Israel. Of course, in that day Judas was far from alone in that view. His betrayal was to force Jesus’ hand Judas wanted to co-opt Jesus for his own purposes.

    The ethics of political radicalism centers around the cause du jour. Thievery is winked at as long as the political motives are pure. Judas could raid the purse with a shrug as long as he maintained his revolutionary conviction.

    • Sorry Jim, your reply got buried in the spam filter. I am not sure the political angle is restricted to the Eastern Orthodox, I would have to say that is what I hear from most of my students, It seems to me to be the best explanation given the political conditions of first century Palestine.

  2. We’ll never really know why: there simply isn’t enough information in there to tell us about motivations.

    Here’s another theory: Maybe Judas wanted to bring on a showdown that he thought Jesus would win – which would show his lack of understanding of the whole Messiah and kingdom of God thing and the influence of Satan. Jesus had ‘won’ every other encounter with the religious rulers etc of the day, and even walked out of some dangerous situations. Why would this be any different?

  3. It was very interesting to hear that Klassen argued that Judas was not the betrayer, but rather the most faithful disciple. I have never thought about this in such a way that Judas was entrusted with the job to had Jesus over to authorities. This is a different perspective because when Luke noted that he was entered by Satan, it is no longer an act by Judas himself but the devil inside of him. It is very hard to find the source of Judas’ persuasion for giving up Jesus. I think that Satan knew that there was no way of stopping Jesus’ will because it was the Fathers will. But rather, that he used Judas in order to deceive as many as he could that even those closest to Jesus can be evil. But at the same time, this act had to happen in order for Jesus to complete the will of the Father. Matthew 26:21 says: “And while they were eating, he said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (NIV). Jesus knew this had to happen in order for his sacrifice to be made. Looking at a human perspective, I think there were selfish motives that Judas had in doing this act. It would be easy to say that Judas did this because his motives were of greed. But in perspective, this was not a large amount of money for what he did. I think it is possible that Judas did this in hope to gain fame. We can see this a lot in our world today that those who are possessed by sin do terrible acts in order to be known. Besides the human perspective, I do think that it is possible that his motives were good because this needed to happen in order for Jesus to establish himself as Messiah.

  4. I like the points made in the post. Judas may have been trying to force Jesus’ influence and make him use his supremacy to verify he was the messiah. Or perhaps Judas, not understanding Jesus’ mission, no longer thought Jesus was God’s chosen one. Judas is like, “Man, I really like Jesus’ political moves, but he is a slow mover and talks way to much about dying! I’m going to deliver him to force him to rebel against Rome and set up a new political government.” I would doubt that Judas was thinking that. Maybe from a human perspective Judas didn’t like the way things were turning out when Jesus was actually arrested. Maybe he thought Jesus was going to prove his power at the time of the arrest and when he witnessed Jesus easily arrested he felt bad and tried to give the money back. To answer the question, Judas as banker, probably anticipated that he would be given a significant position in Jesus’ new regime. When Jesus applauded Mary for pouring out the perfume, said to be worth a year’s salary, Judas finally began to understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not physical or political. Judas’s materialistic craving for cash and prestige could not be satisfied if he followed Jesus, so he betrayed him in exchange for money and approval from the religious leaders.

  5. Good topic for discussion. Consider Scripture: (Luke 22:3) Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve. (John 13:2) The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. (John 10:10) The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 13:27) As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (Matthew 27:3) When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. Cheers!

    • Jesus predicts his arrest and death.
      (Mark 9:31-32) because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

      Jesus predicts His betrayal.
      (John 13:27) As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” (John 13:28) But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him.

      Christ knew full well, and therefore said the above words:
      (John 6:70) Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”
      (John 6:71) (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)

    • Your are correct, Htrac7, that Jesus predicts his death three times after Peter’s confession “You are God’s Messiah.” Peter understood part of the truth, that Jesus was the Messiah, but not all of the truth, that the messiah would die in Jerusalem.

      I might even go so far as to say he arranged to be executed at exactly the right time (Passover) so the image of the Passover Lamb is even more clear. For Judas (and Peter, the twelve, and all the disciples), a Messiah who dies is not something they imagined would happen, it makes no sense since they thought of messiah solely as a new David or a nee Joshua.

  6. The word “unique” means “one of a kind.” Someone or something can be either unique or not unique. Therefore, it never takes a modifier (adverb), as in “extremely unique” or ” very unique” or “quite” unique. It’s all or nothing at all with this adjective. If someone or something is unique, there is nothing else like it in the entire cosmos. You can’t say, for example, that “David was more unique than Saul.” And if one insists on using a comparative, he will simply have to find a different adjective. Thanks for reading.

  7. It is very interesting to read these different types of scenarios of why Judas betrayed Jesus. I have heard about Judas being the most faithful one to Jesus before, but I can see how that could happen. If Judas was so faithful to Jesus, then the only way that Judas could actually betray Jesus would have to be the devil’s working inside of Judas. The one area that has always stumped me the most with this issue is in Matthew 26:25 saying, “Judas, who would betray him, answered, “Is it I, Rabbi?” He (Jesus) said to him, “You have said so.” Makes me wonder if Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him or not? I know that this was a prophecy made by Jesus, and that all short-term prophecies that were made in the Bible came true, but that verse has always made me wonder if Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him. Answering your question though, I would have to agree with radertravis on this one, I would say that Judas was probably looking for his 15 minutes of fame, because the money that Judas receives wasn’t enough for Judas to accept to actually do it for the money.

  8. Wow, great entry! I hadn’t heard all the different perspectives of why Judas may have betrayed Jesus before. It is interesting to think that some may take the side of Judas being the most faithful disciple. This is an intriguing concept but like you said, professor Long, not very reliable as they would have had to ignore some passages of scripture.
    However, after reading this post and contemplating the question you posed at the end, I had an interesting thought concerning Judas and his motives. Strictly from a human perspective, if Judas doubted that Jesus was the Messiah, by betraying Him and proving to the world that He was not the Messiah may have given him great fame and power. He would have, in a sense, single-handedly put an end to Jesus’ shenanigans – or at least been the catalyst to His end. The people may have possibly praised him and shown him great favor. As the amount of money he betrayed Jesus for was not a significant amount, from a human perspective, could he had been looking for favor or fame?

  9. I have never thought of Judas having good intentions when he betrayed Jesus. Ive always seen his reason for handing Jesus over to be killed as coming from greed, selfishness, insecurity, etc. But the idea of Judas betraying Jesus to “help” him establish himself as the Messiah has never crossed my mind. This may be an option, but why, then, did Judas hang himself? Why did he doubt his decision? Whatever the reason may be, there are certain things we can take away from Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, one being that God’s sovereignty was shown, proving that even something so terrible would be used to help redeem mankind.

  10. I believe that it is very far fetched to claim that Judas was a faith disciple. In Luke 22:3 “then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve” Why would the Bible claim that Judas was under the influence of Satan if he was simply obeying orders from Jesus? If he really was the most faithful follower, Jesus’ prediction that someone at the table would betray Him wouldn’t have any significance (John 13:18-19). Another reason why I do not agree with Klossen’s point of view is because of Judas’ actions proceeding the betrayal. In Matthew 27:3-5, it explains the regret that Judas experienced once he realized what he had done. His remorse led him to the point of committing suicide. Judas’ actions do not follow that of a faithful follower of Jesus.
    I am left to stand by the position that Judas had an expectation of what Jesus was going to accomplish as the Messiah. He did not believe that the Messiah had to die, and when Jesus predicts his death it shook his world. He desired that the Romans would be conquered by the hands of the Messiah, and that the oppression would stop. If Jesus had died, how would anything be solved? He had made up his mind to turn Jesus over before he even went to the chief priest. He probably saw it as an opportunity to gain something for himself, but I do not believe the payment was necessary for him to betray Jesus. Judas simply hoped to see Jesus the Messiah accomplish what he had expected him to do, destroy the Romans and establish a new kingdom.

  11. I think it’s important to note that Judas conferred with the Pharisees about how he could betray Jesus after Satan entered him. I haven’t read numerous commentaries or studied this extensively, but could it be that it was Satan who decided to betray Jesus and not Judas? As we can see from several accounts of demon possession, the spirit of the man who is possessed is not in control if the demon, or Satan, does not want them to be. So maybe Judas’ fault is really that he was on the fence about Jesus and, if John’s account that he was a thief is true, was more concerned about his own gain than advancing the kingdom of God. And for this I don’t think a lot of blame can go to him because this was the boat many Jews were in! He could have repented after seeing what he did, when I imagine Satan left him. And it seems he did and tried to make amends. So the question I will try to answer is what would Satan stand to gain by helping Jesus die? Honestly, I think it was his only logical choice. Not because he doesn’t have free will, but because the alternative would have been to sit there and do nothing as he watched God do what He was going to do anyway. God is sovereign; Satan is not. He has to try to fit his evil plans in where he can, and look at how well he did in deceiving people in the midst of this glorious redemption act! I’d say, unfortunately, that he was successful. Many people don’t believe Jesus was the Savior of the world, and part of that is because Satan helped kill Jesus and deceived people all throughout the process of that coming to fruition.

  12. It is strange to think about Judas as being Jesus’ most faithful disciple because he “helped” him establish himself as the Messiah. Growing up, I always pictured Judas as the worst kind of person, because he was the one who betrayed Jesus, so it is interesting to imagine him as his most faithful disciple. Whatever motivations Judas had for betraying Jesus, it is interesting to think about what he would gain from an earthly perspective. Like it was mentioned in the blog, the money that Judas was given was not a lot; therefore, he most likely did not betray Jesus simply for the money. If it was not money that Judas got, what else could have gained from betraying Jesus? Power and fame from the Pharisee’s because he was the one to hand Jesus over? There is not a clear answer to what Judas gained or the motivation behind why he did it, but it is interesting to speculate the possibilities.

  13. Judas may have thought he was doing the right thing. We know that he was influenced by Satan himself (John 13:27), so it should be unsurprising that perhaps Judas’ line of thinking in the betrayal (forcing Jesus to save Himself/exert His power) was inspired by the same line of temptations that Satan used against Jesus in Matthew 4 (turn stones into bread to feed yourself, throw yourself off the mountain so the angels will save you, etc.).

    The last statement in your post, asserting that Judas’ motivations could have been good, resounds the most with me and seems to make the most sense. Earlier in the semester when we were discussing the different expectations for the Jewish Messiah and the Messianic Kingdom the idea was suggested that perhaps Judas betrayed Jesus in an attempt to force His hand, to make Him prove He was indeed the Messiah and rise up in a political and militaristic way which many had hoped and expected Him to do all along. In this sense, Judas’ intent may not have been wholly bad, just very misguided, and his lack of understanding of who Jesus was and what He was sent to do was evident. This seems to make sense, and also helps us understand why Judas would betray Jesus for such a relatively small amount of money. If Jesus was truly hated by the Jewish leaders, and if it was so difficult for Him to be identified without Judas’ help, why wouldn’t Judas have negotiated himself a better finder’s fee? According to John, Judas was a rather greedy thief (John 12:6), so it seems unlikely that he betrayed Jesus for only 30 coins.

  14. Klassen’s ‘Gospel of Judas’ goes against everything that I have been taught from childhood to present. Judas was always the evil disciple and I always learned about the things not to do by being referred to Judas. Judas was obviously looking for material gains but I agree with this article that he thought he was going to get more out of it. It is interesting to read about Satan being involved. I always pictured Satan being on the outside and preparing himself to be conquered but he does not give up and continues to come at Jesus from different angles. I think that Judas really showed vulnerablitlity for the devil to enter him. I have talked to a couple of pastors that have told me that when people refuse to give up their sin and refuse to live for Jesus they allow Satan to rule their life and it happens physically and spiritually. I think thats what it means when Satan entered into Judas.

  15. I believe Judas had many tactics behind his thinking as many of the references used clearly show that throughout Scripture. I believe the main motivation for wanting to betray Jesus stood for good intentions before Satan had entered into him. (Luke 22:3) I am lead to believe this as you made a very powerful point when I was reading the commentary. I believe that Judas hoped to gain much out of this before Satan entered him and turned his good into bad. As Jobes refers to light and darkness being a major theme in the book of 1 John (Chp. 2, p. 417, 415) I am lead to believe that when Satan entered him his internal self-turned black just as the world turned dark when it was the day that Jesus died. I think it is important to note that also in Genesis Jesus states that before the fall everything in the world was good and so I am also lead to believe that his people are created in that image too, but often times we can find ourselves detouring from the source which is something I believe can be seen in the book of 1 John. Judas is the exact representation of humans as they are when sin entered into us just as it was with him.

  16. I truly think that Judas was tempted by human gain. I think he was only thinking of what he would gain from doing this as many people also doubted in Jesus. I also think that Judas potentially could have began to doubt Jesus because he was afraid of Him and what He could do. I also think that just because of the human pressure of others could have had an influence on Judas’ decision to betray Jesus long before it was said. I also would say that because Satan entered him in Luke 22:3 that just helped him complete the task due to being afraid of what could happen if he turned Jesus in. Although Jesus already knew who would betray Him I believe Judas did not believe that Jesus was all knowing. I think that Judas crashed under the pressure of temptation by humanly influences and was only thinking about the status and monetary gain he could earn by turning Jesus over to the Romans in Mark 14:44. I think Judas was only thinking of his own gain and not the loss of everyone else, even prior to Satan entering him as stated in Luke 22:3 in a different story of the crucifixion.

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