Ehrman on Judas’ motives

In all four Gospels Judas Iscariot is said to be the one who betrayed Jesus to the authorities, leading to his arrest. The four accounts differ on why Judas did the foul deed. There is no reason stated in Mark, although we are told that he received money for the act, so maybe it was out of greed (14:10–11). Matthew (26:14) states explicitly that Judas did it for the money. Luke, on the other hand, indicates that Judas did it because “Satan entered into him” (22:3). In other words, the devil made him do it. In John, Judas is himself called “a devil” (6:70–71), and so presumably he betrayed his master because he had an evil streak. (Jesus Interrupted, p. 45-46)

Bart Ehrman likes to set up “contradictions” of this sort. He says, one gospel shows different motives than another or gives a different reason for something or another. In this section, he applies this claim against Judas’ motives. On the face value this claim of discrepancy looks like valid argument. After all, different gospel writers are explicitly giving divergent reasons for Judas’ actions. The Christian response is predictable: both (all) accounts are correct. Sometimes multiple reasons lead to certain outcomes. Ehrman thinks this is invalid:

The literary conclusion is that as is the case with Jesus himself, so too with Judas. Every portrayal of him is different, and we do a disservice to the author of each account if we pretend that he is saying exactly what some other author is saying. If Matthew wants to say that greed is what drove Judas to do what he did, but Luke wants to insist that the Devil made him do it, it is not really fair to either author to argue that they mean the same thing. If that’s what we think, we have, in effect, taken what Matthew says, combined it with what Luke says, and created then a mega-Gospel (for which we might as well throw in Mark and John as well, for good measure)—a Gospel found nowhere in the New Testament but simply in our own heads, as we write a Gospel of our own to substitute for the Gospels of the New Testament. In my view as a literary and historical scholar, that is not the best way to treat the early accounts of Jesus’ (or Judas’s) life. (The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, p. 33)

Heavy teaching! Ehrman is insistent that we not mix and match divergent accounts. It is curious then, when Ehrman recounts his conversion from Christianity that he gives similar divergent accounts:

“What I actually did learn at Princeton led me to change my mind about the Bible. I did not change my mind willingly—I went down kicking and screaming… it became clear to me over a long period of time that my former views of the Bible as the inerrant revelation from God were flat-out wrong. My choice was either to hold on to views that I had come to realize were in error or to follow where I believed the truth was leading me. In the end, it was no choice. If something was true, it was true; if not, not. (Jesus Interrupted, vii)

In Jesus Interrupted, it is crystal clear: problems with the New Testament led to Ehrman’s rejection of Christianity. It was these facts that led him “kicking and screaming” from the Church. Contrast this with Ehrman in God’s Problem:

“On the contrary, I left kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to hold on to the faith I had known since childhood and had come to know intimately from my teenaged years onward. But I came to a point where I could no longer believe. It’s a very long story, but the short version is this: I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things.” (God’s Problem, p. 3)

If we were to take Ehrman’s own methology, we would be forced to claim that one of these books was not written by Ehrman’s own hand. They contradict each other: one states that Ehrman left Christianity because the Bible was not inerrant, the other, because he could not reconcile God with evil.

This discrepancy can be explained away by pointing out that human beings are not single input robots. Human beings usually have multiple and competing (sometimes even contradictory) reasons for the things they do. A captain of industry might highly desire money and might also highly desire power. These may lead him to establish a corporation. Only rarely will one find a critic citing both reasons as the motivation for his actions. Usually, authors stick to a main motivation which complements the theme of the author’s point. In a text on Biblical errancy, Ehrman will highlight his struggle with the Bible. In a text on God, Ehrman will highlight his struggle with the problem of evil.

But Ehrman discounts this methodology for the Bible. To use Ehrman’s words against him:

This account, claiming both motivations to be true, is creating then a “mega-Ehrman” (for which we might as well throw in his other books which remain silent on the issue, for good measure)—a Ehrman found nowhere in his own writings but simply in our own heads, as we write a story of our own to substitute for the stories of the Ehrman texts. That is not the best way to treat the accounts of Ehrman’s conversion.

A common objection I have to Ehrman is “humans don’t work that way”. Ehrman prefers the mechanical approach to understanding complex human beings. One motive, one action. One author, one subject (as in individual). A more fluid understanding of any historical figure is to evaluate what each author says about the individual, and then form an image of a complex human being possessing complex inward struggles. Only when motives do not line up with the character should we discount them because they “conflict”.

So what is true about the motives of Judas? Ehrman paints an amazingly probable picture of who Judas could have been:

And so we can draw some important—and widely overlooked—inferences about who Judas was, based on the hard fact that he was one of the Twelve. Like the others, he followed Jesus because he accepted his message. He was so devoted to Jesus and his message that Jesus chose him to be one of the inner circle. Jesus understood this circle—and presumably the twelve members of it understood themselves—to be emblematic of those who would survive the coming judgment to be brought by the Son of Man, who would bring with him the Kingdom of God. These twelve represented the twelve tribes of Israel; in being responsive to Jesus’ teaching, they showed themselves faithful to the God of Jesus. Like the others, Judas anticipated that the end of all things was at hand. Moreover, he must have taken Jesus at his word, that he, along with the others, would be rulers once the Kingdom of God came. This would be soon—within their own generation. (The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot p. 152)

For Judas, Jesus’ interpretation of his anointing may have been the last straw. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, the disciples, including Judas, were looking ahead to the time when they were to rule in the coming kingdom… (The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, p. 167)

So why did Judas betray Jesus? It is possible, as I suggested above, that he simply thought matters were getting out of hand and he wanted Jesus securely taken out of the way before any violence broke out. But maybe it was the delay of the end that finally frustrated Judas and made him rethink everything he had heard. He, along with the others, thought they were to be glorious kings. They had made a trip to Jerusalem, raising their hopes that this would be the time, but nothing was happening and nothing evidently was about to happen. Maybe Judas had a crisis of faith, triggered by Jesus’ enigmatic references to his own coming demise, and out of bitterness he turned on his master. Maybe his hopes were dashed. Maybe he rebelled. Maybe he turned on the one he had loved out of despair, or anger, or raw frustration. (The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot p. 168)

Modifying Ehrman’s portrait: Judas, a follower of Jesus, was expecting Jesus to be the Messiah of Israel. A Messiah, as Ehrman explains, that: “would be a great and dynamic figure who would execute God’s will here on earth, such as by overthrowing God’s enemies in a mighty act of power.” (p. 124) This was not Jesus, and Judas may have been resentful. He might have joined thinking he was part of the elite and found nothing but misery and persecution. He was not going to be a King, as he was promised. The breaking point comes when Judas witnesses a woman pouring a year’s salary worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. At some point in the past he had started embezzling money (his gateway rebellion action), and wanted that money for himself. He stirs up the other disciples to complain. Jesus rebukes him while telling of the Messiah’s own death, and Judas is pushed over the edge. He turns Jesus over to the authorities, telling them that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. He is angry at Jesus, raging with bitterness, and doubting if Jesus really is the Messiah. If Jesus is a false prophet, then Judas has wasted 3 years of his life and deserves what is coming to him. If Jesus is a true prophet, Judas thinks that he is acting as a catalyst to actually fulfill Messianic actions. Jesus may overcome and bring the kingdom that was promised. Judas may even see this scenario working out with Judas being proclaimed as the truest and most praised disciple. Once Judas sees Jesus’ true fate, though, he is shamed. All this plans are failed. He is not much more than a murderer. For all his bitterness and anger, Judas sees that he has done evil. Judas kills himself.

Now this story is not found in the gospels, at least not directly. But the gospels are not novels on the life and times of Judas. In fact, Judas is a minor character throughout the gospels except in a few fleeting passages. None of the gospel writers ever claimed to have a complete character sketch of Judas, detailing all his innermost thoughts. They ascribed their own evaluations and talking points when discussing Judas. Just as Ehrman describes different conversions from Christianity to highlight different points, the gospel writers do the same. Ehrman consistently confirms this throughout his writings.

About christopher fisher

The blog is meant for educational/entertainment purposes. All material can be used and reproduced in any length for any purpose as long as I am cited as the source.
This entry was posted in Bible, Bible Critics, Ehrman, People. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ehrman on Judas’ motives

  1. Pingback: Jesus and his secret teachings | reality is not optional

  2. Tom Torbeyns says:

    Generally a good article. Especially when pointing out Ehrman’s inconsistency.

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