Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus 
by William Klassen.
SCM, 238 pp., £12.95, June 1996, 0 334 02636 9
Show More
Show More

William Klassen, research professor at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, is a New Testament scholar with a theory about Judas Iscariot. He would be the last to say he is first in the field with a theory about Judas, but he can plausibly claim to be unique in having appeared before classes and congregations dressed as he supposes Judas to have been at the moment of the Crucifixion, and keen to defend his actions against what he knew would be the enraged accusations of his auditors. For he does not believe that Judas was a bad man or a traitor. In his book he describes at length his ‘quest for the historical Judas’, believing that the Christian tradition has misrepresented and maligned the man (the more readily since his name connotes Jewishness) and should admit guilt for having done so.

Klassen is insistent that his purpose is to get at the historical truth about Judas, though he is well aware that he has no other documentary sources than the Gospels themselves. This isn’t, for Biblical scholars, an unsurmountable difficulty, since for two hundred years or more they have been making ingenious conjectures as to what lies behind the Gospels, describing the contents of long-lost documents or simply appealing to Tradition, the oral reports that must have circulated between the lifetime of Jesus and Judas and the writing of the Gospels at least forty years later. It is not far-fetched to assume that Judas had a place in these reports, though Paul, writing nearer the time of the events the Gospels describe, shows no interest in him.

Of course these hypothetical sources are equally available to those who think Judas was a bad man, so Klassen’s ‘quest’ involves much learned contestation with beliefs and assumptions, scholarly and otherwise, which might seem to hinder his hero’s rehabilitation. The chief obstacle, he believes, lies in a single word, the Greek paradidomi, which means ‘to hand over’ – for example, a city or prisoners of war – and which, according to Liddell and Scott, can also mean ‘to betray’. Klassen disputes this, and claims there is no instance in classical Greek, or in the Greek of Josephus, contemporary with the Gospels, or in the Gospels themselves, where the word means ‘betray’. Yet of the 44 times paradidomi occurs in connection with Judas, the King James Bible erroneously translates it as ‘betray’ on all but four occasions.

So a single mistranslation has done much to perpetuate the idea that Judas was a traitor, made him a scapegoat instead of a participant in the action of ‘saving history’. Actually he was merely doing as he was told in handing over Jesus to the Jews; somebody had to, the divine plan required it; so to speak of his treachery is simply unhistorical. Yet there are many situations in which to hand over something (the keys of a city, or the secrets of the hydrogen bomb, for instance) is an act of betrayal; and to hand over a friend to a hostile authority is one such situation. You have to believe that the handing over of Jesus was not a betrayal of this sort before you can insist that this word has been consistently mistranslated. To conjecture, as Klassen does, that Judas was under the impression that if Jesus and the High Priest had a good talk together all the problems might be peacefully solved will strike some as sophistry or fiction.

There are a good many passages in the Gospels which might seem to support the translators Klassen condemns. Matthew’s account has Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver as the price or bribe to be paid him by the Jews who want Jesus arrested. Early in his Gospel John identifies Judas as the bad disciple who will hand Jesus over, and the only disciple to complain about the waste of money at the anointing of Jesus. Such difficulties do not trouble Dr Klassen, who goes through the four Gospels learnedly commenting on them. But however ingenious his commentary, it is obvious that his whole effort is devoted to upholding the prejudice or fore-understanding with which he began.

Sometimes this is a matter of preferring his own translation to others; for example, he needs to confute the notion that the Greek su legeis, or su eipas, literally ‘you say’ or ‘you said’, can be translated as ‘yes’. Ego eimi, said by Jesus in reply to the High Priest’s question whether he is the son of God, means ‘I am,’ but here it is translated ‘I am who I am.’ This renders merely evasive one of the most striking moments in Mark’s Gospel, which in general avoids such affirmations and times this one to coincide with Peter’s denial. Klassen is sure that at the time of the arrest Jesus addresses Judas (and no other disciple, anywhere) as ‘friend’, but does not acknowledge that hetaire can be otherwise translated – for instance, James Moffat, admittedly rather extreme, gives ‘my man’. It could as well mean something like ‘colleague’ or ‘comrade’. I am not qualified to argue with Klassen about New Testament Greek, but his preferred translations do seem, perhaps unconsciously but still consistently, to favour whatever fits his thesis.

There are other ways of avoiding what most have taken to be the sense of the Gospel language. It can be said that Mark is being ironical when he says something apparently dissonant with the Klassen theory; or that he has been editing his original. Mark reports that just before his arrest Jesus announced that he was about to be delivered into the hands of sinners; here we are told that the original read just ‘into the hands of men’. What original? What the author has in mind is presumably that Matthew and Luke, having similar sources, merely say ‘men’, not ‘sinful men’; but this could just as well be taken to mean, not that Mark changed the original, but that Matthew and Luke changed Mark. Klassen is not suggesting that he has seen an earlier draft of Mark which supports his interpretation, but an unwary reader might infer from this and from allusions to ‘a final edited form’ that he has.

The fact that Judas is said to have taken money as a reward for the handing over might seem a serious obstacle to the defence of him as a good and obedient disciple. But the money, we are told, is not ‘the critical factor’. Mark mentions the money without making much of it – it is a promise of the priests, not an initiative of Judas; but Matthew is another matter, for he specifies 30 pieces of silver and makes Judas say: ‘What will you give me if I hand him over?’ Klassen remarks that the sum of money is ‘small indeed’, considering the size of the deal; and concludes that Matthew, not to put too fine a point on it, just made up this bit of the story on the basis of some Old Testament texts. There is, he claims, absolutely nothing in the ‘original sources’ that suggests a bribe. So the bribe simply isn’t history.

Although he has some prefatory remarks about the fictional element in biography at the relevant period Klassen does not often remember them when thinking of Matthew, who also describes Judas returning the bribe and explains how the money was eventually spent. Omniscient narrator, he also provides an account of Judas’ death (quite different from the version provided by Luke in Acts), as well as reporting an intimate conversation between Pilate and his wife. It seems odd that a critic so committed to his own historical inventions should fail to recognise Matthew’s fictive powers.

The final besmirching of Judas occurs in the fourth Gospel. John obviously had it in for Judas, and Klassen simply doesn’t believe him, though he expresses his scepticism more politely: ‘From a strictly methodological point of view, I cannot attribute the same historical reliability to the fourth Gospel as to the Synoptics, especially to Mark.’ The point is that Mark, as often, gives the barest account of the matter, and John the most elaborate, definite and disagreeable. He says Judas stole from the common treasury, and was wicked in other ways, but there is no supporting evidence for these charges. John is simply blackening the character of an innocent man, loading the dice when he says quite early that Judas was a devil (‘Did I not choose you 12, and one of you is a devil? He spoke of Judas ...’). At the Last Supper John is sure that ‘the devil had put it into the heart of Judas to betray’ Jesus (and it is hard to believe that when John uses paradidomi in this scene he doesn’t mean ‘betray’). Klassen will have nothing to do with this slur, and makes much of the fact that Jesus directly calls Peter, not Judas, a Satan. John has to go; he is simply making up an unhistorical story.

And so the special pleading, often ingenious, fertile in fictions, always supported by elaborate discussions of the texts, always claiming methodological rigour, goes on. Take the name ‘Iscariot’. There are many guesses as to what it means. A well-supported body of opinion associates it with the sicarii, the Zealots, desperate freedom fighters determined to end Roman rule. Another theory is that it comes from an Aramaic original and means, quite innocently, ‘the man from the city’. An attractive conjecture is that the surname was added to Judas’ name after the event, and comes either from a Hebrew word meaning, ‘the one who handed over’, or a different Hebrew word meaning simply ‘the false one’. Klassen says correctly that there is no consensus, but favours ‘Iscariot as designating a place of origin’. He needs to get rid of the Zealot interpretation, and especially of ‘the false one’, which, on other grounds, is the most probable.

It would, however, be difficult to reconcile this etymology with the Klassen theory. ‘Is there anybody in history who has been so hideously slandered as has Judas?’ John must bear much of the blame, having, for his own theological reasons, made Judas ‘no longer a person’ but ‘a character in a morality play’, out of all touch with history; and since Christianity is a religion founded in history John has a lot to answer for, and so has the entire Christian tradition, for it has preferred John to history as Klassen reconstructs it.

Fiction is fiction whether or not the writer feels the need to call it history. The rabbinical practice of Midrash can involve a free use of invented narrative, and what we probably have here is what is sometimes called ‘proto-Midrash’. There is plenty of evidence that Judas came belatedly into the Passion narrative; he is placed at the end of lists of disciples, with the tag ‘the betrayer’, as Luke unequivocally calls him, attached. Betrayal was necessary to the narrative, whether divinely planned or not. A character was needed to do the betraying, and the plot agent of betrayal became Judas.

In a perfectly usual fashion the incidents leading up to the actual betrayal are constructed on Old Testament texts or testimonies. Once the Betrayer is established in the story more and more information about him is invented, until it is far in excess of what is needed simply to tell the story. This character-building process continued long after the Gospels were written; in the Golden Legend, to cite one of many instances, Judas becomes an Oedipus, married to his mother. The plot agent has become a character.

As for the historical status of Judas, there is of course no saying he didn’t exist, but as we know him he exists only in a form of fiction cultivated in the first century. The ‘quest for the historical Judas’ is accordingly an impossible one, though it has often been tried. By adjusting the record (and what he assumes to lie behind the record) to suit his own theological prejudices Dr Klassen is following an ancient tradition, a practice of which John, here represented at deplorably prejudiced, provided a celebrated instance. It is remarkable what historians can do by way of invention, omission and distortion when they are as sincerely committed to a thesis as Klassen shows himself to be in this book, as well at in those public performances in which he represents himself at a wronged apostle.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 7 · 3 April 1997

I was gratified to learn that Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March), though offering different reasons, agrees with part of what I said in my notice of William Klassen’s book: the Judas story is a fiction; but he thinks both Klassen and I are wrong about paradidomi. Yet we all say it means ‘to hand over’. Maccoby argues that the handing over was by the High Priest to the Romans, which in no way affects my argument, or the interpretation of the verb. In certain circumstances to hand over is to betray. Handing over an associate to an enemy or to the police is betrayal: Jesus was shopped, if you like. Somebody handed him over (betrayed him) and Judas was appointed to take the blame.

Klassen (Letters, 20 February) is confident that since he began his search with no notion that it would end as it did, in a certainty that Judas was just obeying orders, he can reject any imputation of prejudice in favour of such a conclusion. But honest researchers, and Klassen is one, should be aware that such convictions are liable to be formed not at the outset but some way into the work. (This is, on his own account, exactly what happened to him.) Thereafter the whole investigation is prejudiced.

Frank Kermode
Houston, Texas

Vol. 19 No. 4 · 20 February 1997

I find it passing strange that Frank Kermode, in his review of my Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus (LRB, 2 January), ignores the detailed lexicographical analysis of the key Greek word, paradidomi, ‘to hand over’, based not on any theological bias, but on a critical reading of Greek texts. The word simply does not mean ‘betray’, in any ancient Greek text I could find, including the Bible itself. The difficulty of this translation has been noted before by many authors I cite but this point was never pursued or carried to its logical conclusion in the case of Judas. One can only convict me of error if the same texts are analysed and evidence provided that the term in fact means ‘betray’.

Despite Professor Kermode’s suggestion to the contrary, I approached my mandate to write a life of Judas with the firm conviction that Judas was a traitor and that all the Gospels were unanimous in portraying him as such. In time that conviction had to yield to the evidence. This turnabout has been one of the most difficult discoveries of my life, for it seemed incredible that noted lexicographers and translators would have been so misled all these years.

Kermode’s review also illustrates how his own bias against Judas holds him hostage. For example, four times in the space of his review he refers to the ‘bribe’ that was paid Judas. Not once does that word or a related word appear in any of the Gospels. Surely it is possible to visualise the transaction between Judas and ‘the Jews who want Jesus arrested’ as something quite traditional and standard for Jews who informed on someone to the High Priest This is certainly what David Daube taught us, as have other scholars who are familiar with the Jewish society of that time.

There is no hint of a bribe in the Gospel texts. My suggestion that Judas was acting as a faithful Jew, carrying out not only God’s will as understood by Jesus but also the will of Jesus himself, at least deserves some consideration. Perhaps Judas retained his loyalty to the High Priest as guardian of the Temple. If that is granted there is little room to speak of a ‘betrayal’. In any case, there is only one later textual support for ‘betrayal’ (Luke 6:16), which alone uses the precise Greek word meaning ‘traitor’. Perhaps the notion of betrayal arose from the bitterness of the early Christians, influenced by the fact that Judas may very well have been seen as the first defector from their community. Certainly the New Testament lacks any evidence that Jesus felt betrayed and what it was that Judas betrayed has never been defined.

Professor Kermode suggests that I came to the Judas research with a built-in bias. However, there is not one conclusion in this book that fits the theology with which I began. To be sure, once I had done my basic language analysis, an area in which Mr Kermode admits he is not ‘qualified to argue’ with me, I had to follow the evidence and apply it to Judas. I follow not ‘what fits my thesis’ but the results of my research, because I was taught that the study of ancient texts should begin with the language in which they are written (not, in this case, the King James Version), and let the conclusions speak for themselves.

William Klassen

Vol. 19 No. 5 · 6 March 1997

William Klassen (Letters, 20 February) complains justly of Professor Kermode’s incomprehension of the important point that the term usually translated as ‘betrayed’ actually means ‘handed over’. I myself pointed out in Judas Iscariot and the Myth of Jewish Evil (1992) that the Greek term paradidomi means not ‘betray’ but ‘hand over’. I also pointed out that the first occurrence of the verb is not in the Gospels but in I Corinthians, 11:23, where Paul does not even mention Judas, but simply ‘the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over’. If we did not read this passage in the light of the Gospels, we would undoubtedly think that Paul was referring to the handing-over of Jesus to the Romans by the High Priest. This would fit admirably the associations of the term ‘handing over’, since the High Priest, as the Roman-appointed gauleiter of Judaea, had possession of Jesus, whom he then transferred to Roman custody.

Unfortunately, Klassen constructs a very implausible scenario on the basis of his insight into the meaning of paradidomi, asserting that, since Judas Iscariot was not a traitor, he was obeying Jesus’s explicit instructions when he ‘handed him over’ to his death. Actually, the term ‘handed over’ is unsuitable in this context, since the term implies that someone has possession of a captive whom he transfers to someone else’s possession. I believe that the awkward language of betrayal hints at the fictitious nature of the whole Judas story. Jesus was handed over as a troublemaker to the Romans by the High Priest, not by Judas. The Gospel writers, intent on increasing Jewish guilt in the matter, invented the character of Judas Iscariot to play the role of ‘traitor’. The verb paradidomi, however, had become embedded in the oral tradition, and was thus inappropriately transferred to a context of private betrayal. The end result was to transform the story into one of internal betrayal: the Romans were now no longer the evil oppressors and invaders, demanding the death of troublemakers, but a remote external link in a process of intra-Jewish betrayal. All the dramatis personae of betrayal were now Jewish, with the Romans as shadowy, exculpated figures, viewing with concern the malevolence of the Jews towards Jesus.

Hyam Maccoby
Kew, Surrey

Vol. 19 No. 8 · 24 April 1997

Hyam Maccoby (Letters, 6 March) does not mention a use of the phrase ‘handed over’, or at any rate in translation its close equivalent, in II Chronicles, 36, much earlier than the occurrence in I Corinthians, 11:23. In II Chronicles, one finds the following account of God’s displeasure with the repeated infidelities of the princes, priests and people of Judah. ‘He brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who slew their young men in their own sanctuary building, sparing neither young man nor maiden, neither the aged nor the decrepit; he delivered all of them over into his grip.’ This passage is found in the first reading in the Catholic liturgy for the fourth Sunday of Lent, the New American Bible translation. It is unknown to me if ‘delivered all of them over into his grip’ uses the disputed paradidomi in the original tongue.

Robert Ostermann
Chandler, Arizona

Vol. 19 No. 10 · 22 May 1997

Robert Ostermann (Letters, 24 April) is largely right: the Septuagint translation of II Chronicles 36:17 – ‘he delivered all of them over into his grip’ – does use paradidomi and may be relevant toan understanding of I Corinthians 11:23b. Our versions of Chronicles are, naturally, translations from the Hebrew original. L.C.L. Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint rightly reads: ‘he delivered all things into their hands.’ ‘All things’ seems to refer both to the people and to the treasures mentioned in the next verse. But the relevant point is that it is God who does the delivering. The same may be true of I Corinthians 11:23b, as has quite often been suggested; the unnamed agent of the handing over is neither Judas nor the Sanhedrin, but God himself. It is generally acknowledged that he who raised up Jesus from the dead at Romans 4:24 is the one who did the delivering (paradidomi) in the next verse: ‘Who was delivered up for our offences and was raised up for our justification.’

Since we have gone to the Chronicler, in his Greek (Septuagint) translation, we ought also to take note of I Chronicles 12:17. David, a guerrilla leader on the run from King Saul, meets a group from Benjamin and Juda and says to them: ‘If ye are come peaceably to me, let my heart be at peace with you; but if you are come to betray [paradidomi] me to my enemies unfaithfully, the God of your fathers look upon it and reprove it.’ The Hebrew verb is not the same as in II Chronicles 36:17, and is, in the lexicon, given as ‘beguile, deal treacherously with’, but the old Greek translator found it possible to use paradidomi. Hyam Maccoby’s view (Letters, 6 March) that ‘handing over’ is unsuitable when referring to Judas Iscariot, because Judas does not have possession of Jesus as a captive, fails to take account of the range of meanings for paradidomi. David’s doubtful recruits, doubtful to him at that point, do not have possession of him, and ‘handing over’ could take several forms.

W.L. Smith
Newark, Nottinghamshire

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences