The story of Judas Iscariot is full of intrigue, betrayal and
condemnation. Of the players in the New Testament, Judas, the fallen
apostle, is recognizable to most Christians, but retired Bishop John
Shelby Spong said he believes Judas, the man, never existed.
In Thursday’s Interfaith Lecture, Spong examined the case of Judas
Iscariot through a historical and biblical lens. In his fourth lecture
of the week based on the title of his recent book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World,
Spong said Judas Iscariot was never a man, but a literary figure
created decades after the crucifixion to represent non-Christ-following
To contextualize his argument, Spong opened his lecture with the
story of the Jewish war with the Roman Empire. The war between the
Romans and the Jews exploded in the year 66. Before the full-blown
military engagement, Jewish Zealots, or “freedom fighters,” had staged
frequent guerilla attacks against the Romans for decades, Spong said. In
70 C.E., the Romans embarked on a fierce offensive and seized the city
“I mean, the Romans went through Jerusalem like the Russians went through Berlin at the end of the World War,” Spong said.
The fall of Jerusalem left an indelible scar on Jewish history, he said.
“I suspect the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 of this Common Era
also shaped both Christian history and Jewish history more dramatically
than any of us has yet imagined,” Spong said.
Before Jerusalem fell, relations between Jews who followed Christ and
Jews who did not follow Christ were tense. When Jerusalem fell, they
worsened dramatically. The Jews who followed Christ blamed the Orthodox
Jews for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish homeland, Spong
In the year 88, Jesus’ followers were excommunicated from the Jewish faith, he said.
“The followers of Jesus began to think of the Jews not as people,
like themselves, but as their primary ecclesiastical enemy,” Spong said.
It was leading up to, and during, this time that the first gospels
were being written, Spong said. He said he believes that the character
Judas Iscariot was added to the Bible so early Christians could absolve
the Romans and Pontius Pilot of the death of Christ and blame the Jews
Spong said he first became suspicious of Judas’ origins when he
realized that Judas, the name given to Jesus’ betrayer, was the Greek
spelling of the work Judah, which meant Jew.
“I thought it was just too convenient that the anti-hero of the
Christian story bears the same name with whom Christians were locked in a
very tense struggle for survival.” Spong said.
To further explore the possibility that Judas Iscariot was mythical,
and not man, Spong analyzed each mention of Judas in the writings of
Paul and in the gospels.
Paul, who wrote between the years 51 and 64, was one of the earliest Christian writers, Spong said.
“No place in the corpus of Paul’s writings is there any hint that
Paul had ever heard of the tradition that Jesus was betrayed by one of
the 12,” Spong said. “Paul says Jesus appeared to the 12 after the
crucifixion — there was no defection, Judas was still there.”
The character of Judas Iscariot first appeared in the Christian
tradition in the Gospel of Mark, written around the year 72, a few years
after the fall of Jerusalem. When the character entered the Christian
tradition, he came already equipped with a surname that stemmed from a
word meaning “political assassin,” Spong said.
After his arrival in the Gospel of Mark, the character of Judas
Iscariot only became more sinister in subsequent gospels, Spong said.
“The Judas story expands over these years and in that expansion,
Judas, the figure who bears the same name as the nation of the Jews,
also becomes more and more evil,” Spong said. “All you have to do is
open the Bible, know the order and see how the story grows.”
When Judas is first introduced in Mark, he is mentioned three times.
In chapter three, it is written that Judas went to the chief priests to
betray Jesus for an unnamed amount of money. Later in the same chapter,
Jesus is quoted as saying “he who eats at the table with me will betray
me,” Spong said.
“The idea that the traitor is also one who eats at the table of the
Lord is mentioned in every gospel, but Judas does not get identified in
person or by name until the last of the gospels,” Spong said.
The final time Judas is mentioned in the Gospel of Mark is when he
arrives in the garden to hand over Jesus and is surrounded with guards
and authorities from the Jewish temple. In the garden, he betrays Jesus
with a kiss, Spong said.
In the Gospel of Matthew, written in the early 80s and the second
gospel to elaborate on the Christian narrative, there are some changes
and additions to the story of Judas’ betrayal. The price of his betrayal
is set as 30 pieces of silver. In Matthew, when Jesus says, “someone at
this table will betray me,” Judas responds, “Surely it is not I.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, there is another detail added to the story of Judas.
“Judas repented, (Matthew) said. He tried to return the money — the
return was refused so Judas hurled the money into the temple and went
out and hanged himself,” Spong said.
Luke wrote his gospel in the late 80s and early 90s, Spong said, and
once more, the story of Judas Iscariot was altered. Luke wrote that
Judas betrayed Jesus because Satan possessed him. Luke also added
dialogue between Judas and Jesus during the betrayal in the garden,
In the Book of Acts, which was written by Luke, the story of Judas’
death was recorded. In the story, Judas accepts the silver in exchange
for handing over Jesus, and he uses it to buy land. When he travels to
see the land, he falls down, and his bowels ‘gush out onto the land,’ ”
“I don’t believe your bowels gush out when you’re hung,” Spong said.
The Gospel of John is the last, written in the 10th decade. In John’s
gospel, Jesus directly points to Judas as his betrayer during the Last
Each gospel story of Judas is slightly different and more enhanced
than the last, Spong said. But certain points were replicated in each
“Who is this Judas? He is one who breaks bread at the table of the
Lord, that’s mentioned four times. He is one who is betrayed with a
kiss, that’s mentioned four times,” Spong said.
Judas is also a man who kills himself and throws the money from his
betrayal into the temple, and a man whose bowels flow out of him,
killing him, Spong said.
“Now let me take that data, go back into the Hebrew Scriptures and
look at every story of a traitor that you can find in those Hebrew
Scriptures, and we will discover that every detail in the Judas story
can be found in one of these earlier Jewish traitor stories,” Spong
In Samuel, the story of Ahitophel was told. Ahitophel was one of King
David’s closest advisers — so close that they often shared a table and
broke bread together. At one point, Ahitophel betrayed David and was
caught. In response to his betrayal being discovered, Ahitophel hanged
himself, Spong said.
“In Second Zechariah, the Shepherd King of Israel is bought off for
30 pieces of silver, which is then hurled back into the temple,” Spong
In all four of the gospels, Judas betrays Jesus with the kiss of
death. That form of betrayal was also seen in the Hebrew Scriptures,
Spong said. In a story from the time of King David, a soldier named
Amasa replaced one of David’s army commanders, Joab. Joab heard Amasa
had replaced him, and he went to congratulate him. When Joab reached
Amasa, he pulled him near and made as if to kiss him, but instead he
disemboweled him with his dagger, Spong said.
“If you analyze the biblical data, you will discover that the Judas story is not particularly original, Spong said.
“All of which makes me suspicious that the character we meet in the
gospel called Judas the Assassin, Judas Iscariot, is nothing more than a
literary composite of the traitor stories of the Old Testament,
developed by the followers of Jesus as an attempt to shift the blame for
the death of Jesus from the Romans, who were surely the guilty party,
to the Jews, with whom the Christians were in such deep tensions,” Spong
In the years following the crucifixion, the early Christians, who
were still Jews, actively worked to incorporate Jesus into the Jewish
“So the followers of Jesus were ‘Revisionist Jews,’ and the opposition were ‘Orthodox Jews,” Spong said.
Following the Crucifixion, the two groups of Jews had a relationship
fraught with tension, but they did not divide completely and turn
against one another until the war between the Romans and the Jews, Spong
After the war and the sacking of Jerusalem, the Roman victors treated
the Jews very harshly and sought to repopulate their territory with
pagans and to destroy the Jewish nation entirely, Spong said.
For the Revisionist Jews, or early Christians, it became apparent
that to further separate themselves from the Orthodox Jewish party the
Romans were intent on destroying, they would need to set up the Orthodox
Jewish party as a mutual enemy.
“They did this by creating a symbol of the Orthodox party, by giving
him the name of the Jewish nation, by creating him as the assassin, and
they used this to court Roman favor, by saying the enemy of the Romans
was also the enemy of the followers of Jesus Christ,” Spong said.
The creation of the story of Judas Iscariot was how early Christians
shifted the blame for the death of Christ from the Romans to the
Orthodox Jews. With this one addition to the Biblical narrative, Spong
said, the early Christians instigated and inspired the anti-Semitic
ideas that have plagued the Jewish people and the world since.
“I think the time has come for Christians to bow in humility and beg
forgiveness from the Jewish people for what we Christians have done to
them in the name of our Jewish Jesus,” Spong said.
Bishop John Shelby Spong
John Shelby Spong, whose books have sold more than a million copies, was bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark for 24 years before his retirement in 2001. Acclaimed as a teaching bishop who makes contemporary theology accessible to the ordinary layperson, he is considered the champion of an inclusive faith, both inside and outside the Christian church. In one of his recent books, The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Discover the God of Love (2005), Bishop Spong sought to introduce readers to a new way to engage the holy book of the Judeo-Christian tradition. A committed Christian who has spent a lifetime studying the Bible and whose life has been deeply shaped by it, Bishop Spong says that he is a believer who knows and loves the Bible deeply, but who recognizes that parts of it have been used to undergird prejudices and to mask violence.
A visiting lecturer at Harvard and at universities and churches worldwide, Bishop Spong delivers more than 200 public lectures each year to standing-room-only crowds. He was previously a 2:00 pm Lecturer of the Week at Chautauqua in 2000. His bestselling books include Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism, A New Christianity for a New World, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and Here I Stand. His extensive media appearances include a profile segment on "60 Minutes" as well as appearances on "Good Morning America," "Fox News Live," "Politically Incorrect," "Larry King Live," "The O'Reilly Factor," "William F. Buckley's Firing Line," and "Extra." His newest book is Eternal Life: A New Vision - Beyond Religion, Beyond Theism, Beyond Heaven and Hell.