JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round Five (1 of 4)

Please see here for Round Four material (and links tracing all the way back to Round One).

Absolutely nothing in the preceding four appeals to suspicious innuendo (or “easily identifiable, documentable facts” as Bishop Spong prefers to call them) could be even distantly supposable as amounting to some kind of “rise of anti-Semitism”. (As if anti-Semitism wasn’t around before canonical Christianity but Christians somehow invented it. And as if anti-Semitism, a racial prejudice typically connected in modern days to a secular theory of evolution, is supposed to be the same as anti-Judaism, a religious prejudice. And as if anti-Judaism wasn’t around before canonical Christianity either, but Christians somehow invented it. Etc.)

By the power of deduction, then, one could reasonably (and, as it happens, correctly) expect: if it wasn’t in the first four points it’ll be in this one.

“My fifth and final source of suspicion is the name of the traitor itself.”

Well, at least he gets some credit for having an actual easily identifiable, documentable fact this time as his “source of suspicion”: the texts do all agree the name of the traitor was Judas Iscariot. That textual characteristic is, in fact, a documentable fact which is easily identifiable.

Bishop Spong waits until immediately after listing his “fact”, this time, to begin his suspicious innuendoizing.

So, why is Judas’ name supposed to be suspicious in itself; so suspicious in itself, that in itself it contributes to a suspicion that Iscariot didn’t even exist but was fadged up for polemical purposes by Christians in or before the 70CE?

Because... “Judas” is a fairly common variant of one of the top five most popular names in 1st Century Judaism? Right? That has to be the reason.

“Judas is nothing but the Greek spelling of Judah. The name of the traitor is the very name of the Jewish nation.”


Actually, the name of the Jewish nation in the Old Testament was usually “Israel”; sometimes “Jacob” or even “Ephraim”. And sometimes “Judah”, too, because the tribe of this patriarch became so powerful in the south that it rivaled the collected territories of the other tribes in the north (collectively known as “Israel” during the schism of the kingdoms after Solomon).

Judah was the chief inheriting brother of the sons of Jacob--but not due to being oldest, which he wasn’t. (Jacob disqualified Reuben for sleeping with one of Jacob’s harem; and disqualified Simeon and Levi for being too violently vengeful.)

Despite Judah’s role in handing over Joseph to pagan slavers (and his embarrassing liaison with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, which she initiated when he delayed rendering justice for her by providing her a replacement for her dead husband), he was pretty well thought of anyway, largely thanks to the blessings of his father--and the Messianic promise of a redeemer of Israel from the house of Judah through the lineage of King David (for whose sake, not to say Solomon’s, too, Judah was also pretty well thought of). There was one more reason he was highly regarded in Judaism, too (as well as among Christians today, to the extent that they think of him as a particular person at all)--which I'll explain soon, as it has a huge bearing on an important detail of Bishop Spong's attempted theory.

The Messianic promise, meanwhile, was why Judah was such an especially popular name for boys in early 1st century Palestine time. People could add up the years prophesied in the scroll of Daniel, which by one reckoning would be fulfilled around the time of Jesus. Naming one’s son “Judah” was a hope that he might be the King Messiah to come; and at least was honoring the Messiah and the hope of deliverance to come from God.

Bishop Spong tries to make a lot out of supposed parallels between the apostle Judas Iscariot (of whom practically nothing is said in the texts aside from him being a traitor and, in one text, an embezzler) handing Jesus over to chief Jewish religious authorities for trial to the death on charges of blasphemy; and the patriarch Judah (eventually receiving the lion’s share of inheritance from his father for being less violently vengeful than Simon and less horny than Reuben) handing Joseph over to pagan slavers in order to save Joseph from starving to death in a pit. (His other rationale, to his brothers, is that at least they’ll make some money on doing this; but his primary emphasis is on not killing their own brother. The payment rationale sounds like a sop he thinks they’ll accept, since after all the whole point of throwing Joseph in the pit to begin with was to kill him in some fashion that doesn’t literally involve his blood on their hands.)

If that doesn’t sound like it would fit very well as a parallel, to anyone actually familiar with the story of Judah and Joseph, keep in mind that Bishop Spong just sort of elides past some of those details!

Nor are those the only details he elides past: not only does Judah later risk his freedom and even his life acting to protect Joseph’s brother Benjamin from harm, specifically in repentance for his role in Joseph’s slavery, but Joseph himself mercifully exonerates his brothers from guilt in what happened, attributing it instead to the providential authority of God for all their sakes.

Bishop Spong can only make an intentional connection between the two characters sound like a momentuous slur by simply ignoring huge portions of the story that would have been both familiar and highly meaningful to a Jewish audience, including to the Jewish Christian audience whom Bishop Spong specifically imagines this anti-Jewish propaganda conspiracy technique being aimed at. Remember: according to his theory, this Jewish Christian audience would never have even heard of Iscariot before; they’re naturally going to be vastly more familiar with a story they’ve been taught to positively appreciate for its ethical and dramatic beauty: Judah’s repentance, self-sacrifice and eventual reconciliation in relation to Joseph. Trying to forge some connection between the two characters would naturally work entirely against Bishop Spong's theorized goal for the people involved.

It shouldn’t be surprising to note, as an aside, that when the Greek begins to be translated into other languages, “Judas” routinely begins to be spelled some other way than “Judah”, the admired patriarch. So much for the success of that supposedly obvious thematic link!--the end result, as Bishop Spong himself is well aware and tries to make use of for shock value, is that many Christians aren’t even aware that ‘Judas’ and ‘Judah’ are basically the same name!! It doesn’t occur to Bishop Spong that the fact he can appeal to this unexpected disparity and that it would even be a disturbing connection for Christians to consider, counts against his theory about the reason for someone inventing the character of Iscariot to name him “Jud”.

It might be retorted that GosMark, as well as GosLuke and GosJohn, show signs of having been written for a Gentile audience; and even GosMatt in a couple of places. But this is going to cut against Bishop Spong’s theory again, because a Gentile audience, already culturally prepared to accept religious elements syncretistically piecemeal, isn’t going to need some special character fictionally invented to help them reject orthodox Judaism. Circumcision and dietary laws and several other things of that sort would do and did do just fine. (Especially circumcision!) Not to say any already existent historical prejudices against Judaism or even racially against Semites.

(Bishop Spong seems aware enough of this problem: he focuses pretty strongly on the concept of the Gospel authors having to imaginatively work at turning Jewish Christians against orthodox Judaism. Still, considering the strong Jewish-mission thrust of all four Gospels, not to say GosMatt’s apparently primary audience being maybe Jewish, I’m willing to not simply reject on primary audience grounds, the theory that the authors are trying to undermine Jewish loyalty to mainstream Judaism.)

The topical connections between the two stories (Judah vs. Joseph, and Iscariot vs. Jesus) are equally shallow, and are mainly restricted to (a) some kind of betrayal of a son beloved by a father, and (b) money of some kind being received for the deed. (To this might be included (c) repenting of the deed to the point of being willing to die. But aside from the fact that, once again, the actual story details diverge strongly even here, this would hardly make Iscariot look more villainous to Jewish Christians who, apparently unlike Bishop Spong, would know and care and positively cherish the story of the Patriarch Judah’s heroic repentance!)

Meanwhile, here’s a fun experiment. Try to find how often “Judah” is used as the name of the Jewish nation in the Gospels. Or “Judas”, either one. “Jude”, too, if you’d like. (All three names are basically the same in Greek.) I’ll wait.

Here’s a hint: it’ll either take you a very long time, or a very short time.

(still waiting)

Done yet? Did you find them all?

If you found ZERO, then yes: you found them all.

“Judah” (much less “Judas” or any other cognate used as a personal name) is never once used as the name of the Jewish nation as a whole in the Gospels. It’s used as the name of a territory (in the form of Judea, usually--a form not used as a proper name anywhere in the Gospels), both in the sense of a geopolitical territory current at the time (this is where “Judea” is usually referenced, based roughly on the old geopolitical territory combination of Judah and Benjamin as the Southern Jewish kingdom) and, a couple of times during the infancy narratives, as a more localized territory reference near Jerusalem where (as the most pertinent example) Bethlehem is located. (Interestingly, those couple of times do use the personal-name-version of the word.) The Jewish nation, however, whether for praise or for criticism, is almost always called “Israel”. Never “Judah”.

So, the theory being proposed for acceptance here, is that the authors of the Gospels chose the name of Judah (a super common name of the time, of a highly respected patriarch from whom the Messiah was supposed to come and who had shown at least as much mercy in the Joseph affair as the eldest brother Reuben) as a way of denigrating the Jewish nation, nearly always called Israel in the texts of these same Gospel authors and never Judah, because Judah was the very name of the Jewish nation. Or something.

Now, to be clear: the term “Jew” (and plural “Jews”), as a description of someone living (more or less nominally) within a religiously based family descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is found very frequently in GosJohn--although very much less frequently in the Synoptics. And this word is a cognate from the name “Judah”. It’s also something of an innovation at the time of Jesus: in the Jewish Scriptures, they would be called Hebrew or Israelite or something of that sort. These terms are still used in the Gospels, but “Hebrew” is only used outside GosJohn once in GosLuke (for one of the languages of Christ’s superscription nailed to the cross) and several times in Acts. (And isn’t used often in GosJohn either.) “Israel” is typically used in the Synoptics to talk about the Jewish people. “Israelite”, on the other hand, shows up once in GosJohn, and several times in Acts, plus the Pauline Epistles, but never in the Synoptics.

This is all important to keep in mind, because despite Bishop Spong’s sloppy way of putting it, he’s probably thinking of “Jew” and cognates as a description of the Jewish people in the Gospels, when he talks about how overly “convenient” it is that the traitor is named after a super-popular and ultra-common name of that day... or, as he prefers to put it, after the “whole Jewish nation”.

But then his accusation has to synch up with the actual facts of the textual data; or else his accusation is worthless. So, does his accusation synch up with the actual facts of the textual data, especially in the order of Gospel composition that he accepts and to which his theory is utterly tied?

(The preceding few paragraphs easily hint at the answer to at least one facet of this question...)

[Next time, part 2 of 4 for this Round: starting a cross-check of the textual data.]


Jason Pratt said…
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