JRP vs. Bishop Spong vs. Judas Iscariot: Round Three (3 of 4)

In Part 2 of this Round, I looked at the Iscariot data found in GosMark and then in GosMatt, with an eye toward assessing whether the differences in GosMatt could clearly be identified as only legendary development. Aside from the difficulties inherent in identifying legendary development vs. increased historical detail without a clear historical exemplar for comparison (and aside from noting that such a theory is totally dependent on GosMatt having been composed after GosMark), there are portions of the text which might, or might not, be the result of legendary embellishment. However, the larger and more detailed the portions, the less proper it is to infer a process of legendary development per se (in lieu of clear developmental links between the two data points, which we certainly don't have in this case.) Ironically, the portion most impressive to the casual and (paradoxically) uncritical observer--the extended anecdote involving the 30 pieces of silver--is least likely to be the result of legendary embellishment per se. Moreover, the three increasingly largest substantial variations from GosMark all have a tendency to be proportionately more sympathetic to Judas Iscariot; which cannot very well fit any theory of Iscariot having been invented and increasingly detailed for purposes of libeling anyone by his mere existence as a representative fictional character.

Which, unfortunately for Bishop Spong, doesn't bode well for his attempted theory in The Sins of Scripture to the effect that Judas Iscariot was a fictional character invented by Jewish Christians in order to help Jewish Christians hate Jews and Judaism.

But, perhaps adducing data from GosLuke, Acts and GosJohn, will make his theory of a legendary development process, running progressively through the texts in sequence, look stronger. (Certainly Bishop Spong seems to think so, in his presentation!)

So: how well does GosLuke and/or Acts fit into the theorized pattern?

GosLuke: Satan enters into Judas Iscariot before Judas goes looking to betray Jesus. No even vague connection to the anointing of Jesus by a woman at the house of Simon the Leper. The detail about the chief priests and scribes wanting to kill Jesus is still in play; their reason for killing Him is that they’re afraid of the people. This time (without the anecdote of Mary’s anointing in the way) Judas goes off to plot with them right after we’re told the chief priests are wanting to kill Jesus. They’re glad for Judas’ deal and agree to give him money. No amount is mentioned. In fact, the whole complex anecdote about the 30 pieces is totally missing. Judas begins looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus to them; “apart from the crowds” is added to the phrase found in the other Synoptics. Jesus knows the hand of the one betraying Him is with Him on the table, and (as in GosMark and GosMatt) wails a lament about him. (Same lament.) Unlike Mark and Matt, Luke puts this bit after the Lord’s Supper is instituted! (But Luke also reports Jesus curiously neglecting to say just how many thrones the apostles, who have stood by Him in His trials, will be sitting on in the kingdom to come--despite numbering the tribes of Israel as twelve. This speech isn’t found in the other Synoptics at all here, although GosMatt has something suggestively similar on the road out of Jericho during the final approach to Jerusalem.) There is a brief description of discussion among the apostles as to who might be betraying Jesus. Unlike GosMark and GosMatt, there is no dialogue about this, including from Iscariot. After Jesus has spent some hours at Gethsemene (the olive press) on Olive Hill, Judas comes up (having departed the group at some unspecified point) with a mob. The detail of Jesus knowing Judas is coming is omitted. The detail of the mob being sent by the chief priests is omitted. (The slave of the high priest, who gets his ear cut off, is still on scene however. In GosLuke Jesus heals his ear.) No explanation is given for why Judas is kissing Jesus. No greeting from Judas is given. It’s unclear whether the kiss even occurs, or whether Jesus forestalls it with a comment very different from the comment found in GosMatt. Iscariot is not mentioned again in GosLuke.

Acts: Peter, while explaining why they need a new apostle, tells the gathering of 120 brethren (now in Jerusalem for Pentacost) that David had somehow foretold the betrayal of Judas. Two extremely vague references to Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 are given; neither are obviously about Judas (or about the Field of Blood either). Peter (or possibly the author) says that Judas bought the field with the money he received for betraying Jesus; then afterward Judas fell in the field bursting his innards open so that his bowels gushed out, thus explaining why the field became known in Jerusalem in Aramaic as Hakeldama (or Hakeldamach in some early texts) or “Field of Blood”. Iscariot is not mentioned further in Acts.

(There is serious grammatic evidence, by the way, that Acts 1:19, at least, is commentary by the author for his reader(s), not dialogue from Peter, who would not likely be expected to be telling 120 disciples in Jerusalem that the field was thus known “in their own language” as such-n-such, and then translating it into Greek. If verse 19 is commentary, which is exceedingly likely, the whole parenthetical explanation from verse 18, possibly through the Psalm ref in verse 20, is commentary, too.)

So!--how fares this new progression? Is it even a progression?!

GosLuke contains fewer details overall than GosMatt, concerning Iscariot; and in some pericopes (narrative scenes) even fewer than GosMark, too! Where Luke shares topical details with Matt not mentioned at all in Mark, the details vary quite widely. The overall result is one of fidelity and new variation, not of clear developmental progression.

The only detail that might feasibly count as legendary accretion per se, is the brief explanation about Satan entering into Judas: a small throwaway detail of which nothing else is made in GosLuke. If this is legendary accretion, it’s a first small step. It’s somewhat doubtful that the detail necessarily indicates a fault of Judas, either. On the other hand, it must be admitted that where variations occur elsewhere in GosLuke they tend to be either neutral as to motivation or else more condemning of Iscariot compared to previous data (mostly compared to GosMatt); so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to suspect that this brief explanation is meant along that line, too.

I will take a moment to point out, however, that the lamentation of Christ in all three Synoptics, “It were better for him [or maybe for Him] if that one [the traitor] had not been born”, can be culturally construed as a cry of pity for the object, not of condemnation. (The classic Old Testament example is Job crying “Oh why was I even born? Better that I had died before leaving the womb!” etc.) Whether the authors received it that way or not, who can say?--perhaps Matthew, who has much more to say sympathetically about Judas than anyone else, understood it so.

The divergent details, combined with faithfulness to the wording of GosMark in many places, indicates that Luke was working from GosMark (or a source used by GosMark) plus some kind of tradition concerning Judas, mostly in Acts, quite independent of GosMatt’s specific material--even though the same basic topic (an explanation of the name of a field, the fate of Judas, and a belief that scripture predicted the betrayal) is in view. Moreover, while the small detail about Satan entering into Iscariot might be original to the author as an explanatory gloss, it is difficult to figure out why Acts 1:18-20 would be created out of whole cloth--and yet share the topic of explaining the Field of Blood.

Beyond this, it is entirely possible to harmonize the unique Matthean and Lukan material in a plausible way, even though the texts themselves give little help for this: Judas is paid 30 shekels, decides later Jesus was innocent, wants to be exculpated for his crime, is frustrated when his own religious authorities refuse to do so; hangs himself from a tree dangling over a claypit; the rope breaks at some point afterward, dropping him onto sharp rocks; the potters won’t want this cursed ground anymore for their wares; the Sanhedrin’s accountants don’t want to have a record of Judas trying to return their disbursement anyway; so they treat it as a donation from Judas, and buy the field in his name as a cheap grave for (non-Jewish) strangers: one of the few uses the claypit now would be considered appropriate for.

There is no reason why a complex historical event of this sort might not be fractionally remembered in two distinct traditions, especially if one of those traditions was more aimed at being sympathetic to Judas. It is at least realistic for a man (whether Peter or Luke), upset by a heinous betrayal, not to bother reporting sympathetic details, even if he knew about them--which Peter, at the point of the Iscariot scene in Acts, might easily not have known about yet anyway. (He might have already known about nasty details concerning Iscariot’s death, as in verse 18, and reported those for shock effect however. Why morally complicate things by adding that this happened because Judas hanged himself from a tree over the field that was bought, on public record, with his donation to the Temple? That would only be confusing.)

The actual facts, then (i.e. the textual characteristics) do not match well with a theory of legendary accretion so far. On the other hand, they match well enough with a painful memory of betrayal among Jesus’ own chosen apostles, combined with morally complex and confusing circumstances surrounding his own subsequent death. How much would any author want to talk about this? What details would he focus on? Which details would he even know about to report on? Which details serve his own interests in writing? These are realistically nuanced issues which could easily explain the spread of the data.

So, does GosJohn look more like legendary accretion per se than the other works so far? And/or does it fit a realistically nuanced consideration of authors deciding which parts of a confusing and painful bit of history they want to try to report? (I say and/or, because results either way might be indistinguishable from one another causally, too; or there could be a mixture of causation leading to the result.)

GosJohn: Jesus knows one of His apostles is going to betray Him one year before it happens, although it is the author, not Jesus, who mentions exactly who (in a scene completely unique to GosJohn in other regards, too); “Iscariot” is mentioned, in that scene, as being the surname or nickname of Judas’ father Simon, as a passing bit of information (a textual habit of this author in regard to Judas); Judas is directly connected to the anointing of Jesus in Bethany by Mary, as giving a specific complaint about her anointing (other texts have the disciples in general grumbling generally about it); the author explains that Judas’ complaint itself was false, and that Judas only was annoyed that there would be less for him, as the staff accountant, to steal for himself, since Mary didn’t sell her gift and donate the money to their charity fund; Judas is not shown going out after this scene, or at any other time, to strike a deal with the Sanhedrin; Satan puts the idea of betraying Jesus into Judas’ heart sometime between this point and the Lord’s Supper; the author explains a small cryptic comment from Christ during the meal on that final night (during a scene thematically linked to Luke 22:24-30, but different in actual content, where Jesus tries to teach them one more time about humility) to mean that Jesus knows Judas is going to betray Him; Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 41 as a prophecy that the one who eats His bread shall betray Him; the apostles are not shown debating among themselves or protesting to Jesus that it isn’t them individually (although they are shown looking at one another in confusion of what He is talking about); the author is asked by Simon Peter to ask Jesus who it is; Jesus privately tells the author that it is the one to whom Jesus dips the morsel and gives (which He does, giving it to Iscariot); Satan enters into Judas at this point; Jesus tells Iscariot “what you are doing, be doing it more quickly”; the author explains that different people there had different ideas for why Judas was leaving at that time, but weren’t expecting treachery from him; the Lord’s Supper isn’t mentioned at all per se; during the Final Discourse (completely unique to GosJohn) Jesus while praying to the Father says He (Jesus) has lost none of them except the one He was going to lose anyway, the ‘son of perdition’; Judas (still not having been shown striking a deal with the Sanhedrin) leads the mob (stiffened with Roman soldiers and officers from the Temple) to Gethsemene; Jesus is sort-of presented as knowing they are coming, and going out to meet them; and Judas is shown standing with the arresting party. No sign from Judas for identifying Jesus is shown; no kiss or greeting from Judas is attempted; and Iscariot is never mentioned again in GosJohn.

Several things should be noted. First, three of the new pieces of material (Jesus knowing Judas will betray Him a year ahead of time; Judas being briefly referenced during the High Priestly Prayer; and Judas being briefly hinted at by Jesus after the foot-washing) are minor elements of larger pericopes completely unique to GosJohn anyway. In order for these to count as evidence for legendary accretion they would have to be compared to instances of these same pericopes which either don’t have the refs about Judas or else which have the same kind of refs but less detail. But we don’t have such instances for comparison. (Even if we did, the addition of the details would not itself be conclusive evidence of legendary accretion, remember. But without such instances, a legendary accretion theory, properly speaking, cannot even get started!--not in regard to these particular details anyway.) They could be historical reminiscence, or accretion to previously transmitted material (of which we know nothing about), or part of something invented wholly by the author to begin with. A judgment either way will have to be built by careful consideration of other evidence. There is, at least, nothing in this material overtly preventing the refs from being historical.

Second, the author’s repeated habit of mentioning “Iscariot” in connection with Judas’ father Simon, has no apparent apologetic agenda; if it isn’t historicity, it is only verisimilitude (and, if so, would admittedly count as one minor step of accretion in itself. But there is no way to tell from the texts.) On the other hand, the GosJohn author does have an established habit of trying to add historical detail and even at least once to overtly correct a received historical detail--meaning other alterations to details found in the Synoptics may (or may not) also be correction attempts for accuracy.

Third, one key scene features very much less detail about Iscariot than in the other Gospels (the arrest), and many key scenes and details from other Gospels are outright missing (Judas going to the Sanhedrin to plot; Judas being paid by the Sanhedrin; the amount paid; Judas asking Jesus, along with the other apostles, whether he himself is the traitor; Jesus replying to Judas’ question/protest; Judas repenting when Jesus is condemned and trying to return the money, seeking absolution; Judas hanging himself when his religious authorities refuse to absolve him of guilt; Judas falling and splitting himself wide open, throwing his innards all over the ground; the claypit being bought in Judas’ name, with Judas’ rejected money; Judas being replaced by another disciple.) The question of timing in regard to the Lord’s Supper is also completely mooted by the absence of the Supper scene itself (per se). (Other Gospels seem to indicate Judas was around for the Lord’s Supper, especially GosLuke; but GosJohn doesn’t even have that detail.)

Fourth (and most substantially), only two pieces of new Judas material happen in material directly shared by other Gospels; but even then there are peculiar lapses and unexpected details.

GosMark suggests Judas went to plot with the Sanhedrin after the anointing by a woman in the home of Simon the leper (and Jesus’ rebuke to grumbling disciples). GosMatt more directly says so, in his grammar. GosLuke has Judas going to plot, in language much closer to Mark than Matt, but no mention at all of Mary’s anointing Jesus. (Maybe earlier in the narrative in an almost completely different scene, but not here; and not connected with Iscariot there, either. It’s unclear whether any disciples per se at all, including the apostles, are even present for that Lukan scene!) GosJohn doesn’t show Judas going to plot with the Sanhedrin at all, but does connect Judas even more directly with the anointing by Mary (identifying Mary in the process, but not having a reference to Simon the leper per se), by having Iscariot be the one giving a specific grumble. (And, by the way, specifically claiming a very different time for the anointing than apparently given by Mark or Matt.) This admittedly doesn’t help Judas’ representation any; yet the extra detail leads to the huge irony of Iscariot being the only named Christian bishop in the New Testament! (The main duty of the episkopos elsewhere in the NT is that he is elected from other authorities to, in effect, keep track of the communal money bag for giving alms to the poor.) Moreover, Jesus’ retort in defense of Mary is arguably softer than in other accounts; the author is hardly heaping up calumny on Iscariot per se by that method.

In the other shared incident between Gospels, where substantial new material is included, the saying about the traitor eating with Jesus is given some authoritative prophetic connection (by no less than Jesus Himself) to a scripture (but not at all the same scriptures reffed by Luke or Matt); and, even more overtly, Judas is shown literally eating with Jesus, ultra-literally demonstrating him to the Johannine author as the traitor by Jesus’ express explanation. Also, Jesus’ exhortation for Judas to be about his business is, if I may say so, quite the essence of understated macho coolness! But the absence of the Lord’s Supper itself is striking: here is a detail apparently intended to clarify when exactly Judas went out to get up the mob (a public mob being the usual arresting force in the ancient Near Middle East--a realistic detail in all four Gospels, stiffened with Roman soldiers from the garrison cohort as another realistic detail in GosJohn, who would want to be on site to keep the arrest as un-riotous as possible); but this detail was hardly needed before. Jesus in the other Gospels is shown spending several hours at the press (and its cave, per GosLuke) on Olive Hill, with overtly unattentive disciples; Judas could have left and come back at any time. This Johannine detail gets Iscariot out of the way early for no good reason, insofar as a theory of invention goes, other than that the author isn’t going to include the prayers at Gethsemene! (But not because the author finds such a thing thematically inappropriate; he uniquely relates something similar back at 12:27ff.) The logically expected reason for Iscariot’s early departure, insofar as a “progression” would be concerned--so that Judas won’t be clarified as sharing in the Lord’s Supper--simply isn’t shown at all.

Beyond this, Judas (as with the moneybag detail earlier) is shown receiving special honor from Jesus; the sop is traditionally given to the most honored guest by the host (a tacitly ironic counterpoint to the disputation among the apostles as to which of them is greatest in GosLuke!) Also, the apostles figure Jesus means for Judas to go out and do one of two responsible or ritually honorable things: buy more things for the upcoming seder (if they aren’t having the seder early after all) or giving money to the poor (if they’re having the seder right now after all--an honor typically given to the beloved son by the father during that ceremony.) Whereas, on the other hand, the “woe to that one” declaration is completely missing.

The confusion among the apostles, by the way, as to why Judas is leaving, happens to dovetail nicely (if tacitly) with the somewhat confusing question, still retained in the four Gospel accounts, of when exactly the Passover holiday is supposed to be occurring. What many commentators don’t know to take into account, is that a rabbi was allowed to hold the Passover seder one night early in special emergency situations, the archetypical example being if a battle was expected to interfere with holding it the next day! (A precedent established by the Maccabean revolution, if not earlier.) This detail has already been a tacit factor earlier in GosJohn, when (as in GosMatt and GosMark, but not GosLuke) hotheads want to crown Jesus by force after the feeding of the 5000. GosJohn is the text to mention that this feeding happens very close before Passover (also tacitly explaining why so many men, women and children were on the lakeroad that day traveling without food--they expected to be with family that night), without overtly explaining why a rabbi holding an early seder (or something understandably mistaken for it, such as with the miraculous feeding) would mean so much for people hoping for the Messiah to deliver them from bondage to the pagans at such a time.

A historical solution can be seen in the background; the details synch with the solution without directly calling attention to it: why do the apostles have differing opinions about why Jesus has sent Judas on his way? Why does Judas even go at all? Because now he knows for sure that Jesus is onto his plot, and (if I may be allowed to put it this way), Jesus Christ there is gonna be a fight tomorrow!! Jesus is planning to start a revolution after all!--just what the Sanhedrin is afraid of! They can’t wait till after the holiday, they’ve got to stop Jesus now, tonight, before it’s too late!

The Gospel details don’t spell this all out, but the cultural details synch up with the Gospel details (Synoptics and GosJohn both) stereoscopically.

And that’s a mark of strong historicity in the background. From which, understandably divergent accounts could reasonably arise according to the intentions (and resources) of the various authors.

What the actual data isn’t, though, is clearly indicative of legendary accretion per se; not as any kind of primary explanation for the variant details (much less for the lack of details from text to text!) Details change too radically too often, or drop out unexpectedly for no stated reason (not even overt correction by authors); and they often end up acting against a theorized intention of increasingly vilifying Judas Iscariot in some supposedly progressing fashion.

As is typically the case with the Gospels’ Passion narrative material, the Iscariot data is actually a textbook example of four (at least partially) independent strands of data hearkening back to a primary source. Whatever else it is, the data is not a textbook example (overall) of legendary accretion--a few possible minor exceptions here and there aside: the only one of which survives more than one proposed iteration, being the explanation that it’s somehow Satan’s fault. (And practically nothing is ever made of this development, insofar as it may be reckoned as slightly developed at all.)

When the only clear development in a proposed series of accretion, across three (not even four) sets of the data, is something this minor, legendary accretion theory as a primary explanation for the material is toast.

[Next time, part 4 of 4 for this Round: so, why does Bishop Spong think otherwise? And recap for this Round.]


Jason Pratt said…
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