In a radical rehabilitation of the historical reputation of Judas, Professor William Klassen says there is limited evidence for seeing him as the greater betrayer. He believes that Judas did not know he was sending Jesus to his death when he handed him over to the chief priests of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Prof Klassen of the Ecole Biblique, a biblical research institution in Jerusalem, says that when he was first commissioned to write a biography of Judas he assumed that the evidence would sustain his reputation for treachery. Then he discovered that the gospels did not in fact say that Judas "betrayed" Jesus but used the Greek verb paradidomi which in all other ancient texts means "to hand over".
"At first I couldn't believe the word was so badly translated," says Prof Klassen. "This is the basis of my case. Although I have been criticised, nobody has challenged me on the mis-translation of the word."
He argues that there is little enough information about Judas in the New Testament - St Mark's Gospel only mentions him three times - and that his reputation as the great betrayer developed later as the early Christian church split from Judaism. Colourful details about Judas, such as the belief he had red hair, were subsequent additions.
Prof Klassen says: "What our earliest sources say is that Judas did nothing until Jesus told him to do it." When Judas led a band of armed men to the garden of Gethsemane and identified Jesus with a kiss he could not have known that the chief priests were going to hand him over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, to be crucified. In the Gospel of Matthew Judas hands back the 30 pieces of silver as soon as he hears that Jesus is in the hands of the Romans saying: "I have betrayed innocent blood."
It is only in the Gospel of St John, believed to have been written later than the others, that his role gets more critical treatment. The key impulse behind his demonisation was the young church becoming increasingly anti- Jewish after the fall of Jerusalem. "The emerging church began to see the need to draw boundaries," says Prof Klassen "and found Judas a convenient figure - for he was a Jew and had been a disciple."
Full story, Sunday ReviewReuse content