Judas Iscariot was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus Christ. He infamously betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver, which lead to his death on the cross. Today, “Judas” is virtually synonymous for “traitor.”
Among the disciples, Judas was the official treasurer, and he was apparently pretty shady even before he made his big debut as the worst person in history. (He stole money.) Despite that, Judas was a fairly conflicted person. He tried to return the 30 pieces of silver, and according to the Gospel of Matthew, he hanged himself not long after betraying Jesus.
Judas appears in several New Testament stories, and while the Gospel writers are in unanimous agreement that he betrayed Jesus, they present various takes on his motives and the circumstances surrounding his death.
So what else do we really know about Judas? For starters, here are the quick facts.
What does Iscariot mean?
People in ancient Israel didn’t have last names like we do. In the Bible, the “last names” you see are epithets—or descriptions—which generally refer to where someone comes from, a title, their father’s name, or a group they’re identified with. Unfortunately, scholars aren’t totally sure what Iscariot refers to.
Most scholars believe Iscariot means that Judas came from the town of Kerioth, which could make him the only disciple from Judea (the others were from Galilee). But there have been a number of other theories, including the possibility that it identifies him with the Sicarii—a group of Jewish rebels who were trained as assassins.
Whatever it means, “Iscariot” helps us distinguish Jesus’ betrayer from the other people named Judas.
Speaking of which, let’s make sure we’ve got the right guy.
Which Judas are we talking about?
“Judas” seems to have been a common name in Jesus’ time. That makes sense, considering that it’s the Greek form of the Hebrew “Judah,” the tribe of the heroic King David and the coming Messiah.
There are three people named Judas in the gospels (and eight total in the New Testament). Two of them were disciples of Jesus, and one of them was Jesus’ half-brother, which probably made family gatherings a little awkward after Jesus’ death. It’s also possible that Jesus’ brother Judas was one of the Twelve.
The Judas is distinguished from the others as Judas Iscariot.
Who’s that other disciple named Judas?
The other disciple named Judas is only listed as Judas in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. (See Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:3, Luke 6:16, and Acts 1:13.) Matthew and Mark both mention a disciple named Thaddeus instead of a second Judas, while Luke mentions a Judas son of James—which is possibly a mistranslation, as he might actually be the brother of James.
Early Christians began calling this disciple Jude Thaddeus (Jude is a variation of the same name) or Judas Thaddeus. Thaddeus may have been a nickname, which Mark and Matthew graciously used here instead of Judas, since the name would have been especially tainted in early Christianity.
The only other place we see this Judas is in John 14:22:
“Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, ‘But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?’”
Some scholars suggest that this Judas is Jude the brother of Jesus, the traditional author of Jude. (Jude and Judas are variations of the same name.) This is possible if this Judas is the brother of James and not the son of James, since Jesus clearly has a brother named James and a brother named Judas (Mark 6:3). Other scholars believe Judas the disciple and Jesus’ brother Judas are two separate people.
Judas the brother of Jesus
Two of the gospels mention that Jesus has a brother named Judas. When Jesus returns to teach in his hometown, the crowds don’t respect him, because they know him as a carpenter and not as a great teacher, and they know his whole family:
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon?” —Mark 6:3
The author of the epistle, Jude, also identifies himself as Jude, the brother of Jesus (Jude 1:1), and again, Jude is a variation of the same name as Judas.
Despite having two or possibly three people named Judas in the gospel, it’s easy to tell when the Bible is talking about the Judas, because he’s always identified as Judas Iscariot.
Now let’s get back to what we know about Judas Iscariot.
Judas Iscariot was one of the 12
While the Bible tells us how Jesus called some of the disciples, that’s not the case with Judas Iscariot. He’s simply listed among the 12. It might seem like a huge oversight on Jesus’ part to call someone who was so fatally flawed and would eventually betray him, but each of the disciples were flawed.
Leading up to his betrayal of Jesus, not much is said about Judas, but there are a handful of details we can gather from the passages he appears in.
The disciples’ treasurer
Interestingly, the Gospel of John tells us that Judas Iscariot was in charge of the group’s money. You might think that a tax collector like Matthew (also known as Levi) would’ve been the natural choice for managing the group’s finances. However, tax collectors had a well-deserved reputation for being dishonest with money in Jesus’ day, so while Matthew was financially savvy, the other disciples may not have trusted him, or perhaps Jesus didn’t want to give him the temptation.
In any case, Judas Iscariot may have been considered “good with money” or trustworthy, but the first passage that tells that he was in charge of the group’s money also tells us that he was completely untrustworthy. (Granted, Judas was long dead after this was written, so maybe this is John’s hindsight talking.)
The Gospel of John tells us that Judas used his position as treasurer to steal. In the famous account of Mary and Martha, Mary anoints Jesus feet with a pint of expensive perfume, and Judas speaks up:
“But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” —John 12:4–6
This is part of the reason why people believe Judas was at least partially motivated by greed when he betrayed Jesus. He had a history of theft, so when he saw an opportunity to “earn” 30 pieces of silver for handing over Jesus, he took it.
But there are worse things than being a thief. And Judas was some of those, too.
Son of perdition
Before he is arrested, Jesus prays. In his prayer, he asks God to protect his disciples and says that none of them have been lost while he was with them—with one exception: the “son of perdition,” Judas Iscariot. This ominous title comes from the Latin Vulgate, so you won’t find it in translations that rely more on the original Greek.
The NIV translates the phrase this way:
“While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.” —John 17:12
However you translate it, Jesus is saying that Judas was totally lost. “Son of perdition” essentially means he was eternally damned, doomed to hell, and trapped in unrepentant sin (and thus would never receive forgiveness).
The same Greek phrase is only used one other time in the Bible, in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, where it refers to the “man of lawlessness”—a figure many Christians traditionally identify as the antichrist. Not somebody you want to have a lot in common with.
When Jesus says “so that Scripture would be fulfilled,” there are a few passages he could be referring to. Many scholars suggest Psalm 41:9:
Even my close friend,
someone I trusted,
one who shared my bread,
has turned against me.
Others suggest it’s Psalm 109:8:
“May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.”
In Acts 1:20, Peter suggests Psalm 109:8 was about Judas, and the 11 remaining apostles appoint someone to take Judas Iscariot’s place.
Judas betrayed Jesus
More than anything else he ever said or did, Judas Iscariot is defined by his betrayal of Jesus. Before the Last Supper, the chief priests plot to arrest and kill Jesus, and Judas offers to hand him over:
“Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, ‘What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?’ So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.” —Matthew 26:14–16
During the Last Supper, Judas leaves early, and Jesus and the rest of the disciples head to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus asks the disciples to keep watch, but they keep falling asleep. When they finish, Judas approaches with an armed crowd and points Jesus out to them.
“Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!’
While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.’ Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
Jesus replied, ‘Do what you came for, friend.’
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him.” —Matthew 26:45–50
Jesus’ opponents had been looking for opportunities to arrest and/or kill him from almost the beginning of his ministry, but they feared the crowds of people who hung on Jesus’ every word, and Jesus always slipped away before anyone could harm him (John 8:58–59).
Luke mentions that Judas specifically looked for an opportunity to hand Jesus over “when no crowd was present” (Luke 22:6). John adds that Judas was familiar with the garden “because Jesus had often met there with his disciples” (John 18:2).
Jesus frequently retreated into solitude to pray. And in the Garden of Gethsemane, late at night, removed from the safety of the crowds who loved him, he was especially vulnerable—and Judas knew that. He led Jesus’ enemies straight to him, and through this betrayal, Judas inadvertently triggered the crucifixion, Jesus’ resurrection, and ultimately the salvation of humanity.
Why did he betray Jesus?
After watching Jesus heal people, cast out demons, command storms, and forgive sins for three years, why would Judas be willing to betray him?
Mark doesn’t tell us Judas’ motive. In Mark’s version of events, Judas appears to offer to betray Jesus without even asking for money, but the chief priests promise to pay him. The other gospels provide us with two motives, one natural, the other supernatural, which worked together to turn Judas against Jesus.
He was motivated by greed
Luke and Matthew are more precise about Judas’ financial incentive. In Matthew, Judas straight up asks the chief priests, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” (Matthew 26:14–15). Luke tells us that the chief priests “agreed to give him money” (Luke 22:5), implying that Judas suggested it, or there was some discussion about it.
John doesn’t mention the money at all, but like Luke, he does give us another reason why Judas betrayed Jesus.
Satan “entered him”
Luke and John both write that Satan entered Judas and influenced him to betray Jesus. At the end of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, Luke tells us that the devil left him “until an opportune time (Luke 4:13). Judas provided both the time and the opportunity.
Luke records that it happened just before he spoke with the chief priests (Luke 22:3), and John writes that the devil prompted him to betray Jesus before the Last Supper (John 13:2), but that Satan entered him in the moment Judas touched a piece of bread:
“Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.” —John 13:26–27
This almost seems to shift some of the blame from Judas, perhaps suggesting that he was “doomed to destruction” because he was most vulnerable and available to Satan’s influence.
So why did Satan do this, if Jesus’ sacrifice was part of God’s plan to redeem humanity? Because he didn’t know that. Satan thought killing Jesus would ruin everything.
Perhaps, like the Jews, Satan thought the Messiah was supposed to restore God’s kingdom by conquering the physical and political powers of this world. So by killing the Messiah, Satan thought he would prevent that restoration from happening.
But the crucifixion was part of God’s plan all along. Paul puts it this way in his first letter to the church in Corinth.
“No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.” —1 Corinthians 2:8–9
Perhaps that’s a reason the Old Testament prophets were cryptic in their oracles about the death and resurrection of the Messiah: God kept it vague so Satan wouldn’t see it coming.
He thought something else would happen
Like the rest of the disciples (and most first-century Jews), Judas likely thought that the promised Messiah would physically overthrow Israel’s enemies and restore the kingdom through force. And all Jesus’ talk of “the kingdom of God” may have added to the confusion.
After all Judas Iscariot witnessed, it’s hard to imagine that he couldn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. He may have genuinely thought that by creating conflict, he’d be tipping Jesus hand and accelerating his movement.
The Bible doesn’t tell us that, but when Jesus is eventually handed over to Pilate (and thus at the mercy of the Roman government), Judas expresses remorse (Matthew 27:3), which could be a sign that he expected a different outcome.
Did Judas know something the other disciples didn’t?
Interestingly, a second-century text (written long after the death of Judas and the other apostles) suggested a different reason why Judas killed Jesus: Judas was the good guy.
The Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic text which claims to contain conversations between Jesus and Judas Iscariot. It suggests that Jesus actually instructed Judas to betray him, and that Judas was the only one who truly understood Jesus’ message.
The early Christian church didn’t buy it. Bible scholars don’t either.
Jesus knew Judas was going to betray him
Throughout his ministry, Jesus dropped regular hints to his disciples that he was going to die. But during the Last Supper, the gospel writers tell us that Jesus also knew exactly how he was going to die—and who would betray him.
In some accounts, Jesus even blatantly tells the disciples which one of them would betray him, but somehow they miss it:
“After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, ‘Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.’
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, ‘Ask him which one he means.’
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, ‘Lord, who is it?’
Jesus answered, ‘It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.’ Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
So Jesus told him, ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.’ But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor.” —John 17:21–29
The disciples often failed to understand what Jesus was really saying, and here it seems that Judas’ role as the group’s treasurer contributed to the confusion. It’s plain as day to us, reading John’s account after the fact, where every mention of Judas Iscariot is colored by hindsight, but clearly, the disciples had no reason to suspect Judas more than anyone else. He had been with them for three years, and despite his dishonesty, each of them wondered if they might be the eventual traitor.
But Jesus knew what Judas was going to do all along. And he didn’t stop him, because it was all part of God’s plan for redemption.
Did Judas regret betraying Jesus?
Once the chief priests found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and handed him over to Pilate, Judas had a change of heart. Some debate about whether or not Judas was repentant or simply remorseful, but it’s clear that he was consumed by guilt after seeing the consequences of his actions.
He tried and failed to return his “reward,” and openly acknowledged the sin of his betrayal:
“When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’
‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left.” —Matthew 27:3–5a
Ultimately, Judas’ remorse led to his death, which is why many scholars make a point of distinguishing his regret from repentance. He acknowledged Jesus’ innocence, but not his Lordship, and he sought other ways to cope with his guilt, rather than pursuing forgiveness from the only one who could deliver it—even after three years of witnessing Jesus freely offer that forgiveness.
How did Judas die?
The Book of Acts and the Gospel of Matthew each give an account of Judas’ death. Matthew records that Judas hung himself immediately after the chief priests refused to take their money back:
“So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” —Matthew 27:5
The chief priests then used the money to buy a field, which Matthew connects to prophecies from Zechariah and Jeremiah:
“The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.’ So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’” —Matthew 27:6–10
Interestingly, Acts (traditionally attributed to the Apostle Luke) gives a different account:
“(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)” —Acts 1:18–19
Luke’s account of Judas’ death doesn’t necessarily contradict Matthew’s. He could simply be referring to something that happened after Judas hung himself. But that still leaves us with the question of who bought the field—Judas, or the chief priests? And they appear to have different reasons for why the field was called the Field of Blood.
Matthew’s account is the only one that tells us Judas felt remorse, and he directly connects that remorse to Judas’ suicide. Luke’s account almost seems to paint a picture of Judas as being “doomed to destruction,” as though a sudden gruesome death was simply his fate for betraying Jesus.
Still, both accounts appear to be in agreement that Judas died around the same time as Jesus. And it certainly wasn’t from old age.
Who replaced Judas?
The Book of Acts opens after the resurrection of Jesus, and while the apostles wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, they get together and talk about the best way to replace Judas Iscariot. The number 12 carried a lot of significance to the Jewish people (and thus the early Christians), and Peter urges the group to fulfill a prophecy in Psalm 109:8:
“May another take his place of leadership.”
The apostles wanted to choose someone who had been with them from the time John baptized Jesus until the time he ascended to heaven, and they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias.
They prayed and cast lots, and then Matthias became the new 12th apostle. There’s no further mention of Matthias in the New Testament, but using other ancient texts and the writings of early Christians, there’s been a lot of speculation as to who Matthias was. Clement of Alexandria appears to possibly suggest this was Zacchaeus (the famous vertically-challenged tax collector), and a pseudepigraphal text claims he’s Barnabas, and some believe he’s Nathaniel. But all we really know is that someone named Matthias replaced Judas Iscariot, and that he’d been following Jesus at least since his baptism.
The Gospel of Judas
Sometime in the first three centuries of the common era, a text emerged discussing Jesus’ death from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. The only surviving copy has been dated sometime between the mid third and early fourth century, but it’s believed to be a translation of an older Greek manuscript from the second century.
Irenaeus of Lyons, a second-century church father, refers to a work known as the Gospel of Judas as “fictitious history” in his Refutation of Gnosticism.
The document as it survives today is in more than a thousand pieces, and due to poor handling and deterioration, more than half of the original document has likely been lost.
The text itself claims Judas Iscariot received special instructions from Jesus, which is why he “betrayed” him, and that Judas was the only one who truly understood Jesus’ gospel, which apparently looked an awful lot like second-century gnosticism.
Christian leaders have been rolling their eyes at this idea for more than 1,800 years.
The traitor who helped save the world
Judas Iscariot had no intention of redeeming humanity. He may have simply been an opportunist, seizing a chance to make some extra money. Or maybe, he really believed nothing could stop Jesus, so betraying him and forcing conflict would only accelerate his plan to restore the kingdom to Israel.
Satan certainly didn’t want to redeem God’s creation, either. In Judas, Satan thought he saw an opportunity to ruin God’s plan.
Neither of them understood that Judas’ betrayal would fulfill prophecies made centuries ago, or that it would take the broken world one step closer to God’s plan for cosmic redemption.
With a kiss, Judas Iscariot sealed his own fate and became one of the most reviled characters in all of literature, and at the same time, he accidentally triggered the most celebrated event in human history: the resurrection of Jesus Christ.