In the late summer of 1988, Christians around the world-including many who would not describe themselves as fundamentalists-took to the streets and airwaves to protest the release of the Martin Scorsese-directed film The Last Temptation of Christ. Most of the vitriol directed at the movie-which the overwhelming majority of demonstrators hadn’t actually seen and likely haven’t yet seen to this day-had to do with the scenes detailing the actual last temptation of Jesus, which many felt was sacrilegious and harmful to the image of Jesus Christ, despite the fact that He overcomes and resists the temptations at the end. Many, however, were also very upset at the positive depiction of Judas as a heroic figure who seems to share a co-savior relationship with Jesus. Ironically, one of the reasons that such a brilliantly plausible interpretation of Judas’ role in the story of Jesus could be written and filmed is that the gospels themselves are not completely convincing regarding Judas’ motivations for betraying Jesus. As David Strauss once wrote, “any other motives are neither stated nor anywhere intimated in the gospels, and that consequently every hypothesis as to their existence is built on the air.” That viewpoint is certainly arguable-there do seem to be intimations for other motivations, however unconscious, in the gospels-and Nikos Kazantzakis’ fictional explanation seems to make more sense than the motivations explicitly supplied by the gospels themselves.
The accounts of Judas’ treachery in the gospels are pretty straightforward, if lacking in motivational insight. According to one or more of the gospels Judas was a thief; he was paid a paltry sum of money by the chief priests to turn Jesus over; and he was an agent of the devil. All of these are singularly unsatisfying in determining why Judas was moved to betray Jesus in comparison to the motivations delineated by Kazantzakis.
Only in John is Judas singled out as being a thief (John 6:70-71), and indeed it is only in John that Judas alone objects to the waste of Mary anointing Jesus with perfume (John 12:4), while the other gospels indicate that other disciples complained about the waste. John seems to be particularly interested in casting Judas in the harshest light possible, to the point that many scholars have questioned whehter John’s portrait of Judas could be in any way authentic.
Interestingly, John’s is the only gospel that doesn’t mention Judas receiving money for betraying Jesus. Mark and Luke mention payment, but offer no detail. Only Matthew gives a specific amount, thirty pieces of silver. The possibility that Judas was willing to betray Jesus for such a menial amount strains the credulity of many Biblical critics and scholars. Thirty pieces of silver was only, in fact, thought to be about four months wages. The implication, of course, is that if Jesus was truly as feared and dangerous as it appears He was, Judas could most certainly have gotten a much bigger reward for turning Him over than he ultimately received and that, therefore, the reward must have been nothing less than a cover story, possibly concocted between Judas and Jesus Himself.
Several of the gospels indicate that Satan entered Judas, raising the possibility that his betrayal was the act of a servant of the devil. First John writes that early on Jesus singled Judas out as a being a devil (John 6:70-71). Then he writes that the devil prompted Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:2), and then later he indicates that Satan entered Judas after Judas had taken the bread offered by Jesus to the disciple he knew would betray him (John 13:27). The unanswered question here is when exactly did Satan enter Judas and if it was early on-or indeed at any point-why would Jesus have kept him as a disciple? Even if that question could be satisfactorily answered, it remains far too facile an explanation for Judas’ motivation to consign it to his being in the work of the devil, especially since the end result of his handing Jesus over obtained the end result of transforming Jesus of Nazareth into Jesus Christ, savior of the world. If Satan was at work, he certainly did a historically bad job and miscalculated terribly.
Nikos Kazantzakis presents a much more fully rounded characterization of Judas in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, which is based on speculation that many Biblical scholars have given credence to. The single most explicit conversation in the novel detailing the relationship between Judas and Jesus is found in this statement made by Jesus to his closest and strongest disciple. “It is necessary for me to be killed and for you to betray me. We two must save the world. Help me.” Those are very incendiary words to many believers and it seems as if Kazantzakis portrays Judas as a necessary agent of God’s passion. The Last Temptation of Christ may be a work of fiction, but its theology is based on serious examination and postulation of scripture.
In the novel Judas is portrayed as a fiery zealot who urges Jesus to action, constantly pushing Him toward His acting upon Judas’ view of a political/warrior messiah. This view of Judas is not particular to Kazantzakis. Isaac Asimov questions even the meaning of Judas’ name Iscariot, attaching to its mistranslation another way of viewing the betrayal. Asimov posits the theory that Iscariot was actually the result of a transpositional mistake that should have been read as Sicariot which would have been translated into “Judas the Terrorist.” In that view, Judas comes to be seen as a zealot who allied himself with Jesus in the hope that Jesus would be the messiah who put an end to Roman tyranny over the Jews. Judas would have become disillusioned with Jesus when it became increasingly obvious that Jesus was not going to take the road of opposing Rome politically. Unless, of course, He was forced to and which Judas felt He would do once arrested.
Despite Strauss’ claims to the contrary, the gospel of Matthew itself intimates that Judas’ betrayal of Jesus did not result in the expectations he had for it. Matthew says that when Judas saw that Jesus had been condemned that he was seized with remorse and returned the blood money (Matthew 27:3). Many point to this scripture as evidence supporting the view that Judas gave Jesus over with the full expectation that Jesus would be forced into showing His power and overcoming the power base. Many critics express the view that Judas fully expected Jesus to exert His miraculous powers once He had been tried while others support the view that Judas would have expected the people to raise in insurrection once Jesus had been taken prisoner.
All of these theories are, of course, examples of Strauss’ castles in the air, but they all are also quite solid foundations for Kazantzakis to have built his fiction upon. Much exists in the gospels themselves to create a theory that Judas was working not as an avaricious agent of the devil, but rather as a reverent agent of God in the divine plan leading to Jesus’ undesired, but accepted realization that crucifixion was His ultimate destiny.