Why Judas Still Conjures Up Images of the Jew as Christ-Killer

Analyzing a Slur That Never Seems To Die

A Long Way From Pippin: Ben Vereen played the role of Judas Iscariot in a 1971 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Getty Images
A Long Way From Pippin: Ben Vereen played the role of Judas Iscariot in a 1971 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

By Philologos

Published June 30, 2013, issue of July 05, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

‘I never informed or ratted on nobody,” John “The Executioner” Martorano said while testifying at the trial of crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger in a Boston court June 18.

Martorano, a professional hit man with a confessed 20 murders under his belt, had agreed to take the witness stand against Bulger and his partner, Stevie “The Rifleman” Flemmi, because of the pair’s treachery in having acted as secret FBI informants.

“I’ll go along with a lot of things,” the Executioner said, “but not no Judas, not no informant.”

Should the Anti-Defamation League join the Association of English Grammarians in filing a complaint? Not, perhaps, unless its national director, Abraham Foxman, wants to become Martorano’s 21st victim. Still, the persistence in ordinary American speech of the word “Judas,” in the sense of a vile traitor, must grate on Jewish ears. Although, in our ecumenical age, Christian churches may have dropped the charge of deicide against the Jews, “Judas,” even if uttered — as it generally is — without the slightest anti-Semitic intent, conjures up an old and still potent image of the Jew as a Jesus Christ killer.

The word, of course, derives from the New Testament character of Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ disciple who betrays him by pointing him out to the constables of the Jewish high priest, by whom he is arrested and turned over to his Roman crucifiers. The betrayal is particularly nefarious because it is carried out by means of a kiss, which Judas gives Jesus as he and his disciples are spending the night after the Passover Seder outside the walls of Jerusalem. Judas has prearranged this with the high priest’s men to let them know which of the group Jesus is.

True, Jesus’ 11 other disciples, who stick by him, are all Jews, too; in this respect, there is nothing distinctively “Jewish” about Judas’ act. But it is here that his name comes in. The “Iscariot” part of it is harmless; it most likely derives from Hebrew ish krayot, a person from the southern Palestinian town of Krayot.

“Judas,” however, is anything but. In the Greek of the New Testament it is Ioudas, which is the Greek form of Hebrew Yehudà, our English Judah — a common name among Jews in late Second Temple times. Yet Yehudà is also the Hebrew name of the province of Judea, the hilly area south of Jerusalem from which Hebrew gets its word for a Jew, yehudi, a word that appears as Ioudaíos in the New Testament and is the ancestor of the word for Jew in many European languages, including Latin and English.

Although Judas was thus only one of Jesus’ Jewish disciples, his name has screamed “Jew” to Christians, both in New Testament times and later. Indeed, he became for Christianity the prototype of the Jew: the treacherous, devilish, money-grubbing figure that all Jews were said to resemble.

In medieval “passion plays,” the popular religious pageants that are one of our best sources for knowing what ordinary Christians thought and felt, he was a prominent character, often portrayed as a hook-nosed Jewish usurer. In parts of Europe where no or few Jews existed, he was, played by a local Christian townsman, the one “Jew” that everyone knew and recognized.

So perfectly, in fact, does the figure of Judas meet the requirements of Christian hostility toward Judaism that it has been suggested by more than one New Testament scholar that he is a purely fictional character, invented by the Gospels for anti-Jewish purposes. There are certainly aspects of the New Testament narrative that would seem to corroborate this, starting with the name Judas itself.

There is Judas’s betrayal of Jesus for “30 pieces of silver,” a clear literary borrowing from the “20 pieces of silver” for which Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery in Egypt. There is the fact that the high priest’s constabulary hardly needed a secret informer to identify Jesus, who had been publicly active all over Jerusalem in the days before his arrest. There are the totally different versions of Judas’s death: In the book of Matthew, written scant decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, Judas is said to have hung himself, while in Acts of the Apostles, also an early Christian book, we read that he fell in a field and “burst asunder,” so that “all his bowels gushed out.”

The death of a real Judas, as opposed to an imaginary one, would presumably have been remembered more accurately.

Perhaps spelling “Judas” as “judas” with a small “j” would take some of the sting out of it, but otherwise there’s not much that can be done. The story in the New Testament would remain the same, and the John Martoranos of this world aren’t going to be influenced by our protests. Besides, Martorano has nothing against us Jews — the proof being that, to the best of my knowledge, he has yet to kill a single one of us. Why don’t we just count our blessings.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.