How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 1)

In this series of posts I’ve been exploring the possibility that Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, may have sincerely repented afterwards and been saved.  In my first post, I argued that there is enough evidence in the gospel narratives, particularly in Matthew, to conclude that this is a possibility.

But I also noted that some might object that Jesus and the apostles said Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, and that presumably this means he was destined to play the role of betrayer and be lost.  To address that concern, in my last post I discussed what it means for Scripture to be “fulfilled.”  I showed that it actually means not that a foreseen future event has taken place, but that an earlier statement has been recognized to have a fuller and deeper meaning in light of later redemptive-historical developments.

In this post I’d like to begin applying that understanding to the places where the New Testament says that Scriptures were fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus, to see whether the implications are that Judas may not necessarily have been lost.

I’d like to begin with an instance that’s found in all four gospels.  According to John, during the Last Supper, Jesus told his disciples, “One of you is going to betray me,” and he specified that “this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’”  Matthew records similarly that Jesus told his disciples, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Mark reports almost the same thing: Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me . . . one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.”  Luke does not use the specific language of Scripture and fulfillment, but in his gospel, Jesus says effectively the same thing: “The hand of him who is going to betray me is with mine on the table. The Son of Man will go as it has been decreed.”

So John quotes the exact Scripture that is being fulfilled in this case, while the other gospel writers offer a paraphrase of it.  The quotation is from Psalm 41, “a psalm of David” according to its inscription, which is a prayer for healing from illness. “Have mercy on me, Lord,” David prays, heal me, for I have sinned against you.” He then notes that his enemies are seeing his illness as a chance to be rid of him (even if they haven’t been able to kill him, this sickness might, they hope), and he adds with particular anguish that one of his friends has turned against him as well: “Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me.”

So how was this statement “fulfilled” in the case of Judas?  The New Testament writers see Jesus as the “greater David,” the promised Messiah who would sit on David’s throne and judge the world in righteousness, and accordingly they often see parallels between David’s life and Jesus’ life. In this case, the parallel is not exact in every detail: Jesus did not have a deadly illness, and he certainly had not sinned.  But the broad lines of similarity are that Jesus’ life, like David’s, was endangered, and some of the danger came painfully from a former friend who had been so close as to share table fellowship with him.

But it’s important to realize–and this is another key characteristic of “fulfillments” in the New Testament–that the details in Jesus’ life are “escalated” from those in David’s.  Fulfillments are not simply parallels between two ordinary things, but between something ordinary and something later that is extraordinary because it has heightened redemptive-historical significance. For example, David’s enemies (along with his former friend) were not active, but passive–they were simply waiting for him to die and hoping he would.  But Jesus’ enemies were actively conspiring against him, and so for his former friend to join them in deadly actions is an escalation, taking things to the next level. For that matter, while the death of David would have had significant implications for the covenant community (the ancient kingdom of Israel, at that point), the death of Jesus was the culminating event of redemptive history.

However, the escalation most in view here has to do precisely with the phrase that is “fulfilled”: “one who shared my bread.” Judas Iscariot wasn’t just someone who had a meal with Jesus, like Zacchaeus or Simon the Pharisee. Judas was one of the privileged few who was invited to share in the inauguration of the meal that would become a sacrament for all followers of Jesus, a commemoration of his saving, sacrificial death.  To share in that, and then immediately go out and betray Jesus, was a tremendous escalation of what David’s former friend and table companion did to him.

Still, we should observe that this Scripture itself is not sufficient to identify Judas as Jesus’ betrayer.  It does not, for example, identify the “close friend” as coming from Kerioth (many interpreters believe that Iscariot is derived from the Hebrew îsh-Qerîyôth, or “man of Kerioth”), the way Micah’s prophecy about a ruler coming from Bethlehem is understood to identify Jesus as the Messiah by reference to his birthplace. Instead, according to John’s gospel, when Jesus said that this Scripture would be fulfilled, his disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant.”  According to Luke, “They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this.” And according to Mark and Matthew, they each asked Jesus, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”

So the most we can say is that this Scripture, when understood as having a fuller and deeper meaning in the escalated events of Jesus’ life, points to “one of the Twelve,” as Mark’s gospel puts it. Sharing the bread only becomes a sign pointing specifically to Judas when Jesus turns it into that in real time, by answering John’s question “Lord, who is it?” by saying, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish”–and then passing the bread to Judas.  So it appears that it was settled that Judas would be the “one of the Twelve” who would betray Jesus only when Judas made that choice shortly before this.  His identity as the betrayer, in other words, was not specifically foreordained and predicted in Scripture.

Finally, we should address Jesus’ statement, recorded in various forms in Mark, Matthew, and Luke’s accounts of the Last Supper, “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”  Since this follows directly after Jesus’ statement that the Son of Man would go just as it had been “written” or “decreed” about him, and it announces a drastic judgment against his betrayer, should we understand the eternal damnation of the betrayer as part of what was “written” or “decreed”?  In light of everything I have observed to this point, I would argue that we should not.  We should rather see this as the kind of warning of future consequences that God gives throughout the Scriptures, in order to turn people away, if possible, from their intended evil and destructive courses. In other words, I believe that even at this late hour–literally the last minute–Jesus was still seeking in love to save Judas from a tragic course of action.

In my next post in this series, once I’ve answered a couple of other questions that have come in to this blog, I’ll look at a couple more instances where the gospel writers say that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus.

A portrayal of Judas at the Last Supper. In this case he very much looks the part of the betrayer. But in reality the disciples were “at a loss to know which of them he meant” when Jesus said one of them would betray him.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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