Retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark John Shelby Spong, answers questions after his lecture titled, "Judas Iscariot: Myth or History" in the Hall of Philosophy Thursday June 30, 2016. His lecture examined Judas from a Jewish perspective, analyzing everything from the etymology of the word "Judas" to the meaning behind his actions in the Gospels stories. Photo by Eslah Attar

 

Eleven years before he took power and 17 years before the gassings began, Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that Christ was nailed to the cross in return for “his fight against the Jewish poison.” In other words, as a pretext to hate them, Hitler said the Jews killed Jesus. By the time of his death in 1945, about 30,000 German Jews remained from a 1933 population of 522,000. An estimated 5,933,900 Jews, 67 percent of the pre-war population in occupied countries, had been murdered across Europe.

In his fourth Interfaith Lecture on “Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy” Thursday afternoon in the Hall of Philosophy, John Shelby Spong traced the myth that Jews killed Jesus — a commonly cited justification for the worst anti-Semitic atrocities in European history — to the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew, he said, invented the character of Judas to serve as a stand-in for the entire Jewish people, shift the blame for the killing of Christ from the Romans to the Jews and allow Christians to escape persecution the Romans had laid on Jews.

“[Judas] was a totally fictional character, a totally literary character created by early Christian Church in the ninth decade for sole purpose of shifting blame for Jesus’ death away from Romans who were certainly responsible for it, and placing that blame on the backs of the Jewish people,” Spong said.

Some history: In 66 C.E., the Jews launched a rebellion against the Romans. In return, the Romans razed Jerusalem to the ground and began to harshly persecute the Jews. At the time, the followers of Jesus were still considered, and still considered themselves, to be Jewish and as such, were equally subject to punishment.

At the time, Spong said, the character of Judas did not exist in the Christian narrative. He pointed to the earliest New Testament writings, the Pauline Epistles, in which Paul writes what Jesus’s disciples told him — but makes no mention of Judas or anyone else betraying the Messiah. The only possible reference is a single Greek word, paradito, which could mean “betrayal,” but could also mean “handed over” or “arrested.” Regardless, they make no mention of who betrayed (or handed over, or arrested) Jesus.

“Paul says nothing about Judas — is it possible that you could actually tell the history of Jesus to a convert [Paul] without mentioning Judas?” Spong said. “Well you can if that character has not yet been invented.”

Spong said his first clue that the Judas Iscariot character may be fictional is his name, which seems to be purely symbolic. “Judas” is simply the Roman word for Judah, then the term for the entire Jewish state. The Gospels never explain what Iscariot means and scholars have developed numerous interpretations over the centuries, but Spong traces it to the Greek word sicarii, meaning “assassin.” His name, then, combines the entirety of the Jewish state with the word “assassin.”

Yet the story does not end with the name. Applying the same Jewish textual analysis he did in each of his first three lectures, Spong argued that the Gospels crafted the details of Judas’ life to resemble those of the three major stories of treachery in the Old Testament.

“There are three stories of Jewish traitors in the Hebrew Scripture,” Spong said. “And when you pull all the stories out, you would find almost every detail of Judas.”

The first story is of Ahithophel, a servant of King David who then fought against David when David’s son, Absalom, rose up in rebellion. Absalom then hangs himself, as Matthew writes that Judas did after throwing the money he received from the Romans into the Temple treasury.

The second is of General Joab. After King David forced Joab to retire, replacing him with general Amissah, Joab disemboweled Amissah. In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas hangs himself, but in a differing account presented in the Acts of the Apostles, Judas buys a field with the money he receives from the Romans, then trips in the field and disembowels himself, echoing the Joab story.

The amount of money is just as important as what Judas did with it. The 30 pieces of silver the Gospels say Judas receives is the same amount as the Temple traders pay to oust the Shepherd King of Israel in the book of Zechariah.

“The Judas Iscariot story begins to look like a composite of the three traitor stories out of the Hebrew Scriptures,” Spong said. “That’s where they got the biography because there’s no real Judas.”

As the Judas story develops over the Gospels, Spong said, the writers shift blame away from Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who actually ordered the crucifixion, and toward the Jews, helping Christianity thrive as Judaism entered an era of diaspora and anti-Semitism grew.

“As the story develops, Judas becomes darker and darker, more and more treacherous, more and more evil until it becomes stereotype for the prejudice non-Jews seem to have for Jews at all times,” Spong said.

After the Holocaust, in 1962, the Roman Catholic Church repudiated the belief that Jews are collectively responsible for Jesus’s death, and Pope Benedict XVI refuted the charge in his 2011 book Jesus of Nazareth.

Still, 2,000 years after the crucifixion, the idea remains. A 2013 poll from the Anti-Defamation League found that 26 percent of Americans believe that Jews killed Jesus, and in March, 50 to 75 students at Catholic Memorial School in Boston chanted “you killed Jesus” at a basketball game against the mostly Jewish Newton North High School.

Spong attributed the myth to an ancient survival instinct from Christians, one the church need to overcome.

“Our survival needs create our prejudices.” Spong said. “How do we overcome our prejudices? Only when we get the life-giving gift of love, and if you scratch the Christian story deeply enough, thats what it’s all about.”