Thursday, April 21, 2011

Did Judas Repent?

Today is Maunday Thursday. Today the Church commemorates Jesus' Last Supper with his disciples, his moments of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane and his subsequent arrest and trial.

But there is another part of this day that is just as important to all of these events. It is Judas' act of handing Jesus over to the authorities. Judas' act of betrayal is what starts the whole process leading to Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed.

One question that rises to the top from time to time is: what happened to Judas? Did he repent? Was he forgiven? We can turn to the New Testament for answers, but the evidence is uneven.

In the KJV and NRSV translations of Matthew 27:3-10 we read that Judas "repented" and returned the money he had received in exchange for delivering Jesus to the authorities. The word for repent here, however, is not the typical metanoia but instead metamelomai which usually has the idea of "regret" or "remorse" (cf. Matt 21:29, 32; 2 Cor 7:8; Heb 7:21). With the exception of the KJV and the NRSV, "remorse" and/or "regret" is the translation adopted by most English versions. In my opinion, I think the KJV and the NRSV are correct, even though the typical word for repentance (matanoia) is not here. The story has all of the hallmarks of a repentant person. Judas shows regret/remorse, returns the money (v. 3) and confesses that he has sinned (v.4). Overcome with grief and guilt he goes out and kills himself (v.5). Although suicide is not a typical part of the repentance process, one could argue that it was an extreme example of his remorse that he ended his own life.

If this was the only witness to Judas' end we would be inclined to see him as a repentant conspirator. But Luke complicates the picture a bit for us.

Unlike Matthew, Luke mentions nothing about Judas' fate in the gospel. Instead, he reintroduces Judas in Acts and only after Jesus has ascended to heaven. We learn about Judas' fate as part of side note to the process of choosing his successor. Here we discover that Judas' act was a necessary part of the fulfillment of scripture (Acts 1:16-20). But unlike Matthew, Luke tells us nothing about Judas feeling remorse, confessing his sin and returning the money. Judas has no speaking part in this version of the story. Rather, the narrator tells us that he received a reward for his wickedness and that he committed suicide by falling on his head and spilling his innards.

If we only had Luke's version we would assume that Judas did NOT repent. But Matthew’s version seems to complicate that conclusion. Some will want to harmonize the two stories as a way to flatten out the rough spots, especially the two different descriptions of Judas' death. But even doing that makes it hard to overlook that in Matthew we have a repentant Judas who could expect forgiveness just as Peter did for denying Jesus.

It seems that we have two competing traditions. One knew a story that Judas repented and another that he did not. I sometimes think Luke uses sudden death as a way to prevent characters from repenting. Judas dies without a chance to voice remorse in 1:18-19; Annaias and Sapphira are both immediately struck without a chance to repent (Acts 5) and Herod Agrippa is struck by God and dies (Acts 12:20-23).[1] Perhaps Luke did not want to offer a traitor the status of repentant betrayer?

In the end, Luke's version seems to have won the consent of most. Here is an expanded second century AD description of Judas' death by Papias.

Judas walked about as a great example of ungodliness in this world. His flesh was so swollen, that when a wagon was passing through the street he was unable to pass through; there was only enough room for his head. The eyelids over his eyes, it is said, protruded so much, that he did not see light, and that a doctor could not make his eyes visible with optical instruments. To such an extent was the light shut out from outside. His genitals of indecency were more disgusting and yet too small to be seen. There oozed out from his whole bursting body both fluids and worms. After much suffering and agony, it is said that he died in his own place. And this place is out of the way and the piece of land is uninhabited until now. No one even to this day passes by the place without stopping up his nose with his hands. Such was the opinion spread about the country concerning his body.

Luke may have intended to keep Judas from repentance, but Papias turned it into an art form. Later, Dante provides Judas his own special place in hell with other traitors.

People usually have strong opinions and usually do not see Judas as being forgiven or finding eternal peace. I am not sure what the truth is since the witness of the New Testament is uneven here. I suppose only God knows.

What do you think? Did Judas repent?


[1] It is interesting the in Josephus’ version of this story Herod lingers a few days. Luke’s version would allow for Herod to linger but he uses one of his favorite terms here “immediately” (parachrāma) which suggests that Herod’s end was very swift if not immediate.

5 comments:

  1. Maybe I'm a contrarian, but I lean towards Matthew. However, I have no scholarly reason for believing this; rather it just seems more of a natural response to the circumstances (in my opinion). BTW, thanks for the Calvin quote regarding doubt. It's good to know that I was predestined to doubt, and that it's not just a product of human evolution. :-)

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  2. I think Judas repented--Matthew's version. And if Judas repented, then I think that he is also forgiven like Peter was for denying knowing Christ not once, not twice, but three times.

    I am thinking that Luke is using theological enhancement in his telling of this story. There seems to be a correlation in the stories of the deaths of Judas, Ananias and Sapphira, and Herod, in that they all died immediately without voicing repentance. Is Luke "adjusting" the story to fit his audience and/or to make a specific point? I wonder what would be Luke's reasoning or motive behind that?

    I also wonder if Judas, in his betrayal of Jesus, was actually being obedient to God? Someone had to betreay Jesus so that He could be crucified--that was God's plan. Someone had to be the one to do it. If Judas had opted out, then someone else would have done the deed because it had to be done.

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  3. This is a puzzle for me. Catholics used to believe that an unconfessed mortal sin sent one to Hell. But think about what Jesus said about riches; the disciples were so surprised that they asked "Who then can be saved?" When Jesus talked about marriage and divorce, the disciples wondered if it would be better not to marry. I fear that we all have mortal sins on our record which we have not confessed or repented of because we do not recognize the sins.
    If Judas did the will of God as Beth mentioned, how then can he be condemned? Yes, Jesus said "woe to him who betrays"; feeling so bad as to commit suicide seems adequate fulfillment of that fate.
    If with God "all things are possible", I feel we are permitted to hope to see Judas in heaven.

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  4. It seems to me that though Judas '...was seized with remorse ...' it does not say that he repented.
    For Jesus to state earlier that 'one' of them
    was unclean, would indicate that Judas never
    'got it' and even in his darkest hour, he still
    would not call on God for salvation or repent.

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  5. If there was one Apostle who would have been able to relate to Judas it would have been Matthew the ex-tax collector. Both of them had an understanding of money and what it meant and while I would not say that it would make them kindred spirits, it would at least give them something in common that none of the other Apostles would have. Matthew is the only Apostle that could give us this insight of Judas and the word used in his gospel is “repent”. There is only one “unforgiveable sin” and even the betrayal of our Lord does not qualify. We and I have been taught and feel justified in hating Judas but… A saying, I know when I die I will be surprised with who I expected to be in heaven who is not, and who I did not expect to be there and is.

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