Despite his notorious role in the Gospel narratives, Judas remains a controversial figure in Christian history. For instance, Judas' betrayal is seen as setting in motion the events that led to Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection which, according to traditional Christian theology, brought salvation to humanity. Gnostic texts – rejected by the mainstream Church as heretical – praise Judas for his role in triggering humanity's salvation and view Judas as the best of the apostles.
Judas is mentioned in the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John, and at the beginning of Acts of the Apostles. Judas was a common name in New Testament times. Judas Iscariot should not be confused with Jude Thomas (Saint Thomas the Apostle), or with Saint Jude Thaddaeus who was also one of the Twelve Apostles.
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke state that Jesus sent out "the twelve" (including Judas) with power over unclean spirits and with a ministry of preaching and healing: Judas clearly played an active part in this apostolic ministry alongside the other eleven. Origen of Alexandria, in his Commentary on John's Gospel, reflected on Judas's interactions with the other apostles and Jesus' confidence in him prior to his betrayal. However, in John's Gospel, Judas's outlook was differentiated - many of Jesus' disciples abandoned him because of the difficulty of accepting his teachings, and Jesus asked the twelve if they would also leave him. Simon Peter spoke for the twelve: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,"
Matthew directly states that Judas betrayed Jesus for a bribe of "thirty pieces of silver" by identifying him with a kiss to arresting soldiers of the High Priest Caiaphas, who then turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate's soldiers.
Mark's Gospel states that the chief priests were looking for a way to arrest Jesus. They decided not to do so during the feast [of the Passover], since they were afraid that people would riot; instead, they chose the night before the feast to arrest him. According to Luke's account, Satan entered Judas at this time.
According to the account in the Gospel of John, Judas carried the disciples' money bag or box, but John's Gospel makes no mention of the thirty pieces of silver as a fee for betrayal. The evangelist comments in John 12:5-6 that Judas spoke fine words about giving money to the poor, but the reality was "not that he cared for the poor, but [that] he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it." However, in John 13:27-30, when Judas left the gathering of Jesus and His disciples with betrayal in mind, some [of the disciples] thought that Judas might have been leaving to buy supplies or on a charitable errand.
There are several different accounts of the death of Judas, including two in the modern Biblical canon:
· Matthew 27:3–10 says that Judas returned the money to the priests and committed suicide by hanging himself. They used it to buy the potter's field. The Gospel account presents this as a fulfillment of prophecy.
· The Acts 1:18-19 says that Judas used the money to buy a field but fell headfirst, and burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. This field is called Akeldama or Field of Blood.
· The non-canonical Gospel of Judas says Judas had a vision of the disciples stoning and persecuting him.
· Another account was preserved by the early Christian leader, Papias: "Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out."
The existence of conflicting accounts of the death of Judas has caused problems for scholars who have seen them as threatening the reliability of Scripture.
Various attempts at harmonization have been suggested. Generally they have followed literal interpretations such as that of Augustine, which suggest that these simply describe different aspects of the same event – that Judas hanged himself in the field, and the rope eventually snapped and the fall burst his body open, or that the accounts of Acts and Matthew refer to two different transactions. Some have taken the descriptions as figurative: that the "falling prostrate" was Judas in anguish, and the "bursting out of the bowels" is pouring out emotion.
More recently, scholars have suggested that the Gospel writer may also have had a passage from Jeremiah in mind, such as chapters 18:1–4 and 19:1–13 which refer to a potter's jar and a burial place, and chapter 32:6–15 which refers to a burial place and an earthenware jar.
The betrayal of Jesus by one of his disciples is widely regarded by scholars as authentic, based on the criterion of embarrassment: it is considered unlikely that the early church would have invented this tradition, since it appears to reflect badly on Jesus.
Bart Ehrman, though suggesting that the betrayal is "about as historically certain as anything else in the tradition," argues that what was betrayed was not the whereabouts of Jesus, but his private teachings.
In his book The Sins of Scripture, John Shelby Spong says that "the whole story of Judas has the feeling of being contrived." He writes: "the act of betrayal by a member of the twelve disciples is not found in the earliest Christian writings. Judas is first placed into the Christian story by the Gospel of Mark (3:19), who wrote in the early years of the eighth decade of the Common Era." He points out that some of the Gospels, after the Crucifixion, refer to the number of Disciples as "Twelve," as if Judas were still among them. Comparing the three conflicting descriptions of Judas's death – hanging, leaping into a pit, and disemboweling – with three Old Testament betrayals followed by similar suicides, he suggests that these were the real source of the story.
Spong's conclusion is that early Bible authors, after the First Jewish-Roman War, sought to distance themselves from Rome's enemies. They augmented the Gospels with a story of a disciple, personified in Judas as the Jewish state, who either betrayed or handed over Jesus to his Roman crucifiers. Spong identifies this augmentation with the origin of modern Anti-Semitism.
Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby suggests that in the New Testament, the name "Judas" was constructed as an attack on the Judaeans or on the Judaean religious establishment held responsible for executing Jesus.