The history of Bible translation has placed a huge stumbling block in our path. It’s not a Gospel issue, but it is an issue of immense symbolism, allusion, and typology. I’m speaking about the name translated ‘Judas Iscariot’.
If you have ever read the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint), you probably already know what I’m talking about. When names are translated from Hebrew to Greek, they often go through a few changes: Elijah becomes Elias, Isaiah becomes Isaias, Josiah becomes Josias, Joshua becomes Jesus (you weren’t expecting that last one, were you?). It’s kind of like writing Charles as Carlos in Spanish. Both names refer to the same person, they are just pronounced a bit differently in Hebrew and Greek.
The name Judah is pronounced Judas in Greek. Here are five reasons why this matters.
If Judas Iscariot was actually transliterated as Judah Iscariot, then…
1. …we would see the connection to Genesis 37.
Do you remember the story of Joseph, the precocious teenager who dreamed dreams of prestige and blessing? Out of jealousy, his brothers conspired together, plotting how they might put him to death. However, while he was down in the pit, a band of Ishmaelite traders passed by. It was Judah who spoke up to his brothers saying, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” So they sold Joseph, the child of blessing, to Ishmaelite traders for twenty shekels of silver (Genesis 37:27-28).
In the Gospels, we find Judas Iscariot, ‘one of the twelve’ (Matt. 26:14), acting out this same role as he betrays Jesus–the son of Joseph–into the hands of the conspiring religious leaders for thirty pieces of silver.
2. …we would recognize greater irony in the title ‘King of the Jews’.
In the first three Gospels, the term ‘King of the Jews’ is repeated 12 times. Each time it appears, we are supposed to sense irony. Strangely, the title ‘King of the Jews’ always seems to appear in scenes where Jesus is being rejected by the Jews. For instance, in Matthew 2, the title ‘King of the Jews’ almost gets Jesus killed when the Magi roll into Jerusalem. In the passion narrative, it becomes the basis for his crucifixion (John 18:33-ff). His charges are hung over his head on the cross: ‘King of the Jews’ (John 19:19).
However, the irony gets thicker when you realize the word ‘Jew’ is an Anglicizing of the word ‘Judahites’ or ‘Judeans’. Jesus is betrayed by a man named Judah–i.e., ‘Jew’. In many ways, Judas’ rejection of Jesus as the King foreshadows the way the whole nation of Judah will respond to the Son of David.
3. …we would see that Jesus is truly King of the Nations.
Matthew’s Gospel is often summed up by the theme ‘Jesus is the King’. In many ways, this is accurate. However, the irony and beauty of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus is not merely the King of the Jews–read ‘Judahites’. He is the King of the Gentiles–read ‘Nations’. Matthew introduces Jesus as the Anointed Son of David who begins his ministry as a light to the Gentiles in Galilee (Matthew 4). In Matthew, Jesus’ ministry takes place exclusively outside of Jerusalem.
When Jesus finally comes riding toward the city of Jerusalem on a donkey in Matthew 21, it is his first and final visit. He is celebrated by his fellow Galilean pilgrims outside of the city gates, but when he enters the city, Jerusalem’s response is, “Who is this?!” (Matthew 21:10) They are deeply disturbed by the uproar the Galilean leader has caused.
Judas acts as an agent of the Jerusalem establishment, and he embodies their resentment and rejection of Jesus as a people. After Jesus’ resurrection, he does not march to the castle in Jerusalem, he meets with his disciples in Galilee of the Gentiles. ‘Judah’ is sadly absent (after a suicide). There he proclaims himself to have “all authority in heaven and on earth”, sending them to make disciples of all nations.
4. …we would see Judas as a national representative.
I touched on this some in the last point. Judas is a literary device. He is a vital character in the plot of the story, but he also symbolizes a sweeping theme in the grand narrative of salvation history. As ‘Judah’, he represents the sentiments and the rejection of the entire people of ‘Judah’. He is not acting in a federal sense, but the Gospels present him as acting in concert with the rest of the Jewish nation, personifying the statement John writes in his opening chapter: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). The way ‘Judah’ acted toward Jesus is the way the nation of Judah in general responded to their Messiah.
5. …we would see Judas is the New Absalom.
Do you remember the story of David’s exile from the throne in Jerusalem beginning in 2 Samuel 14? His son Absalom wins the hearts of the people and usurps the throne, chasing his father David out of Jerusalem and sending him on the run for his life. Betraying his own father, Absalom leads the people in Jerusalem to reject David as their King.
After a few years of rebellion, Absalom ends up dead, hanging from a tree by his hair. In similar fashion, Judas betrays the heir to the throne of David, playing the leading role with all of Jerusalem in rejecting Jesus from being their king. Like Absalom, Judas himself ends hanging dead from a tree. One has to wonder whether his fate is more symbolic of the fate of the entire city of Jerusalem (see 70 A.D.).
P.S.–Judas is usually depicted in iconography as a redhead. Christian artists saw Judas as fulfilling/recapitulating the archetype of the rejected seed seen in the story of Jacob and Esau. Judas is a kind of Esau of the New Testament–who was famously a redhead.
(The Taking of the Christ pictured above by Caravaggio)