Matthew Chapter 26:14-25

The chapter continues, and now we will be reading about the events of Thursday night, which have become known as the Last Supper. We know that it was a Thursday since Jesus was crucified on the day before the Sabbath. Of course, the day wasn’t named after Thor; in fact, per my understanding (corroborated by Wikipedia), the Romans did not designate a 7-day week, each day having a name repeated every seven days. Rather, they simply designated the date of the month. Jews of course reckoned a week in seven days so that they could track the Sabbath, and the 7-day week became the standard under the Christians who needed to keep track of their Sabbath, on the first, rather than the last, day of the week. The Germanic names came via Anglo-Saxon England.

14 Τότε πορευθεὶς εἷς τῶν δώδεκα, ὁ λεγόμενος Ἰούδας Ἰσκαριώτης, πρὸς τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς

15 εἶπεν, Τί θέλετέ μοι δοῦναι κἀγὼ ὑμῖν παραδώσω αὐτόν; οἱ δὲ ἔστησαν αὐτῷ τριάκοντα ἀργύρια.

16 καὶ ἀπὸ τότε ἐζήτει εὐκαιρίαν ἵνα αὐτὸν παραδῷ.

Then coming one of the Twelve, he called Judas Iscariot, to the high priests. (15) He said, “What do you wish to give me, and I will hand him over to you”. They weighed out for him thirty pieces of silver. (16) And from then he sought an auspicious time in order to hand him over.

Does the fact that Judas makes no appearance prior to this make anyone else suspicious? If not, it should. One can argue by analogy that the man who betrayed the Greeks at Thermopylae is nowhere mentioned aside from this act of treachery; and Herodotus is loath to name this man, exactly for the reason that this vile creature does not deserve to have his name preserved. But, name him he does. That is a very different set of circumstances; there, he played no role in the story before that moment, whereas Judas, one of the Twelve, seemingly should have been around a bit before this entry onto the stage of history. In fact, the only previous mention of him is when Jesus names the Twelve; however, that naming is the only time many of this group are mentioned. Judas at least plays this additional role.

This is not the time nor place to discuss the Twelve, so we will turn to Judas. I am not competent to provide an informed judgement on this, but I have read the suggestion that “Iscariot” is derived from sicarii, the notorious assassins who caused havoc in Jerusalem up through the destruction of the city. In fact Josephus says that the groups that resisted the Romans in Jerusalem and in Masada were sicarii. This, of course, is by way of discrediting the leaders of the rebellion, those who resisted Rome till the bitter end, separating the “loyal” Jews who desperately wanted to surrender Jerusalem and swear their undying fealty to Rome. The attachment of “Iscariot” as a surname seems possibly to be an effort to discredit Judas by tarring him with the brush of the sicarii. The biggest problem with this theory is that it depends on a change in language. Sicarii is Latin; the initial “I” would have been added when it was translated out of Latin, but a transition from Latin to Greek would probably not have been sufficient. Latin to Aramaic? I can’t say.

The problem is that much of this depends on when the Passion Narrative was originally composed. One school of thought believes that the passion story circulated as an independent narrative even before Mark was written. There is a certain logic to this; after all, followers of Jesus would likely want to know why he was crucified, it only makes sense. The problem with this is that there is no reason to produce this particular narrative if it was created prior to the rebellion of 66-70. Assuming that the story took the form, and provided the causation it did to exculpate the Romans and lay the blame on the Jews really makes sense in the period immediately following the rebellion. It has been noted just how much further Josephus goes to do exactly that; however, he was writing explicitly for a Roman–even an imperial–audience. In reading De Bello Judaica, one comes away with a strong sense of similarity between the way Josephus and Mark excuse the Romans.

The point here is that the whole affair of Judas, and even the person himself, should be viewed with great suspicion. There is, of course, a wonderful dramatic element to Judas’ role, which is no doubt intended. Is it too convenient? Making that judgement in the affirmative requires leaving the realm of historical analysis. This is not to say it’s not a valid question; it certainly is. But any such judgement is literary or stylistic, both of which are very different from historical judgements. A true historical judgement would be to affirm that the evidence for Judas is pretty thin. I say this because the NT is, by and large, not a terribly reliable historical source, except when it’s not trying to be. It tells us how the beliefs changed over time even if it can’t support the reported actions that are designed to convey the message of Jesus.

The other thing to bear in mind is the motivation of the high priests. On one hand, it started in Galilee, but this group was not in Galilee, had no responsibility for Galilee. We are supposed to believe that the combination of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple were enough to make the authorities afraid of Jesus. As we have seen, however, the entry into Jerusalem was more of a procession of a group of followers than a parade passing between throngs of onlookers. Mark’s description is very plain, and fairly clear, and plainly and clearly describes a procession of a group. Matthew felt the lack of the potential to menace the authorities, so he amplified how the entry attracted onlookers–in itself a clear indication of the nature of the event as a procession–and the children shouting “Hosanna” in the Temple precincts. Then the cleansing of the Temple is obviously a fiction, or a very small event that grew to mammoth proportions in the subsequent re-tellings. As Josephus makes incredibly clear, the Temple was enormous. The idea that a single man could clear out all the commerce is simply preposterous. And the resultant disruption would have led to Jesus’ arrest on the spot. He would not then have returned the next day and had an exchange with the same threatened authorities that, while tense, did not display any real signs of animosity. So if the two main causes for the authorities’ malign intent are shown to be grossly exaggerated or simply fictional, what is left? 

14 Tunc abiit unus de Duodecim, qui dicebatur Iudas Iscariotes, ad principes sacerdotum

15 et ait: “ Quid vultis mihi dare, et ego vobis eum tradam? ”. At illi constituerunt ei triginta argenteos.

16 Et exinde quaerebat opportunitatem, ut eum traderet.

17 Τῇ δὲ πρώτῃ τῶν ἀζύμων προσῆλθον οἱ μαθηταὶ τῷ Ἰησοῦ λέγοντες, Ποῦ θέλεις ἑτοιμάσωμέν σοι φαγεῖν τὸ πάσχα;

18 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν, Ὑπάγετε εἰς τὴν πόλιν πρὸς τὸν δεῖνα καὶ εἴπατε αὐτῷ, Ὁ διδάσκαλος λέγει, Ὁ καιρός μου ἐγγύς ἐστιν: πρὸς σὲ ποιῶ τὸ πάσχα μετὰ τῶν μαθητῶν μου.

19 καὶ ἐποίησαν οἱ μαθηταὶ ὡς συνέταξεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἡτοίμασαν τὸ πάσχα.

20 Ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης ἀνέκειτο μετὰ τῶν δώδεκα.

On the (day) before the unleavened (bread) came the disciples to Jesus saying, “Where do you wish we will prepare for you the Pesach eating?” (18) He then said, “Go up to the city towards the such a one (some guy) and say to him, ‘The teacher said, “My season is nigh. With you I will make the Paschal (meal) with my disciples”.’.” (19) And the disciples did in this way that Jesus arranged for them, and they prepared the Pesach (meal). (20) Having become evening, he reclined with the Twelve. 

This method of arranging matters is, of course, and echo of how Jesus told the disciples to find the donkey he would ride into Jerusalem the previous Sunday. The only real differences is that the man that they are to meet, or find, is not described in the least. Jesus had instructed his followers fairly clearly on where to find the donkey, but here it’s just “such a man”. Second, we are told that Jesus arranged things for them. This has a slightly difference implication than the arrangements for Palm Sunday. There, it was more or less left that Jesus had predicted how they would find things, but that the events and their sequence were to play out on their own. Here, OTOH, Jesus moves the pieces around himself.

Update: When writing the paragraph above, I hadn’t looked at Mark’s version. There, Jesus says that they will find a man carrying a pitcher of water. And, since drawing water was woman’s work, this would truly be a distinguishing feature. Given this, the “such a man” makes much more sense. But what this means is that Matthew assumed that the audience would be familiar with Mark’s account, so they would know “such a man” indicated a man carrying water. Or, the other possibility is that a copyist shortened this, abbreviating the ms knowing that other readers or copyists were familiar with Mark. Either way, Matthew cuts this section to about half of what Mark had. Matthew does this on several occasions, leaving out what he doubtless considered “unnecessary” details. Here, however, the editing is a bit too severe, I think. 

Upon reading this, it seemed that the expression “my season is nigh” was an echo of what Jesus said when he was setting out on his ministry, that the kingdom is nigh. Actually looking for the word usage, this turns out not to be true. In both Mark and Matthew Jesus says that “the kingdom has drawn near”.

Finally, this seems clearly to be Jesus and the disciples making preparation for the Passover Seder. This makes Thursday the Day of Preparation, the day the seder is prepared. I mention this because all three Synoptic Gospels seem to make this quite clear. This would mean that Jesus was executed the first day of Passover. In John, however, the day is moved back one, so that Jesus was killed on the Day of Preparation. Supposedly John is making the connexion between Jesus and the Paschal Lamb stronger. On the Day of Preparation, Jews all over the world would have been killing lambs while Jesus was on the cross.* If nothing else, this should be a cautionary tale that, in writing gospels, the Truth to be conveyed took precedence over mere factual accuracy.

*[ Please note a total ignorance on my part regarding the killing of animals in preparation for eating. It is my understanding that it is possible to kill the animal and eat it on the same day. This, after all, was the process in pagan sacrifices. If I’m wrong, well then I’m wrong. ]

21 καὶ ἐσθιόντων αὐτῶν εἶπεν, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι εἷς ἐξ ὑμῶν παραδώσει με.

22 καὶ λυπούμενοι σφόδρα ἤρξαντο λέγειν αὐτῷ εἷς ἕκαστος, Μήτι ἐγώ εἰμι,κύριε;

23 ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν, Ὁ ἐμβάψας μετ’ ἐμοῦ τὴν χεῖρα ἐν τῷ τρυβλίῳ οὗτός με παραδώσει.

24 ὁ μὲν υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ὑπάγει καθὼς γέγραπται περὶ αὐτοῦ, οὐαὶ δὲ τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ ἐκείνῳ δι’ οὗ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου παραδίδοται: καλὸν ἦν αὐτῷ εἰ οὐκ ἐγεννήθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖνος.

25 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ Ἰούδας ὁ παραδιδοὺς αὐτὸν εἶπεν, Μήτι ἐγώ εἰμι, ῥαββί; λέγει αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶπας.

And they having eaten, he said, “Amen I say to you, that one of you will betray me.” (22) And they began sorrowing exceedingly, saying to him each, “Surely, not I, lord.” (23) And he, answering, said, “One dipping with me his hand in the cup, he will betray me. (24) For the son of man will raise up accordingly as it is written about him, ‘Woe to that man through whom the son of man is handed over. Better for him if not having been born that man’.” (25) And answering, Judas the betrayer said to him, “Surely I am not (he)?” (Jesus) said to him, “You say it.”

The first point I’m itching to make is the root of the word for “dip”, as in, “dipping in the cup”. The word is “em-bapto”. Perhaps the root is recognizable as the root of “baptize”.  The point here is the so very ordinary meaning and usage of that word. There is nothing special about it. In Greek, the doughnut chain could be “Baptizin’ Donuts”.

[ Note: there is an American chain of doughnut shops known as “Dunkin’ Donuts”. This chain is especially popular in Rhode Island, where I happen to live. Here in RI, it approaches something not dissimilar to a mania. ]

The second point is a question: do you notice the elements of drama here? And let’s note that the whole idea of fiction as an art form was a whole lot less well-developed when this was written than it is now. Reading this now seems hackneyed to the point of trite, but what was there in the ancient world to compare to this? The HS has moments of intensity, to be sure, but drama? I suppose there’s the will-he-or-won’t-he story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac, but the audience knew going in that it wasn’t going to happen. Back when I was in HS, there was an annual state-wide competition for dramatic readings, and I had always thought that the passion would be a good choice due to the level of dramatic tension present.

Now, drama does not preclude reality; in fact, real-life history provides episodes of extremely high drama, which is why historical novels/movies never go out of fashion. The problem here, however, is the lack of ascribed motive. Why did Judas betray Jesus? Even John felt this lack, so he was sure to add that Judas kept the common purse and stole from it; from there his betrayal of Jesus could be seen as simply greed. Jesus Christ Superstar does a better job, portraying Judas as afraid that Jesus would touch off a rebellion, bringing about the events of the Jewish War two generations earlier. What we have is the high priests lacking a motive, and Judas lacking a motive. As I see it, this double lack of ascribed–and plausible–motive really undercuts the credibility of the account. Without a motive, we are left with Judas betraying Jesus because the course of events requires that this happen. Fictional accounts that don’t provide sufficient explanation for an action always ring false; and so does this. 

To be clear, nothing I have said provides a terribly strong argument against the betrayal by Judas, or anything else contained in the Passion Story. It cannot really be proven false by any standard method available to historians. But as with so many things, it’s not the big gaping hole that sinks the account as we have it. There is no collision with an iceberg, but a series of small nicks, a dozen, or two dozen or more, that, while inconsequential by themselves, add up to an accumulation of water that does, eventually, drag the whole ship down to the depths.

17 Prima autem Azymorum accesserunt discipuli ad Iesum dicentes: “ Ubi vis paremus tibi comedere Pascha? ”.

18 Ille autem dixit: “ Ite in civitatem ad quendam et dicite ei: “Magister dicit: Tempus meum prope est; apud te facio Pascha cum discipulis meis” ”.

19 Et fecerunt discipuli, sicut constituit illis Iesus, et paraverunt Pascha.

20 Vespere autem facto, discumbebat cum Duodecim.

21 Et edentibus illis, dixit: “ Amen dico vobis: Unus vestrum me traditurus est ”.

22 Et contristati valde, coeperunt singuli dicere ei: “ Numquid ego sum, Domine? ”.

23 At ipse respondens ait: “ Qui intingit mecum manum in paropside, hic me tradet.

24 Filius quidem hominis vadit, sicut scriptum est de illo; vae autem homini illi, per quem Filius hominis traditur! Bonum erat ei, si natus non fuisset homo ille ”.

25 Respondens autem Iudas, qui tradidit eum, dixit: “ Numquid ego sum, Rabbi? ”. Ait illi: “ Tu dixisti ”.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 5, 2016, in Chapter 26, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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