The economics of Judas' betrayal

Giotto, Kiss of Judas

Many of you probably remember hearing the story of how Mary of Bethany anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume and how Judas objected to it. The account appears in John 12.

What you probably did not hear was an explication of the important economic themes in that passage. Preachers tend to underestimate the importance of economic themes in the Bible. Few have training in finance or economics, and a mental block was formed earlier in Church history when theologians began to mix biblical theology with pagan philosophy, which tended to be contemptuous of commerce.

But the Bible is about real life, and real life involves economics. Your work, your spending, and your decision to read (or not read) this article are economic in nature.

Some Christians, given to displays of pious one-upmanship, are quick to decry any biblical discussion about economics. But all that does is insulate the economic aspect of life from Christ's lordship. The most ostentatiously "spiritual" are still buying and selling like the rest of us; they just don't want Jesus to talk about it. However, He does.

Mary uses an expensive jar of nard, a spice imported from the East, which we are told is worth 300 denarii, amounting to almost a year's wages. Judas raises an objection to the expense, and the Bible alludes to the fact that he will later hand Jesus over, which we know he did for money.

If Judas' 30 pieces of silver refer to the same coinage Judas claims the gift of perfume is worth (which is quite plausible given that denarii were silver), then Judas betrayed Jesus for a mere tenth (a tithe) of the amount Mary gave to Jesus to honor Him. Judas' betrayal of Jesus came cheap.

On the other hand, it is possible that the temple elite paid him in Tyrian shekels, which were worth about 120 denarii, but even that is still less than half of Mary's offering. Her sacrifice to the glory of Christ is more than Judas' reward for betraying Him.

All this detail about money is there in the Bible, plain to see, even if some expositors and preachers have grown used to skimming over these details as though such things are insufficiently spiritual to warrant attention.

Judas opposed this extravagant use of expensive perfume, claiming that he did so out of concern for the poor. The Bible makes clear that he didn't care about the poor but was a thief who embezzled from the common purse, which he held on behalf of the disciples. In this, Judas is a perfect stand-in for the Judean elite with which he is aligned.

The aristocracy, centered in Jerusalem and the temple, were engaged in economic exploitation. Money was concentrated in Jerusalem by way of the temple tax, forced tithing and currency manipulation enforced by government mandate. The religious elite "devoured widows' houses." The high priest was supposed to help the poor, but what really happened is that money was centralized into a common purse and then stolen from by the ruling class. The difference between Judea and Judas was merely one of quantity, not quality. They both had the same economic model, only Jerusalem's was on a much larger scale.

This background becomes clearer once one takes into account the research that indicates Judas might well have been the only Judean (as opposed to Galilean) among the 12. Early in the Gospels we see Jesus recruiting disciples in the region of Galilee. We are not told the geographic origin of all of the 12, but all of the those whose origin is given are from the north, from in or near Galilee. We see no recruitment of any from Judea.

Furthermore, later, after Judas is no longer part of the picture, after the Ascension in Acts 1:11, the angels address the apostles, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?" So the apostles, other than Judas, were "men of Galilee." But what about Judas?

While scholars disagree, the most common explanation for the epithet "Iscariot" is that it identifies Judas' city of origin. Ish is Hebrew for man and Kerioth was a town in Judea. Judas' father Simon is identified as Simon Iscariot, which means that it is not likely a nickname or title given by Jesus (such as "son of thunder"). Furthermore, some texts actually say "from" (apo) Kerioth. The ancient world didn't have the same pattern moderns do of first name and last name. It was common to have name and city of origin, for example "Jesus of Nazareth."

In addition, Judas tries to align himself with the temple elite. He conspires together with them to betray Jesus. That at least suggests an alignment of views. Also, his name is consistent with such an alignment, Judas Maccabeus having been the founder of the regime that ruled Jerusalem at the time. All this taken together builds a case that Judas was a Judean in origin and in political sympathies, who presents the readers with a small-scale representation of the Judean economic model: centralization of wealth with the implied aim of caring for the poor, but in reality stealing from the common purse.

This might well help the reader to understand the statement by Jesus in response and rebuke to Judas: "the poor you will always have with you," which is often taken as a statement for all people at all time. However, it parallels quite closely the warning given to Israel in Deuteronomy 15, "For the poor shall never cease out of the land…" because of Israel's disobedience to God.

This might explain why Jesus switches from singular, "leave her alone" to plural "the poor you shall always have with you," which is not clear in English, but is in the original Greek. If this is the case, Jesus is condemning the Judean elite by extension in His rebuke of Judas. Poverty is not fated; it was there because the ruling class disobeyed God, not because poverty was inherently inevitable.

This, then, is a glimpse of Judas economics, concentrations of wealth and power ostensibly for the good of all, but in reality for the good of a few. Remember that when someone who administers the common purse for a group, or for a whole nation, rebukes others in the name of the poor.

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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