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Jay and I peered together at our foldout map. On it the bold-faced, introduction-unnecessary place names (Herod’s Gate, Solomon’s Stables, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall) were packed together so plentifully it invited despair of ever seeing them all. Down near the bottom of our map, however—stark and alone but for an orbiting, italicized, and differently typeset Hinnom Valley—was our destination: Hakeldama.
We had been looking for Hakeldama for close to an hour, wandering through deep, desertic, geological gouges stubbled with little merkins of shrubbery and low gray trees that look squashed and drained of chlorophyll. The sun did strange things to the landscape here, vivifying the dominating grays and sands, weakening the greens, and walling off thousands of hilltop and hillside houses behind shimmering heat-haze force fields. To walk along the Hinnom Valley in a certain frame of mind, for a long enough time, is to become lonely and thirsty and vaguely alarmed, forgetful that above, on the upper slopes of the valley, a fifteen-minute walk away, is the walled Old City of Jerusalem. That this remote, unfriable, tactically worthless city, many miles from the nearest meaningful river or harbor, has become the Finland Station of monotheism is one of history’s more enigmatic accidents. God would never have chosen Jerusalem and so Jerusalem chose God.
Jay suggested we try yet another path, one lined by a shin-high wall of pale brown stones. This was his first visit to Jerusalem, too, but Jay was a historian, so I followed him. Some of the paths we had explored previously were blacktopped; this one was not. The path’s gravel was still loose and crunchy: not many feet had been this way. To the left was the base of Mount Zion, the southern face of which was bare and undeveloped. To the right were rocky cliffs and, above them, sandstone apartment buildings (some quite tony), that could not be seen at present due to the steepness of the cliff walls. There was not much grass and what grass there was looked hayish. Nor was there much trash. What we did see along the path were many caves; most of them were barred but a few of the shallower ones could be explored. We passed some apparent dig sites fenced off with thin wire barriers. These little excavations all had an ongoing, archaeological neatness to them, but there were no archaeologists working here this afternoon who could help us find Hakeldama.
The Hinnom Valley is thought to have spent a considerable span of time more or less continuously on fire.
It was strange that, in a city where even the alleys had sites of world-changing historical consequence (not to mention several dozen motor-mouth freelance “tour guides” who would happily leave you alone for only a twenty-dollar bribe), we found ourselves nearing one of the few places whose present-day location scholars are reasonably sure is the same place mentioned by the New Testament—and yet there were no plaques, no signs, no people, no obvious paths; just caves, mud, and bushes. From where we now stood we could see at least ten pathways through the Valley of Hinnom. All of them were empty.
According to a fairly obscure verse in 2 Kings, in the Hinnom Valley children were burned alive as offerings to stubbornly enduring Canaanite gods. Jeremiah goes further, quoting the Lord’s fulmination against those who spill the “blood of the innocent” in this “valley of Slaughter” and recording his dreadful promise of divine wrath: “I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters.” Later the valley was used as a place to dump things considered unclean (a rather overarching category for ancient Jews), whereupon all such refuse, including unclean corpses, was burned. The Hinnom Valley is thought to have spent a considerable span of time more or less continuously on fire. These fires’ greasy soot and smoke, some of it redolent of barbequed human flesh, likely blew through the streets of Jerusalem, dirtying cloaks and staining buildings. Evidently, it became a social irritant of such magnitude that its only future lay in metaphor.
In Greek, Hinnom becomes Gehenna, a word employed several times in the New Testament. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus claims it as a place the “scribes and Pharisees” will be unable to escape, while in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus refers to its “unquenchable fire.” By the first century CE the Valley of Hinnom was no longer used as an open-air furnace; certain associations, however, proved difficult for it to molt. Here was the rare religious tradition whose point mutations could be tracked virtually step-by-step. A site of child sacrifice, municipal incineration, and generally fell associations found at the base of a city becomes a fiery transdimensional prison imagined for some strange reason as being located beneath the physical world. In a pleasing swap of the usual semantics, in the Valley of Hinnom one could literally, rather than figuratively, walk through Hell.
The valley was home to another site of profound but ambiguous importance to early Christianity, though its precise location was becoming increasingly difficult to verify. Jay, far ahead of me now, jumped off a small ledge onto another exceedingly thin path that led muddily toward a new clearing. Finally, Hakeldama. A dead tree, a rampike as gray and hard as concrete, stood near the middle of the clearing, all of its naked branches pushed one way, as though arranged by millennia of wind. Exposed, unfriendly stones the shape of mandibular canines stuck up out of the weedy grass. A Palestinian woman in a white headscarf and carrying a plastic shopping bag was walking along the ridge above us. A rooster called from the vicinity of Silwan, a nearby neighborhood.
Very little of the Old City could be seen from Hakeldama. We could see the Mount of Olives, from whence Jesus is said to have ascended to Heaven, and which was now crowned with a glittering salt-white diadem of over 150,000 Jewish tombstones. Parts of the Mount’s slope were striped with tall shaggy spears of cedar and blotted with shorter, rounder olive trees, but large portions of the Mount were bare. The Romans had cut down nearly every tree in the final years of the First Jewish War (66–73 CE) and the Mount had apparently never fully recovered. Jesus was arrested somewhere on or at the base of the Mount of Olives, in the Garden of Gethsemane, the present location of which is at best an informed guess. Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ own disciples, guided the arresting party to Gethsemane, and Hakeldama is traditionally believed to be the place where that betrayer met his end.
In the various ancient copies of the New Testament texts that mention it, Hakeldama goes by many names: Akeldama, Acheldemach, Akeldaimach, Haceldama. It is a transliteration of an Aramaic word that means “field of blood.” Two thousand years later, we stood in the middle of a place that had a reasonably valid claim to being that field. Here, many believed, a mysterious and calamitous fate laid its word across the most despised betrayer in human history. Yet once the initial frisson of its notoriety had passed, Hakeldama was not only lonely but unendurably dull.
Indeed, the Jerusalem Jay and I had thus far encountered could only be described as a series of disappointments in the face of history revealed. The zonated nature of the city—the source of its many ionized tensions—is, for the first-time visitor, its most overriding feature. No one is allowed entrance to as much as a coffee shop without being passed over by a security guard’s explosive-detecting wand. This is expected, of course. Less expected are the church doors hung with signs that read: absolutely no firearms. The city’s surreal variety of faiths and people, meanwhile, lives in something short of obvious amity. Jerusalem’s crowded streets had the tight, phobic, elbowy feeling of a convention no one was particularly happy to be attending. Greek Orthodox priests in black robes and rope belts sullenly ate ice cream beside glum Franciscan priests in sunglasses and floppy hats. Hasids and head-scarved Arab women hurried through the streets as though being pursued by modernity. On David Street, vendors stepped out into the passing crowd, found someone with whom to make eye contact, offered unbidden directions, then demanded as a reciprocal favor that their new friend look inside their stores. The markets themselves were largely a gallows of shoddy merchandise: bowls of beads, body stockings, stuffed camels, plastic toy sniper rifles, pirated Arab-language copies of Toy Story. At one corner an Evangelical tour group led by a man with a thick Tennessee accent argued over the opening line of the Twenty-third Psalm while a few feet away a Roman Catholic tour group led by a young, sunburned priest stopped at one of the stations of the Via Dolorosa, which was essentially invented by Franciscans in the 1600s, while M16-bearing Israeli soldiers looked upon them all with unmistakable irritation. A little farther down the street, mouthy Palestinian school kids shouted down insults from atop the wall of the Aqsa school. Nearby, tourists gawked at the gargantuan crown of thorns around the dome of the Church of the Flagellation while others posed for photos beneath its freestanding, photo-op cross. Elsewhere, young Palestinian men manned T-shirt stands that sold “Free Palestine!” shirts alongside shirts emblazoned with “For the sake of Zion—i will not be silent!”
Before our search for Hakeldama began, Jay and I had stopped for an early lunch in what had become our favorite falafel restaurant. Near the end of our meal, three dozen pilgrims from New Ulm, Minnesota, invaded the otherwise empty restaurant, though their Palestinian guide remained outside, pensively smoking. All thirty ordered hamburgers. A large, Santa Claus-like man with a thick white nicotined beard and intensely merry eyes sat next to Jay; his short-haired, penologically thin, and nervously smiling wife sat next to me. Both were eager to chat with what they were delighted to learn were fellow Americans. They had been in Israel six days. What had they seen? Bethlehem, of course. Galilee, where they had gazed upon the very place where Jesus once trod upon water. This morning had brought them to the shore of yet another amazement: the dungeon in which Jesus had been beaten. And us? Well, as it happened, today we were planning on finding Hakeldama, which Judas supposedly purchased with the money he had earned by betraying Jesus. Husband and wife shifted, then looked at each other as carefully as bridge partners. What kind of Americans were these? Jay explained, to their noticeable relief, that he was a professional historian. And what kind of history did Jay study? His area was the Crusades, generally, but his particular specialty was the study of how Jerusalem was perceived by, and propagandized on behalf of, those who had never been there. He described how nearly all of the first travel guides about Jerusalem were written by Crusade-era scribes who routinely failed—to the frustration of modern historians—to take note of the contemporaneous reality of the city around them and instead focused on imagining they had found the exact spot where Jesus saved the adulterous woman from stoning. Jay had not said this pointedly, or snidely, or rudely, or dismissively. In fact, he had spoken with considerable sympathy. Our new friends nodded politely and for a while did not speak. Finally, the man looked up and asked, “Why the heck would you want to see where Judas killed himself?”
The figure of Judas Iscariot,” one Christian has written, “is the most tragic in all the Bible.” Another writes, “He committed the most horrible, heinous act of any individual, ever.” Yet another writes that Judas “is the greatest failure the world has ever known.” The name Judas has become an electromagnet for the negatively categorical.
Who Judas was, what he did, why he did it, and what he ultimately means have been debated within Christianity since its first decades. In the centuries since, many—believers and non-believers alike—have attempted to discern in his few scriptural appearances a personality complicated and large enough to merit the crime for which he is condemned. These myriad attempts have resulted in almost as many Judases as attempts. We have been presented with a Judas who is tormented and penitent, a Judas possessed by devils, a Judas possessed by the Devil, a Judas who is diseased, a Judas who is loyal, a Judas who does what he has to do, a Judas who wants Jesus to act against Rome, a Judas who is confused, a Judas who is loving, a Judas who loves women, a Judas who kills his own father, a Judas who works as a double agent, a Judas who does not understand what he has done, a Judas who kills himself, a Judas who lives to old age, a Judas who loves Jesus “as cold loves flame,” a Judas who is the agent of salvation itself.
Later writers who set out to imagine their own Judas were merely following the evangelists’ necessarily abbreviated lead. The greatest failure the world has ever known is mentioned a mere twenty-two times in the New Testament. The Gospel according to John mentions him the most; the Gospel according to Mark, which was probably the first gospel to have been written, mentions him the least. In Mark, Judas is little more than plot spot-welded to a name.
Mark’s story of Judas’s betrayal begins with Jesus and the disciples in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman opens “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment,” which she proceeds to pour over Jesus’ head. According to Mark, “some who were there” grow angry and ask, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way?” These unnamed people begin to scold the woman. Jesus tells them to leave her alone, because she “has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you . . . but you will not always have me.” Immediately after this, “Judas Iscariot, who was one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them.” Mark writes that the chief priests were very pleased, and “promised to give [Judas] money.” Judas then begins “to look for an opportunity to betray him.” Shortly thereafter, Jesus announces at the Last Supper that “one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me,” though he does not name Judas. Jesus then takes the disciples to the Mount of Olives, where, “deeply grieved,” he prays alone at Gethsemane and asks his father to “remove this cup” from him. When he returns from his prayer and finds the disciples sleeping, he upbraids them (“Enough!”), before suddenly announcing, “See, my betrayer is at hand.” And so Judas arrives, along with “a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders.” Judas has told the chief priests that he will identify Jesus with a kiss, which he does while fulsomely calling Jesus “Rabbi!” With this, Mark’s haunting, skeletal account of Judas’s betrayal ends.
How is it that the disciples do not understand Jesus’ words to Judas when he has plainly identified him as his betrayer?
Mark leaves a number of things unclear. Why did the chief priests need Judas’s help, exactly? How did Judas know the chief priests wanted Jesus dead? At what point did Judas leave the Last Supper? How did Judas know where to find Jesus? Why, if they were so eager to capture him, did the chief priests not know what Jesus looked like? The questions about Mark’s portrayal of Judas are in many ways codicils to larger questions about the gospel itself. Most scholars believe that an oral tradition concerning Jesus existed before Mark. Does Mark’s gospel indicate a break with that oral tradition or is it its recorded consummation? Did Mark invent key aspects of the Jesus story or merely preserve them? Was Mark the first to join two separate strands of Jesus material (a “words” strand and a “deeds” strand) into what is called a gospel? Did Mark invent the gospel form by combining these two strands? In the words of one scholar, is Mark an “evolutionary document” or a “revolutionary document”?
These questions are so difficult to answer in no small part because we cannot be sure if Mark was the first gospel. Papias, a second-century Christian bishop and writer who was privy to an expanded form of Judas’s death, famously noted that he preferred hearing stories about Jesus to reading them. In that case, what, exactly, was Papias hearing? Was he talking about the familiar gospels, now lost gospels, or an earlier oral tradition, upon which Mark may have based his gospel? If an oral tradition concerning Jesus carried on into the second century, how different from the gospels might it have been? Given that Papias knew of an expanded version of Judas’s death, we can assume it may have been quite different. Papias was by no means alone. Works by Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, and Polycarp, all of whom lived around the same time as Papias, refer to sayings they attribute to Jesus that have no precise parallel in our versions of the gospels—a literary form to which these early Christian leaders make no reference. (Papias refers twice to “sayings,” documents that he attributes to Matthew and Mark, but he never calls them gospels.) The first oral stage of the Jesus story is also its most potentially revealing, and we have, at best, oblique access to it.
The Gospel according to Matthew leans heavily on Mark throughout but includes material that is not found in Mark. Did Matthew get this information from an oral tradition, a written document, or some source of purported eyewitness? Or are these departures proof of a detectable mind, wherein the author is not working off outside material at all but writing in the way we today understand that word? Whatever the case, Matthew had access to a repository of unique Judas material, and he used it.
Like Mark, Matthew begins the story of Judas’s betrayal in Bethany. Again a woman pours ointment over Jesus’ head. This time, however, it is “the disciples” who grow angry. Once more, Jesus attempts to abate their anger with instruction similar to that in Mark, after which Judas goes to the chief priests and asks them, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” The chief priests provide Judas his answer: thirty pieces of silver. Already the picture is more complicated than in Mark, for Matthew has made money Judas’s motivation rather than his reward. But was Judas adequately paid?
There is some evidence that thirty silver shekels—Matthew does not specify the coinage of Judas’s payment—was, in ancient times, shorthand for the ransom to be paid for a socially insignificant victim of kidnapping. It was also, according to Exodus 21:32, the amount required to repay the owner of an injured slave. It is not clear Matthew had either imbursement in mind, given that Jesus, during the Last Supper, tells the Twelve that they will abandon him, quoting lines from Zechariah (“I will strike the shepherd / and the sheep of the flock will be scattered”) to establish the prophetic nature of his announcement. The passage of Zechariah to which Matthew has Jesus refer is apparently intended as a broadside against the priestly community then leading ancient Israel. In this passage, one of these priestly “shepherds” narrates his own disgraceful payment of thirty shekels of silver for abandoning his flock, money he is then ordered by the Lord to throw “to the potter” or perhaps into the Temple treasury. Matthew, more than any other gospel writer, worked with various pieces of Hebrew scripture flattened out next to him, extracting from them as much exegetical serum as possible.
Like Mark, Matthew includes Jesus’ Last Supper proclamation to the Twelve that one of them will betray him, but expands it to indicate that Jesus is aware of the identity of his betrayer—something Mark does not explicitly do—and that the betrayer himself knows he has been discovered. Several early critics of Christianity pointed to Jesus’ betrayal as a powerful indictment of his divinity: “[N]o good general and leader of great multitudes was ever betrayed,” one wrote. Mark provided no protection from this criticism. Matthew seems to want to show that Jesus was not surprised by the betrayal, thereby shielding him from accusations of fallibility. Unlike Mark, however, Matthew’s Judas speaks up after Jesus’ announcement: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” (Rabbi is not a term the other members of the Twelve use to refer to Jesus.) Jesus answers Judas measuredly: “You have said so.”
When Jesus is brought before Caiaphas, the high priest asks him if he is the Messiah. Once again, Jesus answers, “You have said so.” Jesus has the same answer for Pilate. In this way, as scholar Kim Paffenroth notes, Judas is placed among Jesus’ enemies. Matthew also has Jesus address Judas during the betrayal: “Friend, do what you are here to do.” After witnessing Jesus’ condemnation, Matthew writes, Judas “repented” to such a degree that he returned his payment to the chief priests. “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” Judas tells them, and, in a move reminiscent of the wicked shepherd of Zechariah, casts his money into the Temple. He then departs and hangs himself. Does Matthew view Judas’s repentance as genuine? Is Jesus sincere when he calls Judas “friend”? This much is clear: Matthew’s Judas publicly and unambiguously acknowledges his sin, attempts to repudiate those with whom he collaborated, and doles out to himself the most extreme possible penalty. This is not Mark’s cipher, or a placard of evil, but a human being whose actions Matthew has at least attempted to comprehend.
Luke apparently struggled hardest with the notion of a betrayer existing among the Twelve. To account for this unfathomable turn of events, Luke opted for an explanation that would long affect Christian thinking: Judas betrayed Jesus because of Satan. This vastly expanded the reach, efficacy, and anthropological interest of Satan, hitherto an infrequently glimpsed enigma in human consciousness. Luke, like Matthew, was in all likelihood trying to counter the potent question of how the Messiah could have been betrayed by one of his own. Luke abandons the Bethany portion of the betrayal narrative, and merely notes that, as Passover in Jerusalem begins, “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.” As in Mark, Judas confers with the authorities (now expanded beyond the chief priests to include “the temple police”), and once again is paid for his services. His motivation, however, remains demonic; money is a worldly afterthought. At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the Twelve that “the one who betrays is with me.” As in Matthew, Luke’s Jesus makes clear that he knows he must be betrayed to fulfill scripture but wishes a woe, similar to that of Mark, on the one who will give him over. Judas, though, is not named. Nor does Judas, when he leads the authorities to his master, get to kiss Jesus. Instead, Jesus stops him short with these words: “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” This is the only time in the gospel tradition that Jesus addresses Judas by name and it could be read to signal some kind of forgiveness or consolation on the part of Jesus. But why would Jesus want to console the one who allowed Satan to possess him? Or did Judas allow Satan to possess him? Here, Luke is no help.
In the opening words of the Gospel according to John we learn that Jesus has existed from the beginning of time—a parsec leap beyond the claims made by the other evangelists. In fact, in John, all things exist because of Jesus. Jesus is the light, the world is the darkness, and those who believe in Jesus “are not condemned,” while those who do not believe in Jesus “are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” In John, Judas is no different from any other person who does not believe in Jesus and therefore merits no special punishment. He does, however, merit special consideration. While John contains no list-of-the-Twelve tradition, which allows the other evangelists to instantly mark Judas as the traitor, John does manage to condemn Judas upon his inaugural mention.
This occurs shortly after Jesus has informed his disciples that, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you,” and as a result been abandoned by a number of horrified followers. Jesus asks the remaining Twelve, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.” This devil, John tells us, is “Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.” Judas is next mentioned during Jesus’ trip to Bethany, though the home to which Jesus pays a visit belongs not to Simon the leper but Lazarus, who lives there with his sisters Mary and Martha. The unnamed woman in Mark and Matthew here becomes Mary, who takes “a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard” and applies it to Jesus’ feet with her hair. In an additional touch of verisimilitude, the house soon fills “with the fragrance of the perfume.” The scene is similar enough to Mark’s to warrant the possibility that John knew Mark, but dissimilar enough that a more likely explanation might be that the Bethany anointing was an early oral tradition that Mark and John knew in distinct forms. John also provides a crucial extra detail. In Mark, unnamed people get upset at this profligate use of expensive fragrance. In Matthew, it is the disciples. In John, Judas complains, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Is this a man of conscience? No. John writes, “Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” John’s Judas has in fact been stealing from the common purse since Jesus’ ministry began—and yet, interestingly, money will have no place in John’s version of Judas’s betrayal.
Then there is John’s rendering of the betrayal itself, which is, of all the gospels, the most dramatically compelling. As Passover begins, we learn that “the devil” has “already” entered “into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot.” Jesus knows this, for “the Father had given all things into his hands.” As he sits down for the Last Supper, Judas’s heart roils with devilry. John’s Last Supper, which lacks the Eucharistic tradition found in the other gospels, mainly consists of Jesus talking, and one of the first things he says is, “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me.” The alarmed apostles look about the table and ask who it might be. Jesus answers, “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Jesus gives the bread to Judas. The rest of the passage deserves full citation:
After [Judas] received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the common purse, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the festival”; or, that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the piece of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.
It is a scene of spooky, inarguable power and scalp-clawing mystification. How is it that the disciples do not understand Jesus’ words to Judas when he has plainly identified him as his betrayer? What is the difference between the earlier devil that “already” entered Judas and the “Satan” that doubly penetrates him here? John doesn’t say. And he is content during the betrayal scene to leave Judas “standing with” the authorities in silence. John has a “detachment” of Roman soldiers there to do the arresting, though none of the other gospels mentions Roman soldiers. John, turning his back on the unlovely spectacle, never mentions Judas again.