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  • Will Britt

On Betrayal and Silence: Gospel-Writing Strategies 1

I have recently become intrigued by the literary challenges of Gospel composition, not so much because they might help us with source-criticism, but because they help us with understanding the message of the particular writers. This is the first of a few posts highlighting these compositional choices.


Wednesday of Holy Week, Matthew 26:14-25

Previously: After several chapters of teaching in Jerusalem, including woes, parables, and apocalypse, Jesus predicts his death at the Passover. Religious leaders plot to kill Jesus. A woman anoints Jesus with perfume at the house of Simon in Bethany, and the disciples are upset; John’s Gospel (from Monday) tells us that it was Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and that Judas Iscariot was the one who got especially upset.

Yesterday’s Gospel gave us John’s version of the beginning of the Last Supper, when Judas is sent off to do… something. That part of the story begins (13:21) with Jesus deeply distressed (etarakhthē), knowing he will be betrayed and bearing witness to it (emarturēsen; his martyrdom includes not only the betrayal but the pain of seeing it coming). Peter gets John to ask Jesus who it is, and Jesus clearly indicates (privately to John) that it’s Judas – by giving him food. John tells us that the Accuser entered Judas after he shared Jesus’s food. There has been no mention, in this version of the story, of Judas’ earlier meeting with the religious leaders; only a notice that he was already considering betrayal (13:2), along with various foreshadowings (e.g., “not all are clean,” 13:11). Moreover, and remarkably, John’s account tells us two things after Judas leaves: “And it was night. When he had left, Jesus said, ‘Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.’”

These details are worth a bit of reflection. The private revelation to John is in keeping with other aspects of his Gospel account, where Jesus often has a private word or specific message for him, as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” (Consider the bit after the resurrection, when Jesus hypothetically floats John’s remaining until he returns; or the inside information John has because his connections allow him into Annas’ courtyard; or Jesus’ giving his mother into John’s care from the cross.)

The sequence of this Last Supper story – in which Judas first shares their meal, then is filled by the Accuser, and finally goes out from them to betray Jesus – is full of overtones that resound in John’s letters when he laments those who leave the Christian community. Some, like Judas, are anti-Christ: they eat of the Eucharist and, in doing so, separate themselves from Christ’s body rather than let themselves be joined to it. As John emphasizes here, that is the moment of night, of darkness, a moment which (along with the deep distress) the synoptics place in Gethsemane. But it is also the moment of glory: when Jesus, in the midst of his distress over being betrayed, sends Judas out to betray him, thus setting fully in motion his obedience even unto death, that moment of submission is his glorification, presented by the synoptics (in Gethsemane) as the prayer “not my will, but Yours be done.”

By locating all of this at the opening of the Last Supper, instead of afterward in the garden, John can present Jesus’ reflections upon it as part of his discourse at that supper, leaving space in the post-resurrection narrative for the restorations of Thomas and Peter. Luke, by contrast – for whom all of the drama happens in the garden (22:40-46 and 53) and Judas’ filling with the Accuser happens before the Last Supper (22:3-6) – needs the teaching on the road to Emmaus and the recognition in the breaking of bread to function as Jesus’ own mystagogy after the resurrection. (For further comparison: Mark’s account proceeds like Luke’s, except that it lacks the supper-discourse and the post-resurrection teaching, so someone added some upbuilding discourse to the end.)


Today’s Gospel is Matthew’s version of the same betrayal story. Notably, in this version, it is the disciples, rather than Jesus, who are grieved (lupomenoi) upon being told one of them will betray him. Jesus leaves it vague: someone who shares his table will do the betraying. And in 26:56, Matthew tells us (as does Mark, who includes his own dramatic moment of exposure, 14:50-51) that all the disciples abandoned him and fled, after he refused their violent efforts (those efforts led, as always, by Peter). Yet, overall, this account splits the difference between John’s strategy and that of the other synoptics: as in the latter, Matthew has already told us that Judas had met with the religious leaders, and here Judas is not dismissed from the Last Supper to go do something, but we do get a specific interaction with him. (In fact, Matthew gives us the most story about Judas of any Gospel, since he includes the later fallout, 27:3-8.)

After Jesus says that he will be betrayed and pronounces woe on his betrayer, Judas asks if he is the one. (Maybe to see whether Jesus knew specifically, or was only predicting in general? Or maybe because he was still deciding?) Jesus responds noncommittally, in the pattern he will continue with Caiaphas and Pilate: “You have said it” (26:25, 64; 27:11).[1] Mark and Luke agree that this is all he said to Pilate (John adds significantly more dialogue and emphasizes Pilate’s dialogue with the Judaeans), but everyone except Matthew omits it from his response to Caiaphas. So, Matthew is drawing a deliberate parallel between these three men who together send Jesus to his death.

But what is the point of the parallel? It focuses us on a strange pseudo-silence, a speech that refuses responsibility. Part of the proof of power is that it can compel speech, as John’s longer conversation between Jesus and Pilate emphasizes (19:10-11), so one thing going on is Jesus’ resistance to the power-structure, a stubborn resistance which produces astonishment (thaumas) in the hegemon.[2] Another thing at work is the silence of the lamb on his way to the slaughter, thus fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy (Is. 53:7-9). But the most interesting thing specifically in Matthew’s emphasis is the way Jesus’ semi-response humanizes the one asking, calling on that one to think about what he has said and consider whether he himself would affirm it.[3] It calls to these questioners, calls them out of the sheer power relation, out of the expectation that the interrogated must produce an answer.

The comparison with other accounts, which accomplish related purposes in different ways, is useful here. Consider Judas: whether we think he had fully made up his mind at that point or remained unsure, Jesus’ “You have said” (only in Matthew) prompts reflection on whether he will stand by it. In this way, it is a cousin of the question that only Luke records in the actual betrayal scene (22:48): “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?” Both ask for a pause. Is this really what you are doing? You have a chance to turn back. Will you carry on with this? (John’s Gospel, by contrast to both, instead presents a conversation between Jesus and the mob that Judas brings with him.)

In the case of the high priest in Matthew’s account, Caiaphas,[4] Jesus’ silence provokes an appeal to a higher authority that changes the dynamic of the encounter. The priest turns to a technical formulation: “By the living God, I adjure you, tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mt. 26:63). Now, Jesus is genuinely compelled to answer, for it is just this God from whom his authority comes. And yet. He first offers the non-answer, “Su eipas.” It means ‘yes,’ as his further words will plainly attest. But it also means, we might say, Examine yourself. You have an opportunity. Will you commit to what you have just said? Again, the pause for reflection is accomplished partially by other means in Luke’s version, where Jesus spells out the situation more explicitly (Lk. 22:67-68): “If I were to tell you, you would not at all [ouk mē] believe; if I were to ask you, you would not at all answer.” This way of putting it emphasizes the double bind they have put him in,[5] where he is the only one called on to take responsibility for speech. Nevertheless, he does answer. And when his answer (about the Son of Man) is not clear enough, and they ask again if he is God’s Son, he responds in Matthean fashion (v. 70), “You all are saying that I am [Humeis legete hoti ego eimi].”

Finally, what happens with Pilate? Here, everyone records the “Su legeis” (Mt. 27:11, Mk. 15:2, Lk. 23:3, Jn. 18:37). John adds more dialogue, and (as we just saw with Luke) includes a bit interpreting this sort of enigmatic response: here Jesus does ask a question, namely (Jn. 18:34), “Are you saying that on your own initiative [apo seautou], or did others tell you about me?” That is, At what sort of personal level are you invested in this question? In Matthew’s version, the conversation is much shorter, but the effort of Pilate to divest himself of responsibility is clear in other ways. We learn of the intervention of his wife and of his handwashing (Mt. 27:19, 24-25), for example, only in this Gospel. These seem like ways of reinforcing the “You are saying it” point.

One additional upshot of Jesus’ refusal is that in the synoptics, the only person Jesus specifically mentions who will betray him is Peter! Of course, we get the story of both betrayals. And the difference in the words used in Jesus’ predictions is instructive. What Jesus says of the disciples in Matthew is, at the supper, that one of them will ‘betray’ (paradidōmi) him, then, in the garden, that all of them ‘will fall away’ or ‘be offended,’ ‘be scandalized’ (skandalisthēsesthai); when Peter protests, Jesus specifies that Peter will ‘disown’ (aparneomai) him, i.e., deny or refuse (arneomai) him utterly (apo) three times in one night (26:31-34). ‘Betray’ or ‘hand over’ (paradidōmi) is fascinating because it can also mean ‘to commend,’ ‘to hand over’ appropriately, as in tradition, hence ‘to teach,’ or even ‘to surrender’ or ‘to risk.’[6] Elsewhere in Matthew, it is used to speak of giving someone over to the court (5:25, 10:17-19, possibly 24:9) and betraying someone to death (10:21). Matthew here follows Mark in using it not only of Judas, but also of the chief priests and elders (27:18) and of Pilate (27:26), as Jesus is turned over to the various court systems or penalties.

To betray or deliver up in this sense, then, is to give someone (or something) into someone else’s power, to submit the person to some other regime. It is to give (didōmi) to the neighbor, to the next one or the one beside (para-). In John’s extended account of the conversation with Pilate, Jesus says that the one who delivered him to Pilate has gone wrong more deeply even than the hegemon is going wrong; he has rendered to the neighbor not what was due, which would be justice, but precisely what should not have been given. The positive valence of such handing over or surrendering is entrusting or commending someone/something to another, but the vulnerability of being placed in another’s hands is precisely what enables this handing over to constitute a betrayal in some cases.[7]

Such a reading of betrayal sheds some light on Matthew’s presentation of Judas’ remorse. This Gospel tells us that Judas repented, or at least changed the way he cared about the situation (metamelētheis) and converted (estrepsen), that is, tried to hand back the money he had gotten. He tells them that he had wrongly handed over innocent blood. But the religious authorities who had paid him now refuse responsibility, saying something that echoes Jesus’ enigmatic words: “You will see to that for yourself [Su opsei]” (27:4). Judas cannot handle having the personal responsibility thrust back entirely on himself, so he throws the money into the temple as a kind of twisted offering and offs himself (that is, goes off and hangs himself from a tree).

Matthew quite purposely sets this story about Judas and the religious authorities in parallel to the story about Jesus, Pilate, and the religious authorities. The first two verses of chapter 27 are about the religious leaders handing him over/betraying him to Pilate; then there is the intervening story of Judas, his first betrayer, along with a link to the Scriptures, and then we return directly to the story of Pilate. The latter story ends with Pilate washing his hands and saying to the crowds, especially the religious leaders, that he is innocent of Jesus’ blood. Pilate’s last words, in Matthew’s telling (27:24), are precisely the “You will see to that for yourselves [Humeis opsesthe]” with which they had turned away Judas (only now in the plural). And all the people respond, finally taking responsibility (27:25): “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” These people, all the people, are persuaded (epeisan) by the chief priests and the elders to say this – that is, they take this responsibility on themselves and their descendants – because they entrust themselves and those descendants to their religious authorities… who turn out, when all is said and done, to be both betraying them and genuinely cleansing them thereby.


[1] The only variation is from past tense eipas [from epein] with the Jewish folks to present tense legeis [from legein] with the Roman governor.

[2] The mocking guards also emphasize this aspect for Matthew (26:68). Cf. Michel Foucault on the role of power in compelling the subject to produce its own truth, and thereby to constitute itself as a subject; he attends, for example, to the ancient judicial practice of torturing slaves so as to render them witnesses to the truth, as well as to the development of Christian confessional manuals. (For Foucault, see for example his Lectures on the Will to Know, Penal Theories and Institutions, and The Punitive Society, which were the first three lecture courses he gave at the Collège de France in the 1970s.)

[3] In this regard, it is the opposite of Peter’s triple refusal (“I do not know the man”), which highlights the one answering. More on that shortly.

[4] Mark does not distinguish between Annas and Caiaphas (both of whom had a right to the title of ‘high priest,’ as John tells us). Even more vaguely, Luke says only that the council questioned Jesus. Not an eyewitness but one who made a more thorough investigation, Luke tells us that there was also a trial before Herod, resulting in nothing except a new friendship between Herod and Pilate. John includes a pre-trial before Annas for which he was in attendance, but just mentions the trial before Caiaphas without recording anything said there, so we can assume he did not get in to witness that one. He says nothing of Herod, but he seems to know a surprising amount about what went on between Jesus and Pilate, so it may be that he knew someone in the palace (Nicodemus, Mary, and perhaps Joseph of Arimathea seem to be his other close connections).

[5] Cf. his comments on John the Baptist earlier in Matthew (11:18-19): “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ But the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard…’”

[6] The range is from Liddell and Scott, but these are uses in the New Testament. Consider Acts 14-15, where people are commended to others or described as risking their lives, or 1 Corinthians 15:24, where Christ will hand over the kingdom to God.

[7] According to the OED, English ‘betray’ comes from Latin ‘tradere,’ to hand over (with its noun, traditio), which itself comes from trans + dare (over + to give). (Thanks to Mashed Radish for the etymology.)


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