Comrade Judas

Photo by Umesh R. Desai

When Judas came to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, leading the mob to arrest Jesus, the Lord says, “Friend, do what you came to do” (Matthew 26:50). That’s the English translation, but it’s not quite right. “Friend” has always struck me as an odd choice of address for the man who was betraying Jesus, although I’m sure Jesus never stopped loving Judas.

The usual Greek word translated “friend” in English is philos like Philadelphia, the “city of friends.” Instead, Jesus calls Judas etairos (ἑταῖρος), “comrade.” This is a polite word. According to the lexicon, it is used “As a general form of address to someone whose name one does not know.” Matthew often uses it; for example, the expression is used by the master as he addresses the workers in the field:

But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13 – 15)

And again, it is used by the king to the man who dared attend his son’s wedding improperly dressed:

But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” (Matthew 22:11 – 12).

Jesus didn’t call Judas his “friend,” “brother,” or even a “disciple.” He didn’t even call Judas by name. But, on the other hand, Jesus didn’t call him a “traitor” or curse Judas either.

Let’s pause for a moment and ask, “Why did Judas betray Jesus?” Was Judas simply an evil man, or did he do it for money? Some say Judas was trying to help Jesus begin the revolution. Surely Judas, who had seen Jesus raise the dead and walk on water, didn’t believe the mob would be able to arrest the Lord!

The answer may be found in a textual variant of an ancient papyrus copy of Luke 23:32. The usual reading is, “Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him.” However, P75, one of the Bodmer Papyri, substitutes our word hetairoi (ἑταῖροι) “comrade” for heteros (ἕτερος) “others.” According to this ancient variant, we might translate verse 32, “Two political partisans, who were terrorists, were led away to be put to death with him.”

William Barclay suggested that the last four apostles, who included “Simon the Zealot” and Judas Iscariot, were revolutionaries before they became apostles. Zealots were revolutionaries, and Barclay believes “Iscariot” is derived from “Sicarii,” a group of Zealot assassins.

With this understanding, is it possible Jesus looked into the eyes of Judas, shook his head, and called him “comrade,” implying Judas had returned to his revolutionary ways? [1]

Christians are empowered to change the world, but not as revolutionaries. We are salt, light, and leaven. Our light drives out darkness. Our salt flavors the world, and our leaven brings about fundamental changes in the stuff of life. Will Jesus call us “brothers and sisters” or just “comrade”?

  [1] “P75 may well imply political partisans” See Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). In A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 398). University of Chicago Press for a fuller discussion.

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