The Kiss of Judas
by Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky
IF ONE WISHES TO UNDERSTAND the most essential events of the earthly life of the Savior and the people that surrounded Him, in particular the events connected with His trial or with the taking of anyone into custody, it is indispensable to acquaint oneself with the seventeenth chapter of Deuteronomy. There one can recognize the following rules by which society was guided in the arrest and punishment of offenders. These rules are as follows: 1) A sentence of execution can be passed on the evidence of no less than two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6; Num. 35:30). “And the hand of the witnesses shall be upon him among the first to put him to death, and the hand of the people at the last” (Deut. 17:7). This rule, viz. that a witness must be the first executioner, was introduced, of course, to mitigate the guilt of the people, since, should a perjurer prove to be the executioner, he would subject himself to twofold vengeance on the part of the friends and relatives of the murdered man. Witnesses that bring an accusation against another person must lay their hands upon the head of the accused. The wicked elders did so with the innocent Susanna. “Then the two elders stood up in the midst of the people, and laid their hands upon her head,” and they began to voice their slanderous accusation, ending with the words, “These things do we testify” (Sus. 31:41). Thus did they carry out God’s command to Moses concerning the well-known case of blasphemy in Leviticus: “Bring forth him that cursed outside the camp, and all that heard shall lay their hands upon his head, and all the congregation shall stone him” (Lev. 24:14). Apparently, without this ritual, i.e. the placing of the hands of the accuser upon the head of the accused, it was not possible to bring a man to trial. Hence ---“but no man laid hands on Him” (Jn. 7:44), should not be understood to be a simple redundancy of expression. These words have the following meaning: they wished to arrest the Savior, but no one had decided to come forward against Him as an accuser and to carry out the ritual required by law for this, i.e. to place his hand upon His head. One may think that, apart from this rite, a statement was required of the witness, to the effect that he had not participated in a crime similar to the one of which he was accusing someone. Such a thought may be found in the narrative concerning Susanna in the book of Daniel. Note with what a loud voice the young Daniel evoked the law of arbitration in this case: “And he cried with a loud voice, I am clear from the blood of this woman” (Sus. 46). Thus the requirement that the Savior made of the accuser of the woman caught in the act of adultery becomes understandable: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” (Jn. 8:7). By the way, in this case, in exactly the same manner as during His interrogations by the high priest and Pilate, the Lord spoke and acted in strict conformity to the above-cited decrees of the Old Testament law, for when the accusers of that woman had departed ashamed, the Lord did not immediately dismiss her, but asked: “Woman, where are those thine accusers?”, and He concluded: “Neither do I accuse thee; go, and sin no more” (Jn. 8:10-11). In the light of the above-quoted passages from the law of Moses one can see how far from the truth are those interpreters that find in this event an example of the abrogation of the law of the Old Testament by Christ.
Also far from the truth are the majority of textbooks of sacred history in the explanation of the event cited by us in the title of this article. According to their interpretation it appears that Judas was needed by the enemies of Christ to find the Savior when He was separated from the people, and the kiss of Judas was necessary for the servants of the high priest to recognize Him among His disciples.
Even when I was a child, such interpretations seemed unreliable to me. Could the guards really not have located in the city a man who was surrounded by twelve disciples without the aid of a traitor-informer, least of all a man that took no pains at all to conceal himself? Was it really necessary to resort to a false kiss to indicate one of the twelve; was it not sufficient simply to point him out with a finger? No, all of these actions of the enemies of Christ become completely comprehensible when we know that without an official denunciation, accompanied by a resolve to come forward as an accuser of Christ before the people, the enemies of the Savior had no possibility of handing Him over to trial and execution, and that the committing of Him to trial had to be accomplished by the placing of His accusers hands upon him. Moreover, Judas had decided not to perform this rite with exactitude: “he that betrayed Him gave them a sign, saying, ‘Whomsoever I shall kiss, that same is He; hold him fast ...Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus, and took Him” (Mt. 26:48, 50). The words of Judas quoted above clearly indicate that he notified his colleagues in advance of this alteration of the legal method, which he permitted himself out of an understandable timidity. He left it to the latter to carry out what they did, laying their audacious hands upon Christ. However, they apparently did not immediately decide to do this. So I understand the Savior’s twice-put question: “Whom seek ye? I am He” (Jn. 18:4-5, 7-8). To carry out an arrest, a preliminary interrogation of the person accused was essential; this the enemies of Christ had not resolved to do. Then the Lord Himself helped them in this, showing them beforehand His spiritual might and the annihilation of His enemies, casting them down to the ground in fear.
The general significance of Judas as a traitor, his purpose being precisely that of the necessary accuser and witness, is clarified by the Gospel of Luke: “And he went his way, and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him unto them. And they were glad and agreed to give him money” (Lk. 22:4-5; cf. also Mk. 14:10-11). If the plan had been only to find Jesus when He was not among the people, would it have been necessary to spend so much money, and would there have been any particular cause to rejoice? This joy of the enemies of Christ shows that Judas’ offer released them of a great difficulty which consisted of not having found a man who was prepared to bring an accusation of any sort against Christ, to lay hands upon Him and testify against Him at a trial.
However, Judas, not having carried out the second part of his bargain precisely (i.e. substituting a kiss for the laying of hands upon the head of the accused), failed completely to carry out the third part of his obligation – he did not appear at the trial as the accuser, but “cast down the pieces of silver in the temple and went and hanged himself” (Mt. 27:5). The iniquitous judges of Christ were again placed in a difficult position: in vain did they seek “false witnesses against Jesus, to put him to death, but found they none; yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses” (Mt. 26:60ff.). Then the high priest, notwithstanding Christ’s reproof that they were questioning the accused, but not the witnesses (Jn. 8:21), losing patience over the failure of the witnesses’ testimony, himself strove to trap Christ with His own words, requiring Him under oath to answer “whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God?” (Mt. 26:63). And although the Lord replied to him with the words of the Prophet Daniel concerning the Son of man Who sits at the right hand of Power and will come on the clouds of Heaven (Dan. 7:13), the wicked judge pretended not to understand the citation and stages a farce of righteous indignation, rent his garments and forced an accusation of Christ from those present on ground of blasphemy, which, according to the law of Moses, subjects the offender to death (Lev. 24:16).
From all that has been said, it is obvious how necessary it is to know the Old Testament in order to understand the Gospel. No less a significance does this knowledge hold for an understanding of the book of Acts and the epistles of the apostles. As an example of this, we will point out only one incident – the execution of Stephen.
“And the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:58). Uninformed readers assume that Saul had to protect these garments from thieves. In actual fact, the witnesses, who had personally murdered Stephen, in accordance with the letter of the Law (Deut. 17:7), took upon themselves the responsibility for this, not only before the relatives of the man executed, but also before the Roman government, without whose permission they had no right to carry out a death sentence (Jn. 18:31). Thus, they cast their garments at Saul’s feet as tangible proof of their murder, in witness to the fact that they would not be cut off from the arbitrary deed they had committed. This is why Saul alluded to his guarding of the garments of those that had killed Stephen (i.e., not from thieves, but from their own owners), as proof of their active participation in that event (Acts 22:20).
From all of these comparisons of New Testament events with Old Testament laws, and in particular with the laws governing trials, I hope that it is now clear to the reader that the “kiss of Judas” was not an act of mockery, as many think, but a fulfillment, though not with precision, of a Jewish legal ritual. But aside from this these comparisons reveal to us how far it is possible for human perfidy to commit even the most horrible of crimes within the framework, as it were, of all the prescriptions of the law, even the law of God.
Taken from Orthodox Life, Volume 28, No. 2, March-April 1978, Published by Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, New York.
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