NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 21b: Then Jesus said, “Believe me when I say that one of you twelve here will hand me over to my enemies.”
A German Jewish Rabbi who published his polemic version of the events in the life of Jesus during medieval times, adds this to Matthews narrative: “Jesus said to Peter the donkey, ‘ Peter, one of us will betray me this night, and I will be held and suffer punishment.’ Peter then said to him, ‘Since you know the future, you must be God, why, then, didn’t you tell me until now?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Tell no man that I am God, for, from the time that I abandoned the Torah of my birthplace, I have rebelled against my Creator and against His Torah.’”1 This is a very lame effort to try and discredit Jesus as being the faithful Messiah that He was claimed to be. What our Rabbi friend forgot is that Jesus had been telling His disciples for quite some time that He would suffer, but He chose this occasion to make the official announcement that the time had come for it to take place, and He would be revealing the traitor who would initiate the action.
Verse 22: The followers were very sad to hear this. Each one said, “Lord, surely I am not the one!”
No one can say this was not a normal reaction on the part of dedicated disciples upon hearing that one of them would be so disrespectful and irreverent as to betray their Master to the enemy. What gain could be made with such action? How could that ever be seen as some victory for their Messiah? So they found it unconscionable that Jesus would even bring it up. Therefore, it was predictable that each one of them would want to clear themselves of any possible guilt by asking the Lord to declare for all to hear that they were not the one.
Origen made this commentary on the implications of such a betrayal. He writes: “Perhaps someone will ask: If the twelve apostles all had clean consciences (that is, if they were all innocent of any act of betrayal against the teacher), why were they ‘sorrowful’ at the news that He would be betrayed, as though it could have been one of them to whom He was referring? I believe that each of the disciples knew from the things Jesus had taught them that human nature is unstable and vulnerable to be turned toward sin and that in struggling ‘against the principalities and powers and rulers of this world of darkness2 a man can be besieged and fall or be so weakened by the power of the enemy that he becomes evil.”
Origen goes on to say: “Aware of these things, then, each disciple was ‘very sorrowful’ because Christ had said ‘one of you will betray me.’ And each disciple, not knowing what he might do in the future, began to inquire one by one: ‘Is it I, Lord?’ Yet, if the apostles had good reason to fear that they might betray Him, we who have not yet tasted of perfection must also be afraid of falling victim to future weakness. This is why the apostle said, ‘I am certain that neither death nor life … is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’3 But whoever is not yet perfect should remain aware that he is still capable of falling.”4 As we will learn later, Peter had good reason to question whether or not it was him, as did the others who fled the scene when Jesus was arrested, along with Thomas who would doubt His resurrection.
Verses 23-24: Jesus answered, “One who has dipped his bread in the same bowl with me will be the one to hand me over. The Son of Man will suffer what the Scriptures say will happen to Him. But it will be very bad for the one who hands over the Son of Man to be killed. It would be better for him if he had never been born.”
The real subject of this portion of the text is Judas Iscariot. It appears, that as they were eating Jesus was talking to them about His being betrayed to the authorities. Needless to say, the disciples were more than disappointed, they were shocked. So each one began to ask Jesus, “Is it me?” One by one they threw the question at Him, until finally, He answered, that the same person who had been dipping their bread into His bowl of Charoset would be the betrayer.
In Jewish literature, we find Charoset described as a sweet paste consisting of figs, nuts, almonds, and other fruits; to which they added apples; all which they crushed with pestle and mortar, and mixed with vinegar; into which they sprinkled calamus root and cinnamon and then formed small long threads in remembrance of the straw they used to build with while in Egypt; and it was necessary for it to be thick in memory of the clay used to make the buildings for Pharaoh. Another interesting fact that Maimonides shares with us is that on any other night the bread would be dipped only once in the Charoset, but on this night it was to be dipped twice.5
When the recollection of this incident by Matthew, Luke, and John are put together, it suggests that Judas had already dipped his matzah in the bowl once, now Jesus dips in His matzah again and gives it to Judas. That, even more than His words, gave the disciples the signal that this was the betrayer, again fulfilling the words: “My best friend, the one I trusted, the one who ate with me—even he has turned against me.”6 No doubt everyone’s eyes were focused on those reclining closest to Jesus.
Verse 25: Then Judas, the very one who would hand him over, said to Jesus, “Teacher, surely I am not the one you are talking about, am I?” Jesus answered, “Yes, it is you.”
This response by Judas Iscariot must come because everyone was looking at him. So it is no wonder that he turned to look at Jesus and say quite incredulously, “Surely Lord, You’re not talking about me!” According to John Gill, the Ethiopian version of Matthew reads: “Then Judas, which betrayed Him or that was about to betray Him, had taken a step towards it, was seeking an opportunity to do it, and at length effected it.” The Persic version reads, “Judas Iscariot; who after all the rest had put the question to Him asked.” And one of the oldest Hebrew versions of Matthew reads: “Judas, who sold Him, answered and said to Him: Rabbi am I this one?”7 It doesn’t seem possible that Judas was so innocent of what he had done that he could honestly have no knowledge that he was the one. Perhaps in the translation from the original Aramaic, the real sense and meaning of Judas’ question might have been more like, “Lord, how did you know it was me.”
I can imagine a hush then fell over the room; everyone stopped eating, and all eyes were fixed on the Master. We don’t know for sure if Jesus simply looked down at the bowl where He had just dipped His flatbread or looked straight into Judas Iscariot’s eyes, but in either case, I’m sure His words, “Yes, you’re the one.” were cutting even though they were said gently. But our Lord then tells everyone that this was not unexpected; that His leaving was already scheduled from long ago and recorded in the Scriptures.8
By so doing, our Lord makes it clear that this was all voluntary on His part. But what about Judas Iscariot, was his act voluntary? I have no doubt but that it was. He was not bribed by the leading priests, he voluntarily went to them with the idea and they bought it for 30 pieces of silver. And our Lord’s statement that it would have been better that such a traitor had never been born, was part of Jewish oral tradition. In the Talmud we read, “Whosoever takes no thought for the honor of his maker, it would have been merciful he had not been born into the world. What does this mean? Rabbi Joseph asked: It refers to one who commits transgression in secret.”9 So we see that Jesus was not pronouncing a curse on Judas Iscariot, but simply repeating what the Rabbis’ had taught about those who stoop so low as to betray their own mentor to the enemy.
1 Naẓẓaḥon Vetus, Comment , op. cit., p. 201
2 Ephesians 6:12
3 Romans 8:38-39
4 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 81
5 See Moses Maimonides, Sefer Zemanim, Chametz Umetzah, Ch.. 8, Halacha 2, Commentary
6 Psalm 41:9
7 Hebrew Version of Matthew, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 Cf. Psalm 22; Isaiah 53; Daniel 9
9 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 16a