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Bible Q

Was Judas predestined to betray Jesus?

There are three suggestions in the New Testament that a betrayal by Judas was prophesied, which has led some readers to ask the question above “Was Judas predestined to betray Jesus?”

Psalm 41:9 in John

In John 13:18 Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 – originally about David’s enemies – of Judas, “But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” (ESV).

Later in John 17:12  Jesus says of the disciples and then Judas, “I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (ESV).  There is no specific Old Testament reference so it seems that this may refer back to John 13:8’s  earlier cite from Psalm 41:9

Like so many of the Davidic Psalms this seems well fitted to the Messianic interpretations found in the New Testament.

41:8 They say, “A deadly thing is poured out on him;
    he will not rise again from where he lies.”
Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
    who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.
10 But you, O Lord, be gracious to me,
    and raise me up, that I may repay them!

But it should be understood that Jesus’s disciples would have first and foremost understood this Psalm as being about an event in the life of David, which their master was applying to himself as the Son of David – as in many Psalms where David foreshadows Christ.

Many commentators, Jewish and Christian, have seen in Psalm 41:9 a reference to David’s friend Ahithophel who, nurturing a grievance against David, betrayed his king by joining the revolt of David’s son Absalom. If this is so then Jesus’ use of Psalm 41:9 prompts two other similarities with David’s Judas Ahithophel. First just as Judas’ intentions were rejected by Caiphas, so Ahithophel’s advice was rejected by Absalom (2 Samuel 7:14). Then like Judas, although with none of the pangs of conscience shown by Judas, Ahithophel departed from Absalom’s court and committed suicide by hanging himself (2 Samuel 17:23)

Comparing the possible traitor of Psalm 41 with the traitor among Jesus’ disciples the comparison is evident: David’s Judas ate David’s bread and lifted his heel against him, so Jesus’ Ahithophel ate bread with Jesus at the Last Supper, betrayed Him to his enemies, and finally hanged himself.

What’s more, the hand of God was behind the circumstances that led to Hushai’s advice being accepted by David’s rebel son, and the ultimate death of all the plotters:

14 Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel.” For the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom. (2 Samuel 7:14)

What happened then to Ahithophel was not predestination, but God manipulating circumstances without at any point depriving anyone of free will. What killed Ahithophel and then Hushai and Absalom was not predestination but democracy – in this case letting Absalom’s army officers decide between two strategists. So Psalm 41 does contain a powerful messianic secondary-fulfulfilment related to Jesus, and therefore also to Judas, but there is no indication that God had predestined Judas any more than God had predestined Ahithophel to do what he did. Athithophel did for a very simple reason which David had overlooked:

2 Samuel 11:3 notes that Bathsheba, whom David seduced and whose husband Uriah David arranged to be killed, was the daughter of Eliam. 2 Samuel 15 therefore shows that David’s trusted counsellor was in fact Bathsheba’s grandfather.

David was not predestined to seduce Bathsheba, inadvertently turning one of the most powerful advisors in his court into a secret enemy, waiting for an opportunity to betray him. That was David who caused Ahithophel’s betrayal, not God, not predestination.


Psalm 69:25 in Acts 1

In Acts 1 the disciples meet in Jerusalem to shortlist two candidates, and then decide by lot between the two candidates Justus and Matthias, for a replacement 12th disciple for Judas. At this point the term used by Peter has passed from “disciple” to “position of overseer”, showing the new role of the Twelve in the Jerusalem church.

Peter draws on two more Psalms as he states that not only was Judas’ betrayal prophesied, but the replacement of the traitor with a new member of the Twelve was also foreseen:


“For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office’” (Acts 1:20a, citing Psalm 69:25 ESV).


In fact that is not written in Psalms exactly, since Peter has adapted the reference. This is not a mistake, it is something Peter’s original hearers, Luke recording Acts 1, and early readers of Luke’s book would all have easily been able to pick up, much more so than modern readers with less literacy in the Old Testament. Psalm 69:25 in the Hebrew and Greek Old Testament (numbered LXX 68:26 in Greek, see footnote) is plural “Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents.” (Psalm 69:25 KJV, as Hebrew and Greek).

What Peter is doing is adapting David’s Psalm to his purposes in a way common in New Testament quotation of the Old Testament – and totally acceptable in Jewish literature of that period.

Peter’s second comment in Acts 1:20. “Let another take his office” (literally his office of bishop, office of overseer) comes from Psalm 109:8b:

19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
    and let there be no one to dwell in it’; (adapted from Psalm 69:25, into singular)


“‘Let another take his office.’ (from Psalm 109:8b, which is already singular in Old Testament)

Here Peter draws on a Hebrew term pequddah “office” which is was first used in Genesis by Pharoah’s cupbearer for his office at the Egyptian court, but also was used for priestly offices in the Old Testament. This became episkope in the Greek Old Testament and Luke’s Acts 1. The context of Psalm 109, dealing with David wishing a fate like Pharoah’s baker upon his enemy, another taking his vacant office, fits well with Peter’s application of this third Psalm to Judas.


But is this predestination?

Looking at the way first Jesus twice, and then Peter also twice, draw on the Old Testament, the reader perhaps now should see that it is less simple than God having openly predicted this one specific man Judas Iscariot (Judas from Kerioth, near Hebron) centuries before his birth as a traitor.

From the point of view of God, whom the Bible says sees all things from the beginning, to see the future of any human being is less than commonplace, it is universal. But the problem here is that Jesus (who did not know the future date of his own return Mark 13:32), would not then have had advance foresight as God does. It’s clear from the narrative of the last supper, both in the secretive arrangements in Luke 22:10 to avoid the disciples (i.e. Judas) knowing the address where Jesus had booked a meal, and also from Jesus’ several cryptic comments to Judas which the other disciples could not understand, that by the time Jesus spoke his prayer in John 17 he had identified the traitor. Some readers believe that Jesus had identified the traitor in John 13 also, perhaps, but it could indicate only that in John 13 Jesus expected a betrayal, but was not yet certain by whom.

To actually really be an example of ‘predestination’ then the case of Judas would need to go beyond the normal conditions of God’s foreknowledge of all events, to be an act set in motion on iron railway tracks with no free will involved.

Of course some churches do teach this kind of predestination.  The idea is most famously associated with the French Protestant leader Jean Calvin, and many Calvinist writers. And the example of Judas is used by those writers to promote the idea of Calvinist predestination.


The problem with that is that we’ve seen above that even with a case which is supposed to ‘prove’ predestination, the use that Jesus and Peter make of the Psalm texts do not in fact support the idea that Judas of Kerioth was specifically marked out in Scripture, as if set in stone with no choice, since before Adam, or even since the Psalms of David.

It’s one thing for God to have inspired the Psalms in such as way as to have included pointers related to the life of David, to secondary fulfilment in a betrayal of the Son of David Jesus. This is fundamental to the way that the Old Testament pre-shadows Christ, and the way the New Testament uses the Old Testament.

It’s another thing entirely for God to mark and direct a specific man from before his conception to a certain evil fate second only to Cain in the Bible. If we look at what Judah did when he found out the results of his betrayal, his despair and suicide, we can see that this was not a robot or a fully evil man. Even Cain had his opportunity not to kill Abel in Genesis 4:7 where God warns Cain that sin lies in wait for him like a wild animal at his door. If Cain was not ‘predestined’ to kill Abel, then Judas was not individually ‘predestined’ to betray Jesus. God could certainly have found other ways, many other traitors, to steer events to what was already in human terms an inevitable conclusion.

Judas was simply a bit player, a catalyst, a minor role, in the death of Christ. The actual cause of the death of Christ was not Judas (Judas never wanted Christ to be crucified), not even Pilate, nor Caiaphas, but the general populace in Matthew 27:24

Every single voice that shouted “Barabbas” in that crowd bears more blame for Jesus’ death than Judas Iscariot. So there was no shortage of men and women willing to betray Jesus that last night in Jerusalem, Judas could have gone the other way. As can we.


Psalm 69:25 in Greek (LXX68:26) γενηθήτω  ἔπαυλις αὐτῶν ἠρημωμένη καὶ ἐν τοῗς σκηνώμασιν αὐτῶν μὴ ἔστω  κατοικῶν

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