As I entered the double front door of my apartment building on a rainy Saturday, I was thinking only of escaping the torrential winds of New York. I trudged squeaky boots up what always feels like a million stairs before taking note of an apartment I had not noticed before. Apartment 12A. I craned my head around the stairwell to check on the apartments above and below – 12 and 14. In a move typical of apartment buildings and hotels alike, the number 13 had been skipped. This small detail stirred a bit of wonderment within me. When did 13 become an unlucky number?
In my typical fashion, I began to investigate. I figured there would be some horror story involving serial killers or ghosts who tormented the guests in some 13th room of yore. I discovered, pleasantly, that the Savoy Hotel in New York City will seat a large sculpture of a cat at any table of 13 people to ward off bad luck.
What I was about to discover was even more interesting.
Modern superstitions are frequently rooted in ancient traditions and histories. The origins of Unlucky Number 13 seem to lie, like many traditions, in Biblical history. Most of us have heard the story of the apostle Judas Iscariot, who famously betrayed Jesus Christ. The first recounting of Judas’ tale is found in the first four books of the New Testament﹘Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The story of Judas Iscariot’s betrayal begins at the Last Supper, according to the gospels. During the Last Supper, Jesus Christ tells the apostles that one of them will betray him; he names that traitor as Judas Iscariot. The twelve apostles, plus Jesus Christ, form a group of 13. Some religious scholars believe that Judas was the thirteenth to be seated at the table. Judas Iscariot was the unlucky 13th member of the gathering. Not only does he betray Jesus Christ, but he is punished for it by (a rather violent) death.
So that’s that. Judas Iscariot was the original Unlucky Number 13. We skip the thirteenth floor and room of hotels because of the man who shockingly betrayed Jesus Christ in the Bible. But of course, I kept digging.
It turns out that not all religious scholars accept the story of Judas Iscariot. There is quiet controversy among both current and former religious leaders and scholars regarding the true origin of the Judas story, and whether it is true at all. Many biblical events, like the crucifixion and Jesus’ birth, have been successfully traced by historians and researchers. Judas Iscariot’s origins, however, have not.
There are a few possible scenarios. The first is that Judas Iscariot is exactly who the Bible says he is﹘an apostle, traitor, and thief. The second is that he was in fact an apostle, but he didn’t betray Jesus Christ, and the false details of his betrayal were added to the Bible after the fact. The final theory is that Judas Iscariot did not exist at all, and was a fictional character added to the Bible after the events of the crucifixion occurred. With theories two and three, scholars suggest that Judas Iscariot as we know him in the Bible did not actually exist. But why would the New Testament’s writers create this untrue story? To understand this, we’ll need to understand the religious climate of the time.
In the first centuries of the common era, a massive rift in religious thinking occurred. What was once ancient Judaism split into two branches﹘one became modern Christianity, and one became modern Judaism. The shift took approximately one hundred years, though the main events surround the period of time during which Jesus’ crucifixion occurred, between 26 and 36 CE. As we know, the founders of Christianity were, in fact, Jewish. The apostles, and Jesus himself, were Jews, and ancient Christianity was actually a branch of Judaism. But throughout the first century CE, Christianity established itself as a separate religion entirely. The variety of accounts we have from this time period (from Jews, early Christians, and leaders of the Roman Empire) allow us to understand the wide range of religious perspectives present during this time. The New Testament is an incredibly interesting source text when it comes to the slow departure of Christianity from ancient Judaism, since its books are not presented in chronological order. To understand the evolution of Christian thinking during this time, we must rearrange the New Testament into its historical sequence.
The first four books presented in the New Testament are known as the gospels. These gospels were written across a 50 year period (but were not the first New Testament books to be written). The first gospel written was the Gospel of Mark – traced back to 70 CE. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke followed shortly after, appearing the 80s CE. Matthew and Luke share quite a bit of material with the Gospel of Mark, which has led historians to believe that the two were actually based on Mark itself. In addition, when the shared material from Mark is removed from Matthew and Luke, what remains is also incredibly similar. Historians believe that Matthew and Luke, in addition to being derived from the text of Mark, must share another original source. This mystery source is, by historians, referred to as “Q,” and it dates to around 50 CE. Historians and theologians believe that “Q” (which we don’t have) and Mark (which we do) were the primary Christian source texts present during the time Matthew and Luke were written. Because of the similarities between the first three gospels, they are referred to as the synoptic gospels. The fourth gospel, John, is quite different from the synoptics. John has a large amount of detail that is not present in Matthew, Mark, and Luke (such as the detail of the crucifixion narrative), and it is dated to around 90-110 CE, roughly 20 years after the first three.
When we look back at the Biblical timeline, Jesus Christ’s death﹘around the 30s CE, is the major focal point. The Gospel of Mark was written some forty years after Jesus’ death, when the rift between Christianity and Judaism was only beginning. The Gospels, which were collectively written in the second half of the first century, are believed to be evangelistic writings, not histories, meaning their intent was to convert people to Christianity. And as the four gospels progress chronologically, they include more and more detail supporting the narrative that Jesus was more divine than human. For example, during the crucifixion presented in Matthew (Matthew 27:46) and Mark (Mark 15:34), Jesus cries “My god, my god why hast thou forsaken me” while the Gospel of John portrays Jesus’ crucifixion as a death without suffering (John 19:30).
Religious scholars have also noted that the ideas of Judaism in the New Testament evolve severely over time. The writers of the New Testament transition from evangelizing their religion to denouncing the Jewish people as a whole. The first three gospels mostly reflect initial disputes between Christianity and Judaism, which make sense given the religious split occurring at the time, while the gospel of John portrays Jews as skeptical, angry, and accusatory. Religious scholars still debate whether or not some of the books of New Testament are anti-Semitic in nature. For example, in 2011, New Testament scholar Dr. Jill Levine compiled an edition of the New Testament edited entirely by Jewish scholars which aimed to make the New Testament more accessible to Jewish readers who believe it to be anti-Semitic.
The shifting priorities of the New Testament are a primary reason why some religious scholars believe that Judas Iscariot may have been a fabrication meant to promote an increasingly pro-Christian narrative. Because the books in the New Testament were written by different people over a century, there are many inconsistencies between them. Bishop John Shelby Spong, a decorated theologian with degrees and accolades from a variety of seminaries, including Harvard Divinity School, has written entire books on these inconsistencies. He focuses heavily on Judas Iscariot’s story in his book The Sins of Scripture. As previously mentioned, the New Testament books are not arranged in the order they are written. Because of this, we can look to earlier Biblical books to find clues about the original Passion (crucifixion and resurrection) narrative. Spong calls attention to the fact that the first mention of Judas Iscariot in the New Testament is in the book of Mark (Mark 3:19), which again was written around the 70s CE. All of the books which were written before this point (see above timeline) make no mention of Judas Iscariot at all.
Judas Iscariot appears by name in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts. The books of Luke and Acts are believed to have been written by the same author, and most of the rest of the New Testament (other than the gospels) was written by Paul﹘one of Jesus’ original apostles. Plenty of scholarly debate surrounds the New Testament’s authorship and authenticity. Essentially, we don’t have anything close to the original﹘the oldest New Testament we have is basically a copy of a copy of a copy which was made centuries after the original.
The moral of the story is that there has been quite a bit of time where changes may have been made to the New Testament. The stories we read now have likely been modified over time in subtle ways, but most importantly, the purpose of the New Testament itself changed over time. It is believed that at the time the documents were written, they were intended to convert non-Christians to Christianity. Additionally, we can track this intention over time. Many scholars believe that the synoptic gospels were more focused on creating a hybrid Christian-Jewish religion, while John is clearly more focused on vilifying Judaism and sinners (i.e. Judas) and praising Christianity as the one best religion.
So what does this all mean for our dear (or not so dear) Judas Iscariot? The controversy surrounding Judas’ legitimacy traces back to the “Q” source. Because scholars believe that Matthew and Luke share common sources (Mark and “Q”), and we have a copy of Mark, scholars can by process of elimination determine some of Q’s contents.
Bishop Spong, in his aforementioned book, The Sins of Scripture, makes this point:
When we turn to the Q source, we discover … this common, and presumably earlier, tradition that both Matthew and Luke quote Jesus as saying to the disciples, with Judas present, “At the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). Luke has this text read, “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of lsrael” (Luke 22:28-30). The assumption here is that among the twelve disciples who will judge the twelve tribes of Israel, Judas is included.
Essentially, both Matthew and Luke have derived (from the Q source) this quote from Jesus Christ inviting all twelve of his disciples to sit on thrones. Spong’s main argument is that, had the betrayal been known by the authors and predicted both by God and Jesus himself, why would 12 disciples still be included in this passage? This passage is not present in Mark or John, which leads scholars to believe that this quote from Jesus was present in the “Q” source, and purposefully omitted by the author(s) of John. The confusing thing is that all four of the gospels assert that Jesus actually foresaw (John 6:64) and allowed (John 13:27-28) Judas to betray him. If that were the case, why would Jesus discuss putting all twelve disciples on thrones if he knew that Judas would not be there? Some believe that it was God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified, but if that were true, why would Jesus ask why God had forsaken him (Matthew 27:46)?
So yes, I uncovered all of this complicated information while researching why the number 13 was unlucky. I was absolutely not expecting it, but I became obsessed and fascinated with these theories. There is so much information available about the Bible and its origins, but very little of it is discussed.
There is actually a series of gospels which are known as the “Gnostic gospels” that have been discovered over the last century. These gospels are considered heretical by the Church, and are generally associated with conspiracy theorists and the varying esoteric sects of Christianity which have come and gone over time. There is in fact a Gospel of Judas, which dates back to around 130 CE which was translated by the National Geographic Society in 2006. There is no scholarly consensus on this text – some believe that Judas’ character as presented here is consistent with the Bible, while others argue that the new text portrays him as much more complicated.
So what’s the deal? Was the thirteenth person to sit down at the Last Supper the traitor Judas Iscariot? Or was Judas a character whose story was embellished to support the blossoming Christian religion during a complicated rift in theological thought? Unfortunately, no one really knows. There are conflicting scholarly views, though the consensus generally remains that Judas was real﹘citing the criterion of embarrassment (which is essentially: why would you tell a lie if it would be embarrassing to you?). Scholars assert that the story of Judas would identify a weak point in Christianity and make Jesus look bad in various ways.
Alternatively, it can be argued that Judas’ character as a villain provides a strong founding metaphor for Satan/evil, and a warning tale for anyone who denounces Christianity (that you will die a horrible death). Even more alternatively, a minority view is that Judas himself represents the Jewish people (the apostles were after all, Jewish) and that he is a warning tale for Jews who at the time decided not to convert. This brings us back to the original religious rift we discussed.
So why is 13 unlucky? Seemingly because of Judas. But it appears that the number 13 isn’t as interesting as the story of Judas himself. A traitor shrouded in mystery, who might not have been a traitor at all. If it’s true that he was wrongly pinned as a villain, he really is the unlucky number 13 after all.