Originally published March 20, 2008

No one wants to be the guy who betrays Jesus.

But when Brian Krell was approached and asked to please take the role for the second year, he agreed.

Judas has only one line: "Rabbi . . ."

Judas' big scene re-enacts the moment when the disloyal disciple betrays Jesus in the garden in "The Sign of Judah," a musical written by a member of Shrewsbury Assembly of God.

The role prompted Krell to think a lot about why Judas - one of the 12 apostles closest to Jesus - did what Christians everywhere despise him for:

Selling out their Messiah for a paltry 30 pieces of silver.

"The Bible's not really clear on why," said Krell, 30, an auto technician from North Hopewell Township.

When casting church Passion plays, Judas can be an unpopular role, local directors say.

Like the other apostles, the part often calls for growing a scruffy beard, wearing Birkenstocks in early spring and yielding top billing to the son of God.

But it's sometimes difficult to act the part when a character's motives aren't clear.

The majority of Christians vilify Judas as an evil traitor.

Over the centuries, scholars, clergy and artists have offered various interpretations of Judas' actions. Some painted him more heinous than he was, allowing him no good qualities at all. In the Middle Ages especially, Judas was caricatured to serve anti-Jewish sentiments.

Some scholars believe Judas to be a complex, even tragic character, motivated by some combination of greed, disenchantment, nationalistic fervor and devotion.

Gnostics in the second century offered a unique account in the apocryphal Gospel of Judas:

It claims Jesus asked Judas to hand him over. According to Jesus, Judas' act would liberate Jesus' soul from the body so he could ascend to heaven.

Christian actor Ward Fleharty, 60, believes a popular, Calvinistic theory that Judas Iscariot was predestined to betray Jesus - doomed to hell before his birth.

"This was a plan that came right from God," said Fleharty, who's playing Judas for the third year at Grace Fellowship, an evangelical church near New Salem.

"Judas might have been a really good guy. But there was no way it wasn't going to work out that way. This was his destiny."

On stage as Judas, Fleharty's eyes are cast in shadow with makeup, and the character of Satan (played by the Rev. Bob Tome) shadows his every move, often whispering in his ear.

Julie Porter, the church's worship and arts coordinator, said Tome's role illustrates the victory Satan felt at Judas' betrayal.

"We believe the devil is very real and has the ability to put suggestions in our mind," she said.

Rick Carlson, a New Testament scholar at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, said it seems historical fact that Judas turned against Jesus.

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells the apostles he knows that one among them will betray him. "What you have to do, do quickly," he says to Judas.

This leaves the question: Why would Jesus allow this if he knew about it? Doesn't that render Judas a hopeless pawn?

"That is something we really don't know because we don't have enough evidence from the text itself," Carlson said.

"What we have is each of the Gospel writers trying to make sense of what they did know."

Some theologians attribute Judas' actions to poor judgment:

Judas expected Jesus to restore the Jewish homeland with military means. He reasoned that if he forced Jesus' hand by endangering his life, Jesus would save himself and start a revolution.

"Judas wanted to push the issue. He wants to put Christ in the situation where he has to make that move," said Nicholas Curry, 25, of Spring Garden Township who is Judas in a play at First United Methodist Church of Hershey.

"God has a purpose for all of us. The way God used Judas was to facilitate what was going to happen on the cross."

The Rev. Frank Moloney, a biblical scholar formerly of Catholic University of America, has suggested Judas was passionately committed to Jesus as a political messianic figure but gradually became disillusioned.

"In my opinion, a disillusioned Judas felt an obligation to indicate to the Jewish and possibly also the Roman authorities that there was a false Messiah about," Moloney, now head of the Australian branch of the Salesian order, wrote by e-mail.

Moloney was a consultant on British writer Jeffrey Archer's fictional book, "The Gospel According to Judas, by Benjamin Iscariot," published last year.

The novel supposes Judas himself was betrayed, which Moloney says is, of course, pure fiction.

He said, "We have no clear idea of what exactly happened, and why it happened."

Why did Judas betray Jesus?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Judas goes to the "chief priests" and asks: "What will you give me if I deliver (Jesus) to you?" (26:15). This suggests Judas betrayed Jesus out of greed.

In the Gospel of John, after Jesus gives Judas the piece of dipped bread, "Satan entered into him" (13:27). This verse suggests Satan's spirit entered into Judas and caused him to do evil.

Did Jesus know that Judas was going to betray him?

Yes. Jesus knew he would die and that he would be betrayed by one of his own.

At the Last Supper, Jesus reveals this to his apostles: "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me" (Matthew 26:21).

In the Gospel of Matthew, when his apostles ask who it is, Jesus replies: "He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me, will betray me." When the apostles take turns asking who, Judas asks, "Is it I, Master?" Jesus answers, "You have said so."

The Gospel of John provides more details. Jesus reveals Judas is his betrayer by saying: "'It is he to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it.' So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot ... Jesus said to him, 'What you are going to do, do quickly.' Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him" (John 13:26-28).

Source: Beliefnet.com

ON JUDAS

"The very name of 'Judas' raises among Christians an instinctive reaction of criticism and condemnation. . . . The betrayal of Judas remains . . . a mystery."

- Pope Benedict XVI (October 2006)

"One glaring lesson that we can learn from Judas' betrayal is that every one of us is capable of rejecting Jesus. Self-centeredness and ambition often lead us astray and down a road of destruction; however, even Judas could've been forgiven had he turned to Jesus instead of continuing to follow after his own selfish desire to do things his way."

- The Rev. Greg Helman, South Mountain Church in Dillsburg

"Judas is someone we can relate to, whether or not we're able to admit it. Judas betrays not only a friend, but God. These themes run through our lives in so many ways. I've seen it happen in the case of divorce, for example. When one has stood before the community, promised to be faithful and then left the relationship, both betrayals are often felt. What people want to know is, 'Can God forgive even that?'"

- The Rev. Liz Polanzke, Luther Memorial Evangelical Lutheran Church in Spring Garden Township

QUOTABLE

"Every time I look at you I don't understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You'd've managed better if you'd had a plan.

"Why'd you choose such a backwards time in such a strange land? If you'd come today you would've reached a whole nation. Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication."

- Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's "Jesus Christ Superstar"