John D. Barry
While eating His last meal, Jesus brings great sorrow upon His 12 disciples by stating that one of them will betray Him (Matt 26:21–22). Each disciple, “one after another,” asks, “Is it not I, Lord?” (Matt 26:22). Jesus identifies His betrayer as the one who “dipped his hand in the dish with him” (Matt 26:23). Imagine the awkwardness and tension this statement must have aroused. Does Judas’ hand in the dish have deeper significance than simply identifying him as the culprit? Maybe context can bring us some clarity.
Step One: Find and Understand the Literature of the Time (and the Time After)
We do not usually consider a passage in light of literature that post-dates it, but there is one exception: oral tradition. During Jesus’ time most people were illiterate; oral tradition provided a viable and stable way to remember what was said and taught.
The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic sayings, emerged as a written source around AD 250. However, the sayings contained in that book existed long before they were compiled and written down. Given that Jesus was Jewish and a rabbi (although a very untraditional one), He would likely have known some of the oral traditions in the Mishnah.
By consulting this source, therefore, we can better understand the social customs we encounter in the New Testament.
Step Two: Consult the Ancient Sources
In Matthew 26 Jesus and the disciples are eating the Passover meal. To learn more about the social context of the meal, we can use Bible software to search for “Passover” in the Mishnah. Here we find that “on all other nights [but the Passover meal], we dip once, [but] on this night twice.” 1 In the scene we’re focusing on in Matthew, Jesus likely refers to the second dipping since they’re in the middle of the meal.
According to three different rabbinic sources, pious Jews were instructed not to neglect specific manners associated with dipping rituals. 2 Non-rabbinical literature from Qumran reveals that this ideal was also present among other Jewish groups. According to The Rule of the Community, a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was customary for the Jewish group at Qumran to eat based on rank within their social structure. According to first-century AD Jewish sources, allowing someone to eat first was a sign of respect. 3 It appears that there is no common dish in this scene with Jesus, so when Jesus says the one who will betray Him is dipping his hand in the dish “with him,” He is referring to Judas’ dipping being out of social order. 4 Neglecting social order reveals that Judas is rebellious: He is showing disrespect to someone in authority and ultimately disregarding ritual rites. Based on the sociological context, Matthew uses this phrase to show that Judas is not only a betrayer of Jesus, but also of his own religious rules.
Step Three: Examine the Biblical Context
Why were there two times of dipping at the Passover meal? Examining the biblical context helps us understand the timing and significance of the dipping. Cross-references within the Passover account in Matthew 26 point us back to Exodus 12. Here we find that the first dipping at the Passover meal symbolizes the blood spilled to establish God’s covenant with Moses. The Israelites were commanded to dip hyssop in blood and smear their doorways with it (Exod 12:21–27). The blood is a sign for the Angel of the LORD to “pass over” them during the 10th plague upon Egypt. The second dipping symbolizes the blood referred to in Exodus 12:48–51, when the covenant with Abraham—of circumcision (originally from Genesis 17)—was reestablished among the Hebrews under Moses’ leadership.
The Passover festival reminded the Jews of the blood that had been and must continue to be spilled for the covenant. However, Jesus’ blood would be the last that needed to be sacrificed because it would fully atone for the people’s sins. Judas denies this, and by doing so, he denies the Spirit of God at work among His people. It’s in this context that Matthew places Judas’ betrayal: Judas is opposing both the covenants of the old Moses and the new Moses: Jesus.
When we read a scene in the Bible, we sometimes miss significant points because we don’t fully understand what’s going on. Consulting ancient sources can help us understand Judas’ rebellion in light of the Passover meal. This scene also teaches us more about Jesus’ character: A confrontation with Him reveals the state of our hearts. Here, Jesus uses cultural norms to reveal the state of Judas’ heart and his rebellious response. May our responses tell a different story.
To discover background information about an ancient source, look up the name of the source in a Bible dictionary, such as Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary or Lexham Bible Dictionary. Go to Logos.com/AYBD or download the free Faithlife app to use Lexham Bible Dictionary.
Interested in reading rabbinical sayings that Jesus would have been familiar with? Pick up a translation of The Mishnah at Logos.com/Mishnah
John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.
1. The Mishnah Pesahim 10.4., Column 6.1–8.↩
2. See The Babylon Berakhot 47a; The Babylonian Talmud Gittin 59b; The Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 4.4.↩
3. See Josephus, War 2.130–32. Also see Josephus, Ta’an 20b; 1QS 2.19–23. This tradition may have stemmed from Sirach 31:14–18. ↩
4. F.C. Fensham, “Judas’ Hand in the Bowl and Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 5 (1964–65), 259–61. ↩