In Christianity, Spy Wednesday (also called Holy Wednesday, and in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Holy and Great Wednesday) is the Wednesday of Holy Week, the week before Easter. It is followed by Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Paschal Triduum. This day is known as Spy Wednesday as a reference to the betrayal of Jesus Christ by Judas Iscariot, indicating that it is the day that Judas Iscariot first conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty silver coins. This event is described in the three Synoptic Gospels: Matthew 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11, Luke 22:3-6. The Sanhedrin was gathered together and it decided to kill Jesus, even before Pesach if possible. In the meantime, Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper. Here he was anointed on his head by a woman with very expensive ointment of spikenard. In John’s Gospel, this woman is identified as Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Some of the disciples, particularly Judas, were indignant about this. Judas went to the Sanhedrin and offered them his support in exchange for money. From this moment on, Judas was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. On Spy Wednesday, and sometimes during other days of Holy Week, a Tenebrae service (“tenebrae” meaning “shadows”) is held. During the Tenebrae service, there is a gradual extinguishing of candles while a series of readings and Psalms is chanted or recited.
Judas’ ‘surname’, Iscariot, derives from the place-name, ‘Kerioth’, which was in the far south of Judea, beyond Mount Hebron, looking east to the Salt Sea, Or ‘Dead’ Sea, across the wilderness of Judah. Like Jesus himself, through Joseph, Judas was also descended from the tribe of Judah, through his father Simon, and was the only one of the twelve not from Galilee. His speech and manners would therefore have differed substantially from the other disciples, who would have regarded him as more of an outsider than Jesus himself, who spoke with the same accent as them and, as far as they were concerned, was a Galilean, a member of the northern tribes of Israel. The Aramaic dialects would have been as different as the sixth century differences between Mercian and Northumbrian ‘English’, though they would have shared the ancient Hebrew of the scriptures, plus a smattering of Greek.
Mark’s gospel (14: 1-2, 10-11) gives us the earliest account of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, paraphrased here in Alan T Dale’s Portrait of Jesus:
It happened two days before the Great Feast.
The Jewish Leaders were trying to find some way of getting hold of Jesus and killing him. They didn’t dare do this openly, or when the Great Feast was on, for they were afraid of a riot.
They were delighted when they heard that one of ‘the Twelve’, Judas Iscariot, had come and offered to put Jesus into their hands. They promised to pay him, and Judas began to look for the chance of doing it.
Matthew adds the detail of the thirty pieces of silver and Luke cites the primary cause of Judas’ betrayal as his mental condition; in first-century terms, demonic possession. He also adds the involvement of the officers Temple Guard in the plot to arrest Jesus. These are interesting additions. Luke, a doctor, is concerned to stress Judas’ psychological condition, suggesting that the financial reward was accepted, but not sought, by Judas. The disciples’ anger at Mary of Bethany for ‘wasting’ the expensive ointment, attributed in John’s gospel to Judas as ‘Treasurer’ to ‘the Twelve’, suggesting Judas’ love of ‘filthy lucre’ as his primary motivation, is not even mentioned by Luke, whereas both Mark and Matthew, like John, place it ‘centre stage’ in their accounts of Judas’ act of betrayal. John calls Judas ‘a thief’, regularly helping himself to the disciples’ funds. Although John agrees that Judas’ plan to betray Jesus was pure evil, he does not attribute it to sudden mental illness on Judas’ part. John’s account places that event of demonic possession very specifically as taking place during the Passover meal. However, he suggests that Judas had already formed his plan before the Wednesday of Passover week, perhaps jealous of Andrew and Philip, who had provided access to Jesus to Greek Jews through their Bethsaida connections, Jews whom many ‘pure’ Judeans, like Judas, would have regarded as gentiles, though Jesus welcomed them as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. There is also a clue to Judas’ motives in John’s report of the fact that, although many of the Jewish authorities believed in Jesus, they feared the power of the Pharisee Party in the Sanhedrin to ban them from the Temple and its courts, so they would not speak openly of their belief, preferring the approval of men to that of God (Jn 12 vv 20-26, 42-43).
Luke’s mention of the Temple Guard shows his emphasis on Judas’ concern, shared with the Sanhedrin, to keep this as an internal ‘Temple’ matter, not something to involve the Roman authorities in, at least at this stage. However, when the arrest takes place two nights later, John’s report claims that Roman soldiers were present, accompanying Judas, the Sanhedrin representatives and the Pharisees. This account makes it difficult to believe that Judas had any motive of forcing Jesus into an armed rebellion against Roman rule, as some commentators have suggested. His followers were armed with swords at Jesus’ own bidding, but following Peter’s attack on Malchus, the High Priest’s servant, Jesus himself ordered them not to resist his arrest.
The whole situation seems to have become hopelessly confused. Judas may have been an extreme example of the confusion felt by all Jesus’ disciples. The ‘traitor’ may have thought that Jesus, whatever he said in public, was the national leader sent by God to deliver his people and that he, Judas, only had to force his hand to make him act as he ought to free the Jewish people and overthrow the Romans, and that God would give him the miraculous power to do this. So, he betrayed him into the hands of both the Sanhedrin and the secular Roman government. But nothing happened. Jesus accepted his arrest. When Judas realised what he had done, he went out into the shadows and committed suicide, so Matthew tells us (Mt 27 vv 3-10). The point is that, in his lifetime, there was nothing about the appearance of Jesus to demonstrate his authority, no outward sign guaranteeing who he was. He had been passionately concerned with one thing only – what God was doing, summed up in the phrase ‘God’s Way’ or ‘the Kingdom of God’.
It was the truth about God, men and women, and the world we live in, that Jesus tried to make clear in word and deed. He stood for something very different from the popular political assumptions and religious convictions of the other rabbis of his age, the sorts of things they preached about in the synagogues. He challenged some of the central religious beliefs of his own people, facing them publicly and finally in the central shrine of the national religion, the Temple in Jerusalem, Zion itself. The demands he was making on both leaders and led were far more radical and revolutionary than their aggressive nationalism. So, in their eyes, he was unpatriotic, unheroic and irreligious. He could have avoided a head-on collision with them, but chose not to. When the confrontation came, the Sanhedrin knew exactly what they thought the issue would be, ‘blasphemy’. There was no alternative for them but to get rid of him, because he represented a threat to all they stood for. He also stood for something very different from the convictions all his closest friends seem to have held, not just the muddled political motives of the traitor, Judas. It was only after his death that they began to realise and understand his demands on them.
Spy Wednesday Prayer: “God our Father, we are exceedingly frail and indisposed to every virtuous and gallant undertaking. Strengthen our weakness, we beseech You, that we may do valiantly in this spiritual war; help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts; for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.” (Prayer of Thomas a Kempis)
- Easter Fable Part 1: Major holes in the Judas ‘betrayal’ story (new.exchristian.net)
- Judas Iscariot’s Betrayal – Holy Wednesday Lenormand Reading (seerpathways.com)
- Holy Wednesday (fonsofafool.wordpress.com)
- Holy Week; Spy Wednesday. Thinking like Judas. (mum6kids.wordpress.com)
- You’re Probably More Like Judas Than You Think (christianitytoday.com)
- Wednesday of Holy Week (marypenich.wordpress.com)
- Betrayed (sistersofchrist.wordpress.com)
- The Apostle Judas Iscariot likely used to be saved (bjorkbloggen.wordpress.com)
- From The Friars eLetter: Spy Wednesday (deaconjohnspace.wordpress.com)
- Acknowledging Our Sinfullness (truewarriorsofgod.wordpress.com)