God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Who is Judas Iscariot and why is he called “Iscariot”?

From the about page:

Ooh, let me be number eleven! I’d like to formally ask about the possible meanings of Iscariot. Although I highly doubt it’s actually related to the Latin sicarius (assassin), I’ve heard that as an unlikely though interesting theory.

What explanation(s) of that surname/eponym do you find plausible?

As usual, I’ll start with a little background:

First, etymology is notoriously tricky, plagued by “folk etymology” that ignores the dissimilarities between two words and focuses only on what they have in common in order to validate a preconceived idea. For example, about a decade ago David Howard was fired for using the word “niggardly” — presumably because someone (wrongly) though it had something to do with an ethnic slur; the word actually comes from a completely different source. But Washington D.C. mayor Williams ignored the letter “d” in analyzing the word.

Secondly, the particular combination of Hebrew and Greek creates lots of potential ambiguity, for two reasons. The vowels in Hebrew are much less important than they are in Greek, and to a lesser degree the opposite is true of the consonants. And Greek spellings of Hebrew words conflate lots of letters, particularly the sibilants: so samech, sin, shin, and tzadi all end up as the same Greek sigma. Combined, these differences between Greek and Hebrew mean that it’s easy to find apparent connections between unrelated words.

Thirdly, we don’t know how ancient Hebrew was pronounced. A clear example is the Hebrew name rivka, which the LXX records as rebekka. The Hebrew as we now know it is a bisyllabic word, while the Greek points to a trisyllabic word, perhaps with a double letter.

With all of these caveats in mind, we can consider the Greek iskariot (“Iscariot” in English). I don’t think that iskariot is related to sicarius. The etymology I find most convincing is that the word comes from the Hebrew ish k’riot, a “man of k’riot.” The /sh/ in Hebrew becomes /s/ in Greek, as it usually does. The Greek /a/ between the /k/ and the /r/, lacking in the current vocalization of the Hebrew, could have been there originally, or it could have been a Greek addition. Iskariot is as close to ish k’riot as rebekka is to rivka.

K’riot (also spelled “kerioth”) is a city mentioned in Jeremiah 48:24, Jeremiah 48:41, Amos 2;2, and perhaps Joshua 15:25. The word is also the plural of kirya, “city.” So ish k’riot could mean “someone from K’riot” or “someone from the cities.” A similar example in Modern English is “twin cities,” which in most contexts means “Minneapolis and Saint Paul,” but could mean any two large cities near each other; another example is “tri-state area,” which for me means where I live (outside New York City), but I imagine there are others.

Furthermore, it’s common to use geographical terms not (only) to indicate place of origin but also for qualities stereotypically associated with that place. For example, k’na’anim (“Canaanites”) in Job 40:30 is almost universally translated as “merchants.” So ish k’riot could have meant “a guy from K’riot” or something roughly akin to “city boy,” with some connotation of what it meant to be from a city.

So even if iskariot comes from ish k’riot — and that’s my best guess — we still don’t know for sure why Judas was called that or what it signified.

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November 29, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation theory | , , , ,

6 Comments »

  1. Given the reference to Judas’ father, Simon Iscariot in John 6:71, it’s very unlikely sicarius would be related. Assassination is not a craft passed on from father to son.

    Dying clothing would be. Citizenship in a given area would be, also. These three interpretations came from Philip Comfort’s New Testament Text and Translation Commentary.

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge!

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 30, 2009 | Reply

    • The NRSV has a note here:

      Other ancient authorities read Judas Iscariot son of Simon; others, Judas son of Simon from Karyot (Kerioth)

      I don’t know where their information comes from — I know almost nothing about the ms. evidence of the NT — but it’s probably reliable.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 30, 2009 | Reply

  2. The major difference is that a very few manuscripts have a variant form of Iskariotes, such as Iskarioth or Skarioth (both of which end in theta).

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 30, 2009 | Reply

  3. I do see your logic and reasoning for how Iscariot more than likely did not derive from sicarius. But you merely pointed out that sicarius means assassin. Which it does but it was also the name of a Jewish sect that was more radical than the zealots. In this sense if Simon (Judas’ father) was a part of the Sicarii sect, why not his son (Judas). Now I’m not saying this is true cause I really don’t know, but we most look at “ALL” the uses of the word Sicarii. If there wasn’t a sect by this name then yeah it’s not possible, but there was a group called the Sicarii.
    Other note, assassination around that time was becoming a profession many ways. So if Simon’s profession was assassination I don’t see why not for it to be passed to his son Judas. The son’s were taught what their father did and if that’s what he was good at then why not teach your kid what you know, train them for the profession.
    I don’t that’s just a thought. Like I said before though I really don’t know, just recently I started studying the Sicarii Sect, so there’s still alot to learn.

    Comment by Lynetta | August 27, 2011 | Reply

  4. The sicarii and the zealots were at best very small or more likely non existent at the time of Jesus. there is no evidence for them at that time, they arise ten or twenty years after Jesus.

    Perhaps a better translation of Simon’s name is Simon the Zealous (fits in with the likes of James the Just and so on). Simon would have to have a surname because there were so many of them.

    Same with Judas but even more so, too many Judases, so each has to have another name. However Man of Kerioth seems most unlikely, why would this one apostle be from so far from all the others without explanation.

    There also seems to no evidence even of the existence of Kerioth at the time of Jesus.

    When Jesus is from Nazareth it does not need to be said Jesus Man of Nazareth, that would grind as wrong, he is just Jesus of Nazareth.
    Judas Man of Kerioth son of Simon Man of Kerioth is even more unlikely.

    So I reject Sicarii and Kerioth, doesn’t mean I do know the right derivation though…

    Comment by Jonathan | April 19, 2012 | Reply

  5. I believe it’s a descriptive title as well. Most likely a compound of איש (eesh) meaning “a man” and כרת (kaw-rath’) being “cut off”. The latter comes from H3772, which adds specifically to covenant. As making an alliance or a bargain by cutting flesh and passing between the pieces. Much like ברית.

    In my opinion, Judas is an unsung hero, who, did the thing that was required of him knowing he would be thought of as the most infamous greedy Jewish traitor to go down in history books for all time!!! A faithful servant, indeed!!!

    Comment by David "BaalZeBach" | November 23, 2016 | Reply


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