Judas Kiss Definition Essay

The What and Why Not...

The distant origin of the modern figurative sense of 'kiss of death' is well-known. For the lexical sense of the phrase shown variously by the two references given in the question,

  1. a fatal or destructive relationship or action,

(Dictionary.com Unabridged, Random House, Inc.)

  1. thing that signifies impending failure,

(Online Etymology Dictionary, Douglas Harper)

and more comprehensively defined by OED Online,

a seemingly kind or well-intentioned action, look, association, etc., which brings disastrous consequences

that distant origin is

[from] the association with the kiss of betrayal given to Jesus by Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew xxvi. 48–50).

Inherited from that origin, and common in modern uses, are connotations of betrayal and disloyalty.

Abundant evidence from the US popular press contradicts the notion that the proximate origin of the modern figurative sense was "in Mafia movies of the forties", and that it dates to 1944-1950. Instead, appearances in the popular press suggest the proximate origin of the modern sense was in political and other contexts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

...of Your Second Question

The use in Billboard in 1944 (the "once dial-twisting words, 'This is an electrical transcription,' do not, as they did a short time ago, mean the kiss of death for a program") has no connection with gangsters or gangster movies, being instead a quite diluted use of the figurative phrase with reference to "an action" (the twist of the radio dial to change stations) sponsored by a circumstance (the program being prerecorded rather than live) that "signifies impending failure" (the cancelation of a radio program due to loss of listeners).

In addition, the use in Billboard has, other than the loose definitional similarities drawn out in my preceding paragraph, few of the characteristics of the modern figurative sense. The twisting of the dial and the circumstance of the radio program having been prerecorded are neutral at most; they are not "seemingly kind or well-intentioned", and they do not on their face connote anything more than a trivial disloyalty (as contrived by its promoters and advertisers, that is, disloyalty to a radio program) or betrayal (only of that contrived loyalty). That action and circumstance do, however, sometimes bring about the failure of the radio program.

...and of Your First Question: Evidence

While the earliest and silent gangster films were made in the early 20th century (around 1905, depending on definitions; see History of Gangster Crime Films), no readily available evidence suggests the phrase 'the kiss of death' was used in, or in association with, those films or later gangster films through the 1930s. To entirely rule out such a use, and association with, gangster films, an exhaustive viewing would have to be undertaken; I do not propose to undertake it, not least because the evidence that is readily available, as well as the chronology of that evidence, suggests other proximate origins are much more likely.

Beyond instances that appear to me to be tangential to the modern figurative sense at issue here, instances wherein a literal kiss brings death consequent upon the communication of disease or other direct causes (poisoning, etc.), the first instance intimating the modern figurative use appears in a political context:

The senatorial kiss (of Mahone and Riddleberger) he called the kiss of death — of political death.

From a speech given at the Democratic State Convention in Virginia, as paraphrased in the Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 31 Jul 1885.

Even in context, the meaning of this at first eluded me, in part because of interference from the meaning such a use would be likely to have now, wherein a "senatorial kiss" would be a figurative reference to public endorsement of one candidate by another. (Later instances which will be presented here show that the interfering sense does arise prior to the putative 1940s gangster movie origin of the phrase.) Digging a little deeper, however, I discovered that the reference was to an literal kiss, one that was thought by the speaker quoted above (from a speech given at the Democratic State Convention in Virginia) to presage political 'death':

A New Species of Kiss. — Was the spectacle on the platform of the Republican State Convention in Virginia, where Mahone and Riddleberger not only "hugged," but ecstatically "kissed" one another, one likely to attract young men to the Republican party?

Staunton Spectator, 29 Jul 1885.

So the use refers to a literal kiss with no suggestion of betrayal or disloyalty, but presented as likely to signify the figurative political 'death' of Republican political control of Virginia in 1885. This is close, but not quite the modern figurative sense of 'kiss of death'.

Next, in 1898, comes an instance in an industrial context. Again, the sense was at first unclear to me, but I later uncovered further context that explained the use:

The Kiss of Death. A Story of the Modern Slavery by People with Memories.

...About the "Kiss of Death," the operatives daily courting of disease; ....

The World, New York, 28 Jan 1898.

That teaser from the Friday edition for content in the Sunday edition is clarified adequately by another teaser in the Saturday edition:

The Kiss of Death — a word-artist's phrase. The "shuttle bussers" who thread bobbins with their lips kiss death 1,000 times a day; the lint gets 'em.

The World, New York, 29 Jan 1898.

The 'kiss' here is semi-figurative, being descriptive of a procedure used in the course of mill employment; as in the 1944 Billboard use, this 'kiss' seems neutral at most, no betrayal or disloyalty being intended, although the 'kiss' is "a seemingly...well-intentioned action...which brings disastrous consequences", and so roughly fits the OED definition of the modern figurative use.

As an aside, references to the 'kiss of death' in later publications, around 1911, reveal that the cause of the industrial workers' deaths was not "the lint" as contended in the Saturday edition of The World. The cause of the deaths was "consumption", that is, tuberculosis, and the 'kiss of death' mentioned was outlawed, finally.

While betrayal, disloyalty, or profound hypocrisy (as in the mafioso's kiss) lie behind the modern figurative use of 'kiss of death', none of those are a necessary part of the sense as defined by Dictionary.com or the Online Etymology Dictionary. They are hinted at by the "seemingly" in the definition from OED Online. If those perfidies are indeed part of the essential use of the modern figurative phrase, none of the instances from 1885 and 1898 quite conform. In that case, evidence for the origin of the modern sense of the phrase did not appear until this 1928 use in a political context:

The vote he received in the primaries tells the story. He got the kiss of death — a kiss of a Judas, who was urging his nomination on the front page and secretly in alliance to nominate another candidate. Charles H. Williams obtained the pledge of whole-hearted Clark support through his friends and managers, and within a few days of election, saw the Clark paper in Missoula come out for Joseph M. Dixon.

The Helena Daily Independent, Montana, 24 Jul 1928.

The 1928 use of the phrase in a political context with the modern figurative sense is followed by another in 1930:

Lewis said nothing about the Mayoy's [sic, = Mayor's] change of front. But one of his lieutenants, upon being promised anonymous expression, said that "Thompson support is worse than the kiss of death to the candidate so unfortunate as to receive it."

The Cincinnati Enquirer, Ohio, 1 Nov 1930.

This 1930 use is not quite so clear-cut as the 1928 political use. The context suggests the use refers to political backstabbing by way of hypocritical, that is, disloyal, endorsement and support. Mayor Thompson of Chicago had previously helped a Mrs. McCormick obtain a Republican senate nomination before switching his support to Mrs. McCormick's Democratic opponent, Lewis. Mrs. McCormick responded by announcing that she was "grateful to be publickly relieved of the stigma atached to support from the Mayor." One of Lewis's lieutenants then made the anonymous statement shown.

The evidence shown so far indicates the origin of the modern sense of the figurative phrase was political and industrial, from the late 1800s or early 1900s, depending on how finicky you are about the niceties of sense. If you are willing to accept the loose definitions proposed by Dictionary.com and Online Etymology Dictionary, evidence in the popular US press dates the origin to the late 1800s; if, on the other hand, you insist on the nuances of perfidy inherited from 'Judas Kiss', as in one interpretation of the definition from OED Online, the origin may date to the late 1920s.

If a false equivalence between popularization and origin is drawn, the origin of the modern sense of 'kiss of death' might be said to date from the 1930s. In 1931, widely reprinted stories proliferated about an unfortunate woman, Anna Collins (aka Anne Burke, Margaret Sullivan), with the moniker "The Kiss of Death". According to the reports, the title was given to her as a result of seven of her gangster boyfriends meeting violent deaths.

Stories about, and mentions of, Anna (aka Mary, Margaret, Martha) Collins continue through at least 1936. In 1933, Anna Collins was joined by another 'death kiss' woman associated with the multiple deaths of gangsters, Viola Morin. In 1939, and into the 1940s, the title was passed on to a woman reputed to be a for-profit poisoner of husbands and boyfriends.

Interspersed among those stories and mentions of 'kiss of death' in the context of criminality are uses in various other contexts, with political contexts prominent among them. Other contexts include cinema (The Death Kiss, 1933, a suspense drama, not a gangster movie; 1935, a horror movie; 1936, a suspense-adventure drama), music (1933, the title of song in a radio program), political (1935, a 'kiss-of-death' file of form letters to be sent to out-of-favor politicians, purportedly mantained by Roosevelt; 1935, a letter of dismissal sent to a female member of the Federal Board of Parole; 1936, a reference to the GOP nomination; 1938, a reference to the backing of a non-partisan league; 1939, a reference to letters attempting to extort political contributions from a prison warden; 1939, a reference to Roosevelt's supposed opposition to the neutrality act; 1939, a reference to international trade pacts).

Uses of the phrase in political and other contexts continue and are (relatively) common throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

Judas brought soldiers to the Garden of Gethsemane and gave Jesus the infamous kiss of greeting which identified him to his enemies.

Judas agrees to betray Jesus

A problem solved.  Once the Jewish authorities decided to get rid of Jesus, they had to find a way to do it without inciting a riot or an uprising. They knew that Jesus had supporters among the ordinary people, many of whom might take up arms on his behalf. They had to arrest Jesus quickly, without a fuss. 

But there was a problem. Since there would have been something like 100,000 people in and around Jerusalem at Passover that year, the chances of locating and arresting an individual, especially one who did not want to be found, were slight.

Suddenly a solution to their problem appeared. One of Jesus' disciples, Judas, approached the authorities and showed them how they might arrest Jesus. 

  • Judas knew what Jesus' movements were likely to be. 

  • He was well placed to find an occasion when Jesus would be most vulnerable. 

  • He also showed them how Jesus could be arrested during the festival without the event becoming too public, too disruptive. 

'Quick and silent' was what was needed in this combustible situation. Once Jesus was arrested, even his popularity with the people would not protect him. He could be taken into custody and dealt with before the general populace was even aware of what was happening.

Why did Judas do it? Judas was, and still is a riddle. He walked with Jesus and knew him well. Not only that, he had been chosen as one of the special group of insiders who were Jesus' intimates. The gospels keep identifying him as 'one of the twelve', a phrase which highlights the tragedy of his betrayal of Jesus. But they also say he turned to the Tempter, a stark warning for all who think they can resist temptation, and perhaps the reason for St Paul's caution: "Let anyone who thinks that he stands, take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Judas did not betray Jesus for the money. The equivalent modern value of thirty pieces of silver is not known, but it was a comparatively modest sum. When Judas fac

ed the Temple authorities he did not quibble at the amount, or bargain for more. 

The evangelist John suggests it was Judas' avarice and dishonesty which were the deciding factors, but money cannot have been his primary motive, given the amount. 

Perhaps he did not agree with the direction of Jesus' ministry. Perhaps he had been won over to the politics of the Zealots, ancient-day terrorists who aimed to seize power and violently end Roman domination of Israel. Judas realized he was never going to get this through Jesus. 

On the other hand, maybe Judas was afraid for his own safety. Did he think Jesus was becoming too radical, too dangerous? The attack on the money-changers had occurred only a few days before. Judas may have decided to get out while the going was good - and prove his loyalty to the Jewish leaders by handing over Jesus. 

At the same time he fervently believed in Jesus, as his later despair showed.

Note: The gospels saw that 'Satan entered into Judas'. This should not be confused with demonic possession. We know from the Qumran documents that many Jewish people at that time believed that there were two universal forces, good and evil. A person turned to one or the other in his actions, and in this case Judas aligned himself with evil.

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Where it happened: the city of ancient Jerusalem lay in the lower left and centre of this 19th century photograph; the Kidron valley is lower right ; the Mount of Olives is extreme lower right

Jesus and Judas at the Last Supper

What happened? On the day in question,Jesus stayed in Jerusalem for the evening meal instead of eating in Bethany, where he had probably been staying since he arrived in the Jerusalem area. This ties in with the Last Supper being the Passover meal, which had to be eaten within the city walls. 

In the middle of observing this important Jewish festival, Jesus stunned his disciples by saying that he was about to be betrayed. None of them seemed to have argued with him, which gives us some idea of the mood in that room. One by one they asked if it was they who would betray him. Not for a moment did they think he might be mistaken. Jesus then told Judas that he was the betrayer.

How does Jesus know that his betrayer was Judas?  There is nothing 'magic' about it. Jesus had almost certainly been warned by various friendly sources in Jerusalem that the ruling priests had struck a bargain with one of his disciples. We know he had followers in positions of influence, and any one of these might have alerted Jesus to the priests' plans. And Jesus was of course an acute judge of people, and of what they might or might not do.

What happened then? Jesus handed Judas a piece of bread, the gesture of a friend and attentive host. The dish they dipped this morsel into was probably a bowl of sauce/gravy. To dip bread into this bowl and then give it to someone was a mark of honour. In this case it was a special, last appeal to Judas. Then Jesus told Judas to do what he must - but the meaning was ambiguous and the decision ultimately belonged to Judas.

People in the ancient world despised anyone who received hospitality or friendship (as Judas did) and then betrayed their host. Psalm 41:9 says "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me." But Judas' crime was even worse: he not only shared a meal with Jesus that evening, but took food from the very bowl used by Jesus.

Now Jesus' words had the effect of forcing Judas to act, one way of another. Jesus was saying stay with me, or go to the priests and betray me. Make up your mind. 'What you are going to do, do quickly'.

The gospel of John simply states that Judas immediately went out; and it was night. Again there's a double meaning: it was night-time, but also night for the soul of Judas.

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The Last Supper, by Nikolas Ge; Jesus is filled with grief as Judas leaves the upper room

The Judas kiss 

After Judas left the upper room where they had been eating, Jesus washed the feet of his friends in an act of godly service. Then they went out to a garden across the Kidron Valley, a garden they must have known well. Jesus prayed there, but the peace of the garden was shattered by the arrival of a contingent of guards and officials. They had come to arrest Jesus. With them was Judas.

Because there were many pilgrims around, it was necessary to have a sign (the kiss) to identify Jesus. If there had been a struggle the wrong man might have been arrested, especially in the dark. A kiss was normal enough; it was the way a pupil greeted a Rabbi, and Jesus had been a teacher to Judas. Mark, writing in Greek, uses an emphatic form of the verb katephilesen. Judas kissed Jesus with more than usual fervour and affection.

The Kiss of Judas (El Beso de Judas), Francisco Salzillo, 1754

The gospel texts describing his scene keep identifying Judas as 'one of the twelve', a reproach. The phrase drives home the enormity of Judas' treachery. 

Jesus submitted quietly to the soldiers, but spoke some final words to Judas: Friend, why are you here? 

The words can be read as a loving rebuke, but they can also be translated as Do what you came to do.

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The Betrayal of Jesus by Judas, Caravaggio


The suicide of Judas

There was no excuse for what Judas had done, and he knew it. His breach of trust and failure of loyalty made him a pariah, even to himself. 

We can guess something of his despair when we learn that he took back the money to the priests, and tried to return it. It was a hopeless, despairing gesture. He knew he could not stop the train of events, and yet he deeply regretted his own actions. Tragically, he made his crime worse by yielding to despair. He went away and hanged himself.

Conscience, by Nikolas Ge; Judas stands alone, watching as the soldiers lead Jesus away

Meanwhile, Jesus faced the hastily assembled courts. His fate was already sealed.

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At a last meal with his closest disciples, Jesus knew that one of them, Judas, was about to betray him. He tried to draw Judas back from the brink by offering friendship and forgiveness, but it was too late. Judas sold Jesus to his enemies, identifying him with a kiss. Jesus was arrested and taken away for trial.

For more, see The Last Supper

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