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Then one of the Twelve — the one called Judas Iscariot — went to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?" So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver.
—Matthew 26:14-15 (New International Version)
So you're willing to betray your closest friend to his enemies, but you won't do it for free. What's the standard going rate for a betrayal?
Thirty Pieces of Silver, of course.
This is the trope of blood money, of betrayal for cash, where greed (or need) outweighs love, loyalty and friendship. It is named for the archetypal such payment, made to Judas Iscariot by the Temple priests for betraying Jesus Christ to the Jewish and Roman authorities. In general, the price can be anything, not just money -- goods, services, favors, influence -- but the cost is always turning in some way on someone whom you loved and/or respected and leaving them behind. It doesn't have to be a literal betrayal to enemies, either: betrayals of trust are very common, with secrets revealed or confidences shared.
But the exact nature of the betrayal isn't important -- just that it was done for cash on the barrelhead, or its equivalent.
These days the Trope Namer term is almost always used metaphorically -- where can you get thirty pieces of silver these days except from perhaps a coin collector? But that metaphor implies that what what was done was inarguably the absolute worst thing you could do to someone who trusted you. It's usually slung at the betrayer by the betrayed or a bystander. More generally, it represents the amount of money at which a person would completely and utterly sell out. However, a literal thirty pieces of silver still show up occasionally, usually substituted for the agreed-upon price out of sadism or irony. (That said, it is not necessary to actually have a reference to Judas' payment for this trope to be in play -- it's the betrayal for benefit, not the stock phrase, that's the important part.)
Sometimes the betrayer regrets his actions after it's too late to do anything about it, in which case they in their remorse return their payment to whomever it was who paid them. Which is something Judas also did -- right before killing himself.
Compare/contrast Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves. There may be echoes of Silver Has Mystic Powers in the choice of silver to pay the Trope Namer, instead of a smaller but equivalent quantity of gold. See also Keep the Reward for a remorseful traitor returning his payment.
- A 1960s-vintage "weird stories"-style comic book published by DC Comics had in one issue a story about an explorer who had discovered a remote cave, on one wall of which were a series of sealed treasure containers. Upon each of the containers was written a task which, when accomplished, would open it. The tasks started out innocent and innocuous, but slowly escalated through dubious to outright immoral -- and the explorer performed each one and reaped growing quantities of riches every time he returned to the cave to open the next chest. The very last container -- which the progression implied contained wealth beyond measure -- was marked, "Betray your best friend." And when he did, the explorer was rewarded with thirty pieces of silver and a snarky message.
- In issue #5 of Marvel Comics' Civil War, upon his arrival at the prison in the Negative Zone Daredevil is found to be carrying a silver dollar under his tongue.
Guard: He said he's been saving it for you.
- In Amends, a Teraverse story by "CaptainBoulanger", Daniel Larusso describes the money he made with the In-Universe versions of the Karate Kid movies and the book which inspired them as "I had taken the thirty pieces of silver, and denied Sensei three times".
- Invoked in 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves when Friar Tuck pushes the corrupt bishop out of the church tower laden with sacks of gold and "thirty pieces of silver to pay the Devil on your way to hell!"
- In Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the trope namer is echoed in the 30 roubles which the Sonia earns for selling herself.
- Invoked in the episode "Finding Judas" of House. Someone sells House out to the cops. He investigates his sworn enemies (i.e., the rest of the cast), but it turns out to be Wilson, his only friend, desperately trying to save him from prison. Wilson even asked the cop for "thirty pieces of silver" to complete the allusion.
- Also invoked in the Babylon 5 episode "The Face of the Enemy", when William Edgars tells Garibaldi that by betraying Sheridan he has brought him closer to the truth. Garibaldi replies, "The last guy got thirty pieces of silver for the same job."
- Farscape: It's revealed in the second-season episode "The Way We Weren't" that when she was still in the Peacekeepers, a younger Aeryn, stuck as a chauffeur for a technician, cold-bloodedly betrayed her lover Velorek in exchange for a reassignment back in space, where she felt she belonged. By her expression when Velorek is arrested, it's clear she regretted that decision.
- "30 Pieces of Silver", a 1964 Ska song by Prince Buster (covered in 2012 by Tim Timebomb). We never find out exactly what happened but it's clear that the singer feels he has been betrayed by someone he thought was his best friend, and whom he'd clothed and supported in a time of need.
Oral Tradition, Folklore, Myths and Legends
- As noted in the main text, the Trope Namer is the payment made by the priests to Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Jesus Christ. For those wondering how much he actually made, there is, of course, dispute among scholars over just which of the silver coins available in Judea at the time he was paid in; depending on the coin, Judas got (in 2021 terms) anywhere from US$91 to $US441 for his efforts.
- Also as noted above, Judas is also the Trope Codifier for post-betrayal remorse. In one gospel, he threw the money back at the priests, then went and hanged himself. In another he bought a barren field with the money and then threw himself into it, where he weirdly burst open and died.
- Deconstructed in Jesus Christ Superstar in the song "Damned for All Time". Judas here makes it clear to Caiphas and Annas that he doesn't want to betray Jesus, but is concerned that his followers are moving away from the talks of charity and self-improvement in favor of taking on the Romans. Jesus is also not listening to reason, perhaps buying into his own ego. Caiphas agrees, and offers money in exchange for Jesus's location. Judas refuses, saying that he is not taking blood money. Caiphas and Annas convince him that it is not blood money, and he can use it to help the poor.
- A classic example combined with an allusion to the Trope Namer can be found in Tales of Monkey Island when Guybrush befriends Morgan, who then hands him over to the Marquis De Singe on Flotsam Island for 30,000 pieces of silver.
- In the aftermath of the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, then-Governor General John Kerr was widely blamed for the crisis. Residents of the street in Balmain where Kerr had been born sent him thirty pieces of silver to express their opinion of him and his actions.
- In 2021, evangelist Franklin Graham suggested that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had promised "thirty pieces of silver" to the ten Republican congressmen who supported the second impeachment of Donald Trump.
- According to the October 28, 1966 issue of Fortune magazine, Roger Enrico, at the time an executive for Pepsi-Cola's Venezuelan bottling franchise, said of fellow Pepsi executive Oswald Cisneros who had jumped ship for Coca-Cola:
This guy was a personal friend ... Ozzie took his 30 pieces of silver and ran.
- An anonymous postcard sent to Daniel Ellsberg (now in the collection of the University of Massachusetts Amherst) compared him to Judas for leaking the Pentagon Papers:
Thirty pieces of silver was a pretty cheap price for selling out your country