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While reading the Jack Higgins novel “The Eagle Has Landed” (1975) I came across the phrase “Judas gate”. Research on-line indicates he is rather fond of the word, going to the point of naming another book by it. His fascination with the word is discussed in a letter.

"Judas gates constantly surface in my book and people have often commented. There is a painting, I think Victorian, which shows a very large double gate. Inset in this gate, is a small door or gate which you can open and step through without the inconvenience of opening the larger double gates. In the painting, Judas is seen stepping through on his way to betray Christ. So, in English factories, you find such a small door set in most big factory gates and they were traditionally known in Yorkshire, a very industrial area where I grew up, as JUDAS GATES..."

I have not been able to identify this painting on-line, and a search of Bible texts mentioning Judas does not render any references to gates as supposedly depicted in the painting.

However, I did find the phrase in earlier books in a Google-books search going back to 1780, while ngram shows a spike in the usage of the phrase around 1981.

The closest I can find on Etymonline only has Judas goat.

If they were called Judas gates before the painting, and there is no mention of Judas going through a gate in the Bible, how did this type of entrance come to be called a Judas gate? Is there an oral tradition in England to explain the name?

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    Just a hint: "Bible verses about Judas Goat" - bibletools.org/index.cfm/fuseaction/Topical.show/RTD/cgg/ID/…. - "Gate" appears to be also another term for "goat". books.google.it/…
    – user66974
    Jul 8, 2016 at 22:01
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    @Gandalf: Your 1780 link is some kind of ocr error (or ancient "typo"). I'm not sure why the word looks like gate, but I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be begat or something similar (per Genesis 38, Judas had 2 children by Tamar, his daughter-in-law). Jul 8, 2016 at 22:25
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    @HotLicks Thanks. I did too, but longer than that and still nothing. I'm beginning to think it is an apocryphal story by an unreliable narrator. Authors of fiction are notorious for confusing memories with imagination. Jul 8, 2016 at 22:33
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    Excluding the ocr error, there are just 3 written instances before the 1975 publication of Higgins' book. It wasn't exactly a household term, obviously. And at least one (if not two) of those clearly refer to a "prison guard's spy-hole" in a door, not a "door-within-a-door", so it didn't even have a consistent meaning. Jul 8, 2016 at 22:44
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    After discovering a couple of dozen instances of judas spy-hole (the first one one apparently saying that Judas is French slang for "spy hole in door"), I think the weight of evidence is shifting strongly in that direction! :) I know spy=traitor=Judas isn't quite the same thing as spy=observe secretly, but they're pretty closely connected. Jul 8, 2016 at 23:42

5 Answers 5

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The OED has one meaning of Judas being

A small aperture or lattice in a door, orig. the door of a prison cell, through which a person can look without being noticed from the other side; a spyhole, a peephole.

with the earliest quotation being from 1837: "Following the slow march of that whitish square that the Judas at my door cuts out upon the dark wall opposite to me."

Presumably the idea of an opening through which spies can look in without alerting the prisoner was extended to door through which spies can slip out without alerting those outside.

For what it is worth, I have been using the term for many years without checking the etymology: I vaguely assumed that it was a means for someone inside to betray the bulding by admitting a besieging army (or, more probably, someone out after curfew) without the noise of opening the full gate.

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  • Ah. You were writing this while I was checking out OP's supposedly 1780 citation. Which it ain't, so I'm quite happy to go with you and OED on 1837 (and obviously Higgins' point about the Victorian painting remains relevant). Jul 8, 2016 at 22:29
  • This coupled with FumbleFingers comments above will answer the question, I think. ( "there are just 3 written instances before the 1975 publication of Higgins' book.") Jul 12, 2016 at 18:45
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Bit of a stretch, but the other name for this type of door/gate is wicket could there be mispronunciation (especially in Yorkshire)from wicket to wicked and Judas being the personification of wicked...???

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I suggest the Judas door as a smaller opening in a larger door which can be used without exciting undue attention (like in the story Judas going out unobserved to betray Jesus).

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    Isn't this material covered in the question itself?
    – Robusto
    Aug 19, 2022 at 20:27
  • That's the information given in the question, do you have any supporting evidence to prove the origin? Aug 19, 2022 at 20:28
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The painting that Jack Higgins refers to is "The departure of Judas" (c.1884-96) by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. It appeared in a book called "The Life of Christ".

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The explanation I heard is that a goat would be used to lead sheep into the slaughter house and the goat would sidestep through the small door at the last moment, thus a judas betraying the flock.

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  • Your answer could be improved with additional supporting information. Please edit to add further details, such as citations or documentation, so that others can confirm that your answer is correct. You can find more information on how to write good answers in the help center.
    – Community Bot
    Jan 25, 2023 at 1:53
  • Is this about the goat/gate confusion in comments above? Without any citations, it remains further speculation. Please cite your research and see the helpful help center.
    – livresque
    Jan 25, 2023 at 2:05

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