The Fate of Judas Iscariot

I am republishing Jimmy Akin’s post: The Fate of Judas Iscariot.

How should we understand the differences in how Matthew and Luke (in Acts) record the fate of Judas?

Taken from my book A Daily Defense:

Day 170: How Judas Iscariot Died

Challenge: Matthew and Luke contradict each other. Matthew says Judas hung himself (Matt. 27:5), but Luke says that “falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (Acts 1:18).

Defense: The accounts preserve different aspects of the event but do not contradict each other.

Both agree Judas died shortly after the Crucifixion. Matthew says Judas hanged himself after returning the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests, while Luke has Peter speaking of the event during the period between the Ascension and Pentecost (between forty and fifty days after the Crucifixion). The fact they agree on the timing, but describe the death differently, shows independent traditions in circulation that affirmed Judas’ death very shortly after the Crucifixion. That indicates Judas did die at this early date.

Judas probably began accompanying Jesus while in his twenties (Jesus himself began his ministry when about thirty; Luke 3:23). This suggests Judas died a sudden and remarkable death (i.e., not an ordinary death due to old age). Matthew’s report of his suicidal hanging accounts for this, leaving us to explain Luke’s reference to him falling and bursting open.

The earliest explanation is found in the second-century historian Papias, who wrote around A.D. 120. His works are lost but partially preserved in other writers. According to the fourth-century writer Apollinarius of Laodicea, Judas survived the hanging by being cut down before he choked to death, but he quotes Papias as saying Judas suffered severe swelling (edema) of the head and body, eventually causing him to burst open (see Monte Shanks, Papias and the New Testament, chapter 4, fragment 6). We now know that edema of the neck and body can be a consequence of strangulation, so Papias’s account may be based in fact.

Others have proposed that Judas remained hanging on a tree branch until his body began to decompose and swell due to the gases decomposition produces. The rope then broke or slipped, causing his body to burst from the force of impact.

Some have noted that the traditional site of Judas’s death features trees along a high ridge where strong winds occur. The winds may have caused the rope to slip, and the height of the ridge may have added to the force of impact, causing the body to burst.

Day 23: Who Bought the Field of Blood?

Challenge: Matthew and Luke contradict each other. Matthew says that the Jewish priests bought the field of blood (Matt. 27:7-8), while Luke says Judas Iscariot did (Acts 1:18-19).

Defense: Matthew and Luke are in fundamental agreement, and there are multiple ways the different attributions can be explained.

Both authors agree that Judas Iscariot’s betrayal led to a field in the area of Jerusalem becoming known as the field of blood. Both also say that this field was paid for with the money that the chief priests had given Judas to betray Jesus. Both are thus agreed about the basic facts. How, then, can we account for the different way the two authors describe the purchase of the field?

One proposal is that the reference in Acts (“Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness”) is meant to be ironic rather than literal. It occurs in a speech that Peter is making, and it has been suggested that Peter merely meant that Judas got his just deserts. The money he originally meant to spend on himself ended up paying for a graveyard.

This is possible, but as we observe elsewhere (see Day 124), the biblical authors sometimes omit the agents who perform an action in order to bring out the significance of the principal figures with respect to whom the action is performed.

Thus, we read that Moses built the tabernacle (2 Chron. 1:3) and Solomon built the temple (1 Kings 6:1-38), though in reality both were built by workmen acting on the leaders’ behalf (Exod. 38:22-23; 1 Kings 7:13-45). Sometimes the agents get mentioned and sometimes they don’t.

It is therefore possible that Matthew chose to mention the role of the priests: They were the agents who actually bought the field. By contrast, Luke wants to bring out the significance of the fact it was Judas’s money, without going into the mechanics of how the transaction was made. He thus omitted reference to the priests and only mentioned Judas.

Or this choice may have been made by someone earlier in the chain of tradition than Luke, who simply reported the tradition as he had it. Either way, it would be in keeping with the known practice of omitting agents to bring out the significance of the principals.

Day 35: How Did the Field of Blood Get Its Name?

Challenge: Matthew and Luke contradict each other. Matthew says that the field of blood got its name because it was bought with blood money (Matt. 27:6-7), but Luke says it was called this because people knew Judas died a gruesome death there (Acts 1:18-19).

Defense: Names can have more than one significance, and the two explanations are compatible.

The fact that Matthew and Luke record different expressions of the tradition regarding Judas’s fate indicate that both were in circulation.

Some people—aware of Matthew’s tradition—knew the priests bought the field and called it “field of blood” because it was bought with blood money. Others—aware of Luke’s tradition—knew about Judas’s bloody fate and called it “field of blood” for that reason. Some Jerusalemites may have been aware of both versions—like modern readers are—and called it “field of blood” for both reasons.

There are parallels to this elsewhere in the Bible. The biblical authors and their audiences often saw a single name as having more than one significance.

For example, the name of the city Be’er-sheva can mean “Well of the Seven” or “Well of the Oath,” and the author of Genesis preserves more than one tradition regarding its significance. He notes that at this location Abraham dug a well, gave Abimelech seven lambs, and swore an oath with Abimelech (Gen. 21:30-32). He also notes that Isaac later dug a well and swore an oath with Abimelech there (Gen. 26:31-33). Ancient readers of Genesis were thus aware of both traditions and saw them as complementary explanations for the name of Be’er-sheva: It was called that for both reasons.

Similarly, the field of blood was so called both because it was bought with blood money and because of Judas’s death. (Note that Luke says Judas bought a field, that he died a bloody death, and that people thus called the place “field of blood,” but he doesn’t say Judas died there. He may or may not have.)

One explanation would have originated first, but both were in circulation in the first century, and both contributed to why people called the field what they did.

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