What happened to Judas?

I’m not sure where her question originated (since it wasn’t discussed in class), but after Sunday school on Sunday one of my jr. highers asked me how Judas actually died. The question is arises out of the apparently inconsistent scriptural details surrounding Judas’ demise. Matthew 27:3-8 says this:

 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Acts 1:18 says,

Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.

So did Judas hang himself or fall to his death? And who bought the field–Judas or the priests?

Let’s break this down. The details on which both passages agree:

  • The field was bought with blood money.
  • Judas died (suicide is suggested by both passages, but that might be Matthew influencing our reading of Acts).
  • The field was known as The Field of Blood.

Details on which both passages may or may not agree:

  • How Judas died–did he hang himself? or did he fall to his death? Or was it both? This, I think, is only an apparent contradiction, not a real one, because Acts doesn’t necessarily contradict Matthew on Judas’ death.

Details on which the passages disagree:

  • Who bought the field.
  • The reason for the field’s naming.

There are a number of ways we could deal with these discrepancies. With a little help from the ol’ noodle as well as commentaries on Acts by F.F. Bruce and I. Howard Marshall, here are three possibilities:

1. Who bought the field? Perhaps the priests, wanting to distance themselves from Judas’ blood money, purchased the field in Judas’ name. In this way, the story Luke (or Peter) had heard around Jerusalem had Judas’ name associated with the purchase. Matthew’s source perhaps knew who was actually behind the purchase. (As an interesting aside, the Greek does not specifically name Judas as the purchaser, but context makes it pretty clear that the writer had Judas in mind.)

2. Did he hang himself or fall to his death? It could be both. It does not say in Acts that he threw himself down, but simply that he fell. Actually, it’s not even clear that it says that. The word that is usually translated “head first” or “headlong” could also mean “swelled up”, as a footnote in most modern Bibles indicates (though, to be fair, “headlong” is the more likely meaning, at least as a standalone word). Additionally, the verb “falling” does not appear, but is an interpretive addition by the translators, presumably to makes sense of the noun “headlong.”

So here’s a proposal: Judas hanged himself, his body bloated in decomposition, and then the rope broke or his decomposing body broke apart and it fell to the ground, splitting open his stomach and spilling his guts. Gruesome!

It’s difficult to decipher much from the context. The passage in Acts is only one sentence and really seems to be glossing over the details anyway. I’m no expert, but it seems to me that falling in a field doesn’t generally cause one’s stomach to split open. Pertinent details are clearly missing from both accounts, and the writer of Acts doesn’t seem all that concerned about it–he really tells us very little. He’s just interested in telling us that Judas is dead and needs to be replaced in the Twelve.

Which leads me to the third and probably best approach:

3. Don’t reconcile the two accounts at all. It’s certainly fun to surmise, but it’s not an exercise necessary to understanding these passages or trusting scripture in general. The writers of Matthew and Acts don’t seem too worried about those particular details, so why should we be? Scripture is a divinely inspired text, but it was nevertheless written by humans with all their limitations in perspective and knowledge. And it was written in a time when the kind of detail modern, “enlightened” westerners expect was not necessary. And this: even a divinely inspired text need not have every detail spelled out to their minutea.

So, there are theoretical ways to deal with discrepancies between the two accounts of Judas’ death, but they remain theoretical. And they are in the end unnecessary, particularly for a minor point of history like this one. So, in the end I have no firm resolution to the problem presented!

4 thoughts on “What happened to Judas?

  1. Tim Perry

    I think your advice–don’t try to reconcile–is exactly right, Mark! I have tried–and largely failed–to convince folks that the more they try to harmonize, to find the narrative “behind” the text, the further they move AWAY from God’s self-disclosure.

  2. Toni

    But precision IS important: otherwise you end up with the religious mythology that has become the equivalent of a rotting albatross, hung around the neck of the traditional church. I want faith, but faith in a God that’s real, rather than the bizarre construct that inhabits some of the stories, created to demonstrate something and then developing a life of their own.

  3. Marc

    Toni: I agree that precision is important. No question.

    But we don’t need to be precise about everything. Trying to reconcile scripture against itself, particularly with questions like the one asked of me here, is in my opinion one of those things.

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