The Gruesome Death(s) of Judas

Both Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:15-19 record grizzly details about what became of Judas after his betrayal of Jesus. But the details are very different. In Matthew, Judas abandons the money he received at the Temple; in Acts, he uses the money to buy some property. In Matthew, he then went away somewhere and hanged himself; in Acts, he seems to have fallen in such a way that his body burst open. Both stories mention a place called the “Field of Blood,” but they have different explanations for how the field received that name.

The stories are very different — different enough that many skeptics point to Judas’s death as one of the greatest and most obvious of biblical contradictions.

But there are two facets of the story in particular that tell me, working as a historian, there is some common story underneath these tellings of it.

Anyone who believes that they are two entirely separate and contradictory stories will have a very difficult time explaining how it is that they arose. It is hardly likely that two people sitting down to make up a revenge story about Judas would both decide independently to include the purchase of a field known as the Field of Blood. The most probable way to explain the inclusion of this detail in both stories is that the field was, in fact, connected with the death of Judas in some way.

But in what way? Acts states simply that with his reward, Judas bought a field. Matthew’s Judas buys nothing with the money, instead throwing the money into the Temple and leaving. But wait. In Matthew, the priests pick up the money and refuse to keep it. The reason that they buy the field with it is that they will not accept it back (Matt. 27:6-7). Thus, both stories are agreed that Judas’s reward money was used to buy the field in question. Matthew has the chief priests actually doing the purchasing, but with money that, since they refused to have it back, could still be considered to be Judas’s. In either story, the field could technically have belonged to Judas after the purchase. Acts has simply streamlined the story in a way which omits the priests altogether. It is a good editorial choice, since relating the priests’ reasoning in the matter would take some explaining. The more Jewish Matthew, perhaps, feels more comfortable on this score.

But we’re not in the clear yet. On the matter of Judas’s death, it is Matthew who makes it sound simple. “He went away and hanged himself.” Matthew gives no indication of where Judas died, only that it was suicide by hanging. Acts, on the other hand, tells us that Judas died on that field, but there’s no mention of suicide, instead it sounds like some horrible climbing accident. “He fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.”

Again, it is easy to see why people who are skeptical about the Bible would see in these accounts some reason for thinking that the authors were not reporting facts but myths. None of them, however, seems to notice just how unmythological both these accounts are.

The author of Acts in particular does not shy away from spectacular acts of divine judgement. Just a few chapters later, when Ananias and Sapphira try to gain status in the church by pretending to give away all their money, Acts records their death as sudden and clear divine judgement. There is no accident: first he and then she simply falls down dead, and Peter clearly announces her immanent demise to her (Acts 5:5; 9-10). Though neither die, both Paul/Saul and the magician Elymas are struck blind by God’s hand (Acts 9:4-8; 13:11). And Herod’s death is similarly attributed to the direct action of God (Acts 12:23).

If, as the skeptics suggest, the accounts of Judas’s death are merely made up stories of revenge, how odd it is that they should resist making up a story in which the hand of God specifically strikes Judas down.

Mind you, both natural ends are gruesome enough, and this is, I think, the key to the differences between them. It’s well known that Deuteronomy 21:23 pronounces “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” For Jewish Matthew, the suicide plus hanging combination is a graphic description of how desolate Judas’s end was.

Gentile Luke and his readers however would not necessarily have found anything terribly offensive or disgusting or sinful about either suicide (which could be quite honourable) or hanging. But the Graeco-Roman world would have found the disfigured dead body a rather inauspicious end.

So have they each deliberately completely fabricated a story that their respective audiences would find suitably horrific? Again, this has to be rendered unlikely by the complete lack of the supernatural — both a Jewish and a Gentile audience of that time would enjoy the suitable divine retribution against such a one as Judas. What is admittedly unprovable, but must be considered more likely is not that each author invented a grotesque story for their audience, but rather that each writer selected the elements of a single story on the basis of which elements would have the desired effect. If the two stories are read together and as supplementary rather than against each other and contradictory, it is not hard to come up with a series of events from which the authors could credibly have selected the bits that they did: Matthew more interested in matters relating to Judaism: the role of the chief priests, the hanging; Acts more interested in the gore and disfigured state of the body.

Judas refused to keep his money and the chief priests refused to accept it back, regarding it as still his, they bought the field in his name and on his behalf. In that field, reminded thus of the inescapable betrayal, he hung himself. But suppose his body was no longer hanging by the time that it was discovered, but had fallen from its suspended position to the ground where the partially rotted corpse had split open.

And if something like that did happen, then the different explanations for the name are also no problem. Was it called “field of blood” because it was purchased with “blood money” or was it given that name because of Judas’s blood?

Imagine an American Football Superbowl game that turns out to be very enjoyable to watch. The commentator then says, “Well, this really was a SUPER sunday.” American viewer Mr. X says, “He called it that because of the Superbowl being played today.” American Ms. Y says, “He says that because the game was so good.” Are these contradictory? No.

The field was given the nickname “field of blood.” This was appropriate in many ways. It was appropriate because it was purchased with the blood money of a suicide (Matt.); it was appropriate because the suicide was remarkably messy (Acts).

There is no necessary irreconcilable contradiction, rather there is a quite obvious and simple set of events that could stand behind the stories. Two facets of these account, in particular, make the enterprise likely: (1) the reporting of insignificant yet specific details; and (2) the surprising lack of the supernatural.

In recording the story of the death of Judas the betrayer, the two writers show that they are writing different versions based on the same events by the clear overlap of unnecessary and insignificant details, such as the relation to the field, which cannot be explained otherwise. The fact that both stories revolve around this field requires us to look for, if not a harmonization, at least some explanation of what really happened that would explain how both stories arose.

Similarly, the writers show that they are recording historical detail rather than fantasizing or propagandizing by the fact that an obvious opportunity for supernatural retribution to be written in was not taken.

Even when the Bible records apparently different stories about the same events, it seems likely to be trustworthy.