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How Did Judas Die, And Did He Buy a Field?

INTRODUCTION

For many North American Evangelicals, inerrancy is the “shibboleth”[1] of ecumenical orthodoxy: but in stating that the Bible is “error-free” Evangelicals have made a falsifiable statement. Thus, tremendous energy has been poured in recent years into the examination of apparent errors and discrepancies in the Biblical text. No matter how small, any error in Scriptures has the potential to disprove the theory of inerrancy, apparently with catastrophic results.[2]

Having discovered the apparent discrepancy between Matthew 27:3-10 and Luke 1:18-19, I have been carefully stewarding the “secret” of this problem for years. I did not want to cause a spiritual crisis in anyone by showing them this discrepancy: but neither could I resolve it for myself. Those whom I asked in private usually were unaware of the problem, or attempted a dismissive and unconvincing harmonization. Although obviously insignificant in the story of the Bible, it has caused me no small amount of consternation since it seemed to disprove the doctrine of inerrancy. Considering the repercussions of denying inerrancy in contemporary Evangelicalism, the resolution of this question may be among the most important in my academic journey.

THE PROBLEM, IN ALL ITS GLORY

            If one could imagine two groups of Christians, one having access only to the records of Matthew, and one having access only to the records of Luke, it is beyond doubt that the two groups would have a very different understanding of Judas’s death.

The Matthew group would come to remember a guilt-ridden Judas changing his mind, receiving the title of “betrayer of innocent blood” upon himself, and committing suicide as an expression of “sorrow leading to death” (1 Cor. 7:10).[3] They would see the Jewish leaders receiving more guilt upon themselves by recognizing this money as “blood money,” without repenting of their blood-guiltiness. They would see these leaders as the ones who placed Judas’ money in the hands of the Potter, in exchange for the field which came to be known as Hakeldama (“Field of Blood”) in memory of Jesus’ blood.

The Lukan group, on the other hand would tend to remember a haughtily unrepentant Judas who callously took the money from Jesus’ betrayal into the local marketplace, and purchased a field. God’s righteous indignation caught up with this man, however. While surveying his ill-gotten domain, he tripped and collided with the ground so violently that he “burst open in the middle” and his intestines “gushed out.” So horrifying was his end that this field came to be known as Hakeldama after his blood.

Although some have attempted to ignore,[4] minimize,[5] or frankly deny[6] the presence of a difficulty, it cannot be denied that at least a prima fascia reading of the texts leads to two significantly different accounts of Judas’ demise. For those wishing to uphold the doctrine of inerrancy, then, this is no minor issue.

In this matter then, there are at least seven specific difficulties which must be addressed: 1) Did Judas feel remorse? 2) Did Judas return the money? 3) Who sold the field? 4) Who bought the field? 5) Did Judas ever “own” the field? 6) Was Judas’ death suicide or accidental? 7) How did Judas die? 8) Whose blood was the field named after?[7]

We will find it helpful first to examine the divergent aims of Matthew and Luke,[8] and then take up each of these apparent difficulties in turn.

UNDERSTANDING THE DIVERGENT AIMS OF MATTHEW AND LUKE

            As a matter of confession, Evangelicals hold that the events reported in Scriptures are “fact”: however, this does not mean that the authors left no traces of their own opinions. As Joel B. Green has aptly said, “reported events…by virtue of their being reported, are always interpreted events.”[9] Much of the apparent discrepancies between The Matthew and Acts can be explained by virtue of their divergent audiences and with reference to the larger arguments they are making within their works.

Writing to a Jewish audience, Matthew has at least four reasons for mentioning Judas’ death. First, in the interchange between Judas and the Jewish leaders Matthew can make the point that the Jewish leaders have shed innocent blood. They are willing to recognize the defilement on the money and on Judas, but are blind to their own guilt. Second, they have totally rejected their Messiah, as is in keeping with their patter in the OT.[10] Third, Matthew makes a connection with Old Testament (OT) prophecy about the purchase of a Potter’s Field with Messiah’s wages. Finally, many believe that Matthew is intentionally portraying Judas within the archetype of Ahithophel (2 Sam. 15-17).[11]

By contrast, Luke’s concern is very minimal: he only wishes to make it clear that disciples quickly returned their numbers to twelve. The mention of Judas’ death is almost parenthetical:[12] if Luke wishes to teach his readers anything from the account, it is that sinners are judged for their sins.[13] When reading Luke’s sparse treatment[14] of the matter, the reader is forced to fill in the gaps in his account with inferential information. Most of the differences between the accounts arise from differences which are only implied: the remaining difficulties can be explained with reference to Matthew and Luke selecting different but non-contradictory aspects of Judas’ death to best illustrate the point they were making to their unique audiences.

SOME EASILY RECONCILED DIFFICULTIES

Upon close examination, several apparent difficulties evaporate quickly. Luke’s account may imply that Judas never repented of his sins, but he nowhere says as much. Matthew supplies the information that the previous owner of the field was the Potter, and this information supplements Luke’s account without any contradiction. Finally, it is possible to presume that the field became known as Hakeldama because of Jesus’ blood and Judas’ blood and that the two writers selected different meanings with no contradiction.[15] Finally, Luke implies that Judas was walking in his recently-acquired field,[16] but this much is not explicitly said in the text: all that is said is that he 1) “acquired a field” and 2) subsequently met his end. It is to these two details which we now turn.

TWO MORE PERNICIOUS DIFFICULTIES

Who Bought the Potter’s Field?

            Among the most troubling difficulty in this matter is the issue of who purchased the field in question? In Matthew, Judas hurls the money before the priests and immediately kills himself. Matthew is quite clear that it is the priests who then purchase the field. Luke appears to contradict Matthew, however, when he writes that Judas “acquired a field for himself.”

Alfred Edersheim is illuminating on this point:

It was not lawful to take into the temple treasury, for the purchase of sacred things, money that had been unlawfully gained. In such case the Jewish law provided that the money was to be restored to the donor, and, if he insisted on giving it that he should be induced to spend it for something for the public weal. By a fiction of law the money was still considered to be Judas’s, [sic] and to have been applied by him in the purchase of the well–known ‘potter’s field’”[17]

A careful examination of the Greek words supports Edersheim’s theory. The NASB accurately conveys the broadness of Luke’s terminology: “this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness,” (Acts 1:18). The word here is κτάομαι which properly means “to get, that is, acquire (by any means; own).”[18] Although this word can mean purchasing, or acquiring things with money (Acts 8:20, 22:28),[19] it may also refer to acquiring money by services provided (arguably the opposite of “purchasing” Mat. 10:9), or acquiring spiritual riches (Luke 21:19), or to stewarding possessions which cannot be bought or sold (1 Thess. 4:4). By contrast, Matthew records that the Jewish leaders “bought” the field with Judas’ money, from the Potter (Mat. 27:7). The verb here is ἀγοράζω, which means, “properly, to go to market, that is, (by implication) to purchase; specifically to redeem: buy, redeem.”[20]

Thus, Judas “acquired” (κτάομαι) a field (posthumously!) through the agency of the Jewish leaders, who “purchased” (ἀγοράζω) it on his account.

With the matter of purchasing settled, we may turn briefly to ownership: here the audiences of the writers seems to have played a part. In writing to Jews, Matthew carefully avoids implying that Judas has become a landowner.[21] However, in writing to Greeks, Luke is eager to link Judas to Hakeldama, which was a legacy of shame to him.

 

How Did Judas Die?

            The more obvious difficulty is the matter of Judas’ death. In Matthew, Judas hangs himself: in Acts, Judas trips, falls, and bursts open. How can these be reconciled?

When examined more closely, however, Acts provides an enigma which only Matthew can begin to explain. The phrase which the NASB translates “and falling headlong” (Acts 1:18) is πρηνὴς γενόμενος. Marvin Vincent translates this literally “having become headlong”[22] while A.T. Robertson translates it “having become flat on the face” (as opposed to on the back).[23] Luke does not elaborate as to how Judas came to be flat on his face, but only that as a result, “he burst open in the middle.” The word here is λάσχω, “lit., to crack, to burst with a noise” and is used of Homer to describe the bones cracking beneath a devastating blow.[24] As a result of being λάσχω, “all his intestines gushed out,” (Luke 1:18). This is not the normal result of tripping in a field!

The simplest and most common answer to the enigma of Acts 1:18 also serves to reconcile the two passages: the solution is simply that Judas hanged himself and his rope (or girdle)[25] broke and he “burst open” upon landing.[26] Some commentators go a step further to presume that the site of hanging may have been over a cliff, perhaps with jagged rocks at the bottom.[27]

A second possibility is again from etymology: “The Greek text of Acts allows that Judas’ body may simply have burst from becoming bloated, as ‘headlong’ can be rendered ‘bloated.’”[28] Bloating could have occurred quickly enough in the hot climate of Palestine and it is not impossible for the bloating to become so intense that the body subsequently “burst” and “gushed out” the intestines.[29] These two possibilities could be combined, so that a bloated body could fall to the ground, bursting on impact.[30]

Walter Kaiser adds two additional options, stating that it is not unusual for a suicide accomplished by jumping from an elevation with a rope around one’s neck to result in a ripped-open body.[31] Additionally, dogs and vultures may have been feeding on the corpse by the time it was discovered.[32]

As can be seen, the reconciliation of the two accounts of Judas’ death is not bereft of answers, but is capable of supplying a macabre plurality of options. It is not really necessary to pick between them, to decide “what really happened:” in point of fact, several scenarios are equally plausible.

What seems clear is that Judas’ corpse was discovered, it was seen lying “face-down,” with the implements of strangulation in view, and his intestines gushed out upon the ground.[33] To suit their divergent purposes, Matthew picked up on the aspect of strangulation (perhaps emphasizing a connection with Ahithophel, 2 Sam. 17:23), while Luke the physician dwelled on the grisly details of the disembowelment (perhaps connecting the death of Judas to that of Herod, Acts 12:23).

CONCLUSION

            A scenario was mentioned above in which two divergent versions of Christianity were allowed to grow up in isolation from one another, one having access only to Matthew, and the other only to Acts. In point of fact, however, this scenario has not taken place. The Church has virtually always had access to both Matthew and Acts. Both sources are recognized as reliable historical sources and inspired accounts of real events. Therefore, the most logical solution is to reconcile the two accounts.

By so doing, we find that Judas “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,” (Mat. 27:3) then “went away and hanged himself,” (Mat. 27:5). By the time he was found, he was no longer hanging but had “become face-down” and “burst open in the middle” so that “all his intestines gushed out,” (Luke 1:18). Meanwhile, the chief-priests, at a loss as to what to do with the funds decided not to put Judas’ money in the Temple Treasury (Mat. 27:6) but instead bought a field from a certain potter as a burial place for strangers,” (Mat. 27:7). This was the very field where Judas was discovered, and the field came to be associated with his memory, as well as the innocent blood which he betrayed. For both of these reasons (and perhaps others) it came to be known as Hakeldama or “Field of Blood,” (Mat. 27:8, Luke 1:19)

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Cabal, Ted, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al. The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.

Carson, D. A. New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition. 4th ed. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

Dockery, David S., Trent C. Butler, Christopher L. Church et al. Holman Bible Handbook. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992.

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 2005.

Gangel, Kenneth O. Vol. 5, Acts. Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996.

Hughes, Robert B. and J. Carl Laney. Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary. The Tyndale reference library. Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.

Ironside, H. A. Lectures on the Book of Acts. Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1943.

Jamieson, Robert, A. R. Fausset, A. R. Fausset et al. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

John Crysostom, edited by Schaff, Philip. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XI. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Kaiser, Walter, Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch.  Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

McGee, J. Vernon. Vol. 40, Thru the Bible Commentary: Church History (Acts 1-14). electronic ed. Thru the Bible commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

Mills, M.S. The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record. Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1999.

Polhill, John B. Vol. 26, Acts. electronic ed. Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.

Radmacher, Earl D., Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary. Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999

Richards, Lawrence O. The Bible Readers Companion. electronic ed. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991.

Robertson, A.T. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.

Strong, James. Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries Dictionaries of Hebrew and Greek Words. 1890. Accessed via e-sword database, Steven Meyers, E-sword, Franklin, TN: www.esword.com, 2011.

The Pulpit Commentary: Acts of the Apostles Vol. I. Edited by Spence-Jones, H. D. M. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004.

Vincent, Marvin Richardson. Word Studies in the New Testament. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002.

Walvoord, John F., Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-.

Unnik, Willem Cornelis van. “Death of Judas in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.” Anglican Theological Review 3, (March 1, 1974): 44-57. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2011).

Upton, John A. “The Potter’s Field and the death of Judas.” Concordia Journal 8, no. 6 (November 1, 1982): 213-219. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2011).

Van de Water, Rick. “The punishment of the wicked priest and the death of Judas.” Dead Sea Discoveries 10, no. 3 (January 1, 2003): 395-419. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 15, 2011).


[1] This word comes from Judges 12, where a civil war broke out in Israel, and the Benjaminites were being systematically annihilated by the other tribes. They were trying to flee over the Jordan, but their enemies required them to say “Shibboleth.” Due to their accent, they could not say it and were executed on the spot.

[2] For a discussion of how the discovery of a minor textual problem lead to a complete change of theology for one scholar, see Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, (San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco, 2005), 5-12.

[3] For a discussion of “repentance” and “innocent blood,” see Willem Cornelis van. Unnik, “Death of Judas in Saint Matthew’s Gospel,” Anglican Theological Review 3, (March 1, 1974): 48-55.

[4] Cf. John Cyrsostom, in ed. Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. XI (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 18-19, Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1996), Ac 1:15–26, Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney, Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, The Tyndale reference library (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 497, etc.

[5] John Polhill skirts the issue by saying that, “Despite significant differences in detail, the main emphases are the same in the two accounts…” John B. Polhill, vol. 26, Acts, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 92-93.

[6] Cabal simply states that Luke’s description “pictures” Matthews with no further explanation, as though the harmonization was self-evident. Ted Cabal, Chad Owen Brand, E. Ray Clendenen et al., The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 1623. Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, A. R. Fausset et al., A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), Acts 1:18.

[7] An additional problem with this passage is that Matthew seems to be citing Zechariah but says “Jeremiah” instead. However, this problem belongs more to the study of New Testament usage of the Old Testament than it does to a study of attempted harmonization of NT narratives. For a discussion on these issues, see Upton, “The Potter’s Field,” 216-218, cf. also, Walter Kaiser, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 399-400.

[8] A more complete treatment of this topic would also have to include Papias, the early-church Father. Independent of both Luke and Matthew (Van De Walter, “The Punishment of the Wicked Priest,” 400), Papias relates that Judas lived on for a time, but became ill with dropsy, swelling to such proportions that his eyes were swollen shut and his genitals were in a miserable state. He died on his field in such a wretched condition that passers-by had to hold their noses for generations. However, Papias’ account is generally understood as a “tall tale” by academics (Van De Walter, “The Punishment of the Wicked Priest,” 406.) and has never been understood as canonical. Rick Van de Water, “The punishment of the wicked priest and the death of Judas,” Dead Sea Discoveries 10, no. 3 (January 1, 2003): 395-419.

[9] Joel B. Green, “Death of Jesus,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Apostles, ed. Joel B. Green et. all. (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 149.

[10] Upton, “The Potter’s Field,” 218.

[11] Unnik notes that, “Practically all modern commentators see this story in II Samuel 17:23 either as a model or even as the source of St. Matthew’s account.” Unnik, “Death of Judas in Saint Matthew’s Gospel,” 49.

[12] D. A. Carson, along with perhaps the majority of scholars, believes this section is parenthetical, and is written solely for the benefit of the reader. This makes sense, because Peter would have no reason to recount these events to his audience, who were all aware of the real events. D. A. Carson New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Ac 1:12–26.

[13] This was a consistent theme of Luke, as in the case of Annanias and Sapphirah (Acts 5:1-11), and especially Herod (Acts 12:21-24).

[14] Matthew devotes one hundred-fifteen words (in Greek) and eight verses (in modern English) to the incident: Luke devotes only forty words (in Greek) and two verses (in modern English) to the incident.

[15] So in The Pulpit Commentary: Acts of the Apostles Vol. I, ed. H. D. M. Spence-Jones (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004), 5, and Keiser, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 511. The field may have also retained this name because of the bloody nature of the foreigners and criminals buried there (perhaps this was similar to the more recent occurrence of a “Boot Hill” in an old Western Town). Upton further opines that this field may have been located in the already-notorious valley of Gehennah. Upton, “The Potter’s Field,” 218. Upton mentions that some have raised the possibility of two separate fields, but concludes that only one field is being referred to here. Upton, “The Potter’s Field and the death of Judas.” Concordia Journal 8, no. 6 (November 1, 1982),” 213-214, 217.

[16] From this Dr. Earl D. Radmacher concludes that this is the field which Judas died in. However, Radmacher is moving too quickly: Luke only implies, and does not state, that Judas died in this field. If he did die here, it was before the field was purchased, as will be seen. Earl D. Radmacher, Ronald Barclay Allen and H. Wayne House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: T. Nelson Publishers, 1999), Ac 1:18–19.

[17] Edersheim, Life of Jesus, ii, 575 cited in J. Vernon McGee, vol. 40, Thru the Bible Commentary: Church History (Acts 1-14), electronic ed., Thru the Bible commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 22-23.

[18] James Strong, Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries Dictionaries of Hebrew and Greek Words 1890, accessed via e-sword database, Steven Meyers, E-sword, (Franklin, TN: www.esword.com), 2011, G2932.

[19] For this reason, H. D. M. Spence-Jones matter-of-factly states that “St. Luke says, less accurately, that Judas purchased it [the field].” Spence-Jones, The Pulpit Commentary, 5.

[20] Strongs, G59.

[21] This, “would have appeared a reward, especially to Jews for whom landowning in Palestine was important,” Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible, (Downer’s Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 511.

[22] Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), Ac 1:18.

[23] Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), Ac 1:18.

[24] Cf. “Iliad, xiii., 616. Compare Aristophanes, Clouds,” 410. Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2002), Ac 1:18.

[25] J. Vernon McGee, vol. 40, Thru the Bible Commentary: Church History (Acts 1-14), electronic ed., Thru the Bible commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991), 22-23.

[26] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Acts 1:18; Radmacher, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Ac 1:18–19; H. A. Ironside, Lectures on the Book of Acts. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1943), 33.

[27] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary : An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983-), Ac 1:18–19.

[28] M.S. Mills, The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1999).

[29] Walvoord, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Ac 1:18–19.

[30] Kenneth O. Gangel, vol. 5, Acts, Holman New Testament Commentary; Holman Reference (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 13.

[31] Kaiser cites a pastor from India, who is “well acquainted with such tragic events.” Walter Kaiser, et. all., Hard Sayings of the Bible, 512.

[32] M. S. Mills adds that, “It is not surprising that his corpse went unnoticed for a while; Jerusalem was far too engrossed in watching its Savior die that day than to have been around the Potter’s Field.” M.S. Mills, The Life of Christ: A Study Guide to the Gospel Record (Dallas, TX: 3E Ministries, 1999), Mt 27:3-Ac 1:19. This almost amusing solution (does Mills really think that all of Jerusalem was gathered piously at the foot of the cross?) should be modified to refer primarily to the business of Passover.

[33] D. A. Carson, New Bible Commentary, Acts 1:12–26.

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