From:  Probing the Mystery of Judas                                 Return to Home          

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2016







Part 3:

Judas’ Death

(chapters 8-9)



[In Current Section:]

Chapter 8:  Judas Commits Suicide

Chapter 9:  Judas’ Bribe Buys a Graveyard










Chapter Eight:

Judas Commits Suicide


                        --  Judas’ death as described by Matthew:  5Then he threw down the          pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself (Matthew 27).


--  Judas’ death as described by Luke:  18 (Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.  (Acts 1).





            Treated with unconcern--even contempt?--by those who had paid for his betrayal and knowing that he had no ability to alter what was going to happen, Judas was in the proverbial situation of being caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand he had intense guilt and on the other the inability to resolve in a constructive manner the situation he had created.  Despised by the religious authorities and even worse by the other apostles, life itself seemed to offer no options.  “Trapped, guilt-ridden, convinced of his hopelessness, Judas desperately seizes the only release from his crime he can find.  Slipping the noose around his neck, he jumps into the void of despair (Matthew 27:5).”[1] 

            There was Biblical precedent--so to speak.  in 2 Samuel 17:23 the despairing Ahithophel “saw that his advice was not followed [and] he saddled a donkey, and arose and went home to his house to his city.  Then he put his household in order and hanged himself and died; and he was buried in his father’s tomb.” 

Since Ahithophel had encouraged Absalom in his unjustified betrayal/revolt against King David, he knew all too well that when his rejected good advice resulted in Absalom’s defeat, his own death was inevitable as well.  Rather than wait for it, he committed suicide.  Ahitophel, politically, had committed an “unforgivable sin.”  Spiritually, Judas probably thought the same thing and took his life out of similar despair.[2] 

            Another passage that would have relevance to Judas's decision was the provision concerning capital punishment (Deuteronomy 21:22).  The body was not to remain on the tree overnight lest it defile the land itself “for he who is hanged is accursed of God” (verse 23).  Feeling himself (with considerable justification!) under God’s curse, he killed himself in a manner conformable to a person under a Divine curse.[3]    

            The ancient synagogue (to the extent that we can determine the matter) did not look kindly upon such an action.  Although one was permitted to comfort the relatives of the suicide, mourning for the one who actually committed the act was prohibited.[4]  He had not only done what was evil to himself, he had put himself in a position where no one could publicly mourn him even if they had once been close friends.





            To those intent upon “proving” the historical inconsistencies of the scriptures the means of Judas’ death is on the short list of those most cited.  For example, “That Luke’s account of Judas’ death is at variance with that of Matthew’s is obvious,” writes one scholar.[5]  Such is one of the euphemisms utilized while others prefer to candidly speak of contradiction[6] for, in this type of case, “variance” and “contradiction” are clearly intended synonymously. 

“Various attempts at harmonization have been tried from ancient times to modern; none with success,” insists Charles H. Talbert.[7]  Perhaps this conclusion is why others insist that “we should not try to harmonize” the accounts at all.[8] 

            But what of the texts themselves?  How much room for legitimate synthesis--instead of contradiction--do they actually provide?  More than hostile critics often want to concede.

            In Matthew it is death by suicide.  In Acts it is “falling headlong” and having the body burst apart by the impact.  Although “falling” could be read as an accidental falling (“an accidental death, known to all the people in Jerusalem,” insists one scholar),[9] it makes more sense as suicide by jumping off a cliff.

            If we read the text in isolation from Matthew, that is.  In that case the dispute what be over the manner of the suicide.  Hanging versus jumping.

            Considering the two text’s inter-relationship suggests a different approach.  To those favoring a consistency of the two passages, it is quite reasonable to suggest that it all began when Judas hung himself.  Then the rope broke (or the limb holding the rope did)[10] and the fall resulted in the gross splintering of his body mentioned in Acts. 

            If one prefers grosser (but not unrealistic scenarios) then one can speculate that because it was a suicide, no one wanted to touch the body and that it remained hanging for days.  Weakened by the sunlight during the day and the cold at night--even by bad weather?--the rope finally gave way or the knot in the noose finally slipped.  And the body plunged to its messy destruction in the field below.[11] 

            A related form of this explanation goes back at least as far as Chrysostom, who wrote on Peter’s words in Acts 1, “ . . . [H]e remained there on the gibbet the Friday and the Saturday.  When he had swollen up and grown heavy, the cord was cut by which he hung:  he fell, burst asunder, and was poured out.  But the stench of the putrefying heap and of his guts brought together the children of Jerusalem to come and view his infamous end, and the awful sign which was for him the precursor of hell-fire.”[12] 

            Sermonically powerful and it could easily have happened that way.





            The ancient Apollinarius suggested a different scenario in discussing Matthew’s account of the death and cited Papias (c. 125 A.D.) in defense of it.  Apollinarius claimed that someone had intervened and cut the rope before Judas died of strangulation.  As proof he cited Acts’ reference to death by the innards being gutted out.  He also quoted from Papias’ now vanished Fourth Book of the Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord which contains a vivid description of Judas’ condition,[13]


Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; his flesh swollen to such an extent that, where a wagon can pass with ease, he was not able to do so, in fact, not even the mass of his head.  They say that his eyelids swelled to such an extent that he could not see the light at all.  So far had his eyes been sunken from the surface that they could not be visible even by the optical instruments of a physician. 

His pudenda, exuding a stench, became so deformed that they appeared unpleasant and enlarged, over which worms mixed with other parts of the flesh.  After suffering many pains and torments he died, it is said, on his own property.

Those who lived near that road say that the property was deserted and left desolate until this day.  No one even to this day passes the place without stopping up his nose with his hands.  Such was the opinion spread about the country concerning his body.      


            There are elements of obvious exaggeration here:  The hideous swollen size of the head, in particular.  Even so, one can imagine the psychological and physical shock of an aborted hanging playing havoc with the body and causing strange and abnormal physical reactions.  In a person despised such as Judas—by both former friend and foe--it would not be unexpected to have these exaggerated far above and beyond what actually occurred.

            Did Papias really say the words attributed to him though?  Since Papias’ writings were extant in Apollinarius’ day, there would have been serious danger of easy exposure to have invented them out of whole cloth. 

            One of Apollinarius’ proofs of Judas surviving hanging is found in the preface to the above quotation, where the text from Acts is quoted concerning Judas’ innards bursting after falling.  But if this wasn't connected with the hanging itself, what produced that result? 

In another quotation from Papias by Apollinarius--in which he is discussing the death as pictured in Acts--it is claimed that a cart ran over him.[14]  Theoretically, it would be possible that being on the edge of the road and hit or run over by a cart (= pushing him off the side of the road into a chasm?) could cause a fall and the drastic gutting of a body--especially if it was already in bad physical condition.  Hence one can imagine Papias making both statements and why the two statements would be appealing to Apollinarius as a method of integrating the Matthewean and Lukian accounts of Judas' demise.  

But if we may invoke the KISS principle—Keep It Simple Stupid—the alternate “two step” scenarios do seem to be far more likely.  Certainly if Judas survived the hanging it would be far more likely it was for only seconds as the rope broke (or the limb it was attached to) than that some one rescued Judas from his folly. 

The time factor—noticing and reacting—would have had to be horribly fast.  Can most people react that swiftly or will they simply “freeze” in horror at what they are seeing?

Furthermore the explanation seems to require that Judas have survived for a decent length of time.  Hence there is the problem that within less than two months Peter, in Acts 1, speaks of Judas as if already dead.[15]   Hence, if Judas survived the hanging it was not for many weeks.[16] 





              Some have theorized that Luke’s version of Judas’ death was based upon “the story of Ahikar, one of the most widely diffused of popular tales in both Greek and Semitic circles. . . .”  In it “the villain of the piece disappears from public view” and dies by swelling up and bursting asunder, which, it is argued, would be the likely intended Greek reading in Luke’s description of Judas’ death.[17] 

            Although this carries us rather far afield, it deserves passing attention because it represents the kind of dubious reasoning that scholars sometimes fall into in their effort to enlist improbable religious and secular parallels as the "cause" for narratives recorded in the scriptures. 

            Ahikar was a major official to the king of Assyria and was well known for his wisdom in all areas of life.  To his sorrow, he discovered that he would not be able to ever father a successor.  Indeed, none of the sixty wives he had was able to get pregnant.  As the result he decided to adopt the son of his sister and treat him as his own.  In spite of being outwardly handsome, none of Ahikar’s teaching was able to penetrate the moral hard-headiness of the adopted son, Nadan. 

            The young man began to arrogate to himself a position above his rank as potential successor.  He began to be wasteful on a major scale.  He even began to plot the stepfather’s overthrow by writing treasonous letters in his name.  By killing a substitute, Ahikar was secretly spared by the officer under orders to execute him for the supposed treason.

            Nadan was unable to effectively advise the Assyrian king as the Egyptian Pharaoh taunted him with written letters seeking to probe his insight.  When it appeared that the kingdom’s prestige was severely threatened (and perhaps even worse), the fake executioner informed the monarch that Ahikar was still alive.  As the result, he was restored to influence and saved the kingdom from war.

            Nadan was flogged and made to survive on bread and water alone.  Finally his body swells up and bursts apart, thereby eliminating any need to execute the man or wait any longer for his death.[18]  

            No matter how widespread the story was, the only element in common with Judas is bursting asunder.  If a person were going to borrow from Nadan’s fate to picture Judas, what happens to the rest of his fate?  Judas didn’t have to die by any particular means to die--neither the Old Testament nor Jesus predicted how it was to happen.  Could we not equally imagine Pilate (the functional equivalent of the Assyrian king if there is a parallel) as confining Judas to prison on some charge or another as the preliminary to the death scene? 

            Furthermore, if Luke is consciously or unconsciously borrowing--or earlier tradition for that matter--from the story of Akihar, then shouldn’t we look for a prototype for Jesus in Ahikar himself since it is Akihar who is betrayed?  Unless he did find such a parallel, why would Luke utilize the Nadan death allusion at all? 

And does anyone really believe Luke had such a parallel in mind?  After all, profoundly unlike Akihar, Jesus was killed—there was nothing faked about it.  And he certainly was not welcomed back with open arms by Pilate (or the Jewish leaders) as His betrayer was sent to jail!  

When one is facing a mountain and only a single “pebble” (the death allusion) has been utilized, one is well advised to consider whether anything has been borrowed at all.





            One can understand the desire to discredit the miraculous by pointing to alleged inconsistencies and one can understand why the scripture writers could be accused of an exaggeration of the wonders they recorded in order to maximize their impact.  But here we are dealing with something that has absolutely nothing to do with the miraculous in any shape or form. 

Even if one works from anti-supernatural premises, one would seem to be on sounder ground arguing that both New Testament writers have narrated part of what happened rather than contradicted each other.  They have no reason of personal or theological self-interest to have replaced one story with another.





Chapter Nine:

Judas’ Bribe Buys a Graveyard


--  In Matthew the emphasis is on a graveyard being purchased in fulfillment of prophecy with Judas’ money:  But the chief priests took the silver pieces and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because they are the price of blood.”  7 And they consulted together and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.  Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, 10 and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”  (Matthew 27)


--  In Luke’s Acts, the emphasis is on the name of the field coming from Judas dying there:   15 And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (altogether the number of names was about a hundred and twenty), and said, 16 “Men and brethren, this Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus; 17 for he was numbered with us and obtained a part in this ministry.

18 (Now this man purchased a field with the wages of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out.  19 And it became known to all those dwelling in Jerusalem; so that field is called in their own language, Akel Dama, that is, Field of Blood.

20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms:  ‘Let his dwelling place be desolate, and let no one live in it’; ‘Let another take his office.’ ” (Acts 1)





            Matthew notes that those in charge of making a decision in regard to the money Judas had returned did not feel it proper to place it in the temple treasury.  It had been “the price of blood” (27:6) and the implication is that it would have been defiling to the temple.  Oddly, taking money out of the treasury for such a purpose was not regarded as such or it would not have been done.[19]  Unless, of course, the betrayal was “privately funded” by the high priest or some other wealthy colleague.  In that case the money would be entering the temple treasury for the first time.

            Deuteronomy 23:18 prohibited Israelites from donating “the wages of a harlot or the price of a dog to the house of the Lord your God for any vowed offering, for both of these are an abomination to the Lord your God.”  This principle was generalized to cover the donation of any funds of dubious moral or ethical origin.[20] 

            Because they (rightly) viewed the money as defiled, they took it and purchased a field to bury visitors to their city.  These would have been Jews rather than Gentiles since it was for Jewish benefit (and only incidentally Gentile) that the temple existed and flourished.  Furthermore, the Roman authorities, due to their having the political control of the land, were automatically obligated to assure the burial of those not otherwise provided for.[21] 

            The festivals brought visitors by the tens of thousands--hundreds of thousands even.  (If Josephus’ data is anywhere close to accurate, the number could pass the two million figure.)[22]  Accident and natural causes made it inevitable that a certain percentage died during the feasts.  If they had come from a distant land (and the list of languages spoken by the pilgrims mentioned in Acts 2 proves that they did) many would have had no local relatives to attend to the burial.  Nor, often, friends or relatives with them to carry out the responsibility either.             

            Furthermore, a pilgrimage from say Rome or Spain was not an inexpensive proposition.  For many it would represent the savings of years or even a life-time.[23]  Hence there was likely a significant minority who made the pilgrimage late in life.  Due to age they would have been especially susceptible to death while in the city.  Some may even have run out of money and been marooned there.[24]  Again, provision needed to be made for them. 

            Judas’ money, ironically, provided the means to accomplish this without directly involving the Temple’s treasury.  Since it was bought with blood money the graveyard was given the popular nickname of “Field of Blood.”

            Luke’s account in Acts has been viewed as contradictory to this.  In Matthew it is the priesthood that buys the field; in Acts Judas “purchased a field with the wages of iniquity” (1:18).  Judas, it is argued, “evidently intend[ed] to enjoy its use, whether by tilling or renting it.”[25] 

            On the other hand, since Acts two narrates what happened on Pentecost (fifty days after Passover), Acts one must have occurred prior to that time.  Are we to really believe that Judas purchased a property and somehow died or committed suicide within this narrow time frame after the betrayal?  And even if he did, it was more narratively appropriate for Matthew to include it where he does than to give it in its proper historic setting.

            In either chronology, it makes more inherent sense to take Judas’ “purchase” to refer to the fact that it was Judas’ money that was used.  His money made it possible.  It was far more his field more than it was anyone else’s.[26] 

            Alfred Edersheim suggests that this was a legal fiction, under which the temple could dispose of the funds without considering its hands ethically tainted by the manner it was earned.[27]  Certainly some procedure would have been adopted for questionable cases and it had to be one in which the religious authorities could feel untouched by such real or possible contamination.  Spending it as the theoretical “agent” of the other party would neatly dispose of their dilemma.       

            Another approach to Acts 1:18 is that of Gleason L. Archer, who argues that the text was likely speaking ironically rather than literally when it refers to how Judas “purchased a field (Greek, chorion) with the wages of iniquity:”[28]


This could mean either that Judas had already contracted with the owner of the field that he originally had wanted to buy with the betrayal money; or--as is far more likely in this context--Peter was speaking ironically, stating that Judas acquired a piece of real estate all right, but it was only a burial plot (chorion could cover either concept), namely, the one on which his lifeless body fell.  





            More difficult to explain is that the graveyard is called “Field of Blood” in Matthew, but in Acts the term is applied to the place Judas committed suicide and his body burst apart.  Although two places could bear the same name at the same time in the same city, that would certainly seem to be pushing probability. 

            Of course it could be that the two are actually one and the same:  in a bit of grim irony those responsible for purchasing the gravesite for visitors bought the place where Judas had committed suicide.[29]  Certainly there would be a grim appropriateness to such a selection! 

            Furthermore there would be a certain degree of internal logic in the choice.  Foreign visitors had to be provided for in their death.  Yet they were far from likely to get more than the required polite minimum--think in terms of the modern “pauper’s grave.” 

Hence E. M. Blaiklock makes sense when he speculates that “[i]t was necessarily a remote and abandoned corner in some local ravine.  What more likely place would the remorseful traitor choose to hang himself and remain unnoticed till the rope broke and shred his remains down some rock face?  ‘A field of blood, indeed,’ horrified observers would say.”[30] 

            What little evidence on this score is available comes from too long afterwards to weigh heavily in coming to a decision.  For what it is worth, many centuries later when Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem began and their participants began to record their journeys, a distinction was already established between the location of the Field of Blood and where Judas hung himself.[31]  How much this reflects accurately preserved tradition is unknown.       

            A variant of the same question concerning nomenclature can be seen in those who emphasize the alleged shift of meaning in the expression “Field of Blood.”  In Matthew it means “Field of Blood(-money)” while in Acts it is Judas’ own blood that causes it to be called “Field of Blood.”[32]  This is a reasonable objection.  On the other hand, in both cases it could just as well mean “Field of (Judas’) blood” since in one place his own had been shed and in the other place the land purchased with the blood money he had never spent.  (Assuming that they were two separate places, of course.)   








[1] Long, 309.       


[2] van Unnik, 49-51, provides an interesting critique of the claim that Matthew’s account of Judas’ demise might be intentionally patterned on the Ahithophel account.     


[3] For a slightly different use of this passage in the current context, see MacArthur, 228.   


[4] Bruner, page 1023.      


[5] Enslin, 128.     


[6] William Klassen, Judas:  Betrayer or Friend of Jesus? (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1996), 167, 171.    


[7] Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts:  A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (New York:  Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), 32.     


[8] Luke T. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, in the Sacra Pagina series (Collegeville, Minnesota:  A Michael Glazier Book/Liturgical Press, 1992), 36.       


[9] Brownrigg, 210.  In a similar vein, Gundry, 553.    


[10] Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 344.   


[11] George W. Swope, Christ and His Apostles ( Lynchburg, Virginia:  J. P. Bell Company, Inc., 1912), 110.   


[12] As quoted by Kirsopp Lake, “The Death of Judas,” in The beginnings of Christianity; part 1:  The Acts of the Apostles; volume 5:  Additional Notes to the Commentary, edited by F. F. Foakes-Jackson and Kirsopp Lake (London:  Macmillan and Company, Limited, 1933), 26.        


[13] As quoted by Roman B. Halas, Judas Iscariot:  A Scriptural and Theological Study of His Person, His Deeds and His Eternal Lot, Ph.D. dissertation, Catholic University of America  (Washington, D.C.) (Published, Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 1945), 154.   


[14] Ibid., fn. 38, 154.  


[15] Ibid., 165.     


[16] On the Internet, Christine (last name not given) provides an interesting and lengthy argument ( [, March 25, 2002]) that the references to Jesus appearing to the “apostles” after the resurrection requires that this include Judas.  Judas purchased a property out of his thievery from the common purse--the thirty pieces of silver having been returned--and committed suicide via “hanging” himself on a stake rather than by a rope at some point before Pentecost.  A creative reading of the text, I concede, but not one I personally find anywhere near adequate. 


[17] Rendel Harris, “St. Luke’s Version of the Death of Judas,” American Journal of Theology 18 (1914):   127.  For a more detailed description see Rendell Harris, “Did Judas Really Commit Suicide?”  American Journal of Theology 4 (1900): 504.  


[18] For a summary of the story, see the lengthy footnote 1 of J. Rendell Harris, “Did Judas Really Commit Suicide?,” 490-492.


[19] F. W. Farrar, Texts Explained (Cleveland, Ohio:  F. M. Barton, 1899), 44, and Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 696.     


[20] Emil G. Kraeling, n. 10, 285-286, provides an interesting example. c. 70 A.D., of the hyper-scrupulousness that could occur in evaluating whether to accept a gift to the temple.         


[21] Halas, 148.      


[22] Josephus notes that under Nero, one Roman governor determined that 256,500 lambs had been offered at the Passover Festival.  At the traditional figure of ten participants or more per lamb, that meant at least 2,565,000 participants.  MacArthur, 133, and See William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, Revised Edition (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1975), 263.     


[23] Cf. John P. Kealy, Luke’s Gospel Today (Denville, New Jersey:  Dimension Books, 1979), 403.   


[24] Halas, 148.   


[25] Kraeling, 223.   


[26] Cf. Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts:  The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Academie Books, 1975, 1986), 52.   


[27] Edersheim, 575-576.    


[28] Archer, 344.  


[29] Farrar, 127, takes the view that the “two” sites were one and the same.  Stanley M. Horton, The Book of Acts (Springfield, Missouri:  Gospel Publishing House, 1981), 26-27 implies it.   


[30] E. M. Blaiklock, Acts:  The Birth of the Church (Old Tappan, New Jersey:  Fleming H. Revell Company, 1980), 16-17.   


[31] For quotations from c. 570 A.D. and 670 A.D., see Halas, 151.    


[32] Kraeling, 223, 224.