This entry is part 65 of 145 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 1:27 – a hint of male headship?
- Genesis 2:23 – Does naming imply authority?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 9:20-25 – the ‘Curse of Ham’
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 19 – What was the sin of Sodom?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 – Homosexual acts prohibited?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- Ruth 3:6-9 – Did Ruth seduce Boaz?
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Isaiah 14:12 – Is Satan a fallen angel?
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:13-18 – The Flight to Egypt
- Matthew 2:16 – The Slaughter of the Innocents
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Mt 3:17/Mk 1:11/Lk 3:22 – What did the voice say?
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Mt 8:28-34; Mk 5:1-17; Lk 8:26-37 – Of pigs and demons
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Mt 27:3–10; Acts 1:18f – How did Judas die?
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 4:18 – “Good news to the poor”
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- Luke 23:43 – “Today you will be with me in paradise”
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 1:51 – ‘Angels ascending and descending’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- Mt 1:24f/13:55/Jn 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 3:5 – ‘Born of water and spirit’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:2 – “Many dwelling places”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 14:28 – “The Father is greater than I am”
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- Jn 20:22/Acts 2 – How many Pentecosts?
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 1:6 – a misguided question?
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Romans 1:26-27 – ‘Natural’ and ‘unnatural’ sexual relations
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 7:14 – Sanctified spouses, holy children
- 1 Corinthians 10:4 – a moveable rock?
- 1 Corinthians 13:10 – When will ‘what is perfect’ come?
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Thessalonians 4:17 – a pre-tribulation ‘rapture’?
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- 1 Jn 5:16f – The sin that does, and the sin that does not, lead to death
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Matthew 27:3 Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 27:4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!” 27:5 So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself. 27:6 The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.” 27:7 After consulting together they bought the Potter’s Field with it, as a burial place for foreigners. 27:8 For this reason that field has been called the “Field of Blood” to this day. 27:9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price had been set by the people of Israel, 27:10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Acts 1:18 (Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 1:19 This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”)
The accounts of Judas’ death in Mat 27 and Acts 1 diverge in a number of ways. Matthew says that Judas died by handing. Acts describes the consequences of his headfirst fall.
The contributors to Harper’s Bible Commentary seem to think that the two accounts are irreconcilable. The Matthew account is ‘a legendary explanation of the name of Akeldama’ (‘Field of Blood’).’ Acts ‘may suggest an accidental fall from a building or even a suicidal leap.’ But to suppose that this led to a bursting of the abdomen requires a stretching of credulity greater than the supposition of a harmony between the two accounts.
David Williams (UBCS) thinks that any attempt to harmonise the two accounts would be ‘somewhat forced’, and that we may have to accept that two contrasting accounts of Judas’ death were in circulation. But, even so, it is clear that Judas died a violent death and that his demise was in some way connected with a plot of land that became known as ‘blood field’.
Marshall, similarly, thinks it possible that either Matthew or Luke was simply reporting what was commonly said in Jerusalem, making harmonisation unnecessary.
However, as Blomberg points out, both Evangelists distinguish between popular but untrustworthy reports from reliable ones (Mt 28:11-15; Acts 9:11-14).
How might these accounts fit together?
Both events are, of course, terrible in their own way, and it is not difficult to see why one account might stress one thing and another account the other.
According to the Holman Apologetics Commentary,
‘It is evident that Matthew wants to discuss more than just Judas’s fate; he also wants to make known the involvement of the Jewish leadership in the betrayal of Jesus. This fits Matthew’s polemic against the leadership. In distinction from this approach, Acts is interested only in Judas’s eventual fate, not in any intervening activity, including any regret (however temporary or permanent) Judas may have felt.’
Marshall thinks that the following harmonisation is possible:
‘(1). Judas hanged himself (Matt.), but the rope broke and his body was ruptured by the fall (possibly after he was already dead and beginning to decompose);
(2). What the priests bought with Judas’s money (Matt.) could be regarded as his purchase by their agency (Acts);
(3). The field bought by the priests (Matt.) was the one where Judas died (Acts).’
It is to be noted that Acts does not tell us that this was how Judas died (whereas Matthew does).
‘What may well have happened is that the rope broke and his body fell into the field (or perhaps that his body was thrown into the field afterward). This is possible, for Luke in Acts 1 is explaining the name of the field and chose those details that fit his explanation.’
Comparing Matthew’s account with that found in Acts 1, Green remarks:
‘It is not very difficult to reconcile those two accounts. Judas went and hanged himself: then either his corpse rotted and fell, or the rope broke and he fell and his insides were ruptured and gushed out. Either Judas had already acquired this field previously, or the priests bought the field in Judas’ name with the money that was still legally his and which they could not receive back into the treasury because it was blood money (6). The field fittingly became a cemetery (the meaning of the Aramaic ‘Akeldama’ in Acts 1:19).’
James Bejon: Judas as recalling Absalom (Matthew) and Ahab (Luke)
James Bejon, while acknowledging the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, maintains that the two are not irreconcilable. Each has its own emphases, serving the different purposes of the authors:
‘Matthew wants us to see Judas as an Absalom—a man who ends up hung as a result of his own selfish ambition—while Luke wants us to see Judas as an Ahab—a man whose ill-gotten ends up soiled by his blood—and each author’s portrayal of Judas has important Christological implications.’
The substance of the two accounts is the same:
‘Judas betrays Jesus for a pre-agreed sum of money; a field is purchased with the money; and Judas ends up dead in the field.’
‘Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests (Matt. 27.3–8), while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field owned by Judas (Acts 1.18–19).’
But there is no compelling reason to dismiss either (or both) of the accounts as ahistorical, for each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’ death:
‘Matthew describes the means by which Judas decides/tries to kill himself, that is, asphyxiation, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, that is, prostrate on the ground.’
Of course, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground for a number of reasons, especially bearing in mind that Deut 21:23 forbids a body hanging on a tree overnight, and that Absalom’s body was hung from a tree and later cut down (2 Sam 18:9-11,17).
So it is quite plausible that one witness saw Judas hanging from the tree, while another saw his body after it had fallen.
This is not a case of desperate harmonisation, but rather a case of one account tying up the loose ends of another:
‘By way of illustration, consider the situation described in Matthew 27. To distance themselves from Judas’s blood money, the chief priests buy a field with it. Yet, if it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, why was it permissible for them to own a field bought with it? Furthermore, if Judas died a bloodless death (because he hung himself), how come the field in which he died acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’?’
‘Matthew provides us with a theological answer to the question, viz., because the field was bought with ‘blood money’. In historical terms, however, a different answer is required, since Judas’s money is referred to as ‘blood money’ only by the priests (Matt. 27:6), who are unlikely to have named a field after an incident they wanted to hush up. Luke tells us ‘what comes to be known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem’ at large: Acts 1:19.’
Conversely, Luke’s account has some loose ends that are tied up for us by Matthew:
‘How did Judas’s body end up on the ground burst open? People fall over every day, often quite hard, but their insides don’t normally burst out.’
‘Judas’s body wasn’t simply hung: after it was hung, it fell to the ground, which it did from a significant height, quite possibly in a bloated state.’
‘why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? If Judas bought the field in the standard way, why doesn’t Luke use a standard verb like ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω)?’
‘Judas didn’t in fact ‘buy’ the field in the standard way: the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.’
It is interesting that each account reflects something of the traditional understanding of each of the authors’ occupations and interests:
‘Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death— how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the chief priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.’
We don’t know how Judas’ body ended up on the ground. Perhaps the branch snapped, or someone cut the body down. But it is not necessary to answer this question in order to show that the two accounts are reconcilable.
But, since there are significant, though complementary, differences between the two accounts, we must enquire about the authors’ purposes in emphasising certain aspects.
Note the similarities between the death of Judas and that of Absalom, who, like Judas,
- is described as the king’s ‘friend’, 2 Sam 12:11 (cf. Mt 26:50)
- feigned loyalty to the king, 2 Sam 14:33
- dies hanging from a tree, 2 Sam 18:9f
We know that Matthew is very interested in how Jesus fulfils the story of Israel (see Matt 1:22, 2:15, 17, 23, 3:15, 4:15, 5:17, etc.).
‘For Matthew, Jesus is the true Son of David (Mt 1:1). As such, Jesus has to ‘fill up’ each and every aspect of David’s life (sin apart), which he does. At his birth, he becomes an heir of David’s throne (compare Matt 1.1 with 2–17); in his death and betrayal, he becomes separated from David’s kingdom (though not as a result of his sin); and, in his resurrection, he inherits the fulness of David’s kingdom—‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matt 28.18).’
Matthew’s account of the death of Judas doesn’t differ from that of Luke because they are drawing on different (and incompatible) sources. Rather, he picks out those features that best fit his overall purpose in writing his Gospel.
‘He omits the less Absalomic aspects of Judas’s death (the fact Judas ends up disembowelled) in order to draw his reader’s attention to the more Absalomic aspect of Judas’s death (the fact he’s hung).’
There are, of course, other OT connections that Matthew makes in connection with the death of Judas: note the references to Jeremiah and Zechariah. So the Absalom allusion is not exhaustive; but it is significant.
We have seen that
‘whereas Matthew has Judas end up in a field due to a technicality in Temple law, Luke has Judas acquire a field due to his love of money, and…whereas Matthew has Judas die by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood.’
It would seem that Luke, in making his selection of the material, wanted us to view Judas’ death (and, by extension, that of Jesus) in the light of a different OT incident.
At beginning of his Gospel, Luke has stressed the lowliness of Jesus:
‘Whereas Matthew has Jesus born ‘king of the Jews’, Luke describes Jesus’ birth in far more understated terms: he has Mary and Joseph hail from lowly Nazareth rather than royal Bethlehem; he has Jesus visited by mere shepherds rather than dignitaries from foreign lands; and he has Jesus presented at the Temple by parents who are unable to afford the standard sacrifices. As such, Luke emphasises Jesus’ poverty rather than his royal pedigree, which determines his portrayal of Judas.’
But now consider the distinctives of Luke’s portrayal of Judas:
‘a man consumed by greed who condemns a godlly Israelite to death for the price of a plot of land, and whose ‘reward’ ends up stained by the Israelite’s blood.’
This brings to mind one OT character in particular – Ahab,
‘a man who was consumed by his desire for a vineyard, who condemned a godly Israelite to death in order to acquire it, and whose blood ended up spilt on the soil not far away (1 Kings 21:19, 22:38). Consider also how both Ahab and Judas’s lineages are alike condemned (compare Elijah’s imprecation in 1 Kings 21:20–25 with Peter’s in Acts 1:20).’
But if Judas recalls Ahab, then Jesus recalls Naboth:
‘If Matthew’s Jesus is the David to Judas’s Absalom, then Luke’s Jesus is the Naboth to Judas’s Ahab—a vineyard-owner who was slandered by false witnesses at a religious assembly so the powerful could take possession of his vineyard (or at least try). Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is thus very different from Matthew’s: while Matthew’s Jesus is a Davidic king, Luke’s is a Naboth-like victim.’
So, whereas Matthew and Mark emphasise the crucified Jesus’ kingship (dressed in a royal robe of purple or scarlet, and declared ‘the Son of God’, cf. Psa 2),
‘Luke has him clothed in the resplendent (λαμπρός) robe of the saints in reflection of his Naboth-like innocence (compare Luke 23.11 with Rev. 19.8, 22.1); and [Luke’s centurian] simply declares Jesus “innocent”.’
All of this fits well with Luke’s overall scheme:
‘For Luke, the Gospel is for the poor and oppressed, and the kingdom of God is about the reversal of the world’s wrongs—a time when valleys are lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly are exalted and the proud humbled, and Lazarus-like beggars change places with the rich.’
If at the end of Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus in the place of the poor and the oppressed, then at the beginning of Acts the great reversal begins:
‘Jesus ascends into realms of glory, the Ahab-like Judas receives his comeuppance, and, as the Gospel goes forth, the mighty continue to fall.’
The two accounts of Judas’ death need not be read as contradictory. But, on the other hand, we should recognise and welcome their differences as bringing out meaning which was clearly important for the Gospel writers and which should can be of interest and significance for Bible readers today.