The Death(s) of Judas

In light of a recent blog post by a certain pop-apologist,[1] I thought it might be appropriate to lay out a brief case for seeing the two accounts of Judas Iscariot’s death in the New Testament (Matthew 27:3-10; Acts 1:18-19) as contradictory. To begin with, let’s consider each passage in turn and then compare them to see how they differ.

Matthew 27:3-10

Regretting his actions in turning over Jesus to the religious authorities (cf. Matthew 26:14-16, 47-56) and having seen Jesus condemned to die (cf. Matthew 26:57-68; 27:1-2), Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve (cf. Matthew 10:4) goes to the chief priests and elders to return the thirty pieces of silver he was given in exchange for betraying Jesus (vs. 3; cf. Matthew 26:15). He declares to them, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (vs. 4; cf. vss. 18-19, 24-25). Unimpressed and uninterested in Judas’ sudden remorse, the chief priests basically respond with what amounts to “So what?” (vs. 4) Perhaps realizing he is too late to affect change on Jesus’ behalf, Judas throws down the silver into the temple, leaves, and hangs himself (vs. 5). The chief priests decide that since it is unlawful to put such “blood money” into the coffers of the temple treasury they would instead use it to purchase a field wherein to bury foreigners (vss. 6-7). The Field of Blood, as it would come to be known, is so named because it was purchased with the blood money Judas had returned to the priests (vs. 8). All of this Matthew connects to a prophecy of Jeremiah (vss. 9-10).

Acts 1:18-19

Having returned to Jerusalem from Mount of Olives upon which Jesus had ascended into heaven (vs. 12; cf. vss. 6-11), Peter and the other disciples find it necessary to bring the eleven disciples (cf. Luke 24:9, 33) back up to the Twelve by selecting one among them to replace Judas, the one “who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus” (vs. 16) and who was once “numbered among” the Twelve (vs. 17). It is then explained that Judas, having “acquired a field” with the money he received to betray Jesus, fell headlong and “burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (vs. 18). The field which he purchased became known as the Field of Blood (Hakeldama) because of the rather bloody end Judas met within it (vs. 19).

Comparing the Two

What are the key differences between these two versions of events?

(1) In the Matthean account, Judas dies by hanging himself. In the Lukan, he dies by falling headlong in the field he had purchased, splitting open in the middle, and having his guts spill out.

(2) In the Matthean account, Judas returns the money he had been given to betray Jesus and it is the chief priests who purchase a field. In the Lukan, Judas is the one who purchases the field.

(3) In the Matthean account, the etiology for the “Field of Blood” is that it was purchased with blood money, i.e. the money given to Judas to betray Jesus. In the Lukan, the etiology for “Field of Blood” is that Judas met a bloody end in the field.

Attempts at Reconciliation – #1

Can these accounts be reconciled? Pop-apologists certainly believe that they can. For example, in response to the claim that Judas dies one way in Matthew and another way in Acts, Norman Geisler and William Roach write,

First, Judas hangs himself. Then, sometime after his body is discovered, the rope cut (since it is forbidden to touch a dead body), and the body falls on sharp rocks and bursts open. Or the body has decayed enough that it breaks loose from the rope on its own. At any rate, the two accounts are speaking of the same events. The first one tells how he dies, and the second informs us of what happens later. No contradiction has been demonstrated since a possible explanation is available.[2]

This is a very contrived explanation but is surprisingly one that convinces a great many Christians, including the pop-apologist mentioned at the beginning of this post.[3] So why do I not find this explanation at all compelling? For one simple reason: I take the biblical texts seriously.

The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t tell us where Judas hanged himself, only that he did. The text also suggests that he did so right after throwing the money into the temple.[4] But the text also tells us that the chief priests used the money Judas had returned to them to purchase a field wherein to bury foreigners. This they did only after “conferring together,” something that surely happened after the events of Jesus crucifixion. Here’s why: Jesus is taken to Pilate early Friday morning (Matthew 27:1-2). The text of vs. 3 suggests that Judas sees Jesus being bound and led away which prompts his remorseful reaction.[5] He then meets with the chief priests before he hangs himself. But in the next scene (vss. 11-14), the chief priests are there with Jesus before Pilate accusing him (vs. 12) and they appear again when Pilate asks the crowd to choose either Barabbas or Jesus (vs. 20). Finally, when Jesus is crucified, they are there mocking him (vs. 41-43). There is in the narrative no time for them to discuss what to do with the returned blood money and purchase the field since they are tied up with making sure Jesus ends up dead! So, by the time they get around to purchasing this field, Judas has already hanged himself. Are we to believe that they purchased the very field wherein Judas died, supposing that Luke and Matthew are telling the same story? That seems like a stretch.

Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss. Wikimedia Commons.

And that isn’t the only stretch. In the narrative of Acts, the explanation for Judas’ absence from the Twelve says nothing about hanging. There isn’t even a hint of it. Rather, the text exhibits a kind of divinely arranged irony. Luke uses the Greek participle genomenos to describe what happened to Judas: prēnēs genomenos, “having become face down.”[6] Genomenos is in the passive voice and is used in other places in the book of Acts as an indicator that God is working behind the scenes. For example, in Acts 4:11 Peter proclaims, “This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become [genomenos] the cornerstone.” Who made Jesus, the rejected stone, the cornerstone? God, of course! And in Acts 12:23 we are told that “an angel of the Lord struck [Herod] down, and he was eaten by worms [genomenos skōlēkobrōtos] and died.” Who caused Herod’s death by worms? The text explicitly tells us: the angel of the Lord! Thus, the idea in Acts 1:18 is that Judas, intending to enjoy that which he had purchased “with the reward of his wickedness,” met a sudden and unexpected end.

Furthermore, Luke goes out of his way to suggest Judas wasn’t remorseful for what he had done. In Luke 22:3 we read that after the chief priests and scribes began to find a way to end Jesus, “Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot.” It is then that Judas goes to the chief priests to betray Jesus (vss. 4-6). Thus, Satan is at work in the narrative, lurking behind the scenes, seeking his opportunity to defeat Jesus (cf. Luke 4:13). Judas then acts not out of greed, as Matthew suggests (Matthew 26:15), but because he has become demon possessed. We should also note that there is no sign that Judas returned the money he had received for betraying Jesus. Rather, ektēsato chorion, “he purchased [for himself] land.”

Also arguing against the notion that the Lukan account in Acts is describing what happened to Judas’ body post-mortem is that the account seems to be portraying Judas’ demise in the trope of the death of a wicked man.[7] For example, in 2 Samuel 20 we read how David’s general Joab takes the traitorous Amasa (cf. 2 Samuel 17:25) and runs him through with his sword “so that his entrails poured out on the ground, and he died” (vs. 10). And in 2 Maccabees 9 we read how Antiochus Epiphanes dies having his body “swarmed with worms, and while he was still living in anguish and pain, his flesh rotted away, and because of the stench the whole army felt revulsion at his decay” (vs. 9). And, as we’ve already discussed, in Acts the wicked Herod dies in a rather gruesome way similar to that of Antiochus (Acts 12:23). What all this shows is that Judas in Acts 1:18 dies and the text is not describing what happened to his body following a presumed hanging. The Lukan author, in Acts 1:18, is describing why Judas is no longer counted among the Twelve: he died a very gruesome death at the hands of God.

Attempts at Reconciliation – #2

According to Matthew 27:4-7, Judas returns the blood money to the priests which they then use to purchase a field. Luke, on the other hand, says that Judas purchased the field. Can these two accounts be reconciled? Some think that they can. For example, Daniel Wallace writes,

The text [of Acts 1:18] seems to suggest that Judas himself purchased the field in which he was later buried. However, Matt 27:7 specifically states that the chief priests purchased the field after Judas had died. It would be difficult to reconcile these two texts from the English point of view. But from the Greek, it is easy to see [ektēsato] as a causative middle, indicating that ultimately Judas purchased the field, in that it was purchased with his “blood money.”[8]

This explanation is hardly convincing. The underlying assumption is that the author of Luke’s Gospel knew the tradition in Matthew’s concerning Judas’ fate. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. One reason for thinking so is that Luke’s etiology for “Field of Blood” is very different from Matthew’s. This suggests an independent tradition, one that was either unaware of what is found in the Gospel of Matthew or disagreed with it.

Another reason is that Matthew’s Gospel makes it very plain that Judas, after he feels remorse for his betrayal, wants nothing to do with the money he had received. The sense one gets from Matthew, then, is that Judas feels very deeply about what he has done such that he cannot bear to live with what he has done. Given that in Acts 1:18 Judas’ payment is a “reward of his wickedness,” it stands to reason that he didn’t receive payment until after the scene in Gethsemane. All Luke says is that the chief priests “agreed to give him money” (Luke 22:5), not that they gave him money up front. This agrees with the sense in the Gospel of Mark which Luke used as a source (cf. Mark 14:11). In Matthew’s Gospel, Judas approaches the chief priests asking them what they’ll offer him to do it at which point they paid him (Matthew 26:15).

Attempts at Reconciliation – #3

The etiology for “Field of Blood” in Matthew’s Gospel is that it is so called because of the blood money with which it was purchased. In Luke’s Gospel, the etiology is different. There it is so called because of the bloody end Judas met therein. Can these two versions be reconciled? In his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Grant Osborne contends that the naming “is a both-and rather than an either-or. Matthew centers on one aspect, Acts on the other.”[9] Does this work?

In Matthew’s Gospel, the text says, “For this reason [dio] the field has been called the Field of Blood to this day” (Matthew 27:8). That is, on account of the blood money, the field was named the “Field of Blood” and had been called that for that reason until Matthew’s day. Luke, on the other hand, reports that the gory death of Judas “became known [gnōston egeneto] to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that [hōste] the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts 1:19). This cannot be a both-and situation for both authors give different reasons for the naming of the field, Matthew using the conjunction dio and Luke using the conjunction hōste.

Why Two Different Stories?

So why then do we have two different versions of the demise of Judas in the New Testament? To answer that we must consider how each author constructed their narratives. In Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests are culpable for the rejection of the messiah. They are the ones who plot to destroy Jesus (Matthew 26:3-5) and eagerly accept Judas’ help in doing so (Matthew 26:14-16). Furthermore, they not only have thrown at Jesus false accusations (Matthew 26:59-61) but they accuse him when Jesus is before Pilate (Matthew 27:12). And then they rile up the crowds into a frenzy and have them choose Barabbas over Judas (Matthew 27:20). They mock Jesus while he hangs on the cross (Matthew 27:41-43) and persuade Pilate to allow Jesus’ tomb to be guarded so that rumors of resurrection don’t break out (Matthew 27:62-66). For Matthew, it is the Jewish religious establishment that is responsible for the death of Jesus and the rejection of him as Messiah: “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25) The story of Judas communicates the absolute vitriol the chief priests had for Jesus. If even the greedy turncoat changed his mind about Jesus, shouldn’t the righteous guardians of Judaism do the same? And yet they do not. Even Pilate recognizes Jesus’ innocence and still they persist! The Jewish religious establishment, then, is guilty of crucifying the Jewish messiah.

From Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Pilate Washing his Hands. Wikimedia Commons.

But Luke’s condemnation of the religious authorities is not so pronounced. Sure, they accuse Jesus (Luke 23:10) but there are no false accusations and no whipping up of the crowd. Rather, what happens to Jesus seems to be the work of Satan who had been waiting for his moment to reenter the fray against Jesus (Luke 4:13) and possesses Judas to get the job done (Luke 22:3). And though Pilate doesn’t wash his hands of the ordeal as in Matthew, he is certainly unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt (Luke 23:14-16, 20-22). So, Luke isn’t setting up the Jewish religious authorities to take the fall for Jesus’ death as Matthew had. Instead, there are bigger forces at work here; forces that are beyond the Jews and beyond mighty Rome. It is why in Gethsemane the Lukan Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38) but rather his concern is for their own souls: “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Luke 22:40).  It is why the Lukan Jesus goes to the cross so serenely, more concerned with Jerusalem’s citizens that for himself (Luke 23:28-31). It is why when he hangs on the cross, he tells the penitent thief hanging next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is why there is no Markan cry of dereliction (Matthew 27:46) but rather the calm and resolute, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). The Lukan Jesus knows God is in control and there is nothing that should worry him. And because God is in control, Judas meets his fate in a fitting manner.

Muting the Authors’ Voices

Attempts to reconcile passages like Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19 are not only futile but disrespectful. In creating these tired and contrived explanations, pop-apologists mute the voice of the authors, forcing upon them a view that they did not hold. The obsession with inerrancy is to blame for it asserts something about the Bible that the Bible does not assert for itself. The moral of the story is this: let the authors say what they want to say. Embrace the contradiction and learn to live with its tension.

The biblical texts do not need to be reconciled; they simply need to be read.


[1] See S.J. Thomason, “Did Judas Hang Himself or Did He Fall?” (5.17.19), christian-apologist.com.

[2] Norman L. Geisler and William C. Roach, Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation (Baker Books, 2011), electronic edition, ch. 17. (830).

[3] She writes,

In fact, the two passages give us a much more vivid picture of Judas’ suicide. Only taken together do we come to understand that Judas hung himself and eventually fell with his body bursting open, likely due to its decomposition.

[4] In Matthew 27:5 we read that Judas “went and hanged himself.” In reality, there is no conjunction between “went” and “hanged himself.” The Greek text literally reads kai apelthōn apēnxato, “and, having left, he hanged himself.” The author employs an aorist participle (apelthōn) and an aorist verb (apēnxato) to stress the immediacy with which Judas carries out the act.

[5] Matthew 27:3 begins with the adverb tote (i.e. “then” or “at that time”). Coupled with the aorist participle idōn, the implication is the at the moment he saw Jesus being condemned, he felt remorse for what he had done. It is unlikely that Judas would have been in the house of Caiaphas to witness the actual trial.  

[6] See C. K. Barrett, Acts 1-14, ICC (T&T Clark, 1994), 98.

[7] James D.G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 19.

[8] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Zondervan, 1996), 424. See also F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1984), 49.

[9] Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, ZECNT (Zondervan, 2010), 1013.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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2 Comments

  1. Here again, we’re anguishing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! Yes, apologists MUST try and reconcile the irreconcilable; that’s the very nature of “faith.” We see this all over the NT as there are so many areas in which the gospels contradict each other. And, as you so adroitly point out in your writing, many of them simply can not be reconciled. Such is the nature of faith and mythology. Thank you for your write-up, I enjoyed it immensely. RaPaR!

    Liked by 1 person

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