What happened to Judas Iscariot? I was listening to an episode of “The Big Conversation” the other day, and this issued was raised by Bart Ehrman. Ehrman insists that the accounts of Judas’ death are an example of a clear contradiction in the Bible. I’m actually somewhat surprised that Ehrman chose this particular example. I think there are much more difficult passages to try and reconcile or make sense of. But since he chose to use this example, I think an explanation should be offered.
Who Was Judas?
The Gospels all list Judas among the twelve disciples of Jesus. Usually a derogative term such as “the one who would betray Him” is added after the mention of Judas in the list of disciples. He was placed in charge of the group’s money, and was reported in the Gospel of John as regularly stealing from the treasury.
All of the gospels agree that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leadership on the night of the Passover celebration. They also all agree that Judas received 30 pieces of silver for doing this. Feeling remorse for his actions, Judas then tried to return the money to the Jewish leaders.
Or did he? There are two accounts of what happened to Judas after he betrayed Jesus.
The Two Accounts
3 Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
And they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!”
5 Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.
6 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. 8 Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. (Mt 27:3–8)
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.) Ac 1:16–19
What Are The Differences?
There seem to be two main differences in the accounts above. First, who bought the field? Was is Judas or the leaders? Second, how exactly did Judas die? Did he hang himself, or did he “fall headlong”?
Who Bought The Potters Field?
So who bought the Potters field? I think this one is fairly easy to figure out. The key is understanding what is being said by Peter in the book of Acts. Peter is saying that it was Judas’ actions that purchased the field. The wages he earned for his betrayal of Jesus were used by the priests to purchase the field in which he eventually dies.
But how did he die? This seems to be a bigger problem. In Matthew’s account, Judas goes out and hangs himself. In Acts, he “falls headlong” and his intestines burst out of his abdomen. How is it possible to reconcile these two accounts?
But How Did Judas Die?
To make sense of this, we’re going to have to look at the series of events in order. So first, Judas goes out and hangs himself. This is consistent with Matthew’s account. But what happens next? To figure this puzzle out, we need to understand what happens to bodies once they begin to decompose.
J. Warner Wallace is a cold case homicide detective. He describes what happens to bodies after they die:
“….dead bodies begin to decompose, particularly if undiscovered for a period of time. As bodies decompose, they begin to experience post mortem “bloating”. Dead bodies swell as bacteria within the body cavity begins to ingest the post mortem tissues and organs. This bacterial activity produces decomposition gasses which inflate the body disproportionately. I’ve been at several death scenes in which a victim was undiscovered for a number of days and was swollen beyond recognition by the time we got to the scene. Internal bacterial is the culprit in this swelling, and our bodies contain the largest amounts of such bacteria in our stomachs and intestines. While we are living, this bacteria is used to digest our food, but after we die it has the potential to cause tremendous bloating.
If Judas hanged himself in the Potter’s Field and remained undiscovered for a period of time, he would most likely experience such post-mortem bloating, especially if gasses couldn’t escape as the result of his ligature. If the rope eventually broke, his bloating body would fall to the ground and break open in the one area most distended by post-mortem bloating: his abdomen. Were this was the case, he would have “burst open in the middle” and “all his intestines” would have “gushed out”. Luke wasn’t being overly dramatic in his description, and although this may at first appear unlikely to those unfamiliar with death scenes, post mortem bloating would result in precisely such a condition.”
Ok, But “Falling Headlong”?
So after Judas hangs himself, the body decomposes. This makes sense of Luke’s description of the intestines gushing out. But what about the “falling headlong” part? Surely someone that hangs themselves wouldn’t fall headlong. How could that happen?
In looking at the passage in Luke, its interesting to notice the words he uses. He could have said that Judas stumbled or tripped. But he uses the word “fell”. And whatever height he fell from created a sufficient impact to have his entrails burst from his body. This would seem to indicate that the body was not mere feet off the ground, but higher up.
If Judas had hung himself from a tree, the body could very well have snagged on another branch and toppled. Another possibility is that no one actually witnessed his falling, but made a deduction based on the way the body came to rest on the ground.
Are The Accounts Really Contradictory?
Several of these possibilities were presented to Bart Ehrman in the conversation. He dismissed them as trying to make the Bible say things it doesn’t. I disagree. This is looking for a reasonable explanation for a difference in accounts between two authors. There is nothing unbelievable or even supernatural in the explanations offered. They are well reasoned possibilities. Contrary to Ehrman’s assertion, they two accounts are not irreconcilable.
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