How did Judas die? Ehrman on the Judas death in Matthew and Luke

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Akeldama, The Field of Blood. Image Credit: Wikimedia

The commonly held view that Judas went out and “hanged himself” comes from Matthew (27:3-10). After Judas sees that his betrayal has led to Jesus’ conviction, he feels remorse and tries to return his pay of thirty pieces of silver to the Jewish chief priests, telling them that he has “sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They refuse to accept the money, however, so he throws it down in the Temple and goes out and hangs himself. The chief priests then collect the money, but decide that they cannot put it back into the Temple treasure because it is “blood money” — money that has been tainted with innocent blood. So they decide to put it to good use and purchase a potter’s field,” presumably a field from which potters took clay, as a place to bury foreigners who died in Jerusalem. It is because it was purchased with Judas’s blood money, we are told, that the place “has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”

Luke’s account in the book of Acts has some similarities: the death of Judas is connected with the purchase of a field that is called “the Field of Blood.” But the details are in stark contrast to — even contradict — the story as told by Matthew. In Acts (1:18-19) we are told that Judas himself, not the Jewish priests, purchased the field with “the reward of his wickedness,” the money he earned for his betrayal. And it is not said that he hanged himself. Instead we learn that he fell “headlong” and “burst open in the middle” so that “his bowels gushed out.” For Luke the reason the field was called the Field of Blood was because Judas bled all over it…

The point is, though, that the two reports give different accounts of how Judas died. However mysterious it may be to say he fell headlong and burst open, at the least that is not “hanging” oneself. And they are flat out contradictory on two other points: who purchased the field (the priests, as per Matthew, or Judas, as per Acts?) and why the field was called the field of blood (because it was purchased with blood money, as Matthew says, or because Judas bled all over it, as Acts says?). [Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). New York: HarperCollins, 2009, pp. 45-46)

The Judas death is not an event I enjoy reading in the Gospels and the reminder in Acts 1 is just as bad. I’ll do my best in this post to not get into too many details, though the details themselves are gruesome enough that you may accuse me of having not accomplished my goal by the end of this post.

We’ve been taking a good look at the so-called “contradictions” of the New Testament in particular, though we’ve also examined some Old Testament ones recently (there’s a post on the fifth and seventh plagues of Exodus 9 that will be published in a few days). Bart Ehrman is more of a New Testament scholar, which is where he’s placed the lions’ share of his contradiction claims regarding Scripture.

Ehrman is disputing two things here: 1) who purchased the Field of Blood, and 2) how Judas died, so we’ll tackle these one at a time. First, let’s approach how Judas died.

How Judas died: hanging or falling headlong and bursting open?

Judas agrees to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. Credit: Getty Images

How did Judas die? Did he hang himself, as Matthew 27 says, or did he fall head first and burst open? These are contradictions, according to Bart Ehrman, which means that he views Matthew and Luke as providing two different accounts in the Gospel of Matthew and Acts.

Let’s first read the account in Matthew’s Gospel:

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, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.”

And they said, “What is that to us? You see to it!

Then he threw down the pieces of silver in the temple and departed, and went and hanged himself.

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.” 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 27:3-10)

And now, Luke’s account in Acts 1:

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.) (Acts 1:15-19)

First, let’s look at how Judas died. Matthew 27 says that Judas “hanged himself,” which tells us that he hung by a rope. That’s it. There’s nothing else that Matthew says. Matthew wasn’t a doctor, so we don’t expect much detail from him regarding the nature of Judas’s death. Luke, on the other hand, is a physician — and, if one assumes he wrote the Gospel of Luke and then the history of the church (Acts), then it would make sense for him to provide more detail on how the suicide occurred.

Ehrman says that “hanging oneself” is not the same as one falling head-first and having his or her entrails gush out, but how would Ehrman know? Is he a doctor? Is he a physician? How would he know the exact natural processes that occur in a hanging? And even if he can imagine them, how can he deny Luke’s account outright with little medical training? I myself am not a doctor, but I can follow Luke’s account to see that his details on the Judas suicide are conceivable.

It seems likely, though, that Judas did hang himself, and that Luke’s account is further detail on what happened in the hanging. Think on this: if Judas hung himself, and the rope is hanging around his neck and swinging, then the motion of the rope and the force around his neck could have caused the rope to break and Judas to plunge “head-first” into the field. With regard to his entrails gushing out, the force of the rope around his neck, once rigor mortis set in, could’ve caused his body to swell that the gushing out of his entrails isn’t a far-fetched idea. The rope could’ve been very tightly tied. Millard Erickson suggests as much in his work Christian Theology where he says:

Having hanged himself, Judas was not discovered for some time. In such a situation the visceral organs begin to degenerate first, causing a swelling of the abdomen characteristic of cadavers that have not been properly embalmed. And so, “swelling up [Judas] burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.” While there is no way of knowing whether this is what actually took place, it seems to be a workable and adequate resolution of the difficulty.” (Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 1998, page 263. Bold font mine.)

Thus, Judas’s suicide details in Acts 1, contra Ehrman, don’t detract from the account that Matthew provides; rather, Luke’s details add to what Matthew has said, with Matthew, our Jewish disciple, remaining quiet about the details of how Judas died.

Only Luke reports added detail regarding the death of Judas. This is important for one significant reason. We’ll cover that below.

Neither Matthew nor Luke witnessed the death of Judas

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Judas and the kiss of betrayal

Here’s a point worth noting: neither Matthew nor Luke, nor any of the other Gospel writers, witnessed the death of Judas. Matthew writes that “Judas hanged himself,” which tells us nothing about how Judas did it and what happened as he tightened the rope, for example (I’m thankful Matthew conveniently left these details out). Luke wasn’t there to see how Judas did it, so the accounts from Matthew and Luke are conclusions reached based on the physical evidence.

It’s likely the case that the rope indicates suicide. Luke, providing an account “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us” (Luke 1:2), is able to talk to those around at the time, including a doctor or medical examiner in those days, to determine how Judas died. He likely saw some suicide cases up-close and could verify the details regarding death — but it’s likely he drew his details from a medical report.

If he investigated everything, Luke would’ve stumbled across some medical experts who investigated Judas’s death. His details in Acts 1 are living proof that Luke did investigate everything. Contra Ehrman, Luke didn’t pull these details out of thin air.

Peter on the Judas suicide, and why Matthew describes so little

I don’t think Luke puts details into Peter’s mouth, though. Peter likely knew how Judas died because there was a medical examiner who was forced to examine the cause or nature of Judas’s suicide. As is the case today, it was also the case in Peter’s day that medical examiners or doctors could’ve ruled out a homicide and labeled Judas’s death a suicide (by the physical marks on the neck alone). Peter, then, has likely discovered what he has by way of a doctor during his day.

Even if Peter knew how Judas died, Matthew didn’t concern himself with those details, choosing to just say “Judas hanged himself” than go into too much detail about the matter. Peter says what he does because he knew how Judas died. Luke adds it here because it’s something he may have been interested in (Luke was a physician) and wanted his readership to know. Doctors are interested in medical details; it’s innate.

Matthew describes little detail because perhaps Matthew wasn’t a fan of suicide or death. I feel the same as Matthew.

Conclusion

Neither Matthew nor Luke witnessed the death of Judas, but both had to draw their details from medical conclusions. When someone was found dead, it was often the case that the death cause or nature had to be verified medically (the same as today). This means that Matthew and Luke had to draw their conclusions from a medical report by either viewing the report (as it’s likely Luke did) or by talking with those who read it or witnessed the event. We don’t know who “found Judas,” but the disciples must have known. After all, Judas was a fellow disciple.

We’ve covered so much about Peter, Luke, and Matthew, but we’ll end this post by saying that Ehrman is wrong to claim “contradiction” here with Matthew and Luke’s accounts. As we’ve seen with Millard Erickson’s quote above, it’s likely that Judas could’ve “burst open” from the entrails, then the rope could’ve popped and Judas could’ve fell head first on the ground (his entrails already exploded).

Once again, he assumes a “surface” contradiction, but the two accounts can be reconciled — which means it’s another win for those committed to the clear message of Scripture.