How Did Judas Die?

My sister recently asked: I’m reading Acts 1:18 and it says that Judas bought the Field of Blood and burst open with his entrails. I thought he hung himself!

She gave me permission to share my answer…

The difference between Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:16-22 is a well-known synoptic problem: two stories of Judas’s death. Sometimes, this is said to be a contradiction in the Bible, though evangelical scholars often explain it by saying that Judas attempted to hang himself from a high tree or a cliff, and then the rope broke and he fell. (Or, try this more gruesome explanation.) That’s entirely possible, and not nearly as implausible as some harmonizations that inerrantists propose for other apparent contradictions in the Gospels and Acts.

Both stories agree that Judas used the blood money to buy a field, killed himself, and then the field was called “BloodField” (not BloomField). Acts never says that Judas felt guilt over killing Jesus, only that he died in the field. Matthew says that he felt remorse and hung himself, but it doesn’t say that it happened in the field. We therefore have what scholars would call “competing aetiologies” for the name of “BloodField”: is it called “blood” because it was purchased with blood money, or because Judas’s blood was literally spilled there? Or, both?

(Another example of “competing aetiologies” is the name of “Beersheba” in Genesis. Be’er means “well,” and sheva’ can mean either “seven” or “oath/promise.” Genesis 21:22-34 reads be’er-sheva’ as “Well-of-Seven,” referring to the seven ewe lambs Abraham gives to Abimelech as proof that he dug the well. Genesis 26:12-33 reads be’er-sheva’ as “Well-of-Oath,” referring to the oath of friendship between Isaac and Abimelech. Again, both stories could be true.)

What’s more interesting to me than the actual way that Judas died is the ways in which Matthew and Luke interpret his death through the lens of OT Scripture. Matthew quotes Zechariah 11 (even though he says it’s from Jeremiah–another problem), in which the prophet figuratively serves as a bad shepherd who sells out his sheep to be slaughtered in exchange for thirty pieces of silver. It’s a sign of judgment against the bad shepherds of Israel and Judah, and a symbol of exile and division of the people. Matthew sees in this passage typology of Judas betraying Jesus to be slaughtered. Maybe it’s a conscious decision, or maybe he’s just remembering “thirty pieces of silver” and, motivated by a desire to see Jesus in the OT, he applies the OT passage in a rather creative way.

In Acts, Peter’s speech links Judas’s actions with two imprecatory psalms, Pss 69 and 109. Judas is now cut off and his field is no longer usable because he died there. Therefore, “another must take his office,” and the apostles must choose a replacement apostle. I’m not sure this is what the psalmist in Ps 109 had in mind, but it fits what Peter is trying to communicate. The Psalms, even more than other books of the OT, were understood by the earliest Christians as referring typologically to Christ–even spoken by Christ through David, his ancestor and a prophet. Compare Peter’s use of Pss 69 and 109 here to the uses of psalms in Acts 2:25-36; 4:25-26; Eph 4:8; Mk 15:34 and Lk 23:46.

Puzzling, right? But interesting.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, living and learning in Eastern Europe…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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One Response to How Did Judas Die?

  1. Pingback: Best of 2016 | think hard, think well

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