Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How did Judas die?

There are four conflicting accounts of the death of Judas in early Christian literature.  There is one account in the Gospel of Matthew, one in the Book of Acts, one in the fragments of Papias, and one in the Gospel of Judas.  In this post I will first compare the canonical texts and then follow up with the fragment of Papias.  All three of these accounts have Judas dying a violent death in retribution for his actions in life.  The reason I am not touching on the Gospel of Judas account is because it presents, in a prescient vision of Judas, the opposite sentiment, namely that Judas died as an innocent, stoned by the other disciples.

Let us first take up Matthew's account: Matt. 27:3-10
 10 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7 After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. 8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
There are a few things to notice here.  First, Judas is repentant, he feels bad about what he has done.  The second is the thirty pieces of silver.  This comes from the Old Testament, from the book of Zechariah, and not Jeremiah as Matthew claims.  Third, Judas hangs himself.  Fourth, there is a field that is bought with the thirty pieces of silver, a field called the field of blood.

Now to Luke's version in Acts: Acts 1:16-20
16 “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms,
    ‘Let his homestead become desolate,
        and let there be no one to live in it’;
  ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
This is an interesting and surprisingly different account of the death of Judas.  First, Judas feels no remorse.  Second, there are no thirty pieces of silver.  Judas is not hanged, but rather, falls headlong and just bursts open, spilling his guts.  Finally, there is a field of blood, but it is bought by Judas, not by the priests.  Luke's version also claims fulfillment of scripture, but he draws on the Psalms (69; 109) not Zechariah.

But, there are similarities.  In both Judas dies a violent death (hanging/bursting), both make reference to a field.

Now, lets take a look at the third account from Papias (Warning, very gruesome verbal imagery is used in this text).
Judas was a terrible, walking example of ungodliness in this world, his flesh so bloated that he was not able to pass through a place where a wagon passes easily, not even his bloated head by itself. For his eyelids, they say, were so swollen that he could not see the light at all, and his eyes could not be seen, even by a doctor using an optical instrument, so far had they sunk below the outer surface. His genitals appeared more loathsome and larger than anyone else’s, and when he relieved himself there passed through it pus and worms from every part of his body, much to his shame. After much agony and punishment, they say, he finally died in his own place, and because of the stench the area is deserted and uninhabitable even now; in fact, to this day no one can pass that place unless they hold their nose, so great was the discharge from his body and so far did it spread over the ground.
Similarities: Judas has his own place (field), he dies a violent death. Besides those similarities, the accounts are strikingly different.  Judas does not die right away, but becomes a living example of his ungodliness.  He gets bloated like a balloon, he cannot see, his body appears to be beginning to decay even while he lives.

So, the question for today, which death of Judas is most fitting?

While on the topic of Judas, check out this U2 video "Until the End of the World." The lyrics make sense if you realize the song was written from the perspective of Judas.



  1. i think that the last death of judas that u describe is the most fitting. in the description the describe his a terrible person and an example of ungodliness. for a person of this terrible social stature only a violent an gruesome death is fitting in the bible to show that what goes around comes around. by this i mean he deserves what came to him because of his horrible ways

  2. Fascinating. I'm not going to address the fragment of Papias, though that sounds like something out of a J.J. Abrams television show.

    I'm gonna go all lawyer on you here. If you construe the Acts passage narrowly, I think that it can be read together with Matthew fairly easily. First, it doesn't say that he purchased the field himself. It says he acquired it with the fruits of his wickedness. Whether purchased by Judas himself or the priests bought it with the silver he was paid, they acquired it on his behalf. So, in essence, he acquired it either way.

    Secondly, Acts doesn't say that he died in the field. It says he fell headlong in the field, he busts open in the middle, and his bowels gush out. Now, the Matthew passage doesn't say that the priests put Judas' body in the field, but it's a pretty simple conclusion to make; why would priests purchase a potters field and bury Judas elsewhere? If Judas was buried (or placed) there, then he certainly would have eventually split at the middle and his bowels come gushing forth. Read together, the two aren't necessarily in conflict.

    Just my lawyer brain using statutory construction on biblical passages.

  3. Personally, I like account of Acts the most. Luke leaves an open-ended statement about the death of Judas when he says, "falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out." This allows readers to interpret the text in whatever manner seems fitting. People may think he commited suicide (such as the passage in Matthew), eatten by worms (like the Papias), or stoned by the discples (Gospel of Judas).

    However, the fact that Judas shows no remorse suggests that another party may be involved. This causes me to believe that sickness or the disciples may have been the cause of Judas' death.

  4. Keith, have you heard from Jesse lately? Isn't he doing his dissertation on the death of Judas? Anyway, I love these accounts. One way I've heard that people try to reconcile the two biblical accounts is by saying that upon hanging himself, the rope snapped and Judas fell headlong and burst in the middle. Personally, I find this highly implausible and instead think this is a great jumping off point for a discussion about why we don't need to reconcile every inconsistency in the Bible.