The Death of Judas: A Contradiction between Matthew and Acts?
The death of Judas is often seen as irreconcilable between the two accounts in the Bible - Matthew 27:1-10 and Acts 1:18-19. These two passages' difference is what made C.S. Lewis decide that inerrancy was incorrect. However, upon closer examination a lot of the differences disappear and a more detailed look shows that there is in fact no contradiction between Matthew and Acts.
Let's simply begin by listing the places between Matthew 27:1-10 and Acts 1:18-19 that are considered contradictory:
- Judas' death
- The buyer of the field
- The reason for the name Field of Blood
1. How did Judas die?
Did Judas hang himself or did he "fall headlong." The problem between the two accounts in Matthew and Acts is obvious: in Matthew Judas goes and hangs himself, whereas in Acts he falls and has his insides burst out. How could these accounts even be considered able to be reconciled?
The usual answer given is that Judas hung himself from a high place and that afterwards the branch, or wherever he hung himself from, snapped and he fell, thus having his insides gush out (another suggestion is that he overestimated how much rope would hang him and unconsciously jumped to his death, though how exactly that's a death by hanging as Matthew says, is not very certain). However, I think that the other well-known suggestion about this issue is more reasonable. It is sometimes suggested that the term in Acts 1:18, prenes genomenos, could be a corruption of the Greek term for "swollen" (prestho), thus the original reading prestheis genomenos, having become swollen. In other words, Judas hung himself, some time passed, and the deceased corpse swelled up and eventually either fell down to the ground and burst, or did so while hung.
Instead of supposing a text corruption, however, we can leave prenes genomenos and note that prenes did not always have the meaning of "headlong" or "head first", but also was translated as "inflate" and "swell". The fact is, would Luke have really used the unusual phrase "became headlong" to describe someone fall to their death? Who would ever describe or narrate somebody having fallen by saying they "became headfirst"? Luke certainly knew and used a word for "fall": pipto. This verb and verbs derived from it (such as prospipto, empipto, apopipto) are present everywhere in Luke and Acts where "falling" is concerned, whether it is before someone's feet (Luke 5:8, 5:12, 8:28, Acts 16:29) or an actual fall (Luke 6:39, 8:5, 10:18, Acts 5:5, 5:10, 9:4, 9:18, 20:9) Luke nearly always uses a form of the verb for falling, pipto! Why would he then go on to describe Judas falling on his field as the phrase, "became headlong"? It therefore seems that the alternate definition of "swollen" instead of "headlong" should be applied to prenes in Acts 1:18, so that it reads, "...there he became swollen, his middle burst open and all his intestines spilled out."
If Luke had really wanted to say that Judas fell down, i.e. from the roof of a house (as Haenchen has it) or somewhere else, this being the cause of death, he probably wouldn't have used such an obscure way of writing that: "became headlong". We see in Acts 20:9 when a boy who fell asleep fell from the third story of a house that the verb Luke uses is pipto (katenechtheis apo tou upnon epesen...) which unambiguously gives us the understanding that this boy fell down from the window. Would Luke have really used the easy to understand and unambiguous pipto here but give us a description of how someone falling actually looks (they "become headlong") earlier in Acts 1:18?
Now of course the skeptic might point out that Luke also uses a different word for "swell up" in Acts 28:6 (pimprasthai), and doesn't describe the expectation of the Malta locals of Paul to swell up and fall (katapipto) dead as "becoming swollen", prenes genomenos. But all this proves is that the author wasn't immune to using synonyms. In both cases, whether one wants to translate the phrase prenes genomenos as "becoming/falling headlong" or "becoming swollen", Luke is using a phrase that is different from the apparently regular usage he employs elsewhere. And if one were to wonder which meaning Luke really had in mind given the description of that phrase, would it really be "becoming headlong" so as to signify Judas falling (headfirst)?
With this in mind, we should look at the ancient translations of prenes. True, etymologically prenes is derived from the root pro , which means "in front of". But it is well known that the origin and derivation of a word certainly don't necessarily describe its connotations. For example, the word "common" originally meant "vulgar". The same was true for many Greek words and prenes is one of them. This can be seen by the fact that the ancient authors employed prenes also in the sense of swelling/bursting. The Latin translation of Wisdom 4:19 renders the word as disrumpet which is translated as "burst" or "dash" (by the RSV). The relevant part of Wisdom 4:19 becomes translated like this: quoniam disrumpet illos inflatos sine voce et commovebit - for he shall burst them puffed up and speechless. Now the Latin Vulgate has an interesting rendering of Acts 1:18. It reads, And he indeed hath possessed a field of the reward of iniquity, and being hanged, burst asunder in the midst: and all his bowels gushed out. Without a doubt the resolution of the accounts of Matthew and Acts was in the mind of the author there, which was then used to make the Vulgate. But the fact is, in Wisdom 4:19 a different word is used to describe the bursting, and so the author may have had the understanding that prenes had the alternate meaning of "swelling" or "bursting". Another understanding of prenes by translators has it that it means someone who has gone "prone" or prostrate on the ground. This would translate Wisdom 4:19 roughly as, "and He will dash them speechless prostrate", instead of the Vulgate's, "and He will burst them puffed up and shake them speechless". It seems that the "puffed up" (inflatos) is an artificial insertion to make sense of rendering prenes as bursting.
If however we are to translate Acts 1:18, prenes genomenos, as "became prostrate", i.e. fallen prone to the ground (but not from a height as a fall from a high place as the usage of prenes in Wisdom 4:19 shows), we aren't far from a death by swelling after a hanging, and the body falling to the ground and having the guts spill out. True, it might seem that we're simply avoiding the definition of "becoming headlong". But as can be seen from the Wisdom 4:19 example, "headlong" is not even close to an accurate translation of prenes: the "headlong" definition is simply an artificial creation by modern translators, much like in the Vulgate's case with respect to "bursting", to make sense of Judas' death by a fall, which is the only way that the translators can understand someone's death in such a way, since they don't account of course for the account in Matthew 27. There is simply no way to sensibly translate the Greek of Wisdom 4:19 with the definition of "headlong" for prenes there. For someone to be described as having become prostrate, or having gone prone on the ground in such a way so as for his intestines to spill out, this is much closer to a death from swelling (after, of course, a hanging), than it is if we try to suppose Luke wanted to say Judas fell from somewhere high. No historian or author who wanted to describe a fall from a high place would have described Judas' death this way, particularly not Luke, as is showed by Acts 20:9. So the question here is whether one thinks that prenes is better rendered as "swollen/burst" or "prone", but certainly not "headlong".
With this observation, we can bring in the final piece of evidence in this debate. Papias was a second century Christian who traveled extensively throughout the Roman Empire collecting traditions regarding the Apostles and Jesus Christ. It's no secret that Papias had a tradition about the death of Judas, which, at least for the discussion of Judas' death here, we can't thank Eusebius enough for preserving. Eusebius cites Papias as saying the following about Judas:
Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.
Papias and many other early Christians certainly had exaggerated and in some cases downright invented legends about Jesus and earlier times, and this here is no exception. However, what is much more invaluable is the tradition of Judas' death by having been swollen. We can understand Luke's description of the fate of Judas in Acts 1:18-19 much clearer if we take the following scenario in account: the Christians of Luke's and Papias' generations had a tradition of Judas dying a death that was related to his having been swollen. Luke's time of writing, around 80-90 AD, shows a much less developed legend than that of the time of Papias, 120-130. The traditions that Luke had access to were just as limited (though not expanded by legendary material as in Papias' case) as the traditions that Papias found. We can therefore see why Luke describes Judas' death only in terms of his body's guts spilling out due to, in a way, "plopping" prostrate to the ground, and not anything that relates to hanging: this was simply the widespread (and only) tradition that Luke had at his disposal, which later on became the somewhat universal tradition of Judas' death by swelling and bursting, as Papias attests.
This is supported by the decision of the text behind the Vulgate to render prenes as bursting due to swelling. If Christian tradition by then had understood Judas' death in such a way, then the origin of that tradition in earlier times had its roots in a death not by a fall/falling headlong, but by one where Judas' guts burst out due to something that would occasion this such as swelling. And with Matthew's tradition of a hanging, it would only become natural to fuse Acts' statement of Judas "falling" (more accurately, "plopping/becoming prone from a small height's fall") by deducing the cause was a swollen (from the hanging) body. Now, while this deduction is by all means correct, this stands behind the translation of prenes as swollen/burst in the Vulgate, which means the tradition that led to this never described Judas' death by a fall from a high place, and Luke did indeed mean that Judas died from a (short) fall, "becoming prostrate", and this certainly due to having been swollen from, most certainly as medical knowledge can attest, a hanging; though Luke didn't know this from his tradition, and thus recorded the death in the phrasing of Acts 1:18-19.
Now, Matthew does give us an alternate (but no contradictory) tradition regarding Judas' death. But this simply means that Matthew's tradition wasn't as widespread as the tradition Luke obtained, seeing that Papias and the later Christians had a death by swelling (primarily, but certainly not neglecting a hanging) in mind. Or perhaps, Matthew wanted to give a tradition that explained events that went up to the actual swelling-bursting and thus chose this minor tradition. I don't think Matthew wanted to include the bursting of Judas' guts due to the swelling so as to bring about the divine decree that the potter's field be bought with blood money and be called Field of Blood due to this (Matt 27:6-10; also see Point 3 below). I think that is why he decided to only narrate an incomplete tradition - the story of Judas' death without the follow up as to how that death made Judas and the field famous; he decided to narrate only this minor tradition so as to portray God's will as having brought about the name that matches the buyers - field of blood: the priests who bought it with Christ's blood money - murderers.
1. Luke would not have described Judas' death as a fall from a height with the strange phrase, prenes genomenos seeing Acts 20:9.
2. The word prenes is best rendered as someone who "went on the ground" in the sense of having gone prone, not really in the sense of a high fall, as Wisdom 4:19 attests.
3. The early tradition, independently and contemporaneously of Acts, knew of a death by swelling and spilling of guts, which is undoubtedly the root of Luke's tradition for a death by "falling prostrate" on the ground; Luke's tradition was incomplete due to not enough tradition - Matthew's because he most likely chose to omit the main tradition for theological reasons (similar theological reasons pervade Matthew's infancy narrative, chapters 1-2, though he doesn't omit any traditions there).
4. And of course 1-3 above complement a death by hanging.
The bottomline is, one has to decide whether prenes is best translated as "swollen and burst" or "gone prostrate". But certainly prenes isn't to be interpreted as "headlong" or in a sense of a high fall, especially not with the way Acts 1:18 is written. One can think that the Latin Vulgate correctly utilized one of the definitions of "swollen/burst" for prenes, though the fact that the secondary addition of "burst" in addition to "swell" has to be added to the connotation of prenes makes that doubtful (in addition to the other observations made above about the Latin Vulgate's reconciliation in choosing this definition). Or one can say that prenes means someone who went down on the ground, in which case, using our above argumentation, Judas' death still makes better sense as the result of a swollen body that fell on the ground and ruptured, as the result of most likely a hanging.
Readings found in later Syriac, Georgian, and Armenian manuscripts that have presthes genomenos (became swollen) over prenes genomenos (fell prone) undoubtedly exercised the same kind of harmonization we see in the Vulgate with respect to its translation of prenes as inflatos in both Acts 1:18 and Wisdom 4:19.
It is therefore highly likely that Judas hung himself on a tree somewhere in that field and after the body swelled a lot, the rope broke, and his body burst all over the field, because there is very little else that would explain such a death. There was an ancient Greek, Heraclitus, who ate only grass and herbs that caught dropsy and died swollen, but that and similar theories are much less likely.
2. Who bought the field?
Did Judas buy the field himself? While Acts 1:18 clearly states that with the money Judas received he bought a field on which he fell, bursting his guts (as we see above, due to most likely a hanging). Matthew 27:6-7 says that the priests bought the field with the money Judas threw back trying to end the deal. What we have here is typical Semitic/Near Eastern exaggeration in Acts where a person who is more or less directly responsible or involved can be described as having done the whole action. So what we're suggesting is that while Judas technically did not buy the field with the money (as he was already dead), he was the main reason for which the field was bought with that money being his (Matt. 27:6), and in a sense he "bought" the field through his ultimate actions. Supporting this interpretation of the tradition behind Acts 1:18 we have several ancient inscriptions that show this "ultimate cause" phenomenon. For example, an inscription by Xerxes I on some column bases from Susa says,
King Xerxes says: By the grace of Ahuramazda, king Darius, my father, built this palace. - See here
Then another inscription on a slab of marble from Susa says,
I am Xerxes, the great king, king of kings, king of all nations, the son of king Darius, the Achaemenid.
King Xerxes says: I built this palace after I became king. This I ask as a favor from Ahuramazda: May Ahuramazda and the gods protect me, my kingdom, and what has been built by me. - See here
And then we have,
A great god is Ahuramazda, who created this world, who created yonder sky, who created mankind, who created happiness for mankind, who made Xerxes king. One king for many, one leader of many.
I am Xerxes, the great king, the king of kings, the king all kinds of people with all kinds of origins, king of this world great and wide, the son of king Darius, the Achaemenid.
As we know, Xerxes greatly expanded his father Darius' palace at Susa and this last inscription states that. However the first inscription is a clear, typically permissible exaggeration of the fact that Xerxes did a lot of construction on the palace, whereas the second cited inscription notes that his father built most of the palace and it was originally his construction. Thus here we have obvious evidence that one could refer to a certain party, who is the main cause behind an action or event, as if that party directly did that action or event, even though they only started a chain of events and it was someone else who did it: such as Judas being responsible for the field to be ultimately bought. It is certainly not the case that Xerxes decided to lie on his later inscriptions by stating that he built the palace, or else we would have never found the earlier inscriptions giving credit to Darius. Moreover, the fact that Darius built the original palace would have been within living memory.
The great king Xerxes says: By the grace of Ahuramazda, my father, king Darius built this palace.
May Ahuramazda together with the gods protect me, and what I built, and what was built by my father, king Darius. May Ahuramazda and the other gods protect this.
The charge that Luke is not a Semite or from the Near East is irrelevant: he had Semitic reports and he likely understood them this way as well.
3. When was the field bought, how did Judas happen to die on the exact field the priests bought, and why was the field called Field of Blood?
From Matthew's account it is somewhat implied that the Pharisees bought the field after Judas hung himself. This is not necessitated from the text, but nevertheless, this is the more likely probability of the two, namely that Judas hung himself before the priests bought the field - what would Judas do in the meantime after throwing the money back to the Pharisees? This, then, would make it an easy decision to buy the potter's field where Judas apparently hung himself, since the priests didn't know what to do with the money (Matt. 27:6-7), and after Judas' explosion of his guts on the potter's field, the infamy of the field would have made it suitable for very little else.
With this last observation goes hand in hand the reason why the field became known as The Field of Blood. It is quite the coincidence that the priests would happen to buy the potter's field and Judas happens to hang himself there. Plus as mentioned above, the time constraints are against this hypothesis. Overall it can be firmly believed that Judas killed himself on the potter's field prior to the priests' purchasing of it, and this was the reason why they purchased it - and they turned it into a cemetery for foreigners. Thus, if Judas killed himself on the field first, if it came to the attention of the priests, it would have come to the attention of all Jerusalem, as Acts 1:19 says. Therefore the reason the field was called Field of Blood was because of the incident of Judas' guts bursting. Acts tells us that the field was called Field of Blood after Judas' guts burst on it, presumably after he "bought" the field, but this is not giving us a strict chronology seeing that we established in Point 2 above that Acts 1:19 is using figurative language in saying Judas bought the field. Thus Acts does not force us to place the purchase of the field before Judas' death, nor the reason why it was called Field of Blood has to be placed after Judas' death in Acts with that observation.
What about Matthew's explanation regarding why the field was called Akeldama (Matt 27:8-10)? Matthew 27:8-10 is giving us here the theological or prophetic reason why the field was called that. In addition to the fact that Judas bloodied the whole field with burst guts, the priests bought the field with blood money, and thus God's will for the field to be called Field of Blood. In support of this is the fact that Jeremiah (in combination with Zechariah) is cited so that a prophecy is being fulfilled, meaning the explanation given is on a theological level. Matthew is not telling us that the people started calling it the Field of Blood because the people found out that it was bought with blood money; how would anyone know this? On the contrary, Matthew is telling us that the reason that ultimately the field was called the Field of Blood is because it was bought with such money, and thus God assigned to it this name through Judas' death on it. Proof from this is the ending of the quotation by Matthew: "They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me." (NIV) Certainly God didn't directly tell the priests to go and buy this field, but it was ordained to be so; in the same way it was ordained that the field be called Field of Blood because of the type of money that bought it (and how deserving, seeing this money is the blood money of none other than Christ Himself). Furthermore, as we have noted above, for whatever reason Matthew tries to present alternate but completementary traditions regarding Judas' death - he tells us why Judas' guts burst, and also why the field was called Field of Blood ultimately; by this last word, "ultimately", I mean that Matthew is trying to say that the reason the field was called Field of Blood was that ultimately that is what God decreed and God caused the field to be called Akeldama by the people directly because of the manner and fact of Judas' death on it, but ultimately because it was bought with blood money. This is similar to the situation where king Jehoshaphat and king Ahab attacked the king of Aram and king Jehoshaphat needed help from God:
So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah went up to Ramoth Gilead. The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will enter the battle in disguise, but you wear your royal robes.” So the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle.
Now the king of Aram had ordered his chariot commanders, “Do not fight with anyone, small or great, except the king of Israel.” When the chariot commanders saw Jehoshaphat, they thought, “This is the king of Israel.” So they turned to attack him, but Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him. God drew them away from him, for when the chariot commanders saw that he was not the king of Israel, they stopped pursuing him. - 2 Chronicles 18:28-32 (NIV)
We see that the superficial or direct reason why the charioteers stopped pursuing Jehoshaphat was because they recognized that he wasn't the king of Israel (2 Chron. 18:32). However, ultimately it was through God's intervention that Jehoshaphat was saved and these charioteers recognized that he wasn't the king of Israel (2 Chron. 18:31). Here we have the same situation in Matthew and so Acts and Matthew give the reason why the field was called Field of Blood on different levels.
Other points for authenticity:
One detail that I think has been overlooked is that everyone in Jerusalem heard about Judas' death according to Acts 1:19. This corroborates Matthew that Judas' death occurred in Jerusalem, thus most likely very close to the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. Judas probably wasn't from Jerusalem nor lived there as most of Christ's disciples were originally from Galilee, which is also where most of his ministry was at. As Epiphanius writes, citing the Gospel of the Ebionites,
"There was a man named Jesus, and he was about thirty years old; he has chosen us. And He came into Capernaum and entered into the house of Simon, surnamed Peter, and He opened His mouth and said, 'As I walked by the sea of Tiberias, I chose John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and Simon and Andrew and Thaddaeus and Simon Zelotes, and Judas Isariot; thee also, Matthew, when thou wast sitting at the receipt of custom, did I call and thou didst follow me. According to my intention ye shall be twelve apostles for a testimony unto Israel.'" (Panarion 30.13.2b-3)
So why would Judas buy a field in Jerusalem? He may have wanted one, but it's more likely that Matthew's account complements Acts'. And we can be sure that Akeldama was a field in Jerusalem since Peter notes that this was heard all over Jerusalem. True, Peter is speaking in Jerusalem, but in my opinion the fact that the text says in Jerusalem rather than Judea or some other broader category says something (for example, in Acts 9:32-43, even though Peter heals in Joppa and raises Dorcas from the dead in nearby Lydda, this becomes known in Joppa, 9.42).
1. Acts on Judas' death was lifted from 2 Maccabees 9 of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. Firstly, Antiochus Epiphanes does not die in that episode, and repents, and it is outlined that it is a punishment by God. The fall is a dismemberment, not a gushing out of bowels.
2. The citation by Acts 1:20 of the prophecy in Psalm 69:25: "May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it," (NIV) makes it possible to suppose Judas did indeed buy a field and a house himself and presumably fell from the roof one day by accident and not hanging. The verse refers to a place that he dwelled, now being deserted and no one can live there, which would seem to go against Judas randomly hanging himself at the potter's field, which is then bought by the Pharisees. He would have had no house, and the potter's house wouldn't really qualify as his. Haenchen rightfully observes that the citation of Psalm 69 in verse 20a doesn't apply to Judas' apostleship because that would mean no one could replace him.
But this ignores the general midrash that is employed here as in other places where the Old Testament is cited. The point is, no one would want to live in this place anymore. And the fact that Matthew 27 (and not Acts!) notes the Pharisees bought the land and turned it into a cemetery where no one would obviously live (quite the opposite!), actually speaks for authenticity of the traditions in both accounts and so their reconciliation. It, at the very least, speaks of the authenticity of the field being called "Akeldama" as well as Judas' historicity as traitor, as most scholars agree.
Some other points Haenchen makes on this is that the word in Acts 1:18, chorion, indicates a small farm and not a field (agros) as in Matthew 27:7. But the word chorion can indicate the field of this cultivated property just as it seems to do so in Acts 4:34 (as well as Gethsemane: Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32), and for one to say there is any real contextual difference between Matthew 27:8, Agros Haimatos (Field of Blood), and Acts 1:19, Chorion Haimatos (Farmland of Blood??) doesn't seem plausible to me. Both chorion (for the potter's farm/field) and agros (for the actual place of events out in the open field, just like Gethsemane) seem good enough synonyms to me.
Another, more complicated supposition is that the respective traditions of Matthew and Acts grew out of reflections upon the Old Testament. Haenchen refers to Schweizer in considering that Matthew's version was influenced by Zechariah 11:12 and Jeremiah 18:2-3, 19:1-2, 32:6-15, whereas the tradition cited in Papias comes from a reflection upon the water curse of Numbers 5:21-22, Psalm 69:24 and Psalm 109:18. In other words the various stories were invented out of the Old Testament. But if this were true at all, it would support the connection we try to establish between the accounts of Acts and Matthew via Papias above. This is because Acts 1:20a cites Psalm 69:25. However, Psalm 69:24 says nothing about a "water curse", only a general punishment. Numbers 5:21-22 speaks of a punishment to an adulterous, pregnant woman and the curse doesn't threaten her physical life, only a miscarriage and infertility. Psalm 109:18 is one of the many types of curses to be found in the Old Testament. So for these random curses to have been collected and then have Judas' fate modeled upon them is just as random as any other hypothesis, and their obscurity and lack of a connection overall speaks against it. The supposed influences from Zechariah and Jeremiah speak nothing of a hanging. One can even wonder how Jeremiah 32:6-15 could have influenced a connection to Judas, especially since the text is a signal of a restoration (vv.15, 42-44; cf. Acts 1:20!).
- I know that many of these listed verses are sayings of Jesus, but even if Luke did not summarize Jesus' words using partially his own vocabulary (which would make the use of verbs related to pipto Lucan), how likely is it that Luke recorded so many sayings of Jesus' that describe "falling" with pipto, in addition to Luke's own wording (i.e. Acts 9:4, 20:9), but then didn't decide to do so for Acts 1:18 narrating Judas' death, and instead chose to give us the description of his (presumed) fall by the comment that he "became headlong/headfirst"? The theory goes beyond any sense!
- Papias' writings are usually dated no later than 120-130 AD. So to avoid needless debates about date, this date is assumed. Even though the expanded legend about Judas' death in Papias makes it doubtful that Papias wrote before the 2nd century.
- Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles (English tr. of the German 14th ed. (1965), Westminster Press: Philadelphia (1971)), p.161
- Haenchen, p.160, n.7
- Haenchen, p.160, n.5