How did Judas die?

Posted on Nov.03, 2008. Filed in Matthew, Acts. Average rating: 6.2 / 10 (Rate It).

The New Testament contains two accounts of Judas’s death, one in Matthew and the other in Acts. The two accounts differ, however, on the matter of how Judas died.

According to Matthew, Judas hanged himself:

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. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. [Matthew 27:3-5 (NRSV)]

According to Acts, Judas fell and burst open, spilling his guts:

Now this man [Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. [Acts 1:18 (NRSV)]

So did Judas hang himself, or did he die falling over in a field?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    I’ve never found the idea that Judas’ hanged himself and then fell to the ground and burst open particularly satisfying.

    Taken on its own, the passage from Acts appears to describe Judas’s death. If it were intended as a description of what happened to Judas’s body after he’d hanged himself, then I’d expect it to say so.

    I accept that there’s no logical contradiction in the two texts, but it does look to me as though the authors are describing two different ways of dying even if in Acts this isn’t quite made explicit.

  2. 2

    Under no circumstance is it an error. The best a skeptic can do is claim that Luke didn’t write it the way he would.

    So let’s say you didn’t have access to Matthew 27:5 (”So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.”). What would you infer from Acts regarding the nature of Judas’ death? Did he trip and fall and his “body burst open” so hard that “all his intestines spilled out?” That seems fairly remote and wildly coincidental, seeing as how in Luke’s view Judas just betrayed the Son of God.

    Was it murder? No evidence of that.

    So it seems to me it is unreasonable to assume an error here. When you consider the circumstances it seems like one could read Acts alone and see hanging and falling as a possibility.

    And I haven’t even touched on the notion of how thorough and accurate Luke is on all things that can be verified. Seems like one could give him the benefit of the doubt that he knew how Judas died and that he just didn’t mention the specifics.

    Also, most experts I am aware of (liberal or conservative) hold that Acts was written after Matthew, so Luke may have had access to it.

    I just don’t see why it is reasonable to assume an error in this situation.

    P.S. It is informative how you beg the question and ask us to rate this “error” instead of this “alleged error.”

    Best of luck with your site! While I disagree with your conclusions and can’t help but notice the bias, I do appreciate your tone and think you have an interesting approach here.


  3. 3

    > What would you infer from Acts regarding the nature of Judas’ death? Did he trip and fall and his “body burst open” so hard that “all his intestines spilled out?”

    Yes, that’s probably the way I’d read the text on its own, but I agree that it’s odd enough to give me pause. What I wouldn’t find, though, is any suggestion that Judas hanged himself.

    > P.S. It is informative how you beg the question and ask us to rate this “error” instead of this “alleged error.”

    Good catch! I’ve tried to be careful to say things like “claimed error”, but this one slipped past. For what it’s worth, it says the same thing on every claimed error, including those that I’ve rated 1/10; it wasn’t meant to be prejudicial. Now that you’ve pointed it out, though, I’ll change it.

  4. 4

    I think the natural reading of Acts is that, yes, Judas slipped and died – and that this was an act of God (it’s certainly not the sort of thing that just happens).

  5. 5

    I don’t find this alleged error remotely troubling.

    The way I’ve always processed this is that Judas hanged himself from a tree. The body cooked a bit in the sun until it fell to the ground and burst. (And directed by Providence, the priests bought this very field with Judas’ blood money, so that it was called a field of blood for overlapping reasons).

    As a rule, people don’t just fall down in fields and burst asunder like water balloons. Even people who fall from quite a distance don’t generally burst open. If someone’s body bursts open by falling in a field, I’d assume that something else was already wrong with it. For example, it might have been transformed into a giant smelly water balloon by the decay process.

    Now, you might argue that there was a sharp rock or pointy stick that caused the body to burst open. But the (fallacious) argument from silence cuts both ways. If you take Luke’s silence on the antecedent hanging as proof that there was no hanging, then you’ve got to take his silence on the presence of sharp rocks or pointy sticks as evidence that there were no sharp rocks or pointy sticks.

  6. 6

    WL: You’ve swung me round to the view that things make more sense if both Acts and Matthew’s account of the death itself are combined. Falling and bursting open is indeed a bizarre event.

    But there are a number of other problems with the two passages.

  7. 7

    I would find it odd that Luke would make no mention of a hanging when Judas almost certainly would have had a noose around his neck, and the body would be under a tree.

    What seals it for me, however, is that the “moral of the story” is entirely different in the accounts.

    Matthew’s account clearly states that Judas was repentant, and apparently hanged himself because of overwhelming guilt and shame.

    Luke, on the other hand, has themes of justice and providence.

  8. 8

    The word “headlong” is also instrumental. It implies that Judas fell head first, and I think that would be pretty difficult if he is hanging from his neck.

    Further to this, it’s almost certain that Luke was not an eyewitness to the death itself, so someone somewhere has seen a dead body and inferred that he had fallen – perhaps off a small cliff?

    In either case, I believe inerrantists are putting their presupposition of inerrancy before their intellectual integrity.

  9. 9

    I don’t think that we should make too much of the word “headlong” suggesting a fall that was head first.

    From memory, the Greek here literally means something like “becoming prone”.

    A hanging body that fell feet first and ended up lying on the ground could be said to have “become prone”, so this language is consistent with (even if not suggestive of) the standard inerrantist harmonisation.

  10. 10

    Errancy’s point about the Greek seems good based on what I’ve been able to glean from various commentaries.

    But even if you insist an a headfirst fall, hanging is not ruled out. If he snagged an ankle on the way down, then he might well hit the ground headfirst.

    Also, we would not expect a body that was in otherwise good condition to burst open in the middle from a headfirst fall. The idea that Judas fell headfirst, therefore, bolsters the idea that his body had been transformed into a big water balloon by the decay process before falling. Perhaps because it was hanging in a tree.

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