Does the death of Judas tell us we cannot trust the NT?

The two brief accounts of the death of Judas, in Matt 27.3–8 and in Act 1.18, are often used as a test case in the coherence and consistency of the NT documents. Many ‘critical’ scholars are confident that the two comments are irreconcilably contradictory, and (as I pointed out in a reflection on this a few years ago) the logical conclusion from this is not that one account is accurate and the other isn’t, but that we cannot trust either. I don’t believe this is the case, and I gave a personal example of why I believed this—but at the time I did not explore the two accounts in detail.

However, James Bejon, a researcher at Tyndale House in Cambridge, has explored not only how these accounts relate, but also their theological significance within the respective narratives, and he offers some fascinating observations about the way we read the gospels and Acts.

James Bejon writes: Matthew and Luke provide us with quite different accounts of Judas’s death.  Despite what’s often claimed, these accounts aren’t irreconcilable;  rather, each author chooses to record a different aspect of Judas’s death, and does so for his own particular purposes.  Matthew wants us to see Judas as an Absalom—a man who ends up hung as a result of his own selfish ambition—while Luke wants us to see Judas as an Ahab—a man whose ill-gotten ends up soiled by his blood—and each author’s portrayal of Judas has important Christological implications.

The Accounts

The substance of both accounts is the same: in both cases, Judas betrays Jesus for a pre-agreed sum of money; a field is purchased with the money; and Judas ends up dead in the field. The details of the two accounts, however, differ from one another. Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests (Matt. 27.3–8), while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field owned by Judas (Acts 1.18–19).

These differences in detail raise at least a couple of important questions. First, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts are historically reliable, then why don’t they say the same thing? And, second, if the details in Matthew and Luke’s accounts can be reconciled, then why didn’t Matthew and Luke explain how, and spare their readers a great deal of confusion? Why would each author choose to omit important details from his account of Judas’s death?

My answer to the first question—which is by no means a novel one—is as follows. Neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account is ahistorical; each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’s death. Matthew describes the means by which Judas decides/tries to kill himself, that is, asphyxiation, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, that is, prostrate on the ground.

Note: Despite the impression given by some translations and commentators, Judas’s body isn’t said to ‘fall headfirst’ in Acts 1.18; it’s simply said ‘to become headlong/prostrate’ (πρηνὴς γενόμενος). For a similar use of the adjective ‘prostrate’ (πρηνής), compare 3 Maccabees 5.50, where πρηνεῖς…ῥίψαντες ἑαυτοὺς = ‘they threw/prostrated themselves on the ground’. For further information/discussion, see Peter Williams’ thread on Twitter.

And, suffice it to say, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground in all sorts of ways, especially in a land which doesn’t allow bodies to be hung on a tree overnight (Deut. 21.23); indeed, the Bible mentions at least one occasion when someone is hung from a tree and later cut down, namely the demise of Absalom (2 Sam. 18.9–11, 17).

Also important to note is the plausibility of the two accounts’ existence. Two people could quite plausibly have witnessed Judas’ body in the two states described in Matthew and Luke. Matthew’s witness could have seen Judas’ body as it hung from, say, a tree, and Luke’s witness could have come along later and seen Judas’ body once it had fallen.

In sum, then, while it’s possible to read Matthew and Luke in a contradictory way, it’s not necessary. It actually seems more natural to read the two accounts in a complementary way, since, contra the claims of many commentators, each one ties up loose ends in the other. By way of illustration, consider the situation described in Matthew 27. To distance themselves from Judas’s blood money, the chief priests buy a field with it. Yet, if it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, why was it permissible for them to own a field bought with it? Furthermore, if Judas died a bloodless death (because he hung himself), how come the field in which he died acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’?

Note: Matthew provides us with a theological answer to the question, viz., because the field was bought with ‘blood money’. In historical terms, however, a different answer is required, since Judas’s money is referred to as ‘blood money’ only by the priests (Matt. 27.6), who are unlikely to have named a field after an incident they wanted to hush up. Luke tells us ‘what comes to be known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem’ at large: Acts 1.19.

Implicit in Luke’s account are answers to these questions. It wasn’t permissible for the priests to own a field bought with Judas’s money, so they bought the field in the name of Judas. And Judas didn’t die a bloodless death; his body ‘burst open’ at the seams (per Acts 1).

Luke’s account contains loose ends too. How did Judas’s body end up on the ground burst open? People fall over every day, often quite hard, but their insides don’t normally burst out. And why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? If Judas bought the field in the standard way, why doesn’t Luke use a standard verb like ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω)?

Implicit in Matthew’s account are answers to these questions. Judas’s body wasn’t simply hung: after it was hung, it fell to the ground, which it did from a significant height, quite possibly in a bloated state. And Judas didn’t in fact ‘buy’ the field in the standard way: the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.

Matthew and Luke’s accounts thus fit together quite neatly, which should come as no surprise if we take them to be accurately preserved accounts of the same incident (yet wouldn’t be expected of oral traditions whose differences were a byproduct of their respective evolution). Note also how each man’s account turns out to be consistent with his traditionally-assigned occupation: Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death— how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the chief priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.

True, none of that tells us exactly how Judas’s body came to end up on the ground. (Did Judas hang himself from a branch which later snapped? Did someone cut Judas’s body down from where it was hung? Did someone deliberately cut Judas’ body open?) But the aim of the present note isn’t to deduce such things; rather, its aim is:

a. to set out a way in which Matthew and Luke can be reconciled (and hence shown to be non-contradictory), which we’ve done, and:

b. to suggest a reason why Matthew and Luke might have chosen to describe different aspects of Judas’s death, to which we’ll now turn our attention.

As before, we’ll start with Matthew.

Matthew’s purpose

Why might Matthew have Judas hang himself rather than burst open on the ground? My guess is as follows: because Matthew wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular OT incident (or group of incidents). Not many Israelites end up hung in the OT. And, curiously, all of them are enemies of David (in one way or another).

One example is David’s counsellor, Ahithophel, who betrays his king’s trust and hangs himself once he sees the fruits of his actions (2 Sam. 15.12, 31, 17.23). Ahithophel is thus a notably Judas-like figure, though his death isn’t entirely Judas-like: Ahithophel is said to ‘strangle’ himself (חנ׳׳ק) rather than hang himself (תל׳׳ה), and his body is buried in a family tomb rather in a burial place for strangers (Matt. 27.7). Suppose, then, we cast our eye slightly further afield (and/or follow the trail of blood) and consider the demise of Absalom.

Once Israel’s king has been ousted from his kingdom, Absalom ends up with his head stuck in the branches of a tree, which is said to leave his body (inconveniently) ‘hung’ (תלוי) in midair (2 Sam. 18.9–10). Like Ahithophel, then, Absalom can be said to have died a Judas-like death. And, in Absalom’s case, the parallels run deeper. Both men feign loyalty to their king, which they do by means of a kiss (2 Sam. 14.33). And, despite their participation in a conspiracy to remove him, both men are referred to as the king’s ‘friend’.

Note: In Matt. 26.50, Jesus refers to Judas as his ‘friend’, which is exactly how Nathan (prophetically) refers to Absalom when he describes what Absalom will do to David’s wives once he ousts him from the kingdom (cp. the use of רע = ‘friend’ in 2 Sam. 12.11 w. 16.22). Note also how David refers to his friends’ betrayal of him in multiple Psalms (e.g., Psa. 41.9, 55.12–14, 20–21).

These parallels are significant: Matthew doesn’t see Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection as isolated events in world history; he sees them as events which ‘fill up’ the story of Israel (see  Matt 1.22, 2.15, 17, 23, 3.15, 4.15, 5.17, etc.). For Matthew, Jesus is the true Son of David (1.1). As such, Jesus has to ‘fill up’ each and every aspect of David’s life (sin apart), which he does. At his birth, he becomes an heir of David’s throne (compare Matt 1.1 with 2–17); in his death and betrayal, he becomes separated from David’s kingdom (though not as a result of his sin); and, in his resurrection, he inherits the fulness of David’s kingdom—‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matt 28.18).

In sum, then, Matthew doesn’t differ from Luke because he’s the recipient of a different tradition; rather, like any good author, Matthew restricts his account of Judas’s death to what’s most relevant to his purposes. He omits the less Absalomic aspects of Judas’s death (the fact Judas ends up disembowelled) in order to draw his reader’s attention to the more Absalomic aspect of Judas’s death (the fact he’s hung).

Luke’s purpose

Now, then, for Luke’s account of Judas’s death. As we’ve noted, the differences between Luke and Matthew are twofold. First, whereas Matthew has Judas end up in a field due to a technicality in Temple law, Luke has Judas acquire a field due to his love of money, and, secondly, whereas Matthew has Judas die by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood. Why do these differences exist? My guess is as follows: because, like Matthew, Luke wants us to view Judas’s death—and by extension Jesus’ death—in light of a particular Old Testament incident.

Consider, for a moment, how Luke begins his Gospel. Whereas Matthew has Jesus born ‘king of the Jews’, Luke describes Jesus’ birth in far more understated terms: he has Mary and Joseph hail from lowly Nazareth rather than royal Bethlehem; he has Jesus visited by mere shepherds rather than dignitaries from foreign lands; and he has Jesus presented at the Temple by parents who are unable to afford the standard sacrifices. As such, Luke emphasises Jesus’ poverty rather than his royal pedigree, which determines his portrayal of Judas.

Recall the distinctives of Luke’s portrayal of Judas: a man consumed by greed who condemns a godlly Israelite to death for the price of a plot of land, and whose ‘reward’ ends up stained by the Israelite’s blood. Is anyone else in the Biblical narrative portrayed in such a manner? At least one example should spring to mind—Ahab, a man who was consumed by his desire for a vineyard, who condemned a godly Israelite to death in order to acquire it, and whose blood ended up spilt on the soil not far away (1 Kings 21.19, 22.38). Consider also how both Ahab and Judas’s lineages are alike condemned (compare Elijah’s imprecation in 1 Kings 21.20–25 with Peter’s in Acts 1.20).

The Ahab-like nature of Judas’s demise is significant. If Matthew’s Jesus is the David to Judas’s Absalom, then Luke’s Jesus is the Naboth to Judas’s Ahab—a vineyard-owner who was slandered by false witnesses at a religious assembly so the powerful could take possession of his vineyard (or at least try). Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is thus very different from Matthew’s: while Matthew’s Jesus is a Davidic king, Luke’s is a Naboth-like victim.

Note: These differences, however, are differences in emphasis and shouldn’t be pushed too far. Ultimately, both Gospels portray Jesus in Davidic and Naboth-like terms.

Hence, whereas Matthew and Mark have Jesus crowned on Golgotha’s hill, Luke has Jesus ‘set at nought’, with no crown in sight; whereas Matthew and Mark have Jesus dressed in a purple/scarlet robe in reflection of his kingship, Luke has him clothed in the resplendent (λαμπρός) robe of the saints in reflection of his Naboth-like innocence (compare Luke 23.11 with Rev. 19.8, 22.1); and, whereas Matthew and Mark’s centurion declares Jesus the ‘Son of God’—a kingly title (Ps 2)—Luke’s simply declares Jesus ‘innocent’.

Luke’s portrayal of Jesus also makes good sense in terms of the broader context of his Gospel. Why? Because, for Luke, the Gospel is for the poor and oppressed, and the kingdom of God is about the reversal of the world’s wrongs—a time when valleys are lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly are exalted and the proud humbled, and Lazarus-like beggars change places with the rich. The segue between Luke and Acts thus describes the firstfruits of the Gospel, and anticipates a greater harvest to come. At the end of Luke’s Gospel, we find Jesus in the place of the poor and oppressed, and, at the outset of the book of Acts, the reversal begins: Jesus ascends into realms of glory, the Ahab-like Judas receives his comeuppance, and, as the Gospel goes forth, the mighty continue to fall.

Of course, all sorts of other imagery is present in Matthew and Luke’s portrayal of Judas’s demise. For instance, Matthew associates Judas’s betrayal of Jesus with the prophecies of Jeremiah and Zechariah. Yet it shouldn’t surprise us to find a whole array of different imagery involved in Jesus’ betrayal. With the advent of Jesus, multiple streams of OT history rush together, and, just as the life of Jesus combines aspects of many Messianic figures, so the lives of his enemies combine aspects of many anti-Messianic figures. The above analysis of Judas’s demise shouldn’t, therefore, be seen as an exhaustive discussion of it; it is simply an attempt to unpack a particular feature of Matthew and Luke’s passion narratives.

Final Reflections

For those who want to find contradictions in Matthew and Luke, their accounts of Judas’s death can be read in a contradictory way. The gospel writers are quite happy to present their readers with that option.

For those with ears to hear, however, the two accounts of Judas’s demise are complementary. Each focuses on a particular aspect of Judas’s death, which it does for its own particular purposes, and each ties up loose ends in the other, which we wouldn’t expect of two independently-evolved traditions (but could reasonably expect of two reliable accounts of a single incident).

Despite what’s often claimed, then, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Judas’s death don’t present  an insuperable problem to confidence in the historical reliability of the gospels. They do, however, present the reader with a challenge, namely to tarry with the text and not to be disturbed by its apparent difficulties.

Faced with different accounts of the same event, the inerrantist’s knee-jerk reaction is to harmonise at all costs. Yet if we’re too quick to harmonise (for fear of what it might imply if we don’t/can’t), we will overlook the points of difference between different sections of the Biblical text, which are an important aspect of it. Tension in the Biblical narrative doesn’t exist to be reconciled away; it exists to make us think more carefully about Scripture’s detail, complexity, and beauty.

James Bejon is a junior researcher at Tyndale House—an international evangelical research community based in Cambridge (UK), focused on biblical languages, biblical manuscripts, and the ancient world.

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25 thoughts on “Does the death of Judas tell us we cannot trust the NT?”

  1. Thanks. I’ve never dwelt on the story before. Thinking about the allusions to OT scripture I find a tenuous link to Hiram’s acquisition of the ‘good for nothing’ villages. Judas might have had the same opinion of the potter’s field. All the clay extracted. A devastated industrial, excavated moonscape. Broken, dead trees used for fuel dotted about. All that slippery, wet clay, covered in puddles.
    Something reminds me of Adam, the man of clay. And clay doesn’t swallow up blood . It lies on the surface.

  2. The initial logical point is an interesting one. Supposing the 2 were contradictory, would it not follow logically that one could not trust at least one of them, rather than necessarily that one could trust neither?

    One could have an impeccable account of a road accident followed by a fictitious one from a non eyewitness which gave a different story. Their contradiction would not imply that both were dubious sources, only that at least one was.

    • Yes, logically if one account truly contradicts the other, then either one is true or both are false. But then that only applies if each account is either wholly true or wholly false.

  3. The comparison to Absalom is particularly helpful. However, I am not convinced by the argument that Judas buying/acquiring a field can be squared with the priests buying it after his death.

  4. A couple of years ago, in less detail, I came to the same conclusion concerning how to reconcile the two accounts.

    I didn’t see the parallels with Absalom and Ahab, though. Interesting.

    Slightly troubled that Absalom has to be construed as a ‘friend’, though. The essence of his relationship with David is that he was his son. ‘Friend’ can have the meaning of official companion or counsellor. Thus Hushai was David’s friend in II Sam 15:37. In Roman imperial times amicus was used in the same sense.

    Jesus is not shown mourning Judas’s treachery. But David cries, “O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you!” There is some Messianic overtone here if one sees Absalom as representing unfaithful Israel (cf. II Sam 15:6). Of course, there is a sense in which Judas himself represents Israel. He betrays Jesus and suffers a gruesome death. Israel rejects the Messiah and suffers gruesomely when Temple and nation are destroyed in AD 70 (John 11:48).

    • This is an egregiously anti Semitic take.
      Judas does not represent an unfaithful Israel.
      Israel did not reject Jesus.
      Jesus and his movement were feared by some religious leaders; he was sentenced and killed by the Roman authorities.
      Israel was not punished for rejecting the Messiah.
      This is the stuff of 2000 years of pogroms and persecution.

        • Not snide; I want to protect the Romans and the Jews alike from race/ethnicity-based generalisation, whereas you want to protect some and not others?

      • Exactly so. Working for a few years as a curate in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in NW London drove home the critical importance of the things that Penny states so clearly.

          • I wish history were so simple.

            Do Jewish people on average do things wrong more or less often than people of other nations? Say, Roman people?

        • Don’t find fault with me, your quarrel is with God, who clearly stated that desolation would be the consequence of rejecting him and his representatives (Matt 23:37f, Luke 19:41-44, Ezek 4:6). His thoughts are not your thoughts, and his righteousness not your righteousness.

          You are at liberty to imply that Jesus, a Jew, was anti-Semitic, but that would be far from the mark. I deplore pogroms and any persecution of the Jews, so kindly get off your high horse. I do not believe it is for man to take into his own hands the sword of divine judgement, and it is a basic theological mistake to confuse the divine temporal judgement of AD 67-70 with the sporadic pogroms etc of the following 2000 years. Though you might try to integrate into your understanding of God and what he has told us the fact that events such as AD 67-70 were foretold as long ago as Deut 28-29.

          As for ‘he was sentenced and killed by the Roman authorities’, that is true, but a very partial reading, seeing that Pilate was pressured into executing him by the crowd: ‘And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” ‘

          We, the Gentile West, can expect the same judgement as came upon the Jews, for in our generation we too have rejected the Messiah and preferred to rely on our own righteousness (Rom 2:9).

          • There’s plenty of scholarship which implies that Jesus was anti-Jewish. N.T. Wright is a particular example.
            The out of context quotes from particularly Matthew are responsible for centuries of blood libel which culminated in the Holocaust. The Jews had no powers of execution and Pilate was not, historically, the man of conscience sometimes read from the gospel accounts. He was recalled because of his brutality.
            The ‘Jews’ did not reject Jesus. Most 1st century Palestinian Jews would never have heard of him. Some, clearly, did follow him and many lost their lives, with other Jews, in the uprisings against the Romans.
            It is all too easy to use anti Semitic tropes derived from poor readings of the NT. I see this all too often in preaching with unhistorical caricatures of the Pharisees, for example.
            It is poor scholarship, poor history, poor exegesis, poor hermeneutics and a scandal.

      • Judas may represent an unfaithful Israel, he may not; I happen to agree with you that this might be pushing things a little bit, even though I find the suggestion plausible.

        But that Israel rejected Jesus, that Israel’s leaders were complicit in his trial and sentence, and that Jerusalem bore the consequences of this at the hands of Rome are the very structure of the church.

        You write much that I disagree with, and some that I agree with, in these comments sections but this is an especially odd take…

        • **But that Israel rejected Jesus, that Israel’s leaders were complicit in his trial and sentence, and that Jerusalem bore the consequences of this at the hands of Rome are part of the very foundation of the church.**

          Sorry, an important correction.

        • Could you clarify why you think the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple was the direct result of God’s judgement on Israel for rejecting the Messiah? Yes Jesus predicted the event but he didn’t mention judgement.


          • I had supposed I was saying something fairly commonplace, but evidently not. Could you first give your definition of ‘judgement’. Then we can determine whether the difficulty lies with the definition, with the absence of the word from the scriptures cited, or with the interpretation of them.

          • ‘Didn’t mention judgement’?

            What do you think is happening in Matthew 23 and 24?… What are these words from Jesus if not words of judgement? They seem to me to go well beyond the categories of a simple ‘warning’ or ‘rebuke’; they are quite explicitly framed as the (imminent?) consequence of ancient Israel’s current rejection of the Messiah and Israel’s past rejection of the prophets et al…

            I can’t see how that’s taking it out of context. The narrative on either side of this, admittedly contentious, passage seem to only reinforce the point more strongly..


            Two additional caveats that follow from this and partially respond to the comment above…

            First, although I do believe that Judgement was acted upon Israel in the 1st century, I do not think this is an ongoing judgement held against the Jewish people in perpetuity (as, yes, some past commentators argue(d)). To my understanding it was a judgement explicitly against *that* generation. Holding the Jewish people today accountable for the actions of their ancestors as if they still have the blood of Jesus on their hands is antisemitic.

            Second, I do not agree with the assessment above that the majority of Jews in 1st century Israel would have been oblivious to Jesus and his message. Granted that Jesus’ reach and impact was far from universal, his actions in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside clearly attracted a good amount of attention, and almost everything I’ve read about the ancient Greek and Jewish world (which is far from comprehensive) tells me that word traveled fast and fairly reliably across homogeneous societies, and it seems likely to me that a sizable proportion of the population over the last year or so of Jesus’ ministry would have come into contact with/heard of his teaching and message.


          • I would also echo Steven’s question.

            I am not trying to be difficult to make a point, but I agree that we must surely be talking across each other in some way to read a passage like this so radically different from each other. To me the ‘judgement’ in them is obvious, so we must be working with different definitions…

            That’s not a cop-out. I’d like to engage further but not if we’re going to go round in circles because I’m misunderstanding you, or vice-versa.


  5. As ever I take it as a privilege to read articles of this level of thoroughness along with interesting comments and responses. However my inner pedant is aroused when a comment is made that Judas hung himself. No he didn’t, he HANGED himself. There now isn’t that helpful. Being in ones mid-70s is wonderful. One has so much accumulated wisdom to share . . . and is the world grateful? 🙂
    Again, a sincere thank you for all to contributed here.

  6. As ever I take it as a privilege to read articles of this level of thoroughness along with interesting comments and responses. However my inner pedant is aroused when a comment is made that Judas hung himself. No he didn’t, he HANGED himself. There now isn’t that helpful. Being in ones mid-70s is wonderful. One has so much accumulated wisdom to share . . . and is the world grateful? 🙂
    Again, a sincere thank you for all to contributed here.


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