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 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.
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).
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.
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.