How did Judas die? Did he really hang himself?

How did Judas die? Falling into a field or hanging himself? Huh? How can there possibly be any question about Judas’ manner of death if the choices are that he either fell into a field or hung himself? Besides, everyone knows Judas hung himself. Didn’t he? And yet, both are presented in the Bible! It seems we have another investigation into the life of this ignominious person. Judas. The betrayer of Jesus.

How did Judas die? Did he really hang himself? is article #4 in the series: Death of Judas. Click button to view titles for entire series
How did Judas die?

Stranger still though is the outcome. The short answer is yes. But that’s not really satisfying, is it? How can it be both? Doesn’t it mean there’s an error in the Bible when one place says Judas hung himself but another says Judas fell into a field? This time, the short answer is no, it doesn’t mean there’s an error. Again, unsatisfying. So let’s see what’s going on.

It’s a weird scenario, isn’t it? Hung himself and fell into a field. It’s so impossible. And yet, it’s so possible. It depends on something we often ask these days. Who knew what, when.

What’s different here is the issue of what is meant by “who”. Who wasn’t one or two people. Who was a large number of people. In fact, who was probably an entire group of people. A group that knew about the hanging, and therefore understood the falling into a field!

The problem is, we don’t put ourselves in their shoes. Or probably a better choice is their sandals. So let’s try to put ourselves in the sandals of the group who were told that Judas fell into a field. Then we’ll see if both claims about the death of Judas make sense.

What about the thirty pieces of silver?

If you’re coming from the previous article in the series, you’re no doubt wondering – what happened to the thirty pieces of silver? We’ll get back to that. But first, we need to address this question of exactly how Judas died. Most of us “know” Judas hung himself. But then there’s that sticky question of the field.

We need to resolve the method of death question before we finish with the thirty pieces of silver. Only then will can we make sense of the path that silver took from the Jewish leaders to Judas back to the Jewish leaders to someone else for some reason. So please, hang in there. It’s coming.

Did Judas fall into a field?

Given the way I framed this discussion, we must start with the statement that Judas fell into a field. So let’s read it, from the book of Acts. The short passage covers a few things, so let’s read the whole thing for context, and then extract what we need for today’s topic.

The passage we’re going to examine gives us events that took place after Jesus ascended into Heaven and gave His disciples some final instructions. Because of their response, the disciples also got a visit from two angels. Before we get into that passage, I want to include the incident with the angels. Again, this took place immediately after Jesus’ ascension to Heaven.

Jesus Taken Up Into Heaven

Ac 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Ac 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Ac 1:10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.

Ac 1:11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Notice the part about, after receiving the parting instructions from Jesus, the disciples just stood there staring up into the sky. Also notice, those instructions are pretty much a short version of the Great Commission. Finally, notice that we also tend to act like the disciples did – just staring, waiting for Jesus to do what He asked us to do. For more on this thought, I invite you to check out Why do you stand here looking into the sky?

With that background, here’s the passage that tells us something about what happened to Judas.

Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas

Ac 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Ac 1:15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) 16 and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.”

Ac 1:18 (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

Ac 1:20 “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms,
“ ‘May his place be deserted;
let there be no one to dwell in it,’

and,
“ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ 21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

Ac 1:23 So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. 24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen 25 to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” 26 Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

It’s just two short verses. Buried in the middle of something that probably seems way more important – getting back to a group of twelve. It’s believed that Jesus chose twelve disciples to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, which are from the twelve sons of Jacob – sort of. But that’s for another day. I’ll add a link here when it’s done. You can also subscribe to the site to get notified of that article, as well as others.

Here are the verses:

Ac 1:18 (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)

Obviously, this says Judas fell into a field. A field that he bought. Further, in a rather gross explanation, we find out some pretty gory details about the fall.

BTW – the issue of how could Judas buy a field, presumably with that silver, when he already gave said silver back to the Jewish leaders. That’s in the next article in the series.

So why is it that we read something different in Matthew’s gospel?

Did Judas hang himself?

Judas Hangs Himself

Mt 27:1 Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. 2 They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

Mt 27:3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

Mt 27:5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

Mt 27:6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Yes, most of this passage is about Judas. However, remember that we’re doing a very focused examination here. The only part we’re going to look at right now is the second part of verse 5:

Then he went away and hanged himself.

Just like Acts, this is quite clear. Judas hung himself!

Or is it? How can Judas have hung himself and fallen into a field with the messy results we read in Acts? Well, there are ways. Ultimately though, which one(s) we’re willing to accept might be dependent on whether or not we even want to accept them. Some people are biased towards blindly accepting that there aren’t any discrepancies in the Bible. Others are looking for any reason to find every discrepancy possible.

But we’re doing a forensic examination here. So let’s try to keep open minds and be open to reasoning through what we find.

Here’s some explanation of what we’ve read. The question is – does it make sense? Is it plausible?

Matthew says Judas hanged himself; Acts, that “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.” This does not imply a disease, or that Judas tripped, as some have held. If Judas hanged himself; no Jew would want to defile himself during the Feast of Unleavened Bread by burying the corpse; and a hot sun might have brought on rapid decomposition till the body fell to the ground and burst open. Alternatively, one long tradition in the church claims Judas hanged himself from a tree branch that leaned over a ravine (of which there are many in the area); and when the branch broke, whether before or after he died, Judas fell to a messy end. We are not so much beset by contradictory accounts as by paucity of information, making it difficult to decide which of several alternatives we should choose in working out the complementarity of the two accounts.  [1]Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 562). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

Most of us these days watch enough criminal/forensic type TV programs to understand the reality of those possible explanations.

But notice this part, which we might not understand at all:

no Jew would want to defile himself during the Feast of Unleavened Bread by burying the corpse

That’s a religious/cultural issue that we might not realize today. But it was a really big deal two thousand years ago.

Why is defiling yourself, becoming unclean, such a big deal during the Feast of Unleavened Bread?

First of all, touching a dead body makes someone unclean. The passage below contains various laws about cleansing. Since most don’t apply, I kept only the verses that concern the issues surrounding touching Judas’ dead body. Again, keep in mind it’s during the Feast of the Unleavened Bread. A very sacred time.

The Water of Cleansing

Nu 19:11 “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days. 12 He must purify himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day; then he will be clean. But if he does not purify himself on the third and seventh days, he will not be clean. 13 Whoever touches the dead body of anyone and fails to purify himself defiles the LORD’S tabernacle. That person must be cut off from Israel. Because the water of cleansing has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean; his uncleanness remains on him.

Nu 19:16 “Anyone out in the open who touches someone who has been killed with a sword or someone who has died a natural death, or anyone who touches a human bone or a grave, will be unclean for seven days.

 22 Anything that an unclean person touches becomes unclean, and anyone who touches it becomes unclean till evening.”

Seven days of uncleanliness during such a holy feast. And whatever they touch becomes unclean. Further, those who touch the things made unclean become unclean as well. And on and on. As D.A. Carson pointed out above, no Jew would defile themselves in this way during that feast.

Why does that “unclean” issue matter? Because of the part about “a hot sun might have brought on rapid decomposition till the body fell to the ground and burst open“. This is part of the scenario that says Judas hung himself. If he succeeded, his body may have hung in the tree until it got to a point where the head detached and the body fell to the ground and burst open. This messy scenario isn’t likely unless it was the body hung long enough to reach that point of decomposition. The timeframe decreases as the temperature increases.

The same can be said about the tree branch breaking. A body that didn’t reach a certain point of decomposition probably wouldn’t break open like that. On the other hand, if the ravine was deep enough, it’s more likely with little to no decomposition.

Ultimately, the conclusion in the excerpt above shows to be likely. We are not so much beset by contradictory accounts as by paucity of information, making it difficult to decide which of several alternatives we should choose in working out the complementarity of the two accounts.

Conclusion – How did Judas die? Did he really hang himself?

So – how did Judas die?

Based on the evidence, it seems most likely that Judas did hang himself. Subsequently, by means undetermined, Judas’s dead body fell to the ground and broke open in the most unceremonious fashion described in Acts 1:18.

So this is where the evidence led us.

Two statements in the depositions we have in the Bible. Assuming both are valid, there is no other conclusion to reach. Suicide by hanging and subsequent destruction of the body from a fall. Outcomes that fit the statements.

But, if we try to assume one or the other statement is not valid, that’s an assumption with no evidence to back it up. Furthermore, there’s no reason for either Matthew or Luke to tell anything other than the truth. Let’s take that thought one step further. Matthew, the Jew, would be concerned about the suicide by hanging, since it has implications for Jewish people. On the other hand, Luke, the doctor who authored Acts, might be/probably was more inclined to focus on the horrible condition of the body after the fall.

Therefore, our conclusion is – suicide by hanging followed by bodily destruction from a fall that might be from one of a number of causes such as broken rope or body decomposition causing the body to fall and break open because of either the length of the fall and/or bodily decomposition.

Now what?

Next, since we have a reasonable method of death for Judas, the next installment will return to the money and, as we still do today, follow the money to see “who did what with the silver pieces”.


Image by corinna-kr from Pixabay


Footnotes

Footnotes
1 Carson, D. A. (1984). Matthew. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke (Vol. 8, p. 562). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

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