How did Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, die? Everyone knows how. Having repented after delivering up the Master into the hands of the enemies, he could no longer bear his extreme anguish, and, falling into despair, went off to hang himself.
Matthew is the only evangelist who recounts his death, and he says: “When Judas, the traitor, realized that Jesus had been condemned, he was filled with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying an innocent man to death.’ They answered, ‘What does it matter to us? That is your concern.’ So, throwing the money into the Temple, he went away and hanged himself” (Mt 27:3-5).
What did the chief priests do with that money? “The priests picked up the money, and said, ‘This money cannot be put into the Temple treasury, for this is the price of blood.’ So they met together and decided to buy the Potter’s Field with the money and make it a cemetery for foreigners. This is why that place has been called “Field of Blood” to this day” (Mt 27:6-8).
According to another version
But did Judas’s death really happen this way? We would not have doubted it were it not for another book in the New Testament, the Acts of the Apostles, which gives us an entirely different version.
This book tells us that, when the Apostles wanted to look for a successor for Judas, in order to complete anew the number Twelve, Peter pronounced a discourse and said: “Brothers, it was necessary that the Scriptures referring to Judas be fulfilled. The Holy Spirit had spoken through David about the one who would lead the crowd coming to arrest Jesus. He was one of our numbers and had been called to share our common ministry. We know that he bought a field with the reward of his sin; yet he threw himself headlong to his death, his body burst open and all his bowels spilled out. This event became known to all the people living in Jerusalem and they named that field Akeldama in their own language, which means ‘Field of Blood’” (Acts 1:16-19).
Therefore, we now find ourselves with two different versions about the death of the Iscariot.
While Matthew speaks of a suicide, the Acts speak rather of an accident: he fell and his body hit and splattered against the ground.
Matthew affirms that Judas repented and was sorry for his betrayal, and went to return the money to the priests. In the Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, there was neither repentance nor restitution of the money.
According to Matthew, making use of the money that Judas returned, the priests acquired a piece of land from the potter, and used it as a cemetery for the foreign Jews who died in Jerusalem. The Acts, however, affirm that Judas himself bought the field.
Matthew points out that the piece of land bought was desert land (in Greek, agrón). Meanwhile, the Acts of the Apostles make it clear that it was a farmland (in Greek, joríon), the place in which Judas met with a horrifying death, falling off, perhaps, from the rooftop of a house.
For Matthew, the mysterious name “Field of Blood” refers to the death of Jesus Christ (since the land was bought with money gotten from selling him). For the Acts, the name alludes to the death of Judas (since the poor Apostle died a tragic death there).
Could both versions be reconciled?
As we can see, the differences between the two are many. Some have tried to make both versions coincide by saying, for example, that the rope or the tree branch might have snapped, and Judas’ body smashed as it fell to the ground. But for this to happen, in the first place he must have hanged himself from a very tall tree, as it would be impossible for the body to get crushed after falling a short distance from the ground. Besides, in Palestine, such tall trees do not exist.
Others, with a bit more imagination, suggested that Judas must have hanged himself from a tree that was at the edge of a precipice. Thus, when the rope or the branch broke, his body was shattered as it reached the bottom of the valley.
Moreover, given the above premise, Judas should have fallen feet first, just as he was hanged. However, as we have seen before, Peter assures that Judas “threw himself headlong” (Acts 1:18). This would have been impossible, unless he had “hanged” himself from the feet.
Nonetheless, the discrepancies mentioned above seem irreconcilable for both accounts, and all attempts at harmonizing the two versions have failed. How, then, did these two accounts about Judas’ death come about?
The origin of the legend
In order to understand the version recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, it is necessary to keep in mind that, first and foremost, the early Christians never forgot the deplorable attitude of Judas. How could he have delivered up the Master? How could he have caused, with his kiss of a traitor, the bloody Passion of Our Lord, which eventually led to Christ’s crucifixion? Such perfidiousness, many thought, merited such an appalling punishment from God.
In fact, in the Old Testament, there existed a special literary genre, called “stories of infamous deaths,” which were used to recount the death of those sinners, enemies of God who, during their life, opposed to the divine plans. Some of these are read, for example, in Psalms 69:23-29; 109:6-9, and in the book of Wisdom 4:19.
The Quotation from the Book of Wisdom
This latter quotation says: “The Lord will laugh at them when they have become a useless corpse, a loathsome and dead thing forever. The Lord will dash them to the ground, voiceless, shaking them from their foundations; they will wither and suffer anguish; even their memory will fade.”
This description gives us a glimpse of how dreadful a panorama the death of a sinner is. Let us remember that, in the ancient times, it was very important to afford the dead a dignified burial, and that there was no greater dishonor or curse than that given to an unburied cadaver.
If we now analyze this paragraph carefully and we compare it with what Peter says in the Acts of the Apostles, we see that, in reality, the latter recounts the death of Judas in the manner that the above quotation from the book of Wisdom does. Thus, Judas “was converted into a disreputable cadaver” (as he could not be given a dignified burial); “an object of eternal opprobrium” (since the news spread far and wide); “he fell headlong” (as Peter affirms); “without being able to talk” (that is why, for Peter, Judas is neither able to repent nor return the money).
A disreputable parcel of land
But Peter adds something about the farmland, called the “Field of Blood,” which the book of Wisdom does not mention. Where did he get this piece of information?
The answer is found in a piece of land which already existed during the time of Jesus (and continues to exist), located in the southeastern part of Jerusalem. Popular tradition used to call it “Field of Blood,” for reasons unknown to scholars.
It is not strange that such suggestive names stimulate the imagination of the people. With the passing of time and based on popular belief, tradition ended up referring to this place as the site of Judas’ terrifying accident. Where could Judas have gotten the money to buy this field? Simple: from the thirty pieces of silver that he received in exchange for Jesus.
We can, therefore, conclude that the version of Judas’ death as recounted by the Acts of the Apostles was nothing but a story transmitted by the first Christians, made more intricate and convoluted based on the account in the book of Wisdom, and completed with the popular belief of a certain piece of land called “Field of Blood.” With this, the early Christians wished to highlight that God’s designs are always fulfilled, over and above any wicked plan.
What about the version of Matthew? Where did the evangelist get his data?
First of all, it is striking that no other Gospel gives the slightest mention about the death of Judas. It is only Matthew who seems to know details about the incident.
In the second place, we also notice that the narration is out of context. Basically, it starts by saying that Judas, upon seeing that Jesus had been condemned, felt remorse and decided to go to the Temple to talk with the high priests and elders, and to return the money (Mt 27:3). But, in the verse that precedes it, we read that all the high priests and elders were with Pontius Pilate in the tribunal convoked to interrogate Jesus (Mt 27:1-2). How was it possible for Judas to have gone to speak to the rulers and elders in the Temple, if they were in the governor’s palace?
This shows us that the episode does not belong to the traditional narration of the passion of Jesus. It had to be created by Matthew and added for some special reason. What was his reason?
There were two predictions
Matthew, who was familiar with the gospel of Mark, discovered that this evangelist had left out an important detail in his work. In effect, Mark speaks of two predictions of Jesus at the Last Supper: one about the denial of Peter (Mk 14:30) and another about the betrayal of Judas (Mk 14:18-21). Further on, he shows how the foretold denial of Peter is fulfilled (Mk 14:66-72); but he makes no reference to the tragic end of Judas, as foretold with these words of Jesus: “It would have been better if that man had never been born” (Mk 14:21).
Matthew had a special interest in showing to the readers how so carefully Jesus’ words are eventually fulfilled. And, in order to fill in the gap left by Mark, he composed the gruesome account of Judas’ death.
But, why did he narrate it in this manner, and not according to the popular legend that was already circulating among the Christian community?
Jesus the New David
Matthew is the evangelist who writes his Gospel for the Jews. His main mission is to try to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah who, for centuries, they had been waiting for.
But the Jews dreamt of a Messiah who would come from the line of David. Someone who had the same features and characteristics as David! Someone who would be a new David! At least, they thought, that was how the prophets had announced he was going to be. And, Matthew, in order to tell them that Jesus was the new David, would describe Jesus, whenever possible and all throughout his book, as someone with characteristics typical of a king.
The exegetes have discovered and pointed out countless indirect allusions made by this evangelist to David. Matthew had carefully inserted these details from Jesus’ childhood to his death.
Among the details we are familiar with in the life of David is that he had a good friend named Ahitophel. He was among his closest collaborators, in whom he confided all the secrets of the kingdom. One day, his enemies conspired against David to kill him. However, Ahitophel, his good friend, betrayed him and sided with his adversaries. So, what was the fate of Ahitophel? The Bible says that, when he saw that his plans failed, he got up, went home… and hanged himself (2 Sam 17:23).
More than just history
Judas’ death, according to the version of Matthew, looks strangely very similar to the story of Ahitophel. In fact, Judas was also a close collaborator of Jesus. Jesus had also entrusted him with all the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 13:11). Likewise, Judas betrayed his good friend. Similar to Ahitophel’s story, Judas repented and hanged himself.
In the entire Bible, Judas and Ahitophel are the only two persons whose death by suicide is narrated in Scriptures (except for that account about a warrior who kills himself in order to escape from the enemies). And both die by hanging.
Matthew, in his gospel, told about the death of Judas keeping in mind the story of Ahitophel. Thus, he was not planning to present historical information about the fate of the Apostle. This would not have been all that important to the readers and would not have appealed much to them. He preferred to revive, in the narrative about Jesus and Judas, the story of David and Ahitophel. With this, he presents a message of greater depth and meaning: Jesus went through the same things David went through, because he was the new David, he was the saving Messiah the Israelites were waiting for. That is why the people should believe in him.
There exists a third version about Judas’ death, which is very gruesome. Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis, made the account known in the 2nd century CE. According to him, in Judas’ attempt to hang himself, the rope broke before it actually strangled him. Thus, he was saved and lived. However, later, he contracted a dreadful sickness; he got terribly bloated to a point that he could not even pass through passageways where carriages and carts would normally pass. His head and eyelids became so swollen that he could not see; neither could the doctors find where his eyes were. He had worms and pus all over his body, even in his private parts. Later, after such atrocious torments, he died in a piece of land that belonged to him. Those who would pass by that area needed to cover their nose due to the foul stench that was emitted from the place.
Another writer of the early centuries, called Ecumenius, offers a fourth version of Judas’ death. According to him, a carriage ran over Judas and crushed him, and thus his body burst and was ripped to pieces due to the weight of the wheels.
We see how ancient tradition piled up horror upon horror as regards the death of a man who the general public considered a supreme traitor. Much later, Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, would place Judas in the deepest part of Hell.
After learning how the accounts of the New Testament came about, we see that the Bible did not intend to treat Judas mercilessly. Nor did it want to underline his final despair, much less stress his condemnation.
Judas is a mistaken man, as were many others we know in history. The New Testament draws down the curtain on him when Peter, in the discourse we mentioned earlier, said that Judas deserted “and went to the place he deserved” (Acts 1:25).
It is not within our competence to declare what this place is. It is not the Church’s role to condemn anyone, but rather to save.
When we see ourselves tempted to ruthlessly condemn anyone who is mistaken, let us remember what the New Testament did to Judas. Instead of condemning him, it used his story to highlight two other positive lessons. In the version of the Acts of the Apostles, we are taught that God always triumphs. In the version of Matthew, we see that Jesus is the true Messiah despite the defections that we, the people around him, may commit against him.