By Spencer Gear
There are some alleged contradictions in the story of Judas Iscariot when we compare Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19. A friend has sent me the questions (in bold below). F. F. Bruce (1951:77) acknowledged that ‘the main problems are: (1) Who bought the field? (2) How did Judas die? (3) Why was the place called “the Field of Blood”?’
Was it Judas who bought the field or was it the priests? This is my first question. One text suggests the priests, the other suggests Judas.
Acts 1:18 does state that ‘Judas bought a field” and this field was called ‘in their language, Akeidama, that is field of blood’ (NIV). Most translations have Acts 1:18-19 as a parenthesis inserted by the author, Luke.
Matt. 27:6-8 says that “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” NIV).
On the surface it does sound contradictory, but notice the language of Matt. 27:6-8: The chief priests bought a potter’s field that was ‘a burial place for foreigners’, that was called ‘the Field of Blood to this day’.
F. F. Bruce in his commentary on the Book of Acts (Bruce 1979:49) states:
‘(According to Matt. 27:7, it was the chief priests who bought it with the reward of treachery, which Judas had had flung back in their faces. The common harmonization of the two accounts at this point –suggested, for example by E. Jacquier in Les Actes des Ap?tres (Paris, 1926), ad loc. – is that the chief priests, considering the thirty sheckles to be legally Judas’ property, bought the field with them in his name.) He did not live, however, to enjoy the fruits of his shameful act, for he swelled up and sustained a fatal rupture. (The Latin Vulgate harmonizes this account with Matthew’s by saying that “having hanged himself he burst asunder in the midst”; Augustine (Against Felix the Manichaean i.4) says “he fastened a rope round his neck and, falling on his face, burst asunder in the midst.”) It should be noted by the English reader that “in the midst” does not mean “in the midst of the field”, but refers to Judas’s body. The field was accordingly called by an Aramaic name meaning “the field of blood” (According to Matt. 27:7, it was the potter’s field, and was used thereafter to bury aliens in.)’
The other was how did he die? By hanging, or falling off the cliff headlong. Not that if someone hung themselves, it might appear unlikely that if the rope broke, that he would fall headlong.
Three things are stated of Judas and his death:
- Judas ‘hanged himself’ (Matt. 27:5 NIV), and
- He ‘fell headlong’ (Acts 1:18 NIV);
- ‘His body burst open and all his intestines spilled out’ (Acts 1:18 NIV).
Are any of these facts contradictory?
What does it mean that he fell ‘headlong’ (Acts 1:18)? ‘Headlong” is the Greek, pr?n?s. In Arndt & Gingrich’s Greek lexicon, it gives the meaning of pr?n?s as ‘forward, prostate, head first, headlong’ but admits the meaning, ‘swollen, distended’ as a possibility (1957:707). Therefore “headlong” is not the necessary meaning.
One of the greatest NT Greek scholars of all time, Dr. A. T. Robertson, wrote that the meaning is not ‘headlong’ but ‘”flat on the face” as opposed to kuptios on the back’ (Robertson 1930:16). F. F. Bruce (1951:77) in his Greek commentary on the Book of Acts states that ‘fell headlong’ is literally, ‘”having become prone”, i.e. falling flat’.
So if I follow these Greek authorities, it is easy to see that when Judas was released from whatever device hanged him, he fell forward, prostrate, flat on his face. So there is no contradiction between a person being hanged and his then falling prostrate on his face (‘fell headlong’).
I have no problem in understanding that a body that died from hanging and falls on its face can ‘burst open; and have the intestines spill open. Acts 1:18 provides information that is supplementary to Matt. 27:3-10 and not what is contradictory. It is reasonable to infer that the rope that hanged Judas snapped under stress or through somebody cutting it and that when it fell, it hit something that caused the body to burst open and the intestines to fall out.
Therefore, Matthew (probably written to a Jewish audience) and Luke/Acts (probably for a Gentile audience) are like two journalists describing the same event but from different angles for different audiences.
My concern is that in putting forth their message, it still doesn’t explain some seemingly contradictory facts proposed to make their point. Who do you believe purchased the field? How do you make sense of him falling headlong after hanging?
Who purchased the field? The priests did, but with 30 pieces of silver that legally belonged to Judas. So the priests bought the field, but Judas also did it as it was Judas’s money.
There is no problem in understanding that a person can be hanged and fall on his face or on his head when being cut down from the hanging device.
Acts 1:18 How did Judas die?
This is how some scholars see it:
While Luke’s description of Judas’s death is rather gory, Acts 1:18 would not be a problem were it not that Matthew seemingly has a different story. In Matthew’s account, “Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself” (Matthew 27:5). Matthew also reports that the chief priests used the money “to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.” Aren’t the two accounts contradictory?
It is clear that Matthew and Luke have different concerns in mentioning the incident. Matthew is more interested in the purchase of the field, which he sees as a fulfillment of Scripture. He combines Zech. 11:12-13 (the thirty pieces of silver and the potter) and Jeremiah 32:6-12 (buying a field), perhaps with overtones of Jeremiah 18:1-4 (going to the potter’s house), and links them all under Jeremiah’s name.
Luke has another concern, which is that Judas got what he deserved, a horrible death. (A similar situation is reported in Acts 12:21-24, where the author narrates the story of Herod Agrippa I’s death.) The focus is not on the purchase of the field (which would have appeared a reward, especially to Jews for whom landowning in Palestine was important), but on his death in the field (which was ghastly).
Both authors want to point out that the field was called “The Field of Blood,” thus memorializing the deed. Acts appears to connect the title to Judas’s blood in his death, while Matthew ties it to the fact that the blood money paid for the field. It is hardly surprising that the same name might mean different things to different people.
A closer look at the two stories highlights gaps in the narrative that raise questions about the events. But the accounts are not necessarily contradictory. Acts is concerned that Judas’s money and name were connected to a field. Whether or not the chief priests actually purchased it, perhaps some time after Judas’s death, would not be a detail of concern to the author. His point was the general knowledge that Judas’s money went to the purchase, which resulted in the title “Field of Blood” being attached to the field. Another possible reason for the name, also a concern of Acts, was that Judas split open and his intestines poured out. Such a defacing of the body, probably with the concomitant result of the corpse being at least partially eaten by vultures and dogs, was horrible in the view of the Jews, for whom proper burial was important. In fact, they even valued forms of execution that did not deface the outside of the body (such as strangulation) over forms that defaced the body (such as stoning, the worst form in their eyes).
Matthew points out that it was a guilt-motivated suicide, accomplished by the most common means, hanging. Suicide in Jewish literature is most often connected to shame or failure. (So 2 Samuel 17:23; compare the other accounts of suicide in Old Testament history, which were normally to avoid a more shameful death.) However, since suicide by hanging was usually accomplished (at least by poorer people) by jumping out of a tree with a rope around one’s neck, it was not unusual (nor is it uncommon in India today) for the body to be ripped open in the process. I hesitate to say that this was exactly what happened, but it is certainly a plausible explanation.
Therefore, we will never be fully certain about what happened at the death of Judas. What I have shown is that there are certainly credible explanations as to how the two accounts fit together. I have shown how it may well have happened, not how it must have happened. In doing so we see that there is no necessary contradiction. Yet what is important in reading these narratives is to focus on the points they are making, not on the horrible death. With Matthew we see that Scripture is fulfilled even while those fulfilling it are driven by guilt and shame to their own self-destruction. And with Acts we see that sin does have consequences: Judas not only lost his office through his treachery, but came to a shameful end as well, an end memorialized in the place near Jerusalem named “Field of Blood” (Kaiser, et al 1996:511-512).
Gleason Archer (1982:349-350) provides his assessment of Acts 1:18 online HERE.
Archer, G L 1982. Encyclopedia of Bible difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Regency Reference Library (Zondervan Publishing House). Available online HERE.
Arndt, W F & Gingrich, R W 1957. A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature. Chicago: Chicago University Press.
Bruce, F F 1951. The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek text with introduction and commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Bruce, F F 1979. Commentary on the Book of Acts (The New International Commentary on the New Testament – F. F. Bruce, gen ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Kaiser, W C, Davids P H, Bruce F F & Brauch, M T 1996. Hard sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, citation located HERE. A copy of this book is available at Google Books, “Hard Sayings of the Bible“.
Robertson, A T 1930. Word pictures in the New Testament: The Acts of the Apostles, vol 3. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
Copyright (c) 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document is free content. You can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the OpenContent License (OPL) version 1.0, or (at your option) any later version. This document last updated at Date: 24 March 2014.