It’s not surprising that critics of the Bible like to point out alleged contradictions or presumed errors of fact. Books and websites love to charge that the Bible is full of mistakes. So we should also not be surprised that they raise issues about the biblical record of the suicide of Judas.
In Matthew’s account (Matt. 27:3–10), Judas is recorded as committing suicide by hanging himself (27:5). But according to Luke in the book of Acts, Judas fell headlong and his guts spilled out (Acts 1:18). Another apparent contradiction is when Matthew says the chief priests bought a potter’s field (Matt. 27:6–7), but Luke says it was Judas who purchased the field (Acts 1:18). Finally, Matthew says the actions of Judas fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy (Matt. 27:9–10) but then he quotes from Zechariah 11:12–13, not from the book of Jeremiah.
But, in Matthew 27:3–10, as in other passages which critics use to challenge biblical accuracy, there are fairly simple explanations that will both address the problems and (more importantly) give us confidence in Scripture. Let’s take a look at how to unravel these alleged problems about the death of Judas.
Matthew presents the account of the death of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed the Lord Jesus, in a straightforward way. He writes, “And he [Judas] threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself ” (Matt. 27:5). Then, in Luke’s account in Acts, when the apostles were explaining the need to name a twelfth apostle to replace Judas, Peter says, “Now this man [Judas] acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out” (Acts 1:18).
The first element that needs to be harmonized relates to how Judas died. The story in Matthew records Judas hanging himself (Matt. 27:5) but Acts 1:18 says he fell headlong and his guts spilled out. Although the text doesn’t state where Judas carried out his suicide, we can imagine him attaching a rope to a branch of a dead tree in an isolated area. Why does the account in Acts 1:18 seem to differ? It would be reasonable to understand that, as Judas’s body hung from the tree, a gust of wind or some sort of earthly upheaval caused the branch to break. In fact, at the moment when Jesus died, besides the veil of the temple tearing, “the earth shook and the rocks were split” (Matt. 27:51). Many things could easily have caused the breaking of the branch from which Judas hung. When the swollen corpse fell, it burst open and its intestines poured out. When understood in this way, the two accounts are easily harmonized.
The second apparent contradiction relates to the account of what Judas did with the money he received for betraying Jesus. According to Matthew, Judas “threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary” (Matt. 27:5). The temple authorities, not wanting to put the money into the temple treasury, used it to buy a potter’s field (vv. 6–7). But, according to Luke’s record, Judas acquired the field with that money (Acts 1:18). Which account is true? The answer is both are true. The authorities didn’t want the money back in the temple treasury, so they used the betrayal money to purchase the field in the name of Judas. The reason that the Acts record identifies Judas as the purchaser is because the temple leadership bought the potter’s field in Judas’s name and with his money.
The harmonization of these two accounts is actually secondary to the real question: Why did the two biblical authors report the accounts differently? The simple reason is that the authors each wanted to communicate distinctive ideas to their respective audiences. Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience and Luke was writing Acts to a Greco-Roman audience.
So, with respect to the chief priests not allowing the blood money paid to Judas to be returned to the temple and purchasing a potter’s field in the name of Judas, Matthew wanted to emphasize the guilt and hypocrisy of these leaders. They were willing to pay blood money but not willing to receive it back. Although this should not be misconstrued as supporting the anti-Jewish Christ-killer accusation that has been the basis of so much persecution of the Jewish people, it does recognize that the chief priests were conscious of their wrongdoing.
On the other hand, in Acts 1:18, Luke’s quotation of Peter was designed to emphasize the guilt of Judas in purchasing a field. When discussing that Judas acquired the plot of land with the money received from wrongdoing, Gleason Archer suggests that Peter’s words are to be taken ironically: “Judas acquired a piece of real estate all right, but it was only a burial plot.”1Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 344. This emphasized, in a sarcastic way, the culpability of Judas. Despite his hollow remorse, he was still the son of perdition (John 17:12).
As for Matthew stating that Judas hanged himself and Luke recording that he fell headlong and burst open, both accounts emphasize that Judas was accursed for his behavior. Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience who would have been aware of the Torah’s statement, “He who is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23). They would have understood Judas hanging himself was a sign that God had condemned him.
This recognition would not have been so clear to Luke’s Greco-Roman audience. In that culture, someone who was guilty of wrongdoing was thought to redeem themselves by committing suicide. Thus, Judas hanging himself would have led Luke’s audience to conclude that he had undone his evil and thus expunged his guilt. On the other hand, the Hellenistic world had adopted a great adoration of the human body. By saying that Judas had fallen headlong, bursting his body and spilling his intestines, the Greco-Roman audience would have seen that defacing of the body as a sign of Judas being cursed. Luke emphasized this aspect of the death of Judas to make clear to his readers that Judas was the son of perdition. The two accounts of the death of Judas can be easily harmonized but, more importantly, they can be shown to emphasize the message of each individual author.
The second major issue in the account of the death of Judas is found in Matthew’s quotation from the Old Testament. Matthew states that these events fulfilled the words of Jeremiah. The problem is that the quotation that Matthew gives is actually from Zechariah 11:12–13.
This alleged error has been explained a number of ways. Some critics say that Matthew may have had a memory lapse and confused Jeremiah with Zechariah. However, that explanation would contradict the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Some say it was an oral statement by Jeremiah not recorded in Scripture. While this may seem plausible, it cannot be proven. Others say these verses were removed from Jeremiah by Jewish scribes. But, again, that is highly unlikely for two reasons: (1) Jewish veneration of the Bible preserved the text of Scripture; and (2) these very same verses were kept in Zechariah, showing that Jewish scribes had no objection to the passage—we’d have to ask why would scribes take it out of Jeremiah and leave it in Zechariah?
Another common explanation given involves finding passages in Jeremiah using similar words (Jer. 18:2; 19:1, 11) and alleging that Matthew is conflating them with Zechariah and saying it is a quotation from Jeremiah, the more significant prophet. The problem with this solution is that the verses in Jeremiah do not contain a prophecy of Judas and the potter’s field as do the verses in Zechariah.
The simplest and most reasonable explanation is that in ancient times, Jeremiah was at the head of the Prophets section of the Bible and it was a common Jewish practice to cite the entire section with the name of the first book. Similarly, the Lord Jesus cited the Law, the Prophets, and “the Psalms,” citing the first book to represent the whole section. The ancient book of Jewish wisdom and law, the Talmud, notes the order of the latter Prophets as “Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Twelve” (Bava Batra 14b). This is evidence that ancient Jews ordered the latter Prophets with Jeremiah at the head. Therefore, Matthew quoted the passage from the scroll of the Prophets, citing it by its first book, Jeremiah.
We can conclude that the two passages recording the death of Judas (Matt. 27:3–10; Acts 1:18–19) are not filled with contradictions and errors. In actuality, they focus their attention on those who were truly guilty for the travesty that led to the death of Jesus. Moreover, it shows that all of these details were always part of the plan of God. The actions of the chief priests and Judas were predicted in Zechariah 11:12–13. A careful reading of these texts leads us not to doubt, but to greater confidence in Scripture with regard to both history and prophecy.
by Michael A. Rydelnik
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