The Death of Judah Iscariot

Matthew 27.3-10 & Acts 1.15-20

Judah was a dreadful, walking example of impiety in this world.


How did Judah Iscariot die? He got so obscenely fat he couldn’t even see, and eventually his disease-ridden body exuded feces and worms to such an extent he died, and even a hundred years later the location of his unfortunate fate reeked of death.

Judah was a dreadful, walking example of impiety in this world. His flesh bloated to such an extent that he could not walk through a space where a wagon could easily pass. Not even the huge bulk of his head could go through! It is related that his eyelids were so swollen that it was absolutely impossible for him to see the light and his eyes could not be seen by a physician, even looking through an instrument, so far had they sunk from their outward projection. His genitals appeared entirely disfigured, nauseous and large. When he carried himself about, discharge and worms flowed from his entire body through his genitals only, on account of his outrages. He died after many tortures and punishments, in a secluded spot which has remained deserted and uninhabited up to our time. Not even to this day can anyone pass by the place without shielding his nostrils with his hands. Such is the flow that went through his flesh and upon the earth.

Reading that might have thrown you for a loop, especially with how unnecessarily graphic it is. Who made up this outlandish story? In fact, it was Papias, a student of John the Elder (possibly the author of the three Johannine letters). The passage above happens to be one of the few surviving fragments from a huge, five-volume treatise Papias wrote on the teachings of Jesus. This surviving fragment, though, illustrates the dilemma with our current topic: How did Judah Iscariot die? We don’t know.

Readers will probably think, ‘Didn’t he die by hanging?’ But in all honesty, we really don’t know that’s what happened. Now, to be fair, that is what the Gospel of Matthew reports happened:

When Judah, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to it yourself.’ Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’
Matthew 27.3-10

But the more studious might remember a second account of Judah’s death:

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty people) and said, ‘Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judah, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus—for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) ‘For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it”; and “Let another take his position of overseer.”’
Acts 1.15-20

The two stories don’t seem to fit that well together. For Christians who support the doctrine of inerrancy, this cannot be. Having first decided the biblical texts must all be without error or fault of any kind, inerrantists may dismiss Papias’ account of Judah’s death as clearly wrong, but they still seek ways to harmonize Matthew 27 with Acts 1. The result is, in a word, convoluted: Judah betrays Jesus, but suffers remorse. He returns to the priests who paid him off, throwing the money back at them. The priests refuse to keep the money, and so buy a field in Judah’s name. Judah decides to hang himself in the field he bought by proxy. By sheer happenstance, the rope snaps and his body falls to the ground and bursts open. Thus, the field is named ‘Field of Blood’.

Is this coherent?

Matthew 27 says Judah felt such remorse that he repented of his betrayal. He threw away the money, back to the priests. The priests used it to buy the field. Judah cannot buy it, because he had already gone off to hang himself. The priests buy the field for burying non-Judeans. It is expressly for this reason that the field is named ‘Field of Blood’, because the field was bought with ‘blood money’.

Acts 1 says Judah kept the money; he didn’t throw it away. Judah didn’t kill himself; he lived for at least a few days past Jesus’ arrest. Judah bought the field; the priests didn’t (let alone in Judah’s name) because he never returned the money. Judah didn’t hang himself; he basically tripped in the middle of his field and mangled his stomach by accident. And it is because his blood spilled onto the field that it became known as ‘Field of Blood’, not because it was bought with blood money.

Notice what harmonization of these two stories requires. If Matthew 27 and Acts 1 intend to describe the same sequence of events, it is incredibly convenient that they leave out the most pivotal details that the other happens to include. Inerrantists must remove conflicting details, and invent entirely new ones, in order to force the two stories to cohere. The superficial information is vaguely similar (blood money; a field; Judah’s premature death), but the individual details are incompatible.

Matthew was written about AD 75-90, and Luke-Acts perhaps about AD 75-100. Papias was writing around AD 110-130. In one, Judah killed himself almost immediately. In another, Judah bought a field and died on accident in it. In the third, Judah is bloated beyond recognition, and his body basically decomposed while he was still alive. Within a range of fifty years, there were at least three different accounts of how Judah died.

How did this happen? We can’t be sure, but someone committed to accepting the facts in front of them must recognize there’s no way to reconcile these three accounts. At least two of them are wrong, possibly all three. In seeking to describe for his readers the fate of Jesus’ betrayer, Matthew or Acts (or both) inherited an inaccurate tradition. For Christians, this should be a demonstration that even the new testament texts are not exempt from errors.