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But How Did Judas Die?

In response to my recent thread on the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, a number of readers have asked me about the aftermath.  OK, supposing, as I’m arguing, there really was a Judas, one of Jesus twelve disciples, who betrayed something about Jesus (his whereabouts? his claim to be the future king?) that led to his arrest and execution.  What happened next?   Did Judas really kill himself?

Many people don’t realize that Judas’s death, after he betrayed Jesus, is not mentioned in three of our Gospels: Mark, Luke, and John.  It is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, however, and just as important, in the book of Acts, written by the same author who produced the Gospel of Luke (so, well, let’s call him Luke).  What is striking is that the descriptions of Judas’ death in these two accounts are at odds with one another, even though there are, at the same time, some striking similarities.

Matthew’s account (ch. 27) is the one more people are familiar with, since here we are told that ….

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Yet Other Accounts Of the Death of Judas
But WHY Did Judas Betray Jesus?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Robsmith2020  June 8, 2020

    Professor, this posting brings up a broader question for me regarding the oral tradition that the Gospels are coming from. If there are differences in the Gospel narratives, as there are in this example, were there separate oral traditions that were segregated enough that they generated different Gospel narratives? Or is it assumed that there is single oral tradition source that morphed into different narratives over time. Or finally, was this more a matter of the Gospel writers picking and choosing what they wanted their narrative to say from the oral traditions that they were hearing?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      There must have been many, many oral traditions. I talk about that at length in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

  2. Avatar
    KingJohn  June 8, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman: What is older? The Gospel of Luke or the Book of Acts?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      The opening verses of Acts indicate that the Gospel of Luke had already been written.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  June 8, 2020

    I look forward to the account by Papias. As usual, you have a real gift for simplifying and summarizing similarities and differences in Gospel accounts. Thanks.

  4. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  June 8, 2020

    Assuming then that Judas was a real person who in some sense “betrayed” Jesus, is a suicide or other violent or unnatural death well-attested, such that we can eliminate the possibility that the guy just simply got on with his life and perhaps breathed a sigh of relief at getting out of a cult (assuming he could even think in terms of a cult– clearly, he must have found something wrong or disturbing in Jesus and his followers)? I’m considering the possibility that Judas was defamed and reviled later and that his nasty ends were inventions. I kind of see him as someone who tried to do the right thing and then got badly smeared over the course of time. But he might have died a natural death long before that.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Yes, I’d say an act of betrayal involves more than relief. And yes, the stories themselves are legendary, but given their close similarities in weird key ways, there may be something historical behind them (his death was in jerusalem somehow connected with a potter’s field and an exchange of money for his act)

      • Avatar
        RICHWEN90  June 9, 2020

        I could imagine that Judas was hounded and persecuted and perhaps found his life so miserable that he committed suicide– not because of guilt, but because followers of Jesus made life unbearable for him. If I wrote a novel about this, It might be interesting to portray Judas as ultimately murdered by a zealous follower of Jesus, perhaps hung and disemboweled. But that would just muddy the water. The water is muddy enough.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  June 8, 2020

    The Gospel of Matthew goes out of its way to invent or modify stories to make them appear to be the fulfillment of Scripture, and this happens again in its story of Judas, although its gets the reference wrong (Jeremiah vs Zechariah). Seems like Acts is tying Judas’ death to the field based on some tradition (no Scripture reference), but hard for me to believe that one man bleeding is going to cause an entire field to be called the Field of Blood. More likely it was already called that, and it made for good “evidence” of what happened to Judas. Kind of a verisimilitude?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Yes, I think it must have been called that already, and the fact that both accounts associate it with Judas’s death and the exchange of money may point to some kind of historical reality behind them both.

  6. Avatar
    Ficino  June 8, 2020

    Putting on my inerrantist hat: how about this? The Matthew account is without error in what it asserts. So is the Acts account. There the author does not assert what Judas did but asserts that Peter spoke words about Judas’ death, and he quotes those words. Acts reports Peter’s WORDS without error. The NT is proved without error yet again! Luke simply doesn’t take the further step of correcting Peter’s discrepant account, but Luke is not obligated to do that.

    A lame attempt at “saving” the inerrancy of Acts! But I couldn’t resist playing the “without error in all it asserts” game. /s

  7. Avatar
    Shah  June 8, 2020

    Well, again the point of both stories is not a historical description of what exactly happened, but they are meant to refer the reader to the relevant prophecies about Jesus. According to all those prophecies Judas is not the betrayer, but it is Peter who betray Jesus to Paul. Please note that there is not a single prophecy to anyone who betrays Jesus phisically, but there are many prophecie about someone who betray Jesus’ theology and teachings. Judas has zero effect on corrupting the religion and theology of Jews or Christians. This is Peter who took this role. That’s why, all those prophecies refer to someone who will be alive after the alleged crucifixion of Jesus. If the death of Judas is right, then he has no effect on formation of a new theology. If it is not right, then Peter is lying about Judas, and this is indeed the case.
    Just check Psalm 41; Jeremiah 18, 19; and Zechariah 11, 12 to sse that there is no prophecy about Judas but about someone who brings destruction by misleading people.

  8. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 8, 2020

    I know you said it’s speculation, but what do you think is the reason both Matthew and Luke/Acts mention the field of blood (e.g. an oral tradition they both expanded upon)?

    The fact that they both tell different versions of various stories not found in Mark (e.g. Jesus’ birth, bypassing the rest of his childhood expect for one story in Luke, locations of the sermon on the mount, the death of Judas) strikes me. I know that majority opinion is that Matthew and Luke didn’t know each other, but I’ve wondered if one is reacting to the other. Or at least reacting to the tradition behind the other. For example, writing that Judas fell headlong (flipped 180 degrees from the hanging position?) and died a messy, embarrassing death (not sure if Judas killing himself would have been considered an honorable thing to do given the circumstances, but it seems more dignified that bowels gushing out or swelling out of control).

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      I think Judas did die, possibly of suicide, after betraying Jesus for money and that somehow his death was connected with a field in Jerusalem named the Field of Blood because it had distinctively red clay used by potters. More than that, I don’t think we can say. But no, I don’t think they are reacting ot each other — they are both riffing on a historically based set of legends in circulation, imo.

  9. Avatar
    tskorick  June 8, 2020

    I’ve often wondered if there is a more than passing connection between accounts of Judas’ death and the location of Potter’s Field (Akeldama) being on the Southern Slope of the Valley of Hinnom which carried all sorts of negative connotations with it in antiquity.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Don’t know. Why do you place it in the Valley of Hinnom?

      • Avatar
        tskorick  June 9, 2020

        Church tradition places it there, but I guess we all know how that can be. Am I banking too much on the accuracy of Eusebius and Jerome?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 10, 2020

          Ah, I didn’t remember that. Of course, these authors would have had no idea. But where do they indicate that?

          • Avatar
            tskorick  June 10, 2020

            Well, allegedly it was in Eusebius’ Onomasticon, later amended by Jerome in his Latin translation. I’m not seeing any Greek version online, and in Wolf’s translation combining both Greek and Latin there is no mention of the Valley of Hinnom. Resources I’d previously read might be quoting later editions or misquoting completely. This is a bit confusing.

      • Robert
        Robert  June 9, 2020

        Bart: “Why do you place it in the Valley of Hinnom?

        talmoore, who lives in Israel, also said “Chaqqel Dama [Aramaic: דמא חקל] is a cliff area that abuts the Valley of Hinnom, ie, Gehenna.”

        From Wikipedia: “In his Onomasticon (ed. Klostermann, p. 102, 16), Eusebius says the “field of Haceldama” lies nearer to “Thafeth of the Valley of Ennom”. But under the word “Haceldama” (p. 38, 20) he says that this field was pointed out as being “north of Mount Sion”. St. Jerome changed this to “south of Mount Sion” (p. 39, 27).”

        Helen, Constantine’s mother, verified the truth of all of these oral traditions! Nobody would lie to the Emperor’s mother!

        • Bart
          Bart  June 10, 2020

          I certainly wouldn’t deny that’s where it is said to be located today! And hey, you can go to Jerusalem and see where Golgatha was! But where does Eusebius say this? (And doesn’t “near” to the place mean it’s not “in” the place?)

  10. Avatar
    Bennett  June 8, 2020

    The Apollinaris version of the Papias recounting of Judas’ death is absolutely disgusting, and frankly makes me not believe anything else Papias claimed. Well, I suppose I should really be questioning anything Apollinaris said, since he might have been putting words in Papias’ mouth. Did people really believe such things might be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Of course! Amazing what people believe. But just because some people believe one crazy thing (the earth is hollow) doesn’t mean that everything they believe is crazy (the earth circles the sun)

  11. Avatar
    DirkCampbell  June 8, 2020

    ‘I think I’ll discuss it again in another post.’ Looking forward to that.

  12. Avatar
    Levenson  June 8, 2020

    This question is not directly tied to this but does scripture talk about free will explicitly?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 9, 2020

      Not in the modern sense, no. People certainly thought they were able to act in ways they chose, but the philosophical concept was not developed signifcantly until after the Enlightenment.

  13. Avatar
    Clair  June 9, 2020

    While mobs did stone and kings did murder, according to Roman and Jewish Law, Judas and others would have had to testify at the trials with or without his silver? Also, he would have stayed far away from the others and their swords. So, how would they know what happened to him? Witness Protection Program?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2020

      No, we don’t know that about Roman and Jewish law. It doesn’t appear that this is how it worked.

  14. Avatar
    turbopro  June 9, 2020

    >> “If you want to see a conservative evangelical in action trying to solve this particular problem, look at the debate I had with Peter Williams on the accuracy of the Gospels and judge for yourself. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZPPGvF_2I)”

    For those, like me, that are interested, that particular discussion on the death of Judas starts at 43:13 –> https://youtu.be/ZuZPPGvF_2I?t=2593

    But do watch the entire urbane discussion and enjoy.

  15. Avatar
    AstaKask  June 9, 2020

    Could there be different theological implications of the two stories? Matthew and Luke use different stories to illustrate their different points – Matthew emphasizes the Jewish traditions while Luke emphasizes the mission to the Gentiles.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 10, 2020

      THat always needs to be taken into consideration as one possibility, yes. But even having a reason for a discrepancy does not mean it is not a discrepancy. (Some people have reasons to lie under oath, but they’re still doing it!)

  16. Avatar
    madmargie  June 12, 2020

    I believe the entire tradition of New Testament stories about Jesus…what he said and did…, were ,mostly the product of a far removed oral tradition and therefore can’t even give us any real idea of what he might have said or done. We really cannot know what exactly he said about anything since he didn’t write anything or leave any records of that and neither did his contemporaries. .

    The accounts are so far distant from his actual life and death they can only be products of a later oral tradition and told over and over again and changed every time they were told. We have all played the game “gossip”,We know how that happens.

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