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How Did Judas Iscariot Die? Readers’ Mailbag June 18, 2017

Two questions in this week’s Readers’ mailbag.  The first concerns the very strange tradition about how Judas Iscariot actually died, as found in the writings of the early church father Papias; the second is about modern evangelical Christian biblical scholars: how do they deal with the fact that our manuscripts contain so many textual variants?  If you have a question, feel free to ask, and I’ll add it to the ever growing mailbag.



Papias didn’t think very highly of Judas. I can’t remember exactly what he said, is his version closer to Matthew or Acts? Or a different tradition altogether?



First some background.  Papias is one of the fascinating and virtually unknown figures from the early church.  He is normally thought to have been writing around 120 or 130 CE.  His major work was a five-volume discussion of the teachings of Jesus, called Exposition of the Sayings of the Lord.  We very much regret that we no longer have this book – it would have been the first known explanation of/commentary on Jesus’ teachings.   We don’t know exactly why later scribes chose not to copy the book, but it may have been because it was either uninspiring, naïve, or theologically questionable.    Later church fathers who talk about Papias and his book are not overly enthusiastic.  The “father of church history,” the fourth-century Eusebius of Caesarea, indicates that, in his opinion, Papias was “a man of exceedingly small intelligence” (Church History, 3.39).  Not a high recommendation.

Since the book no longer survives, our only access to it is through quotations of it in later church fathers, starting with the important author Irenaeus around 185 CE, and including Eusebius himself.  Some of these quotations are fascinating and have been the subject of intense investigation among critical scholars for a very long time.   Among those is his extended comment about how Judas Iscariot really died.

As I have indicated in recent posts, the Gospel of Matthew indicates…

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How Biblical Discrepancies Can Be Theologically Liberating for a Christian
A Very Different Portrayal of Jesus’ Death



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  June 18, 2017

    “the major doctrines of the faith: there is one God; Christ is his only Son; Christ is God; Christ died for the sins of the world; faith in him brings salvation; the Bible is God’s inspired word that can direct us in what to believe and practice.”

    I’m surprised that those “major doctrines,” as you understood them, didn’t include the Resurrection. Catholicism, on the other hand – at least, as I understood it – emphasized the Resurrection above all else.

  2. Avatar
    anthonygale  June 18, 2017

    Do you think the fact that Judas is described as falling head first in Acts suggests that Luke knew the tradition that Judas hung himself and wanted to counter it? One of the ways people try to reconcile the accounts is by saying Judas hung himself and the rope broke. But if the rope broke after he hung himself, you’d expect him to fall feet first (unless you believe he did a 180 on the way down). I realize that most scholars think Matthew and Luke wrote independently but, even if that is true, Luke still might have known about the tradition from oral or other written sources. The detail about Judas falling headlong, if not invented by Luke, might also reflect that different accounts of Judas death had been told for many years and people argued about it.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2017

      I don’t think so — I think it’s just an alternative tradition.

  3. Avatar
    Michael Toon  June 18, 2017

    “Later church fathers who talk about Papias and his book are not overly enthusiastic. The “father of church history,” the fourth-century Eusebius of Caesarea, indicates that, in his opinion, Papias was “a man of exceedingly small intelligence” (Church History, 3.39). Not a high recommendation.”

    Every time you mount an argument against the historical reliability of Papias’s statements, you cite this one line as the supreme example of why he can’t be a witness to much of anything credible. The interesting part about it is the reader isn’t aware of what is about to be presented to them: then BAM! They are broadsided by a perfect setup for your line of thought about it. That’s a brilliant way to structure the argument that you forcefully advance in your writings about Papias!

  4. Avatar
    Carl  June 18, 2017

    I have heard that the intention of the author of Genesis 4 & 5 was to show that Noah was a descendant of Cain, as they were both tillers of the ground (Gen 9:20). Therefore, Lamech would also need to come from Cain’s lineage. This could be explained if Methushael was supposed to read Methuselah.

    Do you think that there is a case to be made for scribal error?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2017

      There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of a scribal change.

  5. Avatar
    paul.wright  June 19, 2017

    Regarding the second question: Interestingly, modern (and some not so modern) inerrantists actually rely on the existence of differences among manuscripts to explain away many “apparent discrepancies” in the Bible. Copyist errors are used, for example, to explain differences in some numerical values between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings. And the suggestion that John 19:14 originally read “the third hour” rather than “the sixth hour” goes back to some of the early church fathers (I did a web search on “the hour of Jesus crucifixion”).

  6. Avatar
    LeRoy  June 19, 2017

    I’ve heard the “Judas hung himself and the rope broke” explanation many times. I think the important discrepancy is that, in Acts, Judas does not have any remorse over the betrayal. He’s just living life on his new land until God catches up to him. The only common thread are two explanations of why this land is called “The field of blood”.

  7. Avatar
    darren  June 19, 2017

    What’s the opinion of scholars on Judas and whether he betrayed Jesus historically? Are there reasons to think it really happened that way? Is there a scriptural reason why he would have to be betrayed?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      I have a full discussion in mybook The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot, where I show why it is widely thought that the betrayal actually happened.

  8. Avatar
    DavidBeaman  June 19, 2017

    I think he is asking about the papers you wrote when you were a believer. He wants to know if you now consider your papers written then to be technically flawed.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      Ah! Some of them no doubt were. And many of them I would probably disagree with now, knowing what I do. But lots of them I would still think were basically acceptable, if a bit amateur.

  9. Avatar
    HawksJ  June 19, 2017

    The more interesting, because it’s even less reconcilable, difference between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of Judas’ demise concerns the field where it happened. Matt says Judas had used the blood money to buy it, while Luke clearly says the Jewish officials bought it.

    It doesn’t seem like this clear contradiction gets much attention. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think that is?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      Not only that, but there is the issue of *why* it was called the field of blood. Try reconciling *that* one!!

  10. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  June 20, 2017

    I don’t know if this requires a short (here) or a long (mailbag) answer. I just received the long awaited Kindle edition of the Harper Collins Study Bible (it looks like it was worth the wait!) and found a note on the opening verses of Acts that says the concept of the Kingdom of God in Acts differs from that in Jesus’ preaching. I checked the verses in Acts that refer to the apostles’ preaching of the Kingdom and see no description of the content of that preaching. Why would scholars conclude that it was not the same apocalyptic message Jesus preached and do you agree that the author of Acts conceived the message differently, or that he thought the apostles had changed the message, beyond maybe extending the time frame?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      I’m afraid I have never looked into that specific issue. But Luke-Acts has long been known for presenting a view of Jesus’ preaching altered away from the sense that he thought the end was absolutely imminent, as in Mark.

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