Tuesday, July 8, 2014

How Did Judas Die?: How to Handle the Apparent Contradictions

Of all of the apparent contradictions skeptics point out in Scripture, one almost universally used regards the death of Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus. There are only two texts in the New Testament that mention his death and, on the surface, appear to tell two very different stories. In Matthew's narrative, it says:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.” And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. -Matthew 27:3-8
While Luke writes in Acts:
15 At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) -Acts 1:15-19
So which is it? Did he hang himself or did he die from falling off a cliff?

A number of solutions have been proposed. Usually, inerrantists like myself suggest that both are reconcilable rather easily. For example, Matthew is correct in suggesting that Judas hanged himself shortly after returning the blood money. From there, Luke's account picks up to what happened to Judas' body in that the branch might have broken or the rope might has ripped or came untied while he was dangling over a cliff.

I believe this solution remains a possibility and ample supporters can easily be provided here. Before moving on, however, it is important when dealing with such apparent contradictions to consider the theology of each writer. In Matthew's case, for example, it is possible that the Evangelists is wanting to juxtapose a number of things. First, Matthew juxtaposes the repentance of Peter at the end of chapter 26 (who runs to Christ) and of Judas (who runs away from him). Secondly, there seems to be a juxtaposition between the deaths of Judas (suicide) and Jesus (sacrifice). Both are cursed in that they both hang from a tree (compare Deut. 21:23 and Gal. 3:13). Judas, on the one hand, hangs condemned for his own sins. Jesus, on the other hand, hangs as the substitute for the sins of the world.

With that said, there is another possibility rarely considered. While discussing the doctrine of inerrancy in his systematic theology, Christian Theology, Dr. Millard Erickson writes:
Difficulties in explaining the biblical text should not be prejudged as indications of error. It is better to wait for the remainder of the data to come in, with the confidence that if we had all the data, the problems could be resolved. In some cases, the data may never come in. Once a tell has been excavated, it has been excavated, whether done carefully by a skilled team of archaeologists, or with a bulldozer, or by a group of thieves looking for valuable artifacts of precious metal. It is encouraging, however, that the trend is toward the resolution of difficulties as more data come in. Some of the severe problems of a century ago, such as the unknown Sargon mentioned by Isaiah (20:1), have been satisfactorily explained, and without artificial contortions. And even the puzzle of the death of Judas seems now to have a workable an reasonable solution.

The specific word in Acts 1:18 that caused the difficulty regarding the death of Judas is [prenes]. For a long period of time it was understood to mean only "falling headlong." Twentieth-century investigations of ancient papyri, however, have revealed that this word has another meaning in Koine Greek. It also means ‘swelling up.’ It is now possible to hypothesize an end of Judas’s life that seems to accommodate all the data, but without the artificiality found in Gaussen’s handling of the problem. Having hanged himself, Judas was not discovered for some time. In such a situation the visceral organs begin to degenerate first, causing a swelling of the abdomen characteristic of cadavers that have not been properly embalmed. And so, ‘swelling up [Judas] burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out.’ While there is not way of knowing whether this is what actually took place, it seems to be a workable and adequate resolution of the difficulty. (262-263)
So which is it? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. The accounts are clearly reconcilable without forcing, reinterpreting, or ignoring one or the other. I prefer Erickson's proposal but find the more commonly used explanation equally as possible.

For more:
Dealing with the Discrepancies of Jesus' Genealogies
Is the Rich Man and Lazarus a Parable or a Story?
Luther on the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy
Inerrancy and the Early Church
Grudem on the Problems With Denying Inerrancy
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 1
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 2 
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 3
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 4
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 5
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 6
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 7
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 8  
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 9
Christian Theology: Blogging Through Erickson - Bibliology 10
"Revisiting Inerrancy" at SBTS: A Panel Discussion

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