Every year, at Easter time, people of faith recount the story of the earth and resurrection of Jesus. The key days of Easter are constructed so that we focus, step by step, on the main elements in the story: the poignant last meal that Jesus shared with his followers (Thursday evening), the tragedy of trials and committal to crucifixion and death (Friday morning); the waiting in the quiet (Saturday, the sabbath day); the sombre early morning visit to the tomb, found to be empty (Sunday morning); and the joyous stories of encountering the risen Jesus (Sunday evening).
So many parts to the familiar story; so many opportunities to recall, retell, and reflect on these seminal events, the centre of our Christian faith.
And yet: there are other parts of the story which do not often (if at all) take their place in this retelling of the story. Other parts, which may surprise, confront, or challenge, if we hear them, explore them, and ponder their significance for us. There is the story of the Roman soldiers and their corrupt collusion with Jewish authorities (Matt 27:62–66, 28:11–15). There are the two dramatic earthquakes that are linked with the appearances of resurrected ones (Matt 27:50–54, 28:2–4). And there is the tragic figure of Judas: apostle, betrayer, sinner, apostate.
The last part of the story of Judas is told in the final reading from Acts that we are offered in the sequence that has been provided for this season of Easter. (The season runs from 4 April, Easter Sunday, to 23 May, the Day of Pentecost. Acts replaces the Hebrew Scripture passages throughout this season.) The fate of Judas is told during the narrative about the choice of the twelfth disciple to replace Judas (Acts 1:15–26).
It seems that, according to this narrative, Judas deliberately and carefully planned his death after he had betrayed Jesus. With the money he had been given for this act of betrayal, he looked for and then purchased a field. He then organised what was needed to hang himself. It was a deliberate, planned response, to the tragedy that he saw unfolding before his eyes—because of his simple act of betrayal.
There are three versions of how Judas died. This account in Acts reports that Judas bought a field and hanged himself there. This part of the passage is actually omitted by the lectionary, so here it is for good measure:
“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. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” (1:18-19).
The author of Acts, just for good measure, quotes two passages from “the Book of Psalms” (1:20) which, in his eyes, validate what has taken place in the death of Judas. That’s a common strategy in the Gospel narratives in the New Testament—reporting a passage from scripture, either inferring, or—more clearly—directly stating that this old text was now fulfilled in the event being narrated.
Even though the psalms that are quoted are not prophecies, they are treated as if their words, “may his camp become desolate” (Ps 69:25) and “let another take his office” (Ps 109:8), were prophetic words waiting to be fulfilled. Both the actions of Judas, in taking his own life on the field that he had bought (1:18–19), and the subsequent election, by casting lots, of Matthias as replacement for Judas (1:26), fulfil these two psalm verses.
That replacement of Judas, it seems, is the main point the way that the lectionary has edited this passages for use in Sunday worship. And the edited version avoids disturbing the congregation with the gory details of his suicide: “he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (1:18). Propriety and decorum is maintained.
A second account of the death of Judas is attributed to Papias of Hierapolis, a second century bishop whose works are no longer extant—but who is quoted in the writings of later church leaders. His account of Judas is reported by Apollinaris of Laodicea, a fourth century bishop, who writes:
“Judas did not die by hanging, but lived on, having been cut down before choking. And this the Acts of the Apostles makes clear, that falling headlong his middle burst and his bowels poured forth. And Papias the disciple of John records this most clearly, saying thus in the fourth of the Exegeses of the Words of the Lord:
“Judas walked about as an example of godlessness in this world, having been bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself. For the lids of his eyes, they say, were so puffed up that he could not see the light, and his own eyes could not be seen, not even by a physician with optics, such depth had they from the outer apparent surface. And his genitalia appeared more disgusting and greater than all formlessness, and he bore through them from his whole body flowing pus and worms, and to his shame these things alone were forced [out].
“And after many tortures and torments, they say, when he had come to his end in his own place, from then the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth.”
In this version, Judas did not die immediately as he tried to he hang himself on the field he had bought. He survived that suicide attempt. He lived on, in pain and agony, for some (unspecified) time, tortured by his swollen, bloated, stinking, putrified body.
(This level of hyperbolic exaggeration is quite typical of works that were written at some remove from the first century. Witness the fables in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where the infant Jesus performs an amazing string of miracles. See https://jamesbishopblog.com/2020/03/23/jesus-and-the-infancy-gospel-of-thomas-what-do-we-know/. Witness the overblown narrative about Anna and Joachim, Joseph and Mary, leading first to the miraculous birth of Mary and then, years later, of her child, Jesus, in The Protoevangelium of James. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/01/more-on-mary-from-the-protoevangelium-of-james/)
It is very clear in both passages, from Acts and from Papias via Apollinaris, that Judas was known for his wickedness and godlessness. The Greek word used in Acts 1:18 is ἀδικία, which is the negated version of δικία, meaning righteousness or justice. Judas was perceived as having acted unjustly, unfairly, in betraying Jesus. Indeed, the canonical Gospels regularly refer to him simply as “Judas who betrayed Jesus” (Mark 3:19; Matt 10:4; John 18:2, 5), or as “the betrayer” (Mark 14:42, 44; Matt 26:25, 46, 48, 27:3; Luke 6:16; John 6:71, 12:4, 13:2, 11).
Judas has forever since then been known in this strongly negative manner: the betrayer. And, to add fuel to the fire, it is asserted that “Satan entered into Judas” (Luke 22:3), that “the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (John 13:2). Judas is a marked man, infiltrated, recruited, and persuaded by the enemy.
Matthew provides the third account of the death of Judas. This account differs from Luke and Papias. There is no field that was purchased. There is no planning or scheming in order to obtain the field. There is no time-lag between the day of betrayal and the moment of his death. Rather, there is an immediate, apparently hotheaded, spur-of-the-moment, decision to end his life. He threw down the pieces of silver, rushed out, and committed suicide.
Matthew reports: “Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matt 27:1-3)
That is short and simple. “He hanged himself.” No gory details, no extended descriptions. Just the simple statement, “he hanged himself”.
The fate of Judas is grim. Jesus had said “woe to the man who betrays the Son of Man”. That woe is enacted in his hanging. Judas, according to the traditional way that this narrative has been taken, went and hung himself in the depths of guilt. In one discussion that I had about this story, a friend claimed that the notion that Judas repented was speculative—that Jesus had given Judas a chance to change his mind at the Last Supper. But he didn’t, so he died with the enduring reputation as “the one who betrayed Jesus” as his enduring legacy.
However, such a claim overlooks one important word. It is found only in Matthew’s account of Judas, after he had betrayed Jesus. It was my wife Elizabeth who drew my attention to this aspect of Matthew’s version of events. It’s an important detail that merits careful attention.
In the immediate aftermath of the sequence of events that unfolded from that potent kiss in the garden (reported in Mark 14:45 and Matt 26:49, and hinted at in Luke 22:48), Matthew asserts that “when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders” (Matt 27:3).
Judas had a change of mind about what he had done. The Greek participle used is μεταμεληθεὶς. That comes from a root word which is defined by James Strong as “to regret, repent”. Strong’s Dictionary indicates that this can mean “I change one care or interest for another, I change my mind (generally for the better), I repent, I regret.”
And, in fact, Matthew grounds this in the words that Judas spoke to the chief priests and elders: “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (Matt 27:4). That is a clear confession of sinfulness, which—we are assured elsewhere in scripture—will evoke a response of forgiveness (1 John 1:9)—a claim that carries over into traditional Christian liturgy even to this day. Why is Judas thus not forgiven? He has confessed and repented.
Christian theology has overlooked this indication of repentance. Judas did hang himself in deep remorse, with an impetuous action that proved to be fatal. And yet—he did this, not as a sign of his depression, but as a signal of his heartfelt repentance. Judas changed his mind. He repented of the evil that he had done.
And yet, we continue to remember him as the Satan-inspired betrayer of Jesus.
Elsewhere in scripture, Luke indicates that divine retribution is the immediate result for those people who undertake serious sinful actions. Acts has a sequence of events involving divine retribution, with people not being able to get away with their bad actions; they need to face up to the lethal consequences of their sin. We see this for Judas (Acts 1:1); for Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11); and then for Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:20-23).
For Luke, this can all be explained in terms of his ideology of divine providence. All that transpired in what is found in the two volumes authored by Luke was part of The Plan of God, including the betrayal by Judas. Peter states this most clearly in his speech on the day of Pentecost: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
The verb translated as “delivered up” is closely related to the verb that is often used in the Gospel narratives, to describe the action of Judas. Jesus was betrayed, or handed over, by Judas. This verse directly refers to the actions of Judas. And his deed of handing over (or betrayal) was an integral part of the plan of God for his chosen one, Jesus.
That, of course, raises huge theological and pastoral issues: if something is done as part of the divine plan, does that provide moral justification for the actions of the human being involved? Can we therefore excuse Judas for his action of betrayal, given that he did that as one part of the overall divine plan (as least, as Luke portrays it)?
And what does it say about the nature of God? What are we to make of a God who recruits a human being to carry out a part of the divine plan, and then sends divine retribution upon that person for what they have done? Is this sheer arbitrary fun? Is this moral turpitude?
And, most pointedly of all: if Judas WAS doing God’s will, why do we still paint him as evil and beyond redemption? Especially if, as Matthew declares, he repented of what he had done.
And perhaps, on a lighter note, one last word on Judas: he offers us a salutary lesson on how NOT to read the Bible. We need to beware of the arbitrary method putting two verses from different contexts together to produce a specific teaching. Such as: “Judas … went and hanged himself. Go and do likewise.” (Matthew 27.5 combined with Luke 10.37.) Just don’t do it!!