Home > Christian History > The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Judas)

The Gospels As Historical Documents: Counter-Example (The Death of Judas)

Here’s a second example as to why historians suspect that the gospels are not historically accurate narratives but theologically driven myths. This example not only reveals a theological motivation behind the text but is also an example of how authors will sometimes weave stories into their accounts in order to explain other well-known facts (like the name of a person or place).

Question: what happened to Judas?

In Matthew, after Judas Iscariot betrays Jesus, he tries to return the thirty pieces of silver to the Jewish leaders who paid him for betraying Jesus. But they don’t accept it. Judas then throws it on the ground and goes off to hang himself for his dirty deed. The Jewish leaders collect the money but refuse to place it back into the Temple treasury, for it is blood money. Instead, they use it to purchase a potter’s field. The author of Matthew then tells us that this is why the field is still, to this day, called the Field of Blood (because of the blood money used to purchase it). Matthew then claims that this fulfilled a prophecy spoken by Jeremiah (some manuscripts read Zechariah, some Isaiah), which turns out to be some odd conglomeration of some passages of Jeremiah and Zechariah (Jer. 18:1-3; Jer 32:6-15; Zech 11:13). As usual, Matthew is playing very loose with the Hebrew Scriptures in order to get them fulfilled.

In the book of Acts (the second volume of Luke) we get a different story. Here it is Judas himself who purchases the field with his “reward of wickedness.” He thus obviously makes no attempt to return it to the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, it does not appear that Judas hangs himself. Rather, he falls—presumably from a cliff of sorts—and bursts open in the middle, his bowels rushing out (it is unclear as to whether or not this insinuates a suicide). Luke goes on to tell us, contrary to Matthew, that this is the reason why it is called the Field of Blood (because Judas bled all over it). Luke also remarks that scripture has been fulfilled, quoting the Psalms.

As historical investigators, what are we to conclude? Did Judas return the money or not? Where did the Field of Blood derive its name? What scriptures were supposed to be fulfilled? Depends on what account you read. Furthermore, did Judas hang himself or burst open in the middle? Some scriptural reconcilers have argued that both are true: he could have hung himself over a cliff followed by the rope breaking and his midsection bursting open upon hitting the ground below. I suppose that’s possible, but neither account says this. Matthew mentions nothing about his bowels, nothing about falling, and it is difficult to even understand what Luke is saying.

Again, here are two different accounts that seem to construct their facts depending on the theological points they want to make. They are thus not historically reliable documents even if it happens to contain some historical data (e.g. the historical Judas may have actually betrayed Jesus).

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