Are there contradictions in the Bible’s accounts of Judas’ death?
R.N., Australia, wrote:
Hello CMI Team,
My wife and I are supporters of your ministry.
Thank you for the great work that you do in advancing the truth of the Word of God.
I recently came across atheists who used an apparent discrepancy in the bible to conclude that the bible is flawed and therefore not the infallible word of God.
The instance relates to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for the 30 pieces of silver and appears in Mathew 27:3–7 and Acts 1:18–19. Mathew 27 says that the pharisees purchased the potter’s field whereas Acts says Judas purchased the field. Also, Mathew says that Judas hung himself whereas Acts says that he fell headlong and his bowels gushed out.
I would very much appreciate assistance with this.
Lita Sanders, CMI-US, responds:
Thanks for writing in. Before we get into how we resolve this apparent contradiction (which really isn’t a contradiction at all), I think it’s important to point out how we can tell right away that this shouldn’t be a problem for us. Christians have had the books of Matthew and Acts for 2,000 years, and they have read them carefully for that entire amount of time. Theologians have compared parallel accounts in the Scriptures, and there are even works like the Hexapla that put these parallel accounts side by side. So for 2,000 years, Christians have known that Matthew says the Pharisees purchased the potter’s field, while Acts says that Judas purchased it, but it posed no difficulty for them. So when an atheist tries to be a ‘clever boy’ by bringing up the ‘contradiction’, we can point out that Christians have always known this.
But why isn’t it a problem? The answer is in the details of the account that Matthew gives us. Judas threw the money back at the chief priests in Matthew 27:5, but the chief priests noted that it was unlawful to put it in the treasury. So instead, they purchased the field where Judas committed suicide with the money that was still technically Judas’. So the priests were technically the ones purchasing the field—Luke’s version recorded in Acts is correct. But the money was Judas’s—so legally Judas purchased the field and Matthew’s version is correct. A little careful reading can help us out here!
What about how Judas died? Did he hang himself, or did he fall headlong and his bowels come out? Once again, if we look back to how people have read these two accounts side by side, we can find an answer. Judas hanged himself, but no one took him down, because they didn’t want to make themselves ceremonially unclean by coming into contact with a dead body. So his body hung until it fell by itself, and when it fell the bowels came out. We can also note that the bowels coming out is a detail that makes more sense if Judas had been dead for a while and decomposition had already started before he fell, because bowels coming out wouldn’t normally happen if a person just happened to fall and die.
The explanation in the previous paragraph works well enough for the English translation that we have, but there is an even more intriguing possibility if we look at the Greek. A colleague who saw a draft of my response noted that some skeptics make a big deal of Judas “falling headlong”—a body that drops from hanging can’t really normally be described as “falling headlong”. I suspected that the answer lay in looking more closely at the underlying Greek phrase, which is transliterated “prenes genomenos” the participle genomenos is not normally translated “falling”, but “becoming”, though “falling” is not out of the question; it simply wouldn’t be my first instinct upon encountering ginomai. So what does prenes mean? Most lexicons have the primary meaning as “prostrate” or “headlong”, but several allow the meaning “swollen”. A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament has it meaning “swollen up, inflamed” as a technical medical term in Greek. This especially makes sense since Luke, a physician, is the author of Acts, and he is known to use medical terminology in other instances. BDAG notes that in this case it would be derived from pimpremi, which would be “linguistically questionable”, and it would be unusual. But it also makes a lot of sense and is worth noting.
If there are such easy answers to so-called Bible contradictions, why do atheists persist in bringing them up? First, it’s effective. It gets lots of Christians to ask questions about the Bible’s accuracy. Second, few Christians can present a coherent answer to these sorts of things, and Christians and atheists alike tend to be historically ignorant.
I hope these few thoughts help.
Re-featured on homepage: 17 September 2022