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Are there contradictions in the Bible’s accounts of Judas’ death?

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Published: 24 April 2021 (GMT+10)
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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 Cosner, 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.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
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Readers’ comments

Rod P.
The word bowels in Acts 1:18 is used eight other times in the New Testament. Written below are these passages (KJV) with the word intestines in place of bowels.

2Cor 6:12 - Ye are not straitened in us, but ye are straitened in your own intestines.
Philippians 1:8 - ...I long after you all in the intestines of Jesus Christ.
Philippians 2:1 - ...if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any intestines and mercies.
Col. 3:12 - Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, intestines of mercies
Philemon 7 - ...because the intestines of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.
Philemon 12 - There therefore receive him, that is, mine own intestines; ...
Philemon 20 - ...let me have joy of thee in the Lord; refresh my intestines in the Lord.
1 John 3:17 - But whose hath this world's good, and seeth his brethren have need, and shutters up his intestines of compassion from him...

Maybe the word bowels meant something other than guts.

The word for burst asunder used only once. Commentaries indicate it's a cracking or crashing with a noise. It doesn't seem to fit the bloated body explanations.

Respectfully, What was your concern with my May 2 comment?
Lita Cosner
This ignores the fact that Judas' bowels gushing out is why the place is called the Field of Blood in the very next verse. Yes, "bowels" is used metaphorically to speak of deep emotion, but it is literally the word for intestines, and is used as such in Maccabees and by Josephus.
Rodney P.
I don't think Acts 1:18 is about the death of Judas. Falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out could be interpreted from the Greek as: becoming prostate among (the Pharisees) he lost it (burst asunder) and poured out his emotions (bowels).

Some believe that Judas fell (hung) on a sword to satisfy both hanging and disembowelment; however, the Greek word for hanged means strangled.
Lita Cosner
Respectfully, that is not a possible interpretation of the language in Acts.
Allen H.
An equally sensible explanation for "headlong" is that Judas would have needed to climb onto something to be elevated in the tree. This could have been a lower branch, some other makeshift platform (such as a chair or some other convenient thing), or he may have sat on the branch the the rope was tied to. If one of the former, it is possible that his body contacted the branch or platform on the way down and rotated such that he landed headlong. Similar reasoning applies if the tree was growing on a slope - he would have fallen from the tree, then the body fallen headlong down the slope. In other words, there are many reasonable scenarios that can be invoked to explain the scriptures with no contradiction. There is no reason to assume a contradiction exists.
George W.
Re Judas' death: Chuck Missler in his commentary says that at the time of Christ the term "hanged" did not usually refer to hanging with a rope. It referred to a form of suicide which involved bracing your sword in the ground or between rocks and then falling upon it. Usually this resulted in your abdomen being cut open. This is how a "headlong" fall would cause bowels to gush out.
Robin B.
So what if there is a contradiction between gospel writers.

This Judas contradiction and other small contradictions do not devalue the salvation narrative in the scriptures. Conversely, having small contradictions proves there was no collusion between the gospel writers, so in a sense strengthens the idea that the books haven't been fiddled with to remove differences. Below is my take on the the two contradictory accounts.

Matthew wrote Judas came to his senses and realized he had just made a huge mistake, and felt so much guilt that he was no longer able to live with himself as he had lived and breathed with Jesus for 3 years and saw and heard amazing things. To rid himself of guilt and remorse he goes to the Jewish leadership who dismiss his requests so he hangs himself. Matthew's version is the correct one I believe as he wrote his 'Logia' at the time, a kind of diary account or 'ship's log', from which his gospel is based.

Luke comes along 30 years later to learn stories about Jesus by which time Judas has become demonised in the Christian community and writes of an unrepentant and callous Judas who takes the 30 pieces of silver and purchases a field with it, but falls over headfirst, dying from disembowelment. In Luke's account, Judas got his just desserts, compared to the repentant Judas in Matthew's gospel.

Both accounts fulfill the Messianic prophecies of 30 pieces of silver and the potters field, but have different ways of getting there. When I have asked fellow evangelicals how Judas died and what he did with the money, most quote Matthew's version which I think is the correct one, and its the one the Holy Spirit reminds them of.

Saying his body bloated up or scavengers came along and ate his innards to marry the two accounts is clutching at straws.
Lita Cosner
Thank you for these thoughts. However, there are at least two possibilities for a coherent explanation that don't force us to say that one was wrong. Furthermore, Luke didn't just 'come along 30 years later'; he spent a lot of time with Paul and other first-generation believers. There was no demonization of Jews this early; Jews still were a good percentage of the church at this time. CMI is committed to inerrancy, and so we would reject any explanation that would require one writer to be less inspired by the Holy Spirit than another.
Thomas G.
There is also the possibility that Judas hung himself by tying a rope to a tree on a cliff and jumping off. In such a case, he might have planned to jump feet first, but tripped and thus fell head first. Then, when the rope came up short, it would whip his body around. Contact with a sharp stone would cause the rest of the description.
David S.
Hello Lita
Thanks for resolving these intriguing details in scripture. Your Greek language explanation for Judas' body being swollen, then falling and bursting open is really cool. We often forget that Luke was a physician, so he would have liked little cool details like that. A question I've wondered about is why Judas hanged himself in the potters field? Was a "potters field" something more special/typological for Luke to record Judas' death there than saying he just hanged himself in his own house?
Lita Cosner
I think it is pretty obviously a reference to Zechariah 11.
Brandon C.
Just wondering, could you comment on the naming of the field? Matthew says it was called the "field of blood" due to it being bought with blood money, whereas Acts says it was due to the fact Judas' bowels gushed out.
Lita Cosner
Names can have layers of meaning, and I think that makes sense here.
Stephen G.
Is it possible that Judas was thrown into gehenna and that's why he burst open on impact? Presumably the Jews didn't just leave dead bodies hanging around due to ritual pollution but discarded them in the valley of Hinnom?
Lita Cosner
Anyone who touched a dead body would make themselves unclean, and everyone was getting ready to observe the Sabbath. Neither account adds the interference of other parties, and I don't think that element needs to be introduced to make sense of the narrative.
Marcia M.
Thank you for a coherent, detailed, rational explanation which will go a long way, I hope, to quelling the angst that so many have in believing that the Bible is as true as God says it is.
(But as the mormons say 'it does depend on which translation you use - here, use ours'; and the muslims say all Bibles are corrupted...who is a Christian supposed to believe? [tongue firmly in cheek])
Robert R.
Judas hung himself. Around his neck must have rotted after a while, and the body fell and the entrails came out.
Andrew H.
Good article. A few years ago somebody came to me with the same question. I came to the conclusion that Judas did not hang himself in the field as it probably had not been bought yet. I thought that possibly Judas' body was found hanging, and it was transported to the field on some sort of cart, and was tipped out onto the field, falling headlong.
Lita Cosner
Someone bent on the sin of suicide is probably not going to be concerned about trespassing.
Donney A.
What about the second sword? Every thing written in the Scripture has a reason for it! I believe that Judas did not hang himself from a tree with a rope, but he fell upon or impaled himself upon that second sword thus the better explanation or understanding of his falling head first onto the ground with his guts spilling out. The word “hang” is used also for crucifixion and impalement. Yeshua knew two was exactly the number needed! All the explanation details about hanging from a tree until falling for whatever reason are pure speculation!
Donald M.
I thought the problem pretty much resolved when adding the historic comments supplied by Papias, bishop of Hierapolis, who was a disciple of the apostle John and friend of Polycarp. He wrote that "Judas was cut down before he choked to death" and apparently due to glandular damage resulting from the foiled hanging, his body over the next days or weeks of "agony "grew so bloated that he finally popped like a balloon and "great was the discharge from his body" which "spread far over the ground...because of the stench, the area is deserted and uninhabitable even now." For me, this brings the Matthew and Acts accounts together well.
Dean R.
Your work/talent/explanation is impressive. There are so many things that atheists seem so confident about that is more often than not fake news. And atheists can be scientifically and philosophically ignorant also. And like you say, in the church our own lack of knowledge can limit us greatly.

It should almost be a subject in itself. From the pulpit we get the main teaching but not necessarily the historical or controversial background or implications. And not all of us are academically inclined.

This site is so helpful with respect to these types of challenges that come up as you ultimately point people to Christ. Again, nice work.
William B.
Thank you for sharing this information with us, Lita. The Potter's Field purchase and the two apparently conflicting accounts of Judas's death have puzzled me for years. Your interpretations make perfect sense. God bless you!
Dee M.
I'm confused. You mention the phrase "prenes genomenos" and then you 'decode' those two words separately. However, then you bring up "ginomai" and "pimpremi" without telling us what those words mean or how they relate to the original 2 words you brought up.
Also, what is "BDAG"?
Given my confusion, I am once again appreciative of your work. I agree that the biblical authors were spirit-inspired but they also wrote according to their knowledge and perspective.
Lita Cosner
prenes genomenos is the phrase translated "falling headlong" in Acts. Ginomai is the lexical form of genomenos, and pimpremi is a proposed etymological relation of prenes. One of the meanings of pimpremi is "to become distended or swollen". BDAG is the short way of referring to a lexicon edited by Bauer and Danker, and translated from German by Arndt and Gingrich. Apologies for the lack of clarity.
Christopher H.
Falling headlong is a possibility if his body hit something on the way down, like a branch or side of a wall. His body could have tumbled through tree branches or down a steep hillside before falling headfirst and bursting open. I've seen supposed "contradictions" like these over and over. These unbelievers are like the Pharisees and scribes trying to pin some crime on Yeshua, and like the "fools" of Babylon against Daniel. Desperate to find something, anything, no matter how stupid, to prove the Bible wrong. I never considered that headlong may actually mean swollen, which makes perfect sense. Even if it can be proved it really means headlong, people need to think outside the box. What is your opinion on the Peshitta as a possible extra witness on this event?
John C.
Well done, Lita, concise and clear, as usual.

I think this same logic might help to understand another modern issue in the Scriptures. There's has been a long cultural argument for a long time over who's responsible for the death of Christ. Those who despise God's people, the Jews, want to claim that they were responsible for the death of Christ, when He was actually crucified by Roman soldiers. The answer is of course that Jews and Gentiles alike are all sinners. Christ was surrendered by the Jews to the Gentiles for death. And frankly, on the face of it, those who brought false charges against Jesus, declaring Him falsely worthy of death, are just as guilty of killing Him as the ones who drove the nails.

But, joy of joys! Christ's death and resurrection were sufficient sacrifices for even these egregious sins. All who turn in faith and repentance will be saved.
Lucas W.
Another possibility could lie in the mechanics of hanging one's self. (I am not experienced in this matter) It is plausible that Judas may have used a hill or cliff or rock overhang that would have given his feet enough clearance so as to not defeat his purpose. If his rope or the limb he was using gave way, there is ample opportunity for his body to invert, especially if his feet came into contact with something on the way down. The author's explanation is actually my favorite, though, because it places Judas in contrast with the One he sought to betray. Christ's body saw no corruption(Psalm 16:10). Great article!!
Paul M.
thank you. I agree completely that "Christians and atheists alike tend to be historically ignorant". I recently had a situation where non-Christians called the money-changers 'Bankers' or 'gamblers'. One must always refute error with truth.
Geoff C. W.
I always imagined that the field was sloping. A person falling onto sloping ground could easily end up headlong. Is that another possibility?
Douglas W.
In support of genuine testimonies, Accounts of Paul the Apostle's conversion, in The Book of Acts, is given three times - over quite a period of time. Each one has unique elements.
Melvyne C.
Judas hanging; after a time, the rope snapped, or something did holding his body. His body fell hit the ground and may have toppled over headlong into a ditch, his guts spilling out for reasons you mention, Lita.

Anyone can find reasons not to believe!
Dillon V.
This one of those very common instances in which atheists do not do any research into the supposed contradiction before presenting it - any cursory investigation would reveal solutions very easily. I guess that shows that they are not really after the truth.
Peter G.
I wonder how much of athiests writings would still be credible nearly 2000 yrs later. God's word will endure for ever... It is settled in the heavens (Ps119:89 )and His truth to all generations...
Ernesto D.
Judas if hanged upright cannot fall headlong (if it means falling head first) for he most likely was not hanged upside down...even if he was the one who hanged himself.
Lita Cosner
Which is why I gave special treatment to that element of the 'contradiction' in the article. Please read that section of the article for two possible explanations.

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