The Death of Judas: Absalom, Ahab, or Both?
As is well known, Matthew and Luke provide us with different accounts of Judas’s death. Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests, while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field purchased by Judas himself (cp. Matt. 27.3–8, Acts 1.18–19). The discrepancies between the two accounts raise at least a couple of important questions.
First, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts are historically reliable, then why do they read so differently? And, second, if Matthew and Luke’s accounts can be reconciled, then why didn’t Matthew and Luke reconcile them (and spare their readers a great deal of confusion)? Why would each author choose to omit important details from his account of Judas’s death?
My answer to the first question—which is by no means novel—is as follows. Neither Matthew’s nor Luke’s account is ahistorical; each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’s death. Matthew describes how Judas seeks/chooses to kill himself, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, i.e., prostrate on the ground. (And, suffice to say, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground in all manner of ways, especially in a land which doesn’t allow bodies to be hung on a tree overnight: cp. Deut. 21.13.) In historical terms, then, while it’s possible to read Matthew and Luke in a contradictory way, it’s by no means necessary. It actually seems more natural to read Matthew and Luke’s accounts in a complementary way, since each one ties up loose ends in the other.
Consider the text of Matthew 27 in isolation. If it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, then why was it permissible for them to own a field which had been bought with it? And, if Judas died a bloodless death (since he hung himself), then how come the field acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’? Implicit in Luke’s account are answers to these questions. It wasn’t permissible for the priests to own a field bought with Judas’s money, which is why they bought the field in Judas’s name. And Judas didn’t die a bloodless death; rather, his body later ‘burst open’ (Acts 1).
Meanwhile, considered in isolation, Luke’s account contains loose ends of its own. How did Judas’s body end up burst open on the ground? (Plenty of people fall to the ground in life, but, unless they fall from a significant height, their bodies don’t normally ‘burst open’.) And why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? Why not the more common/natural verb ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω) (if Judas bought it in the common way)? Implicit in Matthew’s account are answers to these questions. Judas’s body burst open because Judas hung himself and his body fell from a significant height, possibly in a bloated state. And Judas didn’t ‘buy’ a field in the common manner; rather, the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.
Matthew and Luke’s accounts thus neatly fit together, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but would be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident. And, curiously, each man’s account turns out to be consistent with his traditionally-assigned occupation: Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death—i.e., how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.
Of course, none of these claims answer the question of how Judas’s body came to fall. (Did Judas, for instance, hang himself from a tree-branch which later snapped?) But my aim in the present note isn’t to work out exactly what happened to Judas’s body (which may not be possible); my aim is simply to set out a way in which Matthew and Luke can be reconciled (and hence be shown to be non-contradictory), and to suggest a reason why their accounts are so different from one another, all of which brings us on to our second question, i.e., the question of why Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death.
Why does Matthew have Judas hang himself rather than burst open on the ground? My guess is as follows: because Matthew wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular incident in the OT, namely the death of Absalom.
Not too many people are hung in the OT. The most notable is probably Absalom. While out on his mule, Absalom’s head/hair gets stuck in the branches of an oak tree, which leaves his body inconveniently ‘suspended’/‘hung’ (תלוי) in midair. Absalom can thus be said to have died a Judas-esque death ... or, more accurately, Judas can be said to have died an Absalom-esque death.
And the parallels between Absalom and Judas extend further. Both men feign loyalty to their king, which they do by means of a kiss (2 Sam. 14.33). And, despite their participation in a conspiracy to remove him, both men are referred to as the king’s ‘friend’. These parallels are significant. For Matthew, Judas is an Absalomic traitor, undone by his selfish ambition. And his Absalomic tendencies serve to underscore Jesus’ status as the Davidic Messiah—a man specially anointed by God, yet betrayed by his closest friends.
With these considerations in mind, it’s not too hard to guess why Matthew rather than Luke has Judas die like Absalom. Of the Gospel writers, it’s Matthew who portrays Jesus most emphatically as ‘the son of David’ (cp. Matt. 1.1). It’s Matthew who most emphasises Judas’ ‘betrayal’ of his Lord. And it’s Matthew alone who has Jesus refer to Judas as his ‘friend’. Appropriately, then, it’s Matthew who chooses to emphasise the most Absalomic details of Judas’s death, which he does by the omission of other non-Absalomic details. Matthew doesn’t, therefore, fail to mention what Luke tells us about Judas’s death because he has a different source to Luke; rather, like any good author, Matthew simply restricts his account of Judas’s death to what’s relevant to his purposes.
Before we leave our consideration of Matthew, however, we should note a couple of other details of Absalom’s demise. First, a bystander’s refusal to do Absalom harm. Samuel’s account of Absalom’s death concludes with an unusual incident (2 Sam. 18). Joab offers a bystander ten pieces of silver to smite Absalom with his sword (while Absalom’s stuck in the branches of the tree), but the man declines. ‘Even for a thousand pieces of silver’, he says, ‘I wouldn’t lay a hand on the king’s son’ (which forces Joab to strike him down himself). In its original context, the incident outlined above emphasises the horror of Absalom’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to lay a hand on Absalom, yet Absalom himself, the king’s friend, is ready to have the king killed! And the same logic emphasises the horror of Judas’s sin. A mere bystander refuses to betray his king, David, for a thousand pieces of silver, yet Judas is ready to betray David’s greater Son for a mere thirty pieces of silver (another detail which is unique to Matthew).
The second detail we should note involves what happens to Absalom’s body. In the aftermath of Absalom’s death, his body is taken and thrown into a pit (2 Sam. 18.17), which resonates with—and establishes a precedent for—Luke’s account of Judas’s death, since Luke presupposes the occurrence of a similar posthumous event. It’s clearly not impossible for a body to be hung and later thrown to the ground.
As we’ve noted, Matthew and Luke describe different aspects of Judas’s death. Whereas Matthew’s field ends up in Judas’s possession due to a technicality in the law, Luke’s is associated with Judas’s love of money; more specifically, it’s referred to as ‘the wages of Judas’s unrighteousness’ (μισθός τῆς ἀδικίας)—a phrase found only here and in 2 Peter 2.15, where it refers to the wages earnt by Balaam. Luke thus draws attention to Judas’s motive. Like Balaam, Judas sells his soul for material gain. Meanwhile, whereas Matthew focuses on Judas’s death by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood. For Matthew, then, the Field of Blood gets its name from the innocent blood with which it’s bought (namely Jesus’), while, for Luke, the field gets its name from the unrighteous blood with which it’s stained (namely Judas’s).
But why would Luke want to focus his attention on such things—on greed rather than betrayal and on bloodshed rather than asphyxiation? My guess is as follows: because, like Matthew, Luke wants us to view Judas’s death in light of a particular Old Testament incident. Think back over the Biblical narrative. Does anyone come to mind when you think of an individual consumed by greed, who sacrifices a man’s life for the price of a plot of land, which ultimately ends up stained with his blood? They should, since Ahab is precisely such an individual: a man consumed by his lust for possessions, who sacrifices Naboth’s life in order to acquire his land, and whose blood is ultimately licked up by the dogs in Naboth’s hometown (1 Kgs. 21.19, 22.38).
And the parallels between Ahab and Judas extend further. Both men die ironic deaths, since in their desire to acquire possessions they sell their own souls (cp. the verb להתמכר in 1 Kgs. 21.20). And, as Luke points out in Acts 1, both men are cursed by God’s spokesman, at which point their line is destined for destruction (cp. Elijah’s pronouncement in 1 Kgs. 21.20–25 w. Peter’s in Acts 1).
Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab also serves at least two further purposes.First, it serves a Christological purpose. Just as Matthew’s portrayal of Judas as Absalom casts Jesus as the Davidic Messiah, so Luke’s portrayal of Judas as Ahab casts Jesus as Naboth, the innocent yet oppressed vineyard-owner who remains faithful unto death. Indeed, of the Gospel writers, it’s Luke who most clearly portrays Jesus as an innocent victim. Luke alone has the criminal alongside Jesus attest to Jesus’ innocence (Luke 23.42). And, while Matthew and Mark’s centurion declare him to be ‘the Son of God’, Luke’s declares him to be righteous (δίκαιος) (23.47).
Second, it serves an anticipatory purpose. At the outset of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is heralded as one who has come to raise up the down-trodden and overthrow the mighty (cp. Luke 2.34 w. 1.51–52), which is precisely what he does (cp. 14.11, 18.4 w. 15.1ff.). Judas’s Ahab-like demise in Acts 1 is thus a foreshadow of what is to come, and, as the book unfolds, it is gradually ‘filled up’. Jerusalem’s authorities, Simon the Magician, Saul, Herod: as the Gospel goes forth, many among the mighty are brought low, while the humble await the day of the Resurrection, when justice will fully and finally be done (Acts 26.22–23).
Matthew and Luke’s accounts are more naturally read as complementary than contradictory. Each describes a particular aspect of Judas’s death, which it does for its own particular purposes, and each ties up loose ends in the other, which wouldn’t be expected of independently-evolved traditions, but *would* be expected of reliable accounts of a common historical incident.
Despite what’s often claimed, then, Matthew and Luke’s accounts of Judas’s death don’t present the Biblical inerrantist with any insuperable issues.They do, however, present him/her with a challenge, namely not to be disturbed by the tension inherent in the Biblical narrative. Faced with different accounts of the same event, the inerrantist’s natural reaction is to harmonise at all costs. Yet if, as Biblical inerrantists, we’re too quick and/or keen to harmonise such accounts (for fear of what it might imply if we don’t), then we’ll overlook their points of difference, which are an important aspect of the Biblical text. Tension in the Biblical narrative doesn’t exist to be explained/reconciled away; it exists to make us think more carefully about the narrative’s detail and complexity.