The two accounts of the death of Judas in Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19 are often
cited as an irreconcilable, case and point that the bible cannot be true.
Is that so? Let’s take a look:
Possible death explanations:
1) They are different angles of the same story. If this is the case, Judas would have hanged himself as in Matthew. His body would have hung there for while since it was the sabbath and thus could have been swollen, fallen, and burst open as in Acts. There is an ancient tradition stating this to be the case. Perhaps. But there are other details that make reconciliation difficult.
2) Luke (the author of Acts) is giving a strict, factual account while Matthew is providing his Jewish readers with a theological interpretation of the events based on Old Testament meanings. For example, 2 Samuel 17 and Psalm 49 describe Ahithophel as a trusted confident of David who betrayed the king and hanged himself in sorrow. Jesus himself uses these verses to describe Judas in John 13:18. Thus, Matthew is likely painting Ahithophel as a precursor of Judas just as David is a precursor for Jesus. Again, Matthew’s main concern is that his readers understand the theological importance of the event, not necessarily communicating every gritty detail.
The same holds true with the details of the financial transaction in Matt. 27:6-10. Matthew is again using Old Testament passages to clarify the event’s meanings for his audience. His use of the terms blood of the innocent, potter, Valley of Hinnom, and others allude to passages in Zechariah and Jeremiah meaning that because Israel rejects God’s leadership they will suffer under bad leaders.
Additionally, much is also made of the fact that Matthew seems to conflate verses from Jeremiah and Zechariah. How can he be a reliable source when he can’t even keep books of the bible straight? We cannot expect however more from Matthew than the literary conventions of his time asked of him. It was common practice at the time to list only one source when numerous citations were referenced. Mark does the same thing with Malachi and Isaiah. Furthermore, both these passages, Jeremiah 19 and Zechariah 11, were likely heavily entrenched in the early church’s views of Jesus’s mission. Therefore his readers would automatically identify his message. Something we are unable to do.
In conclusion, it’s definitely true the bible is more complicated than we are often led to believe in the “Sunday school” world. But to me that makes it even more exciting, and it makes me more humble. It would be a lot easier if it were all straightforward and clear, but then we would all be arrogant jerks and wouldn’t need God for anything.
Of course I don’t mean its unclear on the big things. Certainly the overarching story is about Christ, the Gospel, and our need for redemption. Of that much we can be sure. But when it comes to some small details and interpretations we need to be careful being dogmatic and accept perhaps that we just can’t be sure. We need to accept the bible was written to a culture now largely lost to us. I believe this is the source of many of the so called contradictions. They are mostly allusions and interpretations of things going on at the time that we just don’t know about very well. We have to read the bible according to its own genres, expectations, and standards. Not our own. It simply isn’t a 21st century news report. Its a collection of ancient documents and interpretations written to and lived out in
communities long gone, so it’s ok if we don’t know everything about it.
So how did Judas die? In the end we cannot be sure. Reading the bible to ask such questions is beside the point.