Contradictions and the Death of Judas

Here’s a popular apparent contradiction that people like to point out in the Bible.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
(Matthew 27:3-10, ESV)

But wait a minute!

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
(Acts 1:15-19 ESV)

One account says that Judas hung himself and the chief priests used his money to buy a field.  The other account said that Judas bought a field and then exploded!  Here’s a plain contradiction!

Well, not quite.  People reading the Bible often times see a difference in the biblical accounts and automatically assume that there’s a contradiction, but a difference and a contradiction aren’t always the same thing.  For example, if I ask two parents what their daughter is doing, the father might say she is sitting on the couch, and the mother might say she’s watching T.V.  That’s a difference, but it’s not a contradiction.  It can be reconciled pretty easily by saying that she’s sitting on the couch watching T.V.

If two propositions contradict each other, that means that there is no possible reconciliation between them.  One of them must be false.  However, if two propositions do have a possible reconciliation between them, then they are not contraditory.  That’s just simple logic.  I think that this is the case for many of the apparent contradictions that people like to point out.

All we have to do is show that the two accounts of Judas’s death can be reconciled.  If so, then they do not contradict one another, despite the fact that they’re different.

Of course, possible doesn’t always mean plausible.  I can give any possible account I want to reconcile these passages in Matthew and Acts, but that doesn’t mean it really helps our case.  For example, I can reconcile the two accounts of Judas’s death by saying that Judas hung himself, and then aliens from Alpha Centauri shot his corpse with lasers, which made his bowels come out.  Even if this is possible, it certainly isn’t plausible, so it does not provide a good response to the charge that these passages contradict one another.  So let’s provide a possible reconciliation that I think seems pretty plausible.

First, Judas’s death.  When a person hangs himself and dies, the corpse will slowely begin to decay.  It’s possible that, as Judas’s body decayed to a certain point, his body fell off the rope (or perhaps the branch or rope itself broke) and hit the ground, causing it to burst open.  Judas’s death is believed to have taken place at the Valley of Hinnom, which has cliffs overlooking it.  If that’s true, Judas’s might have hung himself over one of those cliffs, meaning the fall would be pretty high for an already decaying body.  It seems plausible that Judas hung himself and his corpse began to rot and decay.  After a certain point, his body ended up falling to the ground, which was probably pretty far below, and burst open.

Some might complain that this is simply speculation, but it seems to nicely fit the details of the two accounts together in a plausible way.

Second, the field.  Did Judas buy it or the chief priests?  In the first century, when an action was said to be done by X’s authority or provision, even if X had others do it for him instead of doing it personally, X was still considered the one who did the action.  Judas threw his money at the chief priests, but because the chief priests couldn’t accept the money, they used it to buy a field.  Since it was Judas’s money, it would have been considered an indirect purchase by him.

This probably won’t convince many people.  Is it true than an action is still attributed to a certain person even if that person does it through others?  That looks to be the case in the first century.  For example, we see it in certain places in the Gospels

 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him.  And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
(Matthew 27:57-61, ESV)

Notice that this account says Joseph took Jesus’s body, wrapped it, laid it in his tomb, and cut the tomb out of the rock.  But Joseph, being a rich man, would have had servants do all of that for him.  Still, since it was done under his authority and provision, it was considered an action done by him.  Here’s another example

 Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples). . .
(John 4:1-2 ESV)

This one says it outright.  Even though Jesus was not personally baptizing anyone, the Pharisees still considered Jesus the one baptizing people because it was being done by his authority.  This can also be applied to the episode when the centurion in Capernaum appealed to Jesus to heal his servant (Matt. 8:5, Luke 7:3)

There are also examples of this outside of the Bible.

But as for his other benefits, it is impossible to reckon them up, those which he bestowed on cities, both in Syria and in Greece, and in all the places he came to in his voyages; for he seems to have conferred, and that after a most plentiful manner, what would minister to many necessities, and the building of public works, and gave them the money that was necessary to such works as wanted it, to support them upon the failure of their other revenues: but what was the greatest and most illustrious of all his works, he erected Apollo’s temple at Rhodes, at his own expenses, and gave them a great number of talents of silver for the repair of their fleet. He also built the greatest part of the public edifices for the inhabitants of Nicopolis, at Actium; (6) and for the Antiochians, the inhabitants of the principal city of Syria, where a broad street cuts through the place lengthways, he built cloisters along it on both sides, and laid the open road with polished stone, and was of very great advantage to the inhabitants. And as to the olympic games, which were in a very low condition, by reason of the failure of their revenues, he recovered their reputation, and appointed revenues for their maintenance, and made that solemn meeting more venerable, as to the sacrifices and other ornaments; and by reason of this vast liberality, he was generally declared in their inscriptions to be one of the perpetual managers of those games. (Antiquities of the Jews, 16.5.3)

This passage from Josephus is talking about Herod the Great and all that he built.  Though Josephus often speaks of Herod building things, it’s obvious that he doesn’t mean that Herod did it personally.

The two accounts are obviously different and we aren’t given all of the information in either one, but when there is a plausible reconciliation between the two accounts, I see no reason to consider it contradictory.

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