Matthew tells us that Judas “hanged himself,”1 while Luke records that he “falling headlong, he burst asunder in the middle, and all of his bowels gushed out.”2 How can these two descriptions be reconciled?
First, remember that Luke is writing some thirty years later, and describes what happened to Judas’ body. Even if, as some believe, this is a quotation from Peter just 40-50 days after the event, it would still be a description of what happened, looking back at the event. So, it is quite possible that Judas went out and hanged himself from a tree, and over the next few days (or even weeks) the branch broke from the strain, and Judas’ bloated body exploded in the middle as it hit the ground.
Second, it is possible that by “hanging,” we shouldn’t imagine a noose. Some have suggested that Judas took a long wooden post, sharpened on one end, and dove on it, impaling himself, causing his bowels to gush out as his body fell forward to the ground.3
Regardless of exactly how it took place, the death of Judas was a well-known event to the Jews in Jerusalem, for the place where it happened received the name “field of blood.”4
Why Did Judas Do It?
As stated earlier, some have taught that Judas was specially chosen to do a great work for the Lord in fulfilling prophecy, and that instead of being seen as a wicked traitor, he should be viewed as a hero.5
Others, trying to give Judas the best possible motives, argue that the traitor was actually only trying to force Jesus’ hand, to make Him show Himself as the Messiah so that the Kingdom of Heaven could be inaugurated.6
Others, not willing to give Judas any good will, say that he was only interested in the money. The problem with that is that thirty pieces of silver wasn’t really all that much money, especially if Judas had already been skimming money out of Jesus’ treasury bag. That doesn’t mean this isn’t the proper understanding, but it does present a difficulty to accepting it.
It seems that the best way of understanding what Judas did is that he came to Jesus with Jewish expectations of the Messiah. He expected a powerful earthly kingdom that was going to throw off the shackles of Rome and return Israel to its former glory. He saw the miracles of Jesus as divine confirmation that he was right in his assumptions. And when Judas himself was endowed with miraculous gifts during the “limited commission,” he must have felt excitement over the imminent arrival of that kingdom which he was preaching. But Jesus started doing things that made Judas unsure. He saw a group of Jews who were ready to crown Jesus as the king, but when Jesus saw what was happening, He left and went to a mountain alone.7 He wasn’t ready to abandon Jesus, but it was after that event that the Lord said to the twelve, “one of you is a devil.”8
Then, as Jesus’ ministry went on, He kept saying things about dying, and being murdered. Judas, with his preconceived ideas about the Messiah, must certainly have been questioning whether or not Jesus was really the One. No doubt he had heard the opposition that the Pharisees and chief priests had presented against Jesus, and perhaps it continued to encourage his doubts. Then, leaning more and more towards the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t really the Messiah, Judas saw no problem with stealing money from Him. And when Jesus said that He was being anointed for His burial, that cinched it for Judas, who went to the chief priests and elders and offered to betray Jesus to them.
Even in the middle of all that mental struggle and doubt, Judas apparently didn’t realize just how much the Jewish leaders hated Jesus. When he realized that Jesus was going to be put to death, Judas freaked out and tried to hurriedly undo it all. He did have a conscience after all. Judas apparently thought that they would simply arrest Jesus and throw Him in prison.
Ultimately, Judas’ biggest problem was that he allowed his own preconceived notions to overrule the evidence. Jesus did miracles—Judas did miracles—which should have confirmed for him that everything Jesus said and did was exactly what God wanted. It’s easier sometimes to believe what you’ve always believed than it is to accept what the Bible actually says.
Judas’ name has gone down in history as the ultimate traitor. His name is not on the foundation of the holy city. He is known as “the son of perdition” who “by transgression, fell, so that he might go to his own place.” Such a sad state of affairs when one who had so much potential falls to the lowest depths.
Perhaps the saddest part of the entire history of Judas is that, had he not killed himself, he might have been able to see the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Had he waited, and heard about the empty tomb, he might have come back to Jesus, begging forgiveness. And Jesus would have forgiven him, and welcomed him back.
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 Matthew 27:5.
2 Acts 1:18.
3 This possibility was presented to the author several years ago during a discussion of the topic.
4 Acts 1:19.
5 This is the view presented in the so-called Gospel of Judas, a Gnostic document from the second century.
6 Lockyer, in All the Apostles of the Bible, presents this possibility, attributing it to de Quincey.
7 John 6:14-15.
8 John 6:70-71.