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Why do Good Things Happen to Bad People?
Admonishing with Tears

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Sometimes errors in understanding biblical texts stem from not paying close enough attention to the language. They can occur if we do not have a good working knowledge of the time period wherein the text was written and/or the cultural background. Other times errors arise from making assumptions about the text or perhaps from holding a “traditional” view which we had not thought to question before. One example of this last issue concerns the death of Judas Iscariot. How does the biblical text describe his demise? It is recorded in two places, Matthew, and Acts.

In Matthew 27:5 we read that Judas hung himself after Jesus was condemned. The account reads:

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.” (Matthew 27:3-6)

In Matthew’s account Judas had taken bribe money from the Jewish leadership, and then after Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and took the bribe back to the “chief priests and the elders.” Matthew tells us that Judas then “went and hanged himself.

In the first chapter of Acts, Peter described the event with some additional detail:

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 1:16-19)

The accounts in both Matthew and Acts agree that Judas hanged himself, but the two accounts appear to differ a bit in the details. In the account in Acts Peter adds that Judas fell “headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” Peter’s description of Judas “falling headlong” at least implies that when he “hanged himself” he fell forward and burst asunder. The New American Commentary: Acts, notes:

The language is more obscure in the remainder of v. 18: “And becoming prone, he burst in the middle, and all his entrails poured out” (literal translation). The NIV probably is right in interpreting the strange phrase “becoming prone” as “fell headlong.” The picture is that of a fall so severe as to open his body cavity and cause his inner organs (splanchna) to spill out.1Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 92). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Trying to make sense of this has puzzled many. How can we understand and reconcile what seems to be a strange phrase, “becoming prone,” in Acts 1 with “hanged himself” in Matthew 27? Did Judas try to hang himself but was inept—in the process falling onto sharp rocks and bursting open—as Augustine proposes? John MacArthur posits that Judas hung himself from a tree near a cliff and either the rope or the branch broke, causing him to fall a long way on to rocks and burst open. Another theory is Judas hung himself and died, but in time his body bloated and somehow crashed to the ground and exploded. These are some possible explanations which have been put forth to explain how the two biblical accounts could possibly be reconciled.  An assumption that all these explanations have in common is that Judas hung himself with a rope. This seems an understandable error ­because ropes are what are used in more recent times for “hanging” criminals or in “suicide by hanging.” But hanging by the neck on a rope is not how a person might have identified “hanging” in a distant time and culture, The simple answer is that perhaps Judas didn’t use a rope at all, but instead threw himself headlong onto a first century execution device known as an impaling pole. This device “hangs a person” on a sharpened stake or a branchless tree.

In 1594 Justus Lipsius published De Cruce Liber Primus which included drawings and descriptions of crosses, their components and uses. One of these descriptions he called, “Crux simplex ad infixionem.”:

Chapter VI of book I of Justus Lipsius’s De Cruce considers the other variation of the crux simplex, namely the crux simplex ad infixionem used for impaling. (Crux Simplex)

This instrument inflicted a slow, torturous death so hideous we will not describe it in any detail here. Lipsius included drawings of the process in his book. In the case of Judas, he circumvented the typical execution process, which he could not have accomplished by himself. Instead he hurled himself, “went prone” or “fell headlong” on to the sharpened point, by which means “he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” There was no rope, he was not inept, and there was no necessary time lag waiting for him to bloat and burst.

But who bought the field? In the Matthew account we read:

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. (Matthew 27:3-8)

In Acts we read:

(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 1:18-19)

Not only can the can historical context can resolve the issues involving Judas’ death but can resolve what at first blush seems like a contradiction. If Judas threw the treasury money back into the temple (which, as a side note, was a fulfillment of prophecy, see Zechariah 11:12-13) how could he purchase the field with it, especially if he was dead? The answer is fairly simple. Any monies in the Temple treasury had to be pure. We read in the Matthew account that the religious leaders decided they could not keep the money, because it was “blood money,” therefore not pure. Judas had committed suicide. The chief priests and elders purchased the field with Judas’ money and in his name. It was therefore Judas’ acquired property.

Gaining some knowledge of the historical setting helps to understand what is going on in the biblical text, which brings us back to rule #1 for Bible study.

–  A text – what we are reading.
– Without a context – Who wrote it? When was it written? What were they saying? How would it have been understood then?
– Is a pretext – Something which sounds true but is false.

It requires more than just reading but being a student of the word. I like the way the KJV puts this:

Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.(2 Timothy 2:15)Ω

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Why do Good Things Happen to Bad People?
Admonishing with Tears

End Notes   [ + ]

1. Polhill, J. B. (1992). Acts (Vol. 26, p. 92). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.