How did Judas actually kill himself? Did he perish from hanging, or from falling?
In speaking of what can be called accurately the most dastardly betrayal of all time, Luke records in the book of Acts two prophecies from the psalms regarding Judas Iscariot: “Let his habitation be made desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and, his office let another take” (1:20). Judas was one of the main participants in the foulest plot in human history, but did not live long enough to deal with the weight of the guilt resulting from his sin. From Matthew’s account, we read where he committed suicide shortly after his betrayal of the Lord. Consider the following apparent contradiction:
And he cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, and departed; and he went away and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).
Now this man obtained a field with the reward of his iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out (Acts 1:18).
Some have used this difference in the accounts to suggest a contradiction exists. Matthew states clearly that Judas “went away and hanged himself ” (27:5). On the other hand, Luke records in Acts 1:18 that “falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.” Matthew mentions only a hanging; Luke mentions Judas falling headlong (i.e., headfirst) and bursting open in the middle (i.e., at his midsection). Is there, then, a contradiction here?
First, as E.M. Zerr correctly pointed out, “they [the two passages in Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18—JD/BH] should not be taken as a contradiction if it is possible for both to be true” (1952, 5:272). Is this a possibility in the current case? Albert Barnes offered the following observation in regard to this alleged discrepancy: “Matthew records the mode in which Judas attempted his death by hanging. Peter [sic] speaks of the result” (1998, 9:300, emp. in orig.).
There are many types of bacteria that live inside the body. These bacteria are the first to begin the process of decomposition after an organism dies. Saprobic bacteria invade every inch of the dead body, and begin decomposing and digesting the organic tissue. (Saprobic bacteria are heterotrophs that live on decaying material, like a dead body.) As they decompose organic material to produce energy, these microorganisms help recycle nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon back into the environment. In accomplishing this, the bacteria produce significant quantities of gaseous by-products. If a body had been dead for several days, the gases present would begin to exert considerable pressure on the abdomen, causing the midsection to burst open easily upon hitting the hard ground. As Wayne Jackson observed:
The language necessitates no conflict. Either he hanged himself from a very high place—with perhaps the rope breaking; or else, no one removed his body for a while, it eventually fell under its own weight, and the decomposing corpse burst open (2000, p. 13).
J.W. Haley wrote in a similar fashion:
Neither of these statements excludes the other. Matthew does not deny that Judas, after hanging himself, fell and burst asunder; Luke does not assert that Judas did not hang himself prior to his fall (1974, p. 349).
Haley continued by offering a possible scenario:
Probably the circumstances are much as follows: Judas suspended himself from a tree on the brink of the precipice overhanging the valley of Hinnom, and the limb or the rope gave way; and he fell and was mangled as described in Acts (p. 349).
Therefore, the verses actually supplement, rather than contradict, each other. Matthew gives the mode, while Luke gives the result.
Of course, when dealing with this same topic, skeptics likely will bring up the argument that Judas could not have “obtained” a field as Luke recorded that he did (Acts 1:18). J.W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton presented and refuted three “contradictions” in the account of Judas and the field:
His [Luke’s—JD/BH] account of Judas’ death varies in three points from that given by Matthew, but the variations are easily harmonized. 1. Evidently Judas hung until his abdomen was partially decomposed; then his neck giving way, the rope breaking, or something happening which caused his body to fall, it burst open when it struck the ground. 2. Judas is spoken of as purchasing the field, and so he did, for the priests bought it with his money, so that legally it was his purchase. 3. The field was called “The field of blood” for two reasons, and each evangelist gives one of them (n.d., p. 722).
Once again, God’s Word can be seen to be internally consistent. Additionally, the explanations offered above form a pattern that can be used in answering such charges—i.e., whenever two seemingly contradictory accounts are under consideration, they could actually be complementary to one another.
Barnes, Albert (1998 reprint), Barnes’ Notes: The Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Haley, John W. (1974), Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).
Jackson, Wayne (2000), The Acts of the Apostles (Stockton, CA: Courier Publications).
McGarvey, J.W. and Philip Y. Pendleton (no date), The Fourfold Gospel (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth).
Zerr, E. M. (1952), Bible Commentary: New Testament (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth).