googlef87758e9b6df9bec.html A Sure Word: How Did Judas Die?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How Did Judas Die?

In the weeks leading up to Easter, I intend to post a series of articles discussing various events and controversies surrounding the holiday. One issue often raised by critics of the Bible is the question, “How did Judas die?” We know that after the arrest of Jesus, Judas, in a fit of remorse, killed himself. This fact is mentioned in Matthew 27:5 and again in Acts 1:18 but therein lies a problem since these verses seem to contradict each other. Matthew says simply that he, “went and hanged himself ” while Luke records Peter saying, “falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”

Perhaps one reason this criticism is so enduring is because, unlike so many other criticisms, this one is not so easily rebutted. It doesn't necessarily mean that this is a valid criticism of the Bible; the fact of the matter is that the two passages are so scare in details that it's not obvious how to reconcile them. Actually, multiple solutions exists and we're just not sure which might be the correct solution.

First, it must be remembered that different people will describe the same event differently. Consider this analogy: police are called to a crime scene and find a dead man. They ask witnesses what happened. One witness says the victim was killed in a fight with another man. A second witness says the victim fell and hit his head. Using only these details, it seems like the witnesses have contradicted each other. However, the simple solution could be that two men were fighting when one fell, struck his head, and died. If we had more details, the two passages might be that simple to reconcile. Alas we only have these two, short descriptions. There are at least 3 ways these events might be reconciled:


I recently came across an intriguing possibility that Peter (Luke 1) was not describing the physical death of Judas but was merely describing his spiritual fall. This would be a fall in the same sense the Adam “fell” and died. Regarding the reference to “bowels,” there are multiple passages (especially in the KJV) were the “bowels” are a reference to mercy or compassion (Colossians 3:12, Philemon 1:7, 1John 3:17). So according to this theory, Judas may have died physically but he also “fell” spiritually and his bowels bursting is a reference to his act of betrayal.

I am still skeptical of this as a possible solution but it could have merit. I've already mentioned that different people might describe the same event differently so Peter may have been speaking of his spiritual fall. Consider also that Peter is introducing the need to replace Judas among the apostles. We have no reason to believe the act of replacing the apostles was continued after subsequent deaths of the apostles – those apostles who remained faithful unto death. It could be then that Peter is introducing a doctrinal need to replace him, namely that he not only died but that he fell from grace.

So though I remain skeptical about this possible solution, I include it here for the consideration of others.


I've heard various scenarios that attempt to explain how the hanging of Judas might have been especially gruesome and could fit the description in both passages. The first is a rather mundane explanation that the rope Judas used was too long and rather than hanging, he fell to the ground. This is hardly plausible. A fall from a tree might be sufficient to kill a person but it would have to be an especially high tree for the body to break open. This is the least likely explanation that I've heard.

A second possibility that I once considered is that Judas wasn't “hanged” in the ordinary sense of the word but instead impaled himself – perhaps on a spear. The word “hanged” is also used in reference to the death of Jesus (Acts 5:30, Acts 10:39) who we certainly know wasn't hanged by the neck. Besides Jesus, the thieves crucified with him are also described as being “hanged” (Luke 23:39). If a person were impaled through the belly with a spear, it might be described that his bowels were burst open and spilled out. For a while I felt this was an extremely possible explanation but I later learned that the Greek word in Matthew 27:5 (ἀπάγχομαι) quite literally means "to choke." It still may be a possible explanation but I feel it is less likely.

Yet another possibility occurred to me many years ago when I heard a radio news bite of a US state that was trying to hire an executioner. In that state (I believe it was Washington), the proscribed method of execution was still hanging even though no one had been hanged there for many years. In the sound bite it was mentioned how much is actually involved in a hanging. The rope should be the right length for the sentenced man's weight so that his neck will break and he will die quickly. If it is too short, he will die slowly by strangulation. However, if it is too long, the man could be decapitated! Please excuse the gore but if a person were decapitated and his stomach contents were regurgitated out of his esophagus, it might fit the description given by Peter.


When Peter spoke before the other apostles, it might have already been understood by all that Judas had already died. So rather than telling everyone that Judas had died (or how he died), Peter might be adding some information about an event that happened post mortem. As mentioned above, a body falling from a tree will not likely “burst open.” However, after death, the skin and tissues begin to decompose. The body also begins to bloat. Answers in Genesis gives this very graphic description:
“Gruesome as it is, Judas’ dead body hung in the hot sun of Jerusalem, and the bacteria inside his body would have been actively breaking down tissues and cells. A byproduct of bacterial metabolism is often gas. The pressure created by the gas forces fluid out of the cells and tissues and into the body cavities. The body becomes bloated as a result. In addition, tissue decomposition occurs compromising the integrity of the skin. Judas’ body was similar to an overinflated balloon, and as he hit the ground (due to the branch he hung on or the rope itself breaking) the skin easily broke and he burst open with his internal organs spilling out.”
In conclusion, let me remind my readers that we cannot know which of these possible scenarios might be the correct one. There could be still other explanations I have not discussed or even considered. But just these few possible scenarios clearly demonstrate that the passages in question need not be contradictory.


Paris said...

Hello Sir,
I turned to your Christian Holidays section. I was interested that there was no mention of a single holiday (holyday) that Christ actually celebrated. Acts and the Epistles reveal that the early church continued to observe these days long after Christ's ascension.

RKBentley said...


Thank you for visiting my blog. I appreciate your feedback and agree that it would be a good idea to include Jewish holidays in future posts. Judging from the “tone” of your post, however, I get the impression you object to observing traditional, Christian holidays.

At this time of the year, we are preparing to celebrate Easter. Easter, of course, occurs (not coincidentally) around the time of the Passover. So why do Christians celebrate Easter and not Passover? The answer is obvious. The Passover was a forerunner of Christ. It was a picture of His shed blood for our deliverance. In a real sense, as we celebrate Easter, we are celebrating the Passover. Jesus is our Passover Lamb.

Of course, there are some other holidays we celebrate in the US that aren't as closely tied to Jewish holidays but I do not see anything wrong with celebrating them. Christians should give thanks to God every day but we have set aside Thanksgiving to thank God corporately. The OT Jews may not have celebrated the birth of Jesus but they certainly did look forward to the birth of the Messiah.

Perhaps before Easter I will write a post detailing how some Jewish festivals and holidays were types and shadows of the work of Christ.

Thank you again for visiting. God bless!!