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The Death of Judas in Ancient Christian Literature Part 1

Jesus chose twelve apostles as a symbol of the twelve tribes of Israel (see Matthew 19:28). The number twelve was so important that, in the first chapter of Acts, the apostles cast lots over whether Matthias or Joseph Justus Barsabbas should become the twelve apostle after the death of Judas (cf. Acts 1:12-26). There are three accounts of the death of Judas. There is a trigging warning as the following passages discuss suicide or offer graphic details about Judas’s fate.

In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas felt remorseful (metamelomai) after betraying “innocent blood” and threw the thirty pieces of silver in the temple. He then left and hanged himself. The chief priests and elders refused to put the blood money into the “temple treasury,” so they purchased the potter’s field to bury foreigners. It was known as the “field of blood” (agros haimatos) “until this day” (heōs tēs sēmeron)Zechariah 11:12-13 seems to be conflated with Jeremiah 18:2-3 to show that this event fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.

In Acts 1:18-19, Judas bought a field with the reward that he earned for his “wickedness” (adikia). He fell “headlong” (prēnēs), his body “burst open” (lakaō) in the “middle” (mesos), and his “intestines” (splanchnon) “pour out” (ekcheō). The field became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem as the “field of blood” (chōrion haimatos), which is the translation of the Aramaic name Akeldama. Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 are cited to interpret this event and explain why the apostles had to elect a twelfth member of their group.

There is a third tradition about Judas’s death in a lost commentary from Apollinaris of Laodicea, which cites and embellishes a tradition about Judas’s death from Papias’s fourth book (cf. Commentary on Matthew 27:5). There are two different versions of what Apollinaris of Laodicea might have written that survive in later Greek catenae or short excerpts from later biblical commentators strung together, so you can read these two versions by checking out Arie W. Zwiep’s Judas and the Choice of Matthias on Google preview on pp. 112-116. See also online summaries here and here and the entry on the “Death of Judas according to Papias” at the e-Clavis Christian Apocrypha. Both versions agree that Judas developed a condition where his body swelled up to such an extent that he could not pass between a space that a wagon could fit through, but they disagree over whether Judas finally died in his own field over this condition or was crushed by a wagon. In either case, there is some overlap with Acts with regards to how Judas’s intestines poured out on to the ground and his field became uninhabitable.

In the next post, I will summarize Stephen’s Carlson’s reconstruction of Papias’s tradition (Papias of Hierapolis Exposition of Dominical Oracles, 40-56). In the third post, I will test out my own historical reconstruction about what may have happened at the end of Judas’s life.

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