Saturday, January 22, 2011

Whodunnit - How did Judas Die?

My greatest hobby as a boy was to read books on how true the Bible was.  A great favourite was books that seek to reconcile APPARENT contradictions in the Bible.  All these books have one thing in common – they claim that all errors, inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible are only apparent; they’re not really what they appear to be.  If you place them under the searchlights of truth, you will see that they harmonise beautifully with the rest of Scriptures which are after all the Word of God and how can God be wrong?

The earliest contradiction that I read about was concerning Judas’ death.  Remember, I was only a boy of about ten and I knew too little about the Bible to know there was an APPARENT contradiction here.  The writer brought this contradiction to my attention and he sought to dispel it.

In Matthew 27, we read this:
3 When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”
   “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”
 5 So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
 6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

That would have been fine.  But in Acts 1, we read something different:

18 With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. 19 Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.

Where do we find the most contradictions in the New Testament?  In many books of the Bible, it’s very difficult to find contradictions because each book has a monopoly of the stories it tells.  There’s nothing to contradict if each book tells a different story. But the Gospels are different. All four books tell roughly the same story – the story of our Lord.  Scholars have shown that Matthew and Luke obtained their sources from Q and Mark and so, these 3 Synoptic Gospels tend to share more with one another than St John’s Gospel.

There are various ways Bible reconcilers attempt to harmonise the Bible:

1.  If the error is geographical, they insist that the name used in the Bible was a variant name of the town at that time.

2.  If the error is numerical, they tend to be more accepting that it is an error.  It’s a scribal error, they say.  The scribes made an error copying the figure and the Holy Spirit allowed the error because it was not critical and it was obvious to the faithful that there was an error.

3.  If there is an inconsistency between two passages and the inconsistency arises from a difference in numbers, eg. one passage says 5 women observed Christ’s crucifixion and another passage says only one woman did, the harmonisers will always pick the higher number as historically correct and explain that the writer in the other passage was simply zooming in on one of the 5 women and because he didn’t see the need to talk about the other 4, he left them out. He can’t be talking about everybody, can he?

4.  If two passages tell different stories about what is the same event, harmonisers will insist they are two separate events. If the event is indisputably one single event, such as the Resurrection of our Lord (it’s heresy to argue that there are 4 different resurrections to suit the 4 different Gospels), harmonisers will say everything reported in all four Gospels took place one after the other. This can achieve quite a ludicrous result.

5.  If a passage says something that does not come to pass and it’s supposed to have happened much sooner, theologians will come up with new doctrines that sound respectable to hide the error.  One of them that comes to mind is the doctrine of compression in prophecy.  It is used to answer questions like why Christ did not return in the 1st century although he promised to do so?  I will have to write a separate post on this.

Now, let’s look at the death of Judas again. Two passages tell different stories about Judas’ death.  Which solution should harmonisers come up with?  Solution No. 4 of course. Now, Judas’ death can only be one event and so they’ve got to say Judas “hanged himself” and “he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”.

And believe me, that’s what they are saying!  I’ve heard a few versions:

1.  Judas hanged himself on a tree in the desert.  After a few days, his body became bloated from gaseous emissions as it always happens to a corpse.  The branch broke and his body fell to the rocks below and all his intestines spilled out. But that does not take into account the Field of Blood.

2.  This takes into account everything.  Judas hangs himself.  The chief priests found his body and threw it onto the Field of Blood. It bursts and all his intestines spilled out.

But read Acts again. “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.”

He fell headlong.  That’s not the same as tossing a dead body in the field.  But I tell no lie if I say that a lot of Christians I know actually believe that the verses should be read in a way that can harmonise them both.  Obviously, we all desperately want to believe and are prepared to believe anything, however ludicrous.

Acts also makes it clear that Judas bought the field with the payment he received for his wickedness.  Matthew says Judas was remorseful and he threw the money at the feet of the chief priests who used the money to buy a field.

Harmonisers say the field must have been bought in Judas’ name and so when it says in Acts that Judas “bought a field with payment he received for his wickedness”, what is meant is the chief priests bought the field in Judas’ name.

Are you satisfied with such an answer?  It really depends on how desperate you are.

But it troubled me for a long time how St Luke could get it so wrong in Acts. Judas fell headlong in the Field of Blood and his body burst?  And all his intestines spilled out?

It wasn't until I read Bruce Metzger and FF Bruce on the canon that I discovered that there was an ancient Christian tradition about Judas. We know from Papias that the Christian community told a tale how Judas, because of his treachery against our Lord, swelled with each passing day until there came a time when he was so swollen and fat that he could not pass through a road that a carriage could go through. In those days, roads were narrow but Judas had become fatter than even a carriage.  One tradition says that he was knocked down by a carriage and he exploded and all his intestines spilled out. Another tradition says that he became so fat that his legs could not support him and he fell and his stomach burst and his intestines spilled out.

Now, this makes a lot of sense why Acts reported Judas' death in this manner.  In the days of the writing of the Gospels, the church was not so organised and communication was a problem. The writer of Matthew (who incidentally is anonymous) could not email the writer of Acts (purportedly St Luke himself) to tell him to get his story consistent with his.  But this error must have caused some of the ancient scribes a lot of headache as they sat in their cold monasteries transcribing the Bible because our record of manuscripts shows that some scribes left out the account of Judas' death in Acts altogether.  Why did they pick to axe Acts and not Matthew?  They revered the Bible and it's less sacrilegious to cut out one verse in Acts than to remove a large segment of Matthew's Gospel.

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