Why Bart Ehrman is Wrong on Judas Iscariot’s Death

There has been a consistent claim made by Bart Ehrman, that I have even heard repeated in evangelical Christian circles, that says that the account of Judas’s death in Acts contradicts the account of Judas’s death in Matthew.

I’ve had some beef over this claim, and it’s time to put this one to rest.

Bart Ehrman’s Mistake on Judas

Are there two separate descriptions of Judas’s death in the Bible? No. This is falsehood which results from terrible confusion, bordering on willful ignorance.

I can accept such confusion from ordinary Christians who don’t know what they’re reading. But when a scholar of ancient languages like Bart Ehrman makes the claims he makes, it is embarrassingly wrong.

So let’s see what he says. Note what he claims in this video:

In Matthew’s gospel, Judas hangs himself. And what happens is he goes and feels remorse about what he’s done; he’s betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. He tries to return the thirty pieces of silver but the high priests won’t take it, so he throws it down on the Temple, and goes off and hangs himself. And the priests then say “Oh, we’ve got these thirty pieces of silver. We can’t put it back in the treasury; it’s blood money, used to betray blood. So they go off and they buy a field, and it’s called the Field of Blood because it’s purchased with blood money — after Judas hanged himself.

Luke also wrote the book of Acts as we were saying, and in chapter 1 there is a second account of his death. In this account what happens is: There is nothing about Judas hanging himself; nothing about the priests buying the field. In this account, Judas goes and buys the field before he dies. And he doesn’t hang himself; he somehow falls headfirst and — his intestines break open and bleed all over the ground. And so the people in Jerusalem start calling this the “field of blood” because Judas bled all over it.

Those two accounts cannot be reconciled!

Hoo…. Boy. This is actually easy to reconcile, and it is in the conclusion. But let’s give due credit where credit is due. Let’s take a look at the two passages. First, there is Matthew:

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. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Matthew 27:3-10)

Next, there is Acts:

In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “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.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,

“‘May his camp become desolate,
    and let there be no one to dwell in it’;

and

“‘Let another take his office.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” (Acts 1:15-22)

Peter J. Williams in that video tries to explain how these two passages can be read together, graciously stating that it is quite ambiguous, especially when it talks about how Judas fell. However, I’d like to say something much stronger than Williams when it comes to a Greek-speaking, Bible-studying expert like Bart Ehrman: THIS IS A TOTALLY AMATEUR MISTAKE OF READING ACTS 1:18, especially when you’re trying to show a contradiction in the Bible.

Bart’s Blunder

Let me explain this mistake to you, and I hope you can follow along at home. This is way the verse at Acts 1:18 is rendered in the ESV (and basically all English translations):

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.

But this is the verse in Greek:

Οὗτος μὲν οὖν ἐκτήσατο χωρίον ἐκ μισθοῦ τῆς ἀδικίας καὶ πρηνὴς γενόμενοςἐλάκησεν μέσοςκαὶ ἐξεχύθη πάντα τὰ σπλάγχνα αὐτοῦ

Now that word Οὗτος is what is translated as “this man.” But it doesn’t mean “this man” in Greek. Instead, Οὗτος is the third-person-masculine-singular Greek pronoun “this,” as you can see here.

Oh! But you may say. So what!? The third-person masculine singular thing being referenced is obviously Judas, right? That’s the objection of someone who speaks a language like English, which rarely if ever has gendered nouns. Greek, however, is different.

So, no it is not “obvious” that this word refers to Judas. I mean, possibly it does (and in one sense, I think it does refer to Judas), but definitely not “obviously.” Here is the second candidate for what Οὗτος refers to in this sentence: the last masculine singular noun in the passage:  κλῆρον, which is translated as “share.”

What is the significance of treating “this” as the “share” instead of treating it as “Judas”? Well, if we understand it that way, then what Acts 1 says is that Judas’s SHARE IN THE MINISTRY is what acquired a field. What was his share in the ministry? It was 30 pieces of silver.

That is literally exactly what happened in Matthew.

The Significance of Peter’s Speech

Now Peter has a very strange introduction to his explanation. He says “the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” We then see that he makes two quotations from Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8.

But while these are obviously allusions to the crucifixion and Jesus’s death and resurrection, it is not so clear that they are “about Judas.” It is certainly not clear that it is about Judas in the way that he “became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.” Instead, these verses seem to be justifications for replacing Judas among the twelve, not explaining Judas’s actions. 

So here is my controversial claim: Peter’s speech about Judas’s death refers to the fact that he died in “a field” and not in “a road.” Why is that significant? Let me explain with Psalm 2:

Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers take counsel together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart
    and cast away their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;

    the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
    and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King
    on Zion, my holy hill.”

I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
    today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
    and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
    and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
    lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.
(Psalm 2:1-12)

Let’s break this down. First, the Psalm begins with “nations rage and the peoples plot in vain.” Well, we know at Jesus’s crucifixion, the Jews were “enraged” at Jesus, and Judas, as a person, was plotting with the Jews to arrest Jesus.

Second, note that it says “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision; Then he will speak to them in his wrath and terrify them in his fury.” How does this connect to the crucifixion? Well, let’s remember the strange thing that happened when Jesus is arrested:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. So he asked them again, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So, if you seek me, let these men go.”

This is a bizarre thing! But let’s be clear what happened. Judas is coming to get Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene. Jesus comes forward and gives himself away. The “kiss” that is described in the other gospels is not described here, but what we do have is a description of Judas’s location. He has already kissed Jesus to indicate who he is to the soldiers. Then it says Judas was standing “with them,” meaning with the soldiers.

But when Jesus asks the soldiers “Whom do you seek?” They tell him “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus’s answer is translated into English as “I am he.” But this is a significant difference between English and Greek. In Greek, the grammar is such that he only says: “Ἐγώ εἰμι.”   Those two words alone only mean “I AM.” Which just-so-happens to be the name of God himself that is given to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

What also just-so-happens to happen is that all of “them” — that is, the soldiers — are thrown back and fall to the ground. Note that these people are coming to arrest Jesus. They are not coming to worship him. Therefore, the only reason they would “fall to the ground” is if they were forced back by an act of power.

Here, Jesus with two words — “I AM” — throws back an entire contingent of soldiers and makes them fall on the ground. This is where I imagine that Peter thought to himself “Sweet! Time for Mighty-Morphin’-Messiah-Man to come in glory!” That is why I imagine he drew his sword and cut off the ear of the servant. The servant being thrown to the ground is why I imagine that he was even able to do such a thing with a contingent of armed soldiers around.

But note who isn’t explicitly included in those who were thrown back: Judas. While he could have been, there seems to be a point made to distinguish Judas — “who was standing with them” — from the “them” who were thrown back.

What is the significance of this? Do you notice that last line: “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way”? Judas just kissed the Son. Had he decided to betray Jesus with a handshake, he might have been blown to smithereens, as no Scripture would need to be fulfilled.

And let’s also note the location of this event. We see that Judas came from Jerusalem with the soldiers, but Jesus “knowing all that would happen to him, came forward.” Therefore, he is not standing in the Garden of Gethsemene. He is standing on the road between Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives:

Map of Jerusalem 2

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That doesn’t match! What does the road between Jerusalem and the Garden of Gethsemane have to do with “the way” quoted in Psalm 2:12?

Well there’s an answer to that. Just like English, where the word “Avenue” which is a road but is also a combination of the two words “a venue,” meaning “a way,” so the Hebrew word (derek – דֶ֗רֶךְ) used in Psalm 2 for “way” also has some flexibility. Does it mean “the way”? Yes. But it also means “the road.” See here.

Therefore, the verse also says “Kiss the Son, lest he become angry and you perish in the Road.”

This is the reason for Peter’s speech, making it clear that Judas perished in a field, just as Psalm 2 said.

What About the Intestines?

This is a funny example. People like Ehrman often discount the supernatural, but then wrongfully invoke the supernatural to bring up a ridiculous point to try and disprove the Bible. Unless you’re jumping from an airplane, it would be very strange for a living person to have their intestines spill out onto the ground once falling from a high place.

However, as we know from biology, if a human body dies and it has material in the intestines, that food material will break down, and cause a build-up of gas as the corpse deteriorates. From Matthew, we know that Judas hanged himself. From all the gospels, we know Jesus died before the Sabbath. Therefore, Judas would also have been hanging for a long time before he was ever taken down.

Judas’s intestines spilling out is not a description of the cause of death, because that would be a supernaturally strange and gross way to die. Why does Bart Ehrman think such a thing happened or was claimed to have happened? Instead, it is a description of what literally happened to Judas’s dead corpse that was hanging from a tree.

What About the Name of the Field?

The name of the field is “the Field of Blood,” and Ehrman claims it is called that because Judas bled all over it. Now, maybe… but I doubt it. This is back to amateur hour at Greek 101 – “Studies Involving a Lack of Imagination.” Let’s unravel this.

The English word “blood” means a bodily fluid, but as we see here in Greek, the word is more flexible. Does it mean the bodily fluid? Yes, but it also simultaneously means “bloodshed.” Since we know from Matthew 27 that it is a field for the burial of “strangers,” this fits with a case of a dead body found in an alley that no one can identify. It is a field of bloodshed. It is NOT named “Field of Blood” because Judas bled all over it, although I’m sure he did.

Instead, Judas, like the others burried there are all associated with “bloodshed,” and that is why it is called the “Field of Blood.” It fits no matter how you describe it.

Conclusion

So here’s what happened:

Judas gets 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Jesus is condemned. Judas has remorse. He tries to return the money. It isn’t accepted. He throws the money in the Temple and goes and hangs himself in the Potter’s field that is south of Jerusalem (and google it, there is a steep incline, so it’s a perfect spot). The priests, (just as Matthew’s gospel says) say they can’t put this money back in the Temple treasury, so they buy the Potter’s field where Judas just hanged himself. Several days after Judas hangs himself, after bugs or gnats or ordinary gut bacteria do their work to turn Judas’s body into a very gross bodily-fluid-balloon — Judas falls headlong into the field. This is done either during an effort to cut him down or due to a strong wind and a faulty rope. Because of the decomposition, when Judas’s corpse falls a significant distance, it bursts open in the field. It is called “the field of Blood” not because Judas bled all over it (although, who knows, maybe the guy trying to take him down called it that) but because it is the field to bury those who are associated with bloodshed, either as a perpetrator (like Judas) or as a victim (like an anonymous corpse found in Jerusalem).

So no matter what Bart Ehrman says, that IS an agreement between Matthew and Acts on the death of Judas.

But even more than that, this explains Peter’s strange speech in Acts. David’s Psalm 2 fits EXACTLY what happened in the arrest of Jesus, and it specifically is directed at Judas, unlike the other Psalm 69 and 109 which are primarily concerned with Jesus and only tangentially connect with Judas. The aside about Judas is about Field vs. Road. I imagine Luke didn’t quote Psalm 2 in this passage because the point was obvious when you had lived through it.

There is more to say on this subject, but 2,900 words is enough for one day. I hope that’s enough to make it clear that Bart Ehrman is completely wrong on his whole “Judas death is a contradiction” point.

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