Session 1 THE DEATH OF JUDAS
There will always be people who delight in trying to prove that the Bible is not true or trustworthy. If they can find a “mistake” somewhere in its pages, this quickly becomes proof that we cannot rely on the Bible unconditionally to be historically accurate and true.
What I propose to do in this series is to examine very closely an anomaly in the accounts of Judas Iscariot’s demise. While the answers to all the problems will not be forthcoming (I might as well as say that upfront!), what I hope you will begin to understand is that “apparent problems” in the Bible sometimes have an answer if we are fortunate enough to find it. If you find something you don’t understand, please call me!
FOUR DIFFERENT ACCOUNTS
You may be unaware that there are four different stories about how Judas died. Two of them are in the Bible (Matthew 27:30-10 and Acts 1:15-20), the third comes from a supposed report of the facts from an early Church Father, Papias. (This third account in no way corroborates the Biblical versions, and remains difficult to take seriously, but we will take a brief look at the story from Papias in order to be thorough.) The fourth is found in the Gospel of Nicodemus, written much later, which has a “cute version” of Judas’ despondency. While no one takes this later apocryphal version very seriously, we will–if for no other reason–provide the details for your amusement.
FIRST: A REVIEW OF JUDAS’ LIFE
Let us review the information we have about the life of Judas Iscariot prior to his betraying Jesus. (All quotes from ESV unless otherwise noted.) One is stunned at the little information we have on Judas! Mark 3:19 indicates that he is one of the original 12 disciples whom Jesus selected. Rather significantly, this verse places Judas last on the list, and adds this comment: “who betrayed him.” The name “Judas” (although a very common name at the time of Jesus) has become over the centuries synonymous with “traitor.” This was apparently true even at the time of the Gospel’s writing.
The Bible refers to Judas as a “sneak-thief” or kleptomaniac (John 12:6—κλέπτης) and “having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” When he saw an opportunity to make a quick buck, he went to the Chief Priests to bargain. Matt. 26:14-16, Mark 14:10-11 and Luke 22:3-6 all provide the story with essentially the same details. As Matthew 26:15 reports, Judas said “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” 30 pieces of silver was the agreed price!
This little detail of “30 pieces of silver” is important to Matthew, and will play a role in his report on the death of Judas. And so, we need to slow down here, and look at the Bible’s references to 30 pieces of silver. First, we have Exodus 21:32: “If the ox gores a slave, male or female, the owner shall give to their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” In other words, if you own an animal, and the animal accidentally kills another person’s slave, you must put the animal to death AND you must pay the owner of the slave 30 pieces of silver. THAT was the value placed on the slave!
Now head to Zechariah 11. Please take the time to read 11:7-14! That’s a bit long to copy here, but notice the detail. The prophet, who announces God’s Word, calls for the end of the covenant with God’s people—and those who heard it knew it was God speaking! Now God tells the prophet to “go get your wages” for being a prophet! What do they pay him? You guessed it—30 pieces of silver! This is an intentional insult: “You are no prophet we want to hear; you are nothing but our slave” is what they are saying with this wage. But the story gets quite odd here: God tells him to take the silver and “throw it to the potter.” Zechariah goes to the Temple and throws the 30 pieces of silver to the potter. Are we supposed to make sense of that? (While you are wondering about that, you might ask yourself why Matthew claims that this story comes from Jeremiah, not Zechariah!) Later this “potter” business will be examined in detail.
So back to Judas, who now pockets his “slave wages” (he doesn’t seem to care—it’s money, and that’s all that counts) and the Chief Priests are “buying” Jesus at a slave-wage, so they are undoubtedly chuckling about how clever they are!
It is not until Jesus is condemned to death that Judas finds some regret in his actions. Matt. 27:3 reports “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.” The ESV has a great translation here: Judas “changed his mind.” Too often the translators say “he repented.” Not so—he had a “change of mind” but he did not have a “change of heart.” (What’s the difference? If Judas “changes his mind,” he tries to undo what he has done. If Judas had repented and “changes his heart,” he would throw himself on God’s mercy and not pretend that he can undo his sin.)
We are told nothing else about this man. This is all the information we have on Judas’ life leading up to the point where he decides to kill himself.
THE GOSPEL OF NICODEMUS—the “4th Account”
No one is sure when the Gospel of Nicodemus was written. It is at least the 4th century and perhaps later. Why this silly story was invented is puzzling—it doesn’t “further condemn” Judas. It’s just quirky and absurd. Here it is:
Judas is so completely depressed over what he has done that he comes home to tell his wife that he plans to commit suicide. His wife is in the middle of roasting a chicken on an open pit. Judas tells her that he is sure that Jesus will rise from the dead and come back to punish his betrayal. Being the “supportive wife that she is,” she laughs at him and says that tonight’s chicken has a better chance of being resurrected than Jesus. At that point the chicken, indeed, comes back to life and starts crowing. Judas sees this, freaks out, and runs out of the house to hang himself.
Perhaps you can see why no one takes this version very seriously!