The two New Testament accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot are well known. One (Matthew’s) says that he went and hanged himself; the other (Luke’s) says that having purchased a field with the ‘blood money’ he got for betraying Jesus, he fell headlong and his bowels gushed out.
There is, however, another curious early tradition respecting the death of Judas, preserved for us by Papias bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia — and it suggests an even stranger death still.
“The two accounts give different derivations of the name ‘Field of Blood’: Matthew says it was so called because it was bought with the ‘blood money’ for Jesus’ betrayal; whereas Luke states that it acquired the name because it was where Judas’ guts spilled out.”
On the face of it the two accounts are impossible to reconcile, and it is probably best to think of them as different oral traditions which had grown up about the precise circumstances of Judas’ death.
In spite of the differences, the two accounts have a couple of features in common:
That this field was purchased with the money obtained for betraying Jesus (Matthew says it was purchased by the chief priests; Luke says it was purchased by Judas himself).
It should be noted that the two accounts give different derivations of the name ‘Field of Blood’: Matthew says it was so called because it was bought with the ‘blood money’ for Jesus’ betrayal; whereas Luke states that it acquired the name because it was where Judas’ guts spilled out.
A third tradition: Papias of Hierapolis
We have, however, a third tradition respecting Judas’ death. It is recorded for us by an early follower of Christianity, Papias bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (part of what is now Turkey).
This Papias is described by Irenaeus of Lyons as “the hearer of John, and a companion of Polycarp”. The fourth-century historian Eusebius says that Papias was not himself a hearer of the apostles, but of those who knew the apostles — and he quotes a passage from Papias himself in which he claims to have heard many of the apostles’ sayings from “Aristion and the presbyter John”.
If this is correct, then the ‘John’ of whom Irenaeus says he was the hearer was probably not the apostle John, but a slightly later, highly respected figure known as ‘John the presbyter’ or ‘John the elder.’
Papias (perhaps A.D. 70—155) went around collecting the sayings of the Lord and the apostles from anybody who could relate them to him, and wrote them down in a five-volume work known as the Exposition of the Oracles of the Lord. It is a great pity that this work has not survived, nor indeed has barely anything of the writings of Papias: the only fragments we have of him are the barest quotations preserved in Irenaeus, Eusebius and other writers. Eusebius rather disparagingly describes him as a man of “slender capacity”.
“Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.”
Papias, Fragment 3
Amongst those few fragments of his that do survive we have the following, curious passage:—
Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.
Part of this account agrees with Luke’s account, in Acts 1:16-19, that Judas’ bowels gushed out.
What is new here is the idea that Judas wandered the earth in desolation, having swollen apparently to the width of a street — a very lurid and suggestive image! — and that the spilling of his bowels was caused by his being crushed by a chariot.
As highly imaginative as this version of events is, it seems unlikely to be true.
What it appears to show us, is that such was the enormity of Judas’ crime — betraying the Son of God — that the manner of his death exercised a fascination in the minds of the early generations of Christians. No wonder then if some fantastic and lurid stories began to circulate concerning the manner of his death!
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Judas Iscariot is, of course, one of the figures of history to be hissed at and execrated. The Lord Jesus himself said of him, “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
Most of us, of course, think of ourselves as much, much better people than that. If we had been there, we would never have done what Judas did.
But Jesus himself has a salutary lesson for us, which it would be well to hear.
“Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
In Luke’s Gospel, we are told that on one occasion some people reported to Jesus an incident in which the governor Pontius Pilate had killed some Galileans. The implication was that these Galileans must have been worse sinners than others, because of what happened to them. Look at Jesus’ response:—
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:1-5
Jesus’ words here are a warning to us, not to think that we are somehow “better” than other people — better than the Judas Iscariots of this world. That, says Jesus, is the way to perish everlastingly.
The only way to be saved, says the Lord Jesus, is to repent of our misdeeds and to turn to him — the one who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Why not pick up one of the Gospel accounts, and turn to him today?
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Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.