The Death of Judas

3 Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned in betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? Look to it yourself.” 5 Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. 6 The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, “It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood.” 7 After consultation, they used it to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of a man with a price on his head, a price set by some of the Israelites, 10 and they paid it out for the potter’s field just as the Lord had commanded me.” (27:3-10)

This story interrupts the sequence of Jesus’ trial. It can hardly fit chronologically between the decision to hand Jesus over to Roman authority (which is apparently its immediate cause) and its sequel in vv. 11ff., as it shows the priests apparently in the temple, with leisure to debate the buying of a field. But Matthew has appropriately inserted here the tradition of what happened to Judas, perhaps in order to form a suggestive contrast with the fate of Peter. Each is thus seen to have fulfilled Jesus’ prediction (26:24 for Judas; 26:34 for Peter), but Peter’s bitter weeping (of repentance?) contrasts with Judas’ despairing remorse and suicide. Matthew’s focus on Judas (26:14–16, 21–25, 47–50) is thus brought to its climax in a grim warning of the results of deliberate apostasy (as opposed to Peter’s temporary lapse under pressure).

The modality of suicide, hanging, is nowhere else mentioned in the NT – there is however a notable OT hanging: Ahithophel, King David’s friend who betrayed him when the Davidic kingdom was under attack (2 Sam 17:1-23). For Matthew, the story becomes another expression of the conflict between kingdoms and the lot of those who cast themselves with the wrong side – here it is Judas who has chosen other than the kingdom of the Son of David.

Even though Judas seemingly died in private despair, he stands apart from the high priests who sought to kill Jesus, collected false witnesses, but have no remorse or regret. At least Judas knew he had chosen wrongly.

One interesting bit of language revolves around the priests’ decision to buy the potter’s field with the price of blood. The expressions provide a suggestive derivation for the traditional name Akeldama, Field of Blood, which Acts 1:18–19 also associates with Judas’ death, though in a different way. The traditional site of Akeldama is in the valley of Hinnom, which was a source of potter’s clay (hence the previous name, ‘potter’s field’?) If Matthew knew this location, the association with Jeremiah 19:1–13 would be obvious, since that passage is about burials in the valley of Hinnom, which has become a ‘place filled with innocent blood’, to be called the ‘valley of Slaughter’, the whole scene being focused on a ‘potter’s earthen flask’. But the potter also appears mysteriously in Zechariah 11:13, as the recipient of the thirty pieces of silver ‘in the house of the Lord’.

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