The New Testament contains two different versions of Judas Iscariot's demise: suicide by hanging (Matthew 27:3-10) and spontaneous gastrointestinal explosion (Acts 1:18-19). Despite the significant differences between these two versions, both associate the death of Judas with a place in Jerusalem called Akeldama, the Field of Blood. Since the fourth century this name has been connected with a plot of land south of the Old City, in the Hinnom Valley. Today it is the site of the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Onuphrius (pictured above), which has occupied the site since 1874. Death hangs heavy in the air here. The whole area in and around the Hinnom Valley (aka Gehenna) is full of burial caves cut into the rock face. Many of these belonged to the aristocracy of Jerusalem in the First and Second Temple periods. The site of Akeldama contains Jewish burial caves from the Hellenistic era and was later used as a charnel house during the Crusader period.
Let's have a closer look at these two versions of the death of Judas in the NT. In Matthew's version, on the morning of the crucifixion (Friday), Judas regrets having betrayed Jesus and tries to return the 30 pieces of silver to the Temple authorities. They refuse to accept the money, claiming that it is too late: Jesus has already been arrested, tried by both the Jews and Romans and condemned to death by Pilate. This is your problem, not ours, they tell him. Dejected, Judas hangs himself (in an unspecified location). The money that he relinquished is then used by the Temple authorities to purchase a field known as the Potter's Field, which becomes a burial ground for foreigners. It is clear that what is driving this story is Matthew's desire to cite yet another verse from the Old Testament in order to show that the gospel fulfills prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures. Here, the verse cited is Zechariah 11:13, with some additions from Jeremiah 18:2; 32:7-9. So according to Matthew's gospel, Akeldama got its name after it was purchased by the priests using the money that Judas earned by "betraying the innocent blood" of his teacher Jesus.
In the opening chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find a rather different version. First, it is Judas himself who purchases the field with the money he received ("the reward of his wickedness"), and not the priests. Secondly, Judas does not hang himself. He does not even seem to commit suicide, nor does he express any regret for betraying Jesus. Rather, the text provides the following mysterious sentence: "and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels rushed out" (Acts 1:18). What does this mean? What caused him to fall so violently that his belly exploded? What message does the author of Acts wish to communicate through this grizzly (perhaps "visceral" is the most apt word) scene? The Greek text of the verse reads as follows:
I find Most's interpretation fascinating but wonder if there might be a better answer. Another solution to this question might be found in an alternative reading of the verse in question which inserts the word πεπρησμενος ("swelling up") instead of πρηνὴς γενόμενος ("falling headlong"). This reading has been accepted by many NT scholars (see W. Bauer, Lexicon, s.v. πρηνής). This would mean that Judas' belly became distended to the point that it burst open. Could it be that the author of Acts was thinking of another biblical passage in which a betrayer is punished by means of a swollen belly that eventually leads to death? The best candidate for this is the Sotah ritual, an elaborate examination meant to convict a woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31). The important verse for our purposes reads as follows:
I think this similarities are too numerous to ignore. The author of Acts constructed this vignette of Judas' death with the Sotah ritual in mind. His goal was not simply to vilify Judas but to demonstrate his guilt in an objective manner. The Akeldama episode serves as Judas' trial. The fact that he is tried in the manner of an adulterous woman demonstrates that Luke-Acts is not only interested in satanizing Judas (Lk 22:3), but also in feminizing him (Lk 22:47-8)
What these two versions of Judas' death have in common is that they are aetiological in nature. That is, they are intended to explain the origin of a name, in this case a place name (toponym). The name of the place associated with these two stories, Akeldama (Greek - Ἁκελδαμάχ) comes from two Aramaic words, field (חקל) and blood (דמא). Presumably, the original reason for this name was the reddish color of the soil. This is somewhat similar to the name of the "red ascent" (Maale Adumim) and the "red inn" (Khan el Ahmar) which are located on a stretch of the Jericho-Jerusalem road famous for its exposed pink limestone (see picture below). Both stories of the demise of Judas make the case that redness of the soil in Akeldama is due to the spilling of human blood; for Matthew it is Jesus' blood, while for Luke it is Judas' blood (not to mention his intestines).
I am Jonathan Lipnick, tour guide and educator specializing in Christianity and Judaism. In this blog I explore questions (historical, linguistic) that come up in the course of my teaching and reading.