How Did Judas Really Die?

How Did Judas Really Die?

This piece was originally featured in the Southern Nebraska Register’s “Ask the Register” column on February 2, 2024, which can be found here.

Q. How did Judas really die? Do the two different versions mean the Bible is inaccurate?

A. The early theologian Origen thought such “discrepancies” presented exciting opportunities for discovery, reasoning that the more difficult a scriptural riddle is to understand, the more likely it is that the Holy Spirit is poised right there in those very lines of text to show up and reveal the truth of a mystery! So let’s pray, and think through this one carefully. +

The two accounts of Judas’ demise (not death, as I’ll explain below) are found in Matthew 27:1-10 and Acts 1:16-19. We know from the previous chapter in Matthew that just prior to Jesus’ institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist at the Last Supper/New Passover (26:17-29), Judas had already fallen into grave sin by agreeing to betray Jesus to the chief priests (26:14-15).

Jesus knows this, and informs the disciples at the Last Supper that the betrayer is among them. Sorrowfully they ask, one after another, “Is it I, Lord?” (v. 22). After Jesus explains that the one who dips his hand to partake with him is the one who will betray, Judas himself asks, “Is it I, Rabbi?” (perhaps tellingly, he does not call Jesus ‘Lord’). And Jesus responds (more tersely in the Greek than in the English), “You said it ” (v. 25).

Jesus then performs the miraculous consecration, in which he changes the substance of the bread and the wine into his body and blood, and they all partake together, including Judas. This is the appropriate moment for a gasp. Judas’ heart is in a state of sin, and yet he receives the holiness of Jesus’ body and blood into his own body anyway.

St. Paul will later explain to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:27-30) the following important reality:

27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died [emphasis added].

The stakes are high. According to Paul, Judas was gambling with his life. He returns to the chief priests to recant (Matt 27:3-4), but that is the wrong port of call, for they have not been authorized to forgive sin. They rebuff him without compassion, whereupon Judas goes out and hangs himself (v. 5).

This is the singular account of Judas’ death. What we then read in Acts 1:16-19 is not a second, contradictory death account, but additional details of the aftermath of his death by hanging: he “falls headlong,” and his bowels burst and “spill out” (v. 18). What to make of these two details?

Judas’ death by hanging on a tree occurs nearly simultaneously with Christ’s own death on a tree—at which point there was an earthquake so powerful that rocks themselves split apart and tombs were opened (Matt 27:51-54). So Judas’ “fall” may naturally be explained as the result of the rope—or the branch of the tree—breaking (or of the tree itself being uprooted) by the power of the earthquake that took place when Jesus breathed his last.

But the most intriguing detail is what happens next. He bursts open—one might say, like an old wineskin that had received new wine (cf. Matt 9:17). And that’s precisely what had happened. Judas had received “new wine” (Jesus’ body and blood in the New Passover meal) into an unfit vessel, an “old wineskin”—his sin-filled body—and something had to give.

Notice how Judas’ fate stands in sharp contrast to the account of our blessed Mother, who also received the holiness of God into her own body, but without any risk to herself, since she had been prepared and preserved from the moment of her conception to be fit for the gift. Mary was filled with grace when she received Jesus (Luke 1:28). Judas was filled with sin. And so his life could not contain the blood of Jesus that was ‘poured’ into him (Greek: ekcheoMatt 26:28) for the forgiveness of sins he had not confessed, and he burst, ‘pouring’ (ekcheo) what was inside him onto the ground (Acts 1:18).

So there is no contradiction. Instead, the texts work together to issue a serious, cautionary reminder for all of us: Be certain that you have prepared properly before presenting yourself to receive our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity into your own body, blood, soul, and humanity.