Judas and the Field of Blood

There is great difficulty fitting together the information in Matthew and Acts about Judas’ death and his connection with a field known as “The Field of Blood”. One has him buy the field, while the other has the authorities do so with his money. One has Judas fall headlong and burst open, the other has him hang himself. (To see the lengths to which some will go to harmonize them, click here).

If we speculate and combine the two, we might end up with Judas buying a field for use to bury foreigners who die while in Jerusalem. But then we might begin asking uncomfortable questions about whether there was a particular person from Galilee who died in Jerusalem and whom Judas might want to bury there.

If you ask me whether I think there is good evidence that Judas moved Jesus’ body and buried it elsewhere, and then either killed himself or died suddenly either by accident or because of an illness (perhaps resulting from prelonged contact with a decomposing corpse), I would certainly answer no. That isn’t the point of this post.

What is the point is that, from a historian’s perspective, it will always seem like a more probable explanation than the one Christians more usually give, namely that God transformed Jesus’ body into a resurrection body and removed it from the tomb. Historical study always deals in probabilities, and a unique supernatural event can never be considered more probable

Here, once again, we see the challenge of historical study to Christian faith. It is not that historical study in general disproves the stories of the astounding and the supernatural on the pages of Scripture. It is that historical study can rarely reach the verdict that the most likely reason we have a miracle story in an ancient text is because a miracle actually occurred. This is no different than the general tendency of juries not to explain deaths in murder trials in terms of supernatural agents and miracles. It is merely that, on the whole, deaths have some cause that is more mundane, and the criminal justice system is designed to deal with those cases. Whether we need to leave a category for “X Files” is another question, but if so, we also need to come up with some sort of ground rules about how to investigate them too.

So what do you think? Can Christians ever be justified on historical grounds in claiming that divine action is the reason the body was not in the tomb? Can we even be certain on historical grounds that the body wasn’t in the tomb? And must we not admit (as I have felt compelled to) that no religious experience, however powerful, can be used to confirm the whereabouts of a body 2,000 years ago? And if all this is the case, then where does that leave Christian belief in the resurrection? Do we simply make a historical argument and then follow it with a leap of faith? Do we reinterpret the meaning of resurrection faith as something experiential and existential rather than historical? Or is some other course open to us?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02376942788228063430 Wieland Willker

    “Can Christians ever be justified on historical grounds in claiming that divine action is the reason the body was not in the tomb?” No. If this could be done, humans would have no choice, they MUST believe. I think theologians still debate if humans have a free will, but if they have, then believe is only an OPTION. One can decide for it or against it. The point is to try it. Believe! You will see how it changes your life.

  • Anonymous

    Hello Dr. McGrath,This is in no way an answer to your questions, but I thought that this post presents and apt opportunity to pose questions to you. In any debate regarding the resurrection, Dr. William Craig takes the following 4 points that he takes to be “widely agreed upon by historians today”:Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.Fact #2: On the Sunday after the crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.Fact #3: On different occasions and under various circumstances different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.Fact #4: The original disciples suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.Craig thinks that the best explanation of these facts is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead and then goes on to dismantle other hypotheses. So my questions are:1. Do you agree about the majority consensus upon these four facts? 2. If so, do you think that resurrection is the best explanation of these facts?3. What do you think about Craig’s apologetic approach in general?I realize you’re probably trying to stir up conversation with your post and not looking to have specific questions about other scholars thrown back at you, but I’d appreciate any thoughts you might have.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    I disagree with the afore mentioned apology, because there are people who have no religious faith or faith of a different color that have integrity and are responsible citizens. So, Christian faith is not unique in struggling to understand the transcendent.There is a ‘theological” rendition of the resurrection, which is the community of faith. This understanding is a communal argument based on Scripture’s understanding of “community” and Judiasm’s understanding of the Temple and the purposes of the Church. But, one has to ascertain what the purposes of the Church are, as different brands of Christian faith understand it differently.I have wholeheartedly agreed with this view until recently. Understanding one’s faith in community is valuable, but is still a groundless faith. It is not based in reason, at all, but experience. Experience is still assessed by reason, which takes faith, which was what the early Church did with interpreting Jesus’ death…so, is it faith in faith, or faith in reason?I must base faith on reason, for faith in faith depends on others and that dependance can be a vulnerablity that is unhealthy, unless there is a mutuality in coming to terms with the purposes of the community and faith itself. Self resposiblity is what I think is a more mature view. And self responsibility means that one respects oneself enough to not be disregarded or disrespected. It is setting boundaries around personhood and desirous of engagment with the other(s), but also able to walk away if the others will not engage. We do this all the time in international relations. It wouldn’t be considered “healthy” for a nation to disregard itself for the sake of the “world”, would it?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Wieland,I think this argument is pretty much dead. I don’t see ironclad proof of the Resurrection as robbing Mankind of Free Will at all. The Hebrews had plenty of evidence of God’s existence in the Sinai desert and yet repeatedly rebelled. In a similar fashion, proof of the Resurrection would leave plenty of room for rebellion against God and his salvation. Ta da! Free Will preserved. Heck, a 100% certain Resurrection would still lead to 2000 years of disagreement between theologians over what exactly it meant!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    Weiland,Sorry – “Dead” was over the top. Insert “Unconvincing”

  • John

    An unexplainable event accounts for the start of many religious movements (i.e. the resurrection, the appearance of Gabriel to Mohammad, the various interactions between God and the Mormons as they moved West, etc…). Anyways, it is silly to think that all of these things can be explained away any more than they can be proven by secular Western historical method. I say secular Western because the original post did not qualify how what can be and cannot be an expected historical occurrence is by no means universal. Anyways, a Western historical method can neither prove nor can it disprove these so called supernatural happenings. Sure it can assume they did not happen because they are not considered normal (i.e. probable), but that is an assumption. Ultimately all religions call for a commitment to its confession that goes beyond the affirmation that something happened. It is always a leap of faith towards God and the event is only a necessary stepping stone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11335631079939764763 Bob MacDonald

    James – a lovely refinement of various questions. Can Christians – or anyoneever be justified – make themselves right in their own eyeson historical grounds – with absolute knowledge of past time and present inferencein claiming – Oh that noisy wordthat divine action is the reason – can God reason with us (pace Isaiah)the body was not in the tomb? – probably it wasn’tThe engagement of faith and the belief in a world to come, a better country, a reflection of the original goodness still attributed ‘only to God’ as Jesus notes – what will we do with it? substitute a formula, an inerrant or infallible confession, a network of lies we tell to each other and ourselves, a tissue of webbed words from people whose life is a wisp of air passing in a moment and who justify violence and robbery as a means of protection of their assets…Give me better reason to believe than this.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01508214155708822274 Yaab

    Adding on to Scott’s rebuttal: there are any number of events that have iron-clad historical evidence, yet people still choose to disbelieve them. The moon landings, the cause of 9/11, and any number of other things come to mind. Evidence, regrettably, doesn’t always yield belief. Yet many (most?) would have humanity believe that the most important event ever–the resurrection–is true, despite incredibly scant evidence. If it is true, god has built a poor argument, not worthy of an omnipotent being. The marketers at Philip Morris create a stronger case for cigarettes being cool.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    wieland willker wrote:The point is to try it. Believe!You will see how it changes your life.“How exactly does one just “believe” all of a sudden? What to “believe”:1-¿ that G-sh somehow caused a dead man to rise from a tomb physically? If so, what difference would THAT make to my spiritual life? (Look, mommy! There’s a dead guy eating some fish!)2-¿ that Gabriel came down and narrated the way to Mohammed? . . . to Joseph Smith? If not, why not? What is it about the one former that makes it more compelling than the two latter?For one who “believes” to tell one who does not believe to “try it, you’ll like it” is naive. How does one suddenly “believe” what one does not believe? It’s not like one can just pop two pills and … voilá … everything’s rosy now! When the data set before our eyes is not enough to convince us that a proposition is true, then we simply don’t believe it.With all due respect, I think that ignoring our own mind’s ratiocination in favor of some imagined future “utopic” state, leads to compartmentalization, or denial, or delusion. I know that this is the kind of language that turns “believers” off about Richard Dawkins, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I think the language is applicable. I think that the fundamentalist kind of “believer” IS delusional.Where Dawkins is wrong, though, is in that he does not recognize the need or the function of mythology in human lives, and so he focuses on disproving the infantile moralistic god of the literalists, which an easy enough thing to do. It’s one thing to see our inherited myths for what they really are— that is, as didactic stories with moral truths to impart to us . . . it is quite another to cling to the symbols that happen to be nearest to us and then insist that “belief” in their absolute historicity is the only access to the transcendent.How does one who does not “believe” this suddenly “believe” it, sir?What’s the algorithm?I’d really like to know.peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03126711689901268060 Quixie

    anonymousI don’t know what prof McG will say about Wm CRaig, but if it interests you, you can read my own opinion of Craig’s four-irrefutable-fact argument.I’d welcome your comment.peaceÓ

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12973236204479909543 Kay

    “Can Christians ever be justified on historical grounds in claiming that divine action is the reason the body was not in the tomb?On historical grounds? In a nutshell:”No.”But then faith isn’t really about historical proof. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    There is not absolute certainty, as it is Pascal’s wager. But, what credibility do believers have, then?If faith is really about meaning making and relationship, then it is about the character that believers exemplify. What type of person does one respect and value? Maybe those are the questions that should be addressed.Are believers respectful of others? Are believers gracious? Do believers hold high ethical standards? These are questions that are valued across the spectrum of faiths. But, sometimes the discussion gets mixed in with debates that are irrelevant to the braoder faith community….inerrancy, drinking, clothes, etc.

  • http://www.cleverbadger.net Clever Badger

    Craig’s apology doesn’t really even get off the ground. He starts with an unsupported assertion that his points are “widely agreed upon”, and from there goes on to list four “facts” that, even if true, fail to exclude more mundane explanations. Additionally, each of his facts contains multiple presuppositions that stem from taking bits and pieces of the Biblical accounts at face value. His apology thus collapses to “the Bible claims it happened, therefore it happened”. Not a very convincing argument, really.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I read Craig’s treatment of the resurrection recently (to see what it looked like in the most recent edition of his book) and was unimpressed. It is not that I deny Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea (I am convinced he was, although I think what this means is indicated by Mark and transformed significantly by later Gospel authors – that’s a key part of my book!). It is not that I deny that disciples had experiences that persuaded them Jesus was alive – I am sure they must have, but it is not at all clear in our earliest sources that this involved encountering Jesus physically. As for the empty tomb, I am not entirely certain, but as the various Gospels indicate, finding an empty tomb leads logically to the conclusion that is drawn initially by the disciples: someone moved the body. In short, I think that the very same evidence, considered in conjunction with a concern for historical methods such as focusing first and foremost on our earliest sources, does not provide a knock-down case for the resurrection. It may be compatible with it, but then we still have the question I was wrestling with in this post and others: how (if at all) can one get from “The evidence is compatible with Jesus having been raised from the dead” to “I have sufficient reason to believe Jesus rose from the dead”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    Craig’s fact number 1Fact #1: After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.Apparently , this can only be explained by a resurrection.How does Craig get that bit of logic?Assuming that both events happened, how can the burial be ‘best explained’ by the resurrection, which happened after the burial?It is rather like claiming that the best explanation of JFK being in Dallas in 1963 is that he was assassinated.But surely the assassination of Kennedy does not explain why he was in Dallas.And the resurrection cannot explain the burial.Is Craig really going around in public claiming that the best explanation of Jesus being buried is that he was resurrected?

  • Anonymous

    Steven Carr, I think you have misunderstood Craig’s method. He takes the four so-called facts to be widely agreed upon by historians. So he believes that the proposition, “After his crucifixion Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb,” is already established. When combined with the other three facts, Craig takes the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead to have the most explanatory power over competing hypotheses. Note that he does not subscribe causal powers to any particular fact. Thus, I do not think that Craig would not agree with your assessment any more than he would agree that the disciples belief that Jesus had risen would be the very cause of his resurrection. Of course, whether or not he is correct or his apologetic successful is another matter.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ultimul.roman Ultimul Roman

    Luke says that “he burst open” and doesn’t say whether he was
    dead or alive when he fell; this doesn’t happen even if the person falls from
    much higher heights  than the ones found
    around Jerusalem which means the Judas hanged himself and his body decayed
    before falling from the tree/cliff and bursting open.


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