One of the key differences between the story of the death of Jesus in Matthew and that of Mark is the narration of the fate of Judas in Mt. 27:3-10. This story plays a variety of roles in Matthew’s story. It’s another of Matthew’s famous fulfillment citations. It fills a narrative gap in the Marcan version, which mentions the perfidy of Judas but not his fate. And along with the story of the dream of Pilate’s wife, it also affirms the innocence of Jesus.
There is, however, more to the story than this. Here are the pertinent verses from the NRSV:
3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.
Many readers are struck by the first line, “when Judas…saw that Jesus was condemned…” This has engendered a great deal of speculation about Judas’ motives in the matter since it almost seems that Judas is surprised to find that Jesus has been judged guilty. This reading, however, is not really indicated. What is interesting is the temporal imprecision of Matthew’s “when.” There is nothing in this story to indicate that Jesus is still alive when Judas goes back to the Jewish leadership. As is so often the case with the Gospels, perhaps Matthew has placed this story in its current location in order to invite comparison.
Comparison with what? Judas’ activity is a whirlwind of verbs reflecting his emotional state. In rapid sequence, he:
1. Repents (metamelhqei,j)
2. Returns the money
3. Declares his guilt
4. Affirms the innocence of Jesus
5. Throws the money back
7. Hangs himself
The key questions are these: Does Judas repent sincerely? And how should we read his suicide? For a detailed analysis of the various points, see Davies and Allison’s Matthew in the ICC series. For my purposes here, what follows is an eclectic selection of some points pertinent for my discussion.
Folks very often suggest that Judas did not repent sincerely. Two “factors” lie behind this idea. First, the other two versions of the death of Judas in Acts and in Papias both make his demise as “act of God.” This allows no room for repentance. Those who find it necessary to harmonize must force Matthew’s account into this mold.
Second, the word Matthew uses to describe Judas’ repentance is not metanoe,w, the normal word for this activity in the NT. And since it’s used in Ex 13:17 to describe a change of mind that turns away from God, it doesn’t have uniformly positive connotations. Within the First Gospel, however, it is used in Mt 21:29, 32 in association with the work of John the Baptist.
Beyond these two points, there’s the matter of Judas’ speech and actions. He declares his own responsibility and the innocence of Jesus, then returns the money in a very public and damning fashion. It takes a real act of will to find anything but genuine regret in these actions. So…I’ll read this as sincere repentance on Judas’ part.
Judas might have repented but his part in the death of Christ was sin for which the Law prescibed a specific punishment. That punishment, according to Lev 24:17; Num 35:33; and Deut 19:11-13, was death. Denied his punishment under the Law by the Jewish leadership, does Judas now seek to make expiation through his own death? This brings us to the matter of suicide.
Suicide. Judaism and Christianity are alike in their disapproval of this behavior but the Bible has no prohibitions or condemnations directed toward suicide. The Biblical suicides are Samson, Saul, Zimri, and Ahithtophel. Of these, it is the death of Ahithtophel that is significant for my purposes.
Ahithtophel was David’s confidant and advisor. In Absalom’s revolt, however, he sided with Absalom. When Absalom did not take his advice to attack immediately and destroy David’s forces before they could regroup, Ahithtophel knew that the cause was lost. He returned to his hometown, hanged himself, and was buried with his family.
David and his famous son Jesus share a number of similarities in Matthew’s version of the story. Both men are betrayed in Jerusalem, then leave by way of crossing the Kidron. Both pray on the Mount of Olives, asking God to intervene. Both are betrayed by close associates and their final doom is plotted for the dark of the night. Perhaps Matthew is suggesting that the betrayal of David is the model for the betrayal of the Son of David.
So… Let’s consider the possibility that Judas did repent. Perhaps he did hang himself in an effort to carry out the sentence of the Law on himself. And let’s leave aside our own distaste for suicide. How does Judas compare with the rest of the characters who play various roles in the story of the death of Jesus?
The Jewish leadership are definitely the “low-hanging fruit” in this effort. As Brunner notes, their harsh “‘What does that have to do with us?’ denies justice to Jesus, mercy to Judas, and any kind of responsibility before God.” (As quoted in Davies and Allison, vol. 3, p. 564. Original citation is Brunner, 2, p. 1021.) In a couple of verses, the Roman leadership, in the person of Pilate, will condemn Jesus to death. Pilate’s attempt to disassociate himself from his decision by washing his hands is no less craven and futile than that of the Jewish leadership.
To my mind, however, the most interesting comparison is between Judas and Peter. The story of Peter’s denial is separated from the death of Judas by two verses and the artificial division between chapters 26 and 27. In a way, the stories of the two men are woven together throughout the passion narrative. So now…how shall we read them if we read them together?