Monday, May 20, 2013

How Did Judas Die?

Although I'm not a detailed inerrantist, as I think the idea that details being errant or inerrant when they are in the service of other ideas is nonsense, I do find many of the attempts to find "contradictions" that supposedly refute that position to be rather superficial and sloppy.

Sometimes it's a misunderstood translation. Sometimes it's cultural. But it always seems to revolve around misunderstanding the language of the text in some way. In the case of Judas' death, the language problem is that of contextual anachronism.

There are two texts that describe Judas' death: Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18.

Matthew 27:5 reads as follows:

"So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself."

Acts 1:18, however, reads as follows:

"Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out."

What is often supposed in reading these texts is that they contradict one another when, actually, they don't. 

Now, the emphases are different, and so are some of the other details. I've argued before that I think that Matthew and Luke emphasize what they do because it paints Judas as cursed by God and a wretch to their respective audiences (Matthew to the Jews and Luke to the Gentiles). However, when one concludes immediately that these are contradictory ways of dying, what is happening is an example of contextual anachronism.

When we hear the phrase, "he went out and hung himself," we immediately think of someone tying a rope around his neck and hanging himself by it. That's what "hanging" means to us. In fact, in many books written by detailed inerrantists, they attempt to argue that Judas hung himself by a rope, the rope snapped, and he fell on the rocks and his stomach burst open on them when he did so. 

Now, truth is stranger than fiction. Someone hearing the strange unfolding of events of an infinite number of happenings might accuse those attempting to make sense of reports as trying to smooth out hopeless contradictions. But I would not be so foolish as to discount the variation in multiple reports simply because the event, if all of those accounts were taken seriously, would seem to be more extraordinary than some simplistic, unremarkable event.

However, when a first or second century individual hears the words, "he hung himself," it becomes a completely different story. 

As David Instone-Brewer argued in a recent article, hanging, when not identified with another form or specifics of death, would have been understood as crucifixion.

        The term “hang” could refer to execution by hanging from the neck, execution by
        crucifixion, or the hanging of a corpse after another form of execution. Without any
        reference to another form of execution, the assumption in the first or second century
        would be that “hang” refers to crucifixion.[i]

I would argue, however, that this is what is heard when someone is being hung. When someone in the first or second century would hear the phrase, "he hung himself," I would argue that the immediate imagery is that of hanging oneself by a wood pole, since "hanging" itself is primarily accomplished in this time period by hanging on a tree/pole/cross and not by rope from a tree/pole/cross. In other words, the support of the body that is hung or hanging is the wood pole itself.

What I would then argue is that, since one cannot crucify himself, to hang oneself in the first or second century, when no other specifics are mentioned, would automatically be understood as impaling oneself on a large spiked pole.

 If that is the case, then Judas would have thrown himself upon the pole, likely as an act that signified his acknowledgement that he is cursed by God (since the law argues that all who are hung on a tree are cursed), and by doing so is tossing himself, headfirst and parallel to the ground, which is what Acts indicates, to where his stomach bursts open upon it and his guts spill out on the rocks below. 

Now, I'm not saying that every detail has to accord. I'm only pointing out that the person who uses this event as an example of contradiction has misunderstood the likelihood that they are referring to the same kind of death.

In a world where people are impaled after the sack of a city, Caesars light their gardens by lighting on fire those who are hung by crucifixion, and one walks on a road leading into the city that is littered with people hung on crosses, hanging, without explicit reference to the material or something that must be hung by a rope and nothing else, just doesn't refer to something hung by a rope.


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