Matthew’s account of Judas’ suicide invites comparison with other Old and New Testament figures Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
Although the story of Jesus’ betrayer was well known in the Church, the details of the betrayer’s death have received less attention. We have only Matthew [27.3-10] and Luke [Acts 1.18-19]. While there are elements common to their two stories – the purchase of a field, and the fulfilment of biblical prophecy – their significant differences indicate that each author followed certain oral traditions apparently unknown to the other. These two authors also place the narrative of Judas’ death in very different contexts. Luke’s interest is ecclesiological: he tells the story in connection with the choice of Matthias to replace him. Matthew’s concern is christological: he places Judas’ death within the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. And only Matthew describes the death of Judas as a suicide.
Radically different responses to sin
Matthew’s version of the story is strategically situated in the long narrative of Jesus’ Passion. Just as Matthew uses Peter’s threefold denial [26.57-75] to frame Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, so he inserts the suicide of Judas within the framework of Jesus’ trial before Pilate [27.1-14]. This double literary arrangement achieves several purposes.
First, it moves the story along by a variety of narrative scenes: it begins with the arrest of Jesus, then goes to Peter, to Jesus, to Peter again, to Jesus, to Judas, and finally returns to Jesus. Both Peter and Judas are thus folded into the Passion account.
Second, by joining a specific disciple to each of Jesus’ trials, Matthew indicates a concern for discipleship within the Passion narrative. That is to say, what transpires in the salvation wrought by God in Jesus’ Passion and Death finds a resonating correspondence in the struggle of failure and repentance, treachery and despair. Thus, by placing the suicide of Judas a bare five
verses after the repentance of Peter, Matthew encourages his readers to contrast these two souls as radically different types of response to sin and redemption. In fact, Christians over the centuries have followed Matthew’s encouragement in this respect.
Calling sinners back from despair
Third, this arrangement permits Matthew to compare Judas and Pilate. Each of these pitiful men recognizes the innocence of Jesus, but both of them finally refuse the path of responsibility and repentance. Both men, likewise, ‘play God,’ assuming an unwarranted authority over a human life.
Thus, in pronouncing Jesus ‘innocent’, Judas prepares for the self-assessment of Pilate, who somehow recognizes that he, too, is on trial. T am innocent of the blood of this person. When Pilate goes on to tell the Jews, ‘You see to it,’ he simply pluralizes what the chief priests told Judas: ‘You see to it.’ There is irresponsibility all around.
Fourth, by placing the suicide of Judas immediately before Pilate’s question, Are you the King of the Jews?’, Matthew is able to evoke a striking parallel and prefiguration from the Old Testament. 2 Samuel 16-18 tells the story of Absalom’s rebellion against David, and in the course of that narrative David is betrayed by one of his closest associates, Ahitophel, who joins a conspiracy to overthrow Israel’s true king. The betrayals of Ahitophel and Judas – against Israel’s rightful king – are strikingly similar. As Christ the King is the true heir of David, then, Judas is the new Ahitophel.
Judas Iscariot, finally, despairing of God’s mercy, returns to the temple, where the clinking of his rolling silver coins continues to resound, these two thousand years, to summon sinners back from the peril of despair.