Black Saturday: The Suicide of Judas

The day after Jesus died on the cross is known as “Holy Saturday.” This day is also known as “Black Saturday.” The day after the crucifixion is called “Black Saturday” because black is a symbol of death and mourning. Although the New Testament is silent about what the disciples did after Jesus was hurriedly buried, they certainly were thinking about the many events that culminated with the death of Jesus on the cross.

On this Black Saturday, I want to think about one death, the death of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who was also one of the original twelve apostles whom Jesus called to carry out his mission in the world. All the four gospels say that Judas betrayed Jesus by kissing him and delivering him to the Roman authorities.

The life and death of Judas is a fascinating story. His call to be a disciple of Jesus implies that he had previously declared himself to be a believer in what Jesus was preaching and teaching. Judas was drawn to Jesus, as the other disciples were, by the preaching of John the Baptist. These early disciples were filled with Messianic hopes. After they heard Jesus preaching and teaching, they left their former lives to follow the one who was known as the Prophet of Nazareth.

Jesus chose all twelve men to be his disciples and to follow him (John 6:70). After a period of training, “Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” (Matthew 10:1). Judas was one of the disciples who went throughout the land announcing the good news that the kingdom of heaven was coming soon (Matthew 10:7). Peter says that Judas was numbered among the twelve and that he took an active part in the ministry of the apostles (Acts 1:17).

While Jesus was training the twelve disciples, they traveled throughout the land. Jesus and his disciples received money and other offerings designed to meet their needs and to assist the poor. Since someone in the group had to be responsible for the money, Judas was chosen to become the steward of the gifts donated by the people. The apostle John, writing many years after the events, was very negative about Judas’ stewardship. John wrote that Judas “was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it” (John 12:6).

After being with Jesus for about three years, Judas went up to Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples to celebrate the Passover. Jesus brought his disciples together on a pre-arranged place, an upper room in a house in Jerusalem, for an evening meal on the Thursday before Passover.

Two days before the Passover (Matthew 26:2), while Jesus and his disciples were in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6), Jesus rebuked the disciples for saying that the money the woman spent buying oil to anoint Jesus’ feet would be better spent buying food for the poor (Matthew 26:6-13). It was at this time that Judas left, went to the chief priests and offered to hand Jesus to him (Matthew 26:15).

Before Jesus ate that final meal with his disciples, he washed the disciples’ feet (including Judas’ feet) and dried them with a towel that he had tied around his waist (John 13:5). “While they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it. He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take this, and eat it. This is my body.’ Then he took a cup and spoke a prayer of thanksgiving. He gave it to them and said, ‘Drink from it, all of you’” (Matthew 26:26-27). After Judas took the piece of bread, he left and went to meet with the chief priest.

After the supper Jesus went to Gethsemane to pray. After a while he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping (Matthew 26:40). Then he departed again to pray and when he returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping again. Jesus woke them up and said, “”Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand” (Matthew 26:42-46).

While he was still speaking with his disciples, Judas arrived with a large crowd armed with swords and clubs. These people were sent by the religious authorities to arrest Jesus. Judas had given them a sign, “The one I kiss is the man you want. Arrest him.” Judas kissed Jesus and then some of the men with Judas came forward, took hold of Jesus, and arrested him (Matthew 26:47-50).

What motivated Judas to betray Jesus is unknown. There have been many speculations about his motives. According to Matthew, Judas betrayed Jesus for love of money. Matthew says that after the supper, “Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I betray him to you?’ They paid him thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 26:14-15). Another reason is that Judas accepted the popular view that Jesus should be king. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the multitude began to praise God with a loud voice saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19:38).

One popular explanation for Judas’ betrayal is the view that Judas belonged to a group of Jewish patriots who were committed to overthrow Roman domination. Thus, this view holds that by betraying Jesus, Judas was forcing Jesus to use his popularity to fight for Jewish independence. Although these views have been espoused by many people, the motive for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus remains unknown.

After Jesus was arrested, the religious authorities decided to execute Jesus. “They tied him up, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate, the governor” (Matthew 27:1-2). When Judas realized that his intended motives for Jesus would not happen and that Jesus was going to be crucified by the Romans, Judas changed his mind and brought back the money he had received from the chief priests and the elders (Matthew 27:3). The English translations differ on what motivated Judas to return the money. The NRSV says that Judas “repented.” The NIV says that “he was seized with remorse.” The GWN says that Judas “regretted what had happened when he saw that Jesus was condemned (Matthew 27:3 GWN). The ESV says that Judas “changed his mind.”

The religious authorities refused to take the money back. Judas told the leaders of the people, “I have sinned by betraying an innocent man.” In response, the religious leaders told Judas, “What do we care? That’s your problem.” In desperation, Judas threw the money into the temple, went away, and hanged himself. The leaders of the people took the money and because it was “blood money,” they used the money to buy a potter’s field for burial. That field was called Akeldama, an Aramaic word which means “Field of Blood” (Acts 1:19).

Judas committed suicide by hanging himself (Matthew 27:5). There is, however, another account of the way Judas died. Acts 1:18 says, “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open, and all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18 NIV). Matthew says that Judas died by suicide while Acts says that Judas died because of an accident; he fell after buying a field and his intestines came out. Although both accounts differ, both texts say that Judas died a horrible death.

The details about Judas’ death differ in both accounts. There has been much effort in explaining the difference between Matthew and Acts, but none has been convincing. There has also been an effort to harmonize Matthew and Acts. This harmonization says that the two texts are explanations of the same event, that is, that both texts explain what happened when Judas died. These efforts fail to reconcile the different narratives about Judas’ death.

These two texts present two aspects of Judas’ death. Matthew says that Judas repented and tried to redeem himself by returning the money. Luke does not say that Judas repented; he bought the field “with the reward of his wickedness.”

While there are several cases of suicide in the Old Testament, Judas’ suicide is the only case mentioned in the New Testament. Christians are divided on Judas’ suicide. Some translations say that Judas repented, others say that Judas was full of remorse, and still others say that Judas changed his mind about what he had done.

These differences are a reflection about what Christians feel about suicide. Some believe that suicide is a violation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13), that is, that suicide is self-murder. Some Christians believe that suicide is a sin which leads to eternal condemnation.

There is nothing in the Old Testament nor in the New Testament that condemns suicide nor presents a negative view about a person who takes one’s own life. Suicide is an act of desperation and is done by someone who is profoundly troubled by events that at times are beyond control.

In a future post I will discuss how Christians should deal with suicide; the post will be titled “Toward a Christian View of Suicide.” In the meantime, you can read my studies on suicide in the Old Testament: “Suicide in the Bible.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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