Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

219. The Repentance of Judas. (Matt. 27:3-10)*

Matthew's account of the trial of Jesus has a detail of special significance: "Then Judas. . . when he sow that he was condemned, repented himself. .." This word "saw" must surely mean that Judas was present at the trial, and saw with his own eyes all that took place. It is true that a secondary meaning is possible: that he gathered or understood that Jesus was condemned. But even this would require that Judas had spent those hours in close proximity to the Council. The word "then" supports this conclusion.

Either way, this seems to be psychologically all wrong. The natural inclination of such a traitor would be to remove himself as far as possible from the scene of his evil work as soon as the money had been paid over. The explanation which best harmonizes with the other details of the trial is that the thirty pieces of silver were only a token payment. The rest of the bribe, the main part of it, was to be for Judas's help in the role of chief witness for the prosecution. The reason why the Jewish leaders found their case against Jesus so inadequate, and liable to collapse altogether, is best explained by the traitor's last-minute refusal to go through with this part of the deal.

If this hypothesis is correct—and it explains so much that is otherwise rather odd about the trial-then the interesting problem arises: What brought about this change in Judas? And to this the best answer available appears to be that the witness Jesus gave about himself at the trial (Mt. 26: 61,64) brought a sudden flood of understanding into the mind of Judas, so that all at once he realised that Jesus as the sanctuary of God wouldbe "destroyed" and "raised again", that he would sit as God's right hand, and that he would come again in judgment. Such a realisation suddenly illuminating his mind must have brought into the soul of this wretched man a misery past description.

The reaction described in the gospel would be inevitable: "He repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver." It is idle to say, as has been so often said, that this was unrepentant remorse (if there be such a thing). Pharaoh, Saul and Ahab were genuinely sorry for their misdeeds (Ex.9 :27; 1 Sam.15 :24; 1 Kgs.21 :27); and the word used of Judas, though not the normal New Testament word for repentance, is certainly used with the same meaning (e.g. in Mt. 21: 29,32; 2 Cor. 7:8; Heb 7:21).


Then where lay the vital difference between Judas and Peter, for the sin of the latter (Mt. 26; 69-74) was surely not appreciably worse than that of his fellow-disciple? The answer lies in their different estimate of Jesus. Peter knew his lord well enough to realise that, if only he were in his presence again, the sin would be forgiven. But Judas, believing more definitely than Peter did at that time that Jesus would rise again, could not bear the thought of meeting his Master again. "Mine iniquity is greater than can be forgiven" (Gen. 4: 13 RVm). Grievously underestimating the grace of Christ, as also did the unworthy servant in the parable (Mt. 25; 24), he went away and destroyed himself.

But first he made his confession: "I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood." It was a confession carrying with it the clear implication that the claims made by Jesus during his ministry and just now at his trial were true. He was the Messiah. And though slain he would rise again and ascend to heaven. And in due time he would come again "on the clouds of heaven." Poor wretched creature, that this belated confession of faith did not also include faith enough to believe that even this great sin of his might be forgiven by so gracious a Lord!


His desperation and misery found little comfort from the priests to whom he now returned: "What is that to us? See thou to that." Even these hard selfish worldly men would scarcely have been so unconsoling to one who had been their close associate in evil, unless they had felt strong resentment against him. The hypothesis advanced earlier, that Judas was to have been chief witness for the prosecution but at the last minute let them down, harmonizes with this situation perfectly.

The rough words: "See thou to that," may be just a callous shrugging off of the traitor's desperation. But, literally translated, the tense is a future: "Thou shalt see to that," with the possible meaning: "If any trouble arises with the Roman authorities over this, we shall make surethatthe blame is pinned on you/'Such would certainly be a natural reaction if indeed Judas had let them down. But to this frantic man with his new realisation of the truth about Christ, their words: "You shall answer for it," would sound worse than a death sentence, for to whom would he have to answer but to a "Son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven."

Judas's utterly distraught frame of mind comes out clearly in the remarkable incident which ensued: "He cast the pieces of silver down in the temple." Literally the passage reads: "in the sanctuary". This detail seems to imply that the chief priests, intercepted in the temple area on their way to Pilate at the castle of Antoia, retreated to the porch of the sanctuary itself in an attempt to escape from the unwelcome attentions of this frantic man whom they despised. But he followed them even there, and threw the blood money after them. The picture of those unclean coins rolling across the floor of the holy place is a fascinating one, as also is that of august dignified rulers scrambling here and there to gather up the evidence of their own complicity.

Meantime Judas left them abruptly and rushed away (Mt. "he cleared out"-LXX usage: "he fled"), and hanged himself. The grim scene had been enacted a thousand years before in prototype (2 Sam. 17:23). And some years later Pilate also committed suicide (so saysEusebius).

Later on, the ghastly details about Judas were rehearsed by Peter (Acts 1 :18). But it is possible to read Peter's story differently: "And becoming downcast (with remorse), he burst into the midst (of the chief priests), and poured forth (s.w. Jn. 2 :15) all his feelings." Read in this way the two narratives match each other.

The field "purchased with the reward of iniquity" was the potter's field which has been identified as a bed of clay at the south-east corner of the valley of Hinnom (note Jer. 19:1,2).Here at the end of thecity remote from Golgotha this poor wretch came to his untimely end, and presumably his grisly remains would ultimately be slung out into Gehenna.


Later on, when the excitement of that Passover had died down somewhat, the chief priests took counsel what should be done with the thirty pieces of silver. This money had probably been diverted from the temple treasury, for if it had come out of their own purses they would have had few scruples about pocketing it again. But now it would not be lawful to put this tarnished silver into the treasury. The conscience which they evinced was doubtless genuine, for human nature is capable of strange quirks. These men thought nothing of a gross distortion of justice in order to rid themselves of a troublesome adversary, yet over details such as this (and also their refusal to enter Pilate's judgement hall on Passover Day, and also having a corpse on a cross on the ensuing sabbath John 18: 28 and 19: 31) they could hardly be too punctilious. Yet there was no sign of conscience when they called the money 'the price of blood'. Amongst themselves they spoke without any dissimulation, but instead with a crude brutal frankness.

So, it was some time later, after the suicide of Judas, when the potter's field again came into the real estate market at a give-away price, that they decided to buy it with the carefully hoarded thirty pieces of silver—a useful piece of land "to bury strangers in".

This burying place, bought (in effect) by Jesus, thus provided a place where strangers-Gentiles!—might sleep and rise again in God's Holy City. How different from the use to which Judas had put it! "Hath not the Potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?" The Gentiles who died in Jerusalem would mostly be those believing in the God of Israel. In the course of the next forty years these must have included a big proportion of Gentile Christians. And they sleep in ground bought by the death of Jesus and which by rights belongs to him. It was only princes of the house of Judah who were buried inside the walls of Jerusalem (so 2 Chr. 24:16 seems to imply).

Nor were these things done in a corner, for by common consent that spot changed its name. It was no more "the potter's field", but instead, Aceldama, a title which means both "field of blood" (Judas's suicide) and "the field of silence". By those who later knew the place only as a cemetery the latter would be the accepted meaning. But disciples of Jesus would always translate that name as "the field of blood", because purchased with blood money.

Zechariah or Jeremiah?

There is still one problem regarding the death of Judas to be considered. Matthew 27: 9 reads: "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom they priced away from the children of Israel; and gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me."

But these words are not to be found in Jeremiah. Instead they occur in Zechariah 11:12, 13. Thus is created one of the best-known problems of the New Testament text. Widely varying explanations have been advanced:

  1. That Matthew originally wrote "Zechariah" and that the ascription of this quotation to Jeremiah is a scribal error. This is a prime example of "if the facts don't fit the theory, so much the worse for the facts;" for out of the mass of manuscripts only two or three (and they of little repute) read "Zechariah".
  2. Simple lapse of memory on Matthew's part. This, of course, involves the deplorable assumption either that the Holy Spirit had no part in the composition of the gospels, or — almost, if not quite as bad — that the Holy Spirit's guidance of Matthew did not cover mere accuracy as to facts. It also involves another assumption, vetoed by all the rest of this gospel, that Matthew was, extraordinarily careless in the assembling of his material.
  3. Another explanation puts emphasis on the word "spoken." The suggestion is that Matthew knew that, although the passage about the thirty pieces of silver was included in a written prophecy of Zechariah, it was originally spoken by Jeremiah. The double difficulty here is the complete lack of supporting evidence and the fact that Zechariah 11: 12,13 appears to "belong" to the prophecy where it is found. Also, the same phrase comes in verse 35 with reference to a prophecy which was certainly written.
  4. A different approach suggests that Matthew 27: 9,10 is really a combination of Zechariah 11 with allusion to Jeremiah's purchase of a field for money (Jer.32 :7-10), and that Jeremiah's name is appended to the quotation because the key word "field" comes in Jeremiah 32 and not in Zechariah 11. But it has to be noted that Jeremiah's field was in Anathoth, and cost him seventeen shekels of silver, not thirty.
  5. Discussing this problem, Sir Isaac Newton decided that Matthew knew what he was about and that therefore Zechariah 11 was written by Jeremiah. This conclusion is most likely to be the correct one. A fair amount of evidence exists for believing that Zechariah 9-14 is by a different author from ch.1-8, For instance, more than thirty similarities of language and idea can be traced between i§ Jeremiah's prophecies and the second half of what is known today as "Zechariah", Also, in Zechariah 9-14 there are passages which are extremely difficult to associate with the time of the return from Babylon, but which become much more intelligible when read against the background of the evil days in which Jeremiah lived. So perhaps there is something to be said for the correctness of Matthew's record after all.
Notes: Mt. 27:3-10

Thirty pieces of silver. Matthew is the only writer to mention this precise sum of money. How did he know? Does Acts 6:7 explain?
In the temple; Gk. naos. Not "into", as RV gives it.
are best regarded as a parenthesis describing what happened some time later.
The field of blood. Note the emphasis on "blood" in v. 4,6,8,24,25.

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