As Peter is betraying Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard, Judas sees the results of his own betrayal. When the priests hand Jesus over to be executed, Judas regrets his actions, is driven to despair, and will eventually kill himself. The answer to the question ”How did Judas die?” is not simple because there are two versions of Judas’s death, one in Matthew and another in Acts. Matthew is difficult to reconcile with Acts, although there are many attempts to show the two stories are complementary.
The chief priest and the elders decide to put Jesus to death, but rather than order him to be stoned, they hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor, to be executed as a rebel (Matthew 27:1-2). The chief priests and elders do not recommend Jesus be stoned for blasphemy but handed over to the Romans to be executed as a political criminal. This deflects blame to the Romans and gives them plausible deniability if Jesus’s followers want to start any kind of riot.
Since verse 3 says Judas sees Jesus led away to Pilate and is deeply shaken, regretting his actions. Does this mean Judas was with Jesus during the hearing before the Sanhedrin? It is likely he followed Jesus back to Caiaphas’s house and may have watched everything, including Jesus’s agreement that he is the Messiah and his prediction he will stand at the right hand of the Father in judgment. Maybe that was the exact moment Judas realized what he had done, that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he had handed him over to the Gentiles for execution!
Judas was “seized with remorse (NIV) or “changed his mind” (ESV) or “repented” (NRSV; 27:3-4a). Matthew uses a verb (μεταμέλομαι) which refers to being sorry about something. It is rare in the New Testament and can have the sense of repentance like the much more common word for repentance (μετάνοια). For example, this word is used in LXX 1 Samuel 15:35, the Lord regretted he had made Saul king. The middle form (as in Matthew 27:3) refers to “experiencing second thoughts” (BrillDAG). In classic Hellenistic Greek, there is an overlap between remorse and repentance, but in the biblical literature “a change not so much in consciousness as in one’s feelings in relation to a thing or a deed” (EDNT 2:414).
So did Judas regret his actions but not genuinely repent? His actions seem to lean toward repentance and certainly despair, which drove him to suicide.
Judas tries to return the money to the Temple and in despair, hangs himself (Matthew 27:4b-8). When he returns the money, he confesses, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” (27:3-4a). In the Old Testament, shedding innocent blood is a source of pollution. In Genesis 4, Abel’s innocent blood demanded justice. Psalm 106:38, for example, the people shed innocent blood sacrificing to the gods of the Canaanites.
The priests say deny any responsibility and do offer him comfort or absolution (27:4b). Matthew’s focus is not on Judas’s remorse but on how his remorse contrasts with the Jewish authorities (Wilson, Matthew 13-28, 387). They do not express any regret they have caused the death of an innocent man, Jesus. Nor are they bothered by the fact they are going to cause the suicide of Judas.
Judas, in despair, hangs himself (Matthew 27:5b). By hanging himself, Judas is enacting a curse on himself. Deuteronomy 27:25 says, “Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.” Deuteronomy 21:23, “A hanged man is cursed by God.” In the Dead Sea Scrolls, a traitor was executed by hanging (11Q19, LXIV, 7-9).
In Acts 1:18, Judas “and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” The usual strategy is to harmonize the two stories. Judas hung himself from a tree hanging off a cliff, the rope breaking, and his actual death coming when he “fell headlong.”
So how did Judas die? Matthew and Luke seem to remember a slightly different story. Even though the details can be reconciled, it is important to understand that Matthew is interested in showing that Judas’s betrayal fulfills prophecy (27:9-10). Luke also shows Judas fulfilled prophecy, but the focus is on selecting a replacement disciple. This explains the emphasis in his version of the story.