This is the topic that originally prompted me to expound on some general ideas about how Biblical literalism tends to go, and some of the problems with it. I’m not going to bring any pesky “evidence” or inconvenient “facts” into things here. I just have an observation about the way people often attempt to reconcile the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.
And Acts 1:18 reads: “Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out.”
Ew. They encourage kids to read this stuff, you know. Both of these passages are about the death of Judas, the guy who took the “thirty pieces of silver” idiom way too literally when he betrayed Jesus. He then went on to marry Mary Magdalene, father the bloodline of Leonardo da Vinci, establish at least eight secret societies which would rule the world two thousand years later, and hide the Holy Grail in Castle Anthrax. (I think it was something like that, anyway. I may have dropped some acid when I watched the Da Vinci Code movie. Good times.)
There would seem to be some problems for the literalists here, inasmuch as reality is ever a problem for these people. The first one says he hanged himself, and the second… I dunno, maybe he tripped and fell on something pointy. Obvious contradiction, no?
Well, not necessarily. The standard justification, for protecting people’s minds against the horrifying notion that the Bible might be wrong about something, is to contrive a death scene which, in however roundabout a way, satisfies both of the descriptions given. Judas hanged himself, he died, the decomposition process caused his body to become bloated and corpulent, the rope around his neck frayed and snapped, and he fell to the ground and his guts burst open. Don’t think it couldn’t happen, people. (Seriously, I don’t know much about what would happen to a human body post-mortem in a situation like that, but this sounds plausible enough to me.)
It could even be argued that Matthew never actually claims that Judas died as a result of the hanging – maybe his first attempt failed, so he went and threw himself over a cliff, which could have counted for “falling headlong”, I guess. Either way, it all adds up. Praise the Lord, thank-yoo Jay-sus.
Except… not really. That’s some non-trivial verbal gymnastics we’ve had to go through to make this idea work. The scenarios that we’ve come up with to explain it, while plausible, are both significantly different from what’s actually described in either passage alone. If you only read Matthew, it makes it seem very straightforward: he hanged, he died, no gushing of bowels necessary. But looking only at Acts would lead you to a whole
nother picture of what happened to him, leaving out any kind of noose system entirely, and giving Judas some kind of scary Jon Hurt moment, or perhaps just sudden, fatal, explosive diarrhoea.
It seems that we’re being given unhelpfully contradictory clues scattered throughout the complete text, and are left with the challenge of fitting the pieces together ourselves into some sort of coherent structure, requiring an excessively generous dose of deductive logic to do so. It might not be irreconcilable, but it doesn’t help your case when you need to work from the assumption that everything you’re reading is true, and then make stuff up to keep this assumption feasible.
Damn near anything could probably be worked into a coherent scenario with enough mangling of the text, if you’re willing to do some heavy-duty text-mangling to keep your belief system safe. If there was an additional mention of the event somewhere in Luke, say, which described Judas as being burned alive in a giant Wicker Man, then I have no doubt that someone, somewhere, would be claiming that this was a reference to some specific funereal tradition of the time, and that the word “alive” refers to the idea of the soul remaining in the body until this ritual releases it. Or possibly even something more plausible than the first crazy shit that sprung to my mind. If John claimed that Judas was eaten by velociraptors, then I would totally become a Christian and make this the basis of my entire belief system, and I would concoct as elaborate an explanatory scenario as was necessary to convince myself of its truth.
But if you’re going to think like this, then there’s nothing that could possibly prove you wrong, or undermine your position in any way, however much it supports an alternative explanation to the one you favour. And thinking as inflexibly as this is never good, because on the off-chance that you are wrong to begin with, you’re screwed. Even if you decide that you’re not going to see anything in the Bible as an internal contradiction, however contradictory, then passages like the above certainly shouldn’t lead you to the idea that it supports itself. The convoluted explanation for how Judas died isn’t backed up anywhere else, by any description that directly suggests that that’s what happened, let alone by anything actually credible. Even if you choose not to see it as an inconsistency, something requiring such lateral-thinking problem-solving as this ought to raise a red flag or two, and make you wonder whether there’s enough of a reason outside of this passage to take the contrived work-around seriously.