Thursday, June 08, 2006

Judas and the penalty clause


Jeff has written a good post on Nostra Aetate and anti-semitism which I strongly recommend. In it he quotes a speech by Cardinal O'Malley of Boston who, when speaking of Judas, says
The scriptures describe the suicide of Judas, who sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. It says that he hanged himself, and his body burst open.
Actually, there are two versions. Matthew 27 tells the story this way:
Then Judas, his betrayer, seeing that Jesus had been condemned, deeply regretted what he had done. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, "I have sinned in betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? Look to it yourself." Flinging the money into the temple, he departed and went off and hanged himself. The chief priests gathered up the money, but said, "It is not lawful to deposit this in the temple treasury, for it is the price of blood." After consultation, they used it to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why that field even today is called the Field of Blood.
There is another version, in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:
During those days Peter stood up in the midst of the brothers (there was a group of about one hundred and twenty persons in the one place). He said, "My brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled which the holy Spirit spoke beforehand through the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who was the guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was numbered among us and was allotted a share in this ministry. He bought a parcel of land with the wages of his iniquity, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out. This became known to everyone who lived in Jerusalem, so that the parcel of land was called in their language 'Akeldama,' that is, Field of Blood. For it is written in the Book of Psalms: 'Let his encampment become desolate, and may no one dwell in it.' And: 'May another take his office.' Therefore, it is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection."
These probably represent two different versions of the story that came down to the Gospel writers and the sense of the it -- Judas' death, the field of blood -- remains the same. The discrepancy only need worry those who feel the Bible has to be thoroughly and literally consistent always. When googling "Judas hanging" for the sake of finding an illustration, I came across a couple of different sites that tried to explain away the inconsistency. One claimed that Judas fell from the rope he was hanging from, shaken by the earthquake that accompanied Jesus' death. This really does require reading a great deal into the text. Another problem is that in the Gospel version, the priests buy the field and in the Acts version, Judas buys the field. A different site, using rather tortured reasoning, explains that the priests bought the field in Judas' name. I personally am perfectly happy thinking that two different traditions give the same essential meaning, though the facts conflict.

The only reason I bring it up is that Judas plays a role in just about every charter I am working on. Charters usually have what is called by scholars a sanctio or penalty clause -- a clause that describes the punishment for anyone who attempts to mess with the legal act the charter is describing. Sometimes these penalty clauses name a sum to be paid to the king. More often, the punishment is spiritual and is in effect a kind of curse. In the charters I have been reading, the rascal is invited to share the sufferings of Dathan and Abiram (see Numbers, 16) and Judas, who is described as not only hanging himself, but also exploding and burning in hell. Here is a rough translation of a penalty clause in a charter of Alfonso VI of Leon-Castile:
If anyone, however, (which I hardly believe), moves to violate my charter, whether it be someone near to us or a stranger, either of the royal power or of the whole people, let whoever does that be excommunicated and separated from the free Christian faithful; and let him with Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed up alive by the earth because they went against the commandments of God and his servant Moses, and with Judas, the betrayer of the Lord, who hung himself from a noose and thus poured out his life with his guts, be submerged in the deepest part of hell to suffer eternal pains.
On top of that, he had to pay a few coins to the king. You don't mess with Alfonso VI.


Jeff said...


It's interesting how the story of Judas and his body bursting open is echoed in the mysterious death of Arius in Constantinople, just before he was going to be re-admitted into communion with the Church.

Liam said...

Yes, that's right -- though their is more of a consciously scatalogical aspect in the case of Arius.

crystal said...

Wow, that should discourage breechers ... I especially like the exploding part :-)

We're reading Acts in my scripture blog, and we read the part about Judas some time ago. One of the members (jeff) wrote an interestin post about him ... Silver, Blood and Hypocracy ... it's halfway down this page - link

Jeff said...


That's a terrific summary by Jeff(on a great blog!)

Regarding Arius: Arius was on the cusp of a very important victory for him. Athanasius and his boys weren't above playing hardball now and then. I wonder if the "mysterious" death of Arius might have had something to do with a deftly handled broadsword.

Liam said...

Or considering what happened to him, poison. They did play hardball back then.