Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Contradiction Between Luke and Matthew on Judas' Field? Part I

One difficulty in the New Testament is the apparent contradiction between Ss. Matthew and Luke in the recounting of Judas' death and the purchasing of a field.

There are two main problems: (1) How did Judas die? (2) Who bought the Field of Blood?*

In Acts, Luke describes Judas' death while recounting a speech of St. Peter's. Luke seems to say that Judas died by falling and bursting open (presumably from a height?). He also seems to claim that Judas purchased the Field of Blood himself.
Acts 1:15-20 (NRSV)
15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16 “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17 for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
Compare with Matthew, who says that Judas died by hanging himself. He also seems to say that it was the chief priests who purchased the field:
Matthew 27:1-10 (NRSV)
1 When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. 2 They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor. 
3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 7 After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. 8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
In short, we have the following apparent contradictions regarding Judas' death:
Luke: Judas died by falling (from a height?) and bursting open. 
Matthew: Judas died by hanging himself.
Also, regarding the field:
Luke: Judas bought the field. 
Matthew: The chief priests bought the field.
As with most alleged contradictions in the NT, one can easily come up with some way of reconciling these passages. After all, they do not form a logically inconsistent set.

For example, you might claim that Judas hanged himself over a cliff, the rope broke, and he fell down and burst open. You might also hypothesize that Judas later arranged the purchase of the field at the behest of the priests. Thus, if one had particularly strong reasons for believing in biblical inerrancy beforehand, one might opt for a harmonization like this, even if it is not plausible in itself. (Incidentally, one good reason for believing in biblical inerrancy is that it is the constant teaching of the Catholic Church, including of Vatican II, as I explain here.) It would be better, though, if we could find a plausible way of explaining these apparently divergent accounts.

Specifically, I will try to harmonize Luke's and Matthew's accounts about the purchasing of the Field of Blood. Personally, I do not find the issue about the manner of death very troublesome: The language in Acts describing Judas' death is vague in several respects, so for all I know what Luke is saying is consistent with Matthew (although I don't embrace any particular story about how the two should be made consistent; I don't think there's enough evidence to say for certain).

The approach I want to take here isn't entirely new: It will involve questioning the translators' placement of parentheses, and their attributing what is really said by St. Peter to Luke the narrator, as the NRSV does in verses 18-19:
(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Others have questioned this editorial decision, and said that perhaps what is in parentheses is all just a quote from St. Peter. And since biblical quotes can be mistaken without the biblical text itself being mistaken, Luke and Matthew are consistent. There are several issues with this response:
  1. It is clear that this answer is often motivated by a desire merely to preserve inerrancy. Usually there is not much positive evidence given for the view. Furthermore, although this position might technically preserve inerrancy, it does so by allowing the Scriptures to just barely skirt by, which seems unfitting.
  2. St. Peter seems to be moved by the Holy Spirit in making this speech, and so it seems unlikely he would have been mistaken on this. Not to mention the intrinsic implausibility of Peter's making a mistake about a matter so local to him.
  3. What does this mean for other quotations in Scripture of holy people other than Christ? Can we simply dismiss the contents in the quotes because they are mere quotations?
  4. There is a further problem, which is that it is not even clear given the literary conventions Luke was writing under that he, as the narrator, was not also affirming Peter's speech by his quoting it. In that case, the literal meaning of the text includes not just the reporting of Peter's words, but the affirmation of them. (What I say below in the second point I make is also somewhat relevant to this. See also my earlier post about "literary forms".)
With that said, my attempt at harmonization will involve questioning the editors' decisions on the placement of parentheses. A few things to note at the outset: 
  • First, it is worth remembering that the ancient manuscripts of Acts do not distinguish the inserted parenthetical part from the rest of St. Peter's speech. In other words, the ancient manuscripts of Acts do not contain any parentheses. (The same is true of all the NT books.)

    Incidentally, I thought it would be fun to see this for myself, so I decided to look at the passage in Codex Sinaiticus, which is one of the most important (perhaps the most important) manuscripts of the Scriptures. It originally contained the entire Greek Bible, and more than half of its Old Testament has still survived (including all of the deuterocanon!). Most importantly, it is one of the very few ancient copies of the entire New Testament that we have (c. 330-360) and its text of the New Testament is regarded by many scholars as among the most useful in accurately determining what the sacred authors originally wrote. The reader can check out images of the passage from Acts here. (The relevant verses starts at the bottom of third column.) Pretty cool.
  • Second, and related to the first point (as well as to 3 above), it should be noted that ancient authors, and particularly the Gospel writers, need not have had - indeed almost certainly would not have had - the same literary conventions regarding quotations and parentheses, or even punctuation, that we do 2000 years later.

    (Just think about what has happened over the last 2000 years, just in the standardization of printing and copying, the formalization and teaching of rules for writing, the evolution of linguistic conventions, etc., not to mention the enormous changes in the fields of literature and education.)

    Incidentally, the reader may be interested to know that the Stuttgart edition of the Vulgate (the Biblia Sacra Vulgata) does not contain any punctuation at all. My understanding is that this accurately conveys the complete lack of punctuation in the original Vulgate manuscripts.
  • Third, given that there simply are no parentheses or quotation marks in the manuscript, and that conventions for quotation might have been different for Luke than they are for us, I actually do not think it is impossible that the entire passage is all part of Peter's speech (although this is not what I myself will argue below).

    In particular, I am not convinced that ancient conventions would not have allowed quotation and narration to "blend together" in a way, and so the fact that Luke writes that the field was called Hakeldama "in their language" or that he refers to "all the residents of Jerusalem" doesn't necessarily mean he is not ascribing the statement to Peter's speech. Nevertheless, I don't insist on this below.

    (By the way, this point should also be kept in mind when it comes to famous passages like John 3:16 ff., where there is some dispute about whether the verse should be ascribed to the narrator or to Jesus. The answer might be both! [Or, indeed, that it is somewhat semantically indeterminate!])

    Again, the point here is that the practice of quotation probably worked somewhat differently or more loosely than it does in our own practice. In fact, given that there simply are no quotations or parentheses at all, it is probably better to speak more loosely of "indirect discourse," as linguistic theorists often do nowadays - although even this may be too idealized as a representation of ancient practice. Indeed, our "rules" of quotation and our theories of indirect discourse are to a smaller extent idealized representations of even our own ordinary practices, as is evident from the fact that I myself have already used quotations "incorrectly" (or at least inexactly) several times so far in this blog post.
  • Fourth, and in conclusion: Given that there were no parentheses in the original, where we should place parentheses (if any) is an interpretive question. So there are many possibilities for where the parentheses might be placed, and we should consider them.
So, where should we place the parentheses? In the next post, I will give you my answer!

* A smaller issue is in the reasons given for its being called the Field of Blood, though I don't find this especially bothersome. It could be that Matthew is using "for this reason" or "therefore" ("diò") to refer to the entire foregoing story, including Judas' death, in which case he is saying the same thing as Luke. It also could just be there are several reasons the place is called Field of Blood, or that different groups of people call it that for different reasons, or that over time the reasons for its being called changed. Or there could be something else going on here. Either way, it doesn't seem especially problematic to me.

Incidentally, if Matthew is referring to the entire foregoing story, Matthew might also be using diò as a literary device to express fulfillment (perhaps at the same time as the other meanings). "It is for this reason [to cast ignominy on the place of Judas' death] that [God in his providence has brought it about] that the field has been called the Field of Blood to this day."

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