Q: Matthew 27:5 says that Judas died by hanging himself. But Acts 1:18 sats that falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his entrails gushed out. Well, what was the mode of death? Hanging, or falling headlong? The accounts obviously are contradictory!
A: The usual resolution to this objection is to point out that it is possible for a person to hang himself and to fall headlong. For instance, if Judas hung himself from somewhere high on the city walls, or from an upper branch of a tall tree, and overestimated how much rope he would need, he could jump with the noose around his neck, intending to be killed by hanging, but in the resultant scene, though he would still have a rope around his neck, the medical cause of death would be from the bodily trauma of the impact with the ground.
Another hypothesis is that Judas hanged himself someplace high, so that after he was hanged, there was yet a considerable distance between the corpse and the ground. Then the branch broke, or the rope broke, and the corpse plummeted to the ground, resulting in the scene described in Acts.
The solution I favor, though, is slightly different: the phrase that is translated in the NKJV and most other English translations as falling headlong (or the equivalent of that) in Acts 1:18 isnt a phrase that one would typically use to describe a man falling down. Its prhnhs genomenos. Genomenos is just the ordinary Greek word for becoming; the interesting term is prhnhs (that is, pre-nes, with two long es and the accent on the second syllable). Employed as medical jargon, it is capable of meaning swelled up, as a footnote in the English Standard Version renders it. Souters Pocket Lexicon -- available to download as a free PDF file at www.textkit.com/greek_grammar.php -- lists this meaning.
(Incidentally, I recommend Samuel Greens A Brief Introduction to New Testament Greek, which is available to download at the same website, to anyone who would like to learn to read the New Testament in Greek.)
Thus, Lukes parenthetical note in Acts 1:18 describes not Judas hanging, but the after-effects of it. Judas corpse swelled up with gases, and as a result his guts spilled out upon the ground below. The term prhnhs is so much more fitting to describe a swollen corpse than a swollen living person that it seems likely that Lukes initial readers (already familiar, like Theophilus, with some of the background about Jesus and the early church) understood that Luke was describing Judas corpse.
A semi-related sub-point: the early church writer Eusebius of Caesarea (who wrote c. 300-330) mentioned a statement that had been made by Papias, a much earlier writer. It is not unusual to find references to Papias writing in the 130s, but Robert Gundry has made a very good case (in his thick commentary on the Gospel of Mark, as I recall) for assigning to Papias a date some 20-30 years earlier. So, although Papias writings are fragmentary, they are extremely early as patristic evidence goes.
Papias -- writing in Asia Minor -- probably correctly understood the term prhnhs to refer to swollenness, but may have misunderstood it to refer to a living person, and on the basis of that combination of right-definition-plus-wrong-application, he composed a short description of Judasenormous swollenness and manner of death. Because Papias works are so fragmentary, it is difficult to discern whether Papias actually intended for his description of Judas to be taken literally, or as hyperbole, or as some kind of abstract parable-profile. Its not even clear, when Papias refers to Judas body, if he intended to describe Judas at a point when he was living or dead (though since this is preceded by a statement about how Judas walked about in this world, at first glance he seems to have a living Judas in mind; on the other hand, the reference to Judas impious walk might easily be figurative). However one interprets Papias, though, his comments seem at least a little bit relevant because he describes Judas as swollen-up.
A translation of Eusebius quotations of Papias comments about Judas can be found online www.earlychristianwriting...apias.html . The relevant statement is Judas walked about in this world a sad example of impiety; for his body having swollen to such an extent that he could not pass where a chariot could pass easily, he was crushed by the chariot, so that his bowels gushed out.
Yours in Christ,