Since the word for blood (Matt 27:8; Acts 1:19) is practically the only piece of shared vocabulary, the two accounts are clearly not based on any common written source. Instead they draw upon word of mouth testimony from participants in the original events.
The basic agreements between them are strong. Although Matthew uses the word handed over (or betrayed) to summarize the events of which he was also well aware (v.3, see 26:14-16, 20-25, 47-50), Luke reports Peter’s description of the act of betrayal, namely, Judas served as a guide for those who arrested Jesus. The sense of betrayal comes through in Peter’s observation that Judas was one of our number and shared in our ministry (Acts 1:16-17).
Both accounts are clear that Judas was paid for his services, Matthew citing the exact amount, thirty pieces of silver (Matt 27:3-4, 6-7; see 26:14-16), and Peter more generally the payment he received for his wickedness (Acts 1:18a).
There is also agreement that a piece of land (Matthew: field ; Acts: region or estate ) was purchased with Judas money, although Matthew clearly states it was the chief priests who made the purchase and that it was formerly the potter’s field , but Luke reports that Judas bought a field (Matt 27:7; Acts 1:18a). Both accounts know where the property was and that it at the time of writing it had acquired the name the Field of Blood , although each account has its own version of how this name came about.
Both accounts know that Judas died in tragic circumstances, with Matthew claiming it was suicide (Matt 27:5b) and Luke simply that his corpse had been found in the purchased property, lying prone (probably better than fell headlong ) and that his body was burst open with his intestines spilled out (Acts 1:18).
Matthew himself cites Scripture to illuminate this event as a fulfillment of prophecy (Matt 27:9-10), as does Peter (Acts 1:16, 20-21), although different Scriptures are quoted to draw attention to different aspects of the event and its consequences.
Each account has its own unique contribution to make.
Matthew tells the dramatic and emotion-filled account of Judas returning to the Chief Priests who had paid him the money, having seen that Jesus had been condemned and having been filled with remorse. He is cited as saying, I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood. The Chief Priests reply: what is that to us? In his agitated state, Judas threw down the money and left, only to hang himself (Matt 27:3-5).
It is also unique to Matthew’s account that the Chief Priests picked up the coins. Troubled it was blood money , they couldn’t place the money in their treasury. They used it to purchase the potter’s field , with the intention of using it as a burial place for strangers (Matt 27:6-7). Matthew declares that their actions fulfill prophecy (Matt 27:9-10; see Zech 11:12-13 and Jer 32:6-9).
Luke uniquely reports that the discovery of Judas burst-open corpse became generally known, for everyone in Jerusalem heard about this (Acts 1:19)
The setting is unique too, for it is part of Peter fulfilling the Lord’s instructions for him to rebuild the group of disciples (see Luke 22:31-32). Peter notes that Judas had shared in their common ministry, was found dead, and so, according to the Psalms (Pss 69:25; 109:8), he had to be replaced (Acts 1:17, 20-22).
Notice also the several different time-frames found within these passages. There is the original occasion when Judas confronted the Chief Priests only to rush out and hang himself (Matt 27:3-5). Presumably shortly after, there is the time that his corpse was found as a bloody mess in the field (Acts 1:18b). Next, the rumour of this grizzly discovery spread (probably fairly rapidly) through Jerusalem (Acts 1:19a), and (again, probably reasonably soon) this news was sufficient to account for the Jerusalemites knowing the property as the Field of Blood (Acts 1:19b). As things settled down for the temple authorities, they used the blood money to purchase the Potter’s field where the body had been found, and, knowing that nobody would use it for ordinary use any more, now planned to turn it into a burial place for strangers (Matt 27:7), thus providing another reason for it’s name, even if this seems a little obscure to readers from a later day. Peter reports the name the inhabitants of Jerusalem had already given it by his day, that is, some six weeks after Judas body had been found; and, even later, Matthew speaks of the name to this day (Matt 27:8).
It is also important to detect the viewpoint of each account, and then to ask where would the original report have come from, that is, who were the eyewitnesses who told other people about it?
Matthew’s account is an insiders account, from the point of view of the Chief Priests. They saw Judas come into their midst, say what he said, dash the coins to the floor, and turn on his heel. They were the only ones who knew his agitated state, and when the body was discovered, they were the only group who could therefore come to the conclusion that he had suicided. Only an insider could know they had to find another use for the blood money, and that they purchased the potter’s field. Presumably they somehow purchased the field in Judas name, because it was not theirs, but still his money.
None of the events reported here would have brought credit to this group if generally known. This is an insiders account that has been leaked.
If we ask where this insiders account came from, even though not disclosed by Matthew, there are several candidates. We know that in the early days of the Apostolic preaching, a large number of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7), and the Gospels inform us that two close associates were already secret disciples , Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-53; John 19:38-41) and Nicodemus (John 3:1-10; 7:50; 19:39).
On the other hand, the account in Acts is a public report. Peter and the disciples would know about Judas acting as a guide for the arrest party, because they had been there. The report of Judas body being found in its bloody mess, however, was learned from the public report, since it had become known throughout Jerusalem.
So, can we provide an account of what actually happened, which is faithful to the original eyewitness testimony lying behind both accounts?
In what was regarded as a wicked act of betrayal to his former companions, Judas acted as a guide to those who arrested Jesus. When he saw that Jesus had been condemned, Judas was filled with remorse and tried to return the money he had been paid, but the Chief Priests refused to take it and turned the blame back onto him, causing his suicide. When the body was discovered, the general populace of the city weren’t precise in their forensic diagnosis, but they reported what had been seen by the discoverers: a corpse lying prone, burst open, with the intestines spilled out. In general parlance, this gruesome discovery gave the piece of ground the name, Akeldama, Field of Blood. Behind the scenes, the Chief Priests could call Judas death suicide, because they alone knew the emotional state that he was in and the sense of shame that he felt at having taken money for an act that led to Jesus condemnation. The Chief Priests could not use the money for their own sanctuary, so they purchased the potter’s field, where (drawing on the Acts account, we know) Judas body had been found, telling each other the fine-sounding reason that this could then be used as a burial place for non-Jews. Since it was Judas money that was used for the purchase, when the change of ownership became more generally known it was put together in the public imagination that Judas had himself bought the field in which he was then found dead.
To add a theological context, Matthew took the leaked insider’s report, as a fulfillment of prophecy about the leaders of Israel betraying the Messiah; but Luke simply reported Peter’s own reading of the Psalms as prophecy encouraging Judas replacement.
Thus, when carefully analysed, the two accounts not only provide a rich history of the events, but they also show how they are to be interpreted in line with God’s plan of salvation. This is history. This is God in human history. This is God’s word.
Peter Bolt lectures in New Testament and is Head of Moore College’s New Testament Department