Posted by: mattcolvin | July 13, 2011

On Judas and Suicide

We are assured by centuries of Christian tradition that suicide is wrong in all cases. We are also assured that Judas went to Hell. Indeed, one can find arguments that adduce Judas’ suicide as a proof that he is in Hell! I am not so sure on either point.

There has been a great deal of ink spilled on the question of suicide over the centuries. John Donne wrote a monograph on the topic, entitled Biathanatos. When Donne wrote in 1609, the word “suicide” had not yet been coined in English, so that Donne refers to the act as “self-homicide” (thereby avoiding the prejudicial pejorative connotations of words like “self-murder” and Shakespeare’s “self-slaughter”). He adduces Jonah, “who, by often wishing his own death and moving the mariners to cast him out into the sea, made many steps towards the very act.” He also points out that all the Jews were agreed that King Saul went to the death of the righteous, claiming that Samuel’s words, “You shall be with me” were “spoken not generally of the state of the dead, but of the state of the just, because both Samuel himself was so, and so was Jonathan…” Donne also examines Samson’s death, arguing that though Calvin argues that “he intended not his own death principally, but accidentally,” he nontheless intended it, and that therefore “this may be done only when the honor of God may be promoved (=advanced – MC) by that way and no other.”

Donne also cites Origin concerning Judas:

“And even of this man, whose sin, if any can exceed mercy, was such, Origin durst hope, not out of his erroneous compassion and sinful charity by which he thinks that even the Devil shall be saved, but out of Judas’ repentance. He says the Devil led him to the sin and then induced him to that sorrowfulness which swallowed him; but speaking of his repentance, he says those words “when Judas saw that he was condemned” belong to Judas himself, for Christ was not then condemned, and upon this conscience and consideration began his repentance. “For it may be,” saith Origin, “that Satan, which had entered into him, stayed with him till Christ was betrayed, and then left him, and thereupon repentance followed”; and “perchance,” says he, “he meant to prevent and go before his Master, who was to die, and so to meet Him with his naked soul, that he might gain mercy by his confession and prayers.”

Matthew’s gospel says unequivocally that “Judas repented.” It uses the verb μεταμέλομαι, corresponding to the Hebrew נחם, “to repent”, “to regret.” Despite misinterpretation by many lexicons whose authors were laboring under the tradition that Judas went unforgiven, μεταμέλομαι is as strong a verb as Greek or Hebrew has for repentance.

David Daube, in his article Judas (CWDD II, p. 791) narrates the story of Yakim (Genesis Rabba 65 on Gen. 27:27, Midrash Psalms 11:7, 1 Mac. 7:9ff, 9:54: Josephus, Antiquities 12.385f., 391 ff., 413, 20.235), which antedates the New Testament by two centuries:

“It concerns the end of a prominent Jew who treacherously helped the occupying power in the annihilation of heaven-dedicated separatists, his saintly uncle the most oustanding. No earthly authority would have exacted retribution but he did so himself and received miraculous pardon.

Yakim (Eliakim, Alcimus), from a distinguished family, was a Hellenizer, an admirer of the Syrians who rewarded him with powerful positions, including the high-priesthood. Of rare political talent — of sorts — he gained the trust of the Chasidim, extreme religious idealists on the opposite side — only to arrange an enormous slaughter among them. By contrast, his uncle Jose ben Joezer, leading Rabbi of the period, genuinely stood his ground, refused to cooperate with the administration in anti-traditional measures and was sentenced to die at the cross. While he was up there on the Sabbath, his nephew rode by on his steed, mocking him: “Look at the horse which my sovereign has me ride and at the horse which your sovereign has you ride.” To which Jose replied: “If it goes so well with those who anger him, all the better will it go with those who do his will.” And when Yakim asked, “Has any human done his will more than you?,” Jose warned him: “If so heavy is the lot of those who do his will, all the heavier it must be for those who anger him.” Yakim was overcome by penitence, went home and proceeded to a gruesome self-execution, comprising all four Mosaic forms of capital punishment. His uncle by now barely alive, in a doze saw Yakim fly heavenwards and uttered these last words: “By a short hour he (Yakim) has preceded me (Jose) into the Garden of Eden!”

The similarity in both the setting and the unfolding is impressive. Setting: the superpower — Rome, Syria — capable of rewarding its collaborators, yet firmly resisted by the believers in a higher, if for now sadly held off, order; with the ugliest relations between the two camps, resisters and collaborators, as a result. This is not to overlook the considerable differences owing to date, to social environment — classier in the earlier incident — and so forth. Unfolding: One close to the leader of the resisters — Jose’s nephew, Jesus’ disciple — joins the enemies, in fact, lends decisive support to their unholy measures against him. The divulging of secrets of the resisters naturally ranks high in such a constellation. Judas is the “hander-over,” “betrayer,” of Jesus, and the first thing we hear about Yakim in Josephus is his communicating to the Syrian king subversive activities of the Maccabean chief. No sooner is the result irreversible, however, than the defector is appalled by his error. So much so that, there being no earthly avenger, he takes his own life — and is restored to eternal grace, in unison with his victim.”

This story of Yakim, retailed as it is in various Jewish sources, is evidence that the Jews did not condemn penitent suicide, and indeed, commended it. It is true that Judaism today does condemn suicide tout court, but that prohibition dates only from after the completion of the Talmud (450-550 AD). At the time of Jesus and Judas, there does not seem to be any standing opinion on the matter. Indeed, the Church Fathers will be the first to condemn suicide, with Augustine formalizing what would become the standard arguments against it, long before the Jews.

I like the idea that we will see Judas in the New Creation, looking slightly abashed at first like Edmund in the Chronicles of Narnia, only more so, but fully restored and forgiven. Not for nothing do John Donne and John Calvin point out that Judas satisfied all the canonical Roman Catholic requirements for proper penance, “contrition of heart, confessi: he returns the blood money, repents in his heart, confesses his crime, and suffers the punishment — this last all the more remarkable because, as Daube points out, there was no one with power and desire to punish him, so he had to do it himself.

These are the considerations by which I am swayed. I’m well aware that one can syllogize and say that ‘The command “Thou shalt not murder (Heb. ratsach)’ does not specify an object; therefore any human being is a possible object; one’s own self is a human being; therefore, one must not kill oneself.” But in point of fact, the Hebrew Bible never uses the word ratsach of the act of suicide, describing the act only in terms of the means used (“He fell on his sword”, “hanged himself”, etc.). Given that it occurs at the beginning of a series of commandments that specify “your neighbor,” it seems likely that “murder of oneself” is no more in view than “theft from oneself.”

So, is it wrong? Well, almost always, yes. But there are exceptions. And since certain saints in the past have recognized and commended those exceptions, it seems to me that it would be wiser to restrict ourselves to what the Scripture does say, which does not include a blanket prohibition of suicide.


  1. These two posts are very interesting. Thank you Matt!

  2. How would this apply to seppuku?

    Thanks for posting this — it adds to an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with a couple of family members for a couple of years.

    • I don’t know much about seppuku. It seems to be bound up with Japanese honor codes, which of course will not be Biblical in their content or sanctions. Wikipedia says it was sometimes used as a way to carry out a death sentence on a samurai who was either disgraced or convicted of a capital crime; that might fit the exception I discuss in the post above. Perhaps someone else has more knowledge of suicide in Japanese religion and can help us out with this question.

      • I’m not by any means an expert, but seppuku has to do with honor in that honor in Japan depends on one’s adherence to the rules of obligation. A samurai might commit seppuku (or another form of suicide) if he found himself with two equal obligations, neither of which could be fulfilled without betraying the other, or if he felt that he had failed to fulfill his duties (obligation to his master) sufficiently. Seppuku was also used as an alternative to surrender at the end of a war (I think because they would be betraying obligation to their country or their Emperor by surrendering).

        Aside from obligation to the Emperor, I’m not sure how seppuku relates to Shintoism. I don’t know if seppuku could be considered an act of repentance, since it seems to be more about duty than regret — a samurai wouldn’t necessarily have to be sorry about whatever he’d done to think that it meant he needed to commit seppuku.

  3. I can’t see that Jesus leaves us any room to speculate about Judas when he calls him a “son of perdition” and speaks of him as He does in John 17:12. Of course, this proves nothing one way or the other about suicide.

    • Yes, Dad, those are sommme of the considerations that keep me from being sure about Judas. Nonetheless, Matthew says he repented. Unequivocal.

      I think there may be just room to interpret Jesus’ “losing” of Judas, and Judas’ status as a “son of perdition” as references to his lost state prior to his repentance.

  4. […] – Judas “repented.” Does this mean that Judas was forgiven? See my earlier post on this issue. In the present post, I’ll pass over that question, and focus instead on the […]

  5. […] Judas and Suicide […]

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