Session 4 THE DEATH OF JUDAS
ZECHARIAH 11: THREE (YES, THREE) VERSIONS!
Something VERY strange about the Zechariah 11 text will help us understand why Matthew seems to “misquote” it. What we have is a Hebrew version (Masoretic Text—“MT”), a Greek version (Septuagint—“LXX”), and then Matthew’s version which doesn’t seem to agree with either one!
Well, they can’t be THAT different, can they? (If only….)
HEBREW VERSION: Zechariah 11:13 (ESV) Then the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter.
GREEK VERSION: Zechariah 11:13 And the Lord said to me, “Drop them into the furnace, and I will see if it is genuine, in the same way that I was tested for them,” and I took the thirty pieces of silver and cast them into the furnace in the house of the Lord.
MATTHEW VERSION: Matthew 27:9-10 claims that THIS is the Old Testament prophecy: Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”
Other than the “thirty pieces of silver,” it seems like these readings have little in common! What is going on here? The Greek version (LXX) doesn’t mention a potter, but instead it speaks about a “furnace in the house of the Lord.” That just seems to add to the problem. (We will talk about the “furnace problem” in session #5.)
If we follow the Hebrew version, we have to ask “Why would a POTTER be in the Temple?” If we follow the Greek version, we have to ask “Why would a FURNACE be in the Temple?” If we look at Matthew, he adds the word TREASURY (“it isn’t right to put the money into the treasury”) and he also refers to a POTTER’S field.
IT HELPS TO KNOW HEBREW—SO…LET’S LOOK!
No—this isn’t going to be a Hebrew lesson. But I will give you a visual idea of what might have happened in Zechariah’s text. Here are the two Hebrew words for “the treasury” and “the potter”: (I’ll increase the size so you can see more clearly)
האוצר (ha-a’o-tser) “the treasury” (seen in the Syriac version)
היוֹצֵר (ha-yo-tser) “the potter” (seen in the Hebrew version)
Notice how close they are to each other? In the Hebrew alphabet, there is only ONE letter difference (א vs. י), and the words sound almost the same. Over the centuries, what if a copyist heard the wrong word while making a copy, and wrote down the wrong letter? This is a very possible and very reasonable explanation! This would mean that the original text of Zechariah read “the treasury” and NOT “the potter.”
To support this argument, the Syriac version of the Old Testament, indeed, HAS the word “treasury.” Why would we care what the Syriac version says? Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, which is the language with which Jesus and his disciples grew up, and the Syriac Old Testament is very old—probably the 2nd Century A.D. (versus our Hebrew Old Testament, most of which is 12th and 13th century A.D.!) In other words, the people who copied the Hebrew Old Testament had almost 1000 extra years to make a copyist error! The copyists of the Syriac version had LESS opportunity to make an error, so perhaps we should rely on what the Syriac version says.
WRONG! And I’ll give three reasons why the Hebrew version is the correct one.
WHY THE HEBREW TEXT IS CORRECT
Let me make the argument why “the potter” is the original Zechariah text, and I will provide three reasons to reject “the treasury”:
- It would certainly be easy to make a mistake while copying. Since the words are very close to each other, human error might be reasonable as an explanation. But the problem with this argument is simple: the error would have to be made TWICE in the same verse, since “potter” occurs two times in the Zechariah passage.
- The more difficult reading is “potter.” It is human nature to WANT to correct something if we think it is wrong. If the Zechariah text said “throw the money into the treasury,” the copyist would see no problem, because everyone knew there was a treasury on the Temple grounds where people could donate (look at Mark 12:41-44 and Luke 21:1-4—the story of the “Widow’s Mite” where Jesus says that “she gave everything she had!”) But if Zechariah said “throw the money to the potter,” a copyist might think “That’s not right—why would a potter be in the Temple?” and be tempted to change it. The general rule is: it is far more likely that a copyist would change a difficult reading (potter) to a smoother one (treasury) than to take a simple reading (treasury) and make it more difficult (potter). Therefore, the more difficult reading is probably correct: “potter.”
- Matthew does not refer to “the treasury” but he does mention “potter.” When the Greek of Matthew is studied carefully, it is clear that Judas tossed his ill-gotten silver “into the temple” (εἰς τὸν ναὸν). Matthew doesn’t say he threw the money “into the treasury” (εἰς τὸν κορβᾶνον) which would be altogether different.1
RECONCILING THE SEPTUAGINT VERSION
Perhaps we can say with reasonable certainty that the original Hebrew text of Zechariah read “throw it to the potter!” But what of the Greek text of Zechariah? Is there any method of explaining how “throw it to the potter” became ”cast them into the furnace?”
This seems like an insurmountable problem to overcome. The wording “into the furnace” (εἰς τὸ χωνευτήριον) isn’t even close to “into the treasury” (εἰς τὸν κορβᾶνον). But the answer to the problem in the Greek text might actually be found in the Hebrew text. It might be a simple translation problem.
(I know this is complex. Reread each section until it makes sense!)
1Attempts have been made to justify the difference. In trying to claim that “temple” can mean “treasury,” Louis Dyer, Journal of Hellenistic Studies, Vol. 25, 1905, page 312 says “A certain, although a limited currency for it, is vouched for not only by Strabo’s term ναισκοι, already enlarged upon, but also by Pliny’s use of the Latin equivalent of ναος (aedes) for θησαυρός in a passage to be discussed anon.” Compare the argument of R.H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967, p. 123n). Dyer may have proven a tenuous connection between “temple” and “treasury” among the Romans and Greeks, but has not demonstrated such a connection within the Old Testament Hebrew.