Session 8 THE DEATH OF JUDAS
WHY DOES MATTHEW SAY “JEREMIAH?”
If the evidence leads us to conclude that “throw it to the potter” was the original reading in Zechariah 11, we still have two problems in Matthew 27:7-10. Can you spot the two problems?
(So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 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.”)
Zechariah (OR Jeremiah for that matter) doesn’t say anything about a “potter’s field.” We’ll get back to that one later. For now, let’s tackle the most obvious problem!
It seems that Matthew either doesn’t know his Old Testament very well (which is clearly NOT true), or he got a little sleepy when he was writing this! Matthew quotes from the prophet Zechariah, chapter 11 (this quote can come from no other place) but Matthew says that the quote is from Jeremiah. Why has this “mistake” occurred?
The easiest explanation is “copyist error!” The suggestion is logical, but wrong! Every major manuscript supports the reading “Jeremiah.” Bruce Metzger calls this reading “firmly established.”1
The suggestion that this is a “composite citation” serves merely as a means of reducing the problem to insignificance and then ignoring it!2 How can it be a “composite” when Jeremiah has nothing which remotely identifies with the quotation from Zechariah? No verses in Jeremiah exist which speak of thirty pieces of silver or a potter’s field.
Matthew’s Gospel originally contained the words “spoken by the prophet Jeremiah” and this was apparently a deliberate “error.” Matthew is drawing our attention to Zechariah, of course, but he also wants the reader to think about Jeremiah!
TO WHAT ARE WE BEING LED IN JEREMIAH?
In order to proceed, let us look at both Zechariah and Jeremiah and compare these two prophets to the details in Matthew 27. When we do this, something unusual will catch our eye!
MATTHEW’S DETAIL IN ZECHARIAH? IN JEREMIAH?
Thirty pieces of silver YES NO
Throwing the silver into the temple YES NO
A potter YES YES
A field of blood NO YES
Purchase of a field NO YES
While Zechariah says nothing about a “field of blood” and says nothing about “purchasing a field” with the money, Jeremiah DOES tell us about a “field of blood” AND it tells us that the prophet was ordered to purchase a field. The only major detail from Matthew which both prophets share? OUR OLD FRIEND THE POTTER!
Matthew’s account of the death of Judas includes some details from Zechariah and some details from Jeremiah, but the detail which yokes these two prophets together is “potter”; by quoting Zechariah and saying “Jeremiah,” Matthew says to us “Look in both places for the clue!” Matthew’s Jewish audience, because they knew their Old Testament so well, would likely get the point almost immediately. We, unfortunately, have to do a little more searching.
There is one slight issue: the details from Zechariah are all found in the one quote from chapter 11, but the details from Jeremiah require us to assemble them from several locations within the book of Jeremiah. While it might be suggested that this is the reason Matthew chose to quote Zechariah but use “Jeremiah” to cast a broader net, others have concluded that this is a “scavenger hunt” and Matthew simply made a mistake.3
Such a disparaging conclusion is contrary to Matthew’s carefully crafted Gospel. The documentation of the Old Testament is evident in each chapter of The Gospel of Matthew. Are we to conclude that, after 26 chapters of faithfulness to the Old Testament text, Matthew suddenly has an attack of carelessness? We are faced with only one conclusion which complements Matthew’s precision: he said “Jeremiah” with conviction and with a purpose! In the way Matthew tells us the story of Judas, he also gives us precise clues about where to look in Jeremiah.
The next step is to discover his purpose! And for that, we will need to take a close look at the book of Jeremiah and follow the clues which Matthew has told us to find: a “field of blood” and the “purchase of a field” all connected to a “potter!”
1 Metzger, Bruce M., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, London, New York: United Bible Societies, 1971. Only a few more recent and insignificant texts try to make the correction—and two of them (21 and it1) even say “Isaiah!” Obviously, copyists noticed the problem!
2 Oddly, the recent commentary by Gibbs seems indifferent to the problem and feels “the most reasonable suggestion finds here an example of a composite citation under the name of only one of the prophetic sources.” With this dismissive attitude, he has “solved the problem” merely by considering the problem to be of no consequence. (page 1498) Gibbs, Jeffrey A., Matthew 21:1—28:20 (aka Gibbs, Matthew Commentary, Volume 3), Concordia Commentary series, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2018. Additionally, Gibbs suggests that the text of Zechariah 11 is so fraught with difficulty that Davies and Allison’s suggestion may be credible: we can’t be sure Matthew understood it either, thus rendering the problem unsolvable. (page 1503, including footnote). Davies, W.D. and Dale C. Allison, Jr. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, 3 Volumes, International Critical Commentary. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988-1997.
3 Senior lists a surprising number of scholars who reach the conclusion that Matthew made a mistake, including Plummer and Klostermann. Senior, Donald, “The Fate of the Betrayer: A Redactional Study of Matthew XXVII, 3-10,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 48 (nos. 3 and 4), page 396. In his article, Senior documents that Matthew’s awareness of both the Syriac and Septuagint versions is without doubt. Such meticulous background checking by the Evangelist makes it highly unlikely that he is using careless methodology to quote the Old Testament!