Zechariah: Did Matthew Make a Mistake?

Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.”  And they weighed out as my wages thirty pieces of silver.  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.

Zechariah 11:12-13

If you just read the above passage, you are probably thinking of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver (Matt. 26:14-16).  He later felt remorse and threw the pieces of silver into the temple before hanging himself, after which the chief priests used the money to buy a potter’s field as a cemetery for strangers (Matt. 27:3-8).  Matthew cites this as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, and most modern Bibles with cross-reference footnotes will correlate it with the passage from Zechariah cited above (Matt. 26:9-10).  Before we continue our expository series on Zechariah, let’s address a question many have about the Matthew passage.  Matthew 26:9-10 says that Jeremiah had spoken the prophecy and does not mention Zechariah.  Some consider this a contradiction and thus proof that the Bible is not inspired of God.  “My Bible’s cross-reference says that Zechariah wrote this, but Matthew says Jeremiah said it.  That’s a contradiction!  The Bible must be a fraud!”  Such a conclusion is mistaken for several reasons.

First, it’s worth noting that history shows that rabbis in Jesus’ day tended to quote from the Old Testament in a different way than we do today.  We tend to cite “book, chapter, and verse,” but back in Jesus’ day they did not divide the text up into chapters and verses.  Instead, they would categorize books into groups that had the same kind of literary genres (cf. Luke 24:44) and sometimes quote from that group by citing the name of the book that was first on the list of books in that category.  Both Jeremiah and Zechariah were prophets and thus were placed together in the group of books which were dedicated to the prophets.  According to Talmudic tradition, Jeremiah was the first book in this group.  Thus, it is possible that Matthew, while quoting this passage, cited the collection of the books of the prophets which would have been known to his first century Jewish readers and did so by participating in the common practice of citing the name of the first book in the series, which in this case would have been Jeremiah.

Secondly, I should point out that Matthew said that Jeremiah had “spoken” this prophecy instead of saying that he had written it.  There are numerous times when New Testament writers would quote Old Testament passages and cite that they were “written” (cf. Matt. 2:5; 11:10; Lk. 3:4; John 12:14-16; Acts 1:20ff; Rom. 2:24; 9:33; et al).  However, in this case the Spirit inspired Matthew to cite the quote as something “spoken” by Jeremiah rather than written by Zechariah.  Notice how the quote Matthew attributes to Jeremiah (“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”) is similar tobut not technically the same verbatim…as what Zechariah had written which is cited above.  Therefore, it is certainly possible that the prophet Jeremiah had actually spoken what Matthew quoted.  Since the Holy Spirit inspired all prophecy (cf. 2 Sam. 23:2; 2 Pet. 1:21), it’s certainly a possibility that He would have inspired Jeremiah to prophesy about the Messiah’s betrayal orally and then a few decades later inspire Zechariah to give a similar prophesy in written form…before finally inspiring Matthew centuries later to proclaim the prophecy fulfilled through Judas’ betrayal and subsequent remorse.

We are commanded, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).  Whenever we encounter an alleged biblical contradiction, obeying this verse requires deeper investigation and logical consideration which is honest and fair to find the truth (cf. John 7:24).

— Jon

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