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Alleged Discrepancies

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Who was Matthew Quoting?

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.
Eric Lyons, M.Min.

After reporting in his gospel account about Judas’ suicide and the purchase of the potter’s field, Matthew quoted from the prophets as he had done many times prior to chapter 27. He wrote: “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me’ ” (27:9-10). For centuries, these two verses have been contemplated by Christians and criticized by skeptics. The alleged problem with this passage, as one modern-day critic noted, is that “this is not a quote from Jeremiah, but a misquote of Zechariah” (Wells, 2001). Skeptics purport that Matthew misused Zechariah 11:12-13, and then mistakenly attributed the quotation to Jeremiah. Sadly, even some Christians have advocated this idea (see Cukrowski, et al., 2002, p. 40). What can be said of the matter?

As with all alleged contradictions, critics and skeptics should have investigated further (i.e., study with diligence and handle the Scriptures correctly—2 Timothy 2:15) before making such boisterous claims that Matthew mishandled the prophets’ words. Three considerations help clarify the situation. First, notice carefully that Matthew did not say that Jeremiah wrote this particular prophecy; rather, he indicated that this prophecy was spoken by Jeremiah. Similar to how Paul’s quotation of Jesus (recorded in Acts 20:35—“It is more blessed to give than to receive”) was from something Jesus verbally stated that never was recorded by one of the gospel writers, it may be that Jeremiah once spoke the prophecy in question, but never had Baruch, his amanuensis, put it in written form. Truly, one should not automatically expect to find a written account of a prophecy when the New Testament writer mentions it as having been spoken. Also, it should not be surprising to us if the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire Jeremiah to speak these words, and then a few years later to inspire Zechariah to put a similar sentiment in written form.

Second, in Jesus’ day, rabbinical practice entailed identifying quotations by the name of the first book in a group of books that had been clustered by literary genre. Writing in the journal Bibliotheca Sacra over a half a century ago, Charles Feinberg commented on this point, saying, “The Talmudic tradition [e.g., Baba Bathra 14b—DM/EL] shows that the prophetic writings in order of their place in the sacred books was Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, etc. This order is found in many Hebrew MSS…. Matthew, then quoted the passage as from the roll of the prophets, which roll is cited by the first book” (1945, p. 72). Furthermore, in all of the quotations from Zechariah in the New Testament, no mention is ever made of his name in conjunction with the prophecies (cf. Matthew 21:4; 26:31; John 12:14; 19:37). Thus, it is logical to conclude that Matthew merely referred to this whole division of the Old Testament by naming its first book (Jeremiah), just as Jesus referred to the “writings” section of the Old Testament by the name of its first book, Psalms (Luke 24:44). Jeremiah could have served as the designation for quotations from any of the included books. (Another example is found in Mark 1:2-3 where Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 are blended and attributed to Isaiah.)

Third, and perhaps most important, Old Testament context is critical in sorting out the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. New Testament writers frequently were guided by the Holy Spirit to weave the thought of several Old Testament contexts into a single application. Matthew referred to a series of details in the following order: the thirty pieces of silver (vs. 3); Judas threw the silver down in the temple (vs. 5); the chief priests took the silver and bought the potter’s field (vs. 6-7); and the field is named (vs. 8).

Matthew then quoted from the Old Testament (vss. 9-10). Notice the comparison between Matthew’s wording and the Old Testament references:

Matthew

Zechariah

“And they took the thirty pieces of silver”

“So they weighed out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.”

“the value of him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced”

“And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—that princely price they set on me.”

“And gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me”

“So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord for the potter.”

 

Jeremiah

“Arise and go down to the potter’s house…there he was, making something at the wheel” (18:2-3).

“Go and get a potter’s earthen flask…and go out to the Valley of the Son of Hinnom” (19:1-2).

“Even so I will break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel” (19:11).

“Please buy my field that is in Anathoth…. So I bought the field…and weighed out to him the money—seventeen shekels of silver” (32:8-9).

Matthew’s use of Zechariah is clearly paraphrastic, drawing from its wording while adjusting locus. In Matthew, the chief priests took the money returned by Judas; in Zechariah, Zechariah requested wages from the people. In Matthew, Judas threw the money on the ground before the chief priests; in Zechariah, Zechariah was told to throw the money “to the potter,” which was achieved by throwing it into the house of the Lord for the potter. Matthew’s greatest emphasis is on the acquisition of a potter’s field. Zechariah says nothing about a field.

It is not until one peruses the pages of Jeremiah that one sees the striking resemblance, first to Zechariah, and then to Matthew’s narrative. Zechariah’s allusion to the potter harks back to the imagery and symbolism of Jeremiah. But Matthew’s allusion to the potter’s field harks back to Jeremiah—not Zechariah. So Matthew was demonstrating the overriding superintendence of the Holy Spirit, Who was combining and summarizing elements of prophetic symbolism both from Zechariah and from Jeremiah.

A superficial assessment of the surface tension between Matthew and Jeremiah fails to grasp the complexity and sophistication of the ultimate Mind behind Matthew’s handling of the sacred text. The one who assumes error on the part of Bible writers inevitably fails to probe the depths of inspired writ to discover the ingenuity and power that reside there.

REFERENCES

Cukrowski, Kenneth L., Mark W. Hamilton, and James W. Thompson (2002), God’s Holy Fire (Abilene, TX: ACU Press).

Feinberg, Charles (1945), “Exegetical Studies in Zechariah,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 102:55-73, January.

Wells, Steve (2001), Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, [On-line], URL: http://www.Skepticsannotatedbible.com.





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