Messianic prophecy 3: Judas’s silver

This post is part of my biblical prophecy series.

Context and prophecy

Zechariah, one of the minor prophets, is difficult to interpret. For instance, he uses the first person to refer to himself on some occasions and to God on others. So, to help me understand the prophecy of Judas’s silver, I turned to what seems like a serious and thorough resource, the NET Bible. This New English Translation is accompanied by copious notes made, so the website says, by a group of biblical scholars fluent in the languages of origin.

In Zechariah 11 we have, according to the notes (and [1]), more of a metaphorical historical narrative of the recent exile of the Israelites in Babylon than any significant predictions of the future. Any attempt to identify something as a prophecy in this chapter should, therefore, be treated with some skepticism from the outset.

Here then is the alleged prophecy (quoting from the NET Bible):

12 Then I said to them, “If it seems good to you, pay me my wages, but if not, forget it.” So they weighed out my payment – thirty pieces of silver.

13 The Lord then said to me, “Throw to the potter that exorbitant sum at which they valued me!” So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the temple of the Lord. (Zechariah 11:12-13)

Some apologists claim that this is a prediction of the betrayal of Jesus by Judas. In Matthew 26, we are told that Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus. After the betrayal, we have the following:

Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!” So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself.

The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.” After consulting together they bought the Potter’s Field with it, as a burial place for foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the “Field of Blood” to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price had been set by the people of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (Matthew 27:3-10)

Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah here may be a mistake – there is no prophecy concerning thirty pieces of silver in Jeremiah. There is, however, a story in Jeremiah about breaking pottery in a field (see Jeremiah 19). More on this later.

Straightforward Interpretation

Unfortunately the difficulty deciphering Zechariah makes a straightforward interpretation of the prophecy problematic. I will simply share here what I have pieced together from the NET Bible notes accompanying Chapter 11.

In verses 12 and 13, the first person “I” is referring to God. God is asking his people what his service to them has been worth. The answer of thirty pieces of silver is thought, by some scholars, to represent a trivial quantity, indicating the people’s dim view of their God.

With scorn, Zechariah tosses the despised money to a potter at the temple. This is obviously a little odd, and is interpreted by some scholars to refer to the treasury instead, since there was probably no potter close to the temple.

There is nothing in this prophecy that specifically points to Jesus or Judas, or even to any future event. As already noted, most of the chapter, including verses 12 and 13, is supposedly a summary of recent Israelite history, not a prediction of the future.

Apologist Interpretation

Some apologists believe, as already indicated, that Zechariah was predicting Judas’s paid betrayal of Jesus. If one can accept that the passage in Zechariah is actually a prophecy, then we can compare its narrative side by side with that of Matthew:

1. Zechariah: God is paid a symbolic thirty pieces of silver as an indication of how little his people value him.

Matthew: Judas is paid thirty pieces of silver to betray Jesus.

2. Zechariah: God scornfully throws the money away as a display of disdain for his people’s lack of gratitude.

Matthew: Judas takes the thirty pieces of silver to the temple because he is racked with guilt at what he has done.

3. Zechariah: The money is thrown to the “potter”, which may otherwise be translated as “treasury”.

Matthew: The Pharisees don’t like the idea of having tainted money in their treasury so, for unspecified reasons, they buy the Potter’s Field.

In points 1 and 2, the comparison between Zechariah and Matthew is strained at best. One could presumably see the disaffected Israelites in the Zechariah story as analogous to the conniving Judas in the Matthew story, but in this case the  transaction, which is the central link between the two stories, runs in opposite directions: from the Israelites to God in the former, and from Jesus’ enemies to Judas in the latter.

In the third point, the parallels are equally strained. In Zechariah, God scornfully gives his symbolic payment away to a potter because it is so small (if the translation can be believed) while in Matthew, Judas returns his payment because he is overcome with guilt, and the Pharisees then use the money to buy a Potter’s Field. The only real parallel here is the pottery theme.

Perhaps this is a good point to consider the prophecy from Jeremiah 19, which might be what the author of Matthew was referring to. In this prophecy, Jeremiah is commanded by God to go out to the site of an impending battle and break a piece of pottery as a symbol of the imminent defeat of the sinful Israelites by the Babylonians. This is probably one of the many theatrical performances that the prophets of that time were known to perform. Importantly, no mention is made of thirty pieces of silver in the Jeremiah passage, so it appears that the author of Matthew well and truly had his scriptures mixed up.

There is little in common between the symbolic smashing of pottery in Jeremiah and the purchase of the Potter’s field in Matthew. Once again, the only parallel is the theme of pottery, which is used in different ways in each story.

Even under the apologetic interpretation, then, there is no fulfillment of prophecy, only the common appearance of  two minor details: thirty pieces of silver and the pottery theme. The result is worse if one takes the scholarly view that the prophecy was not a prophecy at all, but an historical dramatization.

Explanation

Ex Eventu. Even at face value, the author of Matthew is grasping at straws by trying to link his story of Judas to the unrelated narratives of Zechariah (or Jeremiah). And that, after all, is probably what is happening here: the author of Matthew is either scanning the scriptures for any story that has something in common with his Judas narrative, or he is adapting his Judas narrative to make it look like it was predicted by the scriptures.

Perhaps a bit of both.

[1] Wikipedia entry on the Book of Zechariah.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: