There Are Just Too Many Trees to See This Forest. An Examination of the Prophecy of Matthew 27:9.

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.”

 

     The astute reader of scripture will notice that there is an issue here.  This quotation which Matthew ascribes to Jeremiah wasn’t spoken by Jeremiah at all.  It is actually a quotation from Zechariah 11:12-13. (1)  What should we make of this?  If Matthew is wrong, should we throw out his supposition that this passage relates to the events in the life of Jesus?  Two theories have attempted to harmonize the quotation.  The first that Matthews use of Jeremiah refers to the entire collection of the prophets.  Second, that the use of Jeremiah is a scribal error and the passage should read, “that which was spoken by the prophet.”  The purpose of this article is two-fold.  First, to examine the explanations to determine their validity.  Secondly, to determine if the use of Jeremiah even matters when applying the theological applications of the text.

    It is possible that Matthew is referring to the entire collection of the prophets.  J.B. Lightfoot writes, “I do confidently assert that Matthew wrote Jeremiah, as we read it, and that it was very readily understood and received by his countrymen.  We will transcribe the following monument of antiquity out of the Talmudists, and then let the reader judge:  ‘A tradition of the Rabbins.  This is the order of the prophets.  The Book of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the twelve.’  And a little after: ‘But since Isaiah was before both Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he ought to have been set before them and all of Jeremiah is about destruction, and since Ezekiel begins with destruction and ends with comfort; and all Isaiah is about comfort, they joined destruction with destruction ,and comfort with comfort.’ That is, they placed these books together which treat of destruction and those together which treat comfort.  You have this tradition quoted by David Kimchi in his preface to Jeremiah.  Whence it is very plain that Jeremiah of old had the first place among the prophets; and thereby because he stood first in the volume of the prophets; and hereby he comes to be mentioned above all the rest…When, therefore, Matthews produced a text of Zechariah under the name of Jeremiah, he only cites the words of the volume of the prophets under his name who stood first in the volume of the prophets.” (2) It is the testimony of the Talmudic rabbis that the order of the text of the prophets listed Jeremiah first.  The readers of Matthew’s text would have easily understood that the quote was from Zechariah but identified with Jeremiah as it is the first volume in the works of the prophets.  This explanation is very plausible.

     The second possibility is that Jeremiah is a scribal addition to the text.  Thus, the original text read, “that which was spoken by the prophets.  St. Augustine first proposed this theory.  He writes, “First take notice of the fact that this ascription of the passage to Jeremiah is not contained in all the manuscripts of the Gospels, and that some of them state simply that it was spoken ‘by the prophet.’  It is possible, therefore, to affirm that those manuscripts deserve rather to be followed that do not contain the name of Jeremiah.  For these words were certainly spoken by a prophet, only that prophet was Zechariah.” (3)  As elegant as this explanation may be, it doesn’t carry much weight with textual critics.  Bruce Metzger writes, “The reading Jeremiah is firmly established, being supported by a A B C L X W D P G and most minuscule’s, most of the Old Latin vg., syr., Coptic, goth, arm eth geo.  Since, however, the passage quoted by the evangelist is not to be found in Jeremiah, but seems to come from Zechariah (11.12-13), it is not surprising that several witnesses substitute Zechariah, while others omit the name entirely.” (4)  The bulk of the manuscript evidence supports the reading of Jeremiah.  Additionally, one of the standards of textual criticism states, “the most difficult reading is probably the original” meaning that scribes copied texts and oftentimes made alterations for the sake of clarification.  So it would be more likely for a scribe to drop Jeremiah from the original reading than for a scribe to add it to the text.  Subsequently, Jeremiah appears to be the original wording.  With this line of reasoning, St Augustine would also agree.  He writes, “I look also to this further consideration, namely that there was no reason why this name should have been added {subsequently to the true text} and a corruption thus created; whereas there was certainly an intelligible reason for erasing the name from so many of the manuscripts.  For presumptuous inexperience might readily have done that, when perplexed with the problem presented by the circumstance that this passage cannot be found in Jeremiah.” (5)  The supposition that Jeremiah was not in the original text, at this juncture in biblical history and New Testament textual criticism, appears false.

     What difference does it make?  Should we toss out Matthews’s interpretation of this passage of prophecy because it appears to ascribe the reading to the wrong prophet?  To do so would be to not see the forest for the trees.  Let us keep the baby and discard the bath water.  The fact that the text of Zechariah so plainly fits the events that Matthew describes in the life of Jesus tells us that this is a Messianic fulfillment of the prophecy.  In order to see the forest, we mustn’t get hung up with the technicality of all the trees.  The content of the passage from Zechariah when placed in the events of the crucifixion has a definite messianic application.  Thus, the passage should be viewed as a fulfillment of the prophecy precisely as Matthew has written it as Matthew has ascribed to Jeremiah the writings of the prophets. 

Endnotes

  1. 1.       The passage in Zechariah reads, “So they weighted out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.  And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter—that princely price they set on me.  So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the House of the LORD for the potter.”  The content is obviously applicable to the exchange between Judas and the priest/elders.
  2. 2.      Lightfoot, J.B. “Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica” Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass, vol 2;2003; page 362-363.
  3. 3.      Ehrman, bart; Metzger, Bruce, “The Text of the New Testament, it Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration” Oxford University Press, New York, NY, page 202.
  4. 4.      Metzger, Bruce, “A textual commentary on the Greek New Testament”  Inited Bible Socieiteis, U.S.A., 1971, page 55.
  5. 5.      Ibid, Ehrman and Metzger.
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