Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, June 3, 2024

Bible Contradiction: Prophecy of Judas' Death

In speaking of Judas’ burial, Matthew writes, “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me’” (Matt 27:9–10). The problem, it is claimed, is that the citation is from Zechariah and not Jeremiah.

Before we get into this issue, we should ask ourselves if this “mistake” makes sense. Is it believable that an intelligent, trained Jewish man would make this mistake? Even though Matthew would’ve been seen as a traitor when he became a tax collector, the safe assumption is that he was smart and knew his Jewish heritage. This should at least give us pause.

The real issue is that the Jewish mind sees prophecy in three different ways.

  1. Sometimes some prophecies find their literal fulfillment in Jesus such as Isaiah 52:13 – 53:10. This is how we today tend to view prophecy.
  2. Sometimes there are typological fulfillments. This means that God acts in a repeated fashion, and the first event (the “type”) finds its fuller and more significant fulfillment in the second event (the “antitype”). The clearest example is Matthew 2:15 and Jesus’ return from Egypt to Nazareth. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,’” a reference to Hosea 11:1. The rescue of the nation Israel, who is God’s “Son” (Hosea), was typologically fulfilled in God’s greater Son, Jesus (Matthew). Israel is the “type” of the greater antitype, Jesus.
  3. Sometimes the New Testament writer is willing to string together various phrases from different Old Testament passages and see them as a single prophecy, such as Matthew’s statement that Jesus went to live “in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene” (Matt 2:23). There is no such “literal” prophecy that says this.

The second two categories help us understand what is happening in Matt 27:9.

Zechariah 11:12–13 reads, “I told them, ‘If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.’ So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the LORD.”

The similarities with Judas are obvious. Thirty pieces of silver. The money was thrown in the temple. But notice the differences. In Zechariah, there is no mention of a field, and the money was not used to buy anything but was thrown to the potter, not the leaders as in Matthew. These differences should be a clue that something else is going on rather than a literal fulfillment of prophecy.

What makes all this even more difficult is the significant difference in meaning between Zechariah’s and Matthew’s purposes. The fact that they are so different should also warn us against seeing this as a literal prophecy (#1). In Zechariah 11:4–17, the shepherds of Israel (the leaders) failed to do their job, so Zechariah steps in as a “sign–action” and prophecies the coming destruction of the nation. The people paid him 30 pieces of silver for his work, the price of a slave, and Zechariah threw it to the potter in the temple, demonstrating their rejection of God as their shepherd.

Most people realize that passages in Jeremiah could also be part of the source of Matthew’s citation. In Jeremiah 18:2–6, Jeremiah goes to the potter’s house and notes how the potter is free to reshape the pot any way he wishes. Likewise, the Lord is free to do whatever he wishes to the nation, including destroying them if they do not repent. Judas was destroyed. In Jeremiah 32:6–7, Jeremiah has been prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem and the imprisonment of King Zedekiah. Despite the impending destruction of the city, Jeremiah is told to purchase a field as a promise of eventual redemption. There is no mention of buying a field in Zechariah In Jeremiah 19, Jeremiah buys a jar from a potter for 17 shekels and takes some of the elders and priests to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, renamed the Valley of Slaughter. He smashes the potter’s jar to illustrate the Lord’s coming destruction for their sin, specifically that the valley will become a place for burying the dead. Unfortunately, we do not know the precise location of the field that was purchased with Judas’ money. Most assume it was in the Valley of Hinnom, possibly where it intersects with the Kidron. If accurate, this creates a close tie between Jeremiah and Matthew.

Note the similarities with Matthew. It involves a potter. God is free to punish sin. A field is purchased (not in Zechariah). Jeremiah is paid (but not 30 pieces of silver). He takes the elders and priests (who bought Judas’ betrayal) to the Valley of Ben Hinnom, probably the same location as the potter’s field purchased with Judas’ money. Both places are for the burial of the dead. Then he goes to the temple and repeats the prophecy, the same location as Judas throwing the silver.

For more discussion, Carson cites Hengstenberg (Christology of the Old Testament, 2:1095ff.), Gundry (Use of the Old Testament, 122–27), Senior (Passion Narrative, 359ff.), and especially Moo (Old Testament in the Gospel Passion Narratives, 168–69).

Matthew appears to be drawing his citation from both Zechariah and Jeremiah and blending them to make the point he wants to make. R.T. France calls Matthew’s citation “a mosaic of scriptural motifs.” Carson comments, ”It is fair to say that the quotation appears to refer to Jeremiah 19:1–13, along with phraseology drawn mostly from Zechariah…. Jeremiah alone is mentioned, perhaps because he is the more important of the two prophets, and perhaps also because, though Jeremiah 19 is the less obvious reference, it is the more important as to prophecy and fulfillment.” Some argue that Matthew cites Jeremiah so that people will not miss the more significant reflections of Jeremiah in the prophecy. The imagery combines to point to Judas, and both Zechariah and Jeremiah are arguing for the future destruction of sin. All of this combines in Matthew’s understanding to be a prophecy (#2 and #3) of Judas.

In short, Matthew must be drawing from more than Zechariah because of the notable differences, and Jeremiah is the more significant prophet, especially in Matthew’s gospel (2:17; 16:14), so it is reasonable that Matthew would attribute his “mosaic” prophecy to Jeremiah. Mark does the same thing, joining the prophecies of Isaiah and Malachi and attributing them to the more significant prophet, Isaiah (Mark 1:2, citing Isaiah 43:3 and Malachi 3:1).

It is easy to point to what appears to be a contradiction on the surface without trying to understand the mind of the speaker. Things are often more complicated than they seem at first glance.