The Loss of a Prophet

27 01 2007

Matthew 23:34-35 constitutes a wonderful (according to some, apocryphal¹) depiction of Jews murdering prophets. The idea, prevalent in early Christian literature, was also reflected in certain texts of Jewish origin. The most famous, perhaps, of these is The Ascension of Isaiah: a first-century text concerning the martyrdom of the Biblical prophet. Descriptions of his death are also found within both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds, and indications that this tradition also existed in reference to other prophets are scattered throughout the early Midrashim, as well as some of the Targums. The death of Jesus and the persecution of the early Christians was enough to make this theme a strong one within the Christian Bible and the passage from Matthew’s gospel is a fantastic example of its usage.

What makes this section of Matthew’s gospel so interesting to me is the following clause (23:35): “… from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (KJV). We all know who “righteous Abel” was: he might not have been a prophet and his murderer might not have been a Jew but his position at the very beginning of Genesis (the first recorded slaying of the gory shockfest that is the Hebrew Bible) makes him a perfect starting point for this asseveration. But who was Zacharias son of Barachias? There are three candidates.

The first, and earliest, was a priest named Zechariah son of Jehoiada. According to 2 Chr 24:17-22, this Zechariah was put to death in the Temple at the command of King Joash. The second Zechariah was the son of a certain Jeberechiah and was chosen as a witness by the prophet Isaiah (along with Uriah the priest) to one of Isaiah’s prophesies. Finally, there is Zechariah son of Berechiah who wrote the Biblical book entitled Zechariah (henceforth, “Zechariah”) and who is referred to in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as Zecheriah son of Iddo.

Why Iddo? According to the book (“Zechariah”), Iddo was Zechariah’s grandfather. Some have argued that Iddo may have been a prominent man and the authors of Ezra and Nehemiah referred to him as the father for this reason. Blank perceives this claim to be too harmonising and argues instead that Iddo was Zechariah’s real father and that the addition of the name Berechiah in “Zechariah” was of later stock, designed to identify the prophet with Isaiah’s witness (son of Jeberechiah)². That this equation existed is also testified within the Babylonian Talmud (bMak 24b), within which Rabbi Akiva expressly identifies the two individuals as the same.

Is this the individual about whom the author of Matthew is speaking? It may be, for there are Rabbinic sources that perceive this individual as also having been murdered in the Temple. Ecclesiastes Rabba (3:20), for example, speaks of both Zechariah and Uriah being murdered in such a fashion and the connection of the two names together is indicative of the fact that we are speaking of the Zechariah who served as a witness for Isaiah. This would mean that, along with the Rabbinic sources, Matthew’s gospel is equating Isaiah’s witness with the prophet named Zechariah – despite the fact that they lived hundreds of years apart. Hardly surprising should we agree with Vermes’ claim that this section is adapted from a pre-existing Jewish work³. Still, Blank does not agree.

This conflation of the names would not be only a conflation of the second and third Zechariahs (Isaiah’s witness and the author of “Zechariah”) but of the first Zechariah as well. This is because the first Zechariah (son of Jehoiada) is the only one to whom scripture records a tradition of having been murdered. The location for the murder is suited to the statement in Matthew as well and there is thus no reason to assume that so many of them were being confused with one another if we may simply choose the first of the three and resolve all complications. The proof, according to Blank, that Zechariah son of Jehoiada is the prophet in question is found within the gospel of Luke.

Luke 11:50-51 features, roughly, the same assertion as is found within Matthew 23:34-35. A key difference, found within Luke 11:51, is the absence of Zecheriah’s patronymic. Should we exercise the principle that the briefer text represents the text of greater antiquity then we have a good reason to suppose that “son of Barachias” was added later to Matthew’s gospel and that it is only the addition that is indicative of the aforementioned conflation. The actual text itself speaks of Zechariah son of Jehoiada, mentioned in 2 Chr 24:21 as having been murdered in the Temple itself.

This suggestion consitutes the second reason as to why I find this passage so fascinating. Jesus is credited with having referred to the deaths of all prophets from the murder of Abel to the murder of Zechariah son of Jehoiada. Abel appears at the very beginning of Genesis and, while not the final murder within the Hebrew Bible, Zechariah’s death appears at the end of Chronicles. The authors of Matthew 23 and Luke 11 appear to be presenting an all-inclusive portrayal of the “Old Testament”, but one that may perhaps betray their conceptions of the same.

Today, the Hebrew Bible spans some twenty-five books (depending on how one counts them, of course) from Genesis to Chronicles; the Christian Old Testament features an order that, while differing within different canons, spans from Genesis to Malachi. Does this ancient diatribe against the Jews perhaps indicate what many have assumed all along: that the Jewish order is a reflection on the dates of composition over and above issues of style and genre and that, while the Christian order may make more literary sense, the Jewish is of greater antiquity? I cannot posit a definitive answer to this question although my instinct tells me that it makes some sense – barring the, perhaps more malleable, order of the Megillot.

¹ G. Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London: Allen Lane, 2003), 201-202.
² S.H. Blank, “The Death of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature”, HUCA v12-13 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1938), 327-346 (328).
³ Vermes, ibid.




One response

10 05 2013

You offer Zecharias son of Joiada as a possible candidate, but you fail to mention the fact that in his “Commentary on Matthew”, Jerome quotes an early Hebrew version of Matthew’s gospel (that he obtained from the Nazarenes) as “son of Joiada”. Thus, just as he knew the difference between Judah and Judea, and he correctly quotes a Hebrew version of O.T. scripture in other passages (rather than the Septuagint), it is evident that the original author of the (Hebrew) gospel of Matthew knew very well that it was Zecharias son of Joiada who was “murdered in the Temple courtyard” (2 Chr 24:17-22).

That “son of Berechaias” can be easily explained as an attempt to “correct” that statement by a later author or translator who mistakenly thought that Matthew must have meant to refer to that minor prophet.

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