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, 10 and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” Matthew 27:9-10, NKJV.

This is a direct reference to Zechariah 11:12-13. How did Matthew attribute it to Jeremiah? Jeremiah 18:1-11 also speaks of a potter and Jeremiah 32:6-9 mentions the buying of a field. Could Matthew be alluding to these passages?

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Quoting from John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible,

"What seems best to solve this difficulty, is, that the order of the books of the Old Testament is not the same now, as it was formerly: the sacred writings were divided, by the Jews, into three parts: the first was called the law, which contains the five books of Moses; the second, the prophets, which contains the former and the latter prophets; the former prophets began at Joshua, and the latter at Jeremy; the third was called Cetubim, or the Hagiographa, the holy writings, which began with the book of Psalms: now, as this whole third and last part is called the Psalms, Lu 24:44, because it began with that book; so all that part which contained the latter prophets, for the same reason, beginning at Jeremy, might be called by his name; hence a passage, standing in the prophecy of Zechariah, who was one of the latter prophets, might be justly cited, under the name of Jeremy. That such was the order of the books of the Old Testament, is evident from the following passage (a)

"it is a tradition of our Rabbins, that the order of the prophets is, Joshua and Judges, Samuel and the Kings, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the twelve.''

Moreover, it is usual with them to say (b), that the spirit of Jeremiah was in Zechariah; and it is very plain, that the latter prophets have many things from the former; and so might Zechariah have this originally from Jeremy, which now stands in his prophecy: all this would be satisfactory to a Jew: and it is to be observed, that the Jew (c), who objects to everything he could in the evangelist, with any appearance on his side, and even objects to the application of this prophecy; yet finds no fault with him for putting Jeremy for Zechariah. 

(a) T. Bab. Bava Bathra, fol. 14. 2. Vid. Praefat. R. David Kimchici in Jer.

(b) Sepher Hagilgulim apud Surenhus. Biblos Katallages, p. 41.

(c) R. Isaac Chizzuk Emuna, par. 2. c. 25. p. 412. d Bereshit Rabba, sect. 98. fol. 85. 3, 4."

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There are really two questions here, and I think the first is easy and the second is hard:

Is this a reference to Zechariah 11:12-13

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, 10 and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” Matthew 27:9-10, NKJV.

"And I said unto them, If you think it good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. 13 And the LORD said unto me, Cast it unto the potter: a princely price that I was valued at by them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the LORD. Zechariah 11:12-13

There are similarities here, but compared to the like-for-like quotations we typically see in the Gospels, this just has a loose resemblance. There are thirty pieces of silver, that was the value of somebody, and there was a potter involved... somehow. In Matthew the silver was 'given for the potter's field', whilst in Zechariah it was just 'cast to the potter in the house of the Lord', for no obvious reason... (scope for another question!)


Why is it attributed to Jeremiah?

The passage does bear some resemblance to Jeremiah 32:8-9, particularly in the silver being given in exchange for a potter's field (though Jeremiah paid 17 pieces, not 30). There are a few possible explanations, such as:

This could have been an oral tradition. The text says this was 'spoken' rather than 'written' by Jeremiah, and if correctly attributed then this would pre-date the writing of Zechariah. In which case Zechariah could be taken as a case for confirming an oral tradition which he himself is quoting or adapting from in his own prophecy.

It could be an amalgamation of the two. Given the resemblance to both prophets and yet no obvious quoting of either, it could be that Matthew is quoting a mixture of the two prophets, and just citing one of them for simplicity's sake. Given that we have two old testament passages involving a prophet, silver pieces and a potter, it could be that the author and his contemporaries saw these as linked prophetic gestures which mirrored what they had witnessed with Judas and his betrayal. It's also possible that there was a contemporary Christian oral tradition or song at the time of Matthew's writing which mixes these references in this way.

It could be a later addition to the text. Not all early codices include 'Jeremiah' and simply say 'the prophet', so it's possible that Jeremiah was inadvertently added by a very early copyist. However, for this last option I'll give you Augustine's caution:

"Now, if any one finds a difficulty in the circumstance that this passage is not found in the writings of the prophet Jeremiah, and thinks that damage is thus done to the veracity of the evangelist, let him first take notice of the fact that this ascription of the passage to Jeremiah is not contained in all the codices 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 codices deserve rather to be followed which do not contain the name of Jeremiah. For these words were certainly spoken by a prophet, only that prophet was Zechariah. In this way the supposition is, that those codices are faulty which contain the name of Jeremiah, because they ought either to have given the name of Zechariah or to have mentioned no name at all, as is the case with a certain copy, merely stating that it was spoken “by the prophet, saying,” which prophet would assuredly be understood to be Zechariah.

However, let others adopt this method of defence, if they are so minded. For my part, I am not satisfied with it; and the reason is, that a majority of codices contain the name of Jeremiah, and that those critics who have studied the Gospel with more than usual care in the Greek copies, report that they have found it stand so in the more ancient Greek exemplars. 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 codices. For venturesome inexperience might readily have done that, when perplexed with the problem presented by the fact that this passage could not be found in Jeremiah."

Augustine, De Consens. Evang. book 3, chapter 7, paragraph 29


Conclusion

We can't know with certainty why this quotation is recorded in the way that it is. I personally find it easier to believe that it's a very early copyist error - as far as we know we don't have the first Matthew manuscript, and so it is altogether possible that even the very first copy of the text attempted to add a prophet's name in an attempt to be consistent with other prophetic references in the text.

  • The challenge with an error by a copyist is motive. Why add something that is wrong? As you note neither prophet fits but Zechariah is closer than Jeremiah. If a copyist wanted to add a name, Zechariah seems to be the better choice. Adding Jeremiah demonstrates a lack of knowledge of Scripture and why wasn't the change "caught" and corrected? The only other motive would be to make a change to try and discredit the author. IOW it was the author who did not know the Scripture, bringing that particular incident into question. – Revelation Lad May 19 '16 at 19:10
  • @RevelationLad - I really don't think it's necessarily closer to one than the other. v9 sounds like Zechariah, v10 sounds like Jeremiah. The copyist would be just as well attributing one than the other, and given Jeremiah is the only prophet to speak of a potter's field, why not him? The copyist theory has every bit as good a grounds as considering it an original feature of the manuscript - because whatever motive you may otherwise attribute to the source author, you may just as well attribute to a copyist instead. Given the manuscript variances, it could be an addition or a subtraction. – Steve Taylor May 19 '16 at 19:15
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In short, yes Matthew is alluding to these passages. But the accuracy of his interpretation of them is another question altogether:

Issues reconciling this with Acts

Matthew is the only Gospel mentioning this event in Judas' life, but there is a parallel in Acts 1:18-19:

Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.

Basically, whether you like it or not, we're left with an irreconcilable difference here: either Judas purchased the field or the Chief Priests did, and he either hanged himself or fell down and burst like a balloon. Both can't be right at once.


It could be an erroneous translation carried forward from the LXX (Septuagint)

Most of the credit for this answer should really go to Chris Massey over at Cognitive Discopants - "Does Matthew Gild the Lily?". How sure are we that there was really a potter in Zechariah? This is a translation we can attest back as far as the LXX, but we may be mistaken if we base all of our interpretation on the expectation that the LXX got it right.

A number of translations take a different line on Zechariah 11:13 that makes a lot more sense, as recorded by the Syriac and one Hebrew manuscript:

And the LORD said unto me: 'Cast it into the treasury, the goodly price that I was prized at of them.' And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them into the treasury, in the house of the LORD. (JPS 1917)

Then the LORD told me, "Throw the money into the treasury —that magnificent value they placed on me!" So I took the 30 shekels of silver and threw them into the treasury of the Temple of the LORD. (ISV)

This tradition suggests that the potter (yo-tser / יָצַר) should really be a treasury (ot-tsar / אוֹצָר), and may have been mis-understood by over-pious LXX scholars or a previous oral tradition which couldn't ratify the idea of a treasury in the house of Yahweh.


Matthew then carries this forward

Chris Massey makes the assertion that Matthew is following an incorrect tradition here, and trying to frame Judas' actions in such a way to fit with an OT prophecy. He observes a similar mis-reading of Zechariah 9:9 where the LXX talks about a saviour "riding on an ass and a young foal", where the Hebrew idea is merely parallelism: "riding on an ass, the foal of a donkey". And then Matthew 21:7 adds a whole second animal for Jesus to ride on compared with Mark and Luke, who only have the one donkey.

Matthew then compounds this mis-reading of Zechariah by confusing it with legitimate Potter references from Jeremiah, leaving Matthew 27:9-10 as a bit of a mixture of errors. Consequentially, there's a risk that many translations have preserved an incorrect rendering of Zechariah because they find it validated by Matthew, which is something of a circular logic problem.


An alternative-alternative conclusion...

Now getting out into the realm of pure speculation based on these texts, there is an outside possibility that there could be an additional layer of error involved here. In Matthew the Chief Priests respond to Judas' casting down of his 30 pieces of silver:

Matthew 27:6-10

And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was valued, whom they of the children of Israel did value; And gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord appointed me.

It could be that in some stage or form there was a story or oral tradition preserved here which both Matthew and Luke-Acts preserve in their own fashion, speaking of Judas casting his money down into the treasury, which the priests took offense at and corrected. Perhaps Judas did fulfill what was spoken by Zechariah, and the Chief Priests did fulfill something of what was spoken by Jeremiah. It could even be that if Matthew was partly or wholly written in Hebrew/Aramaic as some theorise, that the misinterpretation may have come in those who carried it to the Greek.

One way or another we're basically left unpicking errors by Matthew or a subsequent translator of this text. After some examination this seems like a fairly obvious error in the text or its underlying tradition, regardless of who made the error or when.

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I translate scripture. In Jeremiah 32:6-12, verse 9, I translated from the Aleppo Codex as: "And I bought then the field indeed from Hanemael son of my uncle that's in Anathoath, and weighed for him all the price seventeen weights upon twelve was the price." (heb: shba, can mean seventeen: strongs #7650); (heb: esraw, can mean twelve: strongs #6236). This totals 29, but the Arguria, literally meaning, silver halves or a silver half-talent had a variable rate of 29 to 31 denarii (USA $72.50 to $77.50). So 29 to 31 silver half-talents would be USA $2102.50 to $2402.50. This price for the Lord's life was a quite sizable amount of money for Judas, but for his guilt it was not enough for him to keep.

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