Did Matthew Blunder?

Matthew, in appealing to a prophecy, seems to attribute it to Jeremiah, whereas the Old Testament has it in the book of Zechariah. Critics, in characteristic fashion, have charged Matthew with an error.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

After seventy years in Babylonian captivity, the Israelites, by the decree of King Cyrus of Persia, returned to their Palestinean homeland. Some fifty thousand Jews made the long journey.

One of their initial projects was to begin rebuilding the temple of Jehovah. The foundation was joyfully laid (Ezra 3:11). Due to Samaritan opposition, however, the work was suspended (4:24). And so, for the following fourteen years, the project lay dormant. It was the task of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to arouse Israel from her lethargy, and to provide encouragement toward the completion of God’s house.

Out of this background comes the book of Zechariah. Near the end of the document, in a profoundly remarkable utterance, Zechariah foretells the rejection and betrayal of Christ:

And I said unto them, “If you think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear.” So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said unto me, “Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prized at of 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).

In amazing fashion, the New Testament records the fulfillment of this divine prediction. Consider the following elements:

  1. There was to be a bargain made in connection with Jesus’ death—a haggling of terms. This is exactly what happened. Judas struck a deal with the chief priests (Matthew 26:15).
  2. Zechariah figuratively represents the Lord as making the bargain with the leaders. This is a hint that Jesus would voluntarily give himself to die (cf. John 10:17-18; Galatians 1:4).
  3. The betrayal price was to be thirty pieces of silver. That was the very amount paid to the treacherous Judas (Matthew 26:15).
  4. The paltry sum—the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32)—was sarcastically described as a “goodly price,” and was an insult to God himself! This reveals the intimate connection between the Father and the Son.
  5. The money would be “thrown” into “the house of God.” The New Testament reveals that Judas, in a fit of remorse, returned the money. When the chief priests refused it, he cast it into the holy place of the temple (Matthew 27:5).
  6. Zechariah indicates that the silver coins would eventually go to the “potter.” Matthew affirms that the blood money was subsequently used to buy a “potter’s field” in which strangers were buried (27:7).

This is a remarkable prophecy, and it powerfully contributes to the solid case that can be made for the Bible’s divine inspiration.

There appears to be a problem, however. Matthew, in appealing to this prophecy, seems to attribute it to Jeremiah, whereas the Old Testament has it in the book of Zechariah. Critics, in characteristic fashion, have charged Matthew with an error. William Barclay wrote: “Here there is, in fact, an actual mistake” (1957, 373).

What shall we say regarding this matter?

First, we are not to accuse Matthew with making a mistake. The apostle was inspired of God; he did not err.

Second, we are not to change the biblical text (e.g., deleting “Jeremiah,” and substituting “Zechariah”), in an attempt to help Matthew, when the manuscript evidence warrants no alteration. In this passage, as Metzger observes “the reading [Jeremiah] is firmly established” (1971, 66).

Third, we must insist that no legitimate contradiction can be charged against the Bible if there is any possible way to harmonize those passages which are alleged to be at odds. In this case, there are several possibilities which accommodate a reconciliation. We will mention only three of them.

First, “it was common to combine quotations from the prophets in . . . chains of quotations” (Robertson 1930, 252), with only the more illustrious writer being mentioned by name. For example, both Malachi and Isaiah are quoted in Mark 1:2-3, but only Isaiah is named.

It is thus possible that Matthew is combining prophecies from both Jeremiah (cf. 32:6-15) and Zechariah (14:12-13), while citing only the latter by name (Arndt 1955, 51-53). (Others argue that Jeremiah 19:1-13 is more likely to be one of the sources of Matthew’s reference [Carson 1984, 563).] We have this custom ourselves: frequently writers quote from the Greek lexicon of Arndt and Gingrich, and to cite it simply as Arndt.

Second, the Old Testament was divided into “the law of Moses, and the prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44). The Psalms section actually contained thirteen books, but it was designated “Psalms” because that book stood at the head of the list. Similarly, Jeremiah stood at the beginning of the “Prophets.” A quotation from within that section could be attributed to Jeremiah (Lightfoot 1859, 362-363).

Third, one of the most obvious possibilities, however, is to focus upon the precise wording of the passage. Matthew does not say that the prophecy was written by the prophet Jeremiah; rather, the text reads: “Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah” (27:9). Who can presume to say that Jeremiah did not utter this prophecy if the Holy Spirit, through the inspired apostle, said that he did? Consider these factors:

(1) There are several cases in the Bible where an inspired writer quoted from a former prophet, and yet the quotation is not to be found elsewhere in the Scriptures.

Jude cited a prophecy from Enoch (v. 14), and yet that oracle is nowhere found in the Old Testament. Paul quoted from Jesus—“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35); and yet that statement is not recorded in the Gospel accounts.

(2) It is possible, therefore, that Jeremiah could have spoken the prophecy initially, and that Zechariah, during his ministry, incorporated the prediction into his own message (with some alteration; Matthew’s quotation does not exactly conform to the prophecy in Zechariah). Matthew may have cited the original source.

(3) Zechariah suggested that at least some of his message was a reflection of what the “former prophets” had spoken. “Should you not hear the words which the Lord hath cried by the former prophets?” (7:7). In fact, there is evidence that Zechariah did rehearse the testimony of men like Jeremiah.

The prophet declared that “the former prophets cried, saying, Thus saith Jehovah of hosts, Return you now from your evil ways” (1:4). Jeremiah represents the Lord as saying, “If you will return, O Israel, saith Jehovah, if you will return unto me . . .” (4:1).

It is thus inappropriate to question Matthew’s declaration. No error can be demonstrated.

  • Arndt, William. 1955. Does The Bible Contradict Itself? St. Louis, Mo: Concordia Publishing House.
  • Barclay, William. 1957. The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
  • Carson, D. A. 1984. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Lightfoot, John. 1859. A Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica. Vol. 2. Oxford, England: Oxford University.
  • Metzger, Bruce M. 1971. A Textual Commentary On The Greek New Testament. London, England: United Bible Societies.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1930. Word Pictures In The New Testament. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Broadman.