This is the fifth post in a seven-part series responding to the blog post “Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited” by pop-apologist S. J. Thomason. You can read the fourth post here..
All biblical citations are from the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001) unless otherwise noted.
PROMISE #5 – “GIVE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER TO THE POTTER IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD”
On her blog, Thomason wrote,
Zechariah 11:12-13 “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.”
In Matthew 27:3-8, Judas’ suicide is recounted. “When Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’ ‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’ So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, ‘It is against the law to put this money into the treasury, since it is blood money. So they decided to use the money to buy a potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”
Acts 1:18 – 19 continues recounting the passage. “(With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is Field of Blood.)”
Biblical scholars note that Judas’ body likely decomposed after his death by hanging, which is why his body burst open when he fell onto the ground. Only a decomposed body would burst in such a way that one’s intestines would spill out. Furthermore, Judas symbolically “bought a field,” as the silver coins he returned to the chief priests ended up being used to purchase a potter’s field.
We can see that there are at least two things going on here. First, Thomason tries to reconcile the seemingly contradictory accounts of Judas’ death featured in Matthew’s Gospel and in the book of Acts. Second, Thomason connects the words of the prophet Zechariah with Judas’ betray of Jesus, something Matthew himself did. We will begin by briefly looking at the two accounts of Judas’ death and then we will move on to whether Zechariah 11:12-13 is a prophecy about Jesus’ betrayal.
“JUDAS ISCARIOT, WHO BETRAYED HIM”
Most of us have experienced the heartache of being betrayed by someone we loved and trusted. I know I have and the scars that have since healed still pain me from time-to-time. Jesus too experienced betrayal at the hands of one he called to be among his closest friends. We are all familiar with the story: Jesus called a man named Judas Iscariot to be one of his disciples, Judas makes a deal with the Jewish authorities that would make him wealthy and give them Jesus, Judas finds Jesus in the garden and kisses him to identify him, Jesus is taken and crucified, and Judas kills himself. In Matthew’s Gospel, we know right away that Judas is the betrayer because the author identifies him as such: “Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.” (Matthew 10:4) And of all the Gospels, Matthew is the only one who tells us about Judas’ fate.
Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (Matthew 27:3-10)
So in Matthew’s version, Judas returns the money he received from the religious authorities due to a feeling of guilt for what he had done to Jesus. The authorities don’t care about Judas’ new-found repentance and basically say to him, “So what?” He throws the money into the temple and then he goes out to hang himself. The authorities take the silver and realize that since it is “blood money” they decided to purchase a field to be used as a place to bury “strangers,” that is, non-Jews. Because the field was purchased with blood money, it was called the “Field of Blood.” And all this fulfills ancient prophetic utterances from the esteemed prophet Jeremiah.
We also have a brief account of Judas’ fate in the book of Acts, the second half of the Luke-Acts duo. There we read,
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
Here the eleven disciples decide choose a new disciple to fill the slot taken up by the now deceased Judas. Peter, taking charge, says that what happened to Judas was a fulfillment of scripture. But in the middle of his speech, the narrator offers the details of what happened to Judas. According to Luke, Judas purchased a field with the money he had received from the religious authorities. Apparently he did not get to enjoy his new field for long because he fell headlong, burst open in the middle of his body, and all his insides became outsides. This became known to everyone in Jerusalem and so the field became known as the “Field of Blood.” Right away we can detect some issues between Matthew’s version of events in his Gospel and Luke’s version of events in Acts.
First, Matthew wrote that immediately after he had confronted the religious authorities to return his ill-gotten silver, Judas went out and hanged himself. So for Matthew, Judas’ death is death-by-hanging. But Luke in Acts says that Judas fell headfirst, somehow causing his bowels to burst forth from the middle of his body. These are two entirely different versions of Judas’ death.
Second, Matthew wrote that since the returned silver could not be put into the temple treasury that the religious authorities decided to use it to buy a field in which to bury non-Jews. But Luke in Acts claimed that it was Judas who purchased the field with the silver that in Matthew he did not have anymore. This, too, is an entirely different version of events.
Third, Matthew wrote that the field purchased by the religious authorities was called the Field of Blood because it was purchased using blood money. But Luke in Acts suggests that the reason the field was called the Field of Blood was because of Judas’ gruesome death in it.
Trying to Reconcile
Thomason tries to reconcile the first discrepancy by saying that Judas likely died by hanging and then as his body decomposed it fell from the noose, smashed into the ground below, and that is what caused him to spill his guts. Simon Kistemaker has a slightly different view and in his commentary writes,
Even though Luke omits the information that Judas hanged himself (Matt. 27:5), we infer that Judas’s falling down headlong resulted from being suspended. The rope either broke due to the sudden stress caused by a falling body or eventually was cut by someone. The possibility is not remote that, while falling, Judas’s body struck a sharp object that caused it to burst open. (Kistemaker, 1990, 62)
Both Thomason’s and Kistemaker’s explanations are interesting but are not very persuasive. Thomason’s view rests on the idea that Luke was trying to explain what happened to Judas’ body post-mortem but that isn’t what he is doing at all. Luke seems to be explaining why Judas was no longer one of the twelve. It wasn’t merely that he had betrayed Jesus but also that he wasn’t alive. And how did he die? He fell headfirst in his field and split open in the middle. Matthew’s version contradicts that. Kistemaker’s explanation that Judas fell headlong because either the stress of the hanging or the cut of a knife later on fails for the same reasons. To claim that we can “infer that Judas’s falling down headlong result from being suspend” is unwarranted. One can fall headlong for many reasons; the only reason to suggest suspension is to rescue inerrancy. Do we have a textual warrant for that position? Not that I can tell.
Thomason also tries to reconcile the second discrepancy by claiming that Judas bought the field symbolically when the chief priests purchased it. This idea has been put forward by others including Kistemaker (62) and by Daniel Wallace who wrote,
The text seems to suggest that Judas himself purchased the field in which he was later buried. However, Matt 27:7 specifically states that the chief priests purchased the field after Judas had died. It would be difficult to reconcile these two texts from the English point of view. But from the Greek, it is easy to see ἐκτήσατο as a causative middle, indicating that ultimately Judas purchased the field, in that it was purchased with his “blood money.” Another possibility here is that since this verb never had an active form, it might be deponent, having the force of a causative active. However, it seems that it retains a middle force from classical to Koine Greek, and thus should be considered a true middle. In classical Greek (especially in Sophocles, Euripides, and Thucidyes) κτάομαι often had the causative nuance of “bring misfortune upon oneself” (cf. LSJ, BAGD). Such nuance may even be appropriate in a secondary role to “acquire” in Acts 1:18. (Wallace, 1996, 424-425)
This is an intriguing possibility but one I don’t find compelling. The author of Acts is narrating the events of Judas’ demise and intimates that before he died he purchased the field. This is simply not reconcilable with Matthew’s version of events where Judas kills himself by hanging and then the field is purchased by the religious authorities. We should also note that Luke suggests that Judas died in the field he had purchased, exhibiting some sort of poetic justice for his betrayal of Jesus. But there is no sense of that in Matthew. These are two different accounts.
Thomason doesn’t touch on why the field is called the Field of Blood. As stated before, Matthew suggests that it is called the Field of Blood because of the blood money with which it was purchased while Luke suggests that it is called the Field of Blood because of Judas’ gruesome, and no doubt bloody, death in it. This is an indication that different traditions arose that called it the Field of Blood for different reasons. (Stott, 1990, 56)
“THROW IT TO THE POTTER”
We must now move on to the matter of the prophetic passage that Matthew claimed was fulfilled by the events surrounding Judas’ death and the purchasing of the Field of Blood. Matthew wrote,
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.” (27:9-10)
If you searched the book of Jeremiah you would never find that prophetic utterance, at least not in the form it appears in Matthew. So what is going on? How did Matthew get it so wrong?
It is obvious that Matthew employs “a mosaic of scriptural motifs” (France, 2007, 1042), combining texts and themes found in various prophets and ascribing them to the superior prophet Jeremiah. Here it seems that the bulk of the passage is from Zechariah 11:12-13 with hints of Jeremiah 18, 19, and 32. We will not dive into the Jeremiah texts for the sake of time. Instead, we will focus on Zechariah 11:12-13 and ask the question, “Does the context warrant the application in Matthew’s Gospel?”
The book of Zechariah opens with these words: “In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo.” (1:1) Darius, a Persian king, began his reign in 522 BCE and so this puts Zechariah’s prophetic ministry beginning in 520 BCE. Before Darius’ took the throne, Cyrus the Great had proclaimed in 538 BCE that the Jews could return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. (Ezra 1:1-4; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:22-23) Cyrus’ successor, Cambyses, had ordered that the rebuilding of Jerusalem be stopped after claims were made that the goal of the rebuilding of the city and the temple was to rebel against Persia. (Ezra 4:11-24) Under Darius the rebuilding resumed and the Second Temple was completed in 515 BCE.
The first eight chapters of Zechariah, referred to as “First Zechariah,” include various visions and oracles set within the historical context of the reign of Darius. The text offers us a timeline for the various prophetic words given to Zechariah from Yahweh: “in the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (1:1), “on the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (1:7), “in the fourth year of King Darius” (7:1). Beginning with chapter nine the text changes and shows signs of redaction that must have taken place after Zechariah’s ministry. Though the themes of First Zechariah are apparent in Second Zechariah,  it seems that a Zecharian “school” had developed that had written in his spirit.
Zechariah 11:12-13 is situated in Second Zechariah and is itself an intriguing passage. In chapter ten, Zechariah lamented that in following their household gods, the people of Israel and Judah were wandering aimlessly, a flock of sheep without a shepherd. (10:1-2) The shepherds of times past had failed God’s people, and so Yahweh declares that he would “whistle for them and gather them in” (10:8) causing his people to “walk in his name.” (10:12)
In the prelude to chapter eleven (11:1-3) we read a poem about the destruction of the trees of Lebanon and Bashan. They are told to “wail” which leads to the wailing of the shepherds who do so, not because of the loss of Yahweh’s sheep, but because “the glory is ruined.” (11:3) The demise of the trees is clearly a symbol of the demise of the shepherds who failed in their responsibility to shepherd Israel and Judah. It is also indicative of the fate of the people since their leadership has abrogated their duty to care for them. Yahweh then tells Zechariah, “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.” (11:4)
Zechariah takes two staffs for himself and names them Favor and Union (NRSV, “Unity”). (11:7) With them he tends the sheep and he deposes the “three shepherds,” a reference to unnamed leaders within the community. But all is not well with the flock. He grows impatient with the people and they begin to dislike him. (11:8) So Zechariah decides he will no longer be their shepherd (11:9) and in an act of symbolism he destroys the staff named Favor, “annulling the covenant that I had made with all the peoples.” (11:10) He asks for his wages for his service as shepherd and they hand him a paltry thirty pieces of silver. (11:12) With dripping sarcasm, Zechariah calls the wages a “lordly price” and, under direction from Yahweh, takes the silver into the temple and throws them to the potter within. (11:13) Then he takes his other staff, Union, and breaks it, “annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel. (11:14)
As we read the Zecharian text and compare to the Matthean usage of it, suddenly we see that the former is in no way connected to its usage in the latter. That is, Matthew rips Zechariah’s words from its original context and appropriates it for his own purposes. It is hard to say that the words were “fulfilled” by Judas’ casting his silver back to the religious authorities since there was in Zechariah 11:12-13 nothing to be fulfilled in a prophetic sense. Zechariah wasn’t referring to a betrayal or blood money and he certainly wasn’t concerned with events that transpired over five-hundred years later. 
No Promise Fulfilled
Thomason had written that her blog post was to “show the way God has used the Bible to demonstrate how He keeps His promises.” Unfortunately, Judas’ throwing the money back to the temple does not fulfill any promise foretold in the Hebrew Bible. Zechariah 11:12-13 simply isn’t about Judas, Jesus’ betrayal, or any of that. There is no exegetical defense to warrant such a connection and tangentially connecting the two because they both mention thirty pieces of silver or a potter or the temple reveals less about “prophecy” and more about how New Testament authors wrote their stories. We know from reading the Gospels that they not only picked and chose what stories to include but they also had no problem rearranging the order of events or alter Jesus’ words entirely.
So no, there was no promise kept in Matthew 27:3-10.
 There are a number of themes shared by First Zechariah (1-8) and Second Zechariah (9-14) including a future coming king (6:11-12; 9:9), the Gentiles as being part of God’s people (6:15; 9:7), cleansing from sin (3:4-5; 12:10-13:1), and more. For more, see McComiskey, 1998, 1016-1018.
 Bart Ehrman notes in his introduction to the Bible that “the prophets do make predictions, but they are not predicting events that will transpire hundreds or thousands of years after their day. They are speaking to their own situations and must be rooted in their own historical contexts.” (Ehrman, 2014, 121)
PRINTED WORKS CITED
Bart D. Ehrman. The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
R.T. France. The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: William. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Simon Kistemaker. Acts. NTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1990.
Thomas Edward McComiskey, editor. The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1998.
John Stott. The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990.
Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
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