Friday, March 25, 2016

The Martyrdom of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature and Matthew 23:35

In Matthew 23:35, Jesus is lambasting the Pharisees, and he says:

"That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar” (KJV).

A number of biblical scholars say this is an error.  They think that Jesus really means Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, who was murdered in the Temple court in II Chronicles 24.

In II Chronicles 24, the story about the murder of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada is set in Judah's pre-exilic period, during the reign of King Joash of Judah.  After the death of Jehoiada, who was a priest, a mentor to King Joash, and the father of Zechariah, King Joash and the princes of Judah become idolatrous.  This offends God, so God sends them prophets to exhort them to turn from their wickedness.  But the people continue in their idolatrous ways.  Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, under the influence of God's spirit, criticizes their transgression of God's commandments and says that God is forsaking them because they are forsaking God.  The king and princes plot to stone Zechariah in the Temple court, and the dying Zechariah says, "The LORD look upon it, and require it" (v 22 KJV).

But Jesus in Matthew 23:35 does not say Zechariah the son of Jehoida, but rather Zechariah the son of Barachias.  Zechariah the son of Berechiah was a post-exilic prophet.  He encouraged the Jews returning to Judah after the exile in their work of rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 5:1; 6:14).  The biblical Book of Zechariah is attributed to him, and Zechariah 1-8 explicitly concerns figures and events during Israel's post-exilic period: Joshua the high priest, Zerubabbel the governor, etc.  Zechariah's father was named Berechiah, but his grandfather was Iddo (Zechariah 1:1), so Zechariah is called the son of Iddo (Ezra 5:1; 6:14).  Iddo and Zechariah were both priests (Nehemiah 12:4, 16).

Was Jesus, Matthew, or whoever spoke or wrote Matthew 23 mistaken in saying that Zechariah the son of Berechiah, rather than Zechariah the son of Jehoida, was killed between the Temple and the altar?  Many biblical inerrantists think not.  They maintain that Jesus was correct and that Zechariah the son of Berechiah was killed between the Temple and the altar during Israel's post-exilic period.

I am currently reading C. Marvin Pate's 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus.  (Kregel Academic sent me a complimentary review copy of this book.)  Pate argues that Jesus in Matthew 23:35 was not mistaken.  An argument that Pate makes is that there are other ancient sources that say that the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah was killed.  Pate states, on page 33:

...rabbinic traditions (e.g., the Targum on Lam. 2:20 and the Midrash Rabbah on Eccl. 3:16) also refer to Zechariah the prophet being killed in the temple.  On this understanding, Jesus and extra-biblical tradition converge in reporting an actual incident not mentioned in the Old Testament.

I had never heard this before, and I was curious to check out these sources.

I took a look at the Midrash Rabbah on my Judaic Classics Library (which is the Soncino one).  The passage is Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19.  The passage there did not say that the Zechariah in question was Zechariah the son of Berechiah or the son of Iddo.  It simply referred to a Zechariah who was killed.  The footnote that the commentators added believe that the Zechariah here is Zechariah the son of Jehoida, the one in II Chronicles 24.  And there is good reason that they arrive at that conclusion.  According to Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19, Zechariah was killed before the Babylonians invaded Judah.  Zechariah has been dead and buried by the time that Nebuzaradan the captain of the Babylonian guard invades Judah, and his blood is still visible at the Temple.  The passage seems to suggest that the Babylonian invasion of Judah was God's punishment for what Judah did to Zechariah, even though a merciful impulse towards Judah comes over Nebuzaradan at Zechariah's grave.

Zechariah the son of Jehoida, in II Chronicles 24, was killed prior to the Babylonian invasion of Judah.  Zechariah the son of Berechiah lived after the time of the Babylonian invasion, when the Israelites returned from exile.  Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19 is talking about a pre-exilic Zechariah, so it probably concerns Zechariah the son of Jehoida in II Chronicles 24, not the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah.

The Targum on Lamentations 2:20 is a different story.  C.M.M. Brady's translation of this Targum states the following:

See, O Lord, and observe from heaven against whom you have turned. Thus is it right for the daughters of Israel to eat the fruit of their wombs due to starvation, the lovely boys wrapped in fine linen? The Attribute of Justice replied, and said, “Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the LORD, as when you killed Zechariah son of Iddo, the High Priest and faithful prophet in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he admonished you not to do evil before the Lord?”

There, the Zechariah who is killed in the Temple is Zechariah the son of Iddo, the post-exilic prophet Zechariah.  Pate is correct about this passage.

I still have questions, though.  For one, was Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo a high priest, as the Targum suggests?  He was a priest, but was he the high priest?  In the Book of Zechariah, the high priest is Joshua, not Zechariah (Zechariah 3; 6:11).  Does the Targum really have the prophet Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo in mind?  Yet, perhaps one can say that Zechariah the son of Berechiah/Iddo became high priest after the time of Joshua.  Second, the Targum says that Zechariah the son of Iddo was killed on the Day of Atonement.  The reason that this detail stands out to me is that Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19 (the source we looked at above) seems to suggest that Zechariah the son of Jehoida was killed on the Day of Atonement: "R. Judan said: Seven transgressions were committed by Israel at that time: they killed a priest, a prophet, and a judge, they shed innocent blood, they defiled the Temple Court, and this was done on the Sabbath which was also the Day of Atonement" (Soncino translation).  This is said immediately after the story of Nebuzaradan visiting the grave of Zechariah.

Were both Zechariahs killed on the Day of Atonement?  Or could it be that the Targum is mixing up and confusing Zechariahs, saying Zechariah the son of Iddo when it really means Zechariah the son of Jehoida (the one killed on the Day of Atonement in Ecclesiastes Rabbah 3:19)?  Could the Targum here be making the same mistake that many scholars think Matthew 23:35 makes?  If so, then the Targum is not actually reflecting a Jewish tradition about the death of Zechariah the son of Berechiah.

I still tend to believe what I said in my post about II Chronicles 24:

Finally, not only is there no evidence that Zechariah the son of Berachiah was martyred, but I also find it unlikely.  Zechariah the son of Jehoiada spoke truth to power and had a message that could get him killed.  Zechariah the son of Berachiah, by contrast, supported the establishment, specifically the attempts by Governor Zerubabbel and Joshua the priest to rebuild Israel.  Why would Zechariah the son of Berechiah be martyred?  Was it because he was challenging post-exilic Jews for not completely giving paganism up?  Still, he was part of the establishment.


  1. If you compare the dates and events in Zechariah with the comments in Ezra you can see their motivation for murder - REBUKE FROM ZECHARIAH DURING - COMPLETION OF TEMPLE

    4th Year of Darius

    Zech. 7:9-12 ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’

    But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by His Spirit through the earlier prophets.

    6th Year of Darius

    According to Ezra the The temple was completed without the help offered by foreigners. A fuller explanation on my blog

    1. I appreciate your comment, alsowritten.


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