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Does Matthew Gild the Lily?

March 17, 2012
Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Zeba A. Crook, Ph.D

Last week, James McGrath posted a link to a fascinating article by Zeba Crook. Crook, a professor at Carleton University, argues for the need for a secular Bible translation (i.e. a translation that does not concern itself with upholding the theological commitments of a faith community). In the course of doing so, Crook described a translation issue that was new to me – one involving the circumstances of Judas’s death.

Most readers will already be aware of the two quite different versions of the story found in Acts and Matthew. In Acts 1:18-19, Judas takes the money he receives for betraying Jesus (no amount is ever specified; see Luke 22:3-6) and buys some land. While on his newly-acquired property, Judas falls, spills his guts (literally), and folks take to calling the place “Field of Blood” as a result.

Matthew’s Judas, on the other hand, is not in the market for real estate. Rather, in Matthew 27:3-10, Judas is so overcome with remorse that he throws his ill-gotten 30 pieces of silver into the temple, runs off and hangs himself. Matthew doesn’t tell us where. The chief priests collect the coins and decide to use the money to buy “the potter’s field”. In Matthew’s account, the field comes to be known as the Field of Blood, not because it was the location of Judas’s death, but because it was bought with “blood money”.

If you’re familiar with evangelical apologetics, you’ll have heard the creative harmonization in which Judas is said to have first hung himself and then, after a bit of decomposing, had his intestines spill out. Voila! No contradiction! … Except for the two completely different stories about what happened to the money, who actually bought the field, and why it was called the Field of Blood. It’s enough to keep an inerrantist awake at night.

But the Acts/Matthew conflict is a topic for another day. The translation issue described by Crook involves Matthew’s claim that the circumstances of Judas’s death fulfilled prophecy. In verses 9-10, the author of Matthew writes as follows:

Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.

Matthew’s reference to Jeremiah appears to be a mistake. Most would acknowledge that the author actually has in mind this passage in Zechariah 11:12-13:

I told them, “If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it.” 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.

Comparing the two passages, we find these elements in common:

  • Someone being valued at a price of 30 pieces of silver.
  • The throwing of coins in the temple.
  • Something about a potter.

Matthew’s story of Judas’s final hours has all of these elements, allowing him to contend that the event was a fulfillment of Scripture.

But are these details historical? Note that the version of Judas’s death in Luke/Acts has none of these elements. Did Matthew get a little creative with the historical details in order to make the “prophecy” work? To borrow the language of John Dominic Crossan, is this “history remembered” or “prophecy historicized”?

This is where Crook’s article comes in. It turns out that the Hebrew word translated “potter” in Zechariah is more properly translated “treasury”. Zechariah is throwing his money into the temple treasury, not to a potter. If you read Zechariah 11, you’ll see that the reference to a potter comes completely out of the blue. Why exactly is there a potter in the temple? Why is he getting the money? It makes WAY more sense for Zechariah to throw money into the treasury in the temple than to throw money to some random potter in the temple. Crook’s complaint is that translators refuse to correct the errant translation in Zechariah because they don’t want to embarrass Matthew.

The problem for Matthew is magnified by his claim in Matt. 27:6-7:

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.

In Matthew, the temple treasury is the one place the money cannot go!

Was Matthew actually aware of a tradition in which the blood money was used to buy a “potter’s field” or did he misread the reference to the treasury in Zechariah 11 as a reference to a potter and decide to add the potter detail to his Judas story?

If this were an isolated incident, I’d be more inclined to give Matthew the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time Matthew appears to have stumbled in attempting to fit his narrative to an OT passage. All four gospels record the triumphal entry of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Matthew declares that this act was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, which reads:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! 
   Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! 
See, your king comes to you, 
   righteous and victorious, 
lowly and riding on a donkey, 
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Perhaps this was a fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9 – perhaps even a deliberate fulfillment on Jesus’ part. The problem is that Matthew appears to misread the OT passage. He reads Zechariah as referring to two separate animals – a donkey AND a colt. In reality, the passage in Zechariah is simply employing Hebrew synonymous parallelism, wherein the same object (a donkey) is described twice using different language.

Mark, Luke, and John all describe Jesus riding a single donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew is the only author to add a second animal:

They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. (Matt. 21:7)

The bizzare spectacle of Jesus riding both a donkey and a colt into Jerusalem appears to have its explanation in Matthew’s overzealous attempt to match the details of his Jesus narrative to what he believed to be the OT text under fulfillment.

Here, I think, Matthew is caught red-handed. It would seem that Matthew was willing to change the details of an event to make it line up with an OT passage in which he believed he had identified a messianic prophecy.

I get that ancient authors didn’t feel the need to conform to our modern standards of objective history writing. I get that the gospels contain theological reflection on the meaning of Jesus, not just flat biographical accounts. But it sure makes a mess out of apologetic claims that Jesus fulfilled OT prophecies when, in some instances at least, the NT author is fudging the facts to make the events of Jesus’ life appear to match OT passages.

If Matthew is willing to do this, what then should we make of his account of Joseph & Mary fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus? Is this a bit of creative storytelling in service of Matthew’s aim of portraying Jesus as the new Moses? I’m tempted to think so.

What should we do with Matthew’s claim (in Matt. 1:22-23) that the virgin birth was a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14? Isaiah 7:14 actually refers only to a “young woman” giving birth, not a “virgin”, as Matthew claims (relying, presumably, on the mistranslation in the Septuagint). In the case of the virgin birth, I wouldn’t be so quick to conclude that Matthew invented this detail, given that Luke provides the same information independently.

Still, it makes you wonder.

I’m certainly not suggesting that there isn’t a historical core underlying Matthew’s narrative in most instances. I don’t suppose, for instance, that the entire Passion narrative is just a pastiche of OT prophecies stitched together into a fictitious whole (à la Crossan). But those instances where Matthew’s misreading of an OT passage allow us to catch him in the act of adding prophetic flourishes to his narrative do make me a little uneasy about accepting his history at face value.

There was a day, not so long ago, when an issue like this would have had my little fundamentalist self all tied up in knots. Today, I’m okay with it. Because I’m learning, as Rachel Held Evans puts it, to love the Bible for what it is, not what I want it to be.

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18 comments

  1. […] such prophecy to try to avoid its fulfillment.”“There was a day, not so long ago, when an issue like this would have had my little fundamentalist self all tied up in knots.”“The only way forward in a pluralistic society of diverse faiths such as ours is to […]


  2. Interesting post. The challenge for any ‘secular’ translator (tish and tosh to the idea that ‘secular’ translators would translate without their own biases) would be to make sure they don’t correct Matthew’s ‘mistakes’.

    By the way, the new Common English Bible has ‘treasury’ in Zechariah 11 but notes that some manuscripts do read ‘potter’.


    • Good on the new Common English Bible! That’s not one we see much over here. I do think Crook has a point. A translator who has no particular stake in the outcome would at least be less inclined to try to “fix” passages that are troubling for the faithful. But I imagine you are right. No matter who does the translation, their biases are bound to influence the outcome.


      • The Common English Bible is rather new, not a shock it hasn’t gone out a great geographical distance yet.
        The more one reads the synoptics, the more one gets the idea that the stripped-down, lean narrative of Mark was the way to go (not that Mark doesn’t have its quirks).


  3. Wow, that’s pretty odd about the “potter”/”treasury” confusion. I never heard that before. I like your summary of the problems that become apparent to anyone who reads the Gospels. After all, if the Bible is absolute truth, then why wouldn’t the Gospels agree absolutely? It took me a while to overcome my prejudiced belief in inerrancy and accept that Matthew was “overreaching” in his desire to prove Jesus the Messiah. I tend to agree with those who say Matthew (possibly a Roman?) was not personally familiar with the context of the Jewish prophecies and so ended up shoehorning Jesus’s life into prophetic fulfillment. The virgin birth, the growing up in Egypt, the laughably wrong reading of Hebrew poetic emphasis (a colt, the foal of a donkey) can really shake a newbies faith, or the faith of one who has heard a lot of sermons and not read the Bible too carefully. Were my Bible teachers lying to me– never mind that, were the writers of the Bible lying to all of us? But I got over the shock and learned to accept the Bible all over again. 😀


    • Thanks Alan. Frankly, I think the Bible becomes a lot more interesting after you take the inerrancy lenses off. The authors are suddenly unique individuals with unique perspectives and quirks, instead of homogeneous mouthpieces all proclaiming an identical message.


  4. How about a committee with Christian, Jewish and secular scholars and linguists on board.

    Anyone notice the difference between Isaiah 40:3a and Matthew 3:3a?

    Isa 40:3a A voice of one calling:
    “In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the LORD…

    Matt 3:3a This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
    “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
    ‘Prepare the way for the Lord…

    Definite translator bias, changing the theological meaning of the passage to emphasise the ministry of John the Baptist.


    • While the Hebrew suggests that it’s ‘A voice … “In the wilderness prepare…”, the Septuagint pretty much has what Matthew quotes. So it depends on what copy of the OT Matthew was using.

      Also, if Matthew does alter the quotation to make a theological point, that’s one thing; but what you seem to be suggesting is that translators have altered the quotation from Isaiah, which is another issue.


  5. Hi Terry

    Given that there was no punctuation in Ancient Greek. Where to begin the Isaianic quote in Matthew 3 is solely up to the discretion of the translator.

    While I don’t want to detract from the ministry of John the Baptist, I’m intrigued with the line “In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord”.

    Might mean something for those of us who are in the wilderness or desert spiritually.

    The ancient Greeks did not have any equivalent to our modern device of
    punctuation. Sentence punctuation was invented several centuries after the time of Christ. The oldest copies of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament are written with no punctuation.

    http://greek-language.com/grklinguist/?p=657


  6. I don’t think punctuation is the issue, though. As far as I can see, and at the risk of repetition, it’s about whether Matthew was quoting from the Hebrew text of Isaiah or from the Septuagint, because each of those texts phrases things differently. And even if Matthew did change things deliberately (which is quite possible – each Evangelist painted a particular picture of Jesus), I think it’s a stretch to refer to him as a ‘translator’, at least with our modern notion of ‘translator’ in mind.

    If you’re wanting to understand the ‘In the wilderness, prepare…’ reading, you’re better of focusing on Isaiah than on Matthew.


  7. […] This critical look at the gospel of Matthew is not for the faint of heart. Share this:TwitterFacebookTumblrStumbleUponEmailPrintLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post.   […]


  8. re: virgin birth. Isn’t the Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ the same as that for ‘young woman’?


    • No, it’s not actually. I’ll quote Crook’s article on that point, “the Hebrew of Isaiah has almah, which unambiguously means “young woman.” Of course, in this culture, one hoped that a young woman was a virgin (which possibly explains the Septuagint translator’s decision), but there was a Hebrew word for virgin (betulah) that was not used by Isaiah here, which presumably he would have done if that was what he meant to say.”


      • From several reading on the internets etc, it seems it might not be as clear as Crook’s makes it. (Joel 1:8 etc). The more interesting point for me is that the prophecy is quite clearly not messianic. It seems to refer to one who will be born before Judah is delivered fro the hands of Assyria and Israel (which happens just a few years later)


      • Help me out here. Joel 1:8 refers to a virgin and the Hebrew word used is betulah. Isn’t that in keeping with what Crook says? I’m with you on the prophecy having a more immediate context in mind.


      • Ah, yes. Some argue that in the context of Joel 1:8, woman in question is married (she has lost the husband of her youth) and therefore is not biologically a virgin. That’s the argument, at least. Of course, one can also say that it refers to a betrothed woman who has lost her husband (which I favor) but you can’t exactly discount the former position. And I’m not exactly a Hebrew scholar


      • “And I’m not exactly a Hebrew scholar”
        That makes two of us 🙂


  9. Interesting stuff you point out. I would say that the Matthean virgin birth story is a good candidate for his “embellishments.” it still amazes me that the virgin birth, one of the most unimportant, least frequently mentioned topics in the entire Bible, having not evem symbollic merit in ancient Judaism, still forms such an important part of modern Christian dogma. Its mentioned only in the “pre-prologue” section Luke, in Matthews “to fulfill prophecy” slot, and nowhere else in those same gospels or any other gospels, nor anywhere else in the entire New Testament. Its particularly absent from the earliest writings, and distinctly Pagan in origin. Just one of many of Matthews desperate attempts to support his interpretation of Jesus life, i suppose!



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