Matthew 27 opens with a continuation of events recorded in chapter 26. Namely, those dealing with the unfair trial of Christ (26:57, 59-68), and His being brought before Pontius Pilate (27:1-2). The beginning of chapter 27 starts in correlation with Mark and Luke’s accounts (see Mk. 15:1; Lk. 22:66). Yet Matthew’s account takes a slight detour and provides us with unique details concerning the plight of Judas Iscariot and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
There are two observations I would like to make before diving into the New Testament’s use of the Old:
- The Book of Matthew was written primarily to a Jewish audience. As such, there are several features that we can note about this Gospel. 1) It points to Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. 2) There are over 50 quotations and citations (paraphrases) from the Old Testament, anywhere between 75 and 115 allusions, and upwards of 100 identifiable echoes (this point compliments the first). 3) Matthew includes much about the Gentiles in order to shame the Jews. 4) There is an underlying motive to convict the Jews of their sins (this point compliments the third). 5) Presents Christ as the rejected Savior and King of the Jews. This final feature (namely, that dealing with rejection) seems to be the overall theme of Matthew’s Gospel. Thus, the inclusion of Judas and the Chief Priests fits well with this theme, and it makes sense that Matthew would draw a prophetic fulfillment from this account.
- There has been no little controversy surrounding Matthew’s mention of fulfillment from the Book of Jeremiah (27:9) when the quotation is actually taken from a passage in the Book of Zechariah. There have been many attempts at explaining this potential discrepancy. I will list three of such explanations before presenting what I believe to be the correct view. 1) The mention of Jeremiah instead of Zechariah stems from a copyist error. This is the simplest explanation, but it is altogether unsatisfactory. 2) Throughout the New Testament, we see that the entire Old Testament can be summed up in terms like “The Law, The Prophets, and the Psalms” (see Lk. 24:44). In this reference, the entire Old Testament canon is included under three headings (i.e., the category of “Psalms” would represent wisdom literature as a whole—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon). “The category of the prophets in rabbinic tradition, in rabbinic manuscripts, and in the Talmud is always headed by the book of Jeremiah. So to a Jew, the three sections of the Old Testament would be the Law, Jeremiah, and the Psalms.” (MacArthur, Sermon on Matthew 27:1-10). Thus, when Matthew refers to Jeremiah in verse 9, he is doing so because Jeremiah represented the prophets as a whole in the scroll he was quoting from. While this makes sense and seems to have some Scriptural support, it downplays Matthew’s clear allusion to Jeremiah when quoting from Zechariah 3) A third view acknowledges that Matthew’s text is a specific fulfillment of Jeremiah 19:1-11, but discredits the prophetic nature of Zechariah 11. Proponents claim that the Zechariah is included because it adds relevant imagery to the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy. In turn, it is concluded that Zechariah 11 is not referring to future events but is rather enacting events pertaining to his present, which are then picked up on by Matthew. While at first glance, this may seem like a probable conclusion, it neglects the eschatological nature of Zechariah chapters 9-11 as a whole (Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, 139.). Thus, in coming to understand Matthew’s use of the Old Testament, we must acknowledge the prophetic intent of BOTH Old Testament writers in the fulfillment of Matthew 27.
This leads us to the inevitable question—Why did Matthew quote from the Book of Zechariah in Matthew 27, yet point to material in the Book of Jeremiah when referring to fulfillment? First, we must acknowledge that this is a complex reference. It shows that Matthew thought through multiple texts when concluding the events that transpired in the death of Judas. Though he does play a part, I would argue that Judas is not necessarily the center of this account. Rather, the focus seems to be on the chief priests and their actions, which are demonstrative of Israel as a whole in their rejection of the Messiah. Second, we need to look into the potential connection between Jeremiah and Zechariah to understand better how Matthew read and understood the Old Testament and its bearing on the New. Let us first look at the Book of Zechariah.
Zechariah 11 deals with a prophetic enactment (also known as speak/sign-act) of future events dealing with the coming of Christ, His rejection by the people, and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D through one identified as “the foolish shepherd” (11:15). Because of this, even though Zechariah is performing certain acts in his immediate present, we should not neglect the prophetic significance of these actions. Simply put, he is giving us a demonstration of future events by acting them out in the present. This is not a foreign concept in prophetic literature. Arguably the most notable (and often bizarre) examples of this practice stem from the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezek. 4:1-8; 5:1-2; 12:3-7; 12:18; 16-24).
In this example of speech-act, Zechariah is acting out the part of two individuals. It is the first of these two that is significant in our discussion of Matthew 27. This is the Good Shepherd who shepherds “the flock doomed to slaughter” (v. 4). Zechariah clearly alludes to the shepherd imagery of Ezekiel 34:23, which identifies Israel’s good Shepherd as “My Servant David,” a clear reference to Christ, who is the Son of David and rightful heir of the Davidic throne. In the same way that Israel ultimately rejected Christ, so Zechariah is rejected by the people of his day as well (v. 8). What follows is a rejection of the flock (Israel) and them being given over to destruction (v. 9).
This leads to an interesting reference in verse 13. Here, Zechariah is told by the Lord that he is to cast his wage of 30 pieces of silver to “the potter.” This is an odd inclusion in Zechariah’s prophecy, yet it is one that is obviously intentional. The unique Hebrew spelling of “the potter” used in verse 13 is also utilized in Jeremiah 18 and 19 as well (Chou, The Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers, 140). In chapter 18, Jeremiah visits a potter who is seen molding a piece of pottery at his wheel. The Lord then draws a comparison concerning his own likeness to a potter, with his people being the clay. In chapter 19, Jeremiah is instructed to purchase a potter’s vessel (19:1a), gather together “some of the elders of the people and…the senior priests.” (19:1b), and take them to a specific valley (the Valley of Ben-Hinnom). Once there, Jeremiah utters a terrifying prophecy that is to come upon Jerusalem. Namely, the city will be entirely overthrown and cast into exile. The Lord specifically identifies Himself as the one who will bring this calamity upon the people (v. 3) in response to their forsaking of Him (v. 4). Thus, the Lord, who has already identified Himself as Israel’s Potter in chapter 18, is about to exercise His sovereign authority over His people. This is symbolically referenced when Jeremiah smashes his purchased vessel in the presence of the elders and senior priests.
Having discovered the source of Zechariah’s seemingly obscure reference, we can see that he is actually building upon previous revelation given by the prophet Jeremiah. Zechariah concludes that Israel’s rejection of the Messiah would result in an even further exile than the one they had previously experienced. I say “further exile” because even though the Israelites were eventually allowed to migrate back to their homeland and rebuild, they never truly regained their former status as a sovereign nation.
To bring this all together, Matthew, as an astute theologian, has drawn this same conclusion from the passages of Jeremiah and Zechariah. Thus, he is able to pick up on Zechariah’s intentional reference to Jeremiah and trace the theme of exile from the Old Testament to the New—where it will have its culmination in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In sum, Matthew attributes the fulfillment of his prophecy to Jeremiah because he recognizes Jeremiah’s significance in the formulation of Zechariah’s prophecy. As Matthew reads Zechariah 11, he cannot help but see the clear reference to Jeremiah 18 and 19 that Zechariah highlights. Matthew is not re-writing history (as some would claim). Rather, he is utilizing the same hermeneutical principles that his predecessors did. These connections demonstrate a harmonious continuity between the prophets and apostles in their reasoning through previous revelation.