Two More Ideas on the Identity of Zechariah in Matthew 23:35

In Matthew 23:35, Jesus is lambasting the scribes and 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 meant Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, who was murdered in the Temple court in II Chronicles 24.  Conservative Christian scholars and apologists have responded that Zechariah the son of Berechiah, the post-exilic prophet to whom the Book of Zechariah is attributed, could have been killed between the Temple and the altar.  That would mean that Jesus in Matthew 23:35 is not in error.

I have expressed my problems with this conservative Christian view (see here and here).  But I was interested to find that there are at least two other ideas about the identity of Zechariah the son of Berechiah in Matthew 23:35 in the history of biblical interpretation.  One view is that the Zechariah Jesus is mentioning is Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1).  This Zechariah was a priest.  The other view is that it is Zechariah the son of Baruch, who was later killed by the Zealots and Idumeans in the Jewish war (c. 70 C.E.), according to Josephus in Jewish Wars 4:334-343.

A.  Let’s start with the view that the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 is Zechariah the father of John the Baptist.  I recently came across this view when I was reading the Protevangelion of James, a second century C.E. Christian document.  In chapter 16, Herod is going on his rampage of killing babies, and he is looking for John, who is hidden.  Zechariah refuses to tell Herod where John is, so Herod has him killed between the entrance of the Temple and the altar.

The martyrdom of Zechariah the father of John the Baptist appears in other sources as well, albeit the motivation behind the martyrdom is different.  Origen (third century C.E.), in Sermon 25 of his Commentary on Matthew, relays a tradition that he received about how Zechariah came to be martyred.  There was a certain place in the Temple that virgins could enter to worship God, but this place was prohibited to women who were not virgins.  Mary had just given birth to Jesus, and she was going to this place in the Temple to worship.  People were hindering her from doing so because they thought she was not a virgin: she had given birth to a baby, after all!  But Zechariah the priest allows her to worship in that place with the other virgins, and he attempts to reassure the people that Mary is still a virgin.  Thinking that Zechariah is transgressing the law by allowing Mary into the place of the virgins, the men of that generation kill Zechariah between the Temple and the Altar.

Jerome (fourth century C.E.), in his Commentary on Matthew 23:35, refers to the view that Zechariah was killed because he predicted the advent of the Savior.  Jerome dismisses this view, however, for Jerome believes that the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 was Zechariah the son of Jehoida, the Zechariah of II Chronicles 24.  How does Jerome get around the fact that the Zechariah in II Chronicles 24 was the son of Jehoida, whereas the one Jesus mentioned was the son of Berechiah?  Essentially, Jerome focuses on the meanings of the names in Hebrew: Berechiah means “blessed of the LORD,” and Jehoida means “righteousness” (according to Jerome; actually, the name relates more to the LORD knowing).  According to Edmon L. Gallagher, Jerome’s point is that Berechiah and Jehoida are synonymous.

Gallagher’s article is worth checking out.  It is entitled “The Blood from Abel to Zechariah in the History of Interpretation,” and it appeared in New Testament Studies 60 (2014): 121-138.  I learned about the views of Origen and Jerome on Zechariah from this article.  Gallagher also mentions other patristic sources that interpret the Zechariah of Matthew 23:35 as Zechariah the father of John the Baptist: Basil of Caesarea (Hom. in Sanctem Christi generationem 5, PG 31.1468c-1469a); Gregory of Nyssa (In diem natalem Salvadoris (ed. F. Mann, Gregorii Nysseni opera 10.2; Leiden: Brill, 1996) 248-250; and Cyril of Alexandria (Comm. in Lucam 11:47, PG 72.720b-721a).  Gallagher argues that Greek fathers preferred the Zechariah father of John the Baptist interpretation, whereas Latin fathers preferred the Zechariah son of Jehoida interpretation.  A significant factor in the difference, according to Gallagher, is that the Old Greek translation of II Chronicles 24 said that Azarias, not Zechariah, was the person who was killed in II Chronicles 24.

B.  Josephus talks about the murder of Zechariah the son of Baruch in Jewish War 4:334-343:  Vv 334-335 state:

“And now these Zealots and Idumeans were quite weary of barely killing men, so they had the impudence of setting up fictitious tribunals and judicatures for that purpose; and as they intended to have Zacharias, the son of Baruch, one of the most eminent of the citizens, slain,–so what provoked them against him was, that hatred of wickedness and love of liberty which were so eminent in him: he was also a rich man, so that by killing him, they did not only hope to seize his effects, but also to get rid of a man that had great power to kill them” (Whiston’s translation).

In this story, Zechariah son of Baruch was a righteous man, and the Zealots and Idumeans wanted his wealth and feared his power.  Thus, they trumped up charges against him.  According to v 343, this Zechariah was killed in the middle of the Temple.

I learned about this passage from Gallagher’s article, and also Meyer’s NT Commentary.  If this is the Zechariah Jesus meant in Matthew 23:35, then Jesus is either speaking prophetically, or is being depicted as speaking prophetically, for the event Josephus describes occurred decades after Jesus lived on earth.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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