Thursday, December 28, 2017

Who was the mysterious Zacharias of Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51?

Both Matthew and Luke report of a fire-and-brimstone sermon by Jesus, in which he pronounces the Pharisees' guilt of all shed righteous blood on earth, from that of righteous Abel to that of Zacharias son of Barachias, who "they" murdered between the temple and the altar (Matthew 23:35, Luke 11:51). We know who Abel was but the fellow named Zacharias is harder to place.

The father of the prophet Zechariah was called Berechiah (Zechariah 1:1), so that seems like a good bet, but this Zechariah worked about 500 years before Jesus blamed the Pharisees for all the innocent blood shed on earth. That would mean that Jesus figured that no innocent blood had been shed for the previous five centuries, which would be quite a statement. And Zechariah was never reported murdered, as far as we know. Of course, a lot of things happened in those days that we don't know about but one would assume that Jesus wouldn't refer to an event that was so relatively obscure that not a single other report of it survives.

A Zechariah whose murder does appear in the Scriptures is a prophet in the early days of the divided kingdom, who protested the people's worship of idols and was stoned to death in the court of the temple of YHWH and by command of king Joash (2 Chronicles 24:21). The name is right and the place is right (the inner or priestly court of the temple contained the altar, so Zechariah could have been perfectly positioned between the altar and the actual sanctuary), but this story plays in the ninth century BC (that's more than eight centuries without innocent blood shed), and this Zechariah's father wasn't called Berechiah but Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20).

Proponents of this theory argue that many people in the Old Testament have two names that are used interchangeably, but why would Jesus refer to someone we all know, and all know to be a son of Jehoiada, confusingly as a son of Berechiah, as if he were the later prophet Zechariah?

Others claim that the innocent Zacharias was in fact the father of John the Baptist, but that would require assuming that his father was called Barachias and that he was killed in the temple court, and no one else talked about that. But, really, if we would allow assumptions like that we might as well assume that righteous Zacharias himself isn't otherwise known.

Much more radical is a connection between our mystery man and a story told by the famous Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (see our article on Dalmanutha), about a wealthy man named Zacharias, son of Baruch, who was murdered "in the middle of the temple" by riotous Zealots who had first organized a mock trial presided over by seventy judges, and who had swiftly acquitted Zacharias, much to the chagrin of the zealots (Jewish Wars, IV, 5, 4). The names Baruch and Berechiah are closely related (one is short for the other, and this kind of truncation is very common in the Bible; the famous Baruch-bulla that surfaced in 1975 even reads "Belonging to Berechiah, son-of-Neriah, the scribe") and there is no huge time gap between this murder and the time of Jesus. The only problem with this theory is that the murder of Zacharias by the zealots happened in the year 67 AD.

Scholars are generally not happy with this connection. "It's doubtful whether this [interpretation] can be justified," writes Spiros Zodhiates (The Complete Wordstudy Dictionary — New Testament) mildly. "That Jesus should predict the incident is absurd," roars John Macpherson (Zacharias: a study of Matthew 23:35).

In footnote IV-9 on his translation of the Jewish Wars, William Whiston makes the obvious objection that the murder of Zacharias by the zealots was decades in the future of Jesus. And he suggests that Josephus cared enough about the sanctity of the temple that he would have certainly mentioned if the zealots had murdered acquitted Zacharias in the inner court.

Here at Abarim Publications we're not so sure.

Josephus paints a clear picture of complete anarchy. It seems that there were hundreds of people gathered in the temple complex that day; spectators, seventy judges and enough zealots to dominate everybody. After the mock trial, the zealots murder Zacharias (yelling something like, "Here's our acquittal! See how that one suits you!") and pummel the seventy judges out of the temple complex with the backs of their swords, so that they could demonstrate to the citizens that they were nothing but slaves to the zealots. Josephus shows obvious indignation to the zealots' general disrespect. As Josephus notes about the Zealots a few paragraphs further up:

"These men, therefore, trampled upon all the laws of men, and laughed at the laws of God; and for the oracles of the prophets, they ridiculed them as the tricks of jugglers. Yet did these prophets foretell many things concerning [the rewards of] virtue, and [punishments of] vice, which when these zealots violated, they occasioned the fulfilling of those very prophecies belonging to their own country; for there was a certain ancient oracle of those men, that the city should then be taken and the sanctuary burnt, by right of war, when a sedition should invade the Jews, and their own hand should pollute the temple of God. Now while these zealots did not [quite] disbelieve these predictions, they made themselves the instruments of their accomplishment" (Josephus — Jewish Wars IV.6.3).

The problem of chronology is evenly easily solved. The reference to Abel and Zacharias was not made by Jesus but by the narrator of the story (whoever that was, Matthew, Luke or the Q-author, or even a later editor). It's an insert, a gloss, comparable to the "let the reader understand" inserts of Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, and aimed at the audience of the gospels who certainly knew very well about the murder of Zacharias and when it had happened, namely very recently.

Saying that Matthew and Luke referred to a fifth or ninth century martyr is like supposing that when a late 20th century author speaks of "the Kennedy assassination," he is talking about poor lord David Kennedy who was killed at Flodden in 1513. If the evangelists hadn't meant the obvious Zacharias, they would have had to add "Zacharias, not the famous one!"

Poor David Kennedy, who met his untimely demise at the Battle of Flodden in 1513

The murder of Zacharias marked the end of an era. It was an early symptom of the imminent destruction of the temple and the collapse of Jerusalem, and that collapse marked the end of Jewish reality, in effect the end of the world. The murders of Abel and Zacharias encompassed the whole of history, exactly the stretch of time that Jesus speaks about, but the Abel and Zacharias remark was never intended to be placed in the mouth of Jesus; it's a comment obviously made by the story teller. Red-letter Bibles should stop printing red after the word "earth" and pick it up again after the word "altar".

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