Monday, April 14, 2008

The Death of Zechariah, Part 1

More than a year ago, Kevin Wilson posted on what he considered a strange statement by Jesus in Luke 13:33–34, which describes Jerusalem as the city that kills the prophets. Kevin thought this was strange because there is very little in the OT that would justify this description of Jerusalem.
The tradition of the “killing of the prophets” is found in other passages in the Gospels (and the NT as a whole), notably Matthew 23:35 // Luke 11:51, which speaks of the righteous blood from Abel to Zechariah. The identification of Abel is quite easy—he is the first person killed in the Bible (Gen 4:8). Scholars have long (since the Patristic era) debated who exactly this Zechariah is.
The statement as recorded in Matthew 23:35 identifies Zechariah as the son of Berachiah, though this patronym is not given in the Lukan version. Jesus further said (in both versions) that Zechariah was killed between the sanctuary and the altar. These details, far from clearing up matters, have actually contributed to greater confusion, because they point to two separate individuals.
(1) Zechariah son of Berachiah son of Iddo (eleventh in canonical order of “Minor Prophets”) is the obvious candidate based on the patronym, but his death is unrelated in the Bible.
(2) Zechariah son of Jehoiada is the obvious candidate based on the description of the death, since 2 Chronicles 24:20-21 says that he was killed in the temple court. But his father’s name was not Berachiah.
It would seem as if these two Zechariahs were confounded, and this is exactly what happened in several rabbinic texts. For example, Targum Lamentations 2:20 (which is cited in Chris Brady’s comment to Kevin’s post, mentioned above) says that one of the reasons for Jewish woes is their murder of “Zechariah the son of Iddo,[1] the high priest and faithful prophet, in the House of the Sanctuary of the Lord on the Day of Atonement, because he admonished you not to do that which was evil before the Lord” (translation by Philip S. Alexander, The Targum of Lamentations, Aramaic Bible 17B [Liturgical Press, 2008], 141).[2] In the footnote (p. 141 n. 73), Alexander translates Lamentations Rabba 2:20 §23, which has a very similar comment, but speaks instead of Zechariah the son of Jehoiada.
That Jesus would have Zechariah son of Jehoiada in mind is supported by the many rabbinic passages attributing the destruction of the temple, in part, to this Zechariah’s murder. These include, from the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57b and Sanhedrin 96b, from the Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 4, as well as Pesikta de Rav Kahana 15 and Targum Esther 12. This reproduces Chris Brady’s list (in his The Rabbinic Targum of Lamentations [Brill, 2003], 57 n. 114; or see his D.Phil. dissertation, p. 118 n. 393); for more rabbinic citations, see Alexander’s translation of the targum, p. 141 n. 73.
Naturally, not all would agree that Jesus intended to speak of Zechariah son of Jehoiada, nor do I think this is the best interpretation of the passage. In the next post, I will present the various possibilities that have been discussed for the identification of the Zechariah in Matthew 23:35.
In the meantime, the following works might prove helpful.
David Satran, Biblical Prophets in Byzantine Palestine: Reassessing the Lives of the Prophets (Leiden: Brill, 1995). There is a helpful survey of scholarship on the tradition of the “death of the Prophets” on pp. 25–28.
Betsy Halpern Amaru, “The Killing of the Prophets: Unraveling a Midrash,” Hebrew Union College Annual 54 (1983): 155–180.
Sheldon H. Blank, “The Death of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature,” Hebrew Union College Annual 12–13 (1937–38): 327–46.

[1] Zechariah the “Minor Prophet” is called “son of Iddo” in Ezra 5:1 and 6:14, apparently in reference to his grandfather.
[2] lists Kevin Cathcart as the translator, but Alexander’s preface makes it clear that he did the translating. Cathcart is, in fact, not mentioned on the title page or in the preface. It appears to be Amazon’s error.


Larry Wilson said...

Did you ever write a Death of Zechariah, Part 2? I would be very interested in your further thoughts on how we got the New Testament texts that we have referring to this.

Ed Gallagher said...

No, I never have written a second part to this post. I'm very bad about continuing with series, or actually posting anything at all. But I am still interested in this topic, and I am currently developing an academic paper on the history of interpretation of Mt. 23:35 // Lk. 11:51. So, it is not unlikely that a second part to this post could be forthcoming, after 2 1/2 years.

Thanks for the prodding.

SRR said...

In the Syriac biblical tradition, the Zechariah referred to by Christ is Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. I.e. Christ was saying all the blood of righteous people from Abel's down to the time he spoke etc. The earliest Syriac text of Luke relates how he was killed by Herod's Jewish henchmen on the steps of the altar in the Temple. Several Syriac commentaries on the NT have further details. The one by Isho`dad of Merv is the most accessible. An English translation was published by Margaret Gibson in 1911, see page 23 in: Good luck with your studies. Regards, SRR.

Ed Gallagher said...

Thanks, SRR. I haven't researched the Syriac tradition for this verse, so I appreciate the overview you provide and the references. I have done some research on the Greek and Latin tradition, which I published earlier this year in _New Testament Studies_. You can access that article here:

SRR said...

The only Greek speaking theologian to know of the Eastern tradition I mentioned was Origen. Writing before AD 251, He mentions the tradition about the murder of Zechariah, John the Baptist's father in his discussion on Mt. 23.35. Regards, SRR. BTW, I didn't access your article - not keen on signing up.