Holy Week in a Different Key: Thirty Pieces of Silver

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HOLY WEEK INTERLUDE:  Next week, we will return to our series about the end-time.  But for now, it seems appropriate to spend some time thinking about this Holy Week, as we reflect on Jesus’ suffering and death, and anticipate his resurrection.

Under the pseudonym Major Vs. Minor, Ukrainian musician Oleg Berg has built an online career by transposing familiar happy songs like Happy Birthday from a major into a minor key, or sad ones like The Godfather theme from a minor into a major key.  Hearing these familiar tunes in a different key has an astounding effect.  The familiar birthday jingle becomes a funeral dirge, while the tragic theme of the Godfather trilogy seems strangely upbeat, even comic, evoking different images altogether.  Listening to this transposed theme, Forrest Wickman of Slate writes,

Do you remember The Godfather, the heartwarming 1972 comedy about one family’s struggles to hold its family business together? The one that had the family rivalry with the Tattaglias, but in which—after a hilarious musical interlude involving singer Johnny Fontane and a talking horse—each family put their differences behind them, in a wild and cathartic cannoli fight, just in time for the christening?

Similarly, I propose, the familiar biblical texts of this Holy Week–so very familiar that, sadly, we may not even hear them anymore!–take on new meaning and new life when we hear them in a different key.  I propose that as we listen to these accounts, we listen also to the passages from the Hebrew Bible that the Gospel writers were themselves reading, which shaped the way that they remembered and communicated the fateful events of Jesus’ last week.  With both themes ringing in our ears, perhaps we will hear in their harmonies and dissonances something new, something we could not hear before.

The Man Who Remembered God - The Armenian Church

Although we may not not know it, some of the most familiar words in the Old Testament to Christian ears come from the last six chapters of Zechariah.  Passages from the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ passion quoting from or alluding to these chapters of Zechariah include the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21:5; John 12:15; cf. Zech 9:9), Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:15; 27:9-10; cf. Zech 11:12-13), Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ betrayal (“I will hit the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will go off in all directions”; Matt 26:31//Mark 14:27; cf. Zech 13:7), and the piercing of Jesus’ side (John 19:37; Rev 1:7; cf. Zech 12:10).

Why these chapters in particular?  The heavy dependence of the gospel writers on Zechariah 9–14, particularly in their understanding of Jesus’ suffering and death, likely relates to the intensity of messianic expectation in these chapters. This expectation builds on the royal images implicit throughout Haggai-Zechariah 1-8 (Hag 2:20-23; Zech 3:8; 4:6-10a; 6:9-15) but makes them explicit.   So, Zechariah 9:1-10 speaks not metaphorically of a signet ring (Hag 2:23) or a branch (cf. Zech 3:8; 6:12-13), but quite explicitly of a coming king (9:9-10). A prevalent image in Zech 9–14 is the shepherd, an image commonly used in the ancient Near East for the king (10:3-5; 11:4-17; 13:7-9). Further, Zech 12:7, 8, 10, 12 and 13:1 all explicitly name the “house of David” (Paul Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8 and the Book of the Twelve,” in Tradition in Transition: Haggai and Zechariah 1—8 in the Trajectory of Hebrew Theology, ed. Mark J. Boda and Michael H. Floyd [New York: T. & T. Clark, 2008], 78).

That said, it is also plain that, in the final form of Zech 9–14, this messianic expectation is qualified and reassessed. As Paul Redditt observes,

the author apparently had struggled to understand why the glorious future the prophets had predicted had not come to fruition and had concluded that the fault lay with the leadership in Jerusalem, not with God and not even primarily with the populace as a whole (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 79).

As a result, while the perspective of Zech 9–14 in its final form is “not incompatible” with messianic hopes, “it does, however, manifest a level of disenchantment” (Redditt, “The King in Haggai-Zechariah 1—8,” 80).  But that very ambiguity may have been part of the appeal of these chapters to the Gospel writers, struggling to come to terms with the scandal of a crucified Messiah.

Judas Repentant, Returning the Pieces of Silver - Wikipedia

In this blog, we will turn specifically to the thirty pieces of silver Judas is given to betray Jesus.  Only Matthew relates this story:

Then one of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I turn Jesus over to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. From that time on he was looking for an opportunity to turn him in. . . .

When Judas, who betrayed Jesus, saw that Jesus was condemned to die, he felt deep regret. He returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, and  said, “I did wrong because I betrayed an innocent man.  But they said, “What is that to us? That’s your problem.”  Judas threw the silver pieces into the temple and left. Then he went and hanged himself.  The chief priests picked up the silver pieces and said, “According to the Law it’s not right to put this money in the treasury. Since it was used to pay for someone’s life, it’s unclean.”  So they decided to use it to buy the potter’s field where strangers could be buried.  That’s why that field is called “Field of Blood” to this very day.  This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 26:14-16; 27:3-10)


While Matthew cites Jeremiah here, the thirty pieces of silver in fact come from Zechariah 11:12-13:

And I said to them,
        “If it appears good to you, give me my wages;
        but if not, then stop.”
        So they weighed out my wages, thirty shekels of silver.
The Lord said to me,
        “Put it in the treasury.
        They value me at too magnificent a price.”
So I took the thirty shekels of silver
        and put them in the treasury of the Lord’s house.

In Zechariah, these verses are part of a larger narrative: a literary sign act, related in Zech 11:4-17.  The LORD appoints the prophet as a shepherd, relating to other shepherds (evidently, secular and religious leaders of the people).  Like him, these other shepherds are hired hands—although with no sense of loyalty to or responsibility for their charges (compare Ezek 34:1-10; John 10:12-13). Because of the rapacity of these false shepherds, who enrich themselves at the flock’s expense (11:5), the flock is doomed: “intended for slaughter” (11:4, 7).

Finally, the prophet gives up on his charges in disgust, and asks his employers (it is unclear who these are understood to represent) for his wages, if they see fit to pay him. The pay he is given—thirty shekels of silver—is a studied insult. In the oldest law code in Scripture, the Covenant Code in Exodus 20:22-23:33, thirty shekels of silver is the price paid to the slave owner when a slave is gored to death by an ox (Exod 21:32). By giving the prophet this wage, the owners of the flock indicate their contempt for the prophet and his labor—they treat him essentially as a slave, not a hired hand.

The prophet repays their contempt with contempt. Refusing to accept “this lordly price at which I was valued by them” (the sarcasm fairly drips!), the prophet gets rid of it, throwing the money, at the LORD’s direction, “into the treasury in the house of the Lord” (Zech 11:13, NRSV). Many English translations of Zech 11:13 follow the Syriac here, which assumes the Hebrew ‘otser (“treasury;” see NRSV, CEB, JPSV); but the Hebrew text before us actually reads yotser (“potter;” see KJV, NIV). The words sound very similar, making the confusion readily understandable—particularly in a passage that is already fairly obscure!

So–what does Matthew do with this strange story from Zechariah, and why does he ascribe it to Jeremiah?  Remember, Matthew’s tradition told him that Judas had betrayed Jesus for money (Mark 14:10-11). Further, Matthew and Luke both have a tradition connecting the money Judas was given for this betrayal to a field called Hakeldama, or the Field of Blood—although they account for that connection, and that name, in very different ways (compare Matt 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-20).

So–Matthew first relates the amount the religious leaders paid Judas to Zechariah’s thirty silver shekels (Matt 26:15). Perhaps Matthew sees this amount, as in Zech 11:12, as an insult: Jesus is “bought” from his betrayer with the price of a slave in Torah.  Next, Matthew turns to Zech 11:13, where  the money is put in the LORD’s house, given either to the ‘otser (“treasury”) or the yotser  (“potter”).  Finally, Matthew considers how all of this might relate to the purchase of a field. Both the potter and the field find clear resonances in the book of Jeremiah, where the prophet not only goes to a potter’s house at the Lord’s direction (Jer 18:1-12; see also 19:1-13), but also buys a field (Jer 32:1-15)—placing the deed, for good measure, in a pottery jar (32:14)!

Weaving this all together, Matthew presents a narrative involving Judas’ attempt to return the blood money, throwing the spurned coins into the temple (as in Zech 11:13), his subsequent suicide, and the priests’ use of the money to purchase a potter’s field, which is called (as it was purchased with blood money) Hakeldama (Matt 27:3-8). Then, for the fourteenth and final time in his gospel, Matthew relates an event in Jesus’ life to a Scripture reference:

This fulfilled the words of Jeremiah the prophet: And I took the thirty pieces of silver, the price for the one whose price had been set by some of the Israelites, and I gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me (Matt 27:9-10).

In his account of Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem, Matthew read Zechariah 9:9  literally: Jesus somehow enters Jerusalem mounted on two beasts, both an ass and her colt (Matt 21:6-7)!  Some see this bizarre image as a mistake, prompted by Matthew’s misreading of Zechariah.  But that is unlikely: Matthew, after all, is the most Jewish of the Gospel writers; certainly, he would have known and understood the Hebrew poetic technique of parallelism.  Instead, this wooden, deliberately literal reading is intended to ram the point home, making absolutely certain that the reader cannot miss the connection between Jesus’ actions and the prophet’s words.

Similarly, it is unlikely that the attribution of Matt 27:9-10 to Jeremiah is a mistake—particularly as the alleged “quotation” is not a quote at all, but a web of complex allusions. These two verses capture elements from Exod 21:32, Zech 11:13, and Jer 32:1-15. By ascribing the whole to Jeremiah, Matthew also calls to mind allusions to the potter’s house in Jer 18:1-12.

Image result for JderemiaH sistine

But the allusion to Jeremiah here also accomplishes another implicit purpose for Matthew. In Matthew’s account of the confession at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus asks who people say that he is, the disciples do not reply simply “one of the prophets” (as in Mark 8:28); rather, they specifically name the prophet Jeremiah (Matt 16:14).  Matthew of course knows that Jesus is not literally Jeremiah reborn.  He is, as Peter rightly declares in this gospel, “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).  Still, in the suffering, sorrowful prophet Jeremiah, Matthew found a precursor of Jesus, who like that prophet weeps over Jerusalem (Jer 9:1), and is betrayed by his friends (Jer 20:10).