Which Zechariah was murdered in the temple?

Posted on Feb.07, 2009. Filed in 2 Chronicles, Zechariah, Matthew. Average rating: 5.6 / 10 (Rate It).

Jesus frequently rebuked the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. In one of his more vehement attacks, he refers to the death of the martyr Zechariah, who was stoned in the temple having delivered a rebuke from God against idolatry. Jesus, though, seems to confuse his Zechariahs; he says that this happened to Zechariah son of Barachiah, when it actually happened to Zechariah son of Jehoiada.

Jesus’ rebuke is recorded by Matthew:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.’ [Matthew 23:29-36 (NRSV)]

The death of Zechariah is recorded in 2 Chronicles:

Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, ‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.’ But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. [2 Chronicles 24:20-21 (NRSV)]

The Zechariah to whom Jesus refers, Zechariah son of Barachiah, is the author of the book bearing his name:

In the eighth month, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah son of Berechiah… [Zechariah 1:1a (NRSV)]

So which Zechariah was murdered in the temple, the son of Jehoiada or the son of Barachiah?

N.B. All posts are written in a style sympathetic to the claim of Biblical error, even in cases where the author ("Errancy") disagrees with the claim. See the About page for the site's philosophy.

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  1. 1

    It strikes me that this is another instance of the Abiathar/Ahimilech problem, where Jesus (or the gospel author) just mentions the wrong man.

    You could say that perhaps Zechariah son of Berechiah also died in this way (his death isn’t mentioned in the OT, I think) but that’s grasping at straws.

  2. 2

    There are two Zechariahs in this tangle. The son of Jehoiada lived in the 9th century BC. The son of Barachaiah lived in the 6th century BC. This mistake would be akin to my confusing Edward the Confessor with Edward Longshanks (the later was named after the former, but that’s one hell of a confusion).

    The first Zechariah lived in the First Temple period and the second Zechariah lived in the Second Temple period.

    Jesus accuses the priests of killing the second Zechariah. The first Zechariah was killed by officials of Judah who wanted to worship pagan deities, not by priests.

    Jesus says that the second Zechariah was killed between the sanctuary (holy of holies) and the altar. A place only priests could go. The first Zechariah, though killed on temple grounds, must have been killed in an area accessible to non-priests.

    There is thus, quite a difference between the murder that Jesus recounts and the Murder recounted in II Chronicles. At some point, you’ve got to assume that Jesus is referring to a different murder than the murder of the first Zecheriah.

    Here’s a thought experiment for you. Suppose that Jesus had said, “from the blood of righteous Abel, to the blood of the prophet of God whom you (priests) murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” Would you still assume that he was talking about the Zechariah of II Chronicles?

    I would not. I would think he was referring to the murder of a prophet that was well-known to his contemporary listeners, but whose murder was not recorded in a form that came down to us.

    Does the fact that Jesus identifies the victim of this second murder as the second Zechariah make that assumption any less plausible?

  3. 3

    I see this suggestion that the later Zechariah also died in the temple as too much of a coincidence. An error is much, much more likely.

    There’s another good reason to think Jesus was trying to refer to the 2 Chronicles event: in the Hebrew ordering, 2 Chronicles was the last book of the OT.

    So Abel is the first murder mentioned in the OT, and Zechariah (of 2 Chronicles) was one of the last. This makes Jesus’ comment nicely symmetrical.

    (I’m indebted to the NIV Study Bible for this point.)

  4. 4

    Were it simply the father of Zechariah that Jesus got wrong then the charge of unlikely coincidence would be stronger. But the fact is that there are a number of important details that he got ‘wrong’.

    As a general point it seems obvious that as the number of ‘errors’ that you perceive in a person’s account of some event expand you have to start thinking that he’s not talking about the same event that you are.

    Were I to say that the son of Robert E. Lee shot the President in the head, you might think I was making a mistake (John Wilkes Booth was no relation to Robert E. Lee). If I add that he did it with a rifle, you might still think that I’m really mistaken. When I add that he did it in Dallas from the sixth floor of a book depository warehouse while the President drove by in his motorcade, you’ve got to start suspecting that something has gone terribly wrong in the conversation. Of course, I was talking about Lee Harvey Oswald, son of Robert E. Lee Oswald, and the President in question was JFK, not Lincoln.

    Unfortunately, I have no formal way to test when you reach that point in any conversation. Have we reached that point in Matthew 23?

    It’s also worth noting that Jesus wasn’t the only one to make this ‘mistake’ if mistake it be. An Aramaic translation/commentary on the Book of Lamentations (called Targum Lamentations by the scholars) mentions the murder in the temple of Zechariah son of Barachiah son of Iddo. Obviously, Lamentations was written well before the second Zechariah, and the verse in question (Lam. 2:20) makes no reference to any Zechariah. So this was an addition by the commentator. Did the commentator also make a mistake? Or was he deliberately referring to the murder of the second Zechariah? Is this evidence of a common mistake in Jesus day? Or is it evidence of a common tradition about the death of the second Zechariah?

  5. 5

    BTW, the book written down by Zechariah was (along with Haggai and Malachi) one of the last books in the OT chronologically. As such, his murder would have been one of the last murders of Biblical figures. So Abel and the second Zechariah make nice rhetorical ‘bookends’ that way as well.

  6. 6

    I think the differences between Jesus’ version and the 2 Chronicles version are rather minor. Are you sure these officials in 2 Chronicles can’t be priests?

    The Targum thing is quite interesting. Do we know when it was written?

    (By the way, according to it reads “Zechariah son of Iddo”, but that’s close enough I guess, since the more famous Zechariah is indeed grandson of Iddo…)

  7. 7

    Some responses.

    1. On the Form of the Argument:

    It’s not surprising to me that we’re going to have some diversity of opinion here. As I’ve already noted, I have no formal way to determine that a speaker’s account of an event has diverged from the known facts of the event so much that you realize that the speaker isn’t giving an account of the event at all. I imagine that the ‘tipping point’ is going to vary widely and depend a lot on the assumptions you bring to the judgment.

    2. Could The First Zechariah’s Killers be Priests?

    The operative verse here is verse 21: “So _they_ conspired against him and at the command of the king _they_ stoned him to death in the court of the house of the LORD.” The question is “Who are they?” In context, “they” refers either to the officials of Judah or to the people. If its the former, then the killers cannot be priests because only members of the tribe of Levi could be priests. If it’s the latter, the killers would still include both Levites and non-Levites (which squares with the killing occurring in the courtyard…in Solomon’s temple, the only area open to non-priests).

    3. The Targum Lamentations.

    Please note that I am not in any way trying to identify this work as authoritative. All I was trying to argue for was that Jesus was not alone in the claim that the second Zechariah was murdered in the temple. The work was written in the first century. It’s possible, but unlikely, that it was written by a rabbi with inerrantist leanings regarding the words of Christ.

  8. 8

    “Jesus was not alone in the claim that the second Zechariah was murdered in the temple”

    Yes, but if you go here…

    …you’ll get a reasonable argument that the Targum is itself referring to the 2 Chronicles Zechariah, not the other one…

  9. 9

    Brady’s argument is, more or less, the same argument given here. The similarity between the TgLam commentator’s description and the events of II Chronicles make it likely that the commentator intended to refer to II Chronicles.

    Note this difference: the commentator does not address his remarks to priests as if _they_ did it. Nor does he mention that the killing occurred somewhere other than the outer courtyard. In isolation, then, the argument that the commentator simply made a mistake seems, if anything, even stronger than the case against Jesus.

    But nothing is ever in isolation. Against the argument that the commentator made a mistake is the fact that _he_ wasn’t alone in his ‘error’. And the person we know of that agrees with him (Jesus) described the event in a way that seems to diverge from the events of II Chronicles.

    And there is this. The commentator mentions that Zechariah was the high priest and was killed on the day of atonement. The one day of the year when he would have been between the altar of incense and the holy of holies…the exact location that Jesus said that Zechariah was killed (Jesus said “between the altar and the sanctuary”).

    And the first point I made applies here in spades. The commentator was making his remarks on a passage that had been written hundreds of years before the author of Zechariah was even born. As I said at the outset, that’s one hell of a confusion even for an itinerant rabbi like Jesus. It’s more than that for a rabbinical scholar commenting on a book he’s presumably an expert on.

    This mistake would _not_ be akin to you or I confusing Edward the Confessor and Edward Longshanks. It would be akin to a professor of British History confusing Edward the Confessor and Edward Longshanks.

    It might help to remember that the name “Zechariah” sounds weird to us, so the idea that two guys named Zechariah were both killed in the temple seems incomprehensible. But in reality “Zechariah” was about as common as “Edward”. Jesus uncle was named Zechariah.

    Suppose I tell you that a guy named Ed was killed by an angry mob in front of St. Patrick’s in New York City in 1880. I follow this story with another story about another guy named Ed who was killed behind the altar of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2002 by his fellow priests. I don’t believe that your first response would be “That’s too much of a coincidence, their both being named Ed, you must be talking about the same murder!”

  10. 10

    “It would be akin to a professor of British History confusing Edward the Confessor and Edward Longshanks.”

    No, I’m sure he knew what Zechariah he was talking about – he just forgot the name of the man’s father.

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