“Then was fulfilled the word of Jeremiah the prophet saying, ‘And they took the thirty silver pieces, the payment paid for the one on whom the Sons of Israel had set such a payment, and they gave it for the field of a potter just as the Lord instructed me.’”
Oceans of ink have been spilled in wrestling with these words…not so much because the words themselves are overly difficult nor because this being a fulfillment of prophesy should surprise us, but because it seems, at least on the surface, that Matthew is citing a prophesy made in Zechariah, not in Jeremiah. And that becomes troublesome if you are going to hold to an inerrant view of the scriptures. So, did Matthew just make an honest mistake? Likely not, he is being inspired by the Holy Spirit who is God — not one to make a mistake. Is there some passage in Jeremiah that is being overlooked — some textual variant perhaps — that would rectify this difficulty? Not so much. We must remember that Matthew’s original audience was intimately familiar with the writings of the prophets and would have balked were an erroneous rendering to have been made. Matthew clearly intends this, but the question we are then left with is, why?
The passage in Zechariah that is pointed to is this:
“And I said to them, ‘If it is good in your eyes, give me my wages, if not then refrain from doing so.’ And they weighed out my wages: thirty pieces of silver. And Yahweh said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter!‘ — the splendid price which I was prized by them. So, I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter in the House of Yahweh.’
Certainly it is easy to see the connections: there are 30 pieces of silver, a Potter, and the “throwing” of the money in the direction of the potter who is in the temple. One might be tempted to stop there and draw the conclusion that Zechariah is really who Matthew had in mind when he cited this text, but doing so would miss some of the importance of how this citation is made. Interestingly, in the context of Zechariah, one might argue that the parallel is not so much with Judas dying in a Potter’s Field as it is with Judas returning the money to the priests. In fact, in Zechariah’s account, nothing is purchased, the money is simply returned.
Further, in the context of Zechariah 11, Zechariah the prophet has been commanded for a season to shepherd a flock that is doomed for slaughter. Remember, Zechariah is writing after the return of the people to Jerusalem, so he is speaking (in an immediate sense) of the fall of Judah to the Macedonians and then to the Romans — that which will anticipate the eventual coming of Jesus. At the end of that passage (verse 16), God says that he is about to raise up another shepherd who will not care for the people — this condemnation is arguably directed toward the priests of the people. So, Zechariah guards the sheep for a season, there is an account with breaking staffs, and then he quits his job and asks for his payment. They pay him well and God then commands Zechariah to throw the money to the potter in the temple. Again, this is a condemnation of the shepherds over God’s people: the priests.
You should be starting to notice some differences, though, that should be highlighted. We have already mentioned that there is no mention of purchasing a field in the Zechariah account, furthermore, there is a different term employed to refer to this potter. In the Hebrew, the term Zechariah used is rEoØwy (yo’er). When this term was translated into the Greek Septuagint, the word cwneuth/rion (choneuterion) was chosen. These words can be used to refer to a potter, but are also used of those who smelt metals. In fact, in the other two spots in the Old Testament (as well as in the one use of this term in the Jewish Apocrypha) it is translated as having to do with a smelter’s fire.
In Matthew’s account, he uses the term kerameu/ß (kerameus), which is always used of a potter and his clay both in the New Testament (see also Romans 9:21) and the Greek translation of rEoØwy (yo’er) in the Hebrew Old Testament (see Isaiah 41:25 and Jeremiah 18:6). If we follow the use of the term kerameu/ß (kerameus) to Jeremiah, as Matthew suggests, we find ourselves closer to unraveling our mystery.
In Jeremiah 18-19 we have an account that also ties in very closely with what Matthew is recording. The prophet is sent to the house of a potter — kerameu/ß (kerameus) is used — and told to observe the potter making a clay vessel. Part of the way through the process, the potter is unhappy with the developing design, so smashes the vessel down and starts from scratch. God instructs Jeremiah that like this vessel, God is going to smash down Jerusalem and rebuild because of the wickedness of the people. Later, Jeremiah is commanded to buy a flask from the Potter and smash it by the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom — the source of the word, “Gehenna” in the New Testament — to be renamed as “The Valley of Slaughter.”
One might be tempted to say, where does the Potter’s Field play into this account. Potters’ Fields historically were grounds that had such a high clay content that growing crops would be difficult, but as a source of clay for the potter, they were excellent. Furthermore, Jeremiah is told to relate that God is going to make the city of Jerusalem a place like a Valley of Slaughter — a place of death. And here, it seems, our connection with the potter’s field becoming a place for Judas’ death is made. While Jerusalem is thrown down in Jeremiah’s lifetime, it would be rebuilt. Judas’ death is a foreshadowing of another destruction of Israel that would take place during the lifetime of at least some of the Apostles…and this destruction in AD 70 would be permanent.
It is true that there is a modern city of Jerusalem that exists, but it is located just to the west of the original Jewish city, which now lies more or less in ruins and has a Muslim Mosque sitting on the temple mount (preventing another temple from being built — why? Jesus is the Greater temple, why settle for a lesser one?). Judas’ death and spilling of his blood is a fulfillment, then, of what Jeremiah promised. For Jerusalem’s apostasy in the death of Jesus Christ, they would be destroyed and the place would be left a horror for all to see. One need not read much of Josephus’ account of the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in AD 70 to see elements of this fulfillment taking place — even to the point of the adults eating the flesh of their children. The testimony is heart-wrenching, but the potter’s vessel (representing the people of Israel) was broken on that day and its pieces scattered. Just as the Jews would flee and be sent into exile in Jeremiah’s day, so too, believers were scattered to the far ends of the earth, but this time with the hope of the Gospel to accompany them. How easily we get attached to a location; God says, “Go!”