Akeldama: The Field of Blood

Matthew 27:3-10

Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that Jesus was condemned, felt remorse, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it.” He threw down the pieces of silver in the sanctuary, and departed. He went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, “It’s not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood.” They took counsel, and bought the potter’s field with them, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field was called “The Field of Blood” to this day. Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, “They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him upon whom a price had been set, whom some of the children of Israel priced, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (WEB)

As I was researching aspects of pottery for my oil lamp posts I came across a conundrum in Mt. 27. I was familiar with the “problem” in the texts we have presently after nearly 2000 years removed from Matthew’s production.

To present the difficulty briefly: the text quotes a relatively long portion of Zechariah, yet it seems to say that the text comes from Jeremiah. Here is Zechariah’s passage with its immediate context from which Matthew quotes:

I said to them, “If you think it best, give me my wages; and if not, keep them.” So they weighed for my wages thirty pieces of silver. Yahweh said to me, “Throw it to the potter, the handsome price that I was valued at by them!” I took the thirty pieces of silver, and threw them to the potter, in the house of Yahweh. (11:12,13 WEB)

One fact that Zechariah doesn’t mention is the place of the field which is in the Valley of Ben Hinnom which was the garbage dump of that day. Jeremiah (ch. 19), however, was instructed by the Lord to go to this valley and break a jar of pottery, indicating the coming judgment in Jeremiah’s time. Therefore, this passage could be a strong allusion since, in the Hebrew mind and history, often reoccurring events feature prominently in prophetic fulfillment. This concept is fairly foreign to our present way of thinking but it wasn’t to Jews of the first century. To further clarify this point: a historical connection existed with the judgment in Jeremiah’s day to the coming judgment the nation would receive at the hands of Titus in 70 A.D. since instead of the leaders and the majority of the nation accepting the Messiah, they asked for Him to be crucified. Matthew is trying to show his readers the striking parallels of divine retribution. This is the view of some commentators of Matthew’s Gospel. I think, however, another explanation could provide a plausible solution.

Before I offer my solution concerning the Jeremiah reference, I want to address a further problem that some find in the reference to this event in Acts 1. Some commentators seem to find a variance to Matthew when, in my mind, there is none. Readers may think the account of Judas’ demise is why Luke (the writer of Acts) refers to the field as the “field of blood.” So, they will say: “it is Jesus’ blood in Matthew and Judas’ blood in Acts.” This is not what it says or not what Luke is saying. Yes, no doubt, blood was spilled when Judas committed suicide but the word “blood” is not even used in Acts. The antecedent of “field of blood” was Judas’ “wickedness” in betraying Jesus. The writers in the first century wrote, thought, and spoke very differently than we do today in that the antecedents oftentimes were well separated from the reference, contra our present custom of keeping them in close proximity.

Further, Judas didn’t commit suicide at Akeldama; it was the Temple priests and officers who bought and managed this field, probably well after Judas’ death. Luke says, “he bought a field,” but that is his way of expressing how the proceeds of betrayal were used, not the actual occurrence. Again, this is very much different from our way of expressing things 2000 years hence. To try and understand the Biblical text apart from some of these factors is to read it anachronistically and, as a result, misunderstand God’s revelation to our own detriment.

Now, to the matter of the Jeremiah reference in Matthew, when, for the most part, Zechariah is quoted in the text. Today when I read the Bible and compare other portions with it, it is easily accessed by mouse clicks using apps on my computer. Of course this technology was nonexistent during the first century and neither was printing or efficient paper production. Also, besides paper, sometimes animal skins were used to record text and this method too proved very labor-intensive.

Matthew’s Gospel, I believe, was inerrant when it was produced by Matthew’s hand or dictated to his amanuensis. Today, none of the extant codices or even any of the fragments is the original ones produced. All of our preserved manuscripts of the Biblical accounts are copies by a “further hand.” The New Testament is very reliable even though the copyists were not the meticulous scribal class of the Jews who diligently preserved the Old Testament. What makes the Christian writings reliable is the sheer number of portions, which, compared together, reveals the account.

So, this helps explain the conundrum of Jeremiah when, probably, Zechariah is meant. The explanation that the names sound the same in Greek (as they do in English) is most likely why an amanuensis miscopied the text. This was not Matthew’s writer but a later copyist wanting to produce this work for congregations of Christians in other places. Since the Old Testament text was scarce too because of the same technological deficiencies, the producers could not readily check the references. Jeremiah has several portions which refer to pottery and the potter, so, the Christian copyist innocently believed it was Jeremiah which spoke of this potter’s field in Matthew’s Gospel. The tremendous spread of Christianity in the first century during the Pax Romana meant that Christian communities needed their own copies for study. Since a great need existed, it is plausible to believe that the copyists possibly rushed their production and, therefore, errors were produced. It just so happens that the earliest extant manuscripts we have list Jeremiah instead of Zechariah.

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