|Michelangelo, Zechariah the Prophet, Sistine Chapel (1512)|
Did Jesus confirm the Protestant canon of Scripture in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51? Several Protestants scholars have claimed that he does, and their argument is convincing… on the surface. For example, F.F. Bruce said:
It appears that the order of the Hebrew Bible which has come down to us is the order with which our Lord and His contemporaries were familiar in Palestine. In particular, it appears that Chronicles came at the end of the Bible which they used: when our Lord sums up all the martyrs of Old Testament times He does so by mentioning the first martyr in Genesis (Abel) and the last martyr in Chronicles (Zechariah). (See Lk. xi. 51 with 2 Ch. xxiv. 21).
To understand the force of Bruce’s argument, you need to know that the Hebrew Bible isn’t in chronological order. Rather, it’s structured between the Law, the Prophets, and the other Writings. The last of these Writings is 2 Chronicles. So in Luke 11:50-51, when Jesus says “that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary,” it looks like He’s referring to this canon.
Until yesterday, I was convinced of this position (not that Jesus is endorsing the Jewish canon, but that He was referring to it). So, for example, back in 2011, I wrote:
In the Pharisees’ canon (as in the Protestant canon today), the murder of Abel was the first murder, and the murder of Zechariah was the last, if you read the full Testament front to back. Zechariah’s is not the last murder in either the Sadducees’ or Hellenists’ canon. In other words, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees using the Pharisee Bible, just as He condemned the Sadducees using the Sadducee Bible.
It turns out, I was wrong. So were F.F. Bruce and the vast majority of Protestant scholars on this point. There are three good reasons to think that Jesus wasn’t alluding to the Pharisaic canon.
The first problem with Bruce’s reading is only clear if you read the parallel account of this passage, in Matthew 23:35, which speaks of the righteous blood shed on earth, “from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah the son of Barachi′ah.”
In an era before last names, these sort of genealogies helped to distinguish between different people with the same given name. And that matters, because it means that Jesus doesn’t seem to be speaking about the Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24, because that was “Zechari′ah the son of Jehoi′ada the priest.”
|The Prophet Zechariah [son of Berechiah], Ghent Altarpiece (1432)|
Rather, Jesus seems to be speaking about “Zechari′ah the son of Berechi′ah, son of Iddo, the prophet,” the prophet of the Book of Zechariah, a few centuries after the murder of Zechariah, son of Jehoiada. Even that’s a bit unclear, though: Jesus gives his father’s name as Barachiah, not Berechiah. The Church Fathers were divided on who the Zechariah being referred to was (although interestingly, none of them thought that this was a reference to the Hebrew canon).
There’s a common objection to this: Jesus refers to this Zechariah being murdered in the Temple. And we know from 2 Chronicles 24 that Zechariah, son of Jehoiada was murdered in the Temple. But the Old Testament never says that Zechariah, son of Berechiah was murdered at all, much less in the Temple. How likely is it that two prophetic Zechariahs would have met their fate in the same place?
Fairly likely, actually. Zechariah is a fairly common name during this period, and it was not uncommon for the righteous to be killed (which is what Jesus is pointing out in Matthew 23:34). More to our point, it turns out that the Jewish Targum (rabbinical commentary) on Lamentations says,
“Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the LORD, as when you killed Zechariah son of Iddo, the High Priest and faithful prophet in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he admonished you not to do evil before the Lord?”
This certainly seems to be independent confirmation that “Zechari′ah the son of Berechi′ah, son of Iddo, the prophet,” was indeed killed in the Temple.
Interestingly, a few decades after Jesus spoke about the death of Zechariah of Barachiah, yet another Zechariah was murdered in the Temple. Here’s the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about the killing of Zechariah, son of Baruch in the Temple:
So two of the boldest of them fell upon Zacharias in the middle of the temple, and slew him; and as he fell down dead, they bantered him, and said, “Thou hast also our verdict, and this will prove a more sure acquittal to thee than the other.” They also threw him down from the temple immediately into the valley beneath it.
So we have historical accounts of three separate accounts of Zechariahs getting murdered in the Temple. But these are three different men, with different geneologies, and separated from one another by the span of several centuries.
|The difference between a scroll, a codex, and an e-reader
(h/t New York Times)
When I raised the question of Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 to my Scripture professor, Juan Carlos Ossandon, his response wasn’t to turn to this question of the different Zechariahs. Rather, he pointed out that when we talk about the order of Books of the Bible, we’re approaching the issue through modern eyes. We’re used to having a single, nicely-bound Book (or a single app) containing all of the Scriptures.
The Jews at the time of Christ wouldn’t have had that experience at all. Instead of a single book, they had various scrolls. That’s why we read things like “Baruch wrote upon a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he had spoken to him” (Jeremiah 36:4). But these scrolls contained just one, or at the most a few, of the Biblical Books. Which is why, when Jesus proclaims the word in the synagogue, He’s handed, not the Bible, but “the book of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17).
It’s the early Christians who pioneer the shift from scrolls to codices. A codex is basically a book: page after page of stylus, bound together in some fashion. The New York Times explains:
At some point someone had the very clever idea of stringing a few tablets together in a bundle. Eventually the bundled tablets were replaced with leaves of parchment and thus, probably, was born the codex. But nobody realized what a good idea it was until a very interesting group of people with some very radical ideas adopted it for their own purposes. Nowadays those people are known as Christians, and they used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.One reason the early Christians liked the codex was that it helped differentiate them from the Jews, who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in the form of a scroll. But some very alert early Christian must also have recognized that the codex was a powerful form of information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable. It was also cheap — you could write on both sides of the pages, which saved paper — and it could hold more words than a scroll. The Bible was a long book. [….] Over the next few centuries the codex rendered the scroll all but obsolete.
Once you have a codex, and are compiling a Bible containing all of (and only) the inspired Books, you start to determine things like Book order. But that question makes very little sense when you’re dealing with independent scrolls: what does it mean to say that 2 Chronicles “comes after” Malachi, if they’re not bound together as a single Book?
The third problem with treating Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 as references to the Hebrew canon is that there was no Hebrew canon yet. Different groups of Jews had different canons, and the Old Testament used today by Jews and Protestants didn’t really become the norm until after the time of Christ. And it appears to have first been popularized by Babylonian Jews who were unaware of the Deuterocanon, because those Books hadn’t reached them yet.
That’s not just the view of Catholic or secular scholars, either. Lee Martin McDonald is a Baptist minister, and served both as president and professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College, as well as Dean of Theology for Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, Canada. He holds a Th.M. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.
In his book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, McDonald describes the rise of what we would come to identify as the Protestant and Jewish OT canon:
The Jews were probably influenced to adopt a more conservative collection of sacred Scriptures by Hillel, who came from Babylon and accepted only those writings that dated from roughly the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and earlier. Hillel was possibly unaware of other sacred literature until he came to Israel in the first century B.C.E., but by then he had likely already formulated his criteria for what was sacred and what was not. The Qumran literature is thus more reflective of what was widely welcomed by the early Christians who adopted the apocryphal literature as a part of their sacred Scripture collection, along with several books now classified as pseudepigraphal.
It cannot be irrelevant that the earliest list of sacred books among the Jews (i.e., b. Bava Batra 14b-15a), which was subsequently adopted by the rabbis, comes from Babylon. This tradition dates from the middle of the second century C.E. at the earliest, but there is no indication that it received universal recognition among Jews at that time If it had, it would have been more widely circulated and known among Jews of the Diaspoa as well as in the land of Israel. As a result, the current canon of the HB [Hebrew Bible] and the Protestant OT [Old Testament] reflects a Babylonian flavor that was not current or popular in the time of Jesus in the land of Israel.
- It would require us to assume that Jesus is speaking about the Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24 (“Zechari′ah the son of Jehoi′ada the priest”) when Jesus specifically tells us He means a different Zechariah;
- It assumes that the Jews at the time of Christ had Bibles with specific canonical orders, when they actually had scrolls; and
- It assumes that the Jews at the time of Christ used what modern Jews and Protestants use, when they did not.