Matthew 27:9-10 is totally confused. First Matthew quotes part of a prophecy from Zechariah, then he says it comes from Jeremiah, and then he takes the whole thing totally out of context. What a mess!

This passage may be perplexing at first glance, but if you were to study Matthew’s quotation in greater depth, you would find that he has a remarkable level of insight. While liberal scholars frequently attack Matthew’s approach to the Tanakh, leading experts Davies and Allison clearly demonstrate his extensive knowledge and careful use of the Hebrew Scriptures.

After Judas Iscariot’s remorseful return of the money he received from the chief priests and elders for betraying Jesus,

The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.” (Matt. 27:6-10)

The problems here are threefold:(1) The text seems to come from Zechariah 11:11-13, yet Matthew cites it as coming from Jeremiah,(2) There is no reference to a potter’s field in Zechariah, and (3) The original context of Zechariah does not seem to relate to Judas’s actions.

Let’s first examine the claim that Matthew confused Zechariah with Jeremiah. We’ve established elsewhere that Matthew was incredibly fluent in the Hebrew Scriptures. The passage under consideration reveals careful thought and premeditation, making it unlikely that Matthew simply made a mistake without correcting it. This careful thought is demonstrated in part by the formula used to cite the prophecy (see also Matt. 2:17). While Matthew clearly cites Zechariah here, he also subtly notes a key passage and theme in Jeremiah that establish his point. Mark does something similar when he refers to “Isaiah the prophet” and proceeds to blend a quotation from Isaiah with one from Malachi (Mark 1:2b-3).

What about the mention of the potter’s field? The NIV translation of Zechariah 11:13 reads, “And the LORD said to me, ‘Throw it to the potter’—the handsome price at which they priced me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD to the potter.” The NJV renders the first phrase, “Deposit it in the treasury.” The NJV translation is based on an understanding that the MT reading ha-yotser (“the potter”) is equivalent to ha-‘otsar (“the treasury”) or ha-‘otser (“the keeper of the treasury”). The NIV is more accurate here, as yotser never refers to a treasury in the Tanakh.

Matthew clearly follows the Hebrew here, adding this detail: the money that was cast into the house of the Lord for the potter was used to buy the potter’s field. Matthew’s connection of the biblical text to the Jesus narrative isn’t forced; he’s simply noting significant parallels between the Zechariah account and Yeshua’s betrayal. Both scenarios entail thirty pieces of silver being thrown into the Lord’s house. Matthew makes no great leap from saying that the silver was thrown “to the potter” to saying it was thrown “to the potter, for his field.”

Why is Jeremiah mentioned? Matthew is likely referencing Jeremiah 19:1-13, in which the prophet buys a “clay jar from a potter” (yotser), takes it “to the Valley of Ben Hinnom” before the priests and elders, and smashes it as a sign of the nation’s coming judgment. Jerusalem was destroyed partly because it was “filled . . . with the blood of the innocent” (Jer. 19:4), just as Judas “betrayed innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). Just as the priests and elders witnessed Jeremiah’s smashing of the jar, so the “chief priests and the elders” (Matt. 27:3b) used the blood money to the buy the potter’s field in Judas’s day. Both the valley of ben Hinnom (Jer. 19:11b) and the potter’s field (Matt. 27:7) would be used as burial grounds. As Michael Knowles observes, these two places that were formerly associated with potters would now be associated with bloodshed (Jeremiah in Matthew’s Gospel, 70-71). Additionally, in 2:16-17, Matthew uses the same introductory formula as in 27:9a. Both passages quote Jeremiah in the context of innocent bloodshed (the former dealing with the killing of male babies in Jerusalem, the latter dealing with the killing of the Messiah). Matthew alludes to Jeremiah to show the people that they bear bloodguilt for their rejection of the Messiah. What at first glance appears to be a misquotation is actually a carefully planned allusion that Matthew uses to bolster his claims!

Let’s address the argumentthat Zechariah couldn’t have been prophesying the Messiah’s betrayal. Look at how the Rabbinic commentators treat Zechariah 11:12-13 as summarized in the Living Nach, which was edited and translated by Yaakov Elman:

  • —thirty pieces of silver. This was the standard wage for a shepherd in those days (Metzudoth). The 30 pieces allude to the 30 righteous people who are alive in every generation (Rashi, Metzudoth). According to Malbim, the 30 righteous individuals of Zechariah’s generation gave their lives to sanctify God’s Name. In this way they “paid” God to continue protecting the Israelites despite their wickedness.
  • —Deposit it. God commanded Zechariah to store away the merit of the 30 righteous individuals alluded to in the previous verse (see preceding note) until the future, when, in that merit, the Third Temple will be built (Metzudoth). Or, God commanded the prophet to have the images of the 30 righteous individuals who died sanctifying God’s Name engraved on the silver coins [citing Malbim and others].
  • —treasury. (Radak on 11:14; Metzudoth.) The Hebrew word yotzer, which begins with the letter yod, and usually means “craftsman.” However, this is one of the cases where a yud is used interchangeably with an aleph, making the word otzar, “treasury” (Rashi, Radak). Or “keeper of the treasury” (Targum, Rashi). Malbim, however, interprets yotzer to mean “craftsman”: God figuratively commands Zechariah to bring the 30 silver talents to a coin minter, for him to engrave the image of the 30 righteous individuals. (803)

These are not merely Rabbinic applications, but interpretations of the text. Consider how they differ from Matthew’s approach. Matthew correctly identifies the yotser as a potter rather than the treasury. Matthew takes the thirty coins literally, not as a reference to the deeds or images of thirty righteous men. Matthew correctly connects the text to the betrayal of the good shepherd (Zechariah portrays himself as the betrayed shepherd in his prophecy). The Zechariah text that Matthew cites is surrounded by other Messianic references (e.g., 9:9, 12:10; 13:7; 14:1-21). Why reject his approach and accept that of the Rabbinic writings? Is it any surprise that the Targum actually omits the reference to the thirty pieces of silver, and that Matthew emphasizes it?

Matthew is not misattributing the Zechariah quote, nor is he twisting the Scripture to suit his own purposes; rather, he is revealing greater depth and insight into the Tanakh. While Matthew’s Zechariah quotation and Jeremiah allusion do not “prove” that Yeshua is the promised Messiah, the biblical passages to which they refer are Messianic types and shadows. The New Testament authors note Yeshua’s literal fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy, but they also note parallels between his life and the events in the Tanakh.

For the full answer, see Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus, vol. 4, pp. 27-37.