by Doug Ward

The biblical books of the twelve Minor Prophets convey the words of these prophets, but the Bible does not tend to give much direct information about their lives. The book of Obadiah, for example, mentions Obadiah's name but says nothing else about him. Nahum is identified as an "Elkoshite," but that is all the Bible says about him. Similarly, all that we are given about Joel is that he is a "son of Pethuel."


In the case of the prophet Zechariah, more background is available. He was "the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo" (Zech 1:1,7), and he came from a priestly family. His grandfather Iddo was a priest (Neh 12:4,16), and they were part of the first wave of exiles to return to Judea from captivity in Babylon in 538-536 B.C.


Along with his fellow prophet Haggai, Zechariah encouraged his countrymen in the project of rebuilding the temple of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 5:1). His prophetic ministry began in 520 B.C. during the second year of the reign of King Darius of Persia (Zech 1:1). The dedication of the new temple came less than five years later (Ezra 6:14-16). A brief reference in Zech 2:4 suggests that in this early part of his ministry, Zechariah was still a "young man."


We do not know how long Zechariah lived. The first eight chapters of his prophecy come from the period of temple construction, but the last six chapters may have been written some years later. However, there are two verses in the Gospels--Matt 23:35 and its parallel in Luke 11:51--that may reveal the manner in which Zechariah died. In Matt 23:35, Jesus refers to the blood of martyrs "from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah." Jesus goes on to say that this Zechariah was "murdered between the sanctuary and the altar."


Did Zechariah the prophet die a martyr's death? Let's investigate this question more closely. In doing so, we will expand our knowledge of the Zechariahs of the Bible. More importantly, we will consider Jesus' role as a prophet and the meaning of Matt 23:35.


Two Leading Candidates

The name Zechariah means "Yahweh remembers." This name, which points to God's faithfulness to his covenant, was popular in ancient Israel. The Bible mentions over two dozen Zechariahs. A number of them-including Zechariah the prophet and Zechariah the father of John the Baptist (Luke 1)-were priests or Levites, men who would have spent significant time near the temple. One of them, a contemporary of Isaiah in the eighth century B.C., is identified as "the son of Jeberechiah" (Isa 8:2).


Out of all the known Zechariahs, two stand out as leading candidates for the Zechariah of Matt 23:35 and Luke 11:51. One of them is Zechariah the prophet, the only one of the Bible's Zechariahs who is explicitly called a "son of Berechiah." As a true prophet of God, he was sometimes inspired to give correction along with encouragement (e.g., Zech 1:2-6; 7:4-14), and corrective messages can be unpopular (I Kings 19:1-2; Jer 26:1-11). Prophets sometimes risk their lives for the sake of truth.


There is, in fact, some evidence of a tradition that Zechariah the prophet suffered martyrdom at the temple, from the Targum to Lam 2:20.1 Lamentations 2:20 ends with the question, "Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the Lord?" After translating these words, the Targum adds, "As you killed Zechariah the son of Iddo, the High Priest and faithful prophet in the sanctuary of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he admonished them not to do what was displeasing to the Lord."2


I know of no historical evidence that Zechariah ever served as high priest. It is possible, though, that Zechariah held the position for a time.  (Perhaps it was during this time that he carried out the instructions to serve as a "shepherd" that God gave to him in Zechariah 11.)


Another thing that makes Zechariah the prophet a good fit for Matt 23:35 is the fact that he was one of the last prophets sent to ancient Israel. Matthew 23:35 would then refer to the martyred prophets across time, from earliest to latest.


A second leading candidate for the Zechariah of Matt 23:35 prophesied in around 800 B.C., near the end of the reign of King Joash of Judah. When the leaders of Judah turned to idolatry, this Zechariah rebuked them, and Joash had him put to death in the temple area (2 Chron 24:17-22).


If the Zechariah of 2 Chron 24 is the one to whom Jesus is referring, then Matt 23:35 may be looking at martyrs canonically rather than strictly chronologically, since 2 Chronicles is traditionally the final book in the canon of the Hebrew scriptures. Martyrs from Abel to Zechariah would go from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, from the first book in the canon to the last.


Although this second Zechariah is introduced as "the son of Jehoiada the priest" (2 Chron 24:20) rather than the son of Berechiah, he is not automatically ruled out as a candidate. Some commentators speculate that Jehoiada could have been Zechariah's grandfather, and that this Zechariah was “son of Jehoiada” in the same sense that Zechariah the prophet was “son of Iddo.”  Since Jehoiada lived to the age of 130, he could have outlived a son named Berechiah and still have been succeeded as priest by Zechariah.3 In such a scenario, this Zechariah would be a son of Berechiah after all.


More importantly, there is some uncertainty about the phrase "son of Berachiah" in Matt 23:35. As a footnote in the ESV points out, some New Testament manuscripts (e.g., Codex Sinaiticus) do not include this phrase. It also does not appear in Luke 11:51, the parallel verse in Luke. Moreover, the Church Father Jerome (337-420 A.D.) reported in his Commentary on Matthew that in the Gospel of the Nazarenes, a Hebrew gospel used by Jewish Christians, "son of Jehoiada" appeared in Matt 23:35 instead of "son of Barachiah."


Jesus the Prophet

A reasonable case can be made for either candidate as the Zechariah of Matt 23:35. It is also interesting to see how both of these Zechariahs fit into the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 23.4


In Matthew 23 Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke to religious leaders of his society and, by extension, to his society as a whole (see v. 36). Since his words sound very harsh to our ears, it is important to realize that Jesus is not speaking as an outsider denouncing an enemy. The scribes and Pharisees who are the subject of his rebuke are not arch villains. Instead, Jesus follows in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, passionately correcting brethren whom he loves (v. 37). The prophets pull no punches-think, for instance, of Micah comparing the leaders of Judah to cannibals in Micah 3:1-4-and neither does Jesus. Like the prophets, Jesus uses vivid, direct language and rhetorical techniques like irony and hyperbole to make his points.


As a prophet, Jesus speaks in the tradition of both Zechariahs.


Zechariah the prophet addresses those who have begun to rebuild the Jerusalem temple in 520 B.C., urging them to learn from the experiences of their ancestors (Zech 1:2-6; 7:4-14). A number of prophets had admonished earlier generations of Israelites to repent, but the nation as a whole had not heeded their message. Eventually the words of the prophets "overtook" Israel (1:6), and many were taken into captivity in Assyria and Babylon. In exile the Israelites came to understand that they should have listened to the prophets. Zechariah rehearses and reinforces the message of his predecessors, so that a new generation would not relive the errors of the past.


In Matt 23:29-36, Jesus confronts religious teachers who honor the memory of the prophets and are confident that they would not have persecuted men like Elijah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah. However, some of these teachers have already sought to have Jesus arrested (Matt 21:46), an indication that they are destined to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors. (Since the prophets spoke of Jesus, those who heed the prophets will heed Jesus also-see John 5:45-47.) Jesus predicts that they will persecute the apostles that he is sending out. Like Zechariah, Jesus longs for his generation to learn from Israel's past experience rather than repeat it.


When Zechariah son of Jehoiada lies dying at the temple, he asks God to hold King Joash accountable for his treacherous and ungrateful actions (2 Chron 24:22). Similarly, Jesus warns in Matt 23:29-36 that Israel's persecution of the prophets finally has reached a sort of critical mass, so that his generation would be held accountable for martyrs from Abel to Zechariah.



Both Zechariahs fit well into the context of Matt 23:35, and there is no real necessity for us to choose between them. Having more than one candidate for the Zechariah of Matt 23:35 has led us to search the scriptures and investigate the words of the prophets, words that culminate in the powerful message of Jesus of Nazareth. In the end, it is this message that matters most. All of the prophets from Abel to Jesus-including both Zechariahs-call upon us to heed it, and we are accountable for our response to it.


1The Targumim are expanded Aramaic paraphrases of the Hebrew scriptures. They contain valuable information about how the scriptures were interpreted in the synagogue.


2See "The Death of Zechariah in Rabbinic Literature" by Sheldon H. Blank, Hebrew Union College Annual, Vol. 12-13 (1938), pp. 327-346.


3The Scofield Reference Bible is one source that suggests this possibility.


4This is discussed by Charlene McAfee Moss in The Zechariah Tradition and the Gospel of Matthew, Walter deGruyter, Berlin, 2008.

Issue 29


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