A Question I Was Asked:

Did Matthew Misquote the Old Testament?

I am worried about this misquote business as attributed to Matthew. Did he get his prophets in a mix-up in Matthew 27?

UK Apologetics Reply:

No, he certainly did not. Let us explain.

After Matthew reported in his gospel account about the suicide of Judas and the purchase of the potter's field, he goes on to mention the prophets, something he obviously did quite a lot. He writes:

"Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, 'And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the value of Him who was priced, whom they of the children of Israel priced, and gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me'" (you find this in Matthew 27:9-10).

Yet these few words have proven difficult and controversial for some. The alleged problem - if it is a problem at all - is that this is apparently not a quote from Jeremiah at all, some even say it is a misquote from Zechariah. Skeptics have even argued that Matthew misused/abused Zechariah 11:12-13, carelessly attributing the quotation to Jeremiah. Even worse, some professing Christians have put forward the very same idea, at least one even inferring a kind of sloppy inaccuracy on Matthew's part. What is the truth behind this? I have to be frank here: some of these Bible critics don't know what they are talking about!

I want to address this question by making three points:

1. Jeremiah spoke, but did not necessarily write.
We should notice carefully that Matthew never actually states that Jeremiah wrote (or - for that matter - caused somebody else to write) this particular prophecy within inspired Scripture; rather, he indicates that this prophecy was spoken by Jeremiah. So this was most likely a prophecy spoken, yet never written down. This would not be all that different to a saying attributed to Jesus yet never recorded in Gospels Scripture; Acts 20:35 - "It is more blessed to give than to receive" - this originates from something which Jesus apparently verbally stated but which was never actually recorded by the gospel writers. None of us have any problem with that; Jesus obviously said and did many things which are not recorded in the Gospels.

Possibly Jeremiah once spoke the prophecy in question, but never had Baruch, his amanuensis, to set it out in written form, but one should not automatically expect to find a written account of a prophecy when the New Testament writer mentions it as having been "spoken." Also, it should not be surprising to us if God decided to inspire Jeremiah to speak these words, and then, a few years after the time of Jeremiah, to inspire Zechariah to put a similar or related sentiment into written form. This is one way in which the Holy Spirit can work.

But there are two further points of vital interest here:

2. Better understanding the rabbinical approach to the prophets.
As fellow Apologetics men Dave Miller and Eric Lyons have pointed out in addressing this same question, back in the days of Jesus rabbinical practice meant that quotations were identified by the name of the first book in a group of books of a biblical genre. In short, the prophetic writings in order of their place in the sacred books was always headed by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and so on. It was not considered necessary for Matthew to go beyond 'Jeremiah' in identifying an Old Testament prophecy. Indeed, in all of the quotations from Zechariah in the New Testament, no mention is ever made of his name in conjunction with the prophecies (note Matthew 21:4; 26:31; John 12:14; 19:37, for example). Thus, it is logical to conclude that Matthew merely referred to this whole division of the Old Testament by naming its first book (Jeremiah), just as - in the same manner - Jesus referred to the "writings" section of the Old Testament by the name of its first book, namely Psalms (Luke 24:44). So 'Jeremiah' could have served as the designation for quotations from any of the included books. (A similar example may be found in Mark 1:2-3 where Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 are blended and attributed to Isaiah). I am greatly indebted to Eric Lyons and Dave Miller for their insight here.

Now a vital final point:

3. The New Testament Shows a Spirit-Led explanation of prophecy.
New Testament writers frequently were guided by the Holy Spirit to weave the thought of several Old Testament contexts into a single application and understanding. Matthew referred to a series of details in the following order: the thirty pieces of silver (vs. 3); Judas threw the silver down in the temple (vs. 5); the chief priests took the silver and bought the potter's field (vs. 6-7); and the field is named (vs. 8). Matthew then quoted from the Old Testament (vs. 9-10). However, the full application may not be obvious to one in simply reading the Old Testament because the Holy Spirit was very much more involved with the New Testament writers in their interpretation. This does not mean the Old Testament was not inspired by the Holy Spirit - it most certainly was, but now, with the coming of the Christ, a fuller understanding became available. Actually, this should give all of us a serious warning against being too literalistic in the prophecies.

It is arrogance to question the understanding and authority of the Bible writers, especially in a case like this where the only deficiency is in the understanding of various Bible commentators. Matthew was no fool, he did not carelessly misquote at all, he simply followed established Jewish quoting procedures of his day.

Robin A. Brace. Christmas Day, 2015.