To be a “Judas” or hear a reference to “thirty pieces of silver” has long been part of Western culture’s portrayal of betrayal. Classically, we think of the price paid to Judas by the chief priests and elders to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16; 27:3-10). Matthew said this was done to fulfill “what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah.” But if you want to get technical, Matthew was actually giving a rather loose translation of a passage from another prophetic book—Zechariah. So what’s going on here?
The first of two possible explanations suggests that Matthew was making a composite quotation of Jeremiah and Zechariah. He considered the sections taken from Jeremiah to be significant enough that he cited the better-known and more prominent prophet as his authority. Second, and what seems to be the more likely explanation, Matthew is citing Jeremiah because the book of Jeremiah was first in the manuscript that contained the collection of the Prophets. Luke 24:44 has a similar composite reference by Jesus as he spoke to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
However there are some difficulties with Matthew’s use of the Zechariah passage. Some details of Zechariah’s behavior don’t seem to fit with the historical account in Matthew. In The Hard Sayings of the Bible, Kaiser et al. noted how the prophet delicately posed his request for payment for his services, saying in effect: “If you don’t care to pay me, fine; don’t bother!” Zechariah apparently assumed that because of the bad feelings between them (Zechariah 11:8), they would refuse to pay him. But they paid him the “princely” sum of thirty pieces of silver! Zechariah understood this to be an insult, so at the Lord’s direction, he threw the thirty pieces of silver into the house of the Lord, “to the potter.”
Leon Morris said the Syriac rendition of “Throw it to the Potter” in Zechariah 11:13 is translated as “Throw it into the Treasury.” Kaiser et al. noted where “to cast it to the potter” was an idiomatic expression meaning “Throw it to the dogs” or “Get rid of it.” They concluded it would be an unlikely meaning here because of its connection to the house of the Lord. But if the amount was negligible, as some commentators have suggested, then for Zechariah to accept it would have dishonored his role as their shepherd.
Consistent with this understanding, “thirty shekels of silver” was the price set for compensation for a slave that was gored by an ox (Exodus 21:32). The value Israel placed on Zechariah’s services was akin to that of gored slave. Consider also that Zechariah was enacting the annulment of the relationship between the flock (Israel) and their Shepherd (ruler). Here is the connection Matthew makes with the passage in Zechariah. The transaction was symbolic of the flock’s rejection of their future messianic Shepherd-King, Jesus (Zechariah 11:4-14).
Leon Morris said in his commentary on Matthew that whichever way we understand the message of Zechariah to his readers, Matthew is saying the money used to pay Judas was in accord with the words of the prophecy. In Zechariah, thirty pieces of silver was the amount paid to annul Israel’s relationship with its symbolic Shepherd. In Matthew the same amount was given for Judas to betray Jesus, who is the true Shepherd.
Whichever reading we accept and however we understand the message of Zechariah to his readers, Matthew is saying that the use of the money paid to Judas took place in accordance with the words of the prophecy; the purpose of God was not overthrown in the deeds that Zechariah was recording, and it was not overthrown in the actions of Judas and the Sanhedrin that disposed of his bribe money.
A further connection exists with “the potter” and “the treasury” in Matthew. After his betrayal of Jesus, Judas returned to the Sanhedrin and tried to undo his actions by saying he had betrayed innocent blood (Matthew 27:4). This was an attempt by Judas to get them to reconsider their handing over of Jesus to the Romans for possible execution. Would their acceptance of Judas returning the money they paid him have been an acknowledgment they also accepted his opinion that Jesus was innocent of what he was accused of?
Judas seems to have betrayed Jesus in an ill-fated attempt to precipitate events he believed would reveal Jesus to be the Messiah and ultimately lead them to Jewish independence. It quickly became evident that Jesus would not use any of his powers to deliver himself from his enemies. “So it was quite clear that what Judas had done led inexorably to the condemnation of Jesus.” He didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said he was not of this world (John 8:23).
Judas’s confession was not enough for the Sanhedrin to change their course. So Judas threw down the money given to him and went and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). The chief priests and elders then debated the lawfulness of placing the money into the temple’s treasury. Ironically, it would have been from the temple treasury that they took the thirty pieces of silver originally. Where it was no crime to use money from the temple treasury to bring about a death, it was apparently wrong to return that same money to the treasury (Matthew 27:6). John Calvin commented that they were hypocritically attending to nothing more than the outward appearance.
If it was unlawful to put into the sacred treasury the price of blood, why was it lawful for them to take the money out of it? For all their wealth was derived from the offerings of the temple, and from no other source did they take what they now scruple to mingle again with it as being polluted. Now, whence came the pollution but from themselves?
Their decision was to buy a field—a potter’s field—that would serve as a burial place for strangers. It is more likely these ‘strangers’ were Jews from other lands who died in Jerusalem, rather than people who did not attempt to live according to the law who were from other lands. So we come around again to the application of the prophecy in Zechariah to the Matthew passage.
The Jewish leaders willfully rejected Jesus as their true Shepherd just as they had rejected Zechariah as their symbolic Shepherd. The cost to them to get rid of Jesus was the same as that for severing their relationship with Zechariah—thirty pieces of silver. They willingly paid the price both times, but were woefully ignorant of the true cost of their actions. What was but a symbolic rejection of the flock’s shepherd-king in Zechariah 11:4-14, became a prophecy of how they would eventually throw their messianic Shepherd-King to the dogs.