How were Scriptures fulfilled in the case of Judas? (Part 3)

Another place where the New Testament says that Scripture was fulfilled when Judas betrayed Jesus is found near the end of the gospel of Matthew. As I noted in my first post in this series, Judas had apparently intended to deliver Jesus only to arrest and imprisonment. But when he saw that Jesus had been condemned to death instead, he “repented” (or was “filled with remorse”) and returned the thirty pieces of silver he’d been paid to betray Jesus. He threw this money down on the temple floor at the feet of the chief priests and elders who had employed him. Matthew then notes that:

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 pieces of silver, 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.”

Biblical scholars puzzle about much of what Matthew says here. The quotation is actually from Zechariah, not from Jeremiah, and the Old Testament passage is not reproduced very exactly. The people have been unwilling to follow Zechariah as their “shepherd” or spiritual leader, so he asks them to give him his pay and dismiss him. They give him thirty pieces of silver, which may have been an intentionally insulting amount, since it was the compensation specified in the law for accidentally causing the death of a slave. The prophet seems to have taken it as an insult, since the account in Zechariah then says:

And the Lord said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the handsome price at which they valued me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them to the potter at the house of the Lord.

Why Matthew quotes this passage so differently from the original, and why he attributes it to Jeremiah rather than to Zechariah, are matters that biblical scholars will continue to debate. (There are some general reminiscences of Jeremiah in Matthew’s quotation, as some scholars have noted: that prophet did buy a field, although he paid seventeen silver shekels for it, not thirty, and he did visit a potter, although this was to illustrate a parable about divine judgment.) But we do not need to resolve these matters for our present purposes. We can simply note the two significant parallels between the life of the earlier prophet and the experience of Jesus at the hands of Judas, which constitute the “fulfillment” in this case.

(1) A spiritual leader of Israel was undervalued at the price of a slave. And in the case of Jesus, this insult is “escalated” in that he was not just one of the prophets, he was the promised and long-expected Messiah. So for Judas and the high priests to bargain over him (according to Matthew, Judas asks them, What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?”) and settle on thirty pieces of silver is a far more egregious rejection of Jesus’ identity and mission than it was even in the case of Zechariah, a prophet whom God had sent to the people.

(2) The money used to set a value on the leader is not retained. In Zechariah’s case, the leader himself is paid the money and he “throws it to the potter at the house of the Lord.” Biblical scholars are not sure exactly what this phrase means; it may indicate that the money was used to pay for earthenware utensils for use in the temple, and not even put directly into the temple treasury. In Jesus’ case, the one who was paid the money to betray the leader similarly throws it down in the temple, at the feet of his fellow conspirators, who buy a “potter’s field” (i.e. a plot that had been a source of clay for potters, and so could no longer be used for agriculture) to use as a burial place for non-Jews.

This is, for our purposes, the really significant part of the fulfillment.  While, as I’ve argued, these fulfillments are not so much predictions come true as statements that take on a fuller meaning in light of later developments, the fact remains that Judas fulfilled Scripture by returning the money he got from betraying Jesus.  And if his ultimate motivation for the betrayal was greed (as I’ll discuss in a future post), then this is the surest evidence that he repented sincerely.

So it is not the case that Judas must be seen, in light of earlier Scriptures, as someone who was destined to betray Jesus and be lost. The fulfillment of this Scripture, at least, suggests just the opposite.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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