He stated, “On account of this, behold, I am sending to you prophets, and wise people, and scribes.”
Since God alone reserves the right to send prophets, this pronouncement shocked those who heard him (Jer 1:4–5; 2 Chron 36:15–16). Once again, Jesus equated himself with Yahweh (Matt 9:1–8; Matt 12:8, 40).
“Wise people” (sophos) likely refers to those who teach in a style similar to that of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (Prov 1:1–7; Ecc 12:9–11). While the inclusion of scribes seems surprising, a large number of devout Jews became followers of Christ beginning at Pentecost (Matt 13:52; Acts 2:14, 36–42).
By rejecting Jesus and his disciples, these men would repeat the sins of their forefathers.
He continued, “So that may come upon you all the righteous blood being poured out on the earth, from the blood of Abel the righteous to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.”
An important key to understanding this verse involves the corporate solidarity of patrimonial headship within Ancient Near Eastern societies. The head of a family represented every member of his clan, both for good and for ill (Exod 20:4–6; 2 Sam 9:1–7; Jer 35:12–19; Dan 6:24).
Therefore, God would credit the guilt incurred by the ancestors of the people of Jerusalem to their accounts, as if they had shed that blood.
The Old Testament (OT) records two prophets whom their own people murdered, Uriah and Zechariah the son of Jehoida (Jer 26:20–23; 2 Chr 24:20–22). They nearly killed Jeremiah (Jer 26:11, 24). Jezebel, a foreign-born queen, massacred an unknown number of prophets (1 Ki 18:4).
The OT mentions more than thirty men named Zechariah. However, only a few fit the profile well enough to be the man mentioned by Jesus.
Consequently, this appears to be a transcription error. Only the ancient Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the fourth century AD, lacks “son of Barachiah.” On the other hand, Sinaiticus (א) is one of the earliest reliable complete manuscripts known to scholars. Therefore, the omission may reflect what Matthew wrote.
In a parallel passage, Luke did not include the designation “son of Barachiah” (Luke 11:50–51). Most scholars assert that Matthew and Luke utilized the same sources, the gospel of Mark and an unknown document called Q.
While the names of the martyrs cited run the gamut from A to Z, more likely Jesus named Abel and Zechariah because they were the first and last saints to die in the pages of the Hebrew OT (Gen 4:8; 2 Chron 24:20–22). Since Zechariah was murdered in the ninth century BC, he was not the last righteous man unjustly killed. King Jehoiakim murdered Uriah for testifying against Jerusalem three centuries later (Jer 26:20–23).
Therefore, Christ employed the literary device known as merism. God would hold the scribes and Pharisees accountable for the deaths of Abel, Zechariah, and all of the prophets in between them. Furthermore—as with Abel’s blood (Gen 4:10)—Zechariah called for the Lord to avenge him (2 Chron 24:22).
An old man from the inhabitants of Jerusalem told me that in this valley Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard killed two hundred and eleven myriads, and in Jerusalem he killed ninety-four myriads on one stone, until their blood went and joined that of Zechariah, to fulfill the words, “Blood toucheth blood.”
He noticed the blood of Zechariah bubbling up warm, and asked what it was. They said, “It is the blood of the sacrifices which has been poured there.”
He had some blood brought, but it was different from the other. He then said to them, “If you tell me [the truth], well and good, but if not, I will tear your flesh with combs of iron.”
They said, “What can we say to you? There was a prophet among us who used to reprove us for our irreligion, and we rose up against him and killed him, and for many years his blood has not rested.”
He then slaughtered young men and women, but the blood did not cease. He brought school-children and slaughtered them over it, but the blood did not cease.
So he said, “Zechariah, Zechariah. I have slain the best of them. Do you want me to destroy them all?” When he said this to him, it stopped (b. Gittin 57b).
Jerusalem’s destruction did not occur solely to avenge Zechariah’s blood. During the reign of Manasseh—a century before the Babylonians razed the city—the king shed so much innocent blood that God proclaimed certain judgment (2 Ki 24:3–4; Lam 4:12–16; Lam 5:7).
Christ’s discussion of blood “being poured out” indicates that this martyrdom had not reached its completion.
Even as the guilt for Zechariah’s death centuries earlier desecrated the temple and invited God’s retribution, so would the blame for the execution of Jesus fall upon that generation (Matt 27:24–26; Deut 32:43; Matt 23:37–24:2).
[The Jews] were forced to defend themselves for fear of being punished; as after they had fought, they thought it too late to make any supplications for mercy; so they were first whipped, and then tormented with all sorts of tortures, before they died, and were then crucified before the wall of the city.
This miserable procedure made [General] Titus greatly to pity them, while they caught every day five hundred Jews; nay, some days they caught more…
The main reason why he did not forbid that cruelty was this: that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterwards be liable to the same cruel treatment.
So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their multitude was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies…
While the holy house was on fire, everything was plundered that came to hand, and ten thousand of those that were caught were slain; nor was there a commiseration of any age, or any reverence of gravity, but children, and old men, and profane persons, and priests were all slain in the same manner…
The flame was also carried a long way, and made an echo, together with the groans of those that were slain; and because this hill was high, and the works at the temple were very great, one would have thought the whole city had been on fire.
Nor can one imagine anything either greater or more terrible than this noise; for there was at once a shout of the Roman legions, who were marching all together, and a sad clamor of the seditious, who were now surrounded with fire and sword…
The blood was larger in quantity than the fire, and those that were slain more in number than those that slew them; for the ground did nowhere appear visible, for the dead bodies that lay on it; but the soldiers went over heaps of those bodies, as they ran upon such as fled from them.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Read Matt 23:34–36. How did Christ’s pronouncement of judgment upon that generation come to pass? Why did he hold that generation responsible for so many deaths?
[Related posts include A Charge of Hypocrisy (Matt 23:29‒33); Cain Arose against His Brother (Gen 4:8); Misappropriated Blood (Gen 4:9‒10); Cursed from the Ground (Gen 4:11‒14); Banished from God’s Presence (Gen 4:15‒16); Lord of the Sabbath (Matt 12:1–8); Blood Given for You (Matt 26:26‒28); A Most Cruel and Ignominious Punishment (Matt 27:26–37); Betrayed (Luke 22:1–6); Pleading for Justice (Rev 6:9‒10); The Full Number of Martyrs (Rev 6:11); and New Testament Textual Criticism]
[Click here to go to Chapter 1: A Tale of Two Brothers (Genesis 4:1‒16)]
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 878.
The three types of people mentioned here are listed in masculine plural form. This can refer either to only males or to groups comprised of both genders.
Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 555.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 878–9.
Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 672.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 877.
Jeffrey J. Niehaus, Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2008), 138.
Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 556.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 880.
Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 677.
W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 19–28 (ICC; Edinburgh; London; New York: T & T Clark, 1997), 318.
Hagner, Matthew 14–28, 676–7.
Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, in The Works of Flavius Josephus (trans. William Whiston; Auburn and Buffalo, NY: John E. Beardsley, 1895), 4.5.4, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0148%3Abook%3D4%3Awhiston+chapter%3D5%3Awhiston+section%3D4.
Grant R. Osborne, Matthew (ZECNT; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 35.
Nestle, et al., Nestle-Aland: NTG Apparatus Criticus, 28. Revidierte Auflage, 78, http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/manuscript.aspx?book=33&chapter=23&lid=en&side=r&verse=35&zoomSlider=0. Note that the English translation on this site does not reflect the omission of hiou Barachio denoted by the blue marker resembling a capital T on the Greek transcription.
Ernst Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 2nd Ed. (Erroll F. Rhodes; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 73.
 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 868.
Osborne, Matthew, 36–7.
Karl Elliger and Wilhelm Rudolph, eds., Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) (Stuttgart: Deutsche Biblegesellschaft, 1983), 1459–574.
Robert Althann, “Uriah (Person),” ABD 6:767–9, 768–9.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 880.
France, The Gospel of Matthew, 880.
Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 557.
Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 5.11.1, 6.5.1, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0148%3Abook%3D5%3Awhiston+chapter%3D11%3Awhiston+section%3D1; http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0148%3Abook%3D6%3Awhiston+chapter%3D5%3Awhiston+section%3D1.