How do we explain these Old Testament prophecies of Jesus' life?
I have posted about Robert Graves’s 1946 novel King Jesus, and the often surprising ideas it presents about the Bible, and early Christian history. Graves was not so much a uniquely erudite scholar, but rather an interested layman with an unerring instinct for picking up and popularizing the intriguing theories of contemporary academe. I am also well aware, by the way, that Graves was writing a novel for general consumption, not an academic study, and he did not necessarily believe any of the material he was presenting. So please take everything I write here in that light.
One of his ideas still draws me, and in some ways leaves me baffled. This concerns a short but incredibly rich section of the Old Testament presently found as chapters 9-14 of the book of Zechariah, commonly known as Deutero-Zechariah. The suggestion that the book could be thus divided dates back at least to the seventeenth century. It is widely, but not universally, held, that this section was added to the original text of the late sixth-century BC prophet Zechariah, although suggested dates vary widely, from the fifth century through the third BC.
I will state the problem here, before returning to the text in my next post.
This “Second Zechariah” has long intrigued Christian readers, as it is so densely packed with texts that seem to refer to Jesus, and specifically to his final days in Jerusalem. It is almost a Passion Play in its own right. Within a few pages of a modern Bible, we find the following verses (I’ll use the KJV in most instances, except where specified):
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.”
That obviously sounds like Christ’s entry into Jerusalem (Matt 21.5-7)
“And I said unto them, If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver. And the Lord said unto me, Cast it unto the potter: a goodly price that I was prised at of them. And I took the thirty pieces of silver, and cast them to the potter in the house of the Lord.”
Just as obviously, we think of Judas’s betrayal, and his own death and burial as described by Matthew (Matt 27.3-10).
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.”
Cited in John 19.37, after Jesus dies on the Cross.
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones.”
Quoted by Jesus before his betrayal (Matthew 26.31).
“And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” (RSV translation — others differ significantly)
Arguably, the eviction of the traders and money-changers from the Temple is intended to fulfill one interpretation of this verse.
That is a potent list! And it could be expanded. Scholar Charlene McAfee Moss explores other parallels, including the critical line about "the blood of the covenant," which Jesus mentions at the Last Supper. As she notes, the only places in the Old Testament that the words "blood" and "covenant" are juxtaposed are in Exodus 24, and in Zech. 9.11. Also, if not from Deutero-Zechariah itself, Zech. 6.12 is sometimes interpreted as a messianic promise to rebuild the Temple. Some such text lies behind the charge that Jesus had threatened to destroy and rebuild the Temple.
Deutero-Zechariah also had a potent influence on Revelation, and Rev. 1.7 recalls Zech. 12.10.
So how do we explain this? Obviously, many readers through the centuries have seen these texts as a straightforward messianic prophecy. Zechariah, or perhaps some later “Deutero” author, had a vision of Jesus’s career, and wrote down the prophecy. That idea in itself is credible for anyone who accepts the idea of prophecy, but it does have problems, in that other portions of the Deutero-Zechariah text seemingly have no relevance whatever to Jesus or the Christian story.
Suspicious of any form of supernatural explanation, most modern critics see the passages differently, arguing that early Christians like Matthew took Deutero-Zechariah and used ideas and episodes from it to frame the narrative they told. Arguably, for instance, that is where we get the whole story of Judas receiving the thirty pieces of silver.
Actually, the two models are not mutually exclusive. You could, for instance, argue that some earlier prophet really did see the messianic future, and those words inevitably resonated with later evangelists. The source influenced later writers, but did not cause them to create the narrative out of whole cloth.
Robert Graves, though, draws in the scholarly speculations of his day (not least Albert Schweitzer) to offer another interpretation altogether. What if Jesus knew and valued those Deutero-Zechariah passages, and acted them out deliberately and consciously as a means of provoking the End Times? When we read that he says “Strike the shepherd,” this was not a retroactive reading by a later evangelist who was trying to place Jesus in the context of ancient prophecy. It was rather an actual quotation from a Jesus who had placed himself in the role of a character in the Zechariah story.
It’s a seductive idea, and one that actually makes excellent sense of other more allusive Zechariah passages that are less familiar.
Let me explain further in my next post.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor Universityand author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.