Monday, December 11, 2006

Who Is Zacharias?

In the middle of some reseach on the matters pertaining to the nativity of our Lord, I ran across a fascinating bit of information. There can be found in the Protoevangelium of James, which may be the oldest of the apocryphal Gospels (which never gained any recognition as to their authority), quite a number of items which seem to be the source of much of the extra-Biblical tradition concerning Joseph and Mary.

For instance, it is this document which speaks of the ass for Mary’s journey, the cave for Christ's birth, Salome and the midwife verifying a virgin birth (utero clauso), and even the Marian colors of dark purple (blue?) and scarlet (Mary was given these colors of linen for spinning).

In addition, there is an account of the murder of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, between the porch and the altar in the temple, by Herod's men, when Zacharias would not (or could not) produce information concerning his son John's whereabouts (John and his mother Elizabeth had gone into hiding in the desert, where a mountain was miraculously cleft to receive her and her son).

The research provides an interesting take on Jesus’ reference to the murder of Zacharias in St. Matthew 23:35 (cf. St. Luke 11:51): "Upon you [shall] come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar."

If this is the Zacharias to whom Jesus refers, then the reference in the Protoevangelium of James is to an historical reality. Others who hold to this theory point to the fact that none of the other three Zacharias figures to whom it could refer is as likely. The priest Zacharias of 2 Chronicles 24:20-22 has the wrong father (Jehoiada), the prophet Zechariah seems to have been obeyed and not martyred (Zechariah 6:7), and Zechariah the son of Baruch, though slain by Zealots in the midst of the temple, was not slain until A.D. 67 (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 6, Section 4), which would require the admission of editorializing on the part of the Evangelist. None of the books of Esdras contain any evidence of any crime so heinous committed in the Temple court.

The account given in the Protoevangelium of James is actually quite believable, in view of the likelihood that Zacharias would have met trouble at the hands of Herod’s men searching for Bethlehem’s Holy Innocents, if indeed his wife and child had gone into hiding from them.

This would certainly help to contextualize Jesus' invective against the scribes and Pharisees: perhaps they were not only guilty of saying bad things, but of murder: it was after all the scribes in Herod's court who first brought Bethlehem into the madman's mind. And when Herod was troubled at the wise men's words, it says that "all Jerusalem" was troubled with him, a likely reference to the scribes and Pharisees in particular. So it is likely that when Herod sent his murderers to Bethlehem, it was with their blessing. Their last act of murder, literally, could well have been the murder of John's father. Jesus is saying that their murderous line began with Cain, as they fill up in their own time the cup that began with Abel's murder.

I'm still pondering all this, so I'm not quite sure, but it makes sense to me for the time being.


FredricJEinstein said...

I wrote an entire paper on Zechariah ben Berachia and his martyrdom during the time of the FIRST Holy Temple.

This story of Zecharia ben Berachia's martyrdom was on the lips of every Jewish child during the time of Messiah's Incarnation. They learned the story on their mother's laps. Evidence of this is that the story is related in BOTH the Talmud Yerushalmi as well as the Talmud Bavli as well as the Midrash Rabbah. Thus, everyone hearing Jesus's words would immediately have made the connection to the martyrdom of Zechariah ben Berachia who was slain.

Now, you may object saying that it was Zecharia ben Yehoiada who was slain in the time of the First Temple. The Talmud brings the exegetical device of "gezerah shawa" to say that Zecharia ben Yehoiada and Zecharia ben Berachia are the same guy.

The Talmudic sages use Isaiah 8.1-
2 as proof for this. Since the word that begins verse 8.2 is "v'aw'ih'dah" (tr: and I have appointed -- in the future prophetic sense -- even though I speak in the past tense, I God have already ordained in my Divine Will that I will appoint), and Isaiah mentions Zecharia ben Berachia in that very same verse, the rabbis conclude exegetically that "just as Uriah was under the First Temple, so too Zecharia ben Berachia was under the First Temple and that Isaiah is relating prophecy about a future event and not historical fact."

In fact, Midrashic commentary indicates that the killing of Zecharia ben Berachia (aka Yehoiada) was responsible for Nebuchadnezzar's general (whose name was Nebuzaradan) deciding to besiege Jerusalem three years before it fell to Nebuchadnezzar.

Thus, according to Talmudic and Midrashic evidence, it seems that your theory is incorrect. Zecharia ben Berachia (aka Yehoiada) is the martyr to whom Messiah is referring in Mt 23.35, NOT the father of John Baptist.

Father Eckardt said...

Interesting take, though I admit I'm not sure I follow it completely. I concede the possibility that it may be entirely correct, but I'm still wondering about messianic ingredients. To wit, in the Isaiah 8, we may assume the child born to the prophet to be a harbinger of the Messiah Himself. So, perhaps the slaying of Zechariah son of Jehoiada was likewise a harbinger, of the slaying of John's father. Admittedly I'd be more comfortable with this theory if the account of the martyrdom of John's father were canonical. My greater reason for liking it is that it would certainly be immediately understandable to Jesus' immediate audience if it were true, and it would make sense for Him to refer to a contemporary event at this time.

Susan said...

If Zachariah had to send Elizabeth and John away to protect them from Herod's men who were approaching to kill the baby boys, then doesn't that mean that Zachariah & Elizabeth lived in Bethlehem? And if so, then they would've given Joseph & Mary a place to stay that was a better place for birthing babies than a stall in a barn.

Is your theory still gonna hold if Zachariah wasn't from Bethlehem?

Father Eckardt said...

Good point, although I believe Herod sent to destroy the infants in Bethlehem and its environs, which could have meant a rather large swatch of country. Then again, it probably wouldn't be large enough to include Jerusalem itself. I am mostly intrigued by the account in the Protoevangelium of James, which makes this not 'my' theory, but that of the writer, whoever he is. Even if it's made up, one may ask what materials that inventive mind had to work with.

FredricJEinstein said...

Dear Fr. Eckardt,
Thanks for your reply. Sorry it's taken so long for me to reply. The point that the Midrashic sages are making is the following...

Isaiah 8.2 mentions a guy named Zecharia ben Yer'Brachia. Now, what Isaiah was commanded to write in 8.1 was "Mah'har shah'lal chas bahz" which infers that the Holy Temple will be destroyed as a result of the crimes of the Children of Israel against God.

Then he goes on (in verse 2) to speak of two martyrs, the first being Uriah (who was martyred for speaking against the unrighteousness of King Yehoiachem) and Zechariah ben y'Berachia who was martyred for speaking against the unrighteousness of the Temple priesthood.

Just as Uriah was martyred, so to, this Zecharia ben y'Berachia MUST be a martyr (otherwise, Torah wouldn't have mentioned them in close proximity to each other and in the same utterance).

Now, there is no other mention, anywhere in Scripture of a martyr named Zechariah other than Zechariah ben Yehoiada whose blood boiled in the court of the Holy Temple because of his martyrdom at the hands of the unrighteous Temple priests.

Isaiah is certainly NOT speaking of Zechariah the Prophet (whose name was also Zechariah ben Berachiah) who was NOT martyred, but lived to a nice ripe old age, so he MUST be speaking of the ONLY other guy named Zechariah in Scripture, that is Zechariah ben Yehoiada (aka Zechariah ben y'Berachia).

Thus, the Midrashic sages conclude, this Zechariah ben y'Berachia from Isaiah 8.2 is the guy who is mentioned as a martyr by Messiah.

Is this clear now?

Father Eckardt said...

Yes, that makes sense. While I concede that the Zechariah to whom Jesus refers could have been this one, there are still two outstanding pieces of data which lead me to wonder whether Jesus is referring to John's father. First is the Protoevangelium of St. James, which makes the claim that John's father was Zechariah and that he was martyred in the correct place. Of course this may well be made up out of sheer cloth by the writer, who simply had the logion of our Lord in mind and wanted to say this was how it was fulfilled. Then again, maybe not. The second piece of data is the context of the logion. He is charging these men with personally murdering Zechariah. I know he could be referring to them as a class of men, to wit, you leaders of Israel who have always been murdererers. But if these men personally murdered John's father, which everyone would likely have known about, it makes Jesus' saying here one which covers much more ground than the time period of the Torah, and in fact one which would lead right up to Jesus' own day (and crucifixion, which is also their responsibility). But I don't know. It's just a thought, and I'm not going to lay any bets on it.

Christopher said...

The Orthodox Church takes much of this information as being true, but only insofar as the liturgical tradition of the Church has accepted as true:

"Among the apocrypha is the protoevangelion of James, which contains some details about the life of the Theotokos that the Church has acknowledged are true. Nonetheless, the book itself is apocryphal. It was not written by James, it is not genuine, authoritative or inspired and much of it, if not most of it, is false. It never appeared on any canonical list as a genuine apostolic book and was never accepted by any Father of the Church as genuine. Whatever true information it contained has already been incorporated by the Church into its liturgical life and there is no need to read it." ('Canon of Scripture: Introduction', by Eugenia Constantinou).

The liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church says the following in his Life:

"Commemorated on September 5

The Holy Prophet Zachariah and the Righteous Elizabeth were the parents of the holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of the Lord, John. They were descended from the lineage of Aaron: St Zachariah, son of Barach, was a priest in the Jerusalem Temple, and St Elizabeth was the sister of St Anna, the mother of the Most Holy Theotokos. The righteous spouses, "walking in all the commandments of the Lord (Luke 1:6), suffered barrenness, which in those times was considered a punishment from God.

Once, during his turn of priestly service in the Temple, St Zachariah was told by an angel that his aged wife would bear him a son, who "will be great in the sight of the Lord" (Luke 1:15) and "will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias" (Luke 1:17).

Zachariah doubted that this prediction would come true, and for his weakness of faith he was punished by becoming mute. When Elizabeth gave birth to a son, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit she announced that his name was John, although no one in their family had this name.

They asked Zachariah and he also wrote the name John down on a tablet. Immediately the gift of speech returned to him, and inspired by the Holy Spirit, he began to prophesy about his son as the Forerunner of the Lord.

When King Herod heard from the Magi about the birth of the Messiah, he decided to kill all the infants up to two years old at Bethlehem and the surrounding area, hoping that the new-born Messiah would be among them.

Herod knew about John's unusual birth and he wanted to kill him, fearing that he was the foretold King of the Jews. But Elizabeth hid herself and the infant in the hills. The murderers searched everywhere for John. Elizabeth, when she saw her pursuers, began to implore God for their safety, and immediately the hill opened up and concealed her and the infant from their pursuers.

In these tragic days St Zachariah was taking his turn at the services in the Temple. Soldiers sent by Herod tried in vain to learn from him the whereabouts of his son. Then, by command of Herod, they murdered this holy prophet, having stabbed him between the temple and the altar (MT 23: 35). Elizabeth died forty days after her husband, and St John, preserved by the Lord, dwelt in the wilderness until the day of his appearance to the nation of Israel.

On the Greek calendar, Sts Zachariah and Elizabeth are also commemorated on June 24, the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist."

The Orthodox liturgical texts for St. Zecharias can be found here:

The short entry on Zacharias in St. Nikolai Velimirovich's 'The Prologue from Ohrid' (Serbian) also agrees with the Protoevangelion.

The Roman Catholic and Western tradition holds to the same story, though Catholic Online admits that the tradition is "unverifiable", which would be true - unless one hold either the liturgical tradition or the Protoevangelion to be sources.