Rorate Caeli

Saints of the Old Testament: St. Zacharias, prophet

In the traditional Roman Martyrology, the month of September has more commemorations of Old Testament saints than any other month. Today, only two days after the commemoration of Moses, through whom God inaugurated the Old Covenant with the Israelite people, we remember St. Zacharias the Prophet, through whom God announced that He would "make void my covenant, which I had made with all the people" (Zach. 11:10).  He heads today's martyrology, in fact:

This Day, the Sixth Day of September

The prophet Zachary, who returned in his old age from Chaldea to his own country, and lies buried near the prophet Aggeus.

Zacharias was the author of the Old Testament book of prophecy named for him, the Book of Zacharias, which is numbered among the 12 "Minor Prophets" (so named not because their prophetic messages were of little significance or not very important, but merely from the length of their books in comparison to the size of the books of the Major Prophets). The old Catholic Encyclopedia discusses the contents of the Book of Zacharias at length, also offering this biographical sketch of the book's divinely-inspired author:

(Hebrew zekharyahu and zekharyah; meaning "the Lord remembers," Sept. Zacharia and Zacharias), son of Barachias, son of Addo, a Prophet who rose in Israel in the eighth month of the seventh year of the reign of King Darius, 520 B.C. (Zechariah 1:1) just two months after Aggeus began to prophesy (Agg., i, 1). The urgings of the two Prophets brought about the building of the second temple (Ezra 5 and 6). Addo was one of the chief priests who, in the first year of the reign of Cyrus 538 B.C., returned with Zorobabel from captivity (Nehemiah 12:4). Sixteen years thereafter, during the high priesthood of Joacim (verse 12), Zacharia, of the family of Addo (Heb. of verse 16), is listed as a chief priest. This Zacharia is most likely the Prophet and author of the canonical book of the same name. It is not at all probable that the Prophet Zacharias is referred to by Christ (Matthew 23:35Luke 11:51) as having been slain by the Jews in the Temple; that Zacharias was the son of Joiada (2 Chronicles 24:20). Moreover, the Jews of Zorobabel's time obeyed the Prophet Zacharias (Zechariah 6:7); nor is there, in the Books of Esdras, any trace of so heinous a crime perpetrated in the Temple court. The prophecy of Zacharias is one of the books admitted by both Jews and Christians into their canon of Sacred Writings, one of the Minor Prophets. . . .

The Book of Zacharias consists of a series of "apocalyptic" visions and discourses, and the correlations and similarities between the Book of Zacharias and the Apocalypse of St. John are obvious. Among the clearest correlations are the visions of horsemen riding different colored steeds (Zach. 1:8; Apoc. 6:2, 4, 5, 8) and of a sacred menorah (lamp stand) with seven candlesticks (Zach. 4:2; Apoc 1:12-13). The Apocalypse of St. John even presents an authoritative interpretation of one of the visions in the Book of Zacharias (Apoc. 11:4; Zach. 4:3, 11-14).

Of course the particular meanings of the visions of St. Zacharias and St. John are unique to their respective historical situations. Nevertheless, the visions of Zacharias and John are both intensely Messianic in their focus, and therefore even the visions of Zacharias that had a primary reference to persons and events of his own day have their fullest meaning and application to Jesus Christ.  God sent St. Zacharias visions to exhort and encourage the remnant of Jews who had returned from the Babylonian Captivity in the 500s B.C. to get on with rebuilding the Temple, and in particular to encourage their leaders, the Aaronic high priest Josue or Jesus (Jeshua) and the Davidic royal scion Zorobabel (Zerubbabel) the governor. But Josue and Zorobabel in themselves, being "anointed ones" or "messiahs," were also signs and types of the Messiah Jesus, who is both High Priest and King (cf. Zach. 6:11-13, in which the high priest is depicted as a royal Messianic figure wearing royal crowns and sitting upon a throne). The re-establishment of the Aaronic high priesthood and sacrifices in Jerusalem are allegorical types of Christ's establishment of the Catholic priesthood and the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Satan's attacks on the high priest Josue (Zach. 3:1-2) point ahead to Satan's temptations of and attacks on Jesus Christ. The rebuilding of the Temple foreshadows Christ building the Church. The encouragement and divine promises given to the Davidic prince Zorobabel through St. Zacharias the Prophet find their fullness in Jesus Christ, the Son of David, who is lineal descendant and legal heir of Zorobabel and Zorobabel's claims to the throne of David (Matt. 1:12-16; Luke 3:23-27).

The Messianic focus of the Book of Zacharias is not a general or broader view, but is often remarkably specific, for St. Zacharias even saw visions of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Zach. 9:9) as well as Judas Iscariot's betrayal of our Lord for 30 pieces of silver (Zach. 11:12-13), even glimpsing the chief priests' use of that blood money to buy the potter's field (Matt. 27:3-7).  Most significantly, in the vision of St. Zacharias the Prophet, it is God Himself who is "sold" for 30 pieces of silver, thus foretelling that the Messiah would be God Incarnate.  Even more, the vision of the betrayal occurs immediately after God announces that He was going to "make void my covenant, which I had made with all the people" (Zach. 11:10). That came to pass when Jesus shed His Precious Blood and died upon the cross, thus terminating the Sinaitic covenant and ratifying the New Covenant which Jeremias the Prophet had foretold. The Old Testament prophets spoke of the Sinaitic covenant as an indissoluble marriage covenant between God and Israel, one which could not become void no matter how sinful and unfaithful Israel was (Jer. 31:35-37). Only the death of one of the spouses can terminate a marriage covenant, but God promised that Israel would never cease to exist as a nation (Jer. 31:36). Yet God said through Zacharias that He would make void His covenant, and then went on to foretell that He would be sold for 30 pieces of silver. Israel, God's unfaithful wife, could not die, so to abrogate the Old Covenant and fulfill the prophecy that He would make a New Covenant with a renewed, faithful Israel, God Himself would "have to" die, willingly suffering death so that His bride would not receive the just punishment for her sins.

Although the chronological data in the Books of Esdras and of Zacharias enable us to tell when the prophetic ministry of St. Zacharias took place, no information has survived on when exactly the prophet Zacharias died. There is also uncertainty about how and where he died. One very old tradition is recorded in The Lives of the Prophets, written by an unknown Jewish author probably in the first century A.D.  Though its traditions are apocryphal, historically they have been widely credited by both Christians and Jews.  The Lives of the Prophets has this to say about "Zechariah son of Iddo" (Zacharias son of Addo):

He came from Chaldea when already advanced in age. While there, he prophesied often to the people, and did wonders in proof of his authority. He foretold to Jozadak that he would beget a son who would serve as priest in Jerusalem; he also congratulated Shealtiel on the birth of a son and gave him the name Zerubbabel. In the time of Cyrus he gave the king a sign of victory, and foretold the service which he was destined to perform for Jerusalem, and he praised him greatly. His prophecies uttered in Jerusalem had to do with the end of the nations, with Israel and the temple, with the laziness of prophets and priests, and with a double judgment. After reaching great age he was taken ill, and dying, was buried beside Haggai.

The Roman Martyrology's brief comment that St. Zacharias "returned in his old age from Chaldea to his own country, and lies buried near the prophet Aggeus" is obviously derived from the much earlier source's words, "He came from Chaldea when already advanced in age," and "After reaching great age he was taken ill, and dying, was buried beside Haggai."  Most interestingly, however, while the ancient tradition unhesitatingly asserts that Zacharias died of a sickness due to his great age, the Roman Martyrology does not say how he died. This remarkable silence is probably due to the long-standing dispute regarding his death that was referred to above by the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

It is not at all probable that the Prophet Zacharias is referred to by Christ (Matthew 23:35Luke 11:51) as having been slain by the Jews in the Temple; that Zacharias was the son of Joiada (2 Chronicles 24:20). Moreover, the Jews of Zorobabel's time obeyed the Prophet Zacharias (Zechariah 6:7); nor is there, in the Books of Esdras, any trace of so heinous a crime perpetrated in the Temple court.

The passage in question is from the 23rd chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew, vv. 29-35:

Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites; that build the sepulchres of the prophets, and adorn the monuments of the just, And say: If we had been in the days of our Fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. Wherefore you are witnesses against yourselves, that you are the sons of them that killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. You serpents, generation of vipers, how will you flee from the judgment of hell? Therefore behold I send to you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues, and persecute from city to city: That upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just, even unto the blood of Zacharias the son of Barachias, whom you killed between the temple and the altar.

In the parallel passage in St. Luke's Gospel, Jesus does not mention the name of the father of the martyred prophet Zacharias, but in St. Matthew's Gospel the martyr is said to be the son of Barachias. This raises a serious difficulty for those who argue that Jesus was referring to the martyrdom of Zacharias son of the high priest Joiada, because the only known prophet of the name of "Zacharias son of Barachias" in the Old Testament was the author of the Book of Zacharias, who is identified in Zach. 1:1 as "Zacharias the son of Barachias the son of Addo." There is one other "Zacharias son of Barachias" in the Old Testament, the obscure, otherwise unknown witness "Zechariah son of Jeberechiah" who is named in Isa. 8:2, but he was not a prophet and there is no tradition identifying him as a martyr. Interestingly, a remarkable Jewish tradition mentioned in the Targum on Lamentations 2:20 alleges that "Zechariah son of Iddo" was killed by the Jews in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement (though the Targum tradition erroneously claims he was the high priest, which was true neither of Zacharias son of Addo nor of Zacharias son of Joiada). The most natural interpretation would be that Jesus was referring to the author of the Book of Zacharias. The Catholic Encyclopedia's objection that the Jews obeyed Zacharias is not valid, because the careers of the prophets show that often they would be heeded for a while but later rejected or persecuted.  Nor does the absence of an account of the prophet's martyrdom in the Books of Esdras necessarily prove anything, for widespread ancient tradition also maintains that both Isaias and Jeremias were martyred, even though the Old Testament does not say anything about them being martyred (Heb. 11:37's words "sawn asunder" has long been taken as a reference to the tradition of how Isaias was martyred). Could the author of The Lives of the Prophets simply have been ignorant of how St. Zacharias really died, or perhaps (though not as likely) chose to suppress his martyrdom?

Others, however, who believe Jesus was referring to the martyrdom of Zacharias son of Joiada argue that "Barachias" may have been another name for Joiada, or (taking note of the fact that Joiada died at the remarkable age of 130) Barachias may have been Joiada's son and the father of Zacharias, just as St. Zacharias was not literally the son of Addo but actually his grandson. Such explanations are possible even if unprovable. Those who advocate for this position often claim that when Jesus recalled all of the martyrdoms beginning with Abel and ending with Zacharias, He was following the order of books in the Jewish canon of Scripture, from Genesis to II Paralipomenon (Chronicles). That argument carries no force whatsoever, though, because the Jewish order of Old Testament books, in which I & II Chronicles are placed as the last books of their Bible, had not taken its final shape as early as the first century A.D. The Greek Septuagint certainly did not place I & II Paralipomenon as the final books -- rather, in the Septuagint order of books the books of prophecy have always been the fourth and last group of books, with the Twelve Minor Prophets the last books in that group, thus placing Zacharias as the next to last book in the Old Testament in the Septuagint. If the order of Old Testament books has any relevance to this argument of which martyr Jesus was referring to, then there is just as much reason to think He meant the author of the Book of Zacharias as there is to think it was the son of the high priest Joiada.

In addition to these two possible identifications of the Zacharias of Matt. 23:35, a third identification is found in the second century A.D. apocryphal Christian work, the Protevangelion of James, in which it is St. John the Baptist's own father Zacharias who is identified as the "Zacharias son of Barachias" whom the Jews killed between the Temple and the altar. This identification has long been the prevailing tradition among Orthodox Christians. Although this early source contains many edifying legends about the Holy Family which are piously believed by the faithful, some of its legends are generally rejected by Catholics (such as the tradition that St. Joseph was previously married and had sons and daughters by his first wife), and the book is also indisputably incorrect in portraying St. John the Baptist's father as the Jewish high priest and St. Simeon of Luke 2:25 as Zacharias' successor in the high priesthood. Not only does St. Luke not identify Zacharias and Simeon as high priests  -- for Zacharias is but a priest of the division of Abia, and Simeon is simply a just and devout man in Jerusalem -- but the known succession of high priests at that time has no space at all for Zacharias and Simeon. Just as the Protevangelion is mistaken on these points, so too we cannot credit its identification of the martyr "Zacharias son of Barachias."

Despite the Catholic Encyclopedia's judgment, it's not at all improbable that the author of the Book of Zacharias may have died a martyr in the Temple, just as Zacharias the son of Joiada had died centuries before. But this question cannot be definitively answered, and perhaps then the wisest course is that of the Roman Martyrology, which passes over in silence the manner of St. Zacharias' death.

All ye holy patriarchs and prophets,

Pray for us!