Did Jesus give us Bible bookends?

This 15th century altarpiece by Jan van Eyck in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium, depicts the Old Testament prophet Zechariah. Was the prophet the same “Zechariah” referred to by Jesus in Luke and Matthew’s Gospels? He could be, but the evidence is not entirely clear.

Did Jesus ever tell us which books belong in the Old Testament? Many Protestants argue that he did and they appeal to Jesus’ words concerning the shedding of the prophets blood being “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, the son of Berechiah …” (Luke 11:50, Mathew 23:35). It is argued that according to the traditional order of Old Testament books, Jesus is using examples taken from the first book (i.e., Abel in Genesis) and the last book (i.e., Zechariah in Second Chronicles). Because this is the same book order as the rabbinical Bible, it is argued, Jesus must have accepted the rabbinical canon (which omits the seven deuterocanonical books Catholics and Orthodox accept). Is this a sound argument? Not at all.

Gary Michuta

Although the argument firmly states that Jesus is referring to Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada (2 Chronicles 24:20-22), the question has puzzled scholars for centuries, as no one seems to exactly fit our Lord’s description. Zechariah of Chronicles doesn’t fit because Jesus identifies Zechariah as “the son of Berechiah” (Matthew 23:35), not “the son of Jehoiada. Jesus also says to his hearers, concerning Zechariah, “…whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar.” But the son of Jehoiada was murdered centuries earlier.

Another candidate is the prophet Zechariah, who is twice called “the son of Berechiah” (Zechariah 1:1, 7). However, Scripture is silent as to how the prophet died and he too (like the son of Jehoiada) was not a contemporary of Jesus. Zechariah, John the Baptist’s father, is also a candidate. In a previous article, we saw that there was an early Christian tradition that he was martyred in the temple area. The only problem is Scripture does not tell us Zechariah’s father, nor does it tell us how he died.

It’s also possible that Jesus was referring to an otherwise unknown Zechariah who had recently been murdered. After all, this would be no different than the other times Jesus mentions contemporary events that are not otherwise recorded in Scripture, such as the 18 people being killed by the falling tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4). Maybe Jesus is doing the same thing here? In any case, identifying Jesus’ Zechariah is not as easy as it seems. But even if Jesus did refer to the Zechariah in Second Chronicles, was Chronicles always the last book in the Jewish Bible?

This point is even more speculative than the first. There is only one Jewish list in all of antiquity that places Chronicles at the end of the Hebrew Bible (b. Baba Bathra, 14b). Every early Church fathers, who attempted to reproduce the contents of the Jewish Bible, ended his list with either Esther or Ezra-Nehemiah. None of them put Chronicles last. Even the oldest complete Hebrew Bibles (the Aleppo and Leningrad codices) place Chronicles first among the Writings, not last. The earliest evidence of any Jewish writing putting Chronicles last, outside of b. Baba Bathra 14b, is from the 13th century!

You’re probably asking yourself, if this is true, how can this order be said to be the “traditional order” when there doesn’t seem to be any tradition supporting it? The answer is the printing press. When Hebrew Bibles began to be printed, the book publishers placed Chronicles last. Soon, every major printed copy of the Hebrew text from the 15th century onward ended with Chronicles. It’s “traditional,” not because it was an ancient common practice, but because it was the traditional way book publishers printed Hebrew Bibles.

As you can see, the “bookends” argument doesn’t have a leg to stand on. But even if we grant all the argument’s premises, it still doesn’t follow that Jesus meant for Abel and Zechariah to refer to the first and last books of Bible. There are other perfectly good reasons for why Jesus picked these two examples. It is quite likely that they were chosen simply because they were examples of two deaths that demanded retribution (Genesis 4:10, 2 Chronicles 24:22). If this is so, it doesn’t matter which books recorded their deaths and Jesus’ words would have no bearing on the order of books.

Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.