Placing Zechariah

Placing Zechariah August 7, 2015

I was posting about some of the weird and wonderful ideas offered by Robert Graves in his 1946 novel King Jesus, one of which concerned the puzzling text we call Deutero-Zechariah, chapters 9-14 of that prophetic work.

As I described, the section tells of a devout prophetic figure who is appalled by the sins of his age, which are denounced in a ringing Oracle. Protesting against the evils of the time, he deliberately assumes the role of the Unworthy Shepherd, violating the law and infuriating the people, until his own parents kill him from anger and shame. That act forces people back to Righteousness, and moreover provokes an apocalyptic divine intervention in history, and the End Times. It is not so much a sacrificial role as that of a provocateur. Graves theorizes that perhaps Jesus was attempting to play that role in his last days. As we wish, we may view that particular interpretation as interesting speculation, or as worthless fantasy.

Whatever their origin, those Zechariah texts had an inordinate influence on the making of the New Testament. If you know anything about Christian history, you appreciate the vast importance of the Book of Isaiah in shaping images of Jesus. Some even describe Isaiah as an honorary Fifth Gospel. I would actually make the case that Zechariah demands almost as much attention and respect.

Quite apart from the New Testament angle, though, the Deutero-Zechariah section seems to shed light on a singularly obscure period of Jewish history. It suggests, in fact, that quite intense debate and controversy was in progress at some point in this period, but we have a very poor idea of the conditions that provoked this desperate and apocalyptic cry. It is almost as if we had the Book of Daniel, but for whatever reason knew nothing about the Maccabean crisis of the 160s BC that provoked it and which provides the underlying explanation of the work’s symbolism and rhetoric. We have an agonized response to a crisis, without much sense of what that crisis actually is.

Even the exact construction of Zechariah is much debated, and one view holds that the books as we presently know and name them do not accurately reflect their original composition and contents. David L. Petersen suggests that the last six chapters of Zechariah should properly be included together with what we call the book of Malachi (Zechariah 9-14 and Malachi (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995). Peterson also remarks, justly, on the problems of approaching some sections. I don’t want to reproduce the whole passage here, but see especially Zech. 11 4-17. Petersen says that a passage like this “is quite simply difficult to comprehend. The imagery appears complex, often impenetrable” and perhaps, ultimately, incomprehensible. It’s hard to dispute that.

Moreover, dating the Deutero section of Zechariah is by no means easy, as there are so few internal pointers. Assuming for the sake of argument that scholars are correct to break the book into two segments, then the first Zechariah himself (the author of chapters one through eight) belongs to the later sixth century. But the Second is a much more puzzling creature. The text must predate the mid-second century, because part of the book’s latest section appears at Qumran, in 4QXII. But how much earlier is it? Based on the other prophetic books that he knows and reflects, Deutero-Zechariah cannot be earlier than the fifth century, which is when several writers date the work. Among many others, see Peterson, or most recently, Suk Yee Lee, An Intertextual Analysis of Zechariah 9-10 (Bloomsbury 2015). This is also the date argued by Carol L. Meyers and Eric M. Meyers, Zechariah 9-14 (Anchor Bible, 1993). Such opinions carry much weight.

Having said this, some scholars make a strong case for a third century date. This was the view argued strongly in the classic work by Bernhard Stade in the 1880s, who thought that he recognized in the text echoes of wars in the region between c. 306-278 BC, and similar views have surfaced right up the present day: see the references below. One suggestive passage noted by many commentators has God warn that “I will rouse your sons, Zion, against your sons, Greece, and make you like a warrior’s sword,” using Yavan for Greece (9.13).  This suggests that it was written at a time when Israel was well aware of Greek power and influence. That would be after the time of Alexander the Great, in the 330s, although as I say, it must have been written well before the Maccabean period. Zech 9.3 also refers to a siege of Tyre, which again places us in the later fourth century. A common sense reading suggests that the opening of chapter nine is describing Alexander’s conquests. A reference to “annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel” (11.14) probably refers to the Samaritan schism of the late fourth century.

Hence, we are looking at the time of Hellenistic domination of Palestine, respectively by the Ptolemies (up to 200 BC?) and then the Seleucids (from 200 BC through the mid-second century). As Gonzalez remarks, references to Egypt and Assyria work well as metaphors for the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires, rather than as literal characterizations. Graves, on no obvious grounds, attributes the Zechariah passage to “Seleucid” times.

I absolutely do not stress this chronology, but I would like to use it as a kind of thought experiment. For the sake of argument, assume that the text comes from the Hellenistic era. Can we place it in any plausible context? And is that context any more or less likely that the fifth century proposal? More than anything else, the experiment points to just how little we know about large extents of early Jewish history.

One arcane section in ch. 11 tells this story:

Thus said the Lord my God: “Become shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter. Those who buy them slay them and go unpunished; and those who sell them say, ‘Blessed be the Lord, I have become rich’; and their own shepherds have no pity on them. For I will no longer have pity on the inhabitants of this land, says the Lord. Lo, I will cause men to fall each into the hand of his shepherd, and each into the hand of his king; and they shall crush the earth, and I will deliver none from their hand.” So I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to be slain for those who trafficked in the sheep. And I took two staffs; one I named Grace, the other I named Union. And I tended the sheep. In one month I destroyed the three shepherds. But I became impatient with them, and they also detested me. So I said, “I will not be your shepherd. What is to die, let it die; what is to be destroyed, let it be destroyed; and let those that are left devour the flesh of one another.” And I took my staff Grace, and I broke it, annulling the covenant which I had made with all the peoples. So it was annulled on that day, and the traffickers in the sheep, who were watching me, knew that it was the word of the Lord.  … Then I broke my second staff Union, annulling the brotherhood between Judah and Israel.

What exactly does that mean, “In one month I destroyed the three shepherds”? I might look for an era in which, for instance, three kings, princes or high priests died within a very short time, or else the “months” are symbolic eras representing much longer periods. But I honestly don’t know. Nor is it easy to find a plausible historical setting for such events. The main lesson is that we know so very little about the third century BC, and we might be missing very major conflicts and controversies. To cite a purely hypothetical example, it might be that in 286 BC (making up a date at random) Judea was divided by savage religious and political civil wars which had lasting theological consequences, but which have now utterly vanished from the historical record.

Assume for the sake of argument that the text is from some point in the third century, the “missing century” of Jewish history. As I have suggested, this was a time of hugely significant transitions, which produced the remarkable texts now surviving in 1 Enoch and the whole Enochian tradition, and we reasonably assume that such revolutionary tracts emerged from an era of internal struggle and political crisis.

Yet our knowledge of internal political history is really limited, and what we do know about that period sounds quite anodyne, a blissfully peaceful world with few conflicts or events. But if we unpack that story, is there any chance of finding a likely crisis moment that produced Deutero-Zechariah?

More in my next post.


For anyone wanting to follow up the scholarly vackground here, here is the working bibliography I will been using on Zechariah and related matters. Major works include Christopher Tuckett, The Book of Zechariah and its Influence (Ashgate, 2003); and Mark J. Boda and Michael H. Floyd, eds., Bringing Out The Treasure: Inner Biblical Allusion in Zechariah 9-14 (Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), focusing on the writings of Rex Mason. For Zechariah’s huge influence on the New Testament, see  Charlene McAfee Moss, The Zechariah Tradition and the Gospel of Matthew (Walter de Gruyter, 2008).  Much recent literature on Zechariah focuses on its relationship to the emergence of apocalyptic, and debates whether it might belong to a transitional phase of “proto-Apocalyptic.” See for instance Paul D. Hanson, The Dawn of Apocalyptic (Fortress Press, 1975); E. J. C. Tigchelaar, Prophets of Old and the Day of the End: Zechariah, the Book of Watchers and Apocalyptic (Brill, 1996).

For a Hellenistic context for the work, see for instance Hervé Gonzalez, “Zechariah 9-14 and the Continuation of Zechariah during the Ptolemaic Period,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 13 (2013). Such arguments are of course anything but new. For a well developed statement of the case for a Hellenistic date, see Hinckley G. Mitchell, ‎John Merlin Powis Smith, ‎and Julius August Bewer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Jonah (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 218-59. A Hellenistic date is also followed by Martin Hengel, “The Political and Social History of Palestine from Alexander to Antiochus III (333–187 B.C.E.),” in W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (1990), 51-52, citing the “Greece” line. In the same volume, see also the substantial discussion in Mathias Delcor, “Jewish Literature in Hebrew and Aramaic in the Greek era,” 380-384.


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