The Murder of Zacharias

Anita #5 at this T&S post asked a question that deserves its own thread:

This is a little off topic, but I’m wondering what you (and those authors) make of the murder of Zacharias? Since Joseph Smith [words missing] the father of John the Baptist was killed, but other NT scholarship I’ve read suggests that when Jesus mentions the martyrs from Abel to Zacharias, he’s doing an A-Z from Genesis to 2 Chronicles in the Torah. Thoughts?

KJV Mt. 23:35 reads as follows:

35 That upon you may 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.

TPJS p. 261 comments as follows:

Let us come into New Testament times–so many are ever praising the Lord and His apostles. We will commence with John the Baptist. When Herod’s edict went forth to destroy the young children, John was about six months older than Jesus, and came under this hellish edict, and Zacharias caused his mother to take him into the mountains, where he was raised on locusts and wild honey. When his father refused to disclose his hiding place, and being the officiating high priest at the Temple that year, was slain by Herod’s order, between the porch and the altar, as Jesus said. John’s head was taken to Herod, the son of this infant murderer, in a charger–notwithstanding there was never a greater prophet born of a woman than him!

This passage raises two issues. First is whether the attribution of the material to Joseph Smith is accurate. It is not. This is a common problem with JFSII’s selection of material for TPJS. During times when Joseph was listed as the editor of the Times and Seasons, JFSII just assumed that Joseph had penned unsigned editorials in that paper, but that is a huge assumption, and part of the reason that scholars today use more accurate materials than citing TPJS. In this particular instance the point is made by Gerald E. Jones, “Apocryphal Literature and the Latter-day Saints” in Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints, ed. C. Wilfred Griggs (Provo: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1986), 26:

“As early as 1842, W.W. Phelps read a publication of the Protoevangelium, or Gospel of James, which contains the story of Zacharias being murdered at the temple. Phelps published it as an unsigned editorial in the Times and Seasons.(28) This was later credited to Joseph Smith, who was listed as editor, but he probably was not the author of the article in question.(29) The inclusion of the article, however, indicates the constant interest of Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints in apocryphal literature and their desire to find supportive material for Latter-day scripture and revelation.”

(28) “Persecution of the Prophets,” Times and Seasons 3 (1 September 1842): 902.

(29) Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1965), p. 261. But Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 probably refer to 2 Chronicles 24:20-21, as Bruce R. McConkie implies in his Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966-73), 1:624. The Protoevangelium (Gospel of James) 22-23 twists the story and mistakenly identifies Zachariah as the father of John. The Protoevangelium was translated into English in 1797 and republished by Oxford in 1827.

The second issue is whether the identification of this Zacharias who was murdered at the temple, which derives from the Protoevangelium of James (and was picked up from that source by W.W. Phelps [misattributed to JS]), is accurate. In my view, it is not. Here is what I wrote in my Footnotes to the NT for LDS ad loc.:

There was a tradition, found in the Protevangelium of James and mentioned by Origen and Chrysostom, that this Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist. More likely, the words “son of Berechiah” (which are not present in Luke) were a mistake based on Zechariah 1:1 and an attempt to identify this Zechariah more precisely, especially since there were 29 men named Zechariah mentioned in the OT text. The reference here is almost certainly to Zechariah the son of Jehoiada, described in 2 Chr. 24:21. As 2 Chr. was the last book of the OT in the Hebrew organization, from Abel to Zechariah covers the martyrdoms from the beginning to the end of scripture.

We LDS are used to Malachi being the last book of the OT, but open a Hebrew Bible and you will find that 2 Chronicles is the last book. So Anita is correct that this passage is not talking about the first to last in time, but the first to last in scripture.


  1. This is a post that brings up a lot of issues. I haven’t even skimmed Apocryphal Writings and the Latter-day Saints. Is it on the must read list? I have simply relegated TPJS to the do not refer to pile, but is there a good critical analysis of it around?

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Apocryphal Writings is only a must read if one is interested in the interplay between LDS thought and such literature, but it is long out of print, so you would need to get it through a library or in the Mormon resale market.

    I’m not aware of a specific analysis of the problems with TPJS, but of course in addition to questionable selection of material there is intrusive editing (contra modern documentary editing standards). I like you simply ignore it, and am always surprised to see people still citing it occasionally in scholarly articles.

  3. Great job Kevin! How much do we know about what Joseph Smith wrote as opposed to what Phelps and others wrote and attributed to him?

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Someone needs to do a comprehensive study of the matter. There are a lot of examples of such misattributions, particularly vis-a-vis Joseph and Phelps. Another one that springs immediately to mind is the poetic paraphrase of the Vision (D&C 76), which traditionally has been ascribed to Joseph Smith, but in fact was written by W.W. Phelps. See Michael Hicks, “Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps, and the Poetic Paraphrase of ‘The Vision’,” Journal of Mormon History 20/2 (Fall 1994): 63. (While I believe that Mike is correct, I know that some people still resist this and want Joseph to be the author of it.) I was just discussing this with Sam Brown offline not too long ago, and he had other examples.

  5. Kevin:
    I always thought TPJS was just selctions from BH Roberts’ History of the Church. I didn’t think JFS did research on it, just picked his favorite selections. Any ideas on this?

    Also, this reminds me of another question I’ve had regarding the mentioning of prophets in the scriptures.

    3 Nephi 20:24 notes “Verily I say unto you, yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have testified of me.”

    and of course this is repeated in Acts 3:24 saying: “Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days.”

    So my question is “Why Samuel?”

  6. I don’t follow Jones’ position. What is the basis for his assumption that Phelps wrote the editorial in question? How does he rule out managing editor John Taylor, for instance?

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    You’re right, Justin, Jones doesn’t go into detail in this quote. These things are usually parsed based on stylistic factors.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    mw*, as for “why Samuel?” I’m guessing that he is the first person identified specifically as a “prophet” in the part of the Hebrew canon identified as Nabhiim “Prophets,” so a similar canonical order principle may be involved in that case.

  9. Kevin: Another one that springs immediately to mind is the poetic paraphrase of the Vision (D&C 76), which traditionally has been ascribed to Joseph Smith, but in fact was written by W.W. Phelps.

    Oh reeeallly? Hehehe.

    Blake — Isn’t that the very poetic rendering you have repeatedly been quoting to make a point in our debates at the Thang? (grin)

  10. I’d like to see writing style analysis when it comes to authorship questions. I’ve read the writings of those who simply assume, for example, that Joseph Smith authored the commentary on John Lloyd Stephens’ Incidents of Travel in Central America published in the September 15 and October 1, 1842, issues of T&S.

  11. Justin, do you know if anything like that is happening in the Papers of Joseph Smith project?

  12. That’s a good question. I don’t know. It will be interesting to see what ends up being attributed to Joseph Smith (e.g., did he write any editorials while he served as the editor of the Times and Seasons?) and on what basis.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    That’s a really great point about the Papers of JS project, guys. If I think of it, next time I’m at a conference where there’s a session on the project I’ll ask them about it. That could be a real morass trying to determine what to attribute to Joseph and what not to.

  14. As an academic in biomedicine, I have to say the idea of JSJ’s signature over writings from a wide variety of scribes, followers, and friends does not strike me as odd in the slightest. This is how the senior professors have written “300” or even “500” papers over the course of a 40 year career. They shape, guide, edit, delegate, and assign, but by the time they’re the professor, they rarely are actually doing much writing. Granted they’re now forced to list the actual writers as coauthors, but such was not always the case.
    One reasonable initial approach is to compare JSJ holographs to holographs of his scribes/amanuenses and get a flavor for how each person writes. There is no doubt that, as Nathan Hatch argues persuasively, JSJ was a brilliant populist orator and an able applied rhetorician. He was not, however, an academic or high-brow rhetorician, nor was he a particularly polished writer.
    I believe that BH Roberts was correct that Phelps penned much or all of the Green Mountain Boys petition, the presidential platform, and the More-mon etymology. The three polyglot tangents are so similar as to strongly suggest a single author. I suspect JSJ, ever fascinated by the multiplicity of languages, was eager to have WWP display his erudition, no matter how embarrassing it was to BH Roberts a half-century later.
    As a minor aside, the Egyptian references in the two longer tangents appear to have been drawn directly from KEPE 1, the Grammar and Alphabet book.
    As a practical reference on use of TPJS, one can generally uncover the source document with a little searching on the NMS CDROM. I agree it is not useful as a scholarly reference, though it has certainly had an important cultural role to play in 20th century Mormonism.
    I personally take the extreme view that little if any of Times and Seasons reflects the unedited writing of JSJ, though he likely sanctioned much of what was published.

  15. dead, but:

    whether or not he authored ‘persecution of the prophets,’ joseph smith owned a copy of william hone’s apocryphal new testament (london, 1820; philadelphia, 1825; ravenna [approx. 15 miles from the john johnson home in hiram, ohio], 1832) which contains some twenty non-canonical early christian texts including the protevangelium of james, acts of paul and thecla (cf. joseph smith’s description of paul), and, more importantly, the shepherd of hermas (which describes post-mortem baptism in the ‘spirit world’ and which nibley et al. claim joseph smith didn’t have).

    t&s authorship during joseph smith’s editorship is a challenge. but, it seems that at least in some cases the reason joseph’s authorship is doubted is to distance him from issues like the zacharias problem. there is evidence to suggest (not prove) that he did ‘write’ at least some of the editorials: contrary to peter crawley’s assertion, according to wilford woodruff’s journal (if you keep reading) the prophet was editor and was ‘assisted’ in writing by john taylor; and, following joseph’s valedictory in t&s, taylor states that he will not be able to flll the prophet’s shoes but that the paper will still be worth reading because the prophet had promised taylor the use of his personal library (implying that the prophet’s books had played a role in past editorials, cf. citation of protevangelium of james in ‘persecution of the prophets,’ excerpts from stephen’s incidents of travel [another book joseph smith contributed to the nauvoo library and literary institute in early 1844]).

    at any rate…

  16. and i forgot to add, taylor also promised t&s readers that the prophet would continue to contribute to its pages with his own pen from time to time.

  17. Bryce Hesterman says:

    I think I read an article about 20 years ago which contended that the editorial in the Times and Seasons was not written by Joseph Smith because he was out of town at the time that it was written. I do not remember where I saw the article, but I have been able to verify that Joseph Smith was in hiding for about three weeks prior to the publication of the Times and Seasons editorial from information I found in A Joseph Smith Chronology, by Christopher Conkling, page 173. The editorial was published on September 1, 1842. Joseph came out of hiding to speak at a special conference in Nauvoo on August 29th where he denied the accusations of John C. Bennett.
    I suppose that it took a several days to prepare the Times and Seasons for publication, particularly since it was published bi-weekly. Thus it seems plausible to me that Joseph Smith would not have had time to write the editorial in the few days he was in Nauvoo before its publication.

  18. Thank you for clarification re: Zacharias. However, as a student of scripture RESPONSIBLE to pass on credible information to my Gospel Doctrine students, I feel extremely frustrated that this erroneous material was in the LDS Institute Manual! There are lots of interesting facts out there I’d like to share with class & do from time to time, but I am counseled to stick with stuff with “The Church of…” printed on the back. The Institute Manual is one of those sources. If I can’t trust it, what can I trust? How do I get the truth & nothing but the truth? How did YOU dig up this information. I don’t have time to sleuth out every little tidbit of information, with 5 kids & a job, etc. I am hungry to know, that’s why I read T&S & now Feast Upon the Word…a fellow FUTW blogger sent me here or I wouldn’t have known the truth. Thank again, Frustrated.

  19. The Seminary Manuals are actually more recent and preferable to the institute manuals, which are a bit older in the standard works sections. The Institute manuals used the best reference materials avaialbe at the time of their publication, but the church is getting better every year on what they decide we can and can not verify.

    Personally, I am hoping for some updated institute manuals in the future. The Church History Manual has been updated and is great, I would love to see similar reworkings in the other manuals.

    As for getting the Truth and Nothing but the truth, I am afraid God is the only source for that, my friend.

  20. Well, in regards to the Manual being incorrect, I have a few comments of my own:

    First of all, I do believe that we should first and foremost trust the brethren and they sanction the manuals.

    Secondly, it does not appear that there is a clear case for Joseph Smith not writing the material at hand.

    For example, the author does not clearly state that there is evidence for Joseph Smith not writing the article, but, does however state that there are other instances in which Joseph Smith has been misattributed. This is an acceptable reference; however, it doesn’t indicate that the material at hand is invalid. In which case, it is not clearly noted that Joseph Smith did NOT write it. This means that the author is also making a huge assumption.

    Furthermore, the reference given about Zecharias being the one mentioned in 2 Chronicles is a very long stretched assumption as well. The author here states that the name lineal indicator of “Barachias” is a mistake referenced from Zachariah 1:1; Then immediately jumps to the unparalleled conclusion that this must suddenly refer to the Zecharias found in 2 Chronicles, which it would be more logical to assume this actually was the Zecharias 1:1, because it was a close reference (such as a misspell in translation, which is more common).

    I understand what has been written; however, I do not believe that there is enough credit here to authoritatively state that Joseph Fielding Smith’s quotation is inaccurate. For example, the point by Gerald E. Jones is not sufficient since the reference he gives lending to Bruce R. McConkie is not in context. McConkie acknowledges the existence of the thought that this could be the Zecharias found in the 2 Chronicles, but then goes on to state that he believes Jesus’ wording is in the present tense and therefore, must be about an event to which we are unaware. Moreover, McConkie wrote in another place (Bruce R. McConkie, Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, vol. 1, 300-301) that indeed this was the father of John the Baptist, because they were both required to lay down their lives for the Lord.

    Joseph Smith also lent more credibility to this notion because he wrote in the Joseph Smith Translation immediately after these verses indicating that the passage was actually in the present tense (JST Mt. 23:36; Daniel H. Ludlow, Companion to Your Study of the New Testament: The Four Gospels, 164-165). This would meant that Jesus was not cataloging or chronologicalizing the people mentioned in the Old Testament, but rather drawing a parallel between the wickedness of the past people, in the killing of Abel, and the current, in killing Zecharias. Furthermore, it would be a huge insult to these people to be liked unto Cain, for he truly was understood to be a wicked man and cursed by God.

    Extrapolating from the above information and remembering that we are still lead by Prophets today, would it not be reasonable to conclude that the reference is accurate? For example, it is clearly indicated above that it is not essential, or absolutely necessary, that Joseph Smith did not write the article. Moreover, suffice it to say that there is a lot of reasonable doubt about who the author could be. Hence, we cannot determine the author by editorial citings and stylistic factors. We should then be determined to see if the statement is valid at all. Since the idea is present in the Protoevangelium (and although misattributed to JS is still a valid source for proof regarding the matter and shouldn’t be excluded purely based on misattribution of translation) and from the JST and other statesments contemporary with us, the readers, that the idea is credible and follows the conceptual mind of Joseph Smith, and adheres to other writings of the Prophet, it would be reasonable to conclude that the aforementioned article was indeed penned by Joseph Smith. And if it is not satisfactory to believe it was penned by Joseph Smith, then at least suffice it to say that the article is in agreeance with Smith and that the Prophet would have written it if he had the opportunity to do so.

  21. Joseph, thanks for your input & the “heads-up” to it in my e-mail box (I wasn’t currently reading Lesson #3 anymore). Clearly this issue isn’t as “cut & dry” as it appeared to me LAST WEEK. I appreciate this input since I’m often too hasty to report to others the current thought on an issue before awaiting the jury’s return…sometimes the jury is out indefinitely! I’ve posted a link to your comment #20 on FUTW blog & hope you’ll keep referencing the site between the blogs so we can keep the issue alive between them both. I think it’s great when great minds get together to solve a puzzle. Click Here for FUTW Blog Link. Thanks!

  22. John Taber says:

    If the intent was to be alphabetical, Jesus wouldn’t have ended with “Zacharias”, since “Z” isn’t the last letter in the Hebrew (or Greek, what the NT was written in) alphabet. It wouldn’t be the last letter in the Latin alphabet for a few centuries.

  23. John, note that that was not the position outlined in the original post.

  24. John Taber says:

    My point is that “A-Z” wouldn’t mean the same thing. Sure, it could be a listing from the first to last martyrs listed (2 Chronicles is still the last book of the Hebrew Bible) but it would be in listing order, not alphabetical order.

%d bloggers like this: