Calvin on Prophecy: 30 Pieces of Silver

To go from the Matthew Bible to the Geneva Bible is to step into a whole new world of commentaries. New and different doctrines were introduced into the Geneva Bible — about the Church, the New Covenant, and more. It is a huge topic, and most of it I’ll save it for Part 2 of The Story of the Matthew Bible. Here I will only touch on one thing: Old Testament prophecies of Christ. In the Matthew Bible these prophecies were treated as … well … as prophecies of Christ. However, in the Geneva Bible they were handled differently:

(1) Some were treated as metaphors. (see my last post here, about the prophecy of Christ coming into Jerusalem on a donkey).

(2) Some were treated as prophecies of or for the Church.

(3) Others were treated as prophecies for the Jewish people only.

I have now researched about twenty Old Testament prophecies of Christ that were subjected to this treatment. This was all based on John Calvin’s teaching. For example, Calvin said the ascension of Christ was a metaphor of Christ’s aid to the Church. He said the “voice in the desert” – which is treated by all the Gospel writers as a prophecy of John the Baptist – was a promise that there would be a continual succession of prophets and divine teachers in the Church. He said the prophecies of Christ’s healing miracles in Isaiah were metaphorical, meant to depict Christ as a “spiritual physician.”

The reader who would like to learn more can see a refutation of Calvin written by a 16th century Lutheran theologian, Aegidius Hunnius. He examined many examples of this in his book, available on Amazon here: The Judaizing Calvin

Thirty pieces of silver

Of particular interest to me was to discover how one of Calvin’s metaphors inflamed the Puritan hatred of ceremonies in Holy Communion. The Geneva Bible notes taught everywhere that ceremonies were “abolished under the gospel.” The revolutionary manifestoes of the early English Puritans, produced on secret presses during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, railed against ceremonies and “Judas purse bearers.” Ceremonies were a big factor in the Puritan revolution. Theodore Beza, rector of the Geneva Academy after Calvin, said ceremonies were filthy and must be thrust out of the Church. Whence all the hysteria? I discovered that it can be traced back, at least in part, to Calvin’s treatment of the Old Testament prophecy of the 30 pieces of silver (from Zechariah 11).

All the Gospel writers, led by the Holy Spirit, treated the 30 pieces of silver as a prophecy that was fulfilled when Judas accepted them as the price to betray Christ. However, Calvin said this was a metaphor about “dirty” and “hypocritical” ceremonies offered by wicked and hypocritical men. This may seem absurd, but this is what he taught. The puritan admonitions everywhere railed against the wicked priests in the Anglican Church, which inflamed people’s fears that the Church was insulting God. Now we see why the use of ceremonies was such a fearful thing: it was to be a Judas! Indeed, said Calvin, the value of ceremonies in the hands of hypocrites is to God as the wages of a swineherd, and a “dirty job”:

Calvin: By that cheap price worthy of a farmhand, he understands the frivolous nonsense by which the Jews thought they could satisfy God. For we know that they were excessively attentive in their ceremonies, as if this repayment should be of any value before God…. If the Jews would have brought themselves totally into compliance with his word. But how? If they had gotten rid of their ceremonies and other frivolous things, of course! Yes, this was a dirty job, as if they had wanted to pay off some swineherd.[1]

And by this teaching, Calvin turned a prophecy about Christ into an occasion of endless and destructive strife in the Church. He went on to say that the 30 pieces of silver (representing ceremonies) were “thrown to the potter” to show that they are unworthy of God — even like spitting in his face! He wrote:

Calvin: Afterwards he ironically calls [the 30 pieces] a magnificent and glorious price at which he was esteemed. In other words: This is my glorious price? I bore so much toil, and now they treat me just like some dirty farmer! Yet I was their Lord and Shepherd. Therefore, since they want to satisfy me in such a bogus manner, here also they want to thrust on me the cheap price of their contempt, as if to overthrow my glory or spit in my face. Throw it! Throw it to the potter, he says.… because I will not suffer my majesty to have an unworthy price so contemptuously thrust upon it…. He testifies that these things are worth nothing to him … the sacrifices offered by wicked men and hypocrites who have not the slightest sense of godliness are the highest form of abomination. Why? Because this is the highest form of insult that the reprobate hurl, as if they defiled his face with spit … [2]

Wow! Defiling God’s face with spit … this is harsh. Reverend Hunnius wrote:

Hunnius: Calvin himself understands the 30 pieces of silver as the hypocritical wages with which the people wanted to compensate the Lord for his labours and favours. He then says that these wages are external ceremonies, sacrifices, etc. But with what argument does he prove this incredibly impetuous interpretation of his? Surely it must be so, because he said so!

Not only did Calvin cause a lot of strife, he turned the gospel on its head, because – really – the Lord did suffer the unworthy price. He did so willingly. He did so humbly, not insisting on his “majesty.” More to the point: he ordained it – as he did every prophecy Calvin denied or fudged. That is what a prophecy is: the Lord tells us in advance what will happen, so that when it does happen, we will know it is of Him. In fact, it was Calvin who sold Christ for 30 pieces. But who would turn such an important prophecy into a metaphor and an occasion of disquiet and division in the Church? The apostle Paul said at Galatians 1:8, “Even if we ourselves or an angel from heaven preach any gospel to you other than that which we have preached to you, hold him as accursed.”

Ruth Magnusson Davis, March 2019

[1] Aegidius Hunnius, Trans. Paul A. Rydecki The Judaizing Calvin (Texas: Repristination Press, 2012), 65. Hunnius did not cite his sources. The translator advised me that they were from Calvin’s 1617 Latin commentaries. This one is from the commentary on Zechariah, Volume 3, Part 2.

[2] Ibid, 72-73. Hunnius adds, “Perhaps you will say to me that, still, in the things that follow in his commentary, Calvin approves of the Evangelist Matthew’s exegesis. I reply: This is what we have said on several occasions – that Calvin observes this order in explaining the Prophets, with the effect that he truly weakens their prophecies with his interpretations that are primarily Jewish; and blunts their sharp edge; and cuts into the nerve of their argumentation against the unbelievers; and shakes the bedrock foundation by means of stunning tricks and intricate distortions overgrown with a thousand thorn-bushes; that is to say, by means of the deception of symbols and figures of speech, but especially with the deception of his precious metaphors.” (Pages 73-74)