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Jesus and Messianic Prophecy: Matthew and “Misuse”

January 13, 2014

As the title of this article probably suggests I am going to be talking about how Matthew uses Messianic prophecy to bolster his case that Jesus is the Messiah and I am going to be discussing whether Matthew uses these prophecies “correctly”.  The problem with this question is that it is not entirely clear what “correctly” means.  Indeed, this issue is the central focus of this article.  However, we need a definition (even if it is only a strawman) to start off so that we can compare other ways of using prophecy against this definition.

The simplest approach to Messianic prophecy is to assume that Messianic prophecy is a future checklist that works best when it fulfills two criteria: 1) the prophecy is specific so that the event that it predicts can be clearly identified and 2) the prophecy is clearly identifiable as a prophecy relating to future events and not to current ones.  This degree of simplicity probably only exists amongst those unfamiliar with the Old Testament but it is unfortunately also found in documents aimed at producing or educating new converts (possibly because the complexity of the actual Bible is judged to be confusing).

Matthew’s birth narrative (Matthew 1-2) is an excellent source of Biblical citations of fulfilled Messianic prophecy.  Matthew explicitly cites (with quotes and phrases like “as the prophet said”) Old Testament verses five times in two chapters.  The question I wish to ask is how Matthew cites these verses.  Does he follow the rules for proper citation derived from our definition above or does he follow some other set of rules (which then implies something different about prophecy)?

The first verse Matthew cites (in 1:22-23) is Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”  This seems at first glance to follow the rules: the prophecy states that it is a sign (it’s clearly a prophecy related to the future) and seems fairly specific (we have a name for the child and the nature of the sign is miraculous).  Unfortunately, both of these criteria fall apart pretty quickly with a harder look.  The original passage goes on to discuss the doom of two kingdoms that fell shortly after Isaiah (or his scribe) laid pen to parchment under the crushing advance of the Assyrian Empire (which itself fell before the Babylonian Empire, which fell before the Persians, who fell before Alexander the Great, whose generals carved out empires from his holdings that fell before Rome which ruled in Judea by the time of Jesus).  Locating this passage in the future is difficult although not impossible – technically the passage only states that these things will happen before the boy is old enough to know right from wrong which could (if you ignored the normal rules for discourse) mean centuries before the boy reached that age.  Additional problems arise when we discuss specificity.  First, the name: Jesus is never called Immanuel outside of references to this passage.  Had he actually been named Immanuel this would be specific.  Instead, we learn about Jesus from other places and decide that Jesus is God with us and so the name Immanuel (which means “God with us”) applies to him.  Second, the Hebrew does not specify a virgin birth and so the original passage is not miraculous.  Instead the word used means “a young woman” and seems often to mean something like “a young woman of the age to be married”.  Since Greek culture used the word meaning “virgin” in a similar way Greek-speakers were used to reading the passage in Isaiah with the word “virgin” in it.  However, I would not be surprised at all to learn that the Greek word, while technically meaning virgin, was used by native Aramaic-speakers to refer to women of the correct age regardless of their technical virginal status1.

In Matthew 2:3-6 Herod refers to Messianic prophecy in an attempt to discern where the Messiah is to be born.  Since Matthew tells us this, quotes the citation (Micah 5:2 and 5:4), and has already established that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, I believe it is correct to say that Matthew is using this citation to bolster his case for Jesus’ Messianic status as much as he is making the narrative move along.  As before these verses seem to be aimed at the future (“Out of you shall come a ruler”) and it is relatively specific (naming a specific town).  If this citation and the earlier one were all one had to work with it then it would be easy to claim that Matthew was following the rules we laid out earlier (or at least trying to, perhaps hampered by an interesting translation problem2).

In 2:15 Matthew references Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” in regards to Joseph and Mary taking Jesus to (and eventually back from) Egypt to flee Herod.  This is an intensely problematic citation since it is quite obvious that Hosea 11 is talking about the Exodus and is recapping Israel’s history to discuss God’s faithfulness.

Shortly after this, in verses 2:17-18 Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah (31:15) in regards to the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem.  The verse quoted is somewhat vague, mentioning only that Rachel (who stands in for all female Israelites here, much as her husband Jacob sometimes stands for the whole country in other passages) is weeping in Ramah because her children are gone.  Ramah isn’t quite Bethlehem (indeed, Herod would have had to slaughter a huge number of children throughout Judea to hit both Ramah and Bethlehem) and the citation is not clearly prophetic.  Indeed, it has an immediate clear reference, the lament of Israelite women amongst the exiles who were gathered at a staging point in Ramah during the Babylonian Exile (the location of Jeremiah’s release during the march to Babylon in Jeremiah 40:1).  This is only at the verge of “acceptable” use.

Finally, Matthew cites something, somewhere that cannot be clearly located which states that Jesus will be a Nazarene (2:23).  The closest to this that can be found are the announcement of Samson’s birth (Judges 13:5-7) which stresses that he will be a Nazirite (and have a similar style to the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth) and perhaps Amos 2:11 where God has raised up some of your young men to be Nazirites.  However, this appears to be a citation failure.

Most people are familiar with two ways out of this dilemma.  Either we give Matthew extra-special license to find hidden prophecy all over the Old Testament (much as we do for Paul, actually [and I have the same general conclusion about what Paul is actually doing]) or we give him an F because he failed roughly half his citations and fudged a couple more.  Most people who give Matthew an F go on to suppose that he probably also made the entire narrative up and then botched half his citations which perhaps says more about the egos of those passing judgment than it does about the way someone might actually go about writing what becomes one of the most-read documents on the planet.  In the next article I will propose a third way.

[1] I do not know that they did this and it would be very hard to find out since there is almost complete overlap between young marriageable women and virgins in that society but people who learn second languages can have a tendency to use words in the new languages as substitutions for words in their native language even when they have somewhat different meanings.

[2] It is actually fully possible to believe that this was a translation problem and that Matthew was unaware of the difference between the Hebrew and Greek versions of the phrase and still believe that this verse was used entirely correctly (contrary to the “oh, poor dumb Matthew” approach favored by some commentators).  What is required for this to work is for most of Matthew’s contemporaries to believe that the Greek version of Isaiah predicted a virgin birth in which case Matthew would not be a lone dummy but would be pointing out that a widely-held interpretation of that verse had come true in Jesus.  (Although, as I will soon argue, I don’t really think that’s what’s going on.  I merely wish to point out that a particular brand of critical one-upmanship has failed to fully think through what it has said.)

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