Did Matthew misuse the Old Testament?

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Typology in Matthew’s birth narrative

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First published: 24 December 2011 (GMT+10)
Re-featured on homepage: 26 December 2019 (GMT+10)

During Advent, millions of Christians read Matthew’s much-beloved account about the birth of Jesus. But skeptics sometimes use the opportunity to point out a perceived instance of Matthew playing ‘fast and loose’ with Scripture. They argue that some of the things Matthew cites as prophecies weren’t prophecies at all. Is this accusation valid?

Some preliminary thoughts

Matthew, according to church tradition, was writing a Gospel for a primarily Jewish audience. His interest in Old Testament references and debates about the Law seem to corroborate this. If Matthew was writing to Jews who would know their Old Testament, surely they would be the first to call him on it if they thought he was misusing their sacred Scriptures! So he would have an incentive to get it right. So, whether or not Matthew’s use of Scripture fits some modern methods of Bible interpretation, the way he used the Old Testament was in line with first-century Jewish methods.

There are two types of Old Testament texts that Matthew uses to claim prophetic fulfillment, and two of each of these are used in his birth narrative.

Straightforward predictive prophecy

Matthew’s first citation of prophecy in 1:23 comes from Isaiah 7:14: “Behold, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and will call his name Emmanuel.” Isaiah is clearly making a predictive prophecy, but some people argue that Isaiah isn’t talking about Jesus at all. Are they right?

Whether or not Matthew’s use of Scripture fits some modern methods of Bible interpretation, the way he used the Old Testament was in line with first-century Jewish methods

In the context of the Isaiah passage, Rezin and Pekah, the kings of Syria and Israel, form an alliance against the Assyrian empire, but together they aren’t strong enough to withstand an Assyrian invasion. So they invite Ahaz, king of Judah, to join their alliance. When Ahaz refuses, Rezin and Pekah conspire to overthrow Ahaz, and to replace Ahaz with a king more favorable to them. Ahaz was terrified of them, and planned to appeal to Assyria.

Overthrowing Ahaz would have far wider repercussions, because it would mean the extinction of the Davidic dynasty, through which the Messiah would come. So God sent Isaiah, with his young son Shear-Jashub, to Ahaz with a message not to be afraid; God would protect them. As a sign that God would not let Syria and Israel overthrow Judah, God invited Ahaz to ask for a sign—anything, as an assurance. Ahaz, with false devoutness, claimed that he did not want to test the Lord. But really, he didn’t want any sign to come true, meaning he would have to abandon his plans to appeal to Assyria (a cruel and idolatrous nation, cf. the book of Jonah). Isaiah’s angry reply makes it clear that Ahaz isn’t answering with true piety.

This is the context for the Emmanuel prediction:

And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

Matthew specifically applies verse 14 to Jesus. Indeed, if we take ‘almah to mean virgin (as is the most likely translation), there is no other virgin birth that could be cited. Very strong support comes from the Septuagint Greek translation of c. 250 BC, which used the word parthenos (παρθένος), from which we derive the word parthenogenesis.

But how is a virgin birth 700 years after Ahaz’s time in any way a sign that the conspiracy is doomed to failure? The emphasis certainly seems to be on something happening in Ahaz’s day. The answer is that some prophetic passages exhibit dual reference,1 where two prophecies are intermeshed, and it may not be clear initially that more than one subject is being referred to. In this case, verse 14 would be referring to the virgin birth that would take place in the distant future. But then in verse 16, when he says, “before the boy knows enough to reject evil and choose the good,” Isaiah is no longer talking about Emmanuel, but about his son, Shear-Jashub. This probably explains why God instructed Isaiah to bring his son. In other words, before Shear-Jashub reaches an age where he can be held morally accountable, Pekah and Rezin will be destroyed. The fulfillment of this sign would be confirmation that the prediction about the virgin birth—the sign to the whole house of David—is similarly trustworthy.

Some would argue that it is artificial to see two prophecies, one with a distant fulfillment. But if one takes the whole of this section of Isaiah into account (from the holy seed of the burned stump at the end of Chapter 6, to the glorious Prince of Peace passage in Chapter 9), it would seem that Isaiah sees Emmanuel coming only after the nation has been destroyed. Furthermore, the original languages differentiate between the two: the prophecies directed to Ahaz alone has a singular second person, and those directed to the House of David have a plural second person. In most dialects of English today, there is no distinction, but this is just the normal devolution of language.

Not only in Matthew but elsewhere in the NT, the history and laws of the OT are perceived to have prophetic significance.

Matthew 2:6 claims that the Jewish religious leaders who Herod consulted saw Micah 5:2 as a prediction about where the Messiah would be born. This does seem to be a straightforward predictive prophecy, referring to an event in the distant future. And this one fits Jesus perfectly because it hints at the Messiah’s deity—although he would be born in Bethlehem, He was in action from eternity past.

Typological fulfillment

An important category of Scripture interpretation is called typology. Basically, that means that some Old Testament person, event, or institution is looking forward to a New Testament person, event, or institution. It’s not so much that it is an explicit prophecy as much as the latter is seen as a fulfillment or an extension of the former.

It’s also important to understand that to the biblical writers, it wasn’t just explicit prophecies that could have fulfillment: “Not only in Matthew but elsewhere in the NT, the history and laws of the OT are perceived to have prophetic significance.”2

CreativeCommons2.0/Scott SchramMary and baby Jesus

In Matthew 2:15, the Infant Jesus’ sojourn in Egypt is seen as a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1. But in the context of Hosea, the verse certainly refers to God calling Israel out of Egypt at the time of the Exodus.

This is not a case of Matthew simply taking verses out of the prophets arbitrarily and illegitimately assigning them to Jesus. Rather, Matthew sees Jesus as a typological recapitulation of Israel.3 After all, the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12) included nations being blessed by Israel, and in particular by one particular Israelite “seed” (Galatians 3:6). So if this is the case, we would expect events in Jesus’ life to ‘line up’ with certain events in the history of Israel. Israel is called “God’s son” several times in the Old Testament; it is not unreasonable to see God’s true Son as the ultimate Israelite, and thus apply statements about Israel to Him.

A few verses later in Matthew 2:18, Matthew applies Jeremiah 31:15 to the Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The most immediate connection that most make is the mourning for the slaughter of the infants in Bethlehem, and this is doubtless part of the reason for Matthew’s allusion. But in the context of Jeremiah, the lament is over the exile of the Northern Kingdom. Rachel, the mother of Jacob’s (Israel’s) favorite son Joseph was a symbol of Jewish motherhood. Thus the flight to Egypt itself is probably also in view here, seen as a sort of ‘exile’ which ends when Herod dies. In this case, too, Jesus is seen as a sort of embodiment of the nation of Israel, so his life again fulfills a major event in the nation’s history.

Conclusion

All Scripture was given under inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:15–17, 2 Peter 1:20–21). So, like Christ, there is a divine and human aspect to Scripture. The Holy Spirit superintended the human authors, using their own distinct personalities and writing styles, they would produce an inerrant account of what He wanted to reveal. In the case of New Testament authors like Matthew, this included citing the Old Testament. Since the Holy Spirit is the ultimate Author of both, He can cite Himself as He pleases. Also, from the human perspective, this included Matthew using standard Jewish interpretive methods to show that Jesus really was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and typologies.

References

  1. Not to be confused with “dual fulfilment”, which means one prophecy has two fulfillments, which is not likely. Return to text.
  2. D.A. Carson, Expositor’s Biblical Commentary: Matthew 1–12 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 92. Return to text.
  3. Carson, p. 91. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments

William B.
I believe that Matthew did not intend to wrench verses out of context. It seems to me that careful study of every one of the passages containing the verses Matthew quotes, tells us something in answer to the question "Who IS Jesus?"

Jeremiah 31:16 says "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears ... they will return from the land of the enemy..." and verse 17 "Your children will return to their own land." In Jeremiah's context, this is about return from exile. In Matthew's context, where is the murdered boys' own land? Perhaps not on this earth, but in heaven. Is Matthew hinting, therefore, that these murdered boys are safe in God's hand? Also, in Matthew's context, Judea was ruled by foreigners - in a sense, they were "in exile" even while living in their own land. Jeremiah's promise of return from exile could, then, be re-interpreted to become a promise that God will deliver them from alien rule (both spiritually and physically)?

Hosea 11:5 "Will they not return to Egypt ..." perhaps suggests that, even while living in Judea, they had an Egyptian mind-set, not a Hebrew one. It is said "You can take the man out of Yorkshire, but you cannot take Yorkshire out of the man." Perhaps Matthew is hinting that Jesus will take Egypt (Assyria, Greece, whatever) out of the man, thus truly setting us free.
Philip R.
In further reply to Nathan H, context is an obvious potential reason to translate "almah" in this case to "bethulah", so invoking forgery is not necessary in order to explain it.
Also, of all the dating methods, carbon dating is probably the most accurate when it gives dates in the last 2000 to 3000 years, as it can be calibrated against artefacts of known age. So the C14 date of the scroll is probably fairly accurate.
Lita Cosner
Philip, I am unaware of any Hebrew manuscript that has bethulah, so unless I am mistaken there isn't any evidence for that variant at all. It is also unclear whether bethulah means 'virgin'.
Philip R.
Sorry Lita (and others). I mis-typed. What I should have said is <i>context is an obvious potential reason to translate "almah" in this case to "parthenos"</i>.
Myriam G.
Your assertion that "almah" most likely means virgin is based on pure fantasy. The word "almah" or "elem" (the male version of "alma") is found 9 times in the entire bible. In ALL THE OTHER PLACES THE CHRISTIAN BIBLES TRANSLATE THE WORD AS YOUNG MAN OR YOUNG WOMAN. If it really meant virgin then why don't the Christian bibles translate the word as virgin in the other 8 places in the bible where it is found?
In addition, the word "alma" is found in Proverbs 30:18-20 and there speaks about an adulterous "alma" or young woman. How could she be a virgin if she is adulterous?
Lita Cosner
Christian commentators who believe Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy tend to come down on one of two positions:

1. The word alma only means 'virgin' and Isaiah was making a direct prophecy regarding the Incarnation of Christ. There was no fulfillment of the Isaiah prophecy in his own day.

2. Like many parts of the OT that find their true and ultimate fulfillment in Christ, Isaiah's Immanuel prophecy had a fulfillment in his own day, but also pointed forward to an ultimate 'God with us'. The 'alma that Isaiah was directly speaking about may or may not have been a virgin at the time Isaiah spoke (i.e. she may have been soon to be married), but the fact that he used an ambiguous term makes it an even more wonderful fulfillment that Mary was an actual virgin. This is not a proposed 'double fulfillment' but a typological fulfillment. Just as "out of Egypt I called my son" originally applied to Israel, and then in an ultimate and perfect sense to Christ, in a similar way there was an 'Immanuel' in Isaiah's day, and then Christ was the true and ultimate Immanuel.

Either position is compatible with an inerrant view of Scripture, sound Christology, and both affirm that Jesus is Immanuel, just in slightly different ways.
Matthew B.
Thanks for featuring this article again! Some say that since the prophecy in Jer. 31:15 was not fulfilled the way we might expect, that we can’t understand what a Bible prophecy means before it is fulfilled. Jeremiah is in the context of a promise that some would return from the Babylonian exile. Jer. 31:15-17 is a paragraph saying that Rachel would weep for her children because many were dead. This was no doubt the case when Nebuchadnezzar carried many of Judah and Benjamin into captivity (the context). Jeremiah names the place as Ramah and Nebuchadnezzar had his headquarters there when he picked which of Rachel's sons would go with him (Jer. 40:1). So I think this prophecy was fulfilled in Jeremiah already, even if that is not explicitly stated. But it was fulfilled again in Mat. 2, when Herod killed the babies in Bethlehem AND in all those regions. Again some mothers of Rachel lost their sons, and the massacre may have reached as far as Ramah.
It is amazing how the context of Matthew's quote from Jeremiah fits so well with not only the 1st, but also this 2nd fulfillment. If we look at Mat. 2 and read Jer. 31:15-17, we see that it prophecies the death of a son in many households, then a promise of restoration from the Lord, then a promise that the children will return to the borders they came from. Just as the Jews came back to the borders where Rachel had wept when Neb. was at Ramah, so Jesus came back to Judea in His ministry. So God is in the business of giving prophecies specifically, not only generally. And I think we can see that He delights in fulfilling them not only in detail, but also, sometimes, more than once. Though our knowledge of how prophecies will be fulfilled in the future is imperfect, we have no excuse not to believe what He has promised plainly.
Joe F.
One point that seems to be overlooked when the word "almah" is in dispute, is what God said the virgin birth would be - a sign. If the word is translated "young woman," how is that a sign? Young women are almost always the bearer of children. Rarely do older women do so. But once in a great while, older women do give birth, so even that would not be unusual enough to be a sign. In the case of a young woman bearing a child, Isaiah might as well have prophesied that, as a sign, the sun would rise in the east tomorrow morning. The designation of this birth as a sign strongly implies something so unusual as to be unmistakable. Thus, the translation in this usage cannot be "young woman."
Lita Cosner
Some conservative Christian commentators believe that Isaiah was prophesying something that was to take place in his own day, and that the timing, not a miraculous conception, was in view. By the time this already pregnant or soon-to-be-pregnant woman (known to Ahaz but not to us) gave birth, Judah's fortunes would have turned around so much that the woman would name her child "God with us", and by the time that same child was weaned, the two countries Ahaz feared would not be a threat anymore. Regardless of whether conservative commentators believe there was an Immanuel in Isaiah's day, all would agree that Jesus is the true and ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah's Immanuel prophecy.
Seth K.
@Myriam G. As I am sure you would agree, words often have multiple meanings. When it comes to proper translation, context is everything. If there is no context to a specific word, then yes, it can be difficult or impossible to translate correctly. But with context a good translator can pick out the correct word. When taken in context, "virgin" *must* be the correct word, for the savior simply being born of a "young woman" would be no prophecy at all. Also, I highly recommend sticking to the King James Version only. These newer translations come from debunked codices and the translators lack the discernment to translate God's word correctly.
Jim B.
Indeed - multiple applications for various passages of the Old Testament - but still there is an understandable meaning for every verse of the revelation - it is not as if the words of the Bible are a smorgasbord of verbiage that we are free to lift out of context and make them mean whatever suits our fancy. THE BIBLE IS A REVELATION - not any dark mystery meant to confuse us.

Moreover the revelation conveys the truth in simple language that could be understood by a child - that Young Samuel could learn at the feet of aging Eli, that a young shepherd David in the hills of Judea could well-understand, and which the child Timothy knew from sitting at the knee of Eunice and Lois.
"And you shalt teach them diligently unto your children, and shalt talk of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking along the way, and when you lie down, and when thou rise up
Lita Cosner
Jim, even Peter said some of Paul's letters were hard to understand. If an apostle could admit some of Scripture is hard to grasp, surely we can see that some things are harder to understand than others, especially as we are farther removed from the original context of the biblical audience. Nothing I've argued has required someone to take Scripture as a "dark mystery". The Gospel is indeed simple enough to teach to a child, yet there is enough depth in Scripture to confound even a lifetime of research.
Nathan H.
When Gen. 24 calls Rebekah a virgin, the Hebrew says “bethulah” (or virgin). The Greek Septuagint (LXX) translated it as “parthenos” (also virgin). When Esther says Xerxes sent out servants to round up beautiful young virgins, the Hebrew says bethulah, and the LXX says parthenos. But when Isaiah 7:14 says “the virgin shall be with child,” since the LXX says parthenos, you would expect the Hebrew to say bethulah. Instead it says “almah” (young woman). Since parthenos is used to translate bethulah so often, then Isaiah probably DID say bethulah in the original Hebrew that existed before Christ. Modern Hebrew texts AFTER Christ were probably changed to say “almah” by unbelieving Jews. A common objection to this is that the Great Isaiah Scroll (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) is believed to predate Christ. Since it says almah, then it’s assumed that the original Hebrew said almah as well. However, part of the dating method for the Great Isaiah Scroll involved radiocarbon dating. I shouldn’t have to remind any Creation Scientist how inaccurate carbon dating is. The dating of the Isaiah Scroll is also based upon writing style. However, Jewish scribes in the late 1st century AD shouldn’t have a problem forging the writing style that existed in the 2nd century BC. Besides, Jesus quoted the Hebrew scroll of Isaiah when he stood up in the Synagogue in Luke 4 and used the phrase “and recovery of sight to the blind” which IS found in Isaiah 61 of the LXX, but missing from the Great Isaiah Scroll. I don’t mean to criticize the honest efforts of those who would try to date the Great Isaiah Scroll, but I am bold enough to prefer the words of Jesus and His disciples over the inaccurate carbon dating methods that dated a freshly killed seal to 1,300 years old!
Lita Cosner
You believe that the Jews copied the Isaiah scroll, changing bethulah to almah, forging it to look like it was a couple hundred years older than it really was, then hid it in a cave for nearly 2,000 years? Not only is there zero evidence for any element of that theory, it is the most self-evidently absurd thing I've ever heard. Your whole theory presupposes that the LXX translators always translated a certain Hebrew word as a certain Greek word, and that's just not how translation works.
Gintautas A.
Concerning the usage of scriptures in matthew, would it not be the use of diiferent jewish exegesis, the ways jewish were reading the scriptures - PaRDeS, Peshat -direct meaning, Ramez -hint, Drash - comparative meaning, Sod -mysticsl meaning. It seems that the Egypt and Rachel prophecies correspond well to Ramez and Drash. There are different ways Israel is called in OT, like wife of YHWH, son of God, etc. However, Hosea uses the wording of Son of God. Applying Ramez, this would hint also to the Son of God, even the direct meaning -peshat - relates to the nation if israel. The Emanuel prophecy could be Peshat - direct, or Ramez - hint from one event of isaiah times to that of the birth of Messiah. To my knowledge all the approaches were legitimate way of reading scriptures, not only peshat - sirect meaning.

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