Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Matthew 2: A Counterfeit Prophecy?

Having closely followed a year of wrangling on the health care debate, I've grown very used to representatives from both parties inventing evidence to support their claims--from Sarah Palin producing a photo-shopped image of a gun-toting "death panel" chasing down her grandmother ... to Nancy Pelosi producing a photo-shopped image of a gun-toting health insurance agent chasing down her grandmother.

But politicians aren't the only ones who trump up evidence to make a point. Gospel writers sometimes do too. And no evangelist is so guilty as Matthew.

Matthew is the New Testament writer most interested in proving that Jesus is the fulfillment of Hebrew Biblical messianic prophecy. He repeats some version of the phrase "This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet" as often as Roman Polanski pleads, "It was the seventies. Thirteen was the new twenty-one!"

Why does Matthew care? Well, for first-century Jews, it was not at all clear that Jesus was the messiah--literally "anointed one"--they were hoping for. The messiah was supposed to be a military leader and a righteous king, a descendant of David who would be a new David--who would throw off Roman tyranny and re-establish Israel's rightful place among the nations.

When Jesus does not claim for himself earthly rule--and then dies at the hands of imperial power--he proves to be something other than the messiah that the Jews expect. And it is the evangelists' task to argue otherwise.

None takes this job so seriously as Matthew, who calls Jesus "messiah" four times in just the first eighteen verses of his gospel. To support his counter-intuitive claim, he produces numerous passages of Messianic/prophetic speech from the Hebrew Bible and then argues that Jesus is their fulfillment.

Therefore, Matthew cites Isaiah's claim that the messiah will be born of a virgin (1:23). Who else is born of a virgin? Jesus. Boom.

Then, he quotes Micah, who decrees that the messiah will come from Bethlehem (2:5). Who else comes from Bethlehem? Jesus. Boom.

Later, he recalls Hosea's prophecy that the messiah must sojourn in Egypt (2:15). Who else sojourns in Egypt? Jesus. Boom.

Just a little further on, Matthew reminds us of a prophecy that women will cry for their dead children (2:18). Whose birth leads to a slaughter of children? Jesus's. Boom.

I could go on and on.

However, at one point during his prophecy binge, Matthew may overstep himself. After Jesus returns from Egypt, his parents are ordered in a dream to settle in Galilee, in the town of Nazareth. Matthew writes, "There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a Nazorean'" (2:23). Boom, right? Well, maybe not.

As the footnote in my NRSV Bible quietly states, "This citation has no known source." Matthew is breaking his pattern here. In earlier and later verses, he cleaves very closely to Tanakh. Yet this prophecy does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.

Some scholars suggest that Matthew is merely citing a lost document. There are likely many ancient scriptures that are unknown to us, and it is possible that Matthew uses an extra-Biblical prophecy to bolster his case.

On the other hand, the Tanakh as we now know it was a relatively stable entity by the time that Matthew was writing--around 75 or 80 C.E. Authoritative Jewish scripture was pretty much set, and he likely knew which texts were in and which texts were out. The rest of his gospel suggests as much.

Many scholars, then, argue that Matthew invents a prophecy here to fill in the last gap in the infancy narrative of Jesus. Birth, birthplace, babyhood, politics ... all seem perfectly predicted by Jewish scripture. Why not hometown too? Matthew, it seems, just cannot help himself, so he fabricates the last piece of the puzzle and slams it home.


  1. I've read suggestions that the "prophecy" refers to Judges 13:5.

  2. Thanks for the response, qohelet ... Nazirites, so far as I know, are not people from Nazareth--Nazoreans--but Jews who take strict, occasionally ascetic vows to prove their increased devotion to their faith. In the Hebrew Bible, both Samuel and Samson are understood as Nazirites. As part of their piety, they abstain from alcohol and--in Samson's case--do not cut their hair. Interestingly, a number of early Christians in Acts seem to take Nazirite vows as well, suggesting that the tradition lived on into Jesus's times.

  3. Consider, for example, that Paul once quoted the words of Jesus, who had said “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). These words are nowhere recorded in the four Gospel accounts; the apostle is obviously alluding to a well-known saying, or else he refers to a written record that the Holy Spirit did not see fit to preserve. (http://www.christiancourier.com/articles/573-was-matthew-mistaken-in-the-nazarene-prophecy)


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