In a month or so I’m going to be producing a new online course (not connected with the blog) on The Genius of Matthew: What Scholars Say about the First Gospel. I’m not sure if that’s the actual title we’ll be giving it, but it’s what’s in my head just now. (If you’re interested in my courses, go to http://www.bartehrman.com/courses/ . You won’t find this one there just now because we haven’t announced it yet.)
It will be an eight-lecture course dealing with what I think are the most important aspects of Matthew’s Gospel — what it’s all about, what its leading themes/ideas/views are, how the author changed Mark’s account significantly to get his point across, how Matthew (in a striking way) insists Jesus fulfilled Scripture, whether Matthew urges his followers to keep the Jewish law strictly (instead of abandoning it), whether, even so, the Gospel can be seen as anti-Jewish. I’ll be looking at some depth at the Sermon on the Mount (widely misunderstood) and a number of the key parables. And I’ll be considering the question of who actually wrote it (a tax-collector follower of Jesus?), how its text came to be changed in interesting ways over the years, and what kind of impact it made on Christian understandings of Jesus and salvation. It’s a lot. And obviously a full coverage would take, well, months.
In preparation, I’m thinking about some of these key points. And have been for the past few weeks. Every Christmas season I get questions from readers about Matthew’s birth narrative. Here’s one from a while back, from a reader who objected to Matthew’s use of certain passages in the Hebrew Bible to refer to Jesus – especially passages that appear to have been taken radically out of context to show that Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Here’s the reader’s question:
Well then, the Christians of Matthew’s day did not read the OT very carefully at all. For example, when Matthew says that Jesus returning from Egypt was a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1 (out of Egypt have I called my son), did he not read the first part of that verse? It reads “When ISRAEL was a child, I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” Is this not clearly referring to the Exodus? How could Matthew (or whoever) determine that this referred to Jesus when it clearly states it is Israel?
Ah, good question.
To begin with, it’s completely right, Matthew certainly did not interpret the Bible the way we would teach people today. On the other hand, he does seem to have interpreted it in ways that would have seemed sensible to many ancient readers. The puzzling (and sometimes frustrating) reality is that in the ancient world there were ways of reading sacred texts that simply would never fly in our world. They may seem like “nonsense” to us – but they made a lot of sense to ancient readers (pagan, Jewish, and Christian).
For ancient Jews and Christians, there were numerous ways sacred texts could be read. They could be seen as allegories, in which the literal meaning was simply the uninteresting surface of the text, and the real meaning was something else. They could be seen as containing secret teachings below the surface that could be unlocked by playing with the numerical significance of the letters of this or that word. They could be seen as looking ahead to people and events that the authors themselves were not aware of (but God, the author of the texts, was aware of). There were, in fact lots of options.
A common Jewish way of reading texts is very similar to what we find in Matthew. We find this approach among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here’s what I say about it in my textbook on the New Testament.
Like many other Jews, the Essenes who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls believed that the prophets of Scripture had spoken about events that came to transpire in their own day, centuries later. In the words of the commentary on Habakkuk, “God told Habakkuk to write down that which would happen to the final generation, but He did not make known to him when time would come to an end.” The Essenes had developed a particular method of interpretation to explain these secret revelations of God’s divine purpose. Scholars have called this method of interpretation “pesher,” from the Hebrew word used in the Qumran commentaries to introduce the explanation of a prophetic statement.
The commentaries typically cite a verse of Scripture and then give its “pesher,” or interpretation. In every case, the interpretation indicates how the prediction has come to fulfillment in the world of the Qumran community itself.
The following examples from the Habakkuk Commentary can show how the method works. In italics is the passage of Scripture, followed by the pesher. I have placed my own explanatory comments in brackets.
For behold, I rouse the Chaldeans [another name for the Babylonians], that bitter and hasty nation (Hab 1:6). Interpreted, this concerns the Kittim [a code name for the Romans] who are quick and valiant in war.
O traitors, why do you stare and stay silent when the wicked swallows up one more righteous than he? (Hab 1:13b). Interpreted, this concerns the House of Absalom [a prominent group of Jews in Jerusalem] and the members of its council who were silent at the time of the chastisement of the Teacher of Righteousness [the leader of the Qumran community at its beginning] and gave him no help against the Liar [the high priest in Jerusalem who was the community’s sworn enemy] who flouted the Law in the midst of their whole congregation.
Moreover, the arrogant man seizes wealth without halting. . . (Hab 2:5). Interpreted, this concerns the Wicked Priest [the same figure as the “Liar” above] who was called by the name of truth when he first arose. But when he ruled over Israel his heart became proud, and he forsook God and betrayed the precepts for the sake of riches.
As you can see simply from these passages, the literal meaning of these passages was not what mattered to the interpreter; indeed, the history of the Qumran community can be read from their own interpretations of the ancient prophecies.
In some ways Matthew’s approach is very similar. Passages of Scripture that appear to us, who read texts literally, to be about one thing actually refer to something else – in this case, not his community but Jesus. I’ll say more about Matthew’s approach to Scripture in the next post.
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