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 . 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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2024-01-08T10:54:43-05:00January 9th, 2024|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

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  1. SC January 9, 2024 at 6:06 am


    Happy New Year and Best in 2024!

    2 questions:


    In Qumran the people there were apocalyptic in their meta view – does a pesher “mode” of reading typically see things, and so then interpret many verses, from an apocalyptic point of view?


    Many modern more conservative Christians (i live in the deep South) see no problem being full on Imperialist Stars and Stripes waving patriots – while also believing and hoping that Jesus will return soon to destroy all this and get the real party started in a brand new Kingdom a brand new Empire that supersedes and destroys and replaces the USA. That seems so odd to me. And yet, in a way, isn’t that kinda how early Christians who were also Roman citizens or maybe even soldiers and politicians could read the NT and especially Revelation and square that circle – what do you think?


    • stevenpounders January 9, 2024 at 4:26 pm

      To me, the real problem with Matthew’s use of Hosea to refer to Jesus is not the context of “Israel” per se, but the context of the very next verse in Hosea:

      When Israel was a child, I loved him,
 and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them,
    the more they went from me;
 they kept sacrificing to the Baals
 and offering incense to idols.

      In relating Jesus to Israel, isn’t Matthew ignoring the original point of the Hosea verse: that God’s “son” was turning away from him and sacrificing to Baals?

      • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 2:05 pm

        Yup! Possibly!

        But you could argue that it is better to see Matthew’s use of the text as something to what Paul does earlier, talking about jesus as the “second Adam.” Adam prefigures Jesus for Paul, but the point is that there is an essential difference: Adam sinned and Jesus as the second Adam did not. One acted in disobedience and the other in obedience. One brought destruction to the world the other brought salvation. If Matthew has something like *that* in mind for Hosea 11:1, then he’s actually being pretty sophisticated!

  2. fishician January 9, 2024 at 9:42 am

    This seems to me like reading A Tale of Two Cities then saying that Dickens was really talking about Washington and Richmond during the Civil War. What I find odd is that many conservative Christians allow the New Testament authors to interpret the OT this way but then say God’s word is not a matter of interpretation and generally view things as very black-and-white.

    • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 1:54 pm

      Yup, the world never ceases to amaze. Apparently Tale of Two Cities is Dickens’ best selling book (or so I’ve heard), something that I find remarkable. It certainly *is* a great book. But I wonder why it’d be the best selling? Seems odd to me.

      • EricBrown January 26, 2024 at 11:36 am

        Possibly because it is shorter than many of his books, and has a lot more “physical action” than most?

        • BDEhrman January 29, 2024 at 11:07 am

          Not sure. But Hard Times and Oliver Twist are shorter…. y gues is peole buy it as a two-fer, thinking maybe they’ll learn a bit of history painlessly from it?

  3. rezubler January 9, 2024 at 11:20 am


    It seems difficult to decipher what Matthew’s gospel was trying to say if we don’t really know or fully understand his target audience. At times, it seems that Matthew is desperate to try to connect the dots for a Jewish-raised audience and at other times, he seems to want to make a point to a gentile-raised audience. Add in the possibility that there may of been multiple authors involved in the writing of the Matthew we have today and the confidence levels of the interpretations of the readings end of being quite uncertain, at best. Origen appears to be the first ‘expert’ to really try to make sense of the NT writings. Was Origen in no better position to ‘decode’ the gospels than we are today?

    • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 1:58 pm

      In some ways, oddly, he was in a worse position, without sophisticated data retrieval systems and broad access to historical sources now available to us. He would have had no way to understand lots of things about Jesus’ environment/context in Galilee 250 years earlier, for example, that now we have tons of evidence for.

  4. mwbaugh January 9, 2024 at 11:25 am

    This reminds me of something I’ve heard called the four classic ways of interpreting scriptural: literal, allegorical, tropological and anagogical. Would this be one of those? Anagogical, maybe?

    Is the idea that God fills the passages with a number of meanings? Would Matthew have understood that Isaiah passages meant something different to the people living in that time, but that didn’t keep them from having fresh meaning in his generation?

    • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 2:04 pm

      The four-fold sense of scripture developed later, starting about the fifth century in Xn circles and becoming dominant in the middle ages. The “anagogical” understanding of a text involved seeing what it indicated about the afterlife. Matthew’s use is more like the predictive methods used in Pesher interpretatoins in jewish circles.

  5. GeoffClifton January 9, 2024 at 11:38 am

    Happy New Year.
    I suppose one could argue that the Essenes were not much different to the Evangelical Christians of our own day, who believe that Scripture (eg. The Book of Revelation) is referring to events now.

    • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 2:04 pm

      Yup, in that way they would be similar. Few others!

    • sLiu January 21, 2024 at 8:38 pm

      do evangelicals live a puritanical life?
      Also this is well over 2 millennium later.

  6. ReligionProf January 9, 2024 at 12:43 pm

    My new book The A to Z of the New Testament has a chapter “Fulfillment Fail?” about whether the author of Matthew would have received an “F” for how he interpreted scripture if he were to be graded for it in a modern biblical studies class. 🙂

  7. kt January 10, 2024 at 12:32 am

    I understand why the religious teachers/scholars/priests back then dared to change or add to the books like one example Isaiah, which could have been written by many authors over a long time, and even (seemingly) got credit for it. It also seems that they made an efford to “fill in” the Torah in the Book of Jubilee (which is not in the canon with a few exeptions), in an attemt, at it seems to me, to write it as it should have been.

    Despite my increasing difficulties with understanding many biblical text literaly I still believe I can see/understand a more spiritual message witin it, at least in several fo the narratives and poems. For exampel Hosea 11:1 appears to be a recurring theme in the Bible, as well as outside of it, as exemplified in the beautiful “Hymn of the Pearl,”about the return of the “lost” son in Egypt and his return, which in this poem seems to indicate a more spiritual path.

    Thank you for an interesting apprach !

  8. Erland January 16, 2024 at 7:29 pm

    There are still Christians today who interprete passages of the Bible out of context in a way that has similarities to Matthew’s. A typical example is Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, they interpreted “this generation” in Mark 13:30 etc. as the generation alive in 1914 (young children excluded). (But they had to change that, since the 1914 generation is almost completely extinct by now.) They found the year 1914 by dubious calculations based on several Bible passages. But it is clear that this passage in Mark refers to people alive in Jesus’s own time (cf. Mark 9:1).
    When I read Matthew’s interpretations of the quotes of the scriptures in Matt 1-2, this strikes me as similar to the type of interpretations Jehovah’s Witnesses make.

    • AngeloB January 20, 2024 at 4:21 pm

      Very interesting Erland!

  9. jmays1 January 17, 2024 at 3:06 pm

    Hi Dr. Ehrman!

    New subscriber here! Would a similar dynamic be present in the realm of direct quotation? In the midst of a paper on Matthew last semester, I noticed that Mt. 12:18 slightly alters the quotation of the Septuagint Is. 42 to insert the word “agapetos” and have the prophecy more directly align with his rendering of what God says in the theophanies of Mt. 3 and 17. I speculated that quotation standards of the period might be different from contemporary ones in the paper, but it’s a question that’s buzzed in the back of my head since. Is he being duplicitous? Or simply following a convenient convention?

    • BDEhrman January 23, 2024 at 9:16 pm

      Yes, you have good instincts. Quotatoin habits were very different for most authors, and there were no set patterns. Plus it’s always possible that matthew had a different form of the Gk OT from us (the LXX itself is a misnomer since there were multiple versions in Greek)

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