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Jesus’ Birth as “The Fulfillment of the Prophecies”

Here I continue my reflections on the birth narratives in the New Testament, with a post on an important aspect of Matthew’s account, central to its claims.

One of the most distinctive aspects of Matthew’s infancy narrative is his insistence that everything that happened was a “fulfillment” of Scripture.

  • Why was Jesus’ mother a virgin? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Isaiah 7:14: “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son”)
  • Why was he born in Bethlehem? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Micah 5:2: “And you, Bethlehem…from you shall come a ruler”
  • Why did Joseph and the family escape to Egypt? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son”)
  • Why did Herod have the boys two years and under killed? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes Jeremiah 31.15 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation”)
  • Why did Joseph and family relocate to Nazareth? To fulfill what the prophet said (he quotes … well what does he quote, exactly? “He will be called a Nazorean.” Huh?)

These so-called “fulfillment citations” are found in Matthew and only in Matthew.  It is clear that Matthew wants to see Jesus as the fulfillment of what the prophets of Scripture had said.  Jesus’ coming into the world was all part of the divine plan.  This is clear from the opening verses of the Gospel as well, where Matthew gives his genealogy of Jesus.  I’ll say something more about it in a subsequent post.  For now, it is striking that according to Matthew, Jesus’ (well, his “father” Joseph’s) genealogy falls into a divinely inspired pattern.   From the father of the Jews Abraham to the greatest king of Israel, David, there were fourteen generations; from David to the greatest disaster in Israel, the Babylonian Captivity, were fourteen generations; and from the Babylonian Captivity to the messiah Jesus was fourteen generations.   Something BIG happens every fourteen generations.  Jesus’ coming into the world is all according to plan.

It is not always appreciated that…

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Jesus’ Birth in Matthew and Luke: A Study in Contrasts
The Birth of Jesus in Matthew

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Comments

  1. gusloureiro  December 14, 2018

    Is the historical Jesus the real Jesus, or Jesus as he really was?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Depends what all these words mean to you. Normally the “historical Jesus” is the term to refer to the Jesus as he actually was in history (what he really said, did, and experienced).

  2. ksgm34  December 14, 2018

    Am I right in thinking this was a common form of hermeneutics – to look back at the Scriptures and find new meanings applicable to their present situations that the original authors would’ve been unaware of?

  3. jlantz974  December 14, 2018

    “Matthew, of course, did not read Isaiah in Hebrew but in Greek…”

    Could someone explain this statement?

    Confused.

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Most Jews then, as now, could not read Hebrew, and so read the Bible in the available translation (in the language they spoke). Greek was the most widespread language of the day.

  4. Robert
    Robert  December 14, 2018

    “… he will be eating curds and honey (that is, there will be prosperity in the land) …”

    Honey I get. Everybody likes honey. But curds? Who likes curds? My grandmother used to make us eat cottage cheese when I was a toddler, and I’ve hated it ever since! I would rather translate חמאה as ‘butter’ or perhaps some specific kind of cheese, like Emmentaler or cheddar and horseradish.

    Or maybe that is part of learning to distinguish right from wrong . Honey is good. Curds are bad!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Ah, you clearly don’t live in the 19th century!

      • Robert
        Robert  December 19, 2018

        “Ah, you clearly don’t live in the 19th century!”

        Yeah, well, I’m old, but not that old.

  5. jhague  December 14, 2018

    With Matthew being written before Luke, is it likely that Matthew’s message of a virgin birth in Bethlehem had circulated and that’s the reason Luke includes a virgin birth in Bethlehem?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      It’s possible. It’s generally seen as more like, though, that there was a general undersanding of the virgin birth that both Matthew and Luke had heard of?

  6. RonaldTaska  December 14, 2018

    Good post. I have spent considerable time studying these prophecies and it was always difficult to know to whom these prophecies were referring since the word “Messiah” is never mentioned and the references are to pronouns or common nouns (son).

  7. Hon Wai  December 14, 2018

    Are you saying at the time of composition of the Septuagint, the word PARTHENOS mean only “young maiden”, but by 1st century CE, it meant exclusively “a virgin & young maiden”? Or are you saying in the 1st century, it still meant “young maiden” but with a common but not exclusive connotation that it refers to a virgin? In the first case, Matthew would have read the word in the only sense available to him; in the second case, he opted for the virgin meaning to suit his theology, but he was not forced to take this meaning by the text.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      I haven’t checked all the primary sources, but my sense is that originally the word did not necessarily connote “woman who never had had sex” but simply “maiden” or “girl” (already in Homer), and sometimes was in fact used of women who had already had sex (again, in Homer). Eventually it came to mean girl, woman, or even man who had never had intercourse. I don’t know when the transition occurred, but it comes to be the meaning of the world in Christian circles.

  8. stokerslodge  December 14, 2018

    Bart, is there any record (from the early centuries) of anyone (Jew or Gentile) questioning or challenging Matthews interpretation of Old Testament scripture in relation to the messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Not among Christians, that I’m aware of. There were debates between Christians and Jews, as in Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho; and some pagans picked up on these debates.

  9. fishician  December 14, 2018

    I’m not inclined to be “generous” in judging Matthew’s use of the “prophecies.” He clearly monkeyed with the genealogy to get the 14 generations pattern (and even then he got the count wrong). The passages are lifted entirely out of context. Later he does it again when he has Jesus ride two donkeys into Jerusalem because he thinks that’s what the passage in Zechariah means. But he was only the first of many; I have seen lists of all the “prophecies” of Jesus in the Old Testament, but none of them are specific and are generally out of context and are unrelated to a future messiah. They are trying too hard, and in my mind it damages their argument.

  10. Boaz  December 14, 2018

    If the “ fullfilment citations” are specific for Matthew and his reason for puting Jesus’s place of birth to Bethlehem was to show that Jesus fullfils what was predicted what was Luke’s motif to put his place of birth to Bethlehem as well? Was it the same and he just did not use the “ fullfilment citations” or any other reasons? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      My sense is that this is underlying Luke’s account as well, even though it is not made explicit.

  11. dankoh  December 14, 2018

    There’s also the “suffering servant” in Isa. 53, which is what Paul is referring to in his “fulfillment of the Scriptures” several times. This notwithstanding that Isaiah’s use of “servant” means all of Israel, as in “my servant Jacob” and that he describes the servant’s suffering in the past tense. Also the servant will have offspring and long (but not eternal) life.

    Missionaries to the Jews still somehow think the suffering servant is their best argument for converting us. “Isaiah 53 is unquestionably our most powerful biblical tool for Jewish evangelism. . . .” (Mitch Glaser, writing in The Gospel According to Isaiah 53: Encountering the Suffering Servant in Jewish and Christian Theology, 2012). Some people never learn.

  12. spock  December 14, 2018

    Thank you for an interesting blog post. I have a couple of questions:

    1. Do you think the tradition of the virgin birth arose because of the prophecy in Isaiah, or did the tradition develop independently, and then the prophetic passage was applied to it? What about the tradition of the birth in Betlehem?

    2. You note that the fulfillment citations are found only in Matthew. Do you think that even though there are no such citations in Luke, he would have seen Jesus as fulfilling the prophecies, at least in the places where he agrees with Matthew (Micah 5:1 and the birth in Betlehem; Isaiah 7:14 and the virgin birth, which seems to be echoed in Luke 1:31)?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      1. I think it’s very hard to say. There may have been a contributing factor in rumors about Jesus’ unusual (out of wedlock?) birth, that led Christians to come up with an alternative explanation; 2. Yes, I think Luke too saw Jesus as fulfilling prophecy, even though he doesn’t make an explicit case in each instance, as Matthew does. More subtle.

  13. dankoh  December 14, 2018

    Just to expand a bit on “alma.” It’s the female equivalent of “elem”, young man, and it is strictly a chronological designation – a person probably in late teens to early twenties.The RSV and the NRSV translate “alma” as “young woman,” but the NAB (a Catholic translation) continues to use “virgin” and adds a footnote saying the word means “a young, unmarried woman” – which is not correct; “alma” says nothing about her marital status.

    By the way, Jerome claims Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew, but “as we have it in our language [in nostro sermone] it is marked by discrepancies” and so he used the Greek version. I don’t see how we can accept that, since Matthew makes too much of a point about Mary being a virgin, and if he knew Hebrew he would have known ‘alma didn’t mean that. (Unless perhaps its meaning had changed since Isaiah, do you think?)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      Yes, I think Matthew did not know Hebrew at all and in the end was confused by the Greek.

      • JohnKesler  December 18, 2018

        If Matthew did not know Hebrew, how do you explain the times where his citations of the OT align more with the MT than the LXX, e.g. Matthew 2:15/Hosea 11:1?

        Matthew 2:15
        …This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’

        Hosea 11:1 (MT from the JPS Tanakh)
        11:1 When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

        Hosea 11:1 (LXX)
        …For Israel was an infant, and I loved him, and out of Egypt I recalled his children.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 19, 2018

          The main problem is that we don’t know exactly what his Greek texts of the Bible were; we can’t assume they were exactly like those modern scholars have reconstructed and called “the” Septuagint.

          • JohnKesler  December 19, 2018

            Why should we posit the existence of a theoretical Greek text which agrees with the Hebrew reading rather than concluding that the Hebrew text was Matthew’s source?

          • Bart
            Bart  December 21, 2018

            Only because we know there were various versions of the Greek floating around, some closer to the Hebrew than others, and Matthew shows no definitive indication that he could actually read Hebrew. Most of his citations are clearly from the Greek, which would be odd if he was basing his understanding on the Hebrew text.

  14. caseyjunior  December 14, 2018

    Another off topic question: I just finished reading Paula Fredrikson’s When Christians Were Jews. It is very interesting and sometimes in sync with your positions and sometimes not. ( I recommend it to readers of the blog; that’s where I found out about it a couple of weeks ago.) Fredrikson says that Luke/Acts was probably written in the early second century, using the date 110 C.E. several times. When she puts all her pieces together her case seems pretty convincing. However, my impression is that most scholars would date those books earlier than that. What is your opinion? thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      I’m open to the idea, but I’ve never found the arguments completely convincing.

    • rburos  December 18, 2018

      Just finished reading that as well, and enjoyed it.

  15. doug  December 14, 2018

    The birth stories of Jesus are often heart-warming (well, aside from things like the Slaughter of the Innocents). Due to their serious historical and contradiction problems, they are now just a fond memory to me. But it’s understandable how hard it is for some people to let go of them as historical events.

  16. indigo  December 14, 2018

    Bart, is there any evidence that Old Testament “prophecies” (the ones you mention here or others) were altered by scribes after the writing of the New Testament to make them seem more like prophecies? Thanks!

  17. caesar  December 15, 2018

    Do you think Matthew was attempting to impress his audience with all these fulfillments? ( Wow, Jesus fulfilled all these prophecies so he must be the real deal.) I know Christians reference all of these prophecies as so amazing, but I’m wondering if that was actually Matthew’s intent

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      I don’t think we have any access to what was actually going on in his mind, but it sure seems to be what he was trying to achieve, yes.

  18. AstaKask  December 15, 2018

    Matthew seems to have gone through the scriptures and picked up *anything* that could be turned into a prophecy to put into his narrative.

  19. blclaassen  December 15, 2018

    Faith is truly an amazing psychological phenomenon when it allows billions of people to disregard these historic facts in favor of the Sunday School myths taught in their youth.

  20. AndrewHLivingston  December 15, 2018

    What do you think of the argument that the book of Luke is based on an older, more reliable form of Mark than the one we have now? Do you agree?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 16, 2018

      I think it’s unlikely that Luke’s Mark was *exactly* like the one we have, though it was probably pretty close. It would have been an earier version probably; I don’t think there’s any way to know jsut how it varied, though, or whether it was more accurate.

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