QUESTION:  (The following question was raised by a reader who objected to Matthew’s attempt to interpret passages in the Hebrew Bible as having relevance for Jesus – especially passages that appear to have been taken radically out of context).  Here’s the 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?



Yes, Matthew certainly did not interpret the Bible the way we would teach people!   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 today.  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 ….



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.