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Matthew’s Fulfillment Citations

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.

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The Infancy Narratives Compared
Matthew’s Version of the Birth of Jesus



  1. Avatar
    SteveLig  December 12, 2012

    “That’s the context of Isaiah 7:14, which in its original context does not say that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son” but instead “a young woman is with child and will bear a son.””

    Would you have any references for this statement? I’ve checked several translations, including the Orthodox Jewish Bible and with the exception of the RSV, they all say “will” or “shall” conceive, not “is with.” (They all do acknowledge “young woman” vs. “virgin” though.)

    I’m just trying to get a better handle on this. And better resources, of course!


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      The verb in Hebrew “with child” is in the perfect tense (therefore a completed action: “is with child” or “has conceived”); the next verb “bear” isin the imperfect tense (therefore an incompleted action: “will bear a son”).

      • Robertus
        Robertus  December 14, 2012

        Actually hrh is an adjective here (if it were a 3fs perfect III-he verb it would be hrth). Since ‘almah is so rare in Hebrew, the LXX translater may have struggled with how to translate. He chose a much more common word in Greek, which he may have understood to be a virgin or merely a young women, but putting this part of the sentence into the future tense (as was the rest of the sentence) avoided (or should have) avoided any misunderstanding of there being a pregnant virgin. The young woman or virgin will conceive (in the normal way); it would not be any kind of miraculous virginal conception or virgin birth. Originally, it was referring to the near future as in occuring very soon. Later, early Christians would derive from this passage a different far distant future prophetic sense, interpreting this as a messianic prophecy of a virginal conception and virgin birth. I suppose the LXX translator might even have considered the initial nominal clause in a temporal sense which would have suggested the future tense to him, ie, Behold, when the young woman (is/becomes) pregnant, she will bear a son …

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

          Ah — right! Many thanks for the correction. Sorry ’bout that: I was rushed and simply did a quick glance. You’re compltely right about hrh. But it’s not clear at all that he is talking about a woman who is *about* to get pregnant. (There is, of course, no future tense in Hebrew)

          • Robertus
            Robertus  December 14, 2012

            My pleasure! The most natural reading of the Hebrew is indeed that Isaiah is pointing to a young woman who is already pregnant and the following waw-imperfect and the rest of the context only indicate a near future sense for the birth and early years of the child. At least that’s how I too read the Hebrew. I was only speculating on some potential reasons for the LXX translator to recast the nominal clause into a future verb.

  2. Avatar
    z8000783  December 12, 2012

    Interesting analysis. Now given all that what does it say about what Matthew actually wrote and which is assumed to be a true account of Jesus’ early life.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      If it’s “true” it is almost certainly not true in a historical sense.

      • Avatar
        z8000783  December 13, 2012

        So where does that leave Matthew?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  December 14, 2012

          I’m not sure what you’re asking….

          • Avatar
            z8000783  December 15, 2012

            Sorry, should have been clearer.

            If Matthew was attempting to marry up what he considered to be prophesies, and the result was the first chapters of his gospel then a) He was correct; the events actually happened as prophesied and he recorded the result, or b) It was one hell of a coincidence but he mistaking recorded it as truth. or c) Well, he made up the birth narrative to fit the prophesy.

            Are there any other options I’ve missed? What do you think he did?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  December 17, 2012

            Yes, another option is that he inherited traditoin that was not historically accurate, and that he had no way of knowing that.

  3. Avatar
    gonzalogandia  December 12, 2012

    An ex-Pastor had the following to say to me in reference to your Newsweek article:

    1) First point – the poetry does not, in any way, represent fundamental Christian theology. That’s why mocking what the carols say is attacking a straw man. Any serious Biblical scholar will tell you that the Magi were not kings, that three was the number of gifts listed, not the number of Magi, and that the Bible says nothing about oxen and asses feeding.

    2) Second point – Ehrman argues from silence when he discusses the census mentioned in the gospels. Just because historians have no extra-Biblical record of such a census is no proof that one did not take place. You will no doubt point out that he buttresses his argument with probability statements… but a buttress needs a building to do any good!

    I was too tired to respond. How would you respond to this (or would you even bother)?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      1) Yes, he’s right about serious Biblical scholars. As it turns out, I’m a serious Biblical scholar. That’s why I indicate that “the Magi were not kings, that three was the number of gifts listed, not the number of Magi, and that the Bible says nothing about oxen and asses feeding” (!)

      2) Well, it’s an argument from silence to say that Barack Obama did not spend the two weeks after his election bungey-jumping in Arizona, but I think most historians will probably agree on the point.

  4. Avatar
    DMiller5842  December 12, 2012

    Last night as I was rereading Matthew I noted 5 times when something was said to have fulfilled prophecy Are you going to address any of the other cases?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      Haven’t decided. The “Nazarene” one is the most intriguing.

      • Avatar
        DMiller5842  December 14, 2012

        Seriously you might make me try to research this myself??? Disaster ahead….

  5. Avatar
    hwl  December 13, 2012

    Suppose that Matthew knew Isaiah was referring to a past event, but Matthew felt he was entitled to read Isaiah in his own context (the Pesher reading). Do you think this hermeneutical method is legitimate? I am inclined to give a qualified affirmative, provided one recognises what one is doing, rather than pretend Isaiah wasn’t talking about an event in his lifetime but prophecying to a distant future event. Some millennial Christian groups today e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses also use a kind of Pesher reading, but they clearly failed to recognise the meaning of the texts in their original historical context. The Pesher method is in effect a type of postmodern hermeneutics: the reader is free to determine for oneself the meaning of the texts in any way one sees fit.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      I think the question of “legitimacy” is a philosophical or theological one. I’m not a theologian, so I’m not qualified to say. I will say that if Matthew was using a Pesher reading that it’s a different kind of reading from how people today read texts.

  6. Avatar
    hwl  December 13, 2012

    Doesn’t Luke also try to show Jesus fulfilling biblical prophecies? For Matthew’s nativity prophecies, do you think he was reporting the biblical citations passed on in oral traditions, or he heard the stories about Jesus’ birth and childhood, and then he carefully sieved through the Hebrew Bible to find somewhat matching passages?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      I’m sure Luke was too, but he isn’t explicit about it. With Matthew: good question. Almost impossible to say!

  7. Brad Billips
    Brad Billips  December 13, 2012

    Is there any ideas that on the “Nazorean” quote it could have been a scribal insert of some sort? I know the Hebrew Bible was copied well, but what about the Septuagint? Maybe someone inserted this into a Septuagint copy and Matthew’s author used that copy. Probably not.

  8. Avatar
    bobnaumann  December 13, 2012

    So how did Luke pick up on the Virgin Birth when his Birth Narative is completely contrary to Mathew’s?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      By the time they were both writing, there was a tradition about it in circulation. (Paul, some 30 years earlier, shows no knowledge of it, interestingly)

  9. Avatar
    JamesFouassier  December 13, 2012

    Why would Jewish Christians, presumably familiar with Isaiah 7:14 in Hebrew, not Greek, also adopt the view that the Messiah must be born of a virgin ? Or was Matthew reflecting a theological understanding that already had taken hold at the time the autograph was composed ? Or was it added later ? Just when did the idea that the Messiah had to be born of a virgin become a doctrine of proto-orthodox faith ?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 13, 2012

      Actually, one of the striking features of some early Jewish Christian groups is that they did *not* think Jesus was born of a virgin.

      There are good reasons for thinking that Luke 1-2 were added after the original Gospel was in circulation (starting with what is now ch. 3); some scholars have suggested something similar for Matthew, but the evidence is much thinner.

      The virgin birth becomes an important aspect of “the” faith by the mid-second century, from what we can tell (Justin Martyr, e.g.)

  10. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  December 18, 2012

    Bart, one thing that has always bothered me greatly about Matthew’s birth narrative was that God was apparently willing to warn the Magi AFTER they have been to the Jesus baby but not BEFORE they went there. Why would God want to only save the Magi’s lives but not those of the infants that would be murdered by Herod’s thugs because of God leading the Magi to Jerusalem?? (Yes, that’s not a historical event and these stories were invented to ‘fulfill’ those ‘prophecies but still, this has added to my view of the god of the Bible as a monster …)

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  December 18, 2012

      Yeah, good point about the slaughter of the innocents and the fortunate magi….

    • Avatar
      ecbrown88  December 18, 2012

      Perhaps God warned the Magi not to protect them but to prevent them from providing Herod with any more specificity regarding Jesus’ identity/location?

  11. Avatar
    alexandra_101186  December 22, 2013

    If you write the article on the “Nazarean” prophecy I hope you will address the issues mentioned in this article, particularly the “branch” one listed in number 2. I’ve heard these a couple of times now and they seem to be a stretch to me, but would like to read an educated opinion on the topic. Thank you for all your work and I am thoroughly enjoying the site!

  12. Avatar
    jhague  December 3, 2015

    It seems that Matthew received the idea of a virgin birth from orals stories and wrote it to fulfill a prophecy which he misused so that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy.
    Did the oral stories of a virgin birth first start circulating due to the Gentiles needing to have a god impregnating a virgin and a god-man being born?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 4, 2015

      We don’t know! Either there or in circles that had latched onto Isaiah 7:14 as an explanation of the unusual circumstances of his birth.

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