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Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations

I’ve begun a short thread dealing with how Matthew understood and interpreted and used Scripture.   Here is a fuller exposition, the first part of which comes straight from my textbook on the NT and the second part straight from my noggin to the keyboard.


 What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan.  The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears.  All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23).  Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18) and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23).  These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.

Matthew’s emphasis that Jesus fulfills the Scripture does not occur only in his birth narrative.  It pervades the entire book.  On eleven separate occasions (including those I have just mentioned), Matthew uses a phrase that scholars have sometimes labeled a “fulfillment citation.”  The formulae of these citations vary somewhat, but they typically run something like this: “this occurred in order to fulfill what was spoken of by the prophet.”  In each instance, Matthew then cites the passage of Scripture that he has in mind, showing that Jesus is the long expected messiah of the Jews.  These fulfillment citations are not drawn from Mark; among all four Gospels, they occur only in Matthew.  Even more than his predecessor, then, Matthew explicitly and emphatically stresses that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish Scriptures.

But *how* does Jesus fulfill the Scripture for Matthew?  He appears to do so in two different ways, the first of which is relatively easy to grasp.  The Hebrew prophets occasionally made predictions about the future messiah.  According to Matthew, Jesus fulfills these predictions.  For example, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, because this is what was predicted by the prophet Micah (2:6); and his mother is a virgin, because this is what was predicted by the prophet Isaiah (1:23).

This way of fulfilling Scripture for Matthew can make sense of two of the rather more peculiar “fulfillments” that he cites, one at the beginning of his Gospel and the other at the end….


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Matthew’s “Filling Full” of Scripture
Matthew’s Ancient Approach to Scripture



  1. Avatar
    Jen  January 6, 2015

    Thanks Bart for this post. This topic is probably the main topic that I have been attempting to research; “prophecies supposedly fulfilled”. Another would be “prophecies that are supposedly being fulfilled (currently) or that will be fulfilled (future)”. This is one of the roots of fundamentalism that I just can’t seem to easily research. Fundamentalists’ claim of an inerrant scripture is based partly on their take on “prophecies” (so called). (Or at least in the world I come from this is true.) I really needed this post and hope to find even more on these subjects. Thanks!

  2. Avatar
    stephena  January 6, 2015

    I think you give too much credit to “Matthew.” If he was a Jew, he was a rather Biblically-illiterate one.

    Just as you say in your book that forgery in ancient times was actually FORGERY and not simply a culturally accepted technique that everyone was comfortable with, I think Matthew’s gaffes here in interpretation were LITERALLY errors, and they would have had every Rabbi who heard or read them laughing out loud and dismissing such nonsense.

    The evidence of the text itself – the failure to understand Hebrew words, the failure to grasp context and the failure of geography, history and the Jewish culture and poetry – points to Matthew NOT being Jewish but a later Greek Jew re-working Mark and Q and attaching the paganized Birth Narrative of the God-spawned Demigod Christ (which NO observant, monotheistic Jew would accept, IMO.)

    For example: The main problem with “they shall call him a Nazarene” is 1) there is no such scripture to be “fulfilled” 2) No such thing was considered necessary to be the Messiah, even if being a “Nazarite” was implied, which would negate the need for him to be living in that town. A third issue perhaps is the failure of a town of that name ever existing in the Hebrew Bible or in Roman Judea, which is yet another indication that this was an outsider who was putting this introduction out of his imagination.

    While I believe Jesus existed, it’s hardly certain whether he existed in a “Nazareth” or in some of the other major towns nearby in Galilee of which Matthew is also ignorant.

  3. David
    David  January 6, 2015

    In your previous post “Matthew’s Ancient Approach to Scripture,” one of the members (toejam) said this: “Sometimes I think you’re too forgiving of these ancient documents.” In some ways I have to agree. You pointed out, quite rightly, that Matthew’s literal interpretation of Zechariah 9:9 is not only incorrect, but shows that Matthew was quite willing to make Jesus do whatever he thought the scripture was saying, even though the idea of riding two donkeys simultaneously was nonsensical. And he did this in spite of likely having Mark’s gospel in front of him as he wrote, in which Mark does not allow for two animals. Matthew is also the only NT writer who mentions the mass resurrection of saints at Jesus crucifixion who then march off into Jerusalem and are “seen by many” (Matthew 27:52-53). Such an event would have dwarfed, in “miraculous” terms, the singular resurrection of Jesus, and yet we find no record of this happening anywhere else in scripture, nor any historical records. How could such a thing happen without anyone (other than Matthew) being aware of it? This leads me to believe that Matthew may have been quite willing to not only twist OT scriptures and wrest them from their context, but even to fabricate stories in order to validate his belief in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Is it any wonder that the vast majority of Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, given the gross manipulation of scripture employed by Matthew, as well as his imaginative story telling? If Matthew was being dishonest (and I think he was), and in some cases flat out lying in order to further his agenda, even with the best of intentions, he would merely find himself in the company of a large number of deceptive authors with their own spiritual/religious agendas over the centuries (especially the last 2).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      If Matthew were the only one who interpreted Scripture this way, I’d agree. But this was a very common practice, so he was not standing out as a bad, sore thumb.

  4. Avatar
    Ini  January 6, 2015

    Hello Bart, could your explanation above imply that the author of Matthew ‘invented’ the second donkey? Does this mean that the author of Matthew deliberately scans the old testament looking for whatever could be used to link to Jesus work and inserts them in his writing? Could the author have done this on his own or was this an organized and supervised effort?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      Matthew did, or a story teller before him did. I don’t think there was any supervised effort — just lots of people telling the stories.

  5. Avatar
    toejam  January 7, 2015

    Ehrman: “the Hebrew word for “branch” is NZR. Remember: Hebrew did not have vowels, only consonants. These consonants N Z R are the root of the word NaZoRean”

    I always get confused on this point. If NZR is the Hebrew word for “branch” and is the root of the word “Nazorean”, what then is the Hebrew word for “Nazorean” and/or “Nazareth”? And how does the “Nazorite vow” fit into all of this?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      Nazirite vow was a completely different thing. And I’m afraid I don’t know the Hebrew words for Nazorean or Nazareth — or if there were Hebrew words for either. Maybe someone else on the blog knows?

      • Rick
        Rick  January 9, 2015

        Professor, do we know whether Nazareth actually existed early first century? May not be “knowable” as I understand it was at most a Hamlet later.

  6. Avatar
    dragonfly  January 7, 2015

    He must be the messiah! (I should know, I’ve followed a few!) Only the messiah could ride *two* donkeys at the same time!

    On the NZR point, I had thought since Matthew wrote in Greek, he would have used the LXX as his reference for the scriptures. Does this mean he must have read the Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      Either he or a story teller before him from whom he (eventually) got the story….

  7. Avatar
    kendalynx  January 7, 2015

    Is this taken from your current New Testament text or from the revised, upcoming text?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      It’s from the first edition, but I don’t think I’ve changed it.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 7, 2015

    So, rather than witnessing such events, the author of Mathew seems to be making up stuff to fit with Old Testament prophecies. This seems an odd thing for an author of the “truth” to do. I can understand an author of a Gospel making unintentional errors, but it still strikes me as odd that such an author would knowingly make up stuff. What do you make of this? Did others make up these traditions and then the author of Matthew incorporated them into His Gospel thinking they were true?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      It may look like he’s just making stuff up, but I’d say he’s reading Scripture in light of what he knows to be true about Jesus — a standard practice in antiquity.

      • Avatar
        JohnKesler  January 8, 2015

        Since you’ve said that the “Triumphal Entry” is unhistorical–Jesus would have been arrested on the spot, you said–upon what event that Matthew “[knew] to be true about Jesus” did Matthew base his two-donkeys version?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 10, 2015

          He based it on the tradition that he had heard about Jesus’ triumphal entry.

  9. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 7, 2015

    An OT question, for whenever you get around to it! About Paul’s use of the term “the Twelve” in that passage in Corinthians…

    My Bible actually renders it as “the Eleven,” but then explains in a footnote that Paul almost certainly did write “the Twelve.” They say that had become “the title of the group, irrespective of its actual number.” (And it would presumably be confusing for modern readers.)

    I’m wondering, is that explanation known to be true? The usage multiply attested? Or did someone just make it up, for the *purpose* of explaining this particular use of the term? For it to make sense, not only would Paul have had to be familiar with the usage, he would have had to know the people he was writing to in Corinth were also familiar with it. And if he didn’t want to acknowledge the absence of Judas, he could so easily have written that Jesus had appeared to “his closest disciples”…

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2015

      Wow. What Bible is that??? Why would they translate the word “eleven” as “twelve”?!? (Well, I know why. It’s so there’s no discrepancy with the passages that say Judas was dead by this time)

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 7, 2015

    Later: I found the answer to my question! Looked through the Gospels, and saw “the Twelve” used frequently there.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 7, 2015

    But yet another thought: The Gospels were written at a later date than Paul’s letters!

  12. Avatar
    walid  January 15, 2015

    Dr Ehrman

    “If Matthew were the only one who interpreted Scripture this way, I’d agree. But this was a very common practice, so he was not standing out as a bad, sore thumb.”
    would you have any examples of this please?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 16, 2015

      I don’t have them off the top of my head. My friend Joel Marcus, who dabbles in rabbinic texts occasionally for his exegetical work, has told me of several.

  13. Avatar
    moose  January 20, 2015

    Dr Ehrman

    I find your blog very inspiring. So my question, or rather comment.

    I have read that the prophet Ezekiel was known under another name – this name was in fact Nazaratus.
    The prophecy in the Hebrew Bible that “he shall be called a Nazorean” may therefore also have had a different meaning … namely the apocalyptic god who appeared to Ezekiel in the book of Ezekiel.

    “He shall be called a Nazorean”, or simply the god of the book of Ezekiel.

    Just a thought…

  14. Avatar
    KathManning  September 3, 2015

    So there are lots of ‘prophecies’ ‘fulfilled’ in ‘Matthew’ by details that aren’t found in other gospels. Why do you think that that is because Matthew (or someone before him) is fitting scripture to what he has heard about Jesus, rather than someone (Matthew or predecessor) making up stories about Jesus to fit with what they believe are Messianic prophecies?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 4, 2015

      I think both things are probably going on. It was a complex interrelationship between story and “fulfillment.”

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