Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Explicit Quotations of Scripture in Matthew 1-2 (Part 1)

This post is a continuation of yeterday's comments on how Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14. Here, I want to look at the way Matthew relies on other scriptural passages at the beginning of his Gospel as a window into what he might be doing with the 'virgin' and child of Isa. 7. (Of course, for Isaiah, the woman is not a virgin--see previous post.)

Let me note that hardly any thought presented here is original with me. I think I first encountered these ideas in a well-articulated way in Christopher J. H. Wright's book Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament (IVP, 1992; Amazon). I highly recommend this book as a good, reasonable, simple, and theologically thoughtful explanation of all kinds of issues related to the relationship between the Testaments and, indeed, what Jesus thought he was doing. (While you're at Amazon, you might as well pick up another book, as well. Rest assured, I will not make any money off of either of these books.)

I'll begin at the end of Matt. 2 and work my way backwards. The very last verse of Matt. 2 contains the last of four explicit scriptural quotations in the chapter.
and [Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus] came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: "He shall be called a Nazarene." (Matt. 2:23; NASB)
The odd thing about this quotation is that it does not correspond to any statement made in the Hebrew Bible (or LXX, for that matter). I don't have time to delve into the reception history of this verse--no matter how much I'd like to; after all, that's what I do: I'm a history-of-interpretations guy--but I will say it has given interpreters fits for millenia. One ancient (and modern) interpretation relates it to Isa. 11:1 where we read a future descendant of Jesse (David's daddy, and thus we are reading a messianic passage) who will be a 'branch' (Hebrew: netzer). Well, maybe.

Jerome pointed out (he may not have been the first to do so) that the wording of the citation in Matthew references prophets, plural, in distinction to the other references in these chapters (cf. 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, all speaking of 'prophet,' singular). Jerome thought that this might indicate that Matthew is not referring to any particular passage from a particular prophet, but that he is consolidating the message of the prophets as a whole, and part of that message is that the coming savior would be called a Nazarene. Apparently, Nazareth was not thought to be that great of a town; not the hometown you want if you're planning on being anything significant in life (cf. John 1:46). And so, the message here would be that the prophets in general indicated that the coming savior would be "from the wrong side of the tracks."

The truth is, we don't know exactly what Matthew is doing in 2:23, but we do know that he's not using scripture in a straightforward, prediction-fulfillment kind of way.

Going backwards in Matt. 2, we next come to vv. 17-18. This is in response to King Herod's slaughtering of the innocents, killing all the male babies in Bethlehem two-years-old and under.
Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more." (Matt. 2:17-18)
This is a quotation from Jer. 31:15. Now, look at the context within Jeremiah. This verse comes in the middle of a block of chapters called "The Book of Consolation" (Jer. 30-33) promising restoration for Israel and Judah (cf. 30:3). Israel and Judah needed to be restored because they had both experienced exile (Israel by the Assyrians; Judah by the Babylonians), and so in these chapters Jeremiah speaks of their experience of exile and the future hope that they both have. This means that the weeping that Rachel is doing in Jer. 31:15 relates to these experiences, specifically, exile. When the Babylonians came into Judah and killed people and took others away from their homeland to live in Babylon, at that time Rachel was weeping for her children. Not only is there no messianic prediction here, but there is no prediction whatsoever in this particular verse. In the context there is a prediction of restoration, but the specific verse quoted by Matthew has nothing to do with the future, only with the past. Rachel is weeping because of the exile already experienced even in Jeremiah's day.

So, what is Matthew doing with this verse? Does he think there's a prediction in it? Does he think it's about the Messiah? Has he completely ignored the context? Interpreters often say as much, but Richard Hays has taught me (through his books, especially this one) to hesitate to attribute to the biblical authors the insensitivity to context that modern untrained readers often exhibit. That is, Hays has taught me to look for a more-nuanced interpretation of scripture in the New Testament, especially when the interpretation looks weird.

I think that Matthew surely must have understood that Jer. 31:15 was not a prediction of a future time, had nothing to do with the Messiah. Furthermore, I think he understood that his use of this verse in reference to events surrounding Jesus would in no way serve as proof for any Jew that Jesus was the Messiah. A Jew could simply respond, "No, that's not what Jeremiah's talking about, not even close." Jer. 31:15 was not intended to be a messianic prediction, and was not received as such. Jews at the time of Matthew did not look for the fulfillment of Jer. 31:15 as one of the signs that the Messiah was coming. I think Matthew knew all of this.

But, I also think that Matthew understood the context of Jer. 31:15 as about restoration, and he saw that restoration could come only after weeping. He understood that this was true in the history of his own people, who had experienced exile first, and then restoration under Zerubbabel and others (see the book of Ezra). But, the restoration had not been all they had hoped for, had not resulted in the reunification of Israel and Judah (as predicted in Jer. 30:3, etc.), had not returned them to an independent kingdom as in David's days. But, Matthew also knows that one has now been born who would accomplish these things, in a manner of speaking. And just as before with the exile first and then restoration, so also here, weeping precedes joy.

That is, similar to what we saw earlier in Matt. 2:23, Matthew uses Jer. 31:15 not as a straightforward prediction-fulfillment. He knows that Jer. 31:15 has its own context unrelated to the Messiah. But he wants to show his readers that events surrounding the birth of this Christ-child re-enact in some ways Israel's own story, that what has happened in the past is now being repeated, that the history of Israel is somehow being summed up in this child. (You are probably hearing echoes of N.T. Wright.)

Again, the length of this post is getting unwieldy, so I'll have to continue next time. But you can already see where I'm going. Rules of thumb: consider the context of the OT passage, and consider how the NT author uses that context to his advantage. Also, in Matt. 1-2, specifically, look at that word "fulfill". The places that it appears is rather odd. And, finally, is Matthew using a text of scripture closer to the Hebrew or to the Greek? These are some of the issues we will explore next time, when we look at Matt. 2:15, and then 2:5-6, and finally get to 1:22-23.

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