From The Fourth R
This article is adapted from chapter 8 of Robert J. Miller’s book, Born Divine.
The belief that Jesus fulfilled prophecy has been a cornerstone of the notion that Christianity supersedes Judaism. From the first century until now, Christians have correlated statements about Jesus with carefully chosen Old Testament prophecies to document their belief that God’s plan for human salvation reached its fulfillment in Jesus. That interpretive practice is evident in most of the New Testament, but it is Matthew’s gospel that carries it out most thoroughly and most explicitly.
The way Matthew matches prophecies to the story of Jesus creates the strong impression that anyone who believes in the scriptures of Israel must see that Jesus is the promised Messiah. Matthew thus uses prophecy as a proof that Israel’s history had been building up to Jesus.
Since Matthew’s proof-from-prophecy theme has been foundational to Christianity’s conviction that it is superior to Judaism, and since that conviction has had such pernicious consequences historically, Christian scholars, and all who are committed to the honest examination of Christian origins, have an ethical obligation to examine Matthew’s claims critically and to assess their value for Christian theology.
This essay is offered as a step in that direction. First, we will examine how Matthew handled prophecy—or, more precisely, how he manipulated it—as he integrated the words of the prophets into his narrative. Second, we will investigate how the proof-from-prophecy theme works in Matthew’s gospel. Third, we will assess whether the belief that Jesus fulfilled prophecy is helpful or harmful to contemporary Christian faith.
How Matthew Uses Prophecy
Twelve times in his gospel, Matthew interrupts the story to tell us that the event he is narrating fulfilled a specific prophecy, which he then quotes. For our present purpose it will suffice to undertake a brief analysis of three such cases in which it is relatively simple to track the particular ways Matthew uses prophecy to help tell the story of Jesus.
In recounting the start of Jesus’ public career, Matthew follows Mark’s outline: Matt 4:12 = Mark 1:14 and Matt 4:17 = Mark 1:15. But Matthew separates Mark’s grammatically connected verses and inserts an unnecessarily detailed account of Jesus’ change of residence (Matt 4:13), followed by Matthew’s fulfillment formula (Matt 4:14) and his quotation of Isa 9:1–2 (Matt 4:15–16).
The prophet cited, Isaiah, mentions Galilee along with the old Israelite tribal names Zebulun and Naphtali and locates them on the way to the sea and across the Jordan River (Isa 9:1). Matthew 4:13 uses geographical markers from Isa 9:1 to amplify the description of Jesus’ movements found in Mark. Knowing from Mark 2:1 and 2:15 that Jesus had a house in Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee,
Matthew reports that Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum, and is thus able to work the word “sea” from the Isaiah verse into 4:13. He also describes Capernaum (somewhat inexactly) as “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali,” whereas in fact Nazareth is in Zebulun and Capernaum is in Naphtali. He cannot include Isaiah’s “across the Jordan” because Jesus never crosses that river.
All of Galilee is on the west side of the Jordan, and Capernaum on the lakeshore several miles southwest of the river’s entrance into the Sea of Galilee. Strictly speaking, then, Matthew describes Jesus leaving Zebulun to move to Naphtali. But this is to pick nits: Matthew is focused on the phrase “pagan Galilee.” For here we see the religious point of this prophecy: by portraying Jesus as fulfilling Isaiah’s vision, Matthew shows that he was sent for both Jews and Gentiles.
In this scene Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of a crowd. Matt 21:1–9 follows Mark 11:1–10 closely, except for two features.
1. Once again Matthew interrupts the narrative to announce the fulfillment of a prophecy (21:4), which he then quotes (21:5). Matt 21:5 begins with a phrase from Isa 62:11 and then selectively quotes Zech 9:9. Mark’s scenario, in which Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem while a crowd cheers for the “coming kingdom,” apparently reminded Matthew of Zechariah’s prophecy. Zech 9:9 seems to mention two animals, a “donkey” and a “colt, the foal of a donkey.”
In the Hebrew text of Zech 9:9 it is clear that these are two descriptions of the same beast: parallel phrasing like this is quite common in Hebrew poetry. But in the Septuagint version of Zechariah, the Greek word for “and” appears: “a pack animal and a young colt.” Matthew’s “quotation” of Zech 9:9 blends elements from the original Hebrew with the Greek translation in such a way that the gentle king is “mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a pack animal” (Matt 21:5).
2. Matthew takes the Septuagint wording of this prophecy quite literally, as if it describes a king riding two animals. Accordingly, Matthew rewrites Mark’s story so that now the disciples bring a donkey and a colt to Jesus and, sure enough, he sits on both of them (21:7).
For consistency, Matthew also goes back earlier in the scene and adds a second animal to the report of the finding the donkey by the disciples (Mark 11:2//Matt 21:2). He also changes the two pronouns in the next verse so that Mark’s “it” becomes “them” (Mark 11:3//Matt 21:3).
By way of comparison, note that the Gospel of John also quotes Zech 9:9 in connection with its much briefer version of this scene (John 12:12–15). John’s version of the prophecy sensibly mentions only one animal.
Mark 14:10–11 tells of Judas’ approach to the high priests and his offer to betray Jesus, for which treachery the priests promise to pay him. When Matthew rewrites this brief scene, he has Judas demand the money up front and specifies the amount of money agreed on by Judas and the priests: thirty silver pieces (Matt 26:14–15). Mark never mentioned the amount, nor do Luke or John. From what source has Matthew obtained this inside information? Answer: the prophets.
Later in the story Judas, overwhelmed by guilt, flings the money back at the priests and then commits suicide (Matt 27:3–5). When the priests use the money to buy some land, Matthew informs us that this fulfills a prophecy of Jeremiah about thirty pieces of silver (Matt 27:6–10). The prophecy in question is actually from Zechariah, not Jeremiah. Matthew’s mistake shows that here, at least, he is quoting from memory and not from a text.
A close comparison of Zech 11:12–13 and Matt 27:3–10 (a scene unique to Matthew’s gospel) also reveals where Matthew discovered that Judas had returned the money and had done so by throwing it into the temple.
What do these three examples show about Matthew’s use of prophecy?
To position Jesus as fulfiller of prophecy, Matthew chooses descriptive details from Isaiah and crafts them into elaborations on the reports and clues that he found in Mark. The reason Jesus’ movements match the words of prophecy so closely—though not exactly—is that Matthew has derived Jesus’ itinerary from those very words.
Matthew creates a ludicrous scene: Jesus stunt-rides two animals into Jerusalem. The only possible purpose Matthew could have had in changing Mark’s straightforward narrative into such a spectacle is to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled prophecy to the letter.
Obviously, Matthew’s Jesus can fulfill this prophecy in this odd manner only because once again Matthew rigs the story with details cribbed from the “fulfilled” prophecy. This bizarre scene shows us to what extremes Matthew was prepared to go to portray Jesus as the fulfiller of prophecy. It should also raise a serious question about Matthew’s competence as an interpreter of Hebrew scripture.
Matt 26:15 and 27:9
With the thirty silver coins, Matthew yet again inserts details from a prophecy into a story that he borrowed from Mark. A chapter later, Matthew relies on the readers’ memory of that detail to confirm that that prophecy was fulfilled to the letter.
Matthew’s specification of thirty silver pieces, and his report that Judas returned the money, are small but lucid examples of how Matthew uses the Old Testament as a source of information for the story of Jesus. It is not the case that Matthew knew a factually accurate account of the life of Jesus and then realized, from his knowledge of scripture, that the life of Jesus fulfilled prophecy.
Rather, the process worked in the opposite direction. Matthew started with the conviction that Jesus’ life must have fulfilled scripture, and then went back to read (or remember) the Old Testament with the intention of finding out more about what had happened in Jesus’ life. That is how he, alone out of the four evangelists, “knows,” for example, that Jesus rode two animals into Jerusalem and that Judas was paid thirty silver pieces.
Did the prophets know what they were talking about?
From our perspective it is obvious that Matthew was reading Jesus into the prophecies he quoted. When we examine those prophecies in their own contexts, it is clear, for example, that Zechariah had no foreknowledge of Judas when he spoke about the thirty silver coins, and that Isaiah was not thinking about the birth of Jesus when he challenged King Ahaz with the news that “the young woman is pregnant and will have a son and will name him Immanuel” (Isa 7:14, quoted in Matt 1:23).
The woman in question was someone Isaiah and Ahaz knew (note that she is “the young woman”), almost certainly one of Ahaz’s wives. Respect for the Bible requires us to understand the prophets as speaking to their own times, with messages that they and their audiences understood in relation to their situations centuries before the time of Jesus.
Respect for the Bible also requires us to understand Matthew on his own terms. Matthew, like all Jews of his time, treated the words of the prophets as coded messages having significance beyond the prophets’ own understanding. This view of prophecy was absorbed into Judaism during the Hellenistic period, having originated among the ancient Greeks, who believed that their prophets spoke under the influence of a “spirit of prophecy” that overrode the speaker’s own rational capacities.
As a result, sometimes neither the prophets nor their audiences could understand the true significance of their words, and thus the real meaning of some of those pagan prophecies could be discerned only after the predicted events had already occurred. First-century Jews applied these Greek beliefs about prophecy to the biblical prophets, and so came to believe that God had planted throughout their writings cryptic clues about his plans for the future.
Many Christians hold this same belief today. They think that prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel, as well as New Testament authors such as Paul, Peter, and John, unwittingly wrote about events happening in our own time or about to happen in the near future.
Today you can find books in the “End Times Prophecy” sections of Christian bookstores that claim to understand the prophets better than the prophets understood themselves. Inevitably, these books explain that we are living in the last generation, a time of unparalleled evil from which only a few will be saved. Rather than pursue this issue further, I will ask only that you to pause for a moment to consider three interrelated premises of that view of prophecy:
- the belief that all of history has been building up to our own lifetime
- the assumption that the prophets did not fully understand their own messages, but we do
- the outlook that we are among the “saved” and the rest of humanity is therefore “unsaved,” awaiting its eternal damnation
- What human needs are answered by such self-centered beliefs? What kind of God is worshiped by a religion that caters to these needs?
- The Function of Proof-from-Prophecy
- It is a deeply rooted belief in Christianity that Jesus fulfilled prophecy. In its most common version, this belief entails that:
- the Old Testament contains a number of prophetic predictions about the coming messiah
- these prophecies were, in effect, waiting to be fulfilled
- people would know the messiah when he finally “came” because he would fulfill these prophecies
That is how most Christians understand the term “Old Testament prophecy,” and Matthew’s gospel has been instrumental in fostering that notion. Matthew’s method of quoting specific prophecies and pointing out how they were fulfilled gives the impression that it should have been fairly clear to people who knew the scriptures that Jesus was the long-awaited messiah. So effective has Matthew’s gospel been in this regard, that Christianity has long puzzled over why the Jews of Jesus’ time “rejected” him.
Matthew gives the impression that the Jewish leaders knew (or at least should have known) that Jesus was the messiah but opposed him because of their hypocrisy and hard-heartedness. At the very end of the gospel, Matthew makes his accusation explicit: these authorities knew that Jesus had risen from the dead but conspired to deceive their own people about the truth of his resurrection (28:11–15).
First-century Jews applied … Greek beliefs about prophecy to the biblical prophets, and so came to believe that God had planted throughout their writings cryptic clues about his plans for the future.
We should take a moment to examine this brief story, because Matthew’s attitude toward the Jewish leaders bears directly on his proof-from-prophecy theme. The first thing to be said about Matt 28:11–15 is that there is not a shred of historical evidence for the conspiracy Matthew describes. Besides, if it had happened the way Matthew says it did, he could not have known about it:
if the soldiers really “took the money and did as they had been instructed” (Matt 28:15), no one could have known about the alleged bribery and the lying.
It isn’t difficult to conclude that Matthew made this story up. It is fiction. Now the gospels contain many fictions that express truth—stories that while not historically true communicate truths that are more important than historical facts. (Jesus’ parables and the stories that he multiplied bread and fish are good examples.)
But the story about Jewish leaders who covered up Jesus’ resurrection is not like those benign fictions. It is a malicious lie. That Matthew told it to counteract the accusation that the disciples stole Jesus’ body helps us understand the motivation for the lie, but does not excuse it.
Matthew’s proof-from-prophecy argument is intertwined with his polemic against official Judaism. He asserts not only that his people are right to follow Jesus as the Jewish messiah, but also that Jews who do not follow Jesus are unfaithful to Judaism. In its simplest form, Matthew’s message to his people is:
- 1. “We” have a right to exist as a Jewish community, despite the fact that “they” say we don’t.
- “We” are the only real Jews.
To judge from the bitterly polemical rhetoric in Matthew’s gospel, the debate between his people and the keepers of official Judaism at that time (i.e., the Pharisees) must have been fierce. See, for example, the way Matthew’s Jesus excoriates the Pharisees in chapter 23. We don’t expect cool logic in the sort of heated debates that all too often end up with each side even more convinced of its own rightness.
And that is precisely the framework in which Matthew’s use of prophecy must be placed. Matthew’s rhetoric was not designed to win over the Jewish opponents of his community, nor was his manipulation of scripture meant to persuade the open-minded—-if his audience contained any such people. It was intended to reinforce the belief of Matthew’s own people that all of Jewish history had been building up to Jesus, and thus culminated in them.
Matthew’s Context and Contemporary Faith
It seems most unlikely that Matthew’s presentation would change the mind of anyone who was not already inclined to believe that Jesus was the messiah. Perhaps some people neither knew what the prophets really said nor questioned whether Matthew’s stories were literally true; those people might be convinced that Jesus had fulfilled prophecies.
And while this may well have been the effect of Matthew’s gospel on a few, we need not conclude that Matthew’s purpose was to trick the gullible. A more responsible line of inquiry into Matthew’s purpose in correlating prophecies with stories about Jesus is to imagine the circumstances that would allow Matthew and his audience to honestly believe in his presentation of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy.
Scholars generally agree on what those circumstances were. We have to try to see things the way Matthew and his people did, regardless of whether we see things that way today. Matthew and his audience already believe that Jesus is the messiah. They also believe that God must have been dropping hints about the long-awaited messiah in the scriptures, especially in the books of the prophets. So Matthew goes back to the scriptures and studies them carefully, looking for clues about Jesus the messiah.
For Matthew, the recognition of Jesus as the messiah is the newly revealed key that will unlock the hidden meaning of prophecy. When Matthew finds a prophetic statement that could be about Jesus, he tries to match it up with something he already knows—or believes—about Jesus’ life. Furthermore—and this is crucial—whatever a prophet says about the messiah, or the future Davidic king, or God’s son, Matthew can take to be information about Jesus not previously recognized as such.
The net result of all this is obvious: The early Christian belief that Jesus fulfilled prophecy arose after and because of the belief that he was the promised messiah. This very important finding needs to be emphasized. The belief that Jesus was the messiah was the basis for the belief that he was the fulfillment of prophecy.
It was not that people noticed that Jesus had fulfilled a series of prophecies and so concluded that he must be the messiah. The process worked the other way around. It was because Christians were convinced that Jesus was the messiah that they went searching through the scriptures to discover which prophecies he had fulfilled. The proclamation that Jesus fulfilled prophecy is a testimony to Christian faith, not a description of its origin.
With this in mind, we can easily see why Matthew’s Jewish contemporaries were not persuaded by his “proof from prophecy.” It had nothing to do with having hard hearts or closed minds, or being deceived by their leaders. All of that is Matthean caricature.
It had to do with the fact that Matthew’s presentation of prophecy makes sense only from the perspective of prior belief in Jesus. Outside of that perspective, Matthew’s use of prophecy has no persuasive power, and can even look like a deliberate distortion of the scriptures aimed at deceiving those who are uninformed and easily impressed.
Matthew must have known that he was not going to change minds with his fulfillment of prophecy theme. He designed it to support the faith of his own Christian-Jewish community, not to convert outsiders. Matthew’s message is that since the prophets confirm that Jesus is the messiah, his followers are the true heirs of Israel and children of Abraham, despite what the vast majority of other Jews may say.
Surely this message would have offered encouragement to a tiny Jewish sect like Matthew’s community at a time when the belief that Jesus was the messiah could make you an outcast in Jewish society. Believing that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy helped to reassure his Jewish followers of the rightness of their cause, at a time when the prestige of Jewish authority made this cause seem religiously illegitimate.
But that time no longer exists. It has not existed for nineteen centuries. The viability of Christian belief is not even remotely threatened by Judaism. Today there is not the slightest possibility that Christians will stop following Jesus because Jews do not regard him as the messiah.
In the first century perhaps it was necessary for followers of Jesus to believe that the scriptures pointed to Christ, that Jews did not understand their true meaning, and that therefore the Hebrew Bible properly belonged only to Christians (who eventually made it into their own “Old Testament”).
Christian history is marred with the ugly consequences of the anti-Judaism fostered by those beliefs. In view of the horrifying price that Christians have forced Jews to pay for keeping their covenant with God, isn’t it about time to stop insisting on Matthew’s mistaken premise? Do not Christians now have the moral obligation to let go of the notion that if Jews truly understood the scriptures they would become Christians?
The belief that the prophets were pointing to Jesus, though perhaps helpful at the time Matthew wrote his gospel, has long since outlived its usefulness. It is a belief that distorts the scriptures and has had ugly consequences in history. Out of respect for Judaism and for the Bible, therefore, I propose that Christians have an intellectual and moral duty to abandon this obsolete, self-serving, and dangerous belief. What do you think?
Robert J. Miller is Associate Professor of Religion at Juniata College in Pennsylvania. A longtime Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, he is the editor of The Complete Gospels (1994) and author of The Jesus Seminar and Its Critics (1999) and Born Divine (2003).
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