Not too long ago my wife and I finished reading through Matthew's gospel, and my own reading of the gospel strikes me as so far removed from the direction of a lot of scholarship. There seems to be a sense among some scholars that Matthew had a loose view of history and just sort of made things up about Jesus, not caring if many of it really happened. There's also this contrary sense from the same people that Matthew looked long and hard to find passages in the Hebrew scriptures that were vaguely similar to events in Jesus' life, usually resulting in huge stretches of the imagination to try to connect the two as if the first had been a prophecy of the second.
This combination creates a strong tension. How can it be both that Matthew twists OT passages way out of context and that he invents stories that never happened to fulfill those same OT passages? If he was in the business of inventing stories that never happened, he could have made it so that they were closer to the events as described in the OT passages he's referencing. That suggests that he's not simply inventing stories and finding OT passages to fit them. I think it's absolutely obvious and not even an open question that there are many levels of what it might mean to fulfill something, and Matthew is well aware of that.
The view I'm questioning assumes only the kind of fulfillment that simplistic apologists assume when they say that a reference to an OT passage is about Jesus simply because the NT references it, then listing countless passages and giving the sum of all this as an argument that Jesus must have been who he said he was because he fulfilled so many prophecies. Not all the fulfillment in the NT is that kind of fulfillment, as if some prophet said something and it was about Jesus and not about anything else.
The example of Matthew 2:15 makes this clear. There's no way Matthew would say that Hosea 11:1 wasn't in some way about Israel being called out of Egypt. He knew the Hebrew scriptures well enough use his own translation of the Hebrew and not the Septuagint translation (except in the places where he was following Mark), which is what almost all the other NT authors did, including Paul (I should note that Davies and Allison, in their magisterial commentary, seem to agree with me on this). Hosea 11:1 says it's talking about Israel, and there's no way Matthew would have forgotten the context, as so many scholars today seem to assume of him (Davies and Allison also agree with me on this).
So what could he have meant? The most obvious answer is that Matthew is making a connection between Israel's being called out of Egypt and Jesus' being called out of Egypt. How could he see such a connection? Because he sees a connection between Israel and Jesus (something Davies and Allison also acknowledge was a key feature of first century Messianic interpretation). Jesus is the ideal Israel, just as he's the ideal David and the ideal Aaron.
Sometimes it's even more basic. As D.A. Carson puts it in his Matthew commentary, Jesus recapitulates the experiences of Israel, of David, and so on. This explains the reference to Rachel weeping and the references to psalms that are clearly about David and not about a Messiah, at least in their primary reference (though there's also the element of Jesus as the ideal David). The wilderness training period, the calling of 12 sons of Israel, and the application of prophesies that were first and foremost about God's bring the people of Israel out of the exile are other examples of this. The suggestion seems to be not merely that Jesus happens to have similar experiences or even that his experience is modeled on earlier ones, though that's part of it, and there are examples of that sort of thing even in the Hebrew scriptures (the application of Exodus typology to the return from exile and exile typology to events occurring to the future of the return, as in the last chapters of Zechariah, are exactly this sort of thing). Craig Keener's commentary points out that Jesus' whole ministry takes on elements of a new exodus -- the leading of his people to salvation. That's what Matthew is getting at here.
This way of thinking shows how rich the possibilities of OT fulfillment really are that it's amazing just how little of it the NT authors did, compared to what they could have done. (Have you ever noticed the similarity between Jesus and Elisha, especially given the direct connections made in the NT between John the Baptist and Elijah? Why does the NT never even suggest this?) So it's not as if they were hunting around for whatever they could use as an excuse to say Jesus fulfilled a prophecy. There were so many things they could have used that they didn't avail themselves of. Hebrews consciously says Jesus fulfilled the Levitical sacrificial system. There are rich possibilities of other elements of Leviticus, e.g. the holy festivals (Jubilees, the Sabbath year) that nowhere in the NT specifically picks out.
So let's look at some more examples to see how this works out. In Matt 4:13-16, Matthew cites Isaiah 9:1-2 to point out that scripture had predicted a Messianic significance of Zebulun and Naphtali, where Jesus moved to (Capernaum). Is this probing for any possible scripture references to connect with the details of Jesus' life, picking up even those so tenuous as to stretch plausibility? Davies and Allison don't seem to think so. We know that the elite Jews of the time complained about Jesus' origins in Galilee. This is a scriptural support for the facts of Jesus' geographical origins and much of his early ministry. It's a response to objections from Jewish leaders.
What about Matthew 2:23, where Matthew claims Jesus was from Nazareth to fulfill the prophecy that no one can seem to find in the Hebrew scriptures saying that the Messiah would be called a Nazarene? First I should point out that this is a problem for any view. No one seems to know what Matthew was trying to do here. It doesn't seem likely that he would make up a prophecy that never occurred simply to add one more fulfillment to the many he already had pointed out. He must have had some prophecy in mind. One thing to remember is that being called a Nazarene was one way of being despised, and so it does fulfill many prophecies of the Messiah being despised. It would be like calling someone a redneck or a hick nowadays (but much stronger, from what I can tell). Suppose we had a particular location, and people from it were called Rednecks but that the term also was used generally for hicks. One might make a pun about someone prophesied to be despised, saying that he was born in Redneckia to fulfill the prophecy that he's be a redneck (and keep in mind the stronger connotation of "Nazarene"). Some have also suggested a play on the Hebrew nezer for branch (a common Messianic title in the Hebrew scriptures).
Someone I've discussed this issue with online says: Matthew also tries to show that the "messianic secret" which he has inherited from Mark is justified by a passage from Isaiah which includes the lines, "He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets" (Isa. 42.2). This is so forced that the modern reader should cringe with embarrassment rather than be convinced.
This argument seems really odd to me. The context of the passage (Matthew 12:18-21) is the servant song that's first of all about Israel, although Israel failed to carry out its mission (cf. Isa 42:18-19), so the later servant songs begin to focus in on an individual within Israel to complete that mission (cf. Isa 49:5-7). Matthew consciously applies Isaiah 52:13-53:12 to Jesus, so we know he thinks this latter figure is Jesus.
Now once we've seen that, it's really strange to think that Jesus wouldn't fulfill the characteristics expected to be true of Israel in the earlier servant songs (e.g. ch.42), since in many ways they match up with what's more explicit and developed in more detail in the later ones. Most of what Matthew quotes here seems of this sort. Why mention it here alongside the Messianic secret marker taken from Mark (the deliberate attempts of Jesus in Mark's gospel to tell people not to talk about what he has done for them)? Matthew seems to have some sense that Jesus' doing this was not to hide the truth but was simplying acting from his character of humility. Given the conflicts that would come (which Matthew begins to discuss shortly), he was not giving an opportunity for a fight for fighting's sake. Many other occasions show Jesus withdrawing from crowds in the context of opposition, except toward the very end when he was deliberately bringing a challenge to the people about his identity.
Matthew 27:9-10 loosely quotes Zechariah 11:12-13 but also says that it fulfills what was spoken of by Jeremiah the prophet. Is this a misattribution, involving muddled memories of Jeremiah visiting a potter (Jer 18) and buying a field (Jer 32)? Hengstenberg notices that this Zechariah passage mentions nothing about a field, though Jeremiah 19:1-13 does. Jeremiah buys a jar, takes it the Valley of Hinnom, and destroys it, symbolizing Judah's destruction. The parallel with Zechariah 11 is that God's servant is rejected by Israel and valued at the prince of a slave. The money gets thrown into the temple and used to buy something unclean. The parallel with Jeremiah 19 is that rulers have rejected God's messenger with the result of a field polluted with the blood money compared to Jeremiah's vally of slaughter, a symbol of death and destruction to come as a result of this rejection. He's not claiming a text or texts as a fulfillment in terms of all the details. A simple comparison won't hold that up, and I'm sure Matthew knew it. He sees the obedience of these prophets, their rejection, and the foretelling of judgment as central to the typology here. In all those ways these prophets looked forward to Jesus, with elements of their very lives looking toward what would eventually take place at his first coming. The rejection of God and his servants formed a continuing pattern throughout redemptive history, and its climax was the rejection of God' Son. The judgment told of and often enacted with each such rejection looked forward to the judgment brought on ultimately against those who reject the Son of God. The low value of Jesus' life to those rebellious shepherds of Israel and the purpose of the betrayal money pointing toward the destruction of the nation are elements of this larger picture Matthew has in mind.
My online correspondent continues: The only evangelist who tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was "a rich man" is Matthew (27.57), and this is not because he possessed historical information not known to the others, but because it satisfied another prophecy. The Suffering Servant in Isaiah was "assigned a grave... with the rich in his death" (Isa. 53.9).
I'm having trouble figuring out what the argument here is. Only Matthew mentions that Joseph was rich. Mark and Luke both mention that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, something fairly unlikely unless he was a man of some influence, which makes it quite likely that he was rich. In the context of this discussion, the assertion that Matthew was mentioning this only because he wanted to find another OT passage to have fulfilled is purely begging the question. There's no evidence that this is what Matthew is doing and that he had no independent information. If he was indeed the apostle Matthew, he would have known this. Even if he wasn't, he had sources for most of his information. There's not much chance that he would make things up during a time when people were still around who could remember, and contrary to the assertions of many skeptics people did tend to far live longer lives in those days under the Pax Romana than people lived in the middle ages. This is even moreso for the time of Jesus' death than for the time of his birth, since it would have been only 30-45 years prior to the assembly of the gospel instead of 60-80, depending on whose dating you're using (I lean toward the lower end of that, since I would have expected more effect from the temple's destruction to have shaped the gospel had it been composed in the 70s). Whatever you say about whether there's evidence to think he did have outside information, there's no evidence to think that he didn't, which undermines any reason to think the crucial premise of the argument is true. If it's indeed false, then there's nothing at all illegitimate about what Matthew says here.
When this is the kind of fulfillment NT authors often have in mind, it seems pretty silly to suggest that the NT authors are stretching it to apply these passages to Jesus. That complaint ignores what they saw themselves as doing, something that they had precedent for doing in the way the OT itself uses fulfillment terminology.
A further claim is often made, that Matthew misunderstood not just the contexts of passages he quotes but that he misunderstood even what the Hebrew literally said or that he quoted from memory frequently enough to misquote, mistranslate, and give wrong citations. I don't think this is true. He does translate fairly loosely in some cases (e.g. Matt 12:18-21 from Isa 42:1-4), but I fail to see the significance of that for the issues we're dealing with here. I looked at the Isaiah passage alongside Matthew's translation, and the substance of what's said appears to be fundamentally the same. As far as I can tell, the major commentators make very little of this and simply wonder if he had a text type we no longer have. Perhaps he was doing the equivalent of The Message or The Living Bible today (though his translation may not be that loose. Perhaps he was giving the general sense and using particular terms he wanted to translate the phrases as for particular reasons that I haven't done enough research to identify. However it came about, the sense of each line is pretty clearly the same as the sense of each line of Isaiah's prophecy.
Many manuscripts of Matt 13:35 give the reference to the quotation from Psalm 78 as being from the prophet Isaiah, though others simply say from the prophet. The principle of favoring a more difficult reading, on the grounds that scribes might more easily subtract something that makes less sense, favors the reading with the attribution to Isaiah. On the other hand, the gospel texts more often involve earlier texts without an attribution and later texts with one, which leans in the other direction, favoring the possibility that someone later added the name of Isaiah as had been done with many other uncited fulfillment formulae in Matthew (who tended only to list a prophet's name if it was Jeremiah or Isaiah, which shows more familiarity with those two and also makes less likely the possibility that he misattributed something to one of them). This is one of Matthew's quotations translated directly from the Hebrew, which suggests that he would have been even more familiar with what its source was.
I leave the worst mistake of skeptical scholars for last. I really do believe quite firmly that this mistake is one that decreases someone's intelligence once they've made it. It's even hard for me to resist the temptation to think someone dumber for having suggested it, though I know some smart people have said this (e.g. Maier). I can't try to put this silliness into my own words, so I'll again quote my online correspondent: The most embarrassingly silly prophetic fulfilment of all is the entry of the Messiah to Jerusalem. Matthew assumes that the passage in Zechariah (9.9) saying "gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey", refers to two separate animals instead of one, a colt as well as a donkey. He therefore has Jesus entering Jerusalem on two animals at once, like some trick rider from a circus (Matt. 21.1-8)
What's embarassingly silly is that someone might even consider that Matthew would do such a thing. It's clear from the rest of what I've said that Matthew knew the Hebrews scriptures very well, enough to have a well defined sense of overall themes throughout salvation history and how Jesus was fulfilling them in complex and nuanced ways. This was a very smart man. He also seems to have had a significant background in the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, enough to translate most passages himself when not just using the narrative source from Mark, who used the Greek translation common in his day, which Matthew usually kept. How could anyone possibly think that Matthew assumed two animals were required by the Zechariah passage? There's no reason to think Matthew's use of 'them' means Jesus was riding both animals at the same time somehow, which is ridiculous, and Matthew would have known as much. The nearest Greek antecedent of 'them', always the most natural option, is the term for the cloaks placed on the animals. Jesus was riding on the colt (or the quotation would have made no sense), who was still young enough to be with his mother (Mark and Luke mention that it had never been ridden), and when they put the coats on the colt and its mother (as was the custom in Palestine), Jesus sat on them (but on the colt). That's the most natural reading of the passage in the Greek.
One piece of evidence to suggest that Matthew understood the Zechariah passage far better than most modern readers is the plausibility of Keener's suggestion (p.491): His citation might possibly even presuppose more skilled readers grasping a connection between Jesus' name and the term "salvation" in a part of Zech 9:9 not cited . With Matthew's much demonstrated understanding of his scriptures, it's highly unlikely that he wouldn't know that "a colt, a foal of a donkey" is apposition and not the listing of two animals. Another element of this passage that favors what I've been saying in general about Matthew is that the Septuagint would more clearly have made his point about the ways Jesus exemplifies the passage he quotes, and yet he translates the Hebrew directly. He's not reading into the text what he wants to see there or trying to fit events to the text in a way that they didn't. He's observing something he sees and discovering a text that talks about the same thing.
After all this it should be clear that scholars who assert this sort of thing are just looking for something that isn't there. There are difficulties in figuring out what Matthew is up to at times, but it's obvious to me that even in the most difficult cases he's up to something when other seems to think he's just made a mistake. The vast majority of these assertions are little more than misunderstandings of the complexities of biblical authors' understanding of what fulfillment of scripture meant and small-mindedness about the vast array of allusions that may well be going on even when only one passage is quoted. I conclude that Matthew's use of scripture is nothing short of masterful, and I look forward to plumbing the depths of his fulfillment theme in the future when I finally get around to reading the commentaries on his gospel.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.