Skeptical Bible Study: Matthew's Messianic Prophecies
missionminded_maid has a blog about “perfect prophec[ies]” in the Gospel of Matthew concerning Jesus’ coming. But are they really perfect? Let’s take a closer look.
Her three “prophecies” all come from Matthew Chapter 2. (Unless otherwise noted all biblical quotes will come from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]).
Prophecy 1 – Matthew 2:1-6
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
Claims to fulfill -- Micah 5:2
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
Prophecy 2 – Matthew 2:13-15
Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
Claims to fulfill – Hosea 11:1
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
Prophecy 3 – Matthew 2:16-18
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Claims to fulfill – Jeremiah 31:15
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Before evaluating the prophecies, I think it is best to put the Gospel of Matthew into proper scholarly context. First of all like the other three canonical Gospels, the authorship of Matthew is in question. Traditional attribution has that it was written by Matthew the tax collector/disciple of Jesus. This is almost certainly not true (the evidence for this is good for another blog). However, to save time in writing I will refer to the unknown author of Matthew as “Matthew”.
What is not well known in the general public is that the four canonical gospels were not the only Gospels of Jesus. The ones we are familiar with are the ones that became accepted by the group of Christians that would eventually dominate after Constantine circa 325 CE. But other early groups existed and flourished. And they had their own gospels. What is more, despite the orthodox wing’s attempt to destroy all of the competing gospels we have bits and pieces of about 30 or more of them.
These gospels tell a varied story for the life of Jesus. For instance one sect, the DOCETISTS, believed that Jesus was fully divine. He only “seemed” to have human characteristics. And since “divine” also meant immortal, that meant that Jesus didn’t die on the cross. One of the gospels says that Simon the Cyrene (the man who in the canonical gospels helps carry Jesus’ cross) was magically transformed into a body that looked exactly like Jesus, and it was he who was crucified on the cross … with the voice of Jesus coming from heaven laughing at the joke he had played on his persecutors. One wonders how much laughing Simon was doing.
Another group, the ADOPTIONISTS, claimed that Jesus was fully human. He was God’s adopted son, with the adoption taking place during John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven coming down and saying, “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased”.
Another group, the GNOSTICS, believed that Jesus came here to impart knowledge that once understood enabled one to escape from this flawed world created by the evil and stupid God, Yaldobaath (a derivative of the name Yahweh). Once Jesus’ secret knowledge was understood then upon your earthly death you could go and live in the Perfect world that the smart god(s) had created. This group was composed mainly of gentiles (non-Jewish peoples) and they believed that the Hebrew bible (ie the Old Testament) was a highly flawed work of Yaldobaath and should be discarded. And the sooner, the better!
The point of all of this is that during the rise of early Christianity there were quite a few vastly different views competing for the hearts and minds of people claiming to be following the teachings of Jesus. Because of this, what we know about Jesus is more legend than fact.
Scholars think that Matthew’s intended audience were Jews. Matthew is arguing against the view of Gnostics. He is saying that the Hebrew bible is NOT flawed. He is saying that every bit of it predicts Jesus’ coming and his ministry. Other gospel writers (most notably Mark) do the same thing but not to the extent of Matthew. It is in Matthew that we find:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-19)
Note that in all three of the above “prophecies” Matthew explicitly claims those acts to BE fulfillment of scriptural prophecy. Unfortunately, Matthew was often a few french fries short of a Happy Meal when it came to his understanding of scripture.
For instance, Zechariah 9:9 has also been claimed as a Messianic prophecy heralding Jesus’ triumphal entry.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
Notice the phrase, “… riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey”. This is a fairly common Old Testament rhetorical device. The colt refers to the donkey. It is a way of further describing the donkey.
Poor Matthew thought it was referring to two different animals. Here is how Matthew handles the story (Matthew 21:1-6):
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Lord needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfil what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them
This brings up a mental image of Jesus being a circus trick rider. Mark and Luke do handle the story correctly.
Then there is the story Matthew gives us claiming that the decision of the Chief Priests on what to do with Judas’ blood money after he commits suicide is also prophecy fulfillment. (Matthew 27:6-10)
But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.’ After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, ‘And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’
The problem is that Jeremiah never says anything like that. The closest biblical quote we can get is this one:
I told them, "If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it." So they paid me thirty pieces of silver.
And the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter"-the handsome price at which they priced me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD to the potter. (New International Version)
But this is not from Jeremiah. It is Zechariah 11:12-13. And what is worse, it seems to be based on a mistranslation. The Masoretic Text (the Hebrew bible as it is being kept by Jewish scholars) and texts of Zechariah from the Dead Sea Scrolls translate it differently as does the New Revised Standard Version:
I then said to them, ‘If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.’ So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver. 13Then the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it into the treasury’—this lordly price at which I was valued by them. So I took the thirty shekels of silver and threw them into the treasury in the house of the Lord.
So not only does it appear that Matthew misattributed Zechariah’s quote to Jeremiah, but it appears that Zechariah didn’t actually make it either. No prophecy was actually given.
So Matthew is trying to present argue that the Hebrew scriptures foretell Jesus’ birth and ministry. He is doing so in an environment where there is no consensus on what Jesus actually did or taught. But he is NOT infallible. He is overly exuberant in his claims of prophecy fulfillment and his actual understanding of Scripture leaves a lot to be desired. With that context in mind let’s look at the three Messianic prophecies claimed by missionminded_maid.
With this context in mind let’s examine the claimed Messianic prophecies of missionminded_maid.
The easiest one to deal with is Hosea’s “Out of Egypt” citation. Hosea is NOT making a prophecy at all. Hosea is obviously referring to the Exodus and does not foretell Jesus in any way. He is discussing the past not the future.
What about Herod’s ordering the killing of the children of Bethlehem? This event almost certainly did not take place. Matthew is the only person to claim such an event happened. It is not recorded in Luke which also has a birth narrative. The early Jewish historian, Josephus, makes no mention of it (and he was not at all ill-disposed of criticizing Herod). And it makes no sense.
Even if it were a prophecy, Jesus would not have threatened Herod at all. If Jesus was actually born when Herod was alive (and Luke’s assertion that it was done during the census of Quirinius casts doubt on that proposition) it was during the last year or so of his life. Even if Jesus was a Messiah, it would be long after Herod’s death before he would be able to threaten the ruler. Furthermore, Herod did not seem to be overly concerned about leaving rule to his children. He killed one for sedition and drove the others off. Besides succession of rule was determined not by Herod but by Rome.
Finally the quote from Jeremiah is again NOT a prophecy. It is an allusion to the exile of Jews to Babylon after Nebuchadrezzar conquers Jerusalem.
So that brings us to the “born in Bethlehem” prophecy. Micah says:
But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah, …
What does that “Ephrathah” mean? Matthew, like many others (including missionminded_maid), ignores it. Matthew assumes that Micah is talking about the town of Bethlehem. He isn’t. He is talking about the PERSON; Bethlehem, son of Ephrathah.
Here is 1 Chronicles 4:1-9:
The sons of Judah: Perez, Hezron, Carmi, Hur, and Shobal. Reaiah son of Shobal became the father of Jahath, and Jahath became the father of Ahumai and Lahad. These were the families of the Zorathites. These were the sons* of Etam: Jezreel, Ishma, and Idbash; and the name of their sister was Hazzelelponi, and Penuel was the father of Gedor, and Ezer the father of Hushah. These were the sons of Hur, the firstborn of Ephrathah, the father of Bethlehem. Ashhur father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah; Naarah bore him Ahuzzam, Hepher, Temeni, and Haahashtari.* These were the sons of Naarah. The sons of Helah: Zereth, Izhar,* and Ethnan. Koz became the father of Anub, Zobebah, and the families of Aharhel son of Harum. Jabez was honoured more than his brothers; and his mother named him Jabez, saying, ‘Because I bore him in pain.’ [Emphasis added]
So Micah is predicting the ruler will come from a descendent of Bethlehem, the person, not Bethlehem, the town. So in no way does Jesus being born in Bethlehem satisfy that prophecy.
In conclusion, these “Messianic Prophecies” are NOT prophecies concerning Jesus at all. They result only from Matthew’s zeal to portray Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament “prophecies” combined with his flawed understanding of Old Testament Scripture. These are mistakes that are notably human. They are not the type of thing that one would expect from a text inspired by an omnipotent, omniscient God.
The fact that these “prophecies” fail so miserably on closer examination is evidence AGAINST the Gospel of Matthew as having any divine inspiration behind it. I have examined other putative “Messianic Prophecies” from the other Gospels and they too fair poorly