I. Review and Overview
In our last lesson, we talked generally about the changing attitudes of scholars studying the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.
We wrapped up by looking at the findings of C.H. Dodd. He concluded that the Old Testament formed the "narrative sub-structure" for the New Testament. What he meant was that the history of Israel - events, characters, places - form the background for everything we read in the New Testament.
What that means for us, as readers of the New Testament, is that we have to pay close attention, not only to direct quotes from Old Testament sources, but also to echoes, allusions, and other more subtle references to the Old Testament.
In this lesson we want to explore what it means to read this way. We’re going to take as our text, the Gospel of Matthew, which has been called the "most Jewish" of the Gospels. Matthew appears to have been a Jew writing for other Jews sometime between the years 50 and 70 A.D. Unlike other Gospel writers, he doesn’t feel the need to explain his numerous references to Jewish customs and laws. And he laces his Gospel with at least 100 references to the Old Testament.
In the next five lessons, we’re going to read Matthew in its entirety, studying closely how his use of the Old Testament shapes not only his story-telling but the spiritual message he wants to convey.
II. Matthew’s ‘Book of the Law’
The Old Testament isn’t just the background for Matthew’s Gospel - it forms the backbone, the structure of his Gospel.
Many scholars, most notably the Protestant scholar at Yale B.W. Bacon in the 1920s, have noticed that Matthew reads like a "mini-Penteteuch" - that it seems deliberately arranged to resemble the first five books of the Old Testament, known as the Law.
Bacon pointed out that the five books of the Pentateuch, or Law, each contain a body of commandments of Moses. In each book, those commandments are introduced by a "narrative" section that describes events in the life of Israel and highlights God’s mighty deeds.
We see the same pattern in Matthew: five distinct "books" divided the same way - a narrative portion in which Jesus debates His adversaries or performs miracles, followed by His commandments or teachings. Each of the five books ends with a formula-like statement - "And when Jesus had finished…" The five books of Matthew’s "Book of the Law" are "book-ended" by a prologue that describes Jesus’ birth and an epilogue that describes His death and Resurrection.
Scholars today aren’t universally sold on this thesis about the structure of Matthew. But it makes the most sense to us. Matthew seems to be writing in a very deliberate literary style for the purpose of calling readers’ attention to these divisions in his book. And it’s clear that there’s a five-fold structure to the Gospel and a two-fold movement within each book - from narrative or story-telling to discourse or teaching.
This gives us the following basic outline:
Prologue: The Birth of Jesus
Book I: John the Baptist / Early Ministry of Jesus
Discourse: 5:1-7:27 (Sermon on the Mount)
Formula: 7:28-29: "When Jesus finished…."
Book II: Miracles and Commissioning of Apostles
Discourse: 9:36-10:42 (Missionary Sermon for Apostles)
Formula: 11:1: "When Jesus had finished…."
Book III: Controversy and the New Kingdom
Discourse: 13:1-52 (Teaching on the Kingdom of Heaven)
Formula: 13:53: "When Jesus finished…."
Book IV: Teaching the Church
Discourse: 17:22-18:35 (On Life in the Church)
Formula: 19:1: "When Jesus finished…"
Book V: Jesus Enters Jerusalem
Discourse: 23:1-25:46 (On End Times, Farewell)
Formula: 26:1: "When Jesus finished all these words…"
Epilogue: Passion and Resurrection of Jesus
III. The Genesis of Jesus
A.. Son of Abraham, Son of David
Matthew’s prologue does two things - it tells us Who Jesus is and how He came into the world. And for Matthew, the Old Testament background is critical to understanding both.
The first words of his Gospel are the title of the first book of the Old Testament - the Book of Genesis (the Greek word genesis is translated "genealogy" in the New American Bible and elsewhere).
One modern commentator has suggested that the first line could most accurately be translated: "The book of the new genesis wrought by Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham."
This is how St. Jerome and others in the early Church read these first sentences of the Gospel.
What’s happening with Jesus is a new creation, a new beginning for creation, for the world and the human race (see too John 1:1-18; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Romans 5:17-21; 1 Corinthians 15:47-50).
Unlike the first creation, however, God isn’t creating ex nihlo ("out of nothing") this time around. Jesus comes as the fulfillment of all God’s earlier promises to His chosen people Israel. In fact, He’s presented as the culmination off Israel’s history.
Matthew wants us to know in this prologue, that while Jesus is specially born "through the Holy Spirit," He is a true Israelite, descended from the founding father of the people, Abraham (see Matthew 1:20).
And he wants us to see Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham. God had promised Abraham: "in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing" (see Genesis 22:18).
Jesus, "the Son of Abraham," will bring that to pass. And we’ll see throughout Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus has a mission, not only to Israel, but to "make disciples of all nations" (see Matthew 8:10-12; 28:18-20).
Heir to Abraham, Jesus is also heir to "David the King" (see Matthew 1:6). David is the real center of attention in this prologue - and throughout the Gospel. His name is mentioned six times in the first four chapters of the Gospel, and his birthplace, Bethlehem becomes the subject of the drama in Matthew 2.
And much of the plot and the tension in the rest of the Gospel will turn on the question: "Could this perhaps be the son of David?" (see Matthew 12:23; 20:30-31; 21:9,15; 22:44-45).
God had sworn to David that his sons would sit on his throne forever (see 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89; Psalm 132:11-12). But David’s kingdom crumbled and appeared to be lost forever when the Jews were exiled and deported to Babylon by the King Nebuchadnezzar around 586 B.C. (see Matthew 1:11; 2 Kings 24:14).
From that time forward, Israel’s prophets had taught them to hope for a Messiah, a savior sent by God who would gather the scattered tribes of Israel and reunite them in a new kingdom of David (see Isaiah 9:5-6; 55:3; Ezekiel 34:23-25,30; 37:25).
This seeming failure of God’s plan - "the Babylonian exile" - is the pivot in Matthew’s genealogy, the phrase repeated four times (see Matthew 1:11,12,17). In Matthew division of Israel’s history, there are 14 generations from the David’s reign to the Babylonian captivity, and 14 more after it, until Jesus comes as "the Messiah."
Note also that in the genealogy only Jesus and David are identified by their titles - David as King (1:6), Jesus as Messiah (1:16). Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the promised Royal Messiah and Davidic King. He receives His royal birthright through Joseph, "the husband of Mary," and the "son of David" (see Matthew 1:16, 18).
B. Formula for a Divine Birth
With Joseph, Matthew’s prologue moves from "who" Jesus is to "how" He came among us.
The "how" is a miracle. And Matthew tells us this in the first of four "formula citations" we find in his prologue (see Matthew 1:23; 2:6,15,18, 23).
As we’ll see, these citations, which appear to be strait forward quotes from the Old Testament, play a key role in Matthew’s narrative (4:15-16; 8:17; 12:18-21; 13:35; 21:4-5).
Matthew uses these formulas in his effort to "prove" that Jesus is the "fulfillment" of what Israel’s Scriptures and prophets had hoped for (see Matthew 26:54,56).
The idea of "fulfillment," so prominent in this Gospel, reflects an overarching biblical worldview shared by all the New Testament writers. They believe a "plan" has been in place from the foundation of the world, that God revealed Himself and His plan slowly in the history of Israel and in His words given to the prophets; they believer, finally, that in Jesus, God brings His plan to completion or fulfillment (see Ephesians 1:3-10; Acts 3:18; Mark 14:49).
Here, Matthew describes the virgin birth of Jesus to Mary "through the Holy Spirit" as fulfilling a prophecy of Isaiah (see Matthew 1:18,22-23; Isaiah 7:14).
What’s interesting is that Matthew cites a text that rabbis of his time didn’t consider to be "messianic."
The rabbis read this passage as a fairly cut-and-dried prediction of the birth of King Hezekiah to King Ahaz and his mother Abi. Hezekiah was a kind of savior-figure among the Israelite kings (see 2 Kings 18:1-6). They apparently believed Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled long ago and had nothing to do with the Messiah who was to come.
In the original Hebrew, Isaiah prophesied of a "young girl" or "maiden" to be found with child (‘alma in Hebrew). But Matthew picks up on the Greek translation of parthenos, which more specifically refers to a "virgin."
For Matthew, apparently, the prophesying of a virgin, ties in with Jesus’ "fatherless" conception.
A question remains: How is the prophecy of a child prophesied to be named Emmanuel, fulfilled in a child who Joseph has been ordered to name Jesus? (see Matthew 1:21).
Emmanuel, which Matthew translates for his reader as "God is with us" is who Jesus is (see Isaiah 43:5; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 8:23)
And we will see in Matthew numerous places where Jesus describes how He will be "with us" for all time (see Matthew 18:20, 25:40,45), most especially in instituting the Eucharist (see Matthew 26:26-28).
And in the very last lines of Matthew’s Gospel, we’ll hear an echo of Isaiah’s Emmanuel prophecy, as Jesus promises: "And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (see Matthew 28:20).
IV. Putting the Messiah in His ‘Place’
A. The King from Bethlehem
In his second chapter, Matthew deepens his identification of Jesus as the son of David and the Messiah.
But his focus shifts. In this chapter he wants us to remember that the Messianic Son of David was to be the "King of the Jews" (see Matthew 2:2).
Matthew makes this connection by focusing on where Jesus is born and where He winds up growing up. In fact, notice that from beginning to end the chapter is filled with "wheres" - the East, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Egypt, Ramah, Galilee, Nazareth.
Matthew is skillfully evoking the historical geography of the Old Testament - key places and events associated with them - to show once more how Jesus is the "fulfillment" of all that Israel has hoped for (see Matthew 2:15,17,23).
Even the way he identifies Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the village where David was born and anointed King (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13), is rich with layers of meaning.
The answer the chief priests and scribes give to Herod (see Matthew 2:5-6) combines two Old Testament quotes (Micah 5:1-2and 2 Samuel 5:2).
Again, remember what C.H. Dodd taught us in our last lesson: Matthew and the other New Testament writers never quote the Old Testament out of context. And in most cases the full meaning they intend by the quote depends on understanding the whole context from which the quote is taken.
Taken simply, the answer of the priests and scribes is factual: prophets have foretold that Bethlehem will be the birthplace of the Messiah.
But in choosing these particular passages to combine, Matthew perhaps intends us to contemplate much more than the simple answer to the question: "Where will the Messiah be born."
Reading the immediate context of the quote from Micah (see Micah 5:1-3), we find not only the promise of a "ruler" to be born in Bethlehem. We also find another reference to the mother of the Messiah ("she who is to give birth").
We see further that Micah envisions a "two-fold" role for the Messiah-King raised up in Bethlehem: First, he will "shepherd his flock" and lead "the rest of his brethren" back to Israel; secondly, his rule or "greatness, shall reach to the ends of the earth." In other words, the Davidic Messiah envisioned by Micah won’t be only a national king, but a ruler of all nations.
The context of the Second Samuel quote is also instructive. The text refers to David’s covenant with the 12 tribes of Israel and God’s promise that David "shall shepherd My people Israel" (see 2 Samuel 5:1-4; Psalm 78:70-1).
It may be, too, that Matthew wants us to hear an echo of the great prophecies of a restored Israel, of the gathering up of the tribes scattered in exile. Through the prophet Ezekiel, God had promised to personally seek out His lost sheep and bring them home (Ezekiel 34:4-16).
This is a theme that Jesus will take up later later in Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 10:6; 15:24) and we’ll also see Him describing His Church as the restored Israel (see Matthew 19:28).
It’s an ironic aside, finally, that Matthew puts these quotations in the mouths of the chief priests and scribes - the "shepherds of Israel" that Ezekiel prophesies against (see Ezekiel 34:1-10) and the ones who will prove themselves to be false shepherds in rejecting Jesus (see Matthew 16:21; 20:18).
B. Magi from the East
The mysterious figures of the Magi are wise men or more likely, astrologers from Persia.
Early Church Fathers like St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus said the "star" the Magi saw was that prophesied by Balaam (see Numbers 24:17). Eusebius went so far as to call the Magi "Balaam’s successors," noting that like Balaam they were foreigners who had come from the East (see his Demonstration of the Gospel, Book 9: Chapter 1).
Modern scholars also hear an echo of Balaam’s prophecy here. Certainly his vision of the rising star and the staff of Israel’s ruler fits with Matthew’s themes. Also, Balaam foretold Israel’s conquest of the surrounding nations, which fits with the "universal kingdom" themes that are emerging in these early pages of Matthew.
There is the added intrigue that King Herod - as we know from historical sources outside the Bible - was an Edomite. In Balaam’s prophecy, when the star rises, Edom is destroyed (see Numbers 24:18).
The Magi themselves, like Balaam, are Gentiles. And in their bearing of gifts and their worship of the infant child they begin the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham - that in him all nations will be blessed (see Genesis 22:18).
The scene (see Matthew 2:10-11) recalls Isaiah’s prophecy: "Nations shall walk by your light and kings by your shining radiance…All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense and proclaiming the praises of the Lord" (see Isaiah 60:3,6; Pslam 72:10-15; Tobit 13:11).
As Matthew presents them, the Magi are the first to recognize Jesus as the Lord of all nations, again fulfilling Israel’s expectation that the restored Davidic Kingdom would be not only a nation-state, but a worldwide empire.
C. Son Out of Egypt
Matthew also introduces in this second chapter of his prologue, a theme that will run throughout his Gospel: Jesus as the new Moses.
Matthew, we’ll see, is intent upon showing us the parallels between the life and mission of Jesus and the life and mission of Moses. He wants the careful reader to see that in Jesus we have a new Moses bringing a new Covenant, a new Exodus, a new Law, a new Passover.
Both Jesus and Moses are sent by God to deliver His people, and both have their life threatened at birth and they are forced to flee (see Exodus 1:15-16; Matthew 2:16-18).
Herod’s imperial decree threatened not only Jesus but all the innocent Hebrew male children. What’s Matthew evoking here? The reminiscence of the Exodus tradition, when the Hebrew midwives were called upon by the imperial decree of the despotic tyrant, Pharaoh, to slaughter all the Hebrew male children.
Moses is rescued by a family member (see Exodus 2:1-10). So is Jesus. He is rescued by a man named Joseph, who had dreams and was given the gift to interpret the dreams.
Matthew is revealing an aspect of our Lord’s early life you won’t find recorded by Mark, Luke or John. And he tells it deliberately to bring out the echoes of an earlier Joseph - also a son of Jacob (see Matthew 1:16; Genesis 30:19-24), also a righteous man (see Matthew 1:19; Genesis 39:7-18).
The first Joseph’s interpretation of dreams made it possible for God to make provision for His people to be spared in time of famine - in of all places, Egypt (see Genesis 41:17-41; 45:16-20). The second Joseph’s understanding of his dreams also leads him to Egypt where he harbors and protects the infant sent to save God’s people (see Matthew 2:13-14).
Jesus, the deliverer of God’s people is raised in safety in Egypt, where Moses was raised (see Matthew 2:13-15; Exodus 2:5-10). And finally, like Moses, Jesus too is called back to his birthplace after a time of exile (see Matthew 2:20; Exodus 4:19).
Not once in all of this does Matthew explicitly state what he’s doing. There isn’t a single: "Thus, it was to fulfill the word of the Lord." He didn’t need to. His allusions would have been obvious, powerful to his audience. It has a way with us, too, of burrowing more deeply into our hearts and causing us to concentrate, to meditate - Where have we heard that before? What’s the connection?
So how do we know this is what Matthew is up to? How can we be sure we’re not reading things into Matthew? Well, there are a lot of clues, especially in comparing Matthew’s account with the Greek translation of Exodus.
To mention just one: Why, when Herod dies, does the angel tell Joseph "those who sought the child’s life are dead"? (see Matthew 2:20). Why didn’t the angel say, "the one who sought the child’s life is dead." It’s puzzling, until we return to the Exodus story where the Lord tells Moses "all the men who sought your life are dead" (see Exodus 4:19). Matthew is giving us a little wink here - just in case we’re not getting it.
We’ll see these allusions continue in our next lesson as we begin "the first book" of this new Moses - we’ll see Jesus fasting for 40 days and nights in the wilderness, just as Moses had (see Matthew 4:2; Exodus 34:28) before giving God’s covenant law to the people (see Matthew 5-7; Deuteronomy 5:1-21).
Finally, Matthew ties together his prologue with three formula citations.
In these parallels, Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is not only a new Moses, but that He is reliving in his body the experience of Israel, the son of God. We see this in the formula citations from Hosea and Jeremiah (see Matthew 2:15,17-18).
The first, from Hosea, recalls God had always spoken of Israel as His first-born son. Matthew quotes the second half of a quote that begins: "When Israel was a child, I loved him…" (see Hosea 11:1) That was the message He sent Moses to tell Pharaoh - to set free "My son, My first-born" (see Exodus 4:22).
This theme continues in the quote from Jeremiah. Again, on the surface it seems to merely emphasize the sufferings of the mothers of Bethlehem whose children have just been slaughtered by Herod.
But go back and read the quote in context: The lines about Rachel weeping are followed directly by God’s promise to wipe away her tears - "The sorrow you have sown shall have its reward…Your sons shall return" (see Jeremiah 31:16-17).
What’s being fulfilled in the massacre of the innocents? It isn’t the prophecy that Rachel will mourn. What’s being fulfilled is God’s promise to wipe away Israel’s sufferings and restore Israel as God’s son.
In fact, the entire chapter of Jeremiah is a song about the restoration of Israel, God’s "first-born" (see Jeremiah 31:9). And the climax of the chapter is the only place in the Old Testament where God promises specifically a "new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah," one not at all like the covenant made when He took Israel "from the land Egypt" (see Jeremiah 31:31-33).
He is making this covenant in Jesus, the son of David, born of the house of Judah, an called "a Nazorean" (see Matthew 2:23).
There is no exact quote like this in the prophets. It appears to be a play on the word Nazareth and the Hebrew word nester, which means "shoot" or "branch."
Isaiah and Jeremiah both prophesied a "righteous shoot" to grow from David - that is, a son who would lead the people to freedom.
All this is being fulfilled in the child born in Bethlehem.
V. Study Questions
1. How is Matthew’s Gospel structured like a "mini-Pentateuch"?
2. What is the "Babylonian exile" and why is it important to our understanding of Jesus’ royal lineage?
3. What does the word "fulfillment" mean in the context of Matthew and the other New Testament writers?
4. How does Matthew portray Jesus as a "new Moses"?
For prayer and reflection:
Read the Mass readings for the Christmas Vigil. Pray for a deeper understanding of how God’s plan for salvation is unfolded in these readings. The readings are:
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27,29