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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

Matthew’s "Fulfillment Passages"

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Matthew’s infancy narrative includes five “fulfillment passages” that quote and sometimes identify verses from Israel’s scriptures. They concern:

  1. 1:22-23            the birth of Emmanuel
  2. 2:5-6                the coming of a shepherd from Bethlehem
  3. 2:15                 God’s son being called up out of Egypt
  4. 2:17-18            Rachel’s lamentation for her children
  5. 2:23                 One who shall be called a Nazorean

Matthew applies these passages to Jesus in order to explain why Jesus is important for Israel’s story.

It is crucial to appreciate that the Matthean fulfillment passages are not simply the accomplishment of predictions from the distant past. They are far more sophisticated than that. This is illustrated by examining the third fulfillment passage.

In Mt 2:15, the evangelist applies the words of the prophet Hosea to the situation of Jesus: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew here is citing Hosea 11:1-4 in which the prophet, speaking for God, laments that Israel, God’s son, keeps turning to the worship of false gods. Note that when Hosea speaks of Egypt, he is looking into the past when God’s son, Israel, was brought out of Egypt during the Exodus. The prophet is not predicting a future coming out of Egypt by a son of God, but recalling Israel’s experience in the past. Matthew, of course, knows that Hosea was speaking about Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

In applying Hosea’s prophetic words to Jesus, then, Matthew is not claiming that an ancient prediction is being realized. Instead he is arguing that Israel’s experiences with God are recapitulated in Jesus. The patterns of the past are repeated. For Matthew, Jesus embodies Israel’s story. In the words of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: “It would be wrong to consider the prophecies of the Old Testament as some kind of photographic anticipations of future events. All the texts … had an immediate import and meaning for their contemporaries before attaining a fuller meaning for future hearers. The messiahship of Jesus has a meaning that is new and original.” The newness and originality of the Church’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus prompts Matthew to present Jesus’ birth as a microcosm of Israel’s history.

This same re-echoing of Israel’s past experiences is at work in the other fulfillment passages:

  • Mt. 1:22-23 cites Isaiah 7 - The prophet Isaiah around 735 b.c.e. declares that before a pregnant girl's son is about 7 years old, the foes of King Ahaz of Judah will be devastated.  When this occurs, the king will acknowledge that indeed "God is with us.“ For Matthew, people in his time will also realize that in Jesus “God is with us.”
  • Mt. 2:5-6 cites Micah 5 - Although an 8th century prophet, portions of the book of Micah seem to be post-Exilic [after 539 BCE].  Here, Micah refers to the Babylonian attack upon Jerusalem. He promises that although the people shall suffer for a time, legitimate rule will be restored by one who shares David's origins, even if not of his direct descent. This suggests that no heir is living or available in the prophet’s time. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem enables Matthew to link his coming to Micah’s hopes for Israel’s restoration.
  • Mt. 2:17-18 cites Jeremiah 31 - In the face of destruction by the Babylonians, the prophet Jeremiah declares that the past destruction of Israel is not the end of God's story with the Chosen People.  The exiles will return and be restored. Matthew sees this pattern repeated in the the weeping over those slain by Herod. Sorrow will give way to the restoration to be brought by Jesus, just as the Exiles had been restored in the past.
  • Mt. 2:23’s “He will be called a Nazorean,” matches no exact text in Israel’s scriptures. Some have suggested a word-play on Judges 13:5: "for lo, you shall conceive and bear a son [Samson]. No razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from birth; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the Philistines’ hand.” A wordplay here would be typical of the way scriptures were interpreted in the 1st-century. It confirms that Matthew is creatively focusing the story of Israel’s past onto the person of Jesus.

Matthew’s fulfillment passages provide an excellent example of how the scriptures of ancient Israel were being read in the earliest churches. The Jewish believers in the Crucified-and-Raised One read their scriptures with new eyes. By interpreting those texts through the lens of their resurrection faith in Jesus, new meanings and applications developed that had not arisen before.