Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Christological Use of the Old Testament - Part 2

In the first post on the christological use of the Old Testament, we pointed out that the early Christians reflected on Old Testament texts and used many of these stories and sayings as a framework for telling the story of Jesus.

Remember that some of the Old Testament references used by the early Christians were clearly anticipatory in nature, predicting future events. But others were not anticipatory at all, but rather were simply descriptions and/or reflections on contemporary events or even remembrances of past events.


Let's look at some very specific examples of the christological use of the Old Testament in New Testament texts found in the Gospel of Matthew's infancy narrative (Matthew 1 and 2).

This passage contains five direct appeals to the Hebrew scriptures as sources for interpreting the life of Jesus, each using language like "so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled."

Virgin Birth - A child is born named Immanuel (God with us) (Matthew 1:22-23)
Quotation from Isaiah 7:14

Birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1-6)
Quotation from Micah 5:2

Flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15)
Quotation from Hosea 11:1

Slaughter of the Innocents - Rachel weeping for her children (Matthew 2:16-18)
Quotation from Jeremiah 31:15

Return to Nazareth - He shall be called a Nazarene (Matthew 2:19-23)
Quotation unknown

Note that Matthew argues that each of these events in the life of the Christ child specifically fulfills the quoted scripture. This language seems to imply that the original text anticipated the later event.

In addition to the five scriptural quotations, it is equally important to recognize a number of clear parallels/allusions to Old Testament characters that are not stated as quotations.

The birth in Bethlehem parallels the life of David.

The flight into Egypt parallels the story of Jacob and his sons.

The slaughter of the innocents  parallels the fate of the Egyptian male children at the birth of Moses.

Everywhere in the infancy stories of Matthew, we witness the tendency to frame the telling of the story of Jesus using Old Testament stories and prophecies.


Now let's take a closer look at the five Old Testament quotations Matthew presents as "fulfilled" in the story of Jesus.

One of these references ("He shall be called a Nazarene.") cannot be found in the Old Testament.

Only one is anticipatory/predictive in nature. Micah 5:2 predicts that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem.  There is no real surprise here. The messiah is presented as a descendant of David. It is logical that he would be born in David's birthplace.

The other three quotations all refer to contemporary events in the original writer's life or (in one case) in a past event that defined the life of the community of Israel. None of these three passages were ever understood as predictive by their Jewish audiences or later interpreters. None were understood as messianic references. Let's look at each of these specifically.

" A child is born named Immanuel (God with us)" - a quotation of Isaiah 7:14.

Isaiah 7 is part of larger complex of scriptures that preach impending doom for the southern kingdom of Judah and northern kingdom of Israel before the expanding Assyrian empire. This passage offers no hope for deliverance, no possibility of escape, and certainly no promise of a messianic liberator. Isaiah contrasts Israel's misplaced confidence in God's sure salvation and the bitter reality of the Assyrian conquest. The reference to the name "Immanuel" is part of this clear irony in the contrast of expectation and reality. Isaiah prophesies that a woman of child-bearing years—an anonymous woman—will give birth and name her child a most hopeful name—"Immanuel" (God is with us)—reflecting the widely-held affirmation of God's certain protection in the face of the encroaching armies. The irony is that "God is NOT with Israel" despite her expectations. This is the whole point of this passage: Israel is victimized by a false trust in God's providence and will soon be victimized by the cruel armies of Assyria. All events in Isaiah 7 occur in the 720's BCE in Palestine. In their original context, none of these verses anticipate future events.

"Out of Egypt have I called my son" - a quotation of Hosea 11:1.

"Out of Egypt have I called my son" is a clear reference to the exodus of Jacob's descendants from their time of bondage in Egypt. Hosea is offering hope to northern Israel that God's deliverance will follow a time of oppression by foreign rulers. The bulk of Hosea's prophecy is a word of judgment from God: the wealth and ease of 8th century BCE Israel will give way to God's impending doom. Again and again, the prophetic oracles find fault with Israel's moral and religious life and promise sure and swift judgment from God. But at the end of the book, the prophet changes his tone and offers a word of consolation: just like God delivered Israel from Egypt, He will again deliver Israel AFTER the coming time of judgment. For "two days" Hosea predicts that Israel will be crushed before God's judging arm, but on the "third day" God will show mercy to Israel and restore the nation. The coming judgment will not last forever. The image the prophet conjures for this restoration is a particularly powerful one: a "new exodus" will create a "new Israel." Clearly, Hosea is commenting on events of his day (c. 750 BCE) by making reference to the earlier exodus from Egypt (c. 1200 BCE). Again, this passage does not anticipate future events beyond its immediate context.

"Rachel weeping for her children" - a quotation of Jeremiah 31:15.

In the most vivid terms, the prophet Jeremiah details the horrors of the Babylonian invasions of Palestine which he witnessed with his own eyes (590s and 580s BCE). The best and brightest of society are humiliated before the conquerors and dragged away with hooks and chains. Even the children are killed. The greatest horror of all is that this is taking place in Bethlehem-Ramah, the home place of the great king David. The prophet recalls the earlier image of the childless Rachel crying out to her husband to "Give me children or I die." In this passage, Rachel (and all the Jewish mothers with her) weeps again, but this time for the children of Bethlehem destroyed by the Babylonian armies. The Davidic monarchy—held to be inviolate and indestructible by the prophet's contemporaries—is helpless to protect even its home city. So complete is the judgment of God, and so without hope are the people of the land. As in the other passages, there is nothing in this text that looks beyond the immediate experience of God's judgment on 6th century Judah.


The last three Old Testament references in Matthew's infancy narratives speak loudly of the early Christians' willingness to draw parallels between the life of Jesus and the stories of the Hebrew scriptures and to "re-cast" the telling of the Jesus story to more closely reflect the earlier events.

Here we see authoritative stories—held in the common cultural inheritance of the earliest Christians—that are applied far beyond their historical context and immediate intention to "flesh out" and legitimate the story of Jesus. The early Christians did not shy away from a Christological reading of Old Testament texts—even when these texts were clearly not anticipatory of future events.

In the next and final post of this series, we will turn our attention to the issues of the historical questions raised by these interpretive methods and, in turn, to the reliability of the gospel portrayal of the historical Jesus.


  1. Aha! There will be a Part III. Excellent!

    I agree, Joe, will all your exegesis of these passages. It seems that the NT writers used the word fulfill (pleroo) in a broader sense than just prediction and verification. Their use of this verb "to make full" seems to envision the idea that the full meaning of an ancient historical event can be found in its christological parallel, which is not at all the same thing as "the prophet predicts X" and "now his prediction comes to pass."

    Especially in the Immanuel passages of Isaiah, the idea of "God with us" takes on the meaning that God is with us to judge us (cf. 17:17-25), not merely to protect us. A huge amount of energy was expended on the translation of the word 'almah, whether "virgin" or "young woman", and nearly all of this attention was caused by the assumption (mistaken) that all NT fulfillments had to be anticipatory predictions. Any straightforward reading of Isaiah 7 should have made clear that what Isaiah envisioned was related to his own times, for the Immanuel child was clearly a child growing up in 8th century Jerusalem. Before the child was old enough to make moral decisions, the kings of Aram and Israel would be gone (7:15-16). This could hardly be a prediction of anything connected to the birth of Jesus! Only by removing the Immanuel passage from its context could such a case be made. Yet, on the other hand, the parallel between the Immanuel child and the birth of Jesus was there for the taking--and Matthew took it!

    Some, because of their commitment to the prediction/verification model for fulfillment, were adamant that if one translated this word 'almah as anything other than virgin, the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth was at risk. Nonsense! The Christian doctrine of the virgin birth rests squarely on the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, not on a questionable translation of a word in Isaiah.

  2. Joe, appreciate your and Dan's excellent posts! Mark E. Roberts

  3. Joe, appreciate your and Dan's excellent posts! Mark E. Roberts