evangelical scholars suggest that Matthew's use of the Old Testament
is like to the way rabbis of that period used it.
For example, the Qumran community contemporized the Old Testament
(a.k.a. pesher) by holding that Old Testament scriptures
were predictive of their own situation. Many modern scholars would
argue that Matthew also interprets the Old Testament using pesher
when, for example, he applies Hosea 11:1 to Christ's sojourn
in Egypt. If it is true that New Testament authors interpreted
the Old Testament this way, then it is a little unsettling. The
most pressing concern is that pesher, peshat and
many later misrash techniques are fundamentally eisegetical.
That is, these hermeneutical approaches are hostile to the notion
of objective interpretation. If this is the case, then it brings
into question the legitimacy of many critical NT uses of the OT.
Ultimately, if NT authors did use rabbinical hermeneutics, then
one must question the very authority of the New Testament in critical
matters of faith.
A second, if lesser, concern is the contribution New Testament
authors make to the study of scripture interpretation. Even if
Matthew was not using pesher techniques, what interpretive
approach was he taking? Can modern scholarship use his methods
or was he exercising the insights of a prophet when he interpreted
the Old Testament? If so, then contemporary interpreters can gain
little assistance in their own hermeneutical tasks from Matthew.
The purposes of this paper are twofold: to investigate whether
Matthew was using pesher techniques in his use of Old Testament
and, if not, to identify what interpretive approach to the Old
Testament he was taking in his gospel.
WHAT IS PESHER?
Several approaches to scripture analysis may be discovered in
first century Hebrew documents including literalistic, allegorical,
midras and pesher. Longman doubts that these methods
were distinguished from one another in the first century. Of these
methods, pesher is of the greatest interest to this study,
principally because Matthew does not lie under the accusation
that he interprets the OT literalistically or allegorically but
rather through pesher. Perhaps Matthew uses midrashic
techniques, as many contend, but it can be argued that first century
midrash could be very much akin to the manner in which
Psalmists interpreted the Pentateuch. Early midrash, as
defined by Hillel, is a fairly objective hermeneutical approach.
It is the claim that Matthew is using pesher contemporization
of the OT, particularly in fulfillment citations,
that provides the most serious challenge to those holding to verbal,
The term pesher
means, "to explain." In fact, however, pesher
is an application of OT scripture with little to no concern for
the context of the passage applied. Pesher may refer either
to commentaries on the OT found amongst the Dead Sea scrolls
or to the interpretive technique typical of these commentaries.
Pesher interpreters assume that OT authors were speaking
to the contemporary audience. This form of interpretation is tied
to a word, text or OT allusion, which is then related to a present
person, place or thing. The interpretations are generally aloof
from the source context and appear to lack any coherent methodology.
According to Lundberg, "This kind of commentary (pesher)
is not an attempt to explain what the Bible meant when it was
originally written, but rather what it means in the day and age
of the commentator, particularly for his own community."
For instance, in
the pesher Habakkuk the writers simply take Habakkuks
references to the Chaledeans and apply them to the Romans without
any effort to justify the application. The context of Habakkuk
seems to hold little interest for such interpreters. In the same
commentary all the destructive activities described by Habakkuk
are attributed to the wicked priest while all the
good things are attributed to the righteous teacher
the antagonist and protagonist typical of Qumran pesher
writing. Again, the interpreter shows little inclination to justify
the wholesale substitution of the authorial intent for that of
is not a pesher commentary. Such texts are line-by-line
analyses of an OT text and Matthews gospel does not conform
to this format. Rather, Matthew applies OT citations to his narrative
of the life of Christ.
While Matthew cannot
be construed as a pesher commentary, it could still be
true that Matthew is using the pesher devise of OT contemporization.
Matthews use of Hosea 11:1 seems so disinterested in its
plain meaning that a cursory comparison of Hosea 11:1 with Matthew
2:15 certainly leaves the impression he is using this approach.
However, there are several reasons to doubt that Matthew is using
While both Matthew
and pesher commentaries use citations from a variety
of sources, it appears that many of Matthews translations
are his own and Matthews citations do not show interpretive
or selection bias typical of pesher.
The formal features
of OT quotes in Matthew do not correspond to any such features
in Qumran text.
were treated as identical to interpretations without regard
to historic context - few such tendencies are found in NT
use of the OT.
Matthew did not
use many OT passages that conform to a fulfillment motif which
is unexpected if he was simply grabbing proof-texts from the
passages used by Matthew do not conform to known messianic
prophecy material advanced in Jewish circles. If Matthew wanted
to make a case about Jesus claim to be messiah he should have
taken better advantage of accepted messiah texts.
are so surprising that it is unreasonable to expect the NT
author would have bent them to conform to the life of Christ
(e.g. Jer.31:15 for Mt.2:16,18)
Even in the most
radical examples of pesher used by the Qumran community,
the authors do not modify their history to conform to an OT
passage. Yet this is what a proponent of pesher Matthew
must claim for him.
in NT fall under a limited set of themes. This is much different
than the piecemeal treatment in the DSS and in rabbinical
writings. Motifs of NT citations of OT include the following:
- Jesus acts as YHWH
- Jesus is the predicted messiah
- Jesus is the predicted servant
of the Lord
- Jesus is the son of man
- Jesus culminates the prophetic
- Jesus is in a succession of OT
- Jesus fulfills the Davidic dynasty
- Jesus reverses the Adamic curse
- Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant
of universal blessing
- Jesus recapitulates the history
- The priesthood of Melchizedek
the latter sometimes contrastingly anticipate
the priesthood of Jesus
- The Passover lamb and other sacrifices
prefigure the substitutionary atonement of Christ and Christian
- Jesus & manna
- The rock/living water
- The serpent
- The tabernacle/temple
- John the Baptist & Elijah
- The new covenant prophecy
- Judas Iscariot
- The law of Moses prefigured grace
positively and negatively
- The flood - last judgment/baptism
- Red Sea/circumcision - baptism
- Jerusalem - eternal city of God
- Taking Canaan - spiritual rest
There are many reasons
for doubting that Matthew is writing like an author of Qumran-pesher
materials but particular OT citations do seem as careless of context
as pesher. This requires an explanation of which Stendahls
failed pesher conclusion was an attempt to respond.
HOW WAS MATTHEW
INTERPRETING THE OLD TESTAMENT?
Given that Matthew
does not use pesher hermeneutics, what kind of interpretive
approach is he applying and is it useful for contemporary interpreters?
It is important to
realize that most of the time Matthew's use of the OT is so straightforward
that it is not susceptible to the charge of OT misuse or misinterpretation.
For instance, at times Christ utters language from the OT in ways
that suggest he is calling forth the mood of the text he cites.
This is entirely unsurprising for one steeped in the language
and tone of the OT. At other times the OT is used by way of application.
For example, Christ is recorded as using the OT for training when
he frames OT narratives into question and answer sessions (e.g.
15:4; 19:4-7, 18-19). In other ways Christ draws particular applications
out of OT narratives (e.g. Mat.12:3-8, citing Isa.21:6; Lev.24:5,9;
Nu.28:9 to condemn Sabbath legalism). In these cases, however,
Christ is generally using the OT the way OT authors used antecedent
text. The psalmists often cited Pentateuchal narratives in order
to draw out salient spiritual principles or theology.
Even in those cases where Christ's application of the OT differs
from the approach of OT authors, his use still is not at all like
the approach seen in first century midrash because unlike
much rabbinical midrash, Jesus works within the context
of the citations he uses. When Jesus applies the OT differently
from the psalmist application hermeneutic, he is speaking prophetically
(e.g. "You've heard it said, but I say
"). In these
ways he adds to earlier revelation, not in a way that disregards
but rather extends the earlier revelation. This too is an interpretive
role played by OT prophets in their use of antecedent and new
In these uses of the Old Testament Christ, or Matthew as his biographer,
are not guilty of interpreting the scripture in ways alien to
how Old Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament.
Many of Matthew's
citations are apologetic in nature, that is, Matthew cites the
OT to show how Christ fulfilled OT scripture. It is because of
this that Matthew is often charged with deriving from the OT meanings
no competent OT scholar could ever develop independently. As a
result of some of the more extraordinary examples of fulfillment
citations Matthew is often held to be using pesher approaches
to the OT. How is Matthew using the OT in these cases?
How can modern interpreters make use of this approach?
As we saw earlier,
a fairly common solution to this dilemma is to suggest that everybody
was using the OT this way during the first century (i.e. midrash
pesher). This not only appears unlikely but unsafe for the
veracity of much of Matthew's gospel, to say nothing of the rest
of the New Testament. Other scholars recognize the problem but
suggest that careful analysis of the relevant OT citations would
vindicate Matthew's interpretation.
Some suggest that God's intent when he inspired the OT author
was much more profound than the OT author himself realized.
Still others say that Matthew was simply noting historically analogous
situations for his audience with the suggestion that Christ completed
the earlier motifs.
Each of these attempted solutions to the problem of OT usage in
NT fulfillment passages have provided some important insights
into NT use of the OT but each also serves to raise critical questions
about the appropriate use of the Old Testament. A few points must
be considered before the question of Matthew's OT use can be fully
First, as many scholars
have noted, Matthew's terminology pertaining to fulfillment is
much richer than such words suggest to most readers. Matthew indicates
15 times that Christ fulfilled an OT scripture.
The term pleroo and related terms have wider semantic range
than simple predictive realization. These words can communicate
the idea of completing, establishing or
filling up as well as prediction-outcome. For Matthew
to suggest that some aspect of the life of Christ fulfills some
antecedent scripture could mean that an OT passage made a prediction
and Christ expressed that precise prediction. But, fulfillment
can also mean that Christ "filled to overflowing" or
"completed" the antecedent scripture. This second sense
is the way a reader can comprehend Christ's claim that he fulfilled
the Law & Prophets in Matthew 5:17. Fulfillment quotations
are infused with the concept of God's redemptive purpose in human
history and so Matthew quotes texts that directly predict but
also passages that have thematic significance that exceeds the
OT author immediate meaning. This is different than sensus
plenior because the NT author is not uncovering meaning hidden
to the OT author. Instead, he is using the OT passage as an example
of a broad theme of which the OT author was aware.
Thus, some concerns over Matthew's use of the OT may be tempered
by a better sense of what Matthew intended when he said Christ
fulfilled a scripture.
Second, C. H. Dodd
has shown that the NT use of the OT is not haphazard proof-texting
but the use of a few text plots in the OT. For instance Isaiah
53 is cited 34 times in the NT.
For the early church, it is likely that a limited citation served
as a pointer to an entire theme of which the audience was well
Scriptures (e.g. Joel 2, 3; Zech.9-14; Dan.7; Mal.3:1-6; Dan.12
the new Israel (Hosea; Isa.6:1-9:7; 11:1-10; 28:16; 40:1-11;
Jer.31:10-34; Isa.29:9-14; Jer.7:1-15; Hab.1,2)
Servant of the
Lord scriptures (Isa.42:1-44:5; 49:1-13; 50:4-1; 52:13-53:12;
61; Ps.69; 22; 31; 38; 88; 34; 118; 41; 42-43; 80; Isa.58;
scriptures ( Ps.8; 110; 2; Gen.12:3; 22:18; Deut.18:15,19;
Ps.132; 16; 2Sam.7:13,14; Isa.55:3; Am.9:11,12; Ex.1-4; 24;
34; Nu.23; 24; 2Ki.1; Ps.78; Dan.2; Isa.13; 34; 35; Micah
4; 5; 7; Zech.1-6; the rest of Micah beyond 3:6)
Given this, it is
possible to look, not merely to a limited citation used by Matthew,
but to the whole theme of which Matthew's citation is simply a
STUDY: MATTHEW 2:15
In this citation,
Matthew takes the MT approach of literally translating "son"
rather than the LXX "His children." It is possible that
Matthew may have intended to allude to the entire section through
the use of a single citation (c.f. Hosea 11:1-11). It is difficult
to concede that Matthew is using midrashic interpretive approaches
for the reasons articulated above. On the other hand, efforts
to find ways to argue that Matthew's use is appropriate analysis
of a prediction are also hard to concede.
Howard sees Matthews
use of Hosea as retrospective analogical correspondence rather
than an effort on Gods part to embed a projective type or
prophecy about Christ in Hoseas words. That is, Matthew
noted that Jesus was like Israel in that he also went to Egypt
but that, unlike Israel, he was the son obedient to the covenant.
When Israel left Egypt they dropped the ball. Whereas, when Christ
left Egypt he was the son, in whom God was very pleased. In this
way, Christ fulfilled (i.e. competed) all that God intended for
An alternative view
is that the Exodus event was a prototype that was subsequently
echoed when it was recalled for the purpose of instruction
and that was repeated in the coming of Joshua to Palestine &
Judah from the Babylonian exile.
The approach taken
to the interpretation of this passage will include the following
stages: 1. Analysis of the context of Matthew's citation of Hosea;
2. Analysis of the context of Hosea 11:1; 3. Assessment of the
retrospective and projective function of Hosea's citation and
4. Assessment of Matthew's use of Hosea as an example of fulfillment.
Analysis of the context
of Matthew 2:13-15
The narrative passages
before and after Matthew 2:13-15 appear to be arguments from the
Torah that Jesus was the messiah and the fulfillment of the Abrahamic
and Davidic covenants.
The genealogy of chapter 1:1-17 is framed at the beginning and
end with the claim that Jesus was the messiah. Chapter 1:18-25
is a reference to a passage that culminates in the promise of
a God/king who would rule from the throne of David (Isa.7:14-9:7).
Chapter 2:1-12 contain a reference to a messianic scripture that
contains allusions to both the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants.
After 2:13-15 Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15 which is a clear reference
to the mourning associated with the Babylonian captivity but is
at the beginning of a long prediction of the restoration of Israel
leading to a new covenant that will result in the laws of God
being internalized by his people (c.f Isaiah 31:31-34). It is
difficult to make definitive statements about Matthew 2:19-23
but many scholars believe it refers to prophecies concerning the
'branch' found in Isaiah 4:2, Zechariah 3:8,9 & 6:12. Finally,
Matthew's citation of Isaiah 40:3 appears to be a pointer to a
lengthy passage concerned with God's redemption of Israel through
Cyrus and through the Servant of YHWH (Isa.42:1-7).
The context of Matthew
2:13-15 is the correlation of Jesus with significant OT scriptures
that address God's redemptive activity toward Israel and toward
Gentiles - scriptures that identify Jesus as messiah and the fulfillment
of the covenants of Abraham and David. It would be expected, therefore,
that Matthew's citation of Hosea 11:1 would also anticipate his
role as redeemer or sovereign.
Analysis of the context
of Hosea 11:1
Hosea is citing the
exodus in Hosea 11:1. This event was a critical one in the OT
because it demonstrated God's remembrance and redemption of Israel.
The expression "out of Egypt" appears several times
in Hosea (e.g. 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4). Hosea 11:1 is in the context
of God's love for Israel. Hosea 12:9 speaks of God's discipline.
Chapter 12:13 talks of how God used a prophet to redeem an ungrateful
people. Hosea 13:4 uses the exodus to promise God will assert
his sovereign rights over Israel once again. These passages and
the core narrative of Hosea's redemption of Gomer make it clear
that Hosea 11:1 is intensely focused on God's once and future
redemption of Israel (c.f. Hosea 2:14 - 3:4).
Assessment of the
retrospective and projective function of Hosea 11:1
The exodus account
is a deferred hope in critical respects. Israel could have been
a nation of priests (e.g. Exodus 19:4-6) but it chose not to satisfy
the terms of the covenant. In this sense the exodus was incomplete.
Hosea addresses the exodus to remind Israel of God's love, power
and sovereignty and to anchor his promise for future redemption
both from Assyria and ultimately from their own rebelliousness.
When Matthew cites
Hosea 11:1 he is citing the entire redemptive context, not only
of Hosea but of the rest of the Old Testament. Citation of Hosea
11:1 reminds Israel of their double redemption from Egypt &
Assyria/Babylon but also anticipates their final redemption from
Assessment of Matthew
2:15's use of Hosea 11:1 as fulfillment
When Hosea records,
Out of Egypt I have called my son, he is tapping into an
exodus motif that was expressed in the original event; reiterated
and extended to "the king" of Israel by Balaam (Nu.24:8);
reiterated when Joshua entered Palestine; reiterated when the
principle of redemption was applied repeatedly in OT didactic
material; that would be reiterated later when Israel was restored
after her impending discipline (Hos 6:1-3; 8:1-10:5) and again
when God would permanently redeem his people. Matthew was simply
noting something implicit in Hosea, namely, Christ was the ultimate
fulfillment of God's promised redemption of Israel (Hos.11:1-14:5).
Hosea certainly understood that his recollection of the Exodus
was anchored in God's past redemptive history as well as his future
promise of final redemption. And, this is exactly what Matthew
did by pointing to its manifestation in Christ. Christ returned
to Israel from Egypt, as an obedient son and also as God coming
again to dwell in the tents of Shem. The resonance with the exodus
motif is so remarkable that Matthew could say Christ 'filled up
to overflowing' the entire theme. If we were contemporaries of
Matthew we too could have anticipated a final redemption of Israel
and rejoiced when we saw its penultimate fulfillment in the first
advent of Christ and hoped in its ultimate fulfillment in his
exodus not only recapitulated the return of Israel to the
land but also the advent of God dwelling with his people. For
Christ's return to Israel was also the return of God dwelling
in the tents of Shem. In these ways Christ filled to overflowing
the exodus. And, in this sense, Hoseas recall of the exodus
has a projective role because it is connected both to the past
Exodus event and to Gods redemptive commitment to Israel
yet unrealized. When Matthew considers the words of Hosea he is
not merely saying, "Gee, isnt this interesting how
both Israel & Christ returned to the land from Egypt."
What he is communicating must not merely be analogical correspondence.
Isnt Matthew also saying, "What Hosea hoped for, the
redemption of Israel from sin, was fully realized in Christ?"
What is clear from
this preliminary study is that Matthew was not using pesher-like
eisegetical techniques, when he used the Old Testament in his
gospel. He apparently often used his own translations of Greek,
Hebrew and Aramaic sources rather than isolating extant translations
that fit an interpretive agenda. Significantly, his putative interpretations
are not self-serving but correspond to interpretations found in
Septuigental, Masoretic, Syrian and rabbinical materials from
the same era. Similarly, his applications of the Old Testament
to New Testament events do not have the tortured appearance of
those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even in some of the more
challenging fulfillment materials Matthews use
of the Old Testament does not correspond with pesher techniques
used by the Qumran community.
What Matthew's fulfillment
citations often appear to do is often show points of resonance
with well developed redemptive themes in the OT of which Christ
is the consummation. If this is true, Matthew may show us how
to interpret the OT by indicating that earlier scriptures have
both projective and retrojective functions as they reiterate the
theology of an earlier motif or prototype and yet anticipate complete
realization in some future act of God.
authority we may have to hold conclusions drawn from such techniques
more tentatively than Matthew does. Nonetheless, the use of interpretive
methods consonant with those found in scripture substantially
strengthens the confidence of modern interpreters who are committed
to the kind of careful exegesis that honors the intent of the
These techniques included: peshat (i.e. literalistic),
midrash (i.e. there is quite a bit of variance within this
tradition), pesher (i.e. complete contemporization of OT),
apocalyptic (i.e. contemporization of some OT passages) &
allegorical. Longman suggests that individual interpreters may
have used all four methods and may not have distinguished them
as distinct approaches. See Appendix E for methods of predictive
prophecy interpretation. Return to Text
This is not to say that midrashic approaches to interpretation
were typically objective. Most rabbinical midrash used
the OT as a springboard without concern for the context of the
material cited. Midrash refers to a Hebrew method of citing,
interpreting and then amplifying an OT passage. The term midrash
also refers to the oral and then, later, the written collections
of midrash expositions and applications. Haggadah midrash
refers to the ethical and expository interpretation of non-legal
materials from the Hebrew Bible. Halakah midrash applied
the general principles of OT laws to specific situations. This
was an application of the Torah in a kind of 'case law' format.
Various midrash methods are claimed to find their origin
in Hillel, Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Eliezer ben Jose ha-Galili.
Hillels 7 methods include:
a. a fortiori
arguments from OT texts (i.e. called qual yahomer).
b. When the same word is found
in a proximate text then the principles of one are transferable
to the other (i.e. called gezerah shawah)
c. When the same phrase is found
in different texts, the principles of one context are transferable
to the others (i.e. called binyan ab mikathub ehad).
d. Meaning is established by its
e. Difficult passages are interpreted
by comparison with clear passages containing similar principles
(i.e. called kayoze bo bemaqom aher, lit. as is
found in another place).
f. A particular rule may be extended
to a general principle and a general principle may justify a
particular rule (i.e. called kelal upherat, the general
and the particular).
g. A principle is developed by
synthesis of related texts (i.e. called binyan ab mishene
kethubim). Chain quotations are thought to be a form of
this midrashic device.
The later methodologies
of Rabbi Ishmael & Rabbi Eliezer opened the door for more
eisegetical approaches to scripture. Return to Text
Pesher Habakkuk & Pesher Hosea are examples of these commentaries.
See appendix C for a sample of pesher Habakkuk. Return
According to Krister Stendahl (1954) The School of St. Matthew
and Its Use of the Old Testament, p.14; See also Longenecker
pp.144-145 and Tracy L. Howard, The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew
2:15: An Alternative Solution. Return to Text
Return to Text
For specific commentary on individual passages see Appendix A.
Return to Text
Gundry, Robert (1967) The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthews
Gospel, p.174. Return to Text
The Matthean formal quotations are framed as examples of fulfillment
but this is not the case with pesher text where the application
is ongoing and matter-of-fact rather than apologetical. Also,
in pesher Habakkuk, the formal expressions, "its prophetic
interpretation" or "the interpretation of the prophetic
word" are used at the start of each section of commentary.
This is not at all like the formal language of Matthew. See Howard,
Tracy (1986) The Use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: An Alternative
Solution. Return to Text
Op.cit. 153ff; Fitzmyer, as cited by Tracy Howard (i.e. endnote
30), has identified only seven examples of concern for the original
context of the OT passages cited in Qumran literature. Return
Op.cit. Return to Text
According to Gundry op. cit. p. 9. Return to Text
Stendahl, K. (1954) The School of St. Matthew and its use of the
Old Testament. Return to Text
For example, "my soul is sorrowful, even unto death,"
Mt.26:38 is very reminiscent and evocative of Psalms 42:5,6,11;
43:5. Return to Text
See Appendix D. Return to Text
The way that Isaiah expands what is known about the Abrahamic
and Davidic covenants (e.g. that a servant would sprinkle the
nations and that an anointed one would rule from David's throne).
Return to Text
Let's not forget that the OT cites the OT more than the NT cites
the OT. Return to Text
Let us not forget that Jesus himself seems to authorize this OT
use, as Matthew does not suggest he fulfilled any OT prophecy
or type other what he himself indicated, a point made well by
Gundry. Return to Text
Walter Kaiser, for instance, but his approach while often very
useful does occasionally produce interpretations that do not seem
fair to OT authorial intent. Return to Text
In sensus plenior God's intention and the authors intention
for the meaning of a passage may not be the same. The problem
with this approach is that it redefines inspiration and it subjects
interpretation of antecedent texts much more open to eisegesis.
See Douglas Moo or Tracy Howard for more information. Return
See Tracy Howard's excellent article for more details on historical
analogy. Return to Text
Matthew 1:22; 2:15,17,23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14;
35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9; See Appendix F. Return to Text
Hosea surely realized that the Exodus served as a prototype for
God's redemptive approach to Israel. Return to Text
See Gundry, op. cit. p.10. Return to Text
e.g. Ps.66:6-12 that it refined Israel; Ps.77:10-20 that is showed
Gods might as Israels redeemer; Ps.114 that it was
the onset of Gods presence with Israel fulfillment
of the promise to Shem in Gen.9:27; Ps.136:10-22 that it showed
Israel Gods lovingkindness. Return to Text
See Appendix G. Return to Text