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Matthew's Use of the Old Testament: A Preliminary Analysis
by Lee Campbell


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Copyright 2000
Lee Campbell


Some contemporary evangelical scholars suggest that Matthew's use of the Old Testament is like to the way rabbis of that period used it.[1] 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.


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.[2] 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, plenary inspiration.

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[3] or to the interpretive technique typical of these commentaries.[4] 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."[5]

For instance, in the pesher Habakkuk the writers simply take Habakkuk’s 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 his community.


Clearly, Matthew is not a pesher commentary. Such texts are line-by-line analyses of an OT text and Matthew’s 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. Matthew’s 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.[6] However, there are several reasons to doubt that Matthew is using pesher techniques:

  • While both Matthew and pesher commentaries use citations from a variety of sources, it appears that many of Matthew’s translations are his own and Matthew’s citations do not show interpretive or selection bias typical of pesher.[7]

  • The formal features of OT quotes in Matthew do not correspond to any such features in Qumran text.[8]

  • Qumran applications were treated as identical to interpretations without regard to historic context - few such tendencies are found in NT use of the OT.[9]

  • 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 OT.[10]

  • Many fulfillment 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.

  • Some citations 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.

  • OT quotations 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:[11]

  • 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 line
  • Jesus is in a succession of OT righteous sufferers
  • Jesus fulfills the Davidic dynasty
  • Jesus reverses the Adamic curse
  • Jesus fulfills the Abrahamic covenant of universal blessing
  • Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel
  • The priesthood of Melchizedek & Aaron…the latter sometimes contrastingly anticipate the priesthood of Jesus
  • The Passover lamb and other sacrifices prefigure the substitutionary atonement of Christ and Christian service
  • 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 Stendahl’s failed pesher conclusion was an attempt to respond.[12]


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.[13] 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.[14] 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 revelation.[15] 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.[16]

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?[17] 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.[18] Some suggest that God's intent when he inspired the OT author was much more profound than the OT author himself realized.[19] Still others say that Matthew was simply noting historically analogous situations for his audience with the suggestion that Christ completed the earlier motifs.[20] 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 addressed.

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.[21] 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.[22] 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.[23] 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 apprised:

  • Apocalyptic-Eschatological Scriptures (e.g. Joel 2, 3; Zech.9-14; Dan.7; Mal.3:1-6; Dan.12

  • Scriptures about 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; 6-10)

  • Unclassified 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 pointer.


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 Matthew’s use of Hosea as retrospective analogical correspondence rather than an effort on God’s part to embed a projective type or prophecy about Christ in Hosea’s 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 Israel.

An alternative view is that the Exodus event was a prototype that was subsequently echoed when it was recalled for the purpose of instruction[24] 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.[25] 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 themselves.

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 second advent.

Interestingly, Christ’s 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, Hosea’s recall of the exodus has a projective role because it is connected both to the past Exodus event and to God’s redemptive commitment to Israel yet unrealized. When Matthew considers the words of Hosea he is not merely saying, "Gee, isn’t this interesting how both Israel & Christ returned to the land from Egypt." What he is communicating must not merely be analogical correspondence. Isn’t 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 Matthew’s 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.

Without prophetic 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 ultimate author.


[1] 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

[2] 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. Hillel’s 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 context.

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

[3] Pesher Habakkuk & Pesher Hosea are examples of these commentaries. See appendix C for a sample of pesher Habakkuk. Return to Text

[4] 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

[5] Return to Text

[6] For specific commentary on individual passages see Appendix A. Return to Text

[7] Gundry, Robert (1967) The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, p.174. Return to Text

[8] 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

[9] 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 to Text

[10] Op.cit. Return to Text

[11] According to Gundry op. cit. p. 9. Return to Text

[12] Stendahl, K. (1954) The School of St. Matthew and its use of the Old Testament. Return to Text

[13] 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

[14] See Appendix D. Return to Text

[15] 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

[16] Let's not forget that the OT cites the OT more than the NT cites the OT. Return to Text

[17] 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

[18] 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

[19] 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 to Text

[20] See Tracy Howard's excellent article for more details on historical analogy. Return to Text

[21] 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

[22] Hosea surely realized that the Exodus served as a prototype for God's redemptive approach to Israel. Return to Text

[23] See Gundry, op. cit. p.10. Return to Text

[24] e.g. Ps.66:6-12 that it refined Israel; Ps.77:10-20 that is showed God’s might as Israel’s redeemer; Ps.114 that it was the onset of God’s presence with Israel – fulfillment of the promise to Shem in Gen.9:27; Ps.136:10-22 that it showed Israel God’s lovingkindness. Return to Text

[25] See Appendix G. Return to Text

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