- Religion and Philosophy
Sweet Baby Jesus in a Manger! What's wrong with the Christmas Story? (The Prophetic Problems)
In part 2, I showed how Matthew was guilty of taking an out-of-context passage and contorting it into a prophecy it had nothing to do with, to support an event that never occurred. In this segment I intend to provide a few more examples of Matthew's complete ineptitude at prophecy evaluation and deciphering so that when we examine his Nativity prophecies we'll have a better understanding of just what kind of an "expert" we're dealing with.
Matthew's Vivid Imagination
The first 2 examples we'll look at are not related to the Christmas story, but they provide a good idea as to just how incompetent Matthew is in divining the prophetic.The first thing you'll note is that Matthew loves the phrase, "Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophets..." Of all the Gospel writers - indeed of all the authors in the Bible - Matthew alone feels the need not just to relate an event that may have fulfilled a prophecy, but to point out to everyone exactly what just happened. It's like giving someone a birthday present, and then making a speech explaining to them that you've just given them a birthday present. It almost seems, dare I say, desperate. Matthew really, really wants us to believe that something significant is going on here. In the book of Matthew, there are 11 instances of him using his pet phrase, and 3 more of him quoting Jesus using the phrase. In 6 of those instances Matthew merely uses the generic subject, "the prophet(s)." On 3 occasions he specifically cites Isaiah, and twice he cites Jeremiah. When Matthew quotes Jesus using the phrase, Jesus uses "prophets" once, "Scriptures" once, and Isaiah once. Why does any of this matter? Because on one occasion Matthew cites the wrong prophet.
The "30 Pieces of Silver" Prophecy
Matthew 27:5-10 reads:
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: "They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me."
The problem here is twofold: (1) the prophet speaking is actually Zecharia, not Jeremiah. There is nothing anywhere in Jeremiah even remotely similar to this verse. (2) Matthew has severely misquoted the passage, found in Zecharia 11:12,13, which actually reads:
I told them, "If you think it best, give me my pay; but if not, keep it." So they paid me thirty pieces of silver. And the LORD said to me, "Throw it to the potter" - the handsome price at which they priced me! So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD to the potter.
You can actually see Matthew's mind furiously at work here in attempt to make Judas returning the 30 pieces of silver, and their subsequent use to purchase the potter's field a fulfillment of ancient prophecy. He does so by adding a couple significant words and phrases to the original text: "the price set on him by the people of Israel," is nowhere to be found in the "prophecy" Matthew is citing. Matthew's just making up stuff that sounds like it might be relevant to Jesus, probably under the impression that his book was never going to be mass produced and widely distributed to a literate populace capable of cross-referencing and critically evaluating his...er..."scholarship." Matthew also changes Zecharia's reference to "the Potter's house, the House of the Lord," to a "purchase of the potter's field." Even if Matthew had managed to cite the correct source, he mangled the text he was quoting...er...paraphrasing almost beyond recognition. Strike 1 for Matthew.
The "Riding on a Donkey" Prophecy
In this instance, Matthew actually quotes the prophecy correctly (well, almost), and ascribes it to the right source. However, he also contrives the fulfillment because he doesn't actually understand the prophecy he's reading. This is really quite funny. Trust me.
The event has to do with Jesus' Triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, riding on a donkey, as Zecharia 9:9 suggests Israel's future king would do:
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
According to all 4 Gospels, this is indeed the way Jesus entered the the city, seated on a donkey his disciples brought to him after he had instructed them where to find it (though since he was admittedly well aware of the prophecy, and intentionally self-fulfilled it, it can't count much as "proof" for any divine involvement). For our purposes here, we need to take a look at the last 2 lines of Zecharia's passage again:
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This doublet is a common poetic device in Hebrew prose, especially throughout the Psalms. The second line is always used to clarify the first or give added detail, not introduce a new idea altogether. A more readable English adaptation would be, "...gentle and riding on a donkey, but not just any donkey, specifically the colt or foal of a donkey." Anyways, Mark, Luke, and John each relate Jesus instructing his disciples to locate this single animal and bring it to him to ride. Matthew, on the other hand, doesn't understand the nuances of Hebrew poetry, and since he's not relating events as they actually happened, but as he imagines they should in order to conform to his (mis)understanding of prophecy, he place two animals in the story - a donkey and her colt - and has Jesus ride into town on both of them! Matthew 21:1-8:
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
"Say to the Daughter of Zion,
'See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' "
The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them.
You'll notice that Matthew pared the original quote down from 6 lines to 4, but since it doesn't alter the meaning of the passage we won''t quibble over it. What you will also notice is that Matthew has unmistakeably invented the very comical, almost Apple Dumpling Gang-like scenario, of Jesus - a la Don Knotts - sprawled across 2 animals on his way into the city. Matthew is clearly making stuff up. Strike two.
"The Nazarene" Prophecy
Finally we arrive at a prophecy that Matthew did not distort or take out of context, probably due to the fact that there is no context for him to take it out of. This prophecy is part of the Nativity story, and is most notable for the fact that it doesn't exist. The "fulfillment" is located in Matthew 2:22-23, which reads:
But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: "He will be called a Nazarene."
There is no such prophecy anywhere in the Bible, or anywhere else to anyone's knowledge. The words "Nazarene" and "Nazareth" don't even appear anywhere in the entire Old Testament. Matthew is simply trying to inflate the significance of a rather mundane happenstance by inventing a prophecy out of the clear blue for his event to fulfill. You gotta give 'em an "A" for effort and creativity, but that's about all he's deserving of. Strike three.
I think we can safely determine that Matthew isn't quite deserving of the benefit of the doubt from here on out. Upon examination of 3 of his alleged prophecy fulfillments, we have seen him: (1) mis-attribute and grossly misquote a prophecy; (2) blatantly concoct a farcical fulfillment to align with a misunderstood passage; and (3) invent a prophecy out of nowhere to prop up the significance of his story. Bearing that baggage in mind, let's proceed.
There are 5 "Thus was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet..." statements in Matthew's Christmas Carol. We've already looked at 2 of them: the non-existent "Nazarene" prophecy; and the laughably mangled, out-of-context "Slaughter of the Innocents" prophecy. Here are the remaining 3, in no particular order.
The "Out of Egypt" Prophecy
Matthew sends Mary and Joseph on a trek to Egypt that Luke's narrative leaves no room for. So did it really happen? I have my doubts, especially because, once again, Matthew has this return from Egypt fulfilling a prophecy that (1) isn't a prophecy at all, and (2) has absolutely nothing to do with what he's talking about (other than Egypt being mentioned). Matthew writes:
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son." (2:13-15)
Since Matthew is so fond of swiping fragments of passages, let's cite it in its entirety and see what it says. Hosea 11:1-2 reads:
"When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.
They sacrificed to Baal and they burned incense to images ."
If you're like me, you're scratching your head right now. What in the world is Matthew thinking? There are 2 distinct entities throughout the Bible that God refers to as his "son": Jesus, and the nation of Israel. And just so there's no confusion, the passage starts off by telling us exactly which of these sons he's referring to: Israel. Furthermore, reread the last 2 lines and see if you can conceivably apply either thought to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. It's ludicrous at best, and blasphemous at worst. What's more, regardless of whom this passage is referring to, it's not a prophecy! It's God - speaking through Hosea - reflecting on the plight of His "child," Israel, when they were first gaining their national identity upon their exodus from Egypt. That's it. Matthew has derailed. He's making up events, and then making up prophecies for his events to fulfill, plain and simple.
The "Born in Bethlehem" Prophecy
Both Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I'm not debating that point. What I'm questioning is whether or not this occurrence is a fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy. Is there a prediction made hundreds of years prior to Jesus that the Messiah would be born in the city ofBethlehem? Once again, let's take a look at what Matthew has written, and then we'll go back and look at the original text. Matthew writes:
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written:
" 'But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will be the shepherd of my people Israel." (2:3-6)
And now, what Micah 5:2 actually says:
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
I encourage you to look up and read more of the context on your own. You'll discover 2 major details: (1) this "ruler" is never mentioned anywhere in the entire chapter to be the Messiah, and (2) it is mentioned that this ruler would lead Israel in a defeat of the Assyrian army. So far Matthew hasn't manged to quote one prophecy accurately. Matthew discards the words "Ephrathah" and "clans," throws in the word "land," and changes the fourth line to something altogether brand new. The reason I'm nitpicking about the words is because, yes, Bethlehem was a city in the land of Judea. But Bethlehem Ephrathah was a clan - named after Caleb's second wife, Ephrathah - from the land of Judah, though not necessarily in Judea. The 12 tribes of Israel were represented by 12 bodies of land similar to what we would call States. Judah was such a "State." Judea, on the other hand, was like a county within the State - one of many. Micah prophesied that a ruler - who will defeat the Assyrians - will come out of the clan of Bethlehem Ephrathah in the "State" of Judah, and Matthew morphs it into a prophecy calling for the Messiah - who comes preaching peace - to be born in the city of Bethlehem in the county of Judea. I swear, Matthew's approach to this whole subject reminds me very much of playing Mr. Potato Head. Just take off, add in, and switch around whatever you feel like until you get it just the way you want.