Did Matthew twist Scripture?

The New Testament freely refers to and quotes the Old, finding in the Old Testament the authority for the claims it makes about Jesus. Some of these usages are problematic. Does the New Testament "proof-text" the Old? Does it disregard context? We can grow in our understanding of the New Testament's message by recognizing how it is using the Old Testament.

David C. Jarnes is an assistant editor of MINISTRY.

During his hearing before the Diet of Worms, Martin Luther spoke the now-famous words "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason. . . my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. " Those last three words, though their authenticity has been disputed, have become a familiar slogan.

When, while expressing his convictions, someone says, "Here I stand," we do not conclude he is telling us his geographical location! The historical context of the statement tells us some thing larger is involved. The words bring to mind Luther's confrontation with the powers of church and state. They carry the context of deep conviction, of a firm commitment regardless of consequences. Those few words carry meaning beyond what they in themselves signify.

C. H. Dodd suggests the writers of the New Testament at times used the Old Testament in a somewhat analogous way. Some New Testament uses of the Old Testament are problematic (e.g., Matt. 2:15 and Hosea II:!).1 Instances such as this have led some people to posit far-fetched suggestions as to the relations and meanings of these Old and New Testament passages. Others suppose such uses by the New Testament of the Old to be instances of prophecies with dual applications. The first is to be understood historically and in context, relating to the people to whom it was given. The second application, that made by the New Testament writer (and by implication unhistorical and out of context), is said to relate to a later situation not foreseen by the Old Testament prophet. The fact that the New Testament writer worked under inspiration justifies, in their thinking, his using the Old Testament in such a way.

Still others consider these usages as examples of the New Testament using the Old Testament for its own purposes, without regard to the original context. M. J. Down, for instance, arguing as a conservative for the historicity of Mat thew's birth narratives, concludes: "The evangelist did not start with prophecy and invent a story; he started with a story and slipped in certain prophecies, in some cases not too cleverly. " 2 The title of S. Vernon McCasland's article characterizes this particular understanding well: "Matthew Twists the Scriptures"! 3 These scholars see the New Testament as simply proof-texting the Old Testament in these instances—and make no attempt to justify it.

Dodd's better approach

Dodd's approach is more satisfying both in that it takes more seriously the New Testament's use of the Old Testament and in that using it offers deeper insights into the New Testament pas sages themselves. His suggestion as to this one way in which the New Testament uses the Old rests upon two bases: their common perspective of history and the New Testament kerygma.

Dodd wrote that the New Testament writers "interpret and apply the prophecies of the Old Testament upon the basis of a certain understanding of history, which is substantially that of the prophets themselves." 4 This perspective sees both a certain pattern to history, and a suprahistorical factor (God Him self) working through that pattern. Rather than a cyclical or upward-linear (evolutionary) one, God works through a two-phase movement comprised of oppression and/or judgment followed by renewal or deliverance (a pattern that also has been likened to death and resurrection). This two-phase movement may recur throughout history.

For the Old Testament prophets, meaning would "emerge fully only in an event in which absolute judgment and absolute redemption [note the eschatological escalation here] should become actual among men." 5 In other words, God's plan would be ultimately fulfilled only by this absolute judgment and redemption. The New Testament writers believed that with Jesus Christ this fulfillment had begun. 6

Basically, the kerygma is the simple message of Christianity (the gospel) as proclaimed by the New Testament writers. It consists of two parts: certain historical facts contemporary to New Testament times—that is, the events of Christ's life—and a setting that gave those facts their significance. The Old Testament provides this setting. The kerygma forms the "ground plan of New Testament theology." 7

The New Testament writers thus found certain parts of the Old Testament of particular interest (especially some of the Psalms and portions of the prophets), which they often quoted or referred to. Some have suggested that perhaps a collection of "proof texts" existed from which the New Testament writers drew in presenting their case for Jesus. But Dodd has argued convincingly that the New Testament writers—for that matter, the whole early church—recognized in common certain portions of Scripture from which they could appropriately draw "testimonies" to Jesus' being the Christ. Because their readers were so familiar with these passages, the writers of the New Testament would quote only a particularly appropriate verse or portion from the larger passage they had in mind rather than writing out the whole passage. They depended upon this smaller section ("catchphrase") to call the whole concept to their readers' minds, much as our saying "Here I stand" brings to mind the scene involving Luther's confrontation and commitment. These verses or portions of verses have not been pulled out of context, then, but pull their contexts with them. 8

Two additional notes here: Different New Testament writers might use different catchphrases in referring to the same idea from a single Old Testament pas sage. (In fact, the same writer may use different phrases on different occasions when referring to the same passage.) And second, not all New Testament references to or quotations from the Old Testament follow this pattern.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. I think a few examples of the application of Dodd's suggestion will show the value of the insights it offers. Let's look in some detail at one example that I have found particularly interesting, and then more cursorily at several others that you may wish to develop more fully.

"'Why hast thou forsaken me?'"

Matthew describes in detail the events related to Jesus' crucifixion. He notes that about the time the darkness lifted and just before His death, "Jesus cried with a loud voice,. .. 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" (Matt. 27:46).* Generally these words of Jesus have been understood to indicate the severity of the trial He was undergoing. Our substitute, He was enduring the stripes that we might be healed. He was plumbing the depths of hell that we might escape. Bearing vicariously the sins of the whole human race, He was experiencing the separation from God that was the sinner's lot. He was suffering the death that should have been ours. And the extent of His love is shown in that He suffered it as the lost sinner must—without an assurance of the Father's favor. He could not see beyond the tomb; He did not have at that point any certainty that the Father would accept His sacrifice, that He would come forth from the tomb victorious. Even the supernatural darkness seemed to show that the Father was hiding His face and His favor from Him. The last words of Jesus that Matthew records are thus often seen as a genuine cry of despair from One suffering vicariously the sinner's fate.

But Jesus' words may communicate more than these thoughts suggest. The words He spoke were from the Old Testament (Ps. 22:1). Was Jesus just borrowing coincidentally appropriate wording, or was He purposefully quoting this psalm?

Matthew's intention consistently has been to show that Jesus was the expected fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies and anticipations. (He uses the word pleroo, "to fulfill," sixteen times; and fifteen times it refers to Jesus' messages and the events surrounding His life as fulfilling the expectations of the Old Testament. While other New Testament writers also have this purpose, Matthew probably exhibits it most frequently. ) His chapters describing Jesus' Passion are particularly concerned with this. I believe Jesus' words—and Mat thew's recording of them in the twenty-seventh chapter—to be part of this intention.

A glance at Psalm 22 reveals it to be almost programmatic for the crucifixion. The events happening around Him must certainly have brought this scripture to Jesus' mind. Note the expressions it contains: "I am . . . scorned by men, and despised by the people. All who see me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads; 'He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him' " (verses 6-8). "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. . . . Yea, dogs are round about me; a company of evildoers encircle me; they have pierced my hands and feet—I can count all my bones—they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots" (verses 14-18).

Other expressions in the psalm reveal the emotions and attitude Jesus apparently experienced in common with the psalmist. Recognition of the Old Testament context of Jesus' words trans forms them from a cry of utter despair to one of triumphant faith in the face of despair. Psalm 22 begins with the psalmist's expression of distress at what seems to him the Lord's desertion of him. He has been crying for help and receiving neither answer nor aid. But the psalm moves from this mood of despair to one of faith. Because God is holy, He will certainly answer in His own time. Note the positive expressions this psalm makes—expressions that Jesus must have claimed as His own as He hung upon the cross, and expressions that He must have wished to call to the minds of those who heard Him:

"My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?

Why art thou so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Yet thou art holy. . . .

In thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.

To thee they cried, and were saved; in thee they trusted, and were not disappointed. . . .

I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. . . .

For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; and he has not hid his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him. . . .

Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it."

We noted earlier that the Old Testament writers looked for God to work through a two-phase movement involving oppression and/or judgment followed by renewal or deliverance. This psalm, as do many others, contains a clear example of this. The New Testament kerygma presents Jesus as the fulfillment of these Old Testament expectations. In the events of the crucifixion and of the resurrection and ascension, He experienced oppression, God's judgment (as our substitute), and then God's deliverance. 9

I do not wish to suggest that Jesus did not experience discouragement or even despair. He did, just as the psalmist did. But in the face of this seemingly hopeless situation and the resultant despair, He trusted God and in faith clung to the hope, the assurance, that God would work all things out with justice and mercy in the end. Jesus' words, calling our attention to Psalm 22, speak of despair. But more importantly, they remind us of our good God, a God who hears and delivers His people.

Understanding this about Jesus con firms our perception of Him as a man of faith. And what a witness it gives to us as we face situations of hopelessness and times of utter discouragement! Like the psalmist, and like Jesus when He faced both the horrors of crucifixion and separation from His Father, we may learn to continue trusting God in the face of despair. 10

For further study

We have looked in some detail at one passage to which application of this method of interpretation adds meaning. Now we shall glance briefly at a few others where it also yields interesting results.

The words God the Father speaks at Jesus' baptism, "'Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased'" (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22), take on greater significance when we see them in their fuller context. The first half of the quotation comes from Psalm 2, which speaks of the Lord's elevation of His anointed to rulership of the whole earth, warning all to respect and serve him. And it closes with these suggestive words: "Blessed are all who take refuge in him [the Lord]." How meaningful a statement for the Father to make concerning Jesus at the inauguration of His public ministry!

While the psalm's implications clarify how people should relate to Jesus, the anointed, Isaiah's words, which appear in the second half of God's endorsement, explicate what mission He came to fulfill (Isa. 42:1). This chapter of Isaiah is full of significant expressions and ideas. Compare, for instance, Mark's notation that God speaks these words immediately after the Spirit descends from heaven in the form of a dove with the rest of the verse from which the words were taken: "I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations." The passage goes on to say, "A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench." It points out that He will establish justice: "The coastlands wait for his law." The Sermon on the Mount, which shortly follows Jesus' baptism, has long been recognized as parallel to Moses' delivering of the Ten Commandments from Sinai.

A little later in the Isaiah 42 passage, these words describe the mission of the Lord's servant: "I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon." In Luke 4, Jesus says that a like passage, also from Isaiah, is programmatic of His mission. The thought in this section of Isaiah continues through chapters 43 and 44 to speak of judgment upon God's people—but also of an ultimate restoration.

And not only does the Isaian passage itself contain rich implications, God's link of Jesus' mission with the servant of Isaiah at the beginning of His ministry means God was at least hinting that Jesus' mission would include suffering. This servant of Isaiah 42 is not to be disconnected from the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, who "was wounded for our transgressions" and with whose "stripes we are healed."

Space limitations preclude further expansion on examples. Let me just mention a few that may start you on some investigations of your own. In Matthew 3:3, John the Baptist's identification of himself as Isaiah's "voice crying in the wilderness" (Isa. 40:3) brings with it the themes "comfort my people," "her warfare is ended, . . . her iniquity is pardoned," and the "good tidings" that God gives to them (for their restoration), feeding His flock "like a shepherd."

Jesus' reply to Satan's suggestion that He change stones to bread (Matt. 4:4) comes from a rich context that speaks of the Lord's testing to know whether His people would keep His commandments or not. " 'And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna . . . that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone'" (Deut. 8:3). The passage continues with the promise that" 'you shall eat and be full'" (verse 10).11

While in our study of catchphrases we have considered mainly passages from the gospels, the writers of other parts of the New Testament used them also. Dodd, for instance, takes his prime example from Peter's sermon recorded in Acts 2. 12 And Paul also used this approach. 13 Of course, even when an author may not have been using catchphrases, one should always be aware of the original context of quotations taken from the Old Testament.

In summary, you can often grow in your understanding of a New Testament passage that quotes the Old Testament by examining the larger context of the Old Testament quotation. Using this insight may help you to penetrate the mysteries of a problem passage or add greater depth of meaning to a New Testament verse upon which you wish to preach.

Notes:

1 Though the principles outlined in this article are part of the solution, the problem of the relationship of these passages is too involved to handle in this article. Perhaps I can present my view in a subsequent article.

2 M. J. Down, "The Matthaean Birth Narratives: Matthew 1:18-2:23," Expository Times 90 (February, 1978):52.

3 S. Vernon McCaslaud, "Matthew Twists the Scriptures," Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961):143-148.


4 C. H. Dodd, According to the Scriptures (London: James Nisbet & Co., Ltd., 1952), p. 128.


5 Ibid., p. 129.

6 Dodd's realized eschatology suggests that the final "eschaton" has come in Christ. Certainly the New Testament sees it begun in Jesus' first advent, but looks to His second advent for its completion. Dodd himself says that "the tension . . . between realization and unfulfilled expectation [what would happen] is thoroughly characteristic of the early Christian outlook, for which the Fourth Evangelist found the appropriate expression: 'the moment is coming and is here. . .'"—Ibid., p. 74.

7 Ibid., pp. 11, 12.

8 Dodd throughout, but especially pp. 58-60.

9 The New Testament understands God's raising Jesus as evidence of His complete vindication, connecting it with His exaltation to a position of authority at God's right hand. This evidences again the New Testament use of the Old Testament two-phase scheme. See Acts 2:32—a passage replete with this concept and catchphrases.

10 Interestingly, Luke parallels Matthew's account except that Jesus' last words differ: "'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!'" (Luke 23:46). They also are taken from a psalm (Psalm 31) that conveys the movement from
oppression to deliverance and expresses faith in the face of distress. The words Luke actually quotes convey this faith more clearly than Matthew's do, but both suggest the idea by the Old Testament passages to which they refer.

11 I don't think it's coincidental that Jesus' scriptural replies to Satan's wilderness temptations are all taken from passages related to Israel's wilderness experience.

12 Dodd, op. etc., p. 47.

13 See, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:20 and Deuteronomy 32:17. God as the Rock is the unifying theme to both passages, but does not appear in the verse quoted.

 

* All the Scripture quotations in this article are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

 

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David C. Jarnes is an assistant editor of MINISTRY.

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