In my previous article, I described the various types of Tenakh interpretation that were employed by the Rabbis of the Talmudic period—roughly contemporary with the New Testament—and I brought examples to show how the writers of the Gospels and Epistles used similar techniques when they quoted from the Tenakh. Too often, Christian interpreters of the Bible do not wish to admit these similarities, because they insist on seeing the New Testament as a unique form of literature that is above and beyond Jewish and other literatures. This unfortunate tendency has forced centuries of Christian Bible interpretation and theology to conform to their pre-conceived idea of what the NT ‘must be’, instead of just reading what it says.
The last century or so has seen a willingness of some Christian expositors to be more open-minded to the similarities with the Rabbinic literature, and even to dialog with Jewish expositors. Almost 100 years ago, one such Christian Judaic scholar, George Foot Moore described Rabbinic exegesis as:
“… atomistic exegesis which interprets sentences, clauses, phrases and even single words independently of the context or the historical occasion, … combines them with other similarly detached utterances and makes use of analogy of expressions, often by purely verbal association.” He went on to say, “The interpretation of the Scriptures in the New Testament is of precisely the same kind.” (Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, Volume I:249-250, 1927. Cited in: David Instone Brewer, Techniques and Assumptions in Jewish Exegesis before 70 CE, 1992.)
On this quote Brewer comments: “Sixty years later most scholars still agree with [Moore’s] assessment, and the consequences are profound.” They are profound indeed, because considering this basic fact brings a whole new mind-set to our understanding of the NT use of Tenakh. Rather than seeing the OT citations as proof-texts that Yeshua is the Messiah, this new (actually, old, or original) approach views the NT writers as Jews writing to Jews (and non‑Jews) about a Jewish man who fits the Jewish expectations and hope for the Messiah. These Jewish writers used passages from Tenakh to describe Yeshua and his teachings and work, because this is how Jews talked to Jews. Yeshua was at home in the Jewish world—and if he was not, then he could not have been the Messiah.
A New (Old) Framework
It is important to understand that the concept of a ‘Messiah’ is not presented explicitly in the Tenakh. Moses did not speak of a ‘Messiah’. There are hints. There are prophetic fragments nestled within volumes of prophecies that mostly speak to their own generation, yet they suggest the possibility that something more will come later. But the fully developed concept of a personal Messiah arose only after the Exile. By the time Yeshua arrived on the scene, there was a vivid hope of a coming anointed (mashiach) Warrior-King, chosen by G‑d to deliver Israel from the Roman oppressors and establish the Kingdom of Heaven on the earth, with his throne in Jerusalem. This was the “good news” that the people understood, and it is indeed what Yeshua proclaimed from the beginning of his public ministry—the “good news of the Kingdom of Heaven”.
With this in mind, let us take a fresh look at how Matthew used the Tenakh to talk about Yeshua’s life and work, and to teach the young community of Yeshua’s followers how to live.
Tenakh Quotes in the Gospel of Matthew
When the Gospel writers cited Scripture, we must always pay attention to the context, both in the Gospel text, and the context of the quote in its original setting, in other words, the peshat. Applying a phrase from the Tenakh to a contemporary event (midrash) was a completely common practice in those days, and it still is today. It does not necessarily mean the event was prophesied in the Scriptures. It is a way that the Tenakh can speak to life situations. It is enough for the wording to fit the situation, whether or not the original meaning in context fits. In other words, it is not always the peshat (literal meaning) that is meant, but rather some form of midrash (application of the words to a new situation). Remembering our discussion of the PaRDeS (the ‘orchard’ of peshat, remez—allusion, hint, derash—exegetical interpretation, or sod—mystical interpretation) in the previous article, we can now look at several Tenakh quotes in the Gospel of Matthew and ask ourselves which kind of application of the text to the story the writer might have intended.
In the story of Yeshua’s birth, Joseph is trying to cope with the news that his betrothed Miriam is pregnant, when an angel appears to him in a dream and explains that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel explains: (Matthew. 1:21) “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Yeshua (‘salvation’), for he will save his people from their sins.” Then Matthew comments, 1:22 “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the L‑rd through the prophet (Isaiah 7:14): 23 ‘Look, the virgin/maiden shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, G‑d is with us’.”
The verse in Isaiah is part of a long passage about the impending invasion of the Assyrians. To give King Ahaz some hope, Isaiah offers this sign. It is generally understood that Isaiah was referring to the birth of the next king, Hezekiah. It was not a ‘messianic’ prophecy … at least not the peshat. The word ‘maiden’ in Hebrew is almah, an unmarried young woman. That is nearly the same as ‘virgin’, but not identical. When Isaiah was translated into Greek in the second century BCE, the Jewish translators used the word parthenos, which means ‘virgin’. The verse now fits as a remez that explains the miraculous birth of Yeshua. In him, G‑d is with us as a sign of hope under the Roman oppression, as He was with us in Hezekiah as a sign of hope against the Assyrians. Note that neither man—not Hezekiah nor Yeshua—was actually named Emmanuel. All of the literal details do not have to fit exactly in order for the Biblical connection to work.
As the story of Yeshua’s birth continues, some court astronomers from the East came to Jerusalem looking for the new-born king of the Jews. King Herod was threatened by this news (we know he was insanely paranoid, and for good reason), so he asked where Messiah would be born. The astronomers do not call the child “the Messiah”; Herod did.
Matt. 2:4 … [Herod] inquired of [the chief priests and scribes] where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet (Micah 5:2): 6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel’.”
It is not Matthew who quotes the Scripture from Micah, but the priests and scribes. Micah, however, was not talking about Messiah. He also prophesied in the days of the Assyrian threat. From the context we read that Micah was reassuring Israel that although they were taking a beating from the Assyrians, a victorious king would again arise to defend and lead them. The Jewish expectation came to be that Messiah (a descendant of David and future King of Israel) would also be born in Bethlehem. So that was the answer they gave to Herod. Once again, the original verse is cited as a remez, an allusion or hint of a future event.
Herod took this information and set out to kill all of the male babies born in Bethlehem at the time, so Joseph was warned by an angel to take his family to Egypt.
Matt. 2:14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the L‑rd through the prophet (Hosea 11:1), “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Matthew explains that this fulfills what Hosea said. The peshat in Hosea, however, is clearly talking about the exodus of the people of Israel. Hosea did not prophesy that the Messiah would have to go to Egypt and then return to Israel. Nor did Joseph take Yeshua to Egypt in order to meet some prophetic requirement that Messiah must fulfill. This is yet another remez that the events suggested in the mind of Matthew. He is telling the story of Yeshua, the Son of G‑d, who was in Egypt and came back to Israel, and this phrase from Hosea describes this event perfectly. It is a common midrashic application of the Tenakh.
John the Immerser
When John the Immerser began to call people to repentance in the desert, Matthew introduced him as, (Matt. 3:3) “… the one of whom the prophet Isaiah (40:3) spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the L‑rd, make his paths straight”.’” But was Isaiah speaking about John the Immerser? No. The peshat in Isaiah is not talking about John, but an unnamed voice who is calling out to prepare the way of the L‑rd. Since Biblical Hebrew has no punctuation, it is possible to read the verse two ways. In Isaiah, the voice cries to prepare the way in the wilderness. But, since John was in the desert, Matthew reads the verse as the voice calling in the wilderness to prepare the way. Either one could be a legitimate reading. Midrash allows one to take the Biblical wording out of its context and apply it to a contemporary situation, which is just what Matthew did. Another remez in the Tenakh pointing to a future event.
Israel’s return from exile was “the good news of the Kingdom/Reign of G‑d”. The expression comes from Isaiah 52:7, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger … who brings good news … who says to Zion, ‘Your G‑d reigns’.” Once John, and then Yeshua, began proclaiming the ‘good news of the Kingdom of Heaven’, this brought the whole message of this part of Isaiah to the minds of all who heard them. Applying the Scriptures this way says, “G‑d redeemed Israel then; and he is going to redeem Israel now”.
After Yeshua’s immersion, he spent forty days in the desert being tempted by the devil. He had been fasting, so he was hungry. Matt. 4:3 The tempter said to him, “If you are the Son of G‑d, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written (Deut. 8:3), ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of G‑d’.” In the peshat, Moses explained to the people why G‑d fed them with manna in the wilderness. Yeshua did a derash on the verse to learn from it how he should respond to the devil’s challenge.
Yeshua set out on his public ministry, and he moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. Most of his work in Galilee happened between these two towns. Nazareth sat in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun, and Capernaum and most of the eastern Galilee was in Naphtali. As Matthew told the story, he appealed to the passage in Isaiah that spoke of great hope for that region.
Matt. 4:13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah (9:1‑2) might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”
Isaiah went on to say (9:6-7):
6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty G‑d, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the L‑rd of hosts will do this.
Isaiah prophesied in the days of the Assyrian threat, and these regions were directly in the path of the invaders. He was probably foreseeing the birth and reign of the righteous King Hezekiah, who would purge idolatry from Israel and undo the evil done by his father Ahaz. Because of the geographical reference to the same places where Yeshua was working his miracles and preaching hope and salvation, Matthew sees in Yeshua’s work a remez or allusion to Isaiah’s glorious words.
A Halakhic (Legal) Dispute
Halakhic disputes were commonplace in Yeshua’s time. The notorious disputes between the schools of Hillel and Shammai are legendary. At their best, this was an “iron sharpens iron” approach to learning the finer points of Torah. Sometimes they were more contentious. The Gospels are full of disputes between Pharisees, scribes and Yeshua. They dispute with one another because how each one interprets Torah matters. If it didn’t matter, they wouldn’t bother to argue.
Here is an example of a halakhic dispute (Matt. 19:3). “Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’” This was a hot question in Yeshua’s time. I have analyzed this subject in depth in another article. Now I want only to illustrate how Yeshua does his derash. Since the Torah gives hardly any details about divorce laws (Deut. 24:1-4), it is necessary to turn to another relevant text to derive more information.
Yeshua cited the Creation account (19:4). He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ (Gen. 1:27)? 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ (Gen. 2:24)?” Yeshua constructs a binyan av mi-katuv eḥad—a general rule from one Torah passage, from which we can learn more about divorce. Then he does his derash on the creation text to answer their question (Matt. 19:6): “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what G‑d has joined together, let no one separate.”
Confronting Corruption in the Temple
After Yeshua had made his last entry into Jerusalem, he went to the Temple and drove out the merchants who were illegally gouging the people who came to purchase offerings. As justification, he rebuked them with two verses (Matthew 21:13): “My house shall be called a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7); but “you are making it a den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11). In the peshat, Isaiah was painting his vision of restoration of Israel after the exile, and Jeremiah scolded the Temple authorities of his day by declaring what the Temple should be, as opposed to what they have made it. Yeshua used Jeremiah’s scathing words to deliver the punchline of his rebuke. Once again, a kind of remez.
On the Cross
While midrash often takes a verse out of its context to apply it in a different way, sometimes the intent is to cite one verse in order to recall an entire passage. After Yeshua had been on the cross for several hours, he cried out (Matt. 27:46), “My G‑d, my G‑d, why have you forsaken me?” This is the beginning of Psalm 22. The original context is about David as he fled from Saul. By itself, the verse sounds like a cry of desperation. However, if you read the whole Psalm, you find that it is not desperation at all. Like his ancestor David, Yeshua cried out in a desperate situation, but as a cry of hope. He cried out to G‑d, believing that G‑d would deliver him even from this. He chose this verse as a remez, paralleling his predicament to David’s, hoping for a comparable outcome. David eventually reigned as King, and so will Yeshua, despite his current circumstance.
I have cited only a few examples of Tenakh quotes in Matthew, to make the point that, when Yeshua or Matthew is quoting Tenakh, their quotes are generally not meant to be taken literally as the peshat. Rather, they are a midrashic application of the cited verses to speak to a current event in the life of Yeshua. This was a completely common and legitimate way to use the Scriptures in the Jewish world, and still is.
To illustrate, I offer a short segment from the Talmud, an argument between two Rabbis—Eliezer and Joshua—at the end of the first century CE, within decades of the writing of the New Testament.
Sanhedrin 97b: R. Eliezer said: if Israel repent, they will be redeemed, as it is written (Jer. 3:22), Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. R. Joshua said to him, But is it not written (Isa. 52:3), ye have sold yourselves for naught; and ye shall be redeemed without money? Ye have sold yourselves for naught, for idolatry; and ye shall be redeemed without money—without repentance and good deeds. R. Eliezer retorted, But is it not written (Mal. 3:7), Return unto me, and I will return unto you? R. Joshua rejoined—But is it not written (Jer. 3:14), For I am master over you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion?
This quote shows how the Rabbis quoted Tenakh in this midrashic way to support their positions—Eliezer held that repentance is necessary for redemption; Joshua said that G‑d will sovereignly redeem Israel in his time. It shows how they used Tenakh verses to support opposing points of view. And I think you can see that the way they cite Tenakh is quite similar to the way Matthew does it.
In my next article, I will examine the use of Tenakh quotes by Shaul, Peter, and James. We will see that this midrashic logic may be foreign to our western minds, but it was the way the Scriptures spoke to the first-century Jewish world. And Yeshua, as well as the authors of the Gospels and Epistles, were quite at home in that world.