Messianic Prophecy Didn’t Inspire the Christmas Story

Skeptical critics love to target the birth narratives found in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew’s theological agenda is evident in his constant attempt to connect Jesus to some type of Old Testament prophecy. Matthew is very clearly concerned to show that Jesus’ birth and early childhood is a fulfillment of the prophets. And he does it in some very weird ways. 

Take for instance Hosea 11:1, which reads “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son.” Matthew takes that to refer to Jesus’ return from Egypt after King Herod’s death. The holy family was hiding there after Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. Speaking of which…Matthew applies a prophecy to that event, too. 

Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31:15, which reads: “Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children because they are no more.”

The skeptical theory says that Matthew knew his Old Testament prophecies and was bent on proof-texting people to death to show that Jesus was really the Messiah. To do that, he invented stories to fit the prophecies.

If that means accusing the long-dead Herod of murdering innocent babies, no problem! And if Matthew needs to create a flight to Egypt and back out of whole cloth, then game on. Critics even allege that Matthew was so far gone in these kinds of maneuverings that he misinterpreted Isaiah and found a virgin birth story in Isaiah 7:14. Once again, if Jesus needs a virgin birth, then here we go…virgin birth time! 

Were these passages Messianic?

This appears very gratifying to the cynical eye, but there’s a huge problem with this theory. We have a metric butt-ton of Jewish literature before the beginning of Christianity. There’s not a scrap of evidence that any Jewish reader ever considered Hosea 11:1, Jeremiah 31:15, or Isaiah 7:14 as messianic. In his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfred Edersheim cites 456 passages in the Talmud and Targums as being messianic. None of these passages made the cut. 

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not arguing that according to the Jewish standards of interpretation in the first century, these verses couldn’t correspond with actual events in Jesus’ life. Obviously, they could, but only if those events really happened could Matthew justly apply them. 

But as far as the evidence that we have goes, there’s no good reason for an overly enthusiastic first-century Jew bent on making up a story about the Messiah’s birth would feel the need to work these into his narrative. Matthew would already have plenty of other material to work with. But for this hypothetical Jewish-Christian fiction writer, these three verses are simply irrelevant.

It’s undeniable that the Jews themselves did not view these passages as messianic, refuting the theory that the birth narrative in Matthew was invented to fit with messianic expectations. We can easily flip this argument on its head. Such material can’t easily be explained in the context of a fictional story of Jesus’ nativity. However, that is what we have. So how do we explain it?

I have a theory…hear me out on this one…the events themselves actually suggested the parallels. Yes, it’s true that Jewish interpretation of the Bible in Matthew’s day was both diverse and complicated and probably not something that modern readers would engage in. Still, Matthew’s use of these techniques is pretty tame by the Jewish standards of his time. Ancient Semitic scholar Dr. Michael Brown says that “in many ways the use of the Tanakh in the New Testament is more restrained, contextual, and sober than its use in the Rabbinic writings.” 

This whole notion that Matthew was “sloppy and overly hasty to connect Jesus to prophecies” doesn’t do the work that skeptics think. This is important because skeptics will use this argument to paint the author of Matthew to be a doofus. One rather silly and popular example of this is the idea that Matthew had Jesus ride two donkeys during the triumphal entry. 

Did Matthew make a donkey of himself?

In his book Jesus, Interrupted, Bart Ehrman says: “In Matthew, Jesus’ disciples procure two animals for him, a donkey and a colt; they spread their garments over the two of them, and Jesus rode into town straddling them both (Matthew 21:7). It’s an odd image, but Matthew made Jesus fulfill the prophecy of Scripture quite literally.”

This argument always seems to resurface. Now I know this is a lot to ask for, but let’s use a little common sense and charity for a minute. Is the antecedent of “them” “the donkey and the colt” or “the cloaks”? For the answer, here’s commentator AT Robinson’s dry remarks: “The garments, of course. The words in Greek might refer to the two animals but such reference is by no means necessary. Matthew is not careful to distinguish, but common sense can do it.”  

Well, there you have it. And Robinson isn’t a particularly conservative scholar.  I swear if Matthew said “Jesus rode a donkey wearing a seamless robe” some biblical critics would be like “LOL Matthew thinks the donkey was wearing a robe!” Yes, I get that people assume he botched the parallelism in Zechariah 9:9 and thought it was referring to two animals. Let’s look at the verse in question: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King comes unto you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon a donkey, and upon a colt the foal of a donkey.”

Skeptics say Matthew misread two animals into Zechariah and made his move. But as New Testament scholar Craig Keener points out, Mark makes a special note that no one had ridden the colt before. (Mk 11:2) It’s possible that Jesus, knowing he was going to ride before a loud and excited crowd, may not have wanted to freak out the foal and so brought mom along to keep him calm. This isn’t really that hard to think through. If Matthew was a witness he’d know all this. The thing about this alleged absurdity is that it requires the “Matthew was so desperate to have Jesus fulfill prophecy” argument to get it to work. This is a weak chip to try and throw into a cumulative case against Matthew, and we’ve seen that cumulative case doesn’t work. 

Skeptical gotcha games

This whole double donkey meme is a game of “Gotcha!” If I say something ambiguous and you can apply it to something absurd and awkward, or to something that makes much more sense, and you pick the absurdity and act like it’s the only interpretation to make me look bad, that’s childish. You had better have good evidence to think I really meant the absurd thing.  If Matthew’s statement was made anywhere else but a religious text, it’s doubtful anyone would be talking about it. In this case, that evidence only exists in the critics’ imagination. Matthew wasn’t inventing things to fit the prophecies. He was an eyewitness and interviewed eyewitnesses, and connected what he saw and learned to the Old Testament. 

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