Chap. 3.4. DOES MATTHEW MISREPRESENT THE PROPHECIES OF THE OLD TESTAMENT? (1:22-23)
First of all, it is necessary to clarify what we mean by prophecy, because sometimes scholars know things that then they neglect to clearly expose to a wider audience. A true prophecy, in the sense that is commonly given to this word, is when an unlikely event is announced in advance, publicly and clearly, the occurrence of which can then later be checked. For example, the statement ‘in the future it will rain’ is not a prophecy, because it is expressed imprecisely and it is a probable event. It would have been a prophecy if it had said that ‘on 20th November 2020 there will be hot weather, with people bathing in the sea in Rimini’.
On the basis of the criteria expressed above, we will examine the prophecies, to understand the criteria used by Matthew, which are mostly in contrast with the most common ones. However, we must point out that, in the Notes on Acts, there is an insert on the topic (The misunderstanding of the prophecies about Christ, p. 24).
Let us start with an obvious example placed a little further on (2:15), in which Matthew cites the following quotation: “Out of Egypt I called my son”, considering it as a prophecy about Jesus’ stay in Egypt. Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1, but according to our logic, the context does not allow for such an application and this is understandable if we also quote the previous sentence: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son”. Matthew thus seems to have operated wrongly, while in reality he uses a particular logic, because, unlike what is usually thought, he starts with the assumption that Israel can be identified with Jesus, that is, Israel with its king. Therefore, the relationship between Jesus and God the Father was already foreshadowed by the relationship between Israel and God: it is significant, although overlooked by most, that Israel in the Old Testament is considered by God as his ‘son’ several times (Exo 4:22; Deu 1:31; 8:5; 14:1; Jer 3:14; 31:9,20). Israel has often been a disobedient son, redeemed by the obedient son Jesus, displaying that ‘solidarity among brothers’ already shown by Joseph (Gen 37-45): a hero whom Stephen implicitly points out as a forerunner of Jesus (Acts 7:9-14).
Matthew does not make a clear distinction between history and prophecy, because God remains the same and his word “endures forever” (Isa 40:8). Therefore, for Matthew, what is told in the Bible does not only relate to the past, but it is in itself projected into the future: the whole Old Testament is then considered to be prophetic, including the historical parts, but prophetic as Matthew understands it and not as it is commonly understood today.
In Christianity, the assumptions that are rooted are different to Matthew’s. For example, we generally see a fundamental contrast between Jesus and the Old Testament, between Jesus and Israel, with the conviction that it is in the New Testament that God would reveal himself as Father, thus creating a clear distinction between the historical parts of the Bible and the prophetic ones. With such assumptions, one should conclude that the passages quoted by Matthew are not prophecies as we understand them: scholars are aware of this, but they do not always have the honesty or the courage to effectively communicate it to everyone.
After this broad but necessary premise, we come to consider closely the first prophecy quoted by Matthew: “All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (1:22-23).
We will put into practice an interpretative approach illustrated in the Summary of the OT (Valorising the Septuagint translation, point 2 of Criteria of study followed), beginning with understanding the meaning of the quotation in its original context. In this case, being a prophecy about the Messiah, the consultation of the Concordata Bible, realized by Christians and Jews together, is particularly helpful.
Since Syria and the kingdom of Samaria were about to wage war against the kingdom of Judah, Isaiah invites Ahaz, one of the worst kings of Judah, to ask the Lord for a sign to reassure him of his favour. Ahaz replies: “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test” (7:12). Therefore Isaiah, as God’s spokesman, responded: “Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (7:13-16).
Did Isaiah maybe want to communicate to Ahaz that about seven centuries later (Jesus’ birth) there would be an extraordinary intervention of God? Did he maybe forget that he was talking to Ahaz and thought that, more than two thousand years later, we would take those words as if they were directed to us? Those words of Isaiah reflect a way that God operates that can certainly be repeated in every age; it is also certain that there may also be a meaning that was hidden at that time and that it would be understood many centuries later; this does not alter the fact that we must first consider the meaning that the message had for Ahaz and for his time.
Isaiah, in short, announces that God will bring a renewal in the “house of David”, that is, in the kingdom of Judah, through a new king, who will make God’s presence in the midst of his people more evident, a presence that was already manifested in the Temple. In the Hebrew context, the name tends to indicate the characteristics of the person, who may also have multiple names. As the name Jesus/Joshua (1:21) has already indicated, then it is clear that Emmanuel (God-with-us) is worth more as a meaning than as a proper name, also because Jesus has never been called by this name.
The realization of this announcement to Isaiah in his time shows uncertainties, but the king who came after Ahaz was Hezekiah, who collaborated closely with Isaiah and may perhaps be regarded as the king who was the most unwaveringly consecrated to God.
The Hebrew text says, “the young woman will conceive”, and no listener in Isaiah’s time, like no reader before Jesus, thought that said young woman would get pregnant while remaining a virgin, but it was implicit that she would give birth after getting married. For Matthew it was not necessary for Isaiah to be referring to Jesus, in order to consider it as a prophecy, just as it was not necessary in the case of the exiting Egypt seen above; for him, it was essential to point out the analogy between the two events and in this he is helped by the Septuagint, which translates the Hebrew ‘young’ with the Greek ‘virgin’: an appropriate choice, because while in the Jewish context the virginity of a young woman was implied, in the Greek context it was possible that a young woman had already lost her virginity.
Matthew, in short, wants to say that with Jesus a way, already applied in the past, has been shown to revive the dynasty of David and that involved a renewed presence of God in the midst of his people. Something already happened with Hezekiah, but which will be realized in a deeper way with Jesus: starting with an absolutely miraculous conception and ending with an equally extraordinary resurrection.