Sunday, December 22, 2019

The Importance Of The Conclusion Of Matthew 2

The end of Matthew 2 doesn't get as much attention as it should. I agree with D.A. Carson's view of what Matthew tells us about Nazareth:

"But the formula [citing scripture in Matthew 2:23] is unique in two respects: only here does Matthew use the plural 'prophets,' and only here does he omit the Greek equivalent of 'saying' and replace it with the conjunction hoti, which can introduce a direct quotation (NIV) but more probably should be rendered 'that,' making the quotation indirect: 'in order to fulfill what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene' (cf. W. Barnes Tatum Jr., 'Matthew 2:23,' BT 27 [1976]: 135-37). This suggests that Matthew had no specific OT quotation in mind; indeed, these words are found nowhere in the OT….We may exclude those [interpretations of Matthew 2:23] that see some wordplay connection with an OT Hebrew word but have no obvious connection with Nazareth….Nazareth was a despised place (Jn 7:42, 52), even to other Galileans (cf. Jn 1:46). Here Jesus grew up, not as 'Jesus the Bethlehemite,' with its Davidic overtones, but as 'Jesus the Nazarene,' with all the opprobrium of the sneer. When Christians were referred to in Acts as the 'Nazarene sect' (24:5), the expression was meant to hurt. First-century Christian readers of Matthew, who had tasted their share of scorn, would have quickly caught Matthew's point. He is not saying that a particular OT prophet foretold that the Messiah would live in Nazareth; he is saying that the OT prophets foretold that the Messiah would be despised (cf. Pss. 22:6-8, 13; 69:8, 20-21; Isa 11:1; 49:7; 53:2-3, 8; Da 9:26). The theme is repeatedly picked up by Matthew (e.g., 8:20; 11:16-19; 15:7-8; see Turner). In other words Matthew gives us the substance of several OT passages, not a direct quotation (so also Ezr 9:10-12; cf. Str-B, 1:92-93)." (The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Revised Edition, Vol. 9: Matthew & Mark [Gran Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2010], 124-25)

As W.D. Davies and Dale Allison note, "Moreover, given the belief in the significance of Bethlehem and in Jesus' birth there, the prominence of Nazareth in the gospel tradition would have been all the more puzzling. Mt 2.23 is, therefore, an attempt to come to grips with a difficult fact." (Matthew 1-7 [New York, New York: T&T Clark, 2010], 274) Even in later centuries, Tertullian refers to how Jewish opponents of Christianity called Christians "Nazarenes" (Against Marcion, 4:8), and Julian the Apostate derisively gave his anti-Christian work the title Against The Galileans in the fourth century. In our day, critics of Christianity still make much of Jesus' Galilean background, often emphasizing how he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, contrasting that with the expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

Furthermore, Jesus and his family don't just go to Nazareth briefly, but instead apparently live there for the rest of his childhood. Consider the contrast between that setting for Jesus' childhood and something like Moses being raised in the household of Pharaoh, Samuel being raised in a sanctuary setting with Eli, or John the Baptist going into the wilderness early in his life. So, Jesus not only lives in Nazareth, but even does so from an early age without living in the sort of setting that distinguished figures like Moses, Samuel, and John the Baptist.

Matthew 2:23 is significant for meeting the criterion of embarrassment in so many ways. It's also significant in that critics of the infancy narratives often claim that Jesus is being paralleled to Old Testament figures like Moses and Samuel and that Jesus is being portrayed as superior to John the Baptist. Yet, Matthew (in agreement with Luke) portrays Jesus' childhood as a largely ordinary one spent in his parents' home in a small, disreputable town.

And the parenthetical comment I just made is important. Luke agrees with Matthew on these issues. Those kinds of agreements are often overlooked or underestimated in discussions about how much Matthew and Luke agree concerning Jesus' childhood.

We should also notice how Matthew 2:23 reflects a larger pattern we see in the early Christian accounts of the childhood of Jesus. The characteristics of 2:23 that I've described above are also seen elsewhere. Think of the premarital timing of Mary's pregnancy, for instance. See the further examples I cited in an article I wrote on the magi account last year. And I discussed more examples in an article on Luke's material.

It's fitting for Matthew to conclude his account of Jesus' childhood with a passage like 2:23. Much of what he and other early Christian sources reported about the childhood of Jesus met with a lot of contempt because of characteristics like the ones discussed in this post. That doesn't sit well with the notion that they were writing fiction or erroneous history.