Each new year many believers vow to read the Bible cover to cover within the next 12 months. I have tried and failed this objective many times. This year I want to try something different. I will study just a few books (starting with the Gospel of Matthew) of the Word instead of the whole book. And I will STUDY instead just monotonously churn through words as I have done in years past. I will read commentaries, blog posts, opinions, histories, and textual criticism. Pretty much anything about Matthew that I can get my hands on. So suggestions for study material would be appreciated.
I hope to periodically post notes and things I have learned from this endeavor. I imagine some of it will be apologetics, some may be pastoral, and some maybe just asking questions for further study. My hope in sharing is that someone else may be inspired to dig deeper into God’s Word. I have already benefited even in this short time.
So let’s begin.
Apologetics for the Jewish People
From the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, it is clear that the writer is forming a work of apologetics for the Jewish people, beginning with a genealogy that connects Abraham to Jesus Christ and then consistently noting where the happenings of Christ’s life reveal fulfillment of prophecy in the Jewish Scriptures.
In just the first two chapters alone, we have five references to Jesus’ movements and presence fulfilling the words of the prophets. In Matt 1:22-23, we have noted the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 with the instance of the virgin birth. Then Matt 2:5-6 shows that a ruler will come out of Judah, a reference to Micah 5:2. Then in the span of the last eight verses of chapter two, we have three examples of completed prophecy with mentions of Hosea 11:1, Jeremiah 31:15, and a prophecy that is strangely unrecorded by the Old Testament Scriptures but listed internally as prophecy fulfillment in Matt 2:23.
There are many critics of Matthew’s habit of citing often vague and seemingly unrelated Old Testament scripture as fulfillment of prophecy. The references do not come across as obvious or convincing in many instances. I invite you to Google the discussions for more detail. Scholar R.T. France, in his commentary “Matthew”, says the apostle applies these texts in subtle, seemingly forced and artificial ways. But then he goes on to explain C. F. D. Moule’s observation that argues that “this ‘vehicular’ use of Scripture ‘is a symptom of discovery that, in a deeply organic way, Jesus was indeed a fulfiller of something which is basic in the whole of Scripture.’” France then goes on to say that:
“what may seem to us an embarrassingly obscure and even irresponsible way of handling Scripture is in fact the outworking of a careful tracing of scriptural themes, which in different ways point to Jesus as the fulfiller not only of specific predictions, but also of the broader pattern of God’s Old Testament revelation.” (pp39-40)
So this topic is heading way beyond the scope of one of my blog posts. A good item to shelve for further in depth study. There is tons more there. I invite you to dig in.
More interesting to me is that much of the story here in the first two chapters seems to be from Jesus’ adopted father Joseph’s point of view. Some scholars believe that Joseph may be an actual source for Matthew. But this just leads to more questions for me. When would Matthew have gotten Joseph’s testimony? Would it have been from another source who knew him or is this direct testimony? The reason I ask is that it is my opinion that Joseph is no longer living by the time of the Crucifixion because of John’s Gospel observing mother Mary at the Cross in chapter 19, verse 25-27:
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[a] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. (NIV)
So, in John, Mary is there with her sister, another Mary, wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdelene. No Joseph. Now, we might think it is possible that Joseph was there but not mentioned until we see how the passage unfolds. In the passage, Jesus notices his mother and arranges for the beloved disciple, John, to become her new son and she would be his new mother! John is then to take her into his home “from that time on” (v.27). So many believe, including me, Joseph may have passed on by then. Nonetheless, it would seem odd if Jesus were to give his mother to the beloved disciple if His father, her husband, were still in the picture.
Note that Mary’s children are not by her side either in the passage from John. Many believe that could be due to the family’s skepticism as reported in Mark 3:21-22:
21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” (NIV)
It’s interesting that in a parallel story later in Matthew (12:46-50) the writer doesn’t mention any worries by Jesus’ family of mental illness as it does in Mark. This may be inline with Matthew’s attempt to minister to the Jews about fulfilled prophecy and the deity of Christ so this doesn’t fit neatly into his apologetic purposes.
It should be noted however that the word “family” there in Mark 3 probably does not include Mary and Joseph and his brothers. We think this, in part, because later in verse 31 it describes these family members (Mary and Jesus’ brothers) arriving onto the scene and calling for him. In the NASB translation, the word “family” (from the NIV) is replaced with “his own people” and the RSV called them “friends”.
Other explanations for the source of Joseph’s testimony, if not him directly, could be that this came to Matthew secondhand, maybe from James or Jude as told to them by Joseph or maybe from other brothers and sisters or family members post-Resurrection. My guess is it would have to be from someone with a personal familial connection to protect this information for so long.
“How long?” you may ask. Well, the common dating of Matthew is around AD 80 (I personally think it’s earlier). If that were true, and Joseph died before AD 30 (to keep the numbers round), and it was true that Matthew 1-2 records his testimony of parts of the nativity story, Joseph’s side of things could have been kept by this relative or relatives for 50 years or more.
Herod The Great?
Bible skeptics often bring up Matthew 2:13-18, “The Slaughter of the Innocents”, as a narrative invention of the Apostle Matthew, mostly due to the fact that contemporary historians, like Flavius Josephus, do not corroborate the story of the murder of all infant boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. To answer this challenge, I found an interview with ancient history expert Dr. Paul Maier, Russell Seibert Professor at Western Michigan University. Below, Dr. Maier first provides some insight into the notorious character of Herod The “Great” and then he answers the difficulty.
Interviewer: Explain the paranoid side of Herod that begins to emerge later in his life.
Maier: “Josephus gives us just a hideous tale of what was going on in the family, attempted poisonings, one brother against another. It so rattled Herod that he actually put to death three of his own sons on suspicion of treason. He put to death his favorite wife out of 10 of them. Mariamne was his favorite. She was a Hasmonean Macabean princess and he put her to death and then he killed his mother-in-law — I should say, one of his many mothers-in-law. He invited the high priest down to Jericho for a swim. They played a very rough game of water polo and they drowned him. He killed several uncles and a couple of cousins. Some have said he is a real family man, you know, in that negative respect.”
(Continuing to document the cruel exploits of Herod . . .)
Maier: “Well, Josephus has a very grisly thing to report about Herod in his last months. He was paranoid, though he did have some grasp of reality. For instance, he was worried that nobody would mourn his own death. Of course that shows how deadly accurate he was. They were preparing a general celebration. And nobody likes to die knowing that they are going to dance on your grave. And so he was going to give the people something to cry about.
In 4 BC he is in his winter palace in Jericho. It’s the only place in the holy land that doesn’t snow or get cold in the winter. It’s 1,200 feet below sea level. And Herod is dying. He tries every remedy in the world to stop the gang of diseases that were creeping up on him. He went to the hot springs on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea. And that didn’t cure him.
So he goes back to his winter palace and he invites his sister Salome in and he says, “I want you to arrest all the Jewish leaders in the land and imprison them in the hippodrome just below the palace here.” And the hippodrome has been discovered archaeologically, by the way. And so she does so and then she says, “Brother, why am I doing this?” And Herod says, “Well, I know that when I die the Jews are going to rejoice. So I want to give them something to cry about.” And so he wants these leaders all executed in that hippodrome so that there will be thousands of households weeping at the time Herod the Great dies.”
Interviewer: Speaking of Matthew 2, the Bible records this scene from Herod’s paranoia late in his life. The wise men alert him to the birth of a new king in Bethlehem. He wants to know where, so he can eradicate this new rival. The wise men wisely don’t return. Herod then responds by slaughtering all boys two-years-old and under in Bethlehem and in “all the region.” For all that Josephus writes about Herod, he makes no mention of this — in fact, there’s no extra-biblical evidence that this slaughter ever happened. How do you respond?
Maier: “No, it is interesting. Josephus does not mention it. And therefore a lot of biblical critics will pounce on that aspect of the nativity account and say therefore it didn’t happen. Now please understand this is an argument from silence and that is the weakest form of argumentation you can use. As we say in the profession, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
In this case one or two things could have happened. Josephus may have heard about it and not used it because you don’t have hundreds of babies killed or you have only about 12, as a matter of fact, 12 or 15. The infant mortality in the ancient world was so huge anyway that this is really not going to impress the reader too much, believe it or not. And I think if Josephus is choosing between the two stories about how Herod died right before his death, I think I would take the one where he is going to slaughter hundreds of Jewish leaders.
Or he may not have heard about it. Again, simply because in little Bethlehem it doesn’t amount to much — a village of about 1,500 residents. In my actuarial study, Bethlehem at the time wouldn’t have had more than about two dozen babies two years old and under — half of them female. And so this is not a big deal, and I think that is why Josephus either never heard about it or didn’t feel it important enough to record. So this does not militate against Matthew’s version by any means.”
This concludes are my study so far. Continuing to chapters 3 & 4 next time. God Bless.
“Matthew”. R.T. France. TTNTC. pp39-40, 81-85.