Open Matthew 1–5.
Here’s an intriguing possibility.
Matthew keeps focusing on Jesus fulfilling Scripture. He’s told us that six times already (1:22; 2:15, 17, 23, 3:15; 4:14). Does this motif define the way Matthew tells Jesus’ story?
We’ve seen that Matthew is not selecting Messianic predictions but rather showing how Jesus’ story is the fulfilment of Israel’s story. The Messiah walked in Israel’s shoes, fulfilling for them what they were called to do. Has Matthew crafted the opening of his Gospel to show how Jesus fulfilled Israel’s Torah, the foundational story of the Jewish people?
Matthew opens with these words: Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, literally “Book of genesis of Jesus Christ.” Matthew recounts Jesus’ origins (genesis) from Abraham, the father of the Jewish people and the central character of Genesis. Jesus’ genesis is Israel’s genesis. But there’s a twist: Jesus has another genesis as well. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. So his genesis is from earth, through Israel, but it is also from heaven, as God-with-us (Immanuel).
The birth narrative of Jesus also echoes Israel’s birth as described in the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh ordered the death of all the boys of Israel in Moses’ time, and Jesus faced the same kind of abuse from Herod. After Pharaoh’s death, Moses returned to lead the people of Egypt. After Herod’s death, Jesus was called out of Egypt, retracing Israel’s exodus. What Hosea said of Israel can be said of Jesus too: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (2:15).
The third book of the Torah is Leviticus. It opens with the sacrificial rituals that maintained relationship with God, describes the ceremonial washing and consecration of the priests, and recounts how the people were to be cleansed and purified to stay in right relationship with their holy God. In Matthew 3, John the Baptist calls Israel to this holy life, offering a cleansing ritual. He identifies Jesus as the one who will purify God’s people with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus submits to ceremonial washing to fulfil all righteousness. Where Israel struggled to please God, heaven is well pleased with Jesus.
The fourth book of the Torah is Numbers, or In the Wilderness as it is known in the Hebrew Bible. On Israel’s journey in the wilderness, God sustained them with manna. He guided their worship. He promised victory over the nations in the Land. But they refused to trust God because of the powers they would face. The whole generation failed, dying there in the wilderness. Matthew 4 describes how the Spirit led Jesus to face similar temptations, in the wilderness, against the ultimate enemy. But once again, Jesus fulfilled God’s requirements where Israel had failed.
The final book of the Torah is Deuteronomy, the restatement of the Law for the new generation who were about to enter the Promised Land. Matthew paints Jesus as a new Moses with authority to restate the law for the new generation: “You have heard that it was said …, but I say to you” (5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).
- Matthew 1 is Jesus’ genesis.
- Matthew 2 is Jesus’ exodus.
- Matthew 3 is Jesus’ Levitical anointing, fulfilling all righteousness (Leviticus).
- Matthew 4 is Jesus’ testing in the wilderness (Numbers).
- Matthew 5 is Jesus’ restatement of the Law (Deuteronomy).
Matthew didn’t write with chapter divisions of course, but the material naturally divides this way. Matthew’s point is that Jesus fulfils the Torah for God’s people. The Prophets (and Writings) were based on the Torah; they developed Israel’s story and reapplied the Torah as Israel’s story developed. Fulfilling the Torah therefore means the ultimate fulfilment of Israel’s story as described in the Prophets also.
What do you think? Does this make sense of the way Matthew shaped his Gospel account? He even tells us overtly that this is what Jesus was doing:
Matthew 5:17 (my translation)
Don’t imagine I have come to annul the Torah or the Prophets; I have not come to annul them but to fulfil them.
What others are saying
This proposal does not have widespread support. Most scholars recognize the importance of the fulfilment formula in Matthew, and France even views Matthew’s opening chapters as structured around these quotations, without suggesting the macro-picture above:
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 13-14:
Five of the eleven generally recognized formula-quotations occur within the short section 1:18–2:23, where, together with the genealogy of 1:1–17, they form a concentrated “manifesto” setting out how Jesus the Messiah fulfills the hopes of OT Israel. Indeed, I shall argue that the whole narrative structure of 1:18–2:23 is designed to provide the basis for this scriptural argument, each successive scene of the story building up to the quotation of the text which it “fulfills” and its wording designed to highlight that fulfillment. Yet in several cases (notably Hos 11:1 and Jer 31:15) the text would have no reason to be brought into connection with the story of Jesus apart from the specific content of the incident to which it relates. There is thus a mutual interaction between story and text, the latter being chosen because of its relevance to the event being narrated, but the story being told in terms which draw attention to the correspondence. The same interaction between text and story may be seen especially in 27:3–10 (see below pp. 1039). So it seems that far from being a pre-existing set of proof-texts, the OT passages cited in the formula-quotations have been brought freshly to Matthew’s mind by the traditions he has received, and that he has then worded those traditional stories in such a way as to help the hearer/reader to see the connection.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 105:
The reference to “the prophets” suggests that the significance of Jesus for the Mosaic law can only be understood as part of a larger picture, namely, the fulfillment of the entire Torah, understood in its broad sense, including the prophets (cf. the inclusio in 7:12). (The entire OT can be referred to as “the law and the prophets.”) … The messianic age has dawned in history, and with it comes the fulfillment of the prophetic expectation. Consequently, the way in which the law is “fulfilled” is inseparable from the total mission of Jesus.
G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 954:
Thus, “the Old Testament promises of Messiah and kingdom, as well as Old Testament law and piety, have found their fulfillment in Jesus’s person,” which has caused the “transformation.” This has been anticipated in Matt. 5:17, where Jesus says, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but fulfill.” It is the lens of the person of Jesus through which the prophecies have been understood and transformed: Jesus fulfills the whole OT in that he fulfills direct predictions; events typologically point to him; he gives the full, intended meaning of the OT; and he perfectly “fulfills” the law’s demands by perfect obedience. This results in unanticipated ways that the OT is fulfilled.