ARE THE BIBLICAL SCRIPTURES RELIABLE? PART SEVEN
Old Testament events and the birth of Christ:
Both Old and New Testaments record extraordinary events. The Christian system is built on extraordinary events. The virgin birth of Jesus is an extraordinary event. So is His resurrection an extraordinary event. In recent years the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus has been questioned by some Christian scholars and some theologians who hold professorships at theological seminaries. Some have questioned the Scriptural accounts of the crucifixion. It may appear incongruous to see Christian theologians expressing doubts about the virgin birth and the validity of the resurrection but indeed this is the case. In other words, the very foundation of our Christian faith has been called into question by some who are the teachers of those who end up becoming ministers of the Christian faith.
As part of this series I am doing, I feel it important we examine the dynamics associated with the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to determine if there is any reason to question the Scriptural accounts of these events, events that form the very foundation of our Christian faith. We will begin our discussion by considering questions that have been raised regarding Matthew’s application of OT events to the birth of Jesus.
Women weeping for their children:
While there is witness to the historicity of Jesus in the writings of first century historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus, 99.9 % of what we know about Christ comes from the Biblical Scriptures. The events associated with the birth of Jesus are recorded in the narratives of Matthew and Luke. Luke goes into great detail as to these events. Matthew, on the other hand, doesn’t provide as much detail but sees in the birth of Christ what he perceives as OT prophecies being fulfilled. It is Matthew’s claim that OT prophecies were fulfilled in the birth of Jesus that has caused some scholars to question Matthew’s creditability in writing his account. Why might this be the case? Let’s take a look at some of what Matthew wrote and see why some scholars question his methodology in writing what he wrote.
In Matthew the second chapter, we are told that Herod’s decree to kill all male children less than two years old fulfilled something Jeremiah wrote hundreds of years earlier.
Matthew 2:17-18: Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.
Jeremiah 31:15. This is what the LORD says: "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more."
As can be seen, this prophecy is quoted from Jeremiah 31:15. A careful reading of Jeremiah chapters 29 through 31 will reveal that Jeremiah is dealing with the issue of Judah’s dispersion created by the Babylonian captivity and their returning from that captivity. That is the context of Jeremiah’s statement in 31:15. Jeremiah’s message is actually a message of hope and not one of mourning. In Jeremiah 31:16-17, the prophet answers his observation about a voice of weeping and mourning heard in Ramah.
Jeremiah 31:16-17: This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD. "They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future," declares the LORD. "Your children will return to their own land.
Jeremiah appears to be reflecting on the sorry state of the Babylonian captivity while offering hope of a return from that captivity which indeed did take place under Ezra and Nehemiah.
Now here is where questions have been raised as to the legitimacy of Matthew’s methodology in associating OT prophecies with the birth of Christ. There is nothing in the context of Jeremiah 31 that associates what the prophet wrote with the killing of the children in Bethlehem as Matthew indicates. The captives of Judah, hearing what Jeremiah had to say would not have understood it to refer to an event many hundreds of years into the future from their time. Neither is there any indication that Jeremiah had in mind a fulfillment of what he said taking place hundreds of years future to his time. The context of his prophecy shows he was dealing with soon to occur events of his own time and not events far removed from his time.
Furthermore, there is no record of the killing of the children in Bethlehem in the secular history of the first century. First century historian Josephus, who wrote extensively about the life of Herod in his history of the Jews, makes no mention of Herod killing the children of Bethlehem. In reading Josephus it becomes apparent that he had little use for Herod and went out of his way to write about all the evil things Herod did. Yet there is no mention by Josephus of Herod having the male children of Bethlehem killed as recorded by Matthew. Luke, the other New Testament reporter of the birth of Christ, makes no mention of this event.
Because of the absence of verification from Josephus, some scholars believe this event never took place. It must be pointed out, however, that the population of Bethlehem may have been very small and therefore only a small number of children were killed. Since Herod had a record of killing his enemies, the killing of some children in a small town would not have produced much of a stir and consequently historians of the time would not have paid any attention to this event. Therefore, the lack of second source verification of this event should not lead one to conclude this event didn’t happen.
The bigger question is how could Matthew see the killing of the children in Bethlehem as a fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy? The events Jeremiah spoke of appear to all be related to the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity. It appears Matthew is putting quite a different spin on what Jeremiah wrote.
It must be recognized that authors of scripture use a great deal of analogy, metaphor and rhetorical exaggeration (hyperbole) in their writings. Analogy is showing something to be like something else. It involves the drawing of parallels. Metaphor is using the non-literal to represent the literal. Metaphor often uses symbols to represent the real thing. Hyperbole is the use of metaphor in exaggerated ways to make a point.
The Greek word translated “fulfilled” in Matthew 2:17 is pleeroo. This word appears 90 times in the NT and has the basic meaning of “to make full, to fill, to fill up and to fill to the full.” When Matthew says that the weeping of the women over their murdered children fulfilled what Jeremiah said about women weeping for their children, he is not saying this is a one to one fulfillment of what Jeremiah said. Jeremiah says there were women weeping in a place called Ramah. Ramah was a town of the tribe of Benjamin situated around six miles north of Jerusalem on the road leading to Bethel. Bethlehem is around six miles south of Jerusalem.
The statement of Jeremiah as recorded in 31:15 is not prophetic in and of itself but is a commentary on the captivity extant at the time Jeremiah wrote and is included in the overall context of Jeremiah prophesying Israel’s return from captivity. Matthew does not say the woman weeping is a fulfillment of a prophecy. Matthew is simply saying that the killing of the children in Bethlehem brings to the full or parallels what occurred during the time of Jeremiah. Matthew appears to be using what Jeremiah wrote in an analogous manner to show a parallel between what was being experienced during the time of Judah’s captivity and what happened in Bethlehem. We see this method of expression used several times by Matthew in relationship to the birth of Christ.
Fleeing to Egypt:
In Matthew, the second chapter, it’s recorded that Joseph and Mary and the Christ child fled to Egypt and “so was fulfilled what the lord had said to the prophet: "Out of Egypt I have called my son.” (Matthew 2:15). While Matthew doesn’t name the prophet referred too, it’s generally recognized this quote is from Hosea 11:1 where the prophet quotes God as saying, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” When you read the context of Hosea 11 it becomes obvious Israel is the son being referred to who was called out of Egypt at the time of the exodus. This statement by God as recorded by Hosea says nothing about Christ being called out of Egypt and is not even prophetic but historical in so much as it reflects on a past event in Israel’s history.
Matthew takes this statement and applies it to the Christ event as fulfilling what the Lord said through the prophet. Is Matthew implying that God, in reflecting on Israel’s history, was also looking forward to the exodus of Jesus from Egypt? God could have been looking forward to His Son leaving Egypt. However, nothing in the context of Hosea would suggest this. Matthew may simply be using events from OT history as examples of greater fulfillment in the life of Christ. Whether such OT events happened specifically to act as a forerunner to events in the life of Christ is unclear. Looking at these OT events in their OT context gives no indication of this. However, Jesus provides insight as to the relationship between OT events and events in His life.
John 5:39: You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me.
Jesus says OT Scriptures testify of Him. Matthew looked at OT passages and saw definite parallels between past events and events in the life of Christ. In Christ saying the Scriptures testify of Him, He is saying the Scriptures give witness to Him. Just before His ascension, Jesus spoke of OT Scriptures being fulfilled relative to His crucifixion, resurrection and the preaching that would follow.
Luke 24:44-47: He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
What Scriptures might Christ have used in opening their minds to understand that He would have to suffer? How about Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22? Here are some excerpts.
Old Testament passages fulfilled in Christ:
Isaiah 53:5: He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.
Isaiah 53:5: He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Isaiah 53:7: He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
Isaiah 53:9: He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death,
Psalm 22: 6-8: But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads:"He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him."
Psalm 22:15-16: My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.
Psalm 22:18: They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
New Testament parallels:
As can be seen, the name Jesus or the designation Christ is not found in any of these OT passages. Yet when we look at the NT accounts of events in the life of Jesus, especially as they relate to the crucifixion, we can see in retrospect profound association between what was written in the OT passages and what we see in the NT accounts.
Luke 23:34-37: Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots. The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One." The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself."
Matthew 26:62-63: Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent.
Matthew 27:39-43: Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, `I am the Son of God.'"
Matthew 27:57-58: As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.
There is no mention of the Messiah in the OT passages we cited. If you read Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 in their entirety, you will see these passages speak of someone going through a great deal of trauma, dying a horrible death, bearing the sins of others, coming back to life and being rewarded for what He accomplished. The NT recorded events associated with the trial, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus parallels these passages from Isaiah and the Psalms in a very profound way. Only in retrospect, however, could these passages be seen to apply to Jesus. It is only in retrospect that most of the OT passages applied to Jesus can be seen as applying to Jesus. Jesus is not mentioned by name in the OT. The Greek kristos translated as Christ means the anointed one. This word is taken from the Hebrew word for Messiah which means the anointed one. This Hebrew word appears only twice in the entire OT. It is found twice in the 70 weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 where it is prophesied that the anointed one would be cut off in the midst of the 70th week.
When NT authors associate OT passages with the Christ event, they are doing so after having witnessed the Christ event and seeing the parallels to OT statements. In some cases, such as with Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22, it appears what was written was a direct prophecy of what we actually see in the sufferings of Christ as recorded in the NT. These OT passages provide a direct testimony to that event. In other cases, such as women in Ramah weeping for their children, what is presented appears to be a greater fulfillment in the life of Christ of a past historical event. These historical events may not have occurred specifically as prophetic of events in the life of Christ but they still present a witness to an event associated with Christ. In this respect they are a forerunner to such event. A forerunner can be a totally different event from another event it foreshadows.
The shedding of the blood of lambs and the keeping of the Passover in Israel was tied to the historical event of the death angel passing over and not killing the first born of Israel. In subsequent years the Passover was kept as a memorial of this event. There is no reason to believe that when the Israelites kept the Passover that they saw it as pointing to the Christ event. The Passover had its own historical fulfillment in ancient Israel. Yet the Passover is clearly seen as foreshadowing a greater fulfillment in the death of Christ and the shedding of His blood for the sins of the world.
It is evident that NT authors came to understand that many OT events were a foreshadowing of events in the life of Jesus. Whether these OT events specifically took place to foreshadow events in the life of Christ or whether they were simply used as parallels to events in the life of Christ is not always clear. What is clear is that Jesus saw OT events foreshadowing events in His life.
Apostle Paul was a well educated Hebrew scholar who had studied at the feet of the well respected Pharisee Gamaliel who was the grandson of the erudite Hebrew scholar Hillel. Paul was able to use the OT Scriptures to prove Jesus was the anointed one who would die and be resurrected.
Acts 17:2-3: As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ," he said.
There are over 100 OT Scriptural passages that can be associated with events related to the life of Christ. Most of these Scriptural passages, when viewed in their original context, relate to persons or events pertinent to the time such passages were written. Such passages have no apparent connection to Christ when read in their OT context. They can only be seen to have such a connection in retrospect.
Yet Christ is recorded as saying what is written in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms testify of Him. These are the three divisions of the OT scripture. This covers a lot of territory. Jesus told his disciples the OT Scriptures testify as to what He was all about. The context of Luke 24 shows Christ made this statement to the eleven disciples just before his ascension. That means Matthew was there. It is unlikely that Matthew would have unilaterally picked Scriptures from the OT and applied them to Jesus without some prior understanding as to their application to Jesus. It is very likely Matthew learned such application of OT Scripture from Christ Himself.
The Star of Bethlehem:
The killing of the children in Bethlehem and the escape to Egypt are tied to the account of the Magi visiting Herod and Herod inquiring about the location where Christ was to be born and the exact time the star had appeared. It could be concluded from the narrative in Matthew that the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem to see the Christ child, took place two years after the child was born. It is recorded Herod killed all the boys in Bethlehem who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi as to when the child was born. This suggests the family lived in Bethlehem for two years before escaping to Egypt.
Some feel the star appeared at the time Jesus was conceived and Herod had the children killed dating from that date forward up to two years. If the star appeared at conception, the baby should have been born nine months later and could have been somewhere between one and two years old at the time the Magi arrived. Since there is no absolute proof when Christ was born relative to the star appearing, we really can’t know for certain how old Jesus was at the time the Magi arrived in Bethlehem and the family escaped to Egypt.
Luke’s account of the events surrounding the birth of Christ are quite different from Matthew’s and appears to be inconsistent and even contradictory to the account given by Matthew. Luke writes the following:
Luke 2:22: When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.
The purification period would have been thirty-three days after circumcision took place on the eight day (See Leviticus 12:1-5). In Luke 2:39, Luke writes, “When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own home town of Nazareth.” The implication is that once the circumcision and purification period were complete, the family returned to Nazareth. This would make perfect sense, seeing this is where they were from and they had only visited Bethlehem because of the census requirement. Matthew, on the other hand, has them leaving Bethlehem, escaping to Egypt, and living there for an undisclosed period of time and then first returning to Nazareth. Luke says nothing about a sojourn in Egypt. Therefore, some feel Matthew made up the escape to Egypt story to tie yet another OT saying to the birth of Christ. It is also pointed out that there is no secular record of the killing of the children by Herod.
Are the Matthew and Luke accounts inconsistent as some claim? Luke shows that after forty-one days following the birth of Christ, Joseph and Mary took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present Him to God and then returned to Nazareth. The Magi may not have arrived in Bethlehem until some time after Christ had been presented at the temple. Contrary to the manger scenes seen at Christmas time, the Magi apparently visited the Christ child sometime after His birth as Matthew records them arriving at a house and not a manger as such. The family could have returned to Bethlehem after performing their duties in Jerusalem and then a year or more later escaped to Egypt after the Magi came and left. It is also possible the family left Jerusalem and went back to Nazareth and then moved back to Bethlehem at a later date and experienced the Magi/escape to Egypt event. For more reflection on this issue, see my essay on "The Star of Bethlehem" posted elsewhere on this website.
It is possible that Luke simply overlooked the Egypt event and wrote a more generalized account of the activities of the Christ child and His parents subsequent to the birth. It is possible that Luke didn’t even know about the sojourn in Egypt. Like all historians, Luke would have picked out those details he felt were most important while leaving other details out. Matthew, on the other hand, included the Egypt event because it apparently was important to him and he obviously knew about it. This variance in historical writing is common among all historians and so we should not find this unusual relative to what we find in Scripture. Authors of historical events commonly select what they feel is most important and write accordingly. Therefore, there is no need to conclude the Matthew and Luke accounts are inconsistent.
He will be called a Nazarene:
In Matthew 2:23 it is recorded that Christ, upon returning from Egypt, went to live in the town of Nazareth and, “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.” On the surface there appears to be a problem with this account in so much that there is no record in the OT of any prophet ever having made a statement about Christ or anyone else living in Nazareth. In fact the word Nazareth or Nazarene does not appear in the Old Testament. From what “prophets” is Matthew quoting?
Matthew could be quoting from the writings of an author whose work never became part of the OT narrative. There are examples in the canonized Scripture of material being obtained from non-canonized writings. We can’t assume that because someone is quoted in Scripture that it had to come from some other part of canonized Scripture. The word Scripture simply means writings. There were many writings extant in both Old and New Testament times. It’s a fact that writings that became canonized include information taken from writings that were not canonized and material from canonized writings was incorporated in non-canonized writings as seen in the apocryphal works. Matthew’s statement in Matthew 2:23 does not pose a problem.
The census issue:
According to Matthew, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Luke records that Jesus was born during the time that “The first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1). History shows a census took place in six and seven A.D. History also shows Herod to have died in 4 B.C. It would therefore appear that the census took place after the death of Herod.
Archaeologist Jerry Vardaman has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it that places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11B.C. until after the death of Herod. Historical records from this period show a census was taken about every fourteen years. Going back fourteen years from the census recorded for six to seven A.D. would place a census during the time of Herod.
The two genealogies:
Some have questioned the significance of the two genealogies of Jesus recorded in the NT. Matthew begins his gospel by writing, “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Matthew begins with Abraham, runs through David and ends with Joseph as the husband of Mary. If this is recorded to tell us that Christ is a descendant of David through Joseph, it would appear superfluous since Scripture records Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus. Therefore, Joseph would not have had any biological connection to Jesus. Christ could not be a biological descendant of David through Joseph.
Luke’s genealogy is quite different from Matthews and is thought to belong to Mary even though this can’t be definitively shown from Scriptures. Is a biological link required for Christ to be considered a descendent of David? The genealogy through Joseph would not establish a biological link to David as Joseph was not a biological father to Jesus. If the genealogy recorded in Like is tracing Jesus’ heritage through Mary, we would have a biological link to David provided an ovum from Mary was involved in the conception of Christ.
Some have speculated that God facilitated the entire conception of Jesus insomuch that Mary’s only involvement was that of a surrogate mother of the Christ child. No humanly produced sperm or ovum was involved in the begettal of Jesus. There was no biological connection to Mary. Mary simply provided the environment for the development and subsequent birth of Jesus. God brought about the entire conception of Jesus through supernatural means. The problem with this approach is that it would negate any significance to the Scriptural references to Christ being a Son of Abraham and a Son of David. Paul clearly states that Jesus was a descendant (from the seed) of David. This strongly indicates a human reproductive involvement in the conception of Jesus.
Romans 1:1-3: Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God-- the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David. (seed of David according to the flesh: KJV).
2 Timothy 2:8: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David (seed of David, KJV). This is my gospel.
It would appear Mary had to be biologically involved with the conception of Jesus in order for Jesus to be considered a descendant of David. Matthew’s genealogy through Joseph may have been for legal purposes only. Luke’s genealogy appears to provide a biological link to David as Luke writes in terms of Joseph being the supposed father of Jesus and then proceeds to provide a totally different genealogy for Jesus from that provided by Matthew (Luke 3:23-38). It is apparent that both Joseph and Mary were biological descendants of David but only Mary provides a direct biological link from David to Christ.