It is well known that Matthew cites regularly from the Old Testament. He opens his Gospel by introducing Jesus as Abraham and David’s Son (1:1). He places Jesus at the end of Israel’s history—at least from Abraham to David through the exile to himself—and even frames this genealogy after the Toledōt structure of Genesis. Not surprisingly, the rest of his Gospel echoes, alludes, and cites the Old Testament. But one facet of his citations recently caught my eye.
In reading Richard Hays Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Hays shows multiple places in Matthew’s Gospel where the Evangelist (or Jesus) speaks from two (or three) passages of Scripture. Hays calls this metalepsis, “a literary technique of citing or echoing a small bit of a precursor text in such a way that the reader can grasp the significance of the echo only by recalling or recovering the original context from which the fragmentary echo came and then reading the two texts in dialogical juxtaposition” (11). It’s the way Americans often weave movie quotes into their everyday conversation. Only, in the New Testament, it is the Hebrew Scriptures which form the well from which the biblical authors draw. This is how Jesus taught and spoke, and it is the way his Spirit-filled disciples do too.
Therefore, in reading Matthew, what at first looks like a simple citation from the Old Testament is often a more elaborate conflation of two or more passages. In what follows I will list a consider three examples mentioned by Hays, cite a few others, and draw a couple points of application for reading as a disciple of Jesus’s disciple, the apostle Matthew.
1. Matthew 2:6 = Micah 5:2 + 2 Samuel 5:2
Micah 5:2 is often read as a proof text predicting the birthplace of Jesus. Unfortunately, such a simplistic reading severs the word “Bethlehem” from its original context and misses the reason why Micah would have mentioned Bethlehem in his messianic oracle. Under God’s providential hand, Micah included Bethlehem because it would be the place where Jesus was born. But to approach it differently, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, because that is the place where kings are born.
Because God had already promised Judah a king (Genesis 49:10), and brought forth David from Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1ff), Micah’s mention of this city was a way of saying that what God did before in bringing a king from this obscure village, would happen again. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Micah wrote his oracle in continuity with antecedent history, even as it pushed the promise of a messiah forward into the future. Hence, Micah 5:2 is not a mere prediction disconnected from the historical situation of his contemporary hearers, it is both a word to Israel facing Assyria and to Israel in Jesus day (cf. 1 Peter 1:10–12).
Wisely, Matthew quotes this verse from Micah, not to cite it as a disconnected prediction, but to show how all the Hebrew Scriptures found fulfillment in Jesus. In fact, to add texture to Micah’s words, he changed the reading of Micah from Bethlehem being “too little to be among the clans of Judah” to Bethlehem who is “by no means least among the rulers of Judah.” With the coming of Christ, Bethlehem’s dimuinitive status was elevated.
At the same time, Matthew mashed up Micah 5:2 with another 5:2, 2 Samuel 5:2, which reads, “In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’” The context of this passage is the recognition of David as king, which understandably makes it a passage Matthew would bring in to conflate with Micah.
Observing the effect this verse has on Matthew, Hays writes,
The quotation as Matthews presents it . . . fuses the Micah passage with 2 Samuel 5:2, a key line in the account of David’s accession to the throne. . . . The full implications of this echo are rarely noticed, but it is hardly coincidental that in 2 Samuel the tribes of Israel are declaring their greater allegiance to David in contrast to the recently deceased Saul. . . . The effect of Matthew splicing this text together with Micah 5:1–-3 is to foreshadow the supplanting and death of Herod (Matt 2:15) and to hint, within the very words of the prophecy as reported by the chief priests and scribes, that Jesus is about to assume his rightful place as Israel’s anointed king. (146–147)
To disciples unskilled in the Old Testament, the meaning of Matthew 2:6 is not lost: Jesus is the king who was promied of old. The context of Matthew 2:1–12 makes that plain. But for those with ears to hear, those like Matthew and his Jewish audience whose minds were brimming with the Hebrew Scripture, such a combination amplifies praise and precision for who Jesus is.
2. Matthew 3:17 = Genesis 22:2, 12 + Psalm 2:7 + Isaiah 42:1
It is commonly recognized that the Father’s identification of Jesus at this baptism (“This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased,” Matthew 3:17) conflates Psalm 2:7 (“You are may son . . .”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“Behold my servant, . . . in whom my soul delights”). Hays picks up another filial identification, i.e., a “beloved son” from Genesis 22. He writes,
While this epithet echoes the royal figure of Psalm 2:7 and the ‘servant’ of Isaiah 42:1, Matthew’s language corresponds more closely to the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, where is it [sic] Isaac who is repeatedly identified as the ‘beloved son’ . . . This Isaac typology, which is fully consistent with Matthew’s repeated stress on Jesus’ obedience, gives a far richer sense to Matthew’s programmatic identification of Jesus as ‘son of Abraham’ (1:1): Jesus is Abraham’s son not only because of genealogical descent but also because he embodies the fulfillment figurally foreshadowed by Isaac. (140)
One might object that this interpretation reads more into Matthew than what the Evangelist intended to communicate, but I disagree. It stands on a tighter linguistic connection between Genesis 22:2, 12 and Matthew 3:17. And it better explains the argument of Matthew’s opening chapters: Jesus is the promised son, just like Isaac. Thus, while this reading may be unfamiliar to many, its method is by no means fanciful.
3. Matthew 4:15–16 = Isaiah 9:1–2 + Isaiah 42:7
Matthew continues to identify who Jesus is in the opening chapters of his Gospel. And in Matthew 4, he shows how Jesus ministry fulfills Old Testament Scripture. In particular, he quotes in verses 15–16 Isaiah 9:1–2, a passage that speaks of light coming to Israel, and specifically to that part of Israel where Gentiles have historically been present, the Galilee. The meaning is plain enough: like Israel of old walked in darkness because of Assyria’s oppression, so the nation of Israel (and the Gentiles too) lived under the oppression in Jesus day. Only, Matthew doesn’t say “walked in darkness” as Isaiah 9 does, he says “dwells” or “sits” in darkness. Such verbal sleight of hand indicates an intentional change in language and possibly the inclusion of another passage.
Indeed, this is exactly what Hays points out,
The reference to those who ‘sat in darkness’ is derived from Isaiah 42:7, here melded into Isaiah 9:1. The significant point about this blending is that Isaiah 42:1–9—a passage from which Matthew will quote in extenso later in his Gospel—declares that God has commissioned his servant (Israel) to ‘bring forth justice to the nations (Isa 42:1). . . . The two passages, Isaiah 9:1–2 and Isaiah 42:6–7, are linked by the catchword light and darkness. By conflating the wording of the two texts, Matthew’s formula quotation hints metaleptically [see definition above] that the “great light” appearing in Capernaum as Jesus inaugurates his mission of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven (Matt 4:17) is precisely the “light to the nations” of Isaiah 42:6. The fulfillment citation is not only a promise of vindication for Israel (as in Isa 9:1) but also a prefiguration of salvation for the Gentiles who previously “sat in darkness” (as in Isa 42:7). (177–78)
Again, the reader who misses this “melding” has not lost the meaning of Matthew 4:15–16, but they do miss the weight of all that Matthew is saying. Matthew is putting stress on Jesus’ mission to the Gentiles, and by mashing together Isaiah 9 and Isaiah 42 he wants his Hebrew disciples to hear the resonance of those two passages together. He may also be indicating from the start that the kingdom Jesus proclaims (4:17) is not going to come through force, but with the king’s sacrifice, as the king becomes a servant to many (cf. Matthew 20:28).
Apologetically, Matthew’s Isaianic mashup makes an argument for the unity and single-authorship of Isaiah. Hermeneutically, it teaches us that like a professional golfer who always spins his shot, Matthew (and the other New Testament writers) quotes the Old Testament with incredible skill and precision. Rarely does he quote a verse like a first-year Bible college student. Rather, he uses the Old Testament Scripture in fresh ways that never break the original meaning. In this, Matthew teaches us how to read the Old Testament too.
Space does not permit a full discussion of every text, but here are a few more examples from Matthew where his citation mashes up multiple Old Testament citations. (For more discussion, see Hays’ chapter on Matthew in Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels).
4. Matthew 12:1–8 = 1 Samuel 21:1–6 + Numbers 28:9, 10; 1 Chronicles 9:32 + Hosea 6:6
5. Matthew 17:5 = Psalm 2:7 + Isaiah 42:1 + Deuteronomy 18:15
6. Matthew 21:5 = Isaiah 62:1 + Zechariah 9:9
7. Matthew 27:39 = Psalm 22:7 + Lamentations 2:15
8. Matthew 28:16–20 = 2 Chronicles 36 + Joshua 1:7 + Deuteronomy 31:23
Certainly, this list is not exhaustive. What else would you include?
Learning from Matthew how to Read as a Disciple of Jesus
So what is the pay off to learning to read like Matthew writes? One passage may help us answer.
In Matthew 13:51–52 Jesus concludes his kingdom parables with this question: “Have you understood all these things?” His disciples answer affirmatively, and he continues, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Indeed, true disciples of Christ abide in the house of the Lord, the place where the Word of God was stored. In this place, we learn to value what Jesus values by listening to disciples who have gone before us.
Today, Jesus is creating a new community of scribes, “keepers of the law who are being trained for the kingdom.” Such discipleship begins with obedient faith in Christ, but it doesn’t stop there. As the Great Commission makes plain, disciples are committed to learning and obeying all that the Lord teaches, which includes how to read the Word of God.
While Bible study is not an end in itself, no disciple grows without increasing comprehension of God’s work—Jesus said we would know what he is doing, John 15:15—and God’s Word. Hence, one of the disciples greatest labors and loves is learning how to read the Scriptures like Christ.
From Matthew’s Gospel we learn that individual texts of the Old Testament ought to be read in conversation with one another. Rarely, does Matthew quote just one verse of the Bible. Rather, in identifying the promised messiah, he draws upon many cords from Israel’s biblical tapestry. We ought to do the same.
Ironically, many who affirm the unity of the Bible, read the Bible in isolated, disconnected ways. In this, they are disciples of Christ who use hermeneutical practices found outside Scripture. Instead of seeing how the threads of Scripture interpenetrate one another—what Hays and others call intertextuality—they read and interpret passages in isolation from one another. This approach to exposition may be faithful at the textual horizon, but it fails to consider how texts of Scripture depend upon previous revelation and prepare the way for further revelation—what we might might call the epochal or canonical horizon. This approach is more akin to the dissecting methods of the Enlightenment than the biblical methods of New Testament authors.
Matthew teaches us, therefore, to learn from him, who learned from Jesus. As Hays observes, “Matthew does not lay out all the treasures of his intertextual narration in plain sight” (187). Rather, it will, as Matthew 13:52 indicates, take hermeneutical discipleship. A process of learning to read from the authors of Scripture themselves.
In that process, we do well to remember: all Scripture is bound together, and its many strands are meant to run together and be read together, such that in any one piece of Scripture we hear the notes of other passages, which in turn enrich and enliven our reading of the passage before us. This is what Matthew does in his writing, and it should make us sensitive in our reading, that when biblical authors make a statement, especially one that is clearly picking up ideas, words, or quotations from the Old Testament, the richness of their meaning is often found in the way their words interpret not just one passage, but many. Such an approach to reading takes time, but as Jesus said in Matthew 13, this is what scribes of the kingdom do: dwelling in the house of God, we rightly value treasures old and new, learning to read from faithful disciples who have gone before us.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds