The Meaning Of Matthew’s Mistakes

So Matthew likes quite a lot of what he finds in Mark. Likes it so much he decides to lift over 90% of it into his own Jesus story. Of course he’ll tweak it a bit because, disappointingly, Mark hasn’t emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness enough. That definitely needs bumping up; it’s what his readers will expect. And Mark has missed a trick or two: he starts his story with Jesus’ baptism, when, as everyone knows, every godman needs a magical origin. Just look at Tammuz, Horus, Romulus and, according to some, the Jewish high priest Melchizedek. So Matthew sets about scouring the scriptures for a prophecy or fable, anything really, that hints that the Messiah would have a miraculous birth. And he comes across this in Isaiah (7.14):

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s not really a prophecy about the Messiah as the context makes clear, but that’s okay. There’s enough of a hint that it could be about a future Messiah that it’ll do. So Matthew sets about creating a birth narrative for his godman based on this verse, yanked from its context. His godman is going to have a virgin birth too.

What Matthew doesn’t realise, however, is that he’s made a mistake. He’s picked up the verse in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the scriptures. If he’d checked, or even been able to read the original Hebrew, he would have soon seen that the verse actually reads:

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

The Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ is alma and that is the word used in Isaiah 7.14. The word for virgin is betulah. It does not appear. The use of it in the Septuagint is a mistake, a mistake that Matthew is not aware of. So he misappropriates the mistranslated verse to create a miraculous birth for Jesus and the myth of his virgin birth is born.

But Matthew hasn’t finished scouring the scriptures for prophecies that appear to be about Jesus. This time he alights on Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Incredibly, this time Matthew has stumbled upon a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah! According to Zechariah, the Messiah-King’s victorious entry into Jerusalem will follow the defeat of his enemies and the establishment of universal peace. Matthew likes the sound of this. If he can shoehorn an episode into his story where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, this will show his readers that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah-King. Never mind that the Jesus version bears little resemblance to the scenario predicted by Zechariah: Jesus is not an anointed king, he has not recently defeated his enemies nor has he just established universal peace. The only thing the original prophecy and Matthew’s version have in common is that the two principle figures, Zechariah’s Messiah-King and Jesus, ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Oh, no, wait. That’s wrong. According to Matthew Jesus approaches on two donkeys; a mother and her colt. He’s made another mistake. He doesn’t know that the use of ‘donkey’ and ‘colt’ in the prophecy refers to the same animal. He thinks there has to be two: a larger one and a smaller one. He is not familiar with the practice of parallelism, common in Jewish writing to emphasise a point by repeating it  but using alternative terminology. There aren’t two animals on which Jesus sits lop-sidedly, there’s one: a donkey, otherwise known as a colt which, to state the bleedin’ obvious, is also the foal of a donkey. Matthew misses all of this and places Jesus precariously on two mismatched animals.

What does this tell us? That Matthew is not describing an actual event. He has, rather, created a story based on a prophecy, designed to illustrate to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah-King prophesied by Zechariah. There is nothing historical about this story; it is an actualisation-in-fiction of a prophecy. A prophecy,  which, incidentally, still has not been fulfilled.

So Matthew is caught out at least twice. There are more examples in his gospel of his forcing an episode from the scriptures into his Jesus fable: other aspects of his birth narrative are clearly based on elements of Moses’ story; Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are based on a story from Zechariah 11, which has no relevance at all to the use he makes of it. There is also evidence that Matthew invented prophecy that he could then show Jesus ‘fulfilling’ (Matthew 2.23, for example.)

What all of this demonstrates is not that Jesus was foreshadowed in the Jewish scriptures, (foreshadowing being a technique beloved of some authors who use it to hint at future events in their fiction) but rather that many aspects of the Jesus story are literary re-imaginings of ‘prophecies’ and often unrelated episodes from the scriptures.

And if some, why not all?