Friday, November 30, 2007

Fulfillment in the Gospel of Matthew

Tomorrow I'm starting a class on the fulfillment statements in Matthew's Gospel. Since I seem to have otherwise let my blog go silent, I thought maybe I'd post here on what I plan to talk about in this class. I'd appreciate any feedback.


The gospel readings in the lectionary for the coming year are from the Gospel of Matthew. One of the most prominent features of Matthew's gospel is the way it presents Jesus' life as a fulfillment of Old Testament scripture. Ten times in the gospel Matthew uses a formula of the form "this was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet...."

On the surface, these quotations appear to be taken completely out of context. In many cases, the passages he's quoting don't look anything like Messianic prophecy. And in all cases critical reading seems to indicate that the prophet was talking about something else. If someone were using scripture like this today, it would be labelled as "proof-texting" and looking down upon. Is it possible that Matthew a hack?

I don't think so.

The earliest Christians were convinced that Jesus Christ was at the heart of the Old Testament. They didn't just believe that a few passages predicted specific things about Jesus' life. They believed that the scriptures as a whole were pointing toward Jesus.

In the case of the fulfillment statements in Matthew's gospel, a closer examination of the texts he is quoting, paying particular attention to what they meant in context, reveals the possibility that Matthew was using these passages to evoke a much richer image than is immediately obvious. To see the richness of what Matthew is doing, we have to completely immerse ourselves in Scripture.

Before I get into that I want to step back and consider what it means to have fulfilled what was spoken through the prophets.

What do you think of when you hear the word "fulfill"? When you hear it in connection with prophecy, chances are your first impression is that something happened that was previously predicted. But I don't think that's quite what Matthew has in mind.

What other uses of "fulfill" are you familiar with? You may hear that something has fulfilled its purpose, or someone has fulfilled a duty or an obligation. You might even hear that something has fulfilled someone's dreams. Now we're getting somewhere.

The Greek word Matthew uses to talk about "fulfillment" is πληροω. It comes from a combination of the adjective πληρης, meaning "full", and the suffix "-οω", meaning "to cause" (actually "I cause"). So to fulfill means to cause to be full. But look, we could have seen that from the English! I find that a lot when I get into "what the Greek means" but it often is something I hadn't realy noticed about the English word. Just like in English, Greek speakers probably didn't think about this, but this is what's behind the word.

So to fulfill the words of the prophet is to take those words and make them full of something. But full of what?

At this point, the it's useful to consider the development of Messianic expectations more generally. As Judah faced threats from its neighbors in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. prophets arose and promised hope. Often this hope was associated with a new king coming to the throne. When that king didn't live up to expectations, rather than the people losing hope, the promise grew. The hopes developed into a general expectation of "the one who is to come" -- God's annointed. We can already see this happening in the canonical forms of the prophetic books. By the time Jesus was born, it had blossomed into full blown Messianic hope, but nothing in the original context of the prophetic words could "fill" the words interpreted this way.

But this is what Matthew is saying. Jesus "fill" the hope that had been placed in these Old Testament promises.


Pastor Eric said...

I like your work with the word "fulfill". I hadn't really thought of it that way before. Your class sounds like it would be very interesting.

Tom in Ontario said...

I wish there were people in my congregation who could prepare for and lead a class like that. Then I wish there would be enough interested people to attend such a class to make it worth his/her time and effort to prepare.

Instead I end up leading canned Bible Studies (but I do find good ones) because nobody will take the initiative to do it themselves and they wait for the local "expert" (meaning me) to do it.