Some thoughts on Matthew’s “fulfillment” or “formula citations”
This gospel continually looks back in order to look forward, as it is steeped in Old Testament quotations, known as formula citations, which function as evidence of Jesus’ messianic identity (1.22; 2.6, 15, 16, 23; 4.15-16; 8.17; 12.17-21; 13.14, 35; 21.4; 27.9-10).
“[Matthew] introduces many of his direct quotations from Scripture with the stereotyped formula ‘this was to fulfill what was spoken’….and they offer an authorial commentary on the narrative,” Luke T. Johnson, The Writings of the NT, 174. “Matthew has about 60 references of quotations from the Old Testament…Only in Matthew has Jesus come not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them (5.17-20),” Richard Burridge, Four Gospels, One Jesus?, 76-77.
“This is almost a Matthean peculiarity among the Synoptic Gospels [Lk 22.37; see also Mk 15.38; Lk 18.31; 24.44]. That Jesus is to be related to the Scriptures is a commonplace in early Christianity, but Matt has uniquely standardized the fulfillment of the prophet word. In finding this fulfillment, Matt usually makes no attempt to interpret the larger contextual meaning of the cited OT passage; rather there is a concentration on the details where there is a resemblance to Jesus or the NT event….[L]ikely the citations have a didactic purpose, informing Christian readers and giving support to their faith…..Besides using the formula citations to fit the general theology of the unity of God’s plan, the Matthean evangelist selected them to serve his particular theological and pastoral interests in addressing a mixed Christian community of Jews and Gentiles,” Raymond Brown, Introduction to the New Testament, 207, 208.
Reading Matthew’s gospel with the OT story at the forefront of our thoughts, we will see the writer revealing how events in Jesus’ life have πληρωθη a statement in the OT. Most translations render πληρωθη as “fulfill,” as in, “to actualize a prediction of future events,” which, though a viable rendering, may overstate, or at least muddle, the function of such statements.
I believe a better, and more helpful, way of rendering the phrase would be “to cram,” “to fill up,” “fill to the fullness,” “to fully preach,” “to execute,” or “to perfect,” James Strong, The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995, 1996), Greek 4134, 4137. Thus, Eugene Peterson’s rendering: “This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term,” The Message, Mt 1.22. The problem with the translation “fulfill” is that it fails to appreciate the original context of these statements, with which Matthew’s hearers would have been familiar.
While we cannot explicate each of these citations here, by way of example we can note that the initial audience who read Matthew 1.23 would have known it was a quote from Isaiah 7.14, part of the prophet’s message to Ahaz, king of Judah, who reigned c 736/5-716/15 BC, John D. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33, (Word Books: Waco, 1985), 78.
Assyria was the “super-power” of the day, but uprisings against their dominion were common. Around 734 BCE, Pekah (king of Israel) allied with Rezin (king of Aram) to revolt against Assyria, and threatened to destroy Judah if Ahaz did not cooperate. At this, “the heart of Ahaz and the hearts of his people trembled like trees of a forest shaking in the wind” (Isa 7.2b). This is the context for Isaiah’s proclamation in 7.14, cited by Matthew, which is part of a larger message of assurance that if king Ahaz and the people of Judah would trust in YHWH, this threat would be averted.
Isaiah declares that Aram and Israel, threatening though they may seem at the present time, will be defeated (vv 3-9), and as a sign of confirmation, “the danger will disappear so rapidly that women who are now with child will name their sons, in thankfulness for being saved, ‘Immanuel,’ ‘God with us’ (cf. Judg 6.16; Ps 46.7, 11).” In short, Isaiah says that this threat will be gone by the time these children are old enough to distinguish between good and evil—generally thought to be the twentieth year (see Gen 3.5; Deut 1.39), though the emphasis is on brevity rather than a specific time frame—and women will name their children Immanuel in thankful praise to YHWH, Otto Kaiser, The Old Testament Library: Isaiah 1-12, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 104.
Therefore, when Matthew applies this verse to Jesus it does not mean that Isaiah was prophesying the future event of Jesus’ birth since the context of Isaiah 7.14 makes it clear that “its primary meaning requires a sign that will be fulfilled in the immediate future,” Watts, Word Biblical Commentary, 99. Rather, Jesus, like the children during this seemingly hopeless point in Ahaz’s reign, is born into a period of threatening oppression, exploitation, and domination causing no little distress, uncertainty, and fear in the land (see Isa 7.2).
The promise of Jesus’ birth, coupled with this quotation, recalls God’s deliverance of Judah from structures and systems of oppression in the past, and God’s presence in the midst of chaos and approaching catastrophe.
Through a seemingly common, un-extraordinary event—the birth of a child—God offers a sign of hope for rescue, redemption, and restoration. The birth of a child offers the hope of new beginnings, where all that stood before Judah’s vision was a tragic and demeaning end.
Just as the birth of the child functioned as a sign of coming relief from the threat of destruction in the days of king Ahaz c. 734 BCE, so too the birth of Jesus c. 4 BCE signals relief and redemption from the systems of oppression—“[Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (1.21).
This is why Matthew can declare that “all this took place to πληρωθη (“fill to the full” “execute,” or “perfect”) what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (1.22). Jesus, like the child of Isa 7.14, is the unexpected, easily dismissed sign of hope in hopeless times who executes, universalizes, and fills up the hope of God’s presence for those suffering under the threat (or actuality) of captivity, oppression, and exploitation.
Such a reading allows us to appreciate the original context of the text as well as Matthew’s declaration that Jesus re-enacts these past situations, bringing them to fuller and more wide-reaching manifestations. For the initial audience, such connections would have been clear. For us, it requires understanding the context of the OT citation as best we can. Failure to do so will inevitably result in misunderstandings and interpretations that miss connections the writer sought to make, turning them into proof texts of Messianic identity rather than a demonstration of Jesus’ continuity with, and πληρωθη (re-manifesting and filling up) of, God’s redemptive purposes.
As Dale Allison notes, “The ubiquitous scriptural citations and allusions…direct the informed reader to other books and so teach that Matthew is not a self-contained entity: much is missing. The gospel, in other words, stipulates that it be interpreted in the context of other texts; it evokes tradition through the device of allusion. This means that it is, in a fundamental sense, an incomplete utterance, a book full of holes. Readers must make present what is absent; they must bring to the gospel knowledge of what it presupposes, i.e., a pre-existing collection of interacting texts, the Jewish Bible (the main source of our knowledge about the four women in the genealogy, [for example]). The first gospel, like so much ancient Jewish literature…[is] designed to trigger intertextual exchanges which depend upon informed and imaginative reading,” The Oxford Bible Commentary, CD-ROM. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), “Introduction, F. The Nature of the Text, 1.”
So what’s significant in the birth of another Jewish child? Not much, it seems, next to the posturing and proclamations of world powers, unless his/her name happens to be Immanuel. Then it is an event of world shaping proportions.
Reading Matthew’s fulfillment citations in this manner may require rethinking the nature of the good news (gospel) of Jesus, and most certainly requires this kind of “informed and imaginative reading” to grasp the significance and implications of Matthew’s OT references.