Christmas notes, part 2: Did Messianic prophecy inspire the Christmas story?


The Flight into Egypt, by Vittore Carpaccio (1450- 1525)

One of the favorite targets of destructive biblical criticism is the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the first two chapters of Matthew. One distinctive feature of Matthew’s account makes it a particularly tempting target. Matthew’s theological agenda is absolutely overt: over and over in the first few chapters of his Gospel, we get some variation on the phrase, “… all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet…” followed by a quotation of some passage from the Old Testament. Clearly, Matthew is deeply concerned to show the birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

There are two ways to look at that fact. From a traditional Christian perspective, Matthew, knowing some of the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, searched back through the prophets to find passages that would resonate with the events. Jewish interpretive practices in the first century were varied and complex and not always something sober twenty-first century readers would engage in. Still, Matthew’s use of those techniques (still a debated issue in some circles) is pretty tame by Jewish standards of his time.

It is not difficult, in a quick online search, to find long lists of ostensible messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. Take Hosea 11:1, for example:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.

One recent commentary (John Phillips, Exploring the Minor Prophets: An Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2002), p. 60) reflects on this passage:

Devout Jewish students must have often pondered this Messianic prophecy. How can the Messiah possibly come out of Egypt? they no doubt reasoned.

Or consider Jeremiah 31:15:

Thus says the LORD, “A voice is heard in Ramah, Lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; She refuses to be comforted for her children, Because they are no more.”

Even in Jeremiah’s time, Rachel had been dead for centuries; her mourning is a metaphor. Matthew, reflecting on the small but brutal massacre in Bethlehem, saw history coming full circle again and found in Jeremiah’s description of Rachel’s lament an apt metaphor for events in his own time.

Above all, there is the much-disputed sign promised in Isaiah 7:14:

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

As the notes in the NET Bible Synopsis of the Four Gospels inform us, the “Messiah was to be born of a virgin”—and despite what appears to be an unending wrangle over the words almah and parthenos, it is not hard to see how Matthew, learning that Jesus had indeed been born of a virgin, would have taken the event to be a fulfillment of prophecy.

But from a more cynical perspective, this order of looking at things is backwards. Matthew, knowing the Old Testament prophecies, and persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah, invented the stories in order to fit the prophecies. The events did not remind Matthew of the prophecies; the events, in fact, never took place. Rather, recollected prophecies gave rise to the fabrication of the Christmas story.

The simplicity of the skeptical theory gives it a certain superficial charm. Anything Matthew says that cannot be independently verified can be explained away in this fashion. Why does he (but not Luke) send Jesus to Egypt? Because that way, Jesus can be seen as fulfilling the prophecy in Hosea.

Regarding Jeremiah 31:15, George Wesley Buchanan (Jesus, the King and His Kingdom (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1984), p. 292) writes:

Jeremiah was a prophet. Therefore, he would have been speaking only of the days of the Messiah. Why would there be weeping in Herod’s day? Herod must have slaughtered Rachel’s descendants the way Pharaoh had done with the Hebrew children in Egypt.

There is the reversal: Herod “must have” done this, as it is what the prophecy requires; therefore, the story fulfills the prophecy, neatly bypassing actual history in the process.

And for Isaiah 7:14, the skeptical explanation seems ready made. Does Isaiah prophesy a virgin birth for the Messiah? Well, then if Jesus is the Messiah, a virgin birth he must have. To the skeptical eye it is all so so clear, so satisfying.

Except for one small problem. In all of the Jewish literature prior to the advent of Christianity, there is not one scrap of evidence that any Jewish reader ever considered Isaiah 7:14, Jeremiah 31:15, or Hosea 11:1 to be messianic prophecies.

It is not as though we lack evidence of what they did consider to be messianic. We have an abundance of evidence on that front. In an appendix to the second volume of his massive work The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Alfed Edersheim lists 456 passages that are glossed in the Targums or the Talmud as messianic. And not one of these passages makes the list.

I want to express myself carefully here, as there is a risk that I will be misunderstood. I am not saying that, by the standards of first century Jewish interpretation, these passages could not be taken to resonate with actual events in the life of Jesus. Clearly they could—if those events really transpired, they might well suggest that sort of application of these passages. What I am saying is that, so far as our evidence is concerned, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that an overly zealous first century Jew, intent on making up a story about the birth of the Messiah, would reach for these passages or feel the need to work them into his narrative. There is plenty of other material to work with. But for this hypothetical Jewish-Christian novelist, these three passages are simply not relevant.

The fact that the Jews themselves did not consider these passages to be Messianic is fatal to the theory that the birth narrative in Matthew was fabricated to accord with messianic expectations. One might even reverse the argument. It is not easy to find a good explanation for the incorporation of such material into a fictional account of Jesus’ nativity. Yet there it is. How, then, shall we explain that fact? Why did Matthew feel moved to draw out just those strands from the prophetic writings, unless it was because the parallels were suggested by the events themselves?

Against this, there is always the fundamental fallback position of skepticism, a position that Matthew Arnold puts with admirable bluntness in his Preface to Literature and Dogma (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1883), p. xii:

[O]ur popular religion at present conceives the birth, ministry, and death of Christ, as altogether steeped in prodigy, brimful of miracle;—and miracles do not happen.

With such an antagonist, one knows where one stands. There is no subterfuge here, no pretense that the narratives must be set aside because of the results of dispassionate historical criticism. As G. K. Chesterton observes:

Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. [Orthodoxy (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1945), pp. 278-79]


DISCLAIMER: Blog entries made by individual authors reflect the views of the author and not necessarily the view of other CAA authors, or the official position of the group at large.
About Tim McGrew

Dr. Timothy McGrew is Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University. He specializes in theory of knowledge, logic, probability theory, and the history and philosophy of science. He has published in numerous journals including Mind, The Monist, Analysis, Erkenntnis, British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, and Philosophia Christi. His recent publications include the article on “Evidence” in The Routledge Companion to Epistemology (Routledge, 2010), co-authorship of The Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology (Blackwell, 2009), co-authorship (with Lydia McGrew) of the article on "The Argument from Miracles" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009), and the article on "Miracles" for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). He is the project director of the Library of Historical Apologetics, which can be found on Facebook.

  • tildeb

    I love the Chesterton quote; it’s classical relativism. Black means white and up means down and we believe because of evidence adduced from reality. Riiiight.

    Let’s review for a moment:

    No genetic evidence that should be there for a founding couple, no evidence that should be there for a global flood, no evidence that should be there for a mass exodus, no historical records worthy of the name that should be there for these astounding ‘miracles’, not a peep mentioned by local historians that should be well documented by them for these events, yet a hundred years later, we have what looks exactly like a Just so story made to fit the a priori needs to establish a prophecy filling prophet and anyone who recognizes the overwhelming evidence against the miracle claims, well, they are the ones practicing a faith-based belief, donchaknow; us believers use compelling evidence (of the negative kind, meaning its absence).

    Good grief.

    • tildeb

      And speaking of evidence, I urge apologists to read this post from John Zande who has been in correspondence with a host of Jewish Pentateuch scholars about the startling lack of evidence (an indeed contrary evidence) from the historical record for many biblical claims assumed to be true. What we have, in fact, is a collection of books with every indication of a self-verifying approach trying to rectify history to align with a story to support a Jewish historical identity that never was.

      Chesterton is a typical apologist, claiming stuff to be true that is equivalent in all ways to simply making stuff up (to suit his beliefs, such as the ludicrous statement quoted above, The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they
      have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly
      or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them
      and then when slapped in the face by reality, he blithely and falsely continues to claim that his beliefs don’t come from him but from compelling evidence adduced from reality. This is simply not true and apologists like he is – and those who support him spreading falsities, are being held to account not by scholars who know perfectly well history does not support biblical historical claims but by New Atheists who think that what’s true matter more and deserves more respect than contrary religious beliefs. It’s time to listen to them.

      • Guest

        John Zande, did you post this?

    • Tim

      “No genetic evidence that should be there for a founding couple, …”

      Does this have anything to do with the post? Did you even read the post?

      “… no evidence that should be there for a global flood, …”


      “… no evidence that should be there for a mass exodus, …”

      Ditto. Though, by the by, you should really read Kitchen and Hoffmeier before you say silly things like this.

      “… no historical records worthy of the name that should be there for these astounding ‘miracles’,…”

      Yeah, just mid first century reports from the only people who could be expected to know or care. Why not just brush that aside?

      “… not a peep mentioned by local historians that should be well documented by them for these events,…”

      Like who? Oh, never mind, people who argue from silence can’t be expected to answer obvious questions like that

      “… yet a hundred years later,…”

      Try about 30-35, that is, well within living memory of people who were adults in AD 30.

      “… we have what looks exactly like a Just so story made to fit the a priori needs to establish a prophecy …”

      So you didn’t read the post. At all.


  • Travis Rothlisberger

    I think you’ve offered good reason for doubting that the author invented Matthew’s nativity story by only drawing from prophecy. This does not, however, entail that these passages are based on actual events and are not the creative byproduct of a theological agenda. The key is to focus on the agenda and not on the “prophecies”, which are only one tool in support of that agenda.

    Let’s start by recognizing that the nativities in Matthew and Luke diverge so greatly because they don’t have the common source (Mark) that harmonizes them elsewhere. Absent divine inspiration, the observed conflict between two independent sources describing the same event typically infers that at least one of the sources is in some sense incorrect. Now add on the cultural context of Matthew – it was the “Jewish gospel” and employed by the Nazoreans and Ebionites. The redactions overlayed onto Mark are clearly targeting a Jewish audience. Matt 2:23 offers a clue into who those redactors might be. I suggest that it was the Nazoreans.

    Under this view, the agenda becomes more clear; the author was targeting a Jewish audience to show that Jesus was the Messiah (contrary to what most other Jews would believe) and that he was the son of God from birth (contrary to the adoptionist views of the Ebionites). One tool employed in this effort is to draw a parallel between Jesus and the prototype Messiah – Moses. This leads to the slaughter of the innocents and the trip to Egypt. The passages in Jeremiah and Hosea are incorporated to strengthen the argument. The Jeremiah passage is followed in Jeremiah by a promise that the nation of Israel will be restored. In making the connection, the author is not only creating a parallel event between Moses and Jesus (the infanticide) but also suggesting that the event in Jesus’ infancy is a harbinger of the messianic kingdom (where Jesus is that messiah). The Hosea passage is useful because, though it is not messianic, it again links Jesus with Moses (coming out of Egypt) and offers an argument against the adoptionist view by asserting that Jesus was called out of Egypt as God’s son while he was still a child.

    As for Isaiah, that one’s a little different. The story of the virgin birth was probably already in circulation before being recorded in Matthew, but it again fit nicely into the agenda by supporting the idea that Jesus was God’s son at birth and not a mere human that was adopted as such. As to whether the passage in Isaiah is even speaking of a virgin, I think that the dispute over almah is best clarified by the fact that bethulah is used 50 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated as virgin. Almah is used only seven times and is usually translated as ‘maiden’ or ‘girl’.

    You asked “Why did Matthew feel moved to draw out just those strands from the
    prophetic writings, unless it was because the parallels were suggested
    by the events themselves?” I hope that I have proffered an answer to that question.

    • Tim


      Thanks for that thoughtful note, showing that you’ve actually read the post and engaging with the issues.

      While I appreciate what you’re trying to say when you ask that we focus on the agenda and not on the prophecies, I think it’s not that simple. The problem is that these are the wrong prophecies for a novelist to reach for. They’re wrong for someone who wants (as Matthew clearly does) to proclaim that Jesus is the messiah. They’re also wrong (most of them: certainly Hosea 11 and Isaiah 7) for someone who wants to paint Jesus as the second Moses.

      You try to patch this up by bringing in the issue of adoptionism. But here I think you’re trying too hard. There are much more direct ways to confront that heresy, if that had been Matthew’s intent. Once we begin multiplying hypothetical motives, we can get pretty far from the actual text and still have the illusion that we are explaining it. Over the years I’ve grown increasingly wary of such literary speculations, which – in cases where we have direct means of testing them – have a truly lousy track record. Anything is possible. But not all possibilities deserve equal consideration.

      I don’t really see much in the way of conflict between the nativity stories in Matthew and in Luke. They’re very different in the details they give. But I’m going to defer the discussion of that, because I have an entire post planned in which I talk about the dating of the “census,” the question of whether Bethlehem was or wasn’t Joseph and Mary’s hometown, Luke’s omission of the flight into Egypt, etc. I say this much, just to show that when I disagree with you that one or the other of the sources must be “in some sense incorrect,” it isn’t because I’m unaware of the arguments.

      The passages in Hosea and Jeremiah are not really very helpful in cementing the idea that Jesus is a second Moses. The sense in which, as Matthew tells it, Jesus comes up from Egypt is hardly a strong parallel. (Jesus doesn’t even lead Mary and Joseph up from Egypt.) Parallels with Moses could have been fabricated so much more easily if Matthew had a free hand to invent whatever he liked. Jesus could have taken a ride in a little basket made of reeds. He could have been taken to safety by a princess. He could have been raised in the court of a ruler. He could have called down plagues. There could be at least one story of his speaking to a rock (or smiting it – I’m not particular about this) and water coming forth. Compared to these examples (and anyone familiar with the life of Moses could easily construct many more), saying that he once lived in Egypt as a kid for a few months is pretty thin; unless it really happened, I don’t see anyone’s inventing it.

      The case is much better for the parallel between the killing of the Hebrew males and the record in Matthew 2 that some children in a little out-of-the-way hamlet south of Jerusalem were killed in an attempt to destroy Jesus. But curiously, that story turns out to be a key, in two ways. First, a couple of details in Matthew 2:22 nail it into what we know of the history of the time from Josephus. Second, the whole story of the flight and slaughter help, I think, to explain Luke 2:39. Again, details will follow in another post; but the point I am trying to make is that the one story that we might have, initially, the most suspicion about turns out to be supported as authentic by more than one line of argument.

      • Travis Rothlisberger

        I am in complete agreement that the Jeremiah, Hosea and Isaiah passages are poor choices for somebody who is trying to argue that Jesus is the messiah. However, to say that they are the “wrong prophecies” implies that there are right choices elsewhere. I would be interested in hearing which OT passages you would instead select and how you would fit them into an infancy narrative for the messiah – note that “from Bethlehem” and “line of David” are already taken.

        I think we’ll just have to disagree that the Hosea passage about God calling his son (Israel) out of Egypt is a bad choice for drawing a parallel to Moses, whose most prominent act was answering God’s call to lead Israel out of Egypt. I also am not claiming that the desire to draw parallels to Moses is the only motivation for introducing those parts of the story. They also serve as the backbone of the explanation for how Jesus was actually from Bethlehem but known to be from Nazareth, though it sounds like that discussion will have to wait for your next post. I also fail to see how it does much good to point out the alternative ways that a parallel to Moses could have been drawn.

        The suspicion of an anti-adoptionist agenda has more behind it than I alluded to. There are many passages in Matthew which modify the Markan text to emphasize Jesus’ divine sonship; this isn’t an isolated incident. There’s also patristic claims that the Ebionites held a butchered version of Matthew which was missing the nativity. It seems more plausible to me that they simply held a version that hadn’t yet been redacted to include the nativity. Of course, if you don’t hold to Markan priority then these probably don’t carry as much weight.

        As for Isaiah, well, as I said – the virgin birth claim was probably already in existence and the author was only using the Isaiah passage as a nice way to tie it into the scriptures. When it comes down to it, this is my view in all of these cases. I’m inclined to see the claims of prophecy fulfillment more as supporting material than as source material. They aren’t the sole driving force behind the narrative but they do influence it.

        When I first investigated these topics I approached them to answer the question “were prophecies really fulfilled?”. This leads to my final point, which is that Matthew’s far-reaching claims of prophecy fulfillment are a double-edged sword for both the apologist and the skeptic. Their poor fit as messianic prophecies works against the notion that the corresponding events were fabricated specifically to support the prophecies, as you have pointed out. However, it also works against the idea that prophecies were genuinely fulfilled, as the author of Matthew claims. I find it easier to recognize how the references might have been pulled in to fit an overt agenda than to go along with the author’s claim that they are actual prophecies which were fulfilled in the way he describes.

        I look forward to your next post. I see Matt 2:22 and Luke 2:39 as verses which add to the conflict between the two nativity stories, so I’m interested to see how you flip that around.

  • Joost

    Dear Dr. Mcgrew,

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I have a short question, though.
    If these texts where not considered to be messianis prophecies prior to the birth of Christ, what does that say about their worth as prophecies (and their apologetic worth in general)? It seems to me that you can’t argue both that a given text is a fulfilled prophecy and at the same time that nobody recognized it as prophecy in the first place, or am I missing something here?
    Then, what do you think about the argument from prophecy in general? It does not gain a lot of attention of philosophers of religion or in apologetics, as far as I know, while it may be a fruitful line of argument.