In his textbook, “The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings“, Bart Ehrman writes regarding the gospel of Matthew:
Understanding this second way in which Jesus fulfills the Scripture for Matthew helps to explain certain aspects of the opening chapters of Matthew’s Gospel (chaps. 1-5) that have long intrigued scholars. Think about the following events in rough outline, and ask yourself how they might have resonated with a first-century Jew who was intimately familiar with the Jewish Scriptures. A male child is miraculously born to Jewish parents, but a fierce tyrant in the land (Herod) is set to destroy him. The child is supernaturally protected from harm in Egypt. Then he leaves Egypt and is said to pass through the waters (of baptism). He goes into the wilderness to be tested for a long period. Afterward he goes up on a mountain and delivers God’s Law to those who have been following him.
Sound familiar? It would to most of Matthew’s Jewish readers. Matthew has shaped these opening stories of Jesus to show that Jesus’ life is a fulfillment of the stories of Moses (read Exodus 1-20). The parallels are too obvious to ignore; Herod is like the Egyptian pharaoh, Jesus’ baptism is like the crossing of the Red Sea, the forty days of testing are like the forty years the children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, and the Sermon on the Mount is like the Law of Moses delivered on Mount Sinai.
I read this to a Christian friend who remarked, “That’s awesome!” when I finished. Meaning they were amazed that God would order the life of Jesus in that way to mirror Moses’ life.
My point (or agenda!) in reading it was to highlight the way the gospel writers use literary techniques to paint a picture of Jesus. In other words, it is not necessarily history. In other words, the bible is suspect as a source of reliable truth. And odd passages like the flight from Egypt are not found in other gospels. The writer is using it to make a point — Jesus is like the second Moses. Just the opposite of the way my friend interpreted the same passage.
The conservative Christian can look at the exact same details so differently, literally instead of symbolically reading the passage. Which is simple, it just presupposes the bible is real history in the case of both Moses and Jesus. Which to me is an absolutely amazing assumption to make.
Sure, it is a technically possible reading of the bible, but is it likely that that really happened? I say it certainly is not a likely accurate reading. To me it is as plain as day that the gospel of Matthew is painting a literary picture here. Especially in light of the fact (if I remember correctly) that the story of the flight from Egypt is unique to the gospel of Matthew. Attributing it to a literary device is to me a much more natural reading/understanding than believing that only Matthew (the eyewitness Matthew no less) recorded this remarkable magical series of events.
Perhaps nobody was too concerned at that time if it was actual history or not. But to me to believe firmly that it is real and literal, that we can (and must!) base our lives on this account of the second Moses, is intellectually untenable.
So where am I going with all this? Just to say that it is interesting that two people can look at the same thing very differently. And for me it is very hard to process and accept that in this case. It should not be hard to accept that someone thinks differently than I do, but it is when it seems demanded that I must believe a certain way by conservative Christians.
I think I must have believed it that way myself at one time, but my memory does not serve to inform me well. I probably did, or at least was willing to give it mental assent without fully believing in it. Either way, I didn’t or wouldn’t look at the bible critically. Maybe that is why it seems important to me now, trying to find ammunition against the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and literalism.
In reality to many Christians it just does not matter that much, as long as they have their faith, as long as they have Jesus, not even the gates of hell can stand against them. Most certainly not a plain reading of the biblical texts. Just like it didn’t matter to me.
Entry filed under: bible.