Gundry and Matthew’s midrash

Thanks to my blessed wife, we started up a tradition this past year that I grew up with, that being a subscription to National Geographic magazine. I remember stacks of yellow dating back to the ’70s in our house in Alaska, so the small pile here is a welcome addition.

The December issue has an article on “The Real King Herod” of Biblical lore and his influence and positive contributions to the architectural layout of Israel. The article, written by Tom Mueller, is centered around Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer’s discovery of Herod’s tomb. Embedded in the first paragraph is this quote:

Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew’s Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became the image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew’s account.

Scholars have long tried to line up the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, accounting for the differences and unique items reported. However, how do we approach this claim, that one of the unique items – Matthew’s report of Herod’s killing of the infants and presumably the subsequent flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to Egypt – is “almost certainly” false?

In matters of OT concordance, I’ve been using the maxim that the gospels were written after Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent time teaching the disciples and followers “in the whole of scripture the things that referred to himself.” (Luke 24:27) If the gospel accounts were vetted as accurate by the apostolic eyewitnesses within the first century church (cf. Luke 1:1-4), then the accounts we still have today must have their roots in this post-resurrection teaching. However, this presupposes that the events actually happened… or else Jesus was making stuff up!

Now, thanks to a comment from Esteban in a previous post, I’ve become familiar with the case of Bob Gundry, an expelled member of the Evangelical Theological Society. Gundry was expelled from ETS in 1983 for publishing an account of Matthew that claimed that “the four Evangelists, especially Matthew and Luke, have adapted the deeds and words of Jesus to fit the life and experiences of their readers” and that ” in the ‘infancy narratives’ (Matt. 1, 2) and elsewhere Matthew uses a Jewish literary genre called midrash. Like many preachers today, the writer of a midrash embroidered historical events with nonhistorical additions.” (Source) In particular, Gundry claims that Matthew changed the role played by the Jewish shepherds to that of Gentile astrologers in order to better bookend their arrival at Jesus’ birth with Jesus’ final commission that the apostles go to the nations/Gentiles at the ends of the earth.

I’ve not read Gundry myself, so I don’t know the extent of his claims that are based on the scholarly technique known as “redaction criticism.” But I recently speculated that the flight to Egypt might similarly be an allegorical or typological addition to the narrative, especially as Matthew concerns himself with messianic fulfillment of OT prophecy. Which of course then lays bare the question of what prophecy means and how it is fulfilled.

In matters of liberal scholarship, I tend to reference William Barclay. However, that bastion of liberal evangelicalism and skeptic of Jesus’ divinity makes this note:

There is not the slightest need to think that the story of the coming of the Magi to the cradle of Christ is only a lovely legend. It is exactly the kind of thing that could easily have happened in that ancient world. When Jesus Christ came the world was in an eagerness of expectation. Men were waiting for God and the desire for God was in their hearts. They had discovered that they could not build the golden age without God. It was to a waiting world that Jesus came; and, when he came, the ends of the earth were gathered at his cradle. It was the first sign and symbol of the world conquest of Christ. (Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 27)

Barclay goes on to state that Matthew’s use of the quote from Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15 is

typical of Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. He is prepared to use as a prophecy about Jesus any text at all which can be made verbally to fit, even although originally it had nothing to do with the question in hand, and was never meant to have anything to do with it. […] When we read a passage like this we must remember that, though it seems strange and unconvincing to us, it would appeal to those Jews for whom Matthew was writing. (Matthew, Vol. 1, p. 36)

So on one hand, Barclay accepts the historical accuracy of the Magi’s visit, but also notes Matthew’s tendancy to appropriate prophecy as needed in order “to convince the Jews that Jesus was the promised Annointed One of God”. There is a balance of veracity and verisimilitude – the question is does the balance between the two really matter?

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  1. Posted December 21, 2008 at 2:05 PM | Permalink

    Another intriguing post, ElShaddai. Real quick comment: this touches the question of the role of pesher in the Gospels (Matthew in particular). On my blog (on an unrelated topic), I made this related comment:

    You also must keep in mind that the NT, when speaking of “fulfillments”, doesn’t always mean “fulfillment” in the sense that we do. For instance, most modern scholars – even some conservative ones – recognize in the Gospel of Matthew an application of the common first century interpretive tradition known as pesher used extensively (but not exclusively) at Qumran. In the pesher tradition, passages from the OT were called up (often quite out of context) and recycled in a much nuanced sense to establish a common pattern. For instance, one theme of the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is the new Israel. So when Matthew links Hosea 11.1 with the child Jesus’ return to Nazareth with the words, “Out of Egypt I have called my son,” and does so with “fulfillment” language, he was not saying that the original referent of Hosea’s words, the nation of Israel, was not the true or ultimate referent – only that Jesus fit the type or pattern. We see this pesher-style usage of the term “fulfill” elsewhere in Matthew.

    This doesn’t really necessarily contribute to the question of whether any of these events tied to various OT prophecies were historical or concocted for literary style. I think too much of the latter, even in the ancient world, would probably have been considered deceitful and that the morality of Christians concerned with spreading the faith would have made them uncomfortable with doing this; in other words, I’d side with Barclay here and say that, no matter how the events were “mythologized”, I suspect that there was at least some perceived level of historicity for those events.

  2. Posted December 21, 2008 at 4:12 PM | Permalink


    I noticed this when I was reading this months NG as well. My instant thought was along the lines of – firstly, its impossible to be ‘certain’ when it comes to 1st Century acts, and secondly that if Herod had killed 100 children, it wouldn’t have been a big deal in the light of the other people he’s famous for massacring.

    Regarding Gundry’s midrash theory, I’ve been studying the Gospel of Matthew in depth the last month or so, and I’ve come to the conclusion that calling it Midrash is unneccesary.

    Regarding Matthew’s use of the OT, I’m of the school that tends to assume that an OT quote implies the relevance of the entire passage that quote is within. In Matthew, especially early Matthew, this approach works quite well, and so I don’t think he misappropriates prophecy at all.

    As Steve said, in the ancient world, I’m sure playing fast and loose with either prophecy or past events, especially in a time where memory of those events were still fairly fresh, would not be rewarded.

  3. Posted December 21, 2008 at 5:37 PM | Permalink

    Damian: Regarding Matthew’s use of the OT, I’m of the school that tends to assume that an OT quote implies the relevance of the entire passage that quote is within.

    That is an excellent point, Damian, and a worthy indictment of our modern verse-by-verse mentality.

  4. Posted December 21, 2008 at 10:21 PM | Permalink

    Damian: […] if Herod had killed 100 children […]

    I was just reading Barclay again and he’s far more conservative, estimating 20-30 children that might have been targeted. That makes a sin of omission far more likely by the historical record…

  5. Posted December 21, 2008 at 10:27 PM | Permalink

    Steve: For instance, most modern scholars – even some conservative ones – recognize in the Gospel of Matthew an application of the common first century interpretive tradition known as pesher used extensively (but not exclusively) at Qumran.

    Thank you for the notes on pesher — it’s good to learn yet another new thing today! I agree also that a willful distortion of the texts would have been rejected by any synagogue worth its weight.

  6. Posted December 22, 2008 at 2:34 PM | Permalink

    Amazing NG quote. They would never have dared write “Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Josephus’ account”, even though Josephus, writing probably later than Matthew, is probably the only source for most other reports of Herod’s atrocities.