Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book

Jesus on a donkey. Image source.
Today let's look at Matthew 21:1-11. In this passage, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey, and a crowd of people spreads tree branches on the road and shouts "Hosanna!" as he comes by.

Specifically, I want to focus on this bit:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
Because... not really.

It's a quote from the Old Testament book of Zechariah. Let's go take a look at that passage (Zechariah 9), shall we? Yeah go click over there and skim it. Basically it's a judgment against a whole lot of cities or nations which were Israel's enemies. "Ashkelon will see it and fear; / Gaza will writhe in agony, / and Ekron too, for her hope will wither. / Gaza will lose her king / and Ashkelon will be deserted." And so forth. A big list of enemy groups, and prophecies about them all being defeated. Then the bit about "your king comes to you ... riding on a donkey", then some stuff about how God will bless Israel and make them stronger, etc.

So if you were just reading Zechariah 9, how would you understand the verse about "your king comes to you"? From my perspective, it sounds like the king is God, helping Israel. And perhaps the donkey symbolizes that the king will come to bring peace. Sounds like generally this passage is talking about war and politics on a national level, not about an individual messiah riding on an actual donkey. The enemy nations are personified- how can Gaza "writhe in agony"? That's not something a nation does, it's something a person does. The whole thing uses poetic language like that, so it seems like the "king" wouldn't really be an actual individual person either.

For evangelicals, the phrase "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet" means "Before Jesus lived, there was a prophecy about what the messiah would do, and here's Jesus doing it, that is evidence that Jesus really is the messiah and the bible really was inspired by God." But if you actually look at the supposed "prophecy" in Zechariah 9, you see it's not like that at all. Zechariah mentions Israel's king riding a donkey, but doesn't say anything to indicate that it's talking about an actual specific person, who will show up some time in the future and be the messiah.

Here, let's see if I can invent an "Old Testament prophecy" that's just as valid as Zechariah 9:9. Here, how about a phrase from Jonah 2:5, "seaweed was wrapped around my head." Ah, look at that, an Old Testament prophecy that Jesus didn't fulfill, tsk tsk. And of course you're going to say "but that verse was just talking about Jonah, it wasn't trying to be a prophecy about the messiah at all!" Yeah, I totally agree. But YOU KNOW that if Jesus had ever fallen into a lake, Matthew would have been like "this took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, 'seaweed was wrapped around my head.'" And then modern apologists would be like "WOW isn't it amazing that Jesus fulfilled ALL THESE prophecies?!!! Like no way that could have happened without God's intervention!"

So if that's what Matthew meant, then he was extremely dishonest. The thing about "your king comes to you, riding on a donkey" wasn't written to specifically refer to Jesus and provide evidence that he was the messiah. It's a thing that was mentioned in the Old Testament, and then also a thing that Jesus did. But there are a lot of things mentioned in the Old Testament that Jesus didn't do.

(Matthew does something similar in his genealogy in chapter 1. "Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah." Which, to a good the-bible-is-inerrant Christian, sounds like "Exactly 14 generations in each of these segments! Wow! EXACTLY FOURTEEN! Now isn't that amazing?!!! Wow surely God must have made it happen that way- this is AMAZING EVIDENCE that Jesus really was the fulfillment of everything in the Old Testament!" But, umm, hold up. Matthew kind of fudged things and skipped a few kings to make stuff fit as "fourteen generations." Yeah. It very much was not "WOW EXACTLY FOURTEEN!!!!")

So... was Matthew shady as hell, or what's going on here? For Christians who believe the whole bible is inspired by God, this is a scary question. Was God trying to deceive us into thinking there were all these Old Testament prophecies specifically about the messiah, and Jesus fulfilled them (and if Jesus hadn't fulfilled them it would be super awkward because clearly they were supposed to be about the messiah)? Was Matthew- and by extension, God- making a dishonest apologetics argument?

The way I see it, they weren't. Matthew was making connections between the life of Jesus and the Old Testament. He wasn't saying that the connection proves anything, or that Jesus HAD TO fulfill that verse from Zechariah. It's like when you watch Star Wars and find parallels between Luke's and Anakin's stories. They were both pilots. They both had to leave behind their families and become Jedi. They both said "I have a bad feeling about this." It's fun for fans to point these things out (and even speculate and make fan theories) but it doesn't really prove anything. We notice the things that are the same, we ignore the things that aren't. Whoop dee doo.

Seems like Matthew was more interested in telling a cool story than making an evidence-based argument that Jesus was the one they had been looking forward to all along. To good evangelicals, this sounds like I'm saying the book of Matthew is wrong or bad or worthless- but that's not what I mean at all. I think Matthew (and the bible in general) is really good and interesting and totally worth studying. And now that I'm no longer required to believe it's perfect/inerrant/inspired/whatever, I'm discovering entire new worlds of biblical study I never knew about as a good evangelical.


Why on Earth Did I Ever Expect the Bible to be Anything Other Than Incredibly Weird?
This Star Wars Fan Theory Is EXACTLY How Apologetics Works


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings (Matthew 20:29-34)

Next post: Clearing the Temple Was Not a "Peaceful Protest" (Matthew 21:12-17)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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