We are going through Tatian’s Diatessaron, a second-century harmony of the Gospels. We are on Section III. Today’s post goes through Matthew 2:13-18.
The Bible and Inspiration
When [the wise men] had departed, the messenger of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph and said to him, “Rise, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I speak to you, for Herod is determined to seek the child to slay him. Joseph arose and took the child and his mother in the night and fled into Egypt and remained in it until the time of the death of Herod. [This was so] that which was said by the Lord in the prophet might be fulfilled, which was, “From Egypt I called my Son” [Hos. 11:1].
Let’s definitely talk about the Bible here!
If you read the Bible slowly enough and if you ensure that you do not remember what you read previously, the Bible is clean and inspired and neat and tidy. If you never look up the references, that helps too. If, however, you read through it fast enough that you still remember Genesis when you get to Revelation, or if you look up all the references you hear in a sermon, or if you look up all the Old Testament references quoted in New Testament passages, then the Bible gets a little messy.
Here, for example, we see that Matthew tells us that Joseph, Mary, and baby went to Egypt from Bethlehem. This is more difficult to reconcile with Luke than the fact Luke left out the Magi visit. Luke said Joseph and family went back to Nazareth as soon as the sacrifices were done. Matthew says they stayed in Bethlehem for at least a year (explained below) then went to Egypt.
Tatian skipped the genealogies, so I did not get to tell you that Matthew skipped three generations of kings in his genealogy. If you find Jehoshaphat in Matthew 1:8, you will find that he lists Joram as his son (correct), then Uzziah as his grandson (incorrect). Ahaziah was Joram’s son, and then three generations later, Azariah, also known as Uzziah, was born. He had a son name Jotham. I suspect that the Joram/Ahaziah and Azariah/Jotham connection threw him. Whatever the cause, Matthew skips Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah (see list).
This causes another problem, because Matthew makes a point of saying there were three sets of fourteen generations (v. 17). That only worked because he skipped three kings. Otherwise, it would have been fourteen, seventeen, fourteen.
Commentaries give various ways to reconcile this. I get called a liberal—or sometimes a heretic—for saying that Matthew made a mistake. If you want you can choose one of the explanations the commentaries give, but since they seem far-fetched (at best) to me, I can’t.
I believe in the inspiration of not just the New Testament, but the apostles in general. As Irenaeus, one of the leading bishops of the second century said:
We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us. At one time they proclaimed it in public and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed it down to us in the Scriptures to be the ground and pillar of our faith. For it is unlawful to assert that they preached before they possessed perfect knowledge … for after our Lord rose from the dead, they were invested with power from on high when the Holy Spirit came down, were filled from all, and had perfect knowledge. (Against Heresies, Bk. III, ch. 1, par. 1)
I believe this. I believe this was promised to the apostles in John 16:13. I believe Matthew was inspired when he wrote his Gospel.
I don’t believe that Matthew, Moses, or anyone else was inspired to write perfect history or perfect science. You can think what you want, but I think it is obvious that Matthew made a mistake. My brain loves truth. It will not let me live in purposeful contradiction. I can see Matthew made a mistake. I can’t get myself to pretend he didn’t.
Let me give another clearer case. In 2 Chronicles 9:25 we read that Solomon had 4,000 stalls for his horses and chariots. In 1 Kings 4:26, the Bible says he had 40,000.
I remember reading a Catholic Bible back in the 80’s when I was a young Christian. The comment on the verse in 2 Chronicles said the writer of Kings was prone to exaggeration. I was shocked! I was also deeply offended. How could they even suggest such a thing! The Bible is inerrant!
Over the years I have learned that it’s not. You can pretend that there are not contradictions, historical or scientific errors, but that is what it is: pretending. I just can’t do that.
Please remember I said I believe the apostles are inspired. I am not attacking our mutual faith in Jesus, nor in the Scriptures.
The general argument that people obsessed with inerrancy use to explain the conflict between Kings and Chronicles is that this was a copyist error. The original manuscripts, they say, agree with one another.
Why? So that God could say, “Look at the miraculous historical accuracy I put into the Scriptures, which you cannot see because I allowed copyists to change things and you don’t have the originals”?
To me, that’s just weird. If a prophet came to town and accurately exposed your deepest thoughts and also gave a word from God on how to resolve your deepest issue, but while he was talking he made an error and called you by the wrong name or got the name of your town wrong, would you then reject his prophecy? Of course we wouldn’t. We would think, wow, this guy really is a prophet, and he is also really middle-aged because he forgot the name of the town he was in.
Whether we like it or not, Matthew skipped three names in his genealogy. If this is going to make you ignore his testimony of Jesus’ life, then you are way too picky. If God has called you, then you should have his Spirit inside you. The words of Matthew have God’s Spirit inside them. That is what inspiration means. The fact that we don’t know whether there were 4,000 or 40,000 chariots in Solomon’s stall or that Matthew made a mistake in listing a genealogy … why would that make you doubt something that is spiritual, not intellectual.
The breath of God is in those words, and the breath of God is in you. As we read the Scriptures, the inspiration of God in the words and the inspiration of God in you connect, producing guidance, encouragement, and revelation. We are not children of the letter; we are children of the Spirit, holding to a spiritual covenant (2 Cor. 3:6).
I like Origen’s explanation of mistakes and contradictions. Origen was the most respected scholar of the early third century. He was a prolific author, and a wealthy patron provided him with several scribes so that he could dictate without losing any of his words. He read enough to see the tiny, irrelevant contradictions in the Scripture. He said this about them:
So for that reason, Divine Wisdom took care that certain stumbling blocks—interruptions—to the historical meaning would take place. He did this by introducing into the middle [of the narratives] certain impossibilities and incongruities. (De Principiis, Bk. IV, ch. 1, par. 15)
What Origen is trying to communicate is that God wants us to look deeper, to really get the spiritual meaning of a text as well as the surface meaning. Thus, he put “certain impossibilities and incongruities” into the text to slow us down and make us search. He wants to reserve the deepest truths for those most willing to work for them.
We’re not in Kansas anymore! I was in Kansas as a teenager from 1973 to 1976. It was very hot and very windy in the summer, but otherwise I liked it. A friend could tell me any dreamed-up bit of news back then, and I had no way of checking on it. Now I’m in Tennessee, and it’s 2017. The internet is in full swing, and it is available to everyone. There’s no getting around the small “impossibilities and incongruities” because they are listed all over the internet. We should recognize those among ourselves so that they are not introduced to us by wicked men and women who hate God and put the worst possible spin on things you don’t know about. I would much rather tell you about them myself and try to show you that they are not stumbling blocks to a real and robust faith.
Think about this objectively. How could a genealogy mistake possible affect the way you live? If I were your pastor, and I failed a driver’s test, would you trust my sermons less?
Origen would tell us that Matthew made a mistake, and God probably allowed it. We should look deeper. There is probably some other message God has for us. Perhaps that message is that we should not trust in the letter but in the Spirit because the letter kills but the Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6).
Take it from someone who has been watching the power of God for 35 years. In 1982, the Spirit of God and the four Gospels convinced me that Jesus was the Son of God. When I admitted that to myself and to a couple people with me, the power of God fell on me, and I was transported to another realm. My whole life and perception changed. I have been in love with Jesus ever since, and I have seen him work miracles, transform lives, and rescue me from dramatic circumstances: homelessness, two cancers, a son’s death, and so many adventurous stories that people who hear them start wondering if I’m lying.
I’m not. His presence and his very real intervention in the affairs of my life has rescued me repeatedly. To see such power, you have to give up everything. Jesus has some breathtaking words about that (Luke 14:26-33).
Living like that will protect you from worrying about meaningless mistakes by the men who wrote Scripture. The experiences will make you know deeply that this life is not about words, but about power (1 Cor. 2:4; 4:20).
That all said, truth requires me to tell you that Matthew left three kings—and thus three “begats”—out of his 14 generations from King David to Babylon. Truth requires me to point out that Luke said the holy family went back to Nazareth while Matthew says they went to Egypt.
Long post, but I have to cover one more thing.
How Long Was Jesus in Jerusalem
Herod then, when he saw that he was mocked by the Magi, was very angry and sent and killed all the male children which were in Bethlehem and all its borders, from two years old and under, according to the time when he had inquired from the Magi. Then the saying in Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, which said, “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and much lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children and not willing to be consoled for their loss” [Jer. 31:14].
This is a horrific event. Having lost an 18-year-old son just two months ago, I can imagine, but barely, the pain that must rolled through Bethlehem. God will get his vengeance on Herod at the judgment.
King Herod did this based on the time that he got from the Magi. This means that he thought the Magi saw the star, and thus that Jesus was born, at least more than a year earlier, or he would have chosen a different age group to kill. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were in Bethlehem for a long time, at least a year.
This post is too long, but since we’re on the subject of how to interpret the Bible, let’s talk about double prophecies. In the first passage at the top of the post, the Diatessoron, quoting Matthew 2:15, says that the prophecy in Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I have called my son”) is about Jesus, even though the context indicates it is about the nation of Israel.
All prophecy can have a double meaning. In Matthew 1:23, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 and applies it to the virgin birth of Jesus: “The virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.” This one is a really cool double prophecy. If you read Isaiah 7, you will see that Isaiah made a prophecy to King Ahaz that was fulfilled in Ahaz’ time. Isaiah’s original prophecy, in Hebrew, can mean a young woman as well as a virgin so we don’t have to interpret a virgin birth in Ahaz’ time.
By Matthew’s time, however, the Hebrew Bible had been translated into Greek. The Greek version is called the Septuagint, and the early Christians considered the translation inspired. That translation used a word that can only mean virgin and the prophecy was applied to Jesus.
Though prophecy is sometimes a warning, at other times it is a proof. For example, no one really understood the prophecies about Messiah in Isaiah 53 before Jesus came. After he came, though, it was obvious that Isaiah 53 was about him. It is the same with the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14. The prophecy did not reveal that Jesus was born of a virgin. Instead, Jesus was born of a virgin, which revealed that Isaiah 7:14 was a prophecy.
Everything above comes together on this final point: we are in a spiritual religion.
God winds all things together in a story, a real story with real people in a real world that can be measured, touched, and experienced. When we try to make the Scriptures into neat, tidy, beautiful, and sweet story, as though it were a Disney princess movie, then it is not real anymore. Those who want to wrap the Bible in gift paper and honor it are alarmed when they find its contradictions and its horrifying parts.
The real Bible is hard to swallow and frightens us, sometimes a lot. It is because the Bible is not a novel, written at a writers desk. It is raw, real-life spirituality from Abraham’s departure from Babylon to the death of Jesus’ apostles and the words, prophecies, and churches they left behind.
That raw, real-life spirituality is what God offers. It can fill the soul with joy in the worst of circumstances, change sinners to saints, open the eyes of the blind, and it can reconcile you to God.