Mark, arguably the earliest of the four Gospels, is noticeably lacking a narrative about Jesus' birth. In fact, the New Testament as a whole is strikingly silent about the vast majority of Jesus' life. We are only given scant few details about some of his adult years. His childhood is treated in much the same way, Matthew and Luke being the only two writers offering snippets of the events which surrounded his birth. In both cases, there appears to be an overwhelming need to show how the events of Jesus' early life were the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies. Current events were portrayed as having some attachment to what had gone before. The Old ran into the New in a rather convenient way: things are said to have happened 'that the scripture might be fulfilled'.
Here is a brief look at four prophecies that Matthew describes in his Gospel concerning the birth of Jesus.
Matthew takes every conceivable pain to show how these prophecies have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, even though sometimes he has to stretch the evidence to make his point. Eager to get on with the task at hand, he introduces his first prophecy early on in his Gospel: 'All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.' (Matthew 1:22-23)
This prophecy is found in the Old Testament at Isaiah 7:14. Matthew sees in this a referral to Mary (the virgin) and Jesus (a son called Immanuel). Unfortunately, when Christians initially quoted these old prophecies, they used Greek translations which were untrue to the Hebrew originals. This passage is a prime example. There is no mention of a virgin in the original prophecy, the Hebrew word for which is bthulah. The word in the prophecy (which Matthew and other Christians render as virgin) is the Hebrew word almah which signifies a young woman, maiden or damsel of marriageable age. The error no doubt was made by a translator during the copying of Isaiah into Greek and Matthew, unaware of the original Hebrew, merely followed the translated wording. Peake's commentary on the Bible correctly states: "The rendering 'virgin' is unjustifiable." A look at the context of the Prophecy in Isaiah (7:1-17) helps to give a correct understanding of the intended meaning: Ahaz, the king, was in danger, his enemies were pressing hard against Jerusalem. Revelation is sent to Isaiah as consolation to Ahaz and as a sign that his enemies would not prevail against him. The sign of their destruction would be that a 'young woman' would bring forth a son and before the child had grown up their kingdoms would be vanquished. Therefore, Peake's commentary goes on to explain: "The sign is to be fulfilled in the near future, since it is given for a pressing emergency. It has therefore no reference to the birth of Jesus more than seven hundred years later." Matthew also overlooks one other obvious factor: Jesus was never called Immanuel, neither by his mother nor by his disciples. Matthew was wrong on two counts: the prophecy did not concern a virgin nor did it concern Jesus.
Whenever Matthew thinks he's found something in the Old Testament, he strives to find events in the life of Jesus that could be read as its fulfilment. Hence, on his way to Nazareth, the baby Jesus has to make a detour into Egypt. Why? Because Matthew has found another prophecy: 'And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: Out of Egypt I called my son.' (Matthew 2:15)
The son referred to in Hosea 11:1 is not an individual son but the entire people of Israel. The surrounding verses help to shed light on this: 'When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they went from me.' (Hosea 11:1-2) It does not take a great deal of understanding to adduce that the 'calling out of Egypt' (which is, incidentally, in the past tense) indicates the historical Exodus of the Israelites along with Moses from Egypt. The fact that it is Israel who is being called, and not Jesus, is further clarified in the passage from the words: 'But the more I called Israel...' The son which Matthew mistook for Jesus was none other than Israel, and this form of reference to Israel fits in with other verses of the Bible such as: 'This is what the Lord says: Israel is my first-born son.' (Exodus 4:22)
Herod, realising that he had been outwitted, and that the baby Jesus was slipping through his hands, promptly ordered the murder of all boys who were two years or younger living in Bethlehem and its immediate vicinity. In this, Matthew manages to find the fulfilment of yet another prophecy: 'Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.' (Matthew 2:17-18)
Matthew ignores the fact that Jeremiah (31:15-17) is talking about Ramah, a place eight kilometres north of Jerusalem, not at all about Bethlehem and its immediate vicinity, which lies eight kilometres south of the capital. Also, Jeremiah is not talking about the murder of children, because in Jeremiah Rachel's sons are captured, and the prophet promises: 'Your children will return to their own land.'
Following the sojourn in Egypt, Matthew has the family continue on into Nazareth where another prophecy awaits them: 'So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: He will be called a Nazarene.' (Matthew 2:23)
This prophecy, however, has one cosmetic defect - it doesn't exist. This prophecy is not found in any of the books of the prophets in the Old Testament. No one is quite sure where Matthew got it from. Perhaps it came about from a total misunderstanding of a passage from Isaiah (11:1): 'A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse' where the word shoot originally read nezer. Matthew may have incorrectly read into nezer the city of Nazareth, and so Mary and Joseph had to move to Nazareth.
We have seen four examples of Old Testament prophecy which Matthew misapplies to the person of Jesus. Early Christian efforts to appease Jewish scepticism about the newly founded religion were no doubt at the heart of Matthew's attempts to find some justification for his view of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. The simplest way to quash such scepticism was to show how the (Christian) New Testament was nothing more than a fulfilment of the (Jewish) Old Testament. Sadly, as the examples show, Matthew's attempts were way of the mark!