June 11, 2009

Misquoting Scripture

Years ago in a house church meeting, someone piped up, "Yeah, it's just like that proverb. A man something something but the Lord something else." We laughed pretty hard, partly because we all thought we knew which one he meant. That brother was a little embarrassed, but nobody thought any harm had been done to the Bible. Come to think of it, that story probably typifies a lot that is both wonderful and awful about simple gatherings, but I'm telling it here just to introduce my next thought.

Tonight I'm trying to imagine possible reasons why Matthew misquoted Micah as badly as he did about Bethlehem. (Not to mention all the other Hebrew scriptures he mangled somewise adapted.) For the record, I don't care so much that he misquoted scripture. I just want to know if there's any consistency in the way that he did it. (Can anyone point me to a helpful study on this topic?)

Pending further research, I'll just have to wonder. Was it as simple as not having resources and quoting from memory, mixing in a few words from the wrong mental file along the way? (Like in this case, 2 Samuel 5:2.) Or was Matthew fully aware, but the ancients just weren't as uptight as some christians today about manipulating the scripture? In my house church days, we also turned scripture into prayer, some more creatively than others. It took me a while to get comfortable with that, but I learned it can be beautiful and deeply spiritual, as long as you don't take the word changes too seriously.

Textual issues aside, my focus remains on the story. I continue to assume the complete historicity of Matthew 2, with the obvious exception that the chief priests who searched the scriptures for King Herod were not the ones misquoting Micah. Matthew was, many years later. The most likely scenario here is that Matthew researched the story and found out the Magi went from Herod to Bethlehem. From there, Matthew must have deduced that Micah would have been what they looked up. That reconstruction (of literary process) still doesn't explain why he misquoted Micah the way he did, but I think it's solid enough to proceed with reconstructing events.

However, if anyone wants to suggest the chief priests made the mistake, as if Matthew recorded it flawlessly, over five decades later... well... I suppose that's not completely inconceivable, but it sure isn't likely, there's no good reason to think otherwise, and it's not necessary besides.

The scripture is powerful enough to survive getting misquoted now and again. So what? Look up the proper quotation and move on with life. But I'm talking about us, here, today. As far as finding out how, when and why the New Testament writers misquoted scripture, I've got a lot left to learn... assuming anyone else knows enough to give a good answer.

Seriously, any tips would be helpful. :-)


Peter Kirk said...

Don't rule out the chief priests misquoting Scripture. For one thing, there were variant versions of the Hebrew Bible and translations of it in circulation at the time, as is clear from the LXX and the DSS. For another, the chief priests could have had motives for subtly misquoting Scripture to mislead Herod.

I guess the question then is, how would Matthew have known and been able to record exactly what was said? Unless this account is entirely made up, he must have had some kind of informant from among the priests or Herod's entourage. Who? The priest Zechariah the father of John? A young Nicodemus? Joanna of Luke 8:3 who might have been a palace servant girl? We can only guess.

Bill said...

If Matthew had access to quotation marks, we'd know for sure which way he meant this.

They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea." For thus it is written...


They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea. For thus it is written..."

So... if you really want to take the second option there, I think you're just making way too much work for us all. ;)

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