Jesus is many things to many people. But to Gospel author Matthew, he was written as the new Moses. Does this favor historicity?

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Jesus is many things to many people. To the early Christians, authors of the Gospels, he was certainly a construction of sorts. For example, for Matthew, Jesus was written in a way that emulated Moses in order that he appealed to Matthew’s Jewish audience. The use of this formula for a theological agenda strongly calls the author’s claimed recounting of the events of Jesus’ life into question.

Moses is arguably the most important figure in the Hebrew Bible. At the time of the Gospels being constructed, he was being reinvented by the Jewish philosopher Philo and Jewish historian Josephus (and others) as this amazing Torah-writing hero, as Joel Baden elucidates in The Book of Exodus: A Biography, talking about how Philo recounts Moses in his book Life of Moses (p. 44-45):

Philo presents Moses as the Platonic ideal of a philosopher-king…. [He] elevated the hero of the Exodus account to one of the pinnacles of the classical world. But Philo then went on to lift Moses to further heights: not only philosopher and king, but also legislator, priest, and prophet – roles that were usually separate, and separately valued, in classical culture, but that were, miraculously, combined in the single person of Moses.

Josephus did likewise, painting Moses as a philosopher (and one that great Greek philosophers learned from!), and lawgiver (such as great Greek lawgivers), embodying classical virtues and heroic status—his audience, after all, was mainly Hellenistic. For these two and others, Moses embodied the highest set of virtues.

What needs to be remembered is that the Gospels themselves, like the previous authors’ works, were equally Greco-Roman Jewish texts. The audiences were either Jews from the region, or diaspora and Hellenised Jews. We will later talk about the three aspects of writing in more depth—audience, purpose, and form—but it is worth discussing in brief here.

The purpose of the Gospels was to evangelize, to persuade their readers that Jesus was the Messiah (or perhaps even greater). Their readers were Jews of varying sorts, or perhaps Gentiles conversant with some Jewish knowledge. The audience and the purposed then define what is written and how (the form). These evangelizing texts, then, will be utilizing every technique in the book to convince their audience of the supremacy of Jesus in theological terms.

Jesus has to be better than the best-known Jewish figure.

Jesus has to be better than Moses.

Thus, the Gospel authors, to differing degrees, model Jesus on Moses, and his biography on the events of the Exodus. As Moses led the Israelites to redemption, so too will Jesus, just in a better way.

If Moses didn’t exist (at the very least, not remotely in the way the Hebrew Bible expounds), then what does this say of Jesus and his own birth narratives, his own identity?

The Gospel of Matthew, as shown in my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination, very much used the technique of validating claims about Jesus with reference to the Hebrew Bible, scouring the Old Testament for quotes and verses, people and events, that could act as either foreshadows of what would come about (Jesus and the events of his life) or could be embodied in Jesus himself.

However, I would actually posit that Matthew goes much further than to validate his Gospel claims with Hebrew Bible quotations and events; he actually constructs his whole Gospel to reflect the Exodus (and wider Torah) structure. This is something New Testament scholar Dale C. Allison expertly shows in his book The New Moses: A Matthean Typology. He shows how Matthew’s Gospel structurally mirrors the Exodus accounts (and beyond). For example (cf. Baden, p. 53):

MatthewThe Pentateuch 
1-2Exod 1:1-2:10infancy narrative
3:13-15Exod 14:10-31crossing of water
4:1-11Exod 16:1-17:7wilderness temptation
5-7Exod 19:1-23:33mountain of lawgiving
11:25-30Exod 33:1-23reciprocal knowledge of God
17:1-9Exod 34:29-35transfiguration
26:16-20Deut 31:7-9commissioning of successor

One of the hallmarks of his Nativity narrative was how Jesus was the new Moses.

This was evident in his Gospel (the only one to detail these events) having Joseph and Mary, with baby Jesus, escape Herod the Great to Egypt where they appeared to wait for several years until Herod died and there was greater safety. They then returned, thus coming out of Egypt. Matthew 2 reads:

13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord *appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”

14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He stayed there until the death of Herod; this happened so that what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

Jesus is the fulfilment of Mosaic prophecy, embodying this most important of biblical figures. Furthermore, as Karen Armstrong, former Catholic sister and religious commentator, observed in The Bible: The Biography (p. 71):

Matthew was, therefore, especially anxious to show that Christianity was not only in harmony with Jewish tradition but was its culmination. Almost every single event in Jesus’s life had happened ’to fulfil the Scriptures.’ Like Ishmael, Samson and Isaac, his birth was announced by an angel. His 40 days of temptation in the desert paralleled the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness; Isaiah had foretold his miracles. And – most importantly – Jesus was a great Torah teacher. Proclaimed the new law of the messianic age from a mountaintop – like Moses – and insisted that he had not come to abolish but to complete the Law and the prophets.

The great Catholic exegete, Raymond Brown, in his masterpiece The Birth of the Messiah, was all too aware of the parallels between Moses and Jesus. As he observes (p. 163):

As for the patriarch Joseph and infant Moses motifs…, these enabled Matthew to connect Jesus, son of God, son of Abraham, and son of David, with one great episode in Israelite history to which the genealogy had failed to call attention, namely, the Egyptian bondage and the Exodus. It was perfectly fitting that the child named after Joshua who was to save his people from their sins should echo in his origins the historic deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

Jesus ties together all of these Torah threads in a neat theological construction—certainly for Matthew. Herod is the new Pharaoh, and his slaughter of the innocents is the new death of the Israelite sons. In fact, Raymond Brown sets out a whole raft of parallels between Matthew’s birth narrative and the events of Exodus, a list that is enlarged when one considers Jewish midrashic tradition about the infancy of Moses as well. Brown states (p. 112-115):

…the parallelism between Jesus and Moses is deeply rooted in early Christian thought and is particularly prominent in Matthew’s picture of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw in § 2. Matthew’s appreciation of this parallelism explains why he has chosen an infancy narrative which fills out the parallelism more perfectly. Just as there is an infancy narrative of Moses in the Book of Exodus showing God’s hand in his career even before he began his ministry of redeeming Israel from Egypt and of mediating a covenant between God and His people, so Matthew has given us an infancy narrative of Jesus before he begins his ministry of redemption and of the new covenant….

Indeed, the parallels between the Moses legend and the pre-Matthean Jesus infancy narratives may have been more obvious than we can now perceive. [My emphasis]

I can’t tell you how I revere the work of Raymond Brown, but I am also constantly surprised by his admission of the mythical nature of the biblical texts and their contents. Here, for example, he fully admits to the Moses infancy narrative being legendary in nature, whilst also admitting that Matthew chose an infancy narrative. That is to say that Matthew was not recounting an infancy narrative but was constructing one to fit in with the pre-existing legend for symbolic and theological purposes.

If this doesn’t illustrate one of the finest exegetical minds admitting legendary embellishment and implying a fundamental lack of historical accuracy, then we don’t know what does.

In Matthew (Mark 9:4; Luke 9:30) Jesus ascends a mountain where he meets Moses (and Elijah) so he can be on at least their level. As Dale Allison states (The New Moses: A Matthean Typology, p. 278):

By uniting themselves to their Scripturally faithful Mosaic Lord, Christians were uniting themselves to the sacred past of the Jews, the one people of God: to belong to Jesus Christ was to belong to Israel’s history and so to have her memories.

When Moses led the “Israelites” into the wilderness, they first came to Mount Sinai where, at the mountaintop, he received the law on behalf of his people (Exodus 18). Similarly, after Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, he first takes them up a mountain to deliver them teaching in much the same way. This is a re-enactment of the events surrounding the Mosaic Law. Thus, right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, we have him repeating the Sinai event, and remember, he is not replacing the what law but fulfilling it in every jot and tittle (Matthew 5:17). He is very much delivering the teaching of Moses.

However, he is also superseding—improving upon and surpassing—the role that Moses played at Sinai. He is not receiving the law, but delivering it with calm confidence. He is the teacher and not the student. In this sense, he is playing the role of Yahweh whilst also playing the role of Moses in being the mediator between God and his chosen people. Jesus is all of these things: a human, an Israelite, a Jew, the new Moses, and now something more—perhaps a Messiah, perhaps even God. Having said this, it depends upon how much Christology you read into the Gospels.

Let me, as parsimoniously as possible, detail (but not in any way exhaustively) a few more parallels that can be very obviously drawn from the Gospels to the life of Moses and the Exodus account:

  • Concerning John the Baptist, there is a lot of symbolism of water and rivers. The baptismal event at the Jordan is equated to Moses’ crossing of the Jordan. See Matthew 3.
  • Paul, in 1 Corinthians 10, compares Christian baptism to the crossing of the Red Sea
  • The feeding of the five thousand is also a rerun of the manna bread from heaven.
  • As mentioned, Jesus is the manna (bread), living water (blood), and guiding light (the Exodus pillar of fire) for his followers.
  • Jesus cast out demons using the “finger of God” – a term only otherwise used in Exodus.
  • Lawgivers chose 12 phylarchs as Jesus (himself a new lawgiver) chose 12 disciples.
  • The speeches of Acts 3 (he is a prophet like Moses) and particularly Acts 7 (Jesus has mosaic titles, his experience is parallel, they both worked miracles and were rejected by Israel) continue this theme.
  • Jesus’ transfiguration mirrors and draws on Exodus 24 and 34.
  • Just as Moses does not eat or drink for forty days and forty nights while on the mountain, recording God’s Law (Exodus 34:28), so also Jesus fasts for forty days and forty nights in the desert, being tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:2).
  • Moses wrote of a coming prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18) and Jesus, as the crowd recognizes, is that prophet: “We have found Him of whom Moses wrote in the Law, and the prophets also wrote: Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth!” (John 1:45)
  • John 3:14: “14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up…”
  • John 6:32-33: ‘32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.”’
  • As Dale Allison remarks: [9] “Tradition tells that [at Moses’ death] the angels mourned, the heavens were shaken, lightnings flashed, and a heavenly voice spoke…. [So] several strange things happened…when Jesus died. The sun went dark ([Matthew] 27:45). Then the temple veil was rent (27:51). Then the earth quaked (27:51). And then the dead rose up (27:52-53).”
  • See the “remarkable parallels throughout Luke-Acts between Jesus and Moses” in Allison (1993), p. 98-100. He sets them out in a table that so obviously shows them that his comment is: “Comment is needless: the columns speak for themselves.”
  • Paul himself constructs a view of Jesus that emulates and supersedes Moses, where Jesus is the Passover sacrifice again. This was all so that Christ’s followers could, in the impending end times, “celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8).  Which is particularly problematic because we now know that the Passover and Festival of Unleavened Bread pre-existed the Exodus story and theology and were syncretically co-opted into the story in a form of aetiology (whereby stories are concocted to explain place names, geography or, in this case, seasonal agricultural festivals).

So much more could be said on this topic.

The broader point here is that Moses is absolutely integral to the identity of Jesus, as far as the Gospels (especially Matthew and John) are concerned. If Moses didn’t exist (at the very least, not remotely in the way the Hebrew Bible expounds), then what does this say of Jesus and his own birth narratives, his own identity?

Without Moses, Jesus is reduced to a reflection of a shadow—an optical illusion that was never really there.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...