Friday, July 11, 2008

"Fulfill" in Matthew

I hope to get the next chapter of Hurtado up by tomorrow, but it's a honkin' chapter of around 70 pages and these last two days of the week are busy with summer registration.

But last night we discussed a mini-word study a grad class did on the word fulfill in Matthew (πληροω). We only looked at the instances of the word in Matthew, which is big time cheating (in theory you would at least look at the other occurrences in the NT, then better yet in the LXX, and in a perfect world in the rest of the occurrences in ancient Greek literature, double checking for additional background information we might not be clued into from commentaries, theological dictionaries and such).

Here was the "dictionary entry" for Matthew I created.

πληροω (plēroō)
1. to fulfill (as in to fulfill OT Scripture--Matt. 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9, 35)

2. to fill (something--Matt. 13:48; 23:32)

3. to fulfill (as in to complete--Matt. 5:17)

4. bring about, accomplish ("to fulfill all righteousness"--3:15)

Number 2 meaning is the easiest and clearest. The word can mean to fill something, like a cup. We can't presume that this nuance is present everywhere else, but in this case it does give us a good picture of this word, which seems to revolve around "completing" something or another.

When Jesus agrees to being baptized to "fulfill all righteousness" in 3:15, this could have more of a nuance than to bring about all righteousness, to enact or do the right thing. But the general rule is not to read more meaning into an instance of a word than the immediate context requires. You could easily "go theological" here. But it isn't clearly required by the context.

The dominant use of plēroō in Matthew is clearly in the sense of fulfilling Scripture understood prophetically. The sense seems to be that there are prophecies in the words of the OT awaiting their "fulfillment," their happening, accomplishment, in the time of Jesus. And thus the word is used in those passages.

Going beyond the word itself, however, we can see that these prophecies are hidden in the words of the OT. The passages he invokes from the OT were not straightforward predictions about Jesus and, indeed, in some cases weren't predictions at all but comments about events that were past even in the time of the prophet (e.g., Hosea 11:1). Although I don't think he means the word this way, you might say that Matthew hears the Spirit "filling up" the words of the OT with hidden, spiritual meanings.

The final use of the word in 5:17 is very similar to the use of the word in relation to fulfillment, but it seems different enough to give it its own entry. Jesus did not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. The sense of completion seems dominant here as Matthew 5 goes on to expand.

It is not enough simply not to murder or not to commit adultery. A full keeping of these laws requires one not to hate and not to divorce so you can sleep with someone else's wife legally. Fulfilling the law is not always adding on to it either. To fulfill the law with regard to the law of retribution (eye for eye) you must not keep this law, as to fulfill the command not to commit adultery you must not do something the law permitted.

To fulfill the law thus involves a shuffling of the law in which some of it is expanded and other parts are removed.

And now for the meta-question. What is the benefit or drawback of teaching ministerial students to do word studies? We have dictionaries that have already done the work for you-ish. What is the place of teaching the kinds of things I have done above (not the specifics of Matthew but the skills of creating "dictionaries" for biblical words)?


James F. McGrath said...

Ken, I think it is problematic to suggest that, in most instances where Matthew uses the language of prophecy being "fulfilled", it means something like prediction and then it coming true.

Throughout the early chapters of Matthew, if we look at the original contexts of the Scriptures which Matthew says are fulfilled in the story of Jesus as he tells it, in no instance is it clear that we're dealing with a Messianic prediction, and in some cases it is very clear that we are not.

My own view is that Matthew meant something more like what we'd call 'typology'. What do you think? Could that 'definition' deserve to be added to your dictionary? :)

JohnLDrury said...

I think one potential benefit of doing one's own word studies is simply the "ownership" one has after the process. I can look something up, but I will have to keep looking it up again and again. But when I work through a bunch of texts and develop a range of meaning on my own, and am likely to carry it with me in the future. So it may be that the process just nails it down better, even if the outcome of specific word study decisions in the context of exegeting a passage would be the same.

Another benefit is perspectival: we learn to think of words having their meaning in context. Looking up all those passages drives home that a word doesn't just carry around its dictionary definition, but that dictionary definitions are short hands for the complex uses of words in their contexts.

Notice, in both these cases, the benefits are not necessarily that one "knows" better what the word means (which requires a much deep envelopment in the original languages and literature), but rather that the process helps one become a better student of scripture generally.