Does Matthew quote from the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint?

“It is written” – Quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament (5)


Francois-Joseph Navez, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” 1824

Jeremiah 31:15 is quoted in Matthew 2:17-18 using the introductory formula “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah …” The background to the quotation is the “massacre of the innocents” – Herod’s murder of children born around the time of Jesus’ birth in an attempt to eliminate a claimant to the title of “King of Israel”. Matthew presumably quotes Jeremiah 31:15 because the context of Jeremiah 31 is the grief experienced by Jewish mothers who watched their sons go off into battle or exile. [1]

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

If we compare the Hebrew and Greek texts of Jeremiah 31 with Matthew’s quotation we see that Matthew is closer to the Hebrew than to the Septuagint in a few ways and follows the order of words in the Hebrew more closely than the Septuagint. For example, Matthew’s ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς “much grieving” (or “loud lamentation” in the ESV) is possibly a smoother rendition of the Hebrew construct בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים “bitter weeping” than the Septuagint θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ “of lamentation, and of weeping, and wailing”. The Septuagint omits Jeremiah’s first use of the phrase “for her children”, which Matthew retains, although he omits the second use of the term which is present in the Septuagint (it is not unusual for the Septuagint to omit repetitive phrases, or to reorder them, but the fact that Matthew’s order is different to the Septuagint suggests that he was using a similar transaction technique but not copying directly from the Septuagint). I would argue that Matthew was making his own independent translation from the Hebrew of Jeremiah rather than quoting from a Greek (‘Septuagint’) translation. Richard Longnecker has pointed out that in the Gospel of Matthew the evangelist’s own quotations of the Old Testament usually follow the Hebrew reading, whereas the citations by Jesus “are strongly Septuagintal”.[2] This raises the interesting question of why Matthew would make his own translation from the Hebrew at times while using the Septuagint Greek translation when quoting the words of Jesus, especially since it is hardly likely that Jesus himself taught in Greek.

The most likely explanation in my view is that Matthew was using several sources when writing his gospel. We can be confident that one of his sources was the Gospel of Mark as Matthew quotes verbatim almost all of Mark’s gospel (approximately 90% of Mark is in Matthew). Luke also used Mark extensively. There is also a considerable number of sayings of Jesus which are in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. This has led many scholars to accept the theory that Matthew and Luke used at least two sources to write their gospels: Mark, and another gospel, or, more likely, a collection of sayings. This hypothetical second source is usually called ‘Q’ (from the German Quelle, meaning “source”) and many scholars believe that  Q was written in Greek. Jesus’ quotations from the Old Testament in Q appear to be from the Septuagint. If this theory is correct then it would explain why Matthew’s quotations of Jesus’ sayings follow the Septuagint (he was simply copying directly from his Q source) while his own quotations from the Hebrew Bible were his own translation. This argument presupposes that Matthew wrote his gospel in Greek, which is the view of many New Testament scholars, although there are some who believe that Matthew wrote originally in Hebrew or Aramaic and his gospel was later translated into Greek. Either way, there is strong evidence that Matthew used at least two sources for his quotations from the Old Testament: when Jesus was quoting the Bible the quotations came to Matthew via a Greek source which drew on the Septuagint, and when Matthew was quoting Scripture directly he drew on his own knowledge of the Hebrew Bible. Our text from Jeremiah 31 is in the second category and is quoted from the Hebrew Bible rather than the Septuagint.


LXX (Jer 38:15)


כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה

קֹול בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶֽנּוּ׃

οὕτως εἶπεν κύριοςφωνὴ ἐν Ραμα ἠκούσθη θρήνου καὶ κλαυθμοῦ καὶ ὀδυρμοῦ Ραχηλ ἀποκλαιομένη οὐκ ἤθελεν παύσασθαι ἐπὶ τοῖς υἱοῖς αὐτῆς ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν Τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ Ἰερεμίου τοῦ προφήτου, λέγοντος,Φωνὴ ἐν ῥαμᾶ ἠκούσθη, θρῆνος καὶ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολὺς, Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὑτῆς καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν

[1] Ramah was 10 kilometres north of Jerusalem on the road captives would have travelled as they were taken into exile. Rachel was said to have been buried in the vicinity of Ramah which was equidistant with Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

[2] Richard N. Longnecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, 2nd. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 48

2 comments on “Does Matthew quote from the Hebrew Bible or the Septuagint?

  1. Paul says:

    Interesting thanks Steve. At this stage I still subscribe to Flusser’s arguments that Luke was written first of the synoptics (the Greek version being a 3rd or 4th version), but based on a Hebrew ‘Story of Jesus’ (which could be a version of some of Matthew! Confused yet! lol).

    I can think of other reasons why the quotes of Jesus/Yeshua appear to have been based on the Septuagint, remembering that, if the Mattiyahu autograph was in Hebrew, then clearly the recording of Yeshua’s words would have even less likelihood to have been based on the Greek LXX.

    • Stephen Cook says:

      Paul, I value David Flusser’s scholarship enormously but am not (yet) convinced by his arguments for Lukan priority. Of course, the ‘Hebrew Matthew’ mentioned by Papias wasn’t necessarily a Hebrew original of the book we know as “Matthew” and it could have been one of Mark’s (or Luke’s) sources. I’m interested in hearing more of your “other reasons” why the quotes of Jesus appear to have been based on the Septuagint.

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