Is Jesus a “Second Moses”?

Moses and Cross

Note: this is my latest article for Catholic Answers Magazine (online). You can read it at the CAMO site here.  

As part of my graduate studies in New Testament, I had the opportunity to study in Israel and to work for two summers at an archaeological dig in Jerusalem. During my academic studies in the Holy Land, I focused in part on the many Jewish-Christian texts that were produced in the first few centuries A.D. Undoubtedly, the finest example of these works is the first book that appears in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew.

Although the vast majority of scholars believe Mark was the first Gospel written, Matthew comes first in the Gospels’ canonical order. Why is this? One satisfying answer is that Matthew serves as a natural bridge between the Old Testament and the New. Matthew is certainly the most Jewish of the Gospels, written primarily to convince those from a Hebrew background that Jesus is the Messiah. One of the ways Matthew accomplishes this is by comparing of Moses with Jesus.

Indeed, Matthew makes heavy use of Moses typology in his Gospel, showing that Jesus is a new and greater Moses. The parallels between Jesus and Moses begin with Matthew’s infancy narrative.

Like the infant Moses, the infant Jesus experiences an attempt on his life by a ruler bent on preserving his own kingdom: Pharaoh, in the case of Moses, and Herod the Great in the case of Christ. Herod’s slaughter of the infant males in Bethlehem’s vicinity evokes Pharaoh’s attempt to kill the Hebrew males (Exod. 1:15-2:10).

Like Moses fleeing from Pharaoh (Exod. 2:11-15), Jesus was forced to flee into Egypt for safety from the wrath of Herod and emerged from there to deliver his people. Moses returned from his desert sojourn with his wife and sons to Egypt (Exod. 4:20). Joseph returned with his wife and son from Egypt to Israel (Matt. 2:21). Moses would deliver the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh, employing signs and miracles. Jesus delivered his people from the power of a greater oppressor, Satan, also displaying miraculous signs. This is emphasized by Jesus’ healings and especially by his exorcisms.

Jesus fasted for forty days and nights before teaching the new Law of God on a mountain (Matt. 4); Moses did the same (Deut. 9:9). Just as Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Decalogue, Jesus ascends a mountain to bring forth a new Law from God in fulfillment of the Old Covenant.

As Moses was given Ten Commandments, Jesus presents his disciples with ten beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12). As Catholics, we are used to hearing about the “eight beatitudes”, but following what is traditionally numbered as the eighth beatitude, there are actually two more (Matt. 5:10–12):

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (traditionally, the eighth beatitude).

Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account (ninth beatitude).

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you (tenth beatitude).

This tenth beatitude is in a somewhat different form than the others, beginning not with “Blessed” (Gr. makarios) but with the two imperatives “Rejoice and be glad.” The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin term beatus, which means “blessed” or “happy.” Since “rejoice” or “be glad” are synonymous with being “blessed,” we have in all likelihood ten beatitudes, consistent with Matthew’s Moses motif.

The five major teaching sections given by Jesus in Matthew (the Sermon on the Mount, in chapters 5-7; the Missionary Discourse in chapter 10; the Community Discourse in chapter 18; and the Eschatological Discourse in chapters 24-25) are meant to correspond to the five books of Moses, the Pentateuch. Even within the Sermon on the Mount, five “antitheses” are presented (“You have heard it said…but I say to you”), where Jesus demonstrates how his new law of the kingdom fulfills the law given to Moses.

It has also been proposed by some scholars that the entire Gospel has a five-book arrangement (3-7; 8-10; 11-13; 14-18; 19-25). Each “book” contains material on what Jesus said and did, followed by a formula of conclusion (7:28-29; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1), with the infancy and passion narratives, respectively, serving as bookends. This is far from a consensus view, as many alternative structures for the Gospel as a whole have also been proffered.

Read the rest of the article here.


Exodus: Gods and Kings

Q. We’ve seen a spate of biblically themed movies in theatres lately: Son of God, Noah (starring Russell Crowe), and now Exodus: Gods and Kings (featuring Christian Bale of Batman fame). Why do you think this is?

A. Very often, movies are adapted from bestselling books. The Bible is the bestselling book of all time, so it only seems natural that biblical films would be made – there is always a high degree of interest. Of course, the reason that the Bible’s message is so perennially popular is that it reveals the truth to humanity – the truth about God, and about ourselves: why we are here, and what we were created for. Most people wander through their lives without any idea of their true purpose, or their need for salvation. Familiarity with the scriptures is a key to understanding life. It’s also essential for being an effective Catholic, for, as St Jerome once famously said, “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ”.

Q. The film Exodus: Gods and Kings is obviously about the biblical book of Exodus, and about Moses. Can you speak a bit about parallels between Moses and Christ?

A. Moses, although vitally important in his own right for God’s overall salvation plan, is also what scholars call  a “type” of Jesus Christ. What does this mean? God writes history (“His story”) the way human beings write with words. Just as a human writer can use a device like foreshadowing to tip off a reader about future events in his story, God uses actual people, places, and things in history to foreshadow greater people, places, and things to come later on in salvation history, especially at the time of Christ.

Q. What are some of the parallels between Jesus and Moses?

A. Despotic rulers attempted to murder both of them in their infancy (Pharaoh and Herod the Great, respectively). They both procured deliverance for their people: Moses delivered the Israelites from the tyranny of Pharaoh and slavery in Egypt, while Jesus delivered his followers from the slavery of sin, death and the despotic control of Satan. Jesus is the true Passover lamb, leading us out of spiritual bondage. And just as the Israelites had to eat the lamb of the Passover, we must consume the Eucharist. One of the plagues God sends on the Egyptians was turning the water of the Nile into blood. Jesus turns water into wine at Cana, and later, when instituting the Eucharist, turns wine into his Blood.

Just as the Israelites pass through the Red Sea, Jesus passes through the waters of baptism, and, like Israel, enters into a period of wilderness temptation. Unlike Israel, Jesus passes the test. Just as Moses ascended Mount Sinai and returned with the 10 Commandments, Jesus ascended the Mount of Beatitudes and delivered the 10 Beatitudes to his people (and, yes, there are 10, not 8, Beatitudes – look closely at Matthew 5:3-12). Moses’ face shone, reflecting the glory of God’s presence. Jesus, as God himself, radiates his unveiled glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. God fed his people Israel with the manna, the miracle bread from heaven, in their wilderness wanderings. In our sojourn in the wilderness of life on earth, en route to the promised land of heaven, Jesus feeds us with the miracle of the Eucharist, turning ordinary bread into his Body.

This is only a sampling of the many parallels between Moses and Jesus. It speaks of how God works in similar ways in different epochs of salvation history to rescue his people (although, obviously, the salvation Jesus wrought is much greater in kind). One is reminded of the words of Mark Twain, who famously said that “history may not repeat itself, but it sure does rhyme!” This is the essence of biblical typology. “The New Testament is in the Old, concealed; the Old Testament is in the New, revealed” (St Augustine).

Queen Mother

“And a great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Revelation 12:1).

Today’s feast of the Queenship of Mary celebrates the coronation of Mary as Queen of the universe. This is another Marian teaching of the Church that non-Catholics have trouble with, because it’s scriptural roots aren’t as obvious as they often are for other doctrines. A proper understanding of typology, however, makes the Queenship of Mary stand out in sharp relief as one reads the sacred page.

What is typology? As one writer put it, “God writes the world the way humans write with words.” Human writers can use literary devices like foreshadowing to tip the reader off to what’s coming in the future. When God acts in the history of salvation, he works in a similar fashion. He uses not words, but events, places, and people during Old Covenant times to foreshadow even greater realities – events, places, and people – of the New Covenant.

One of those realities is the position of Queen. In the Old Covenant Kingdom of David, the Queen was not the wife of the King, but his mother – the Queen Mother. This position began under King Solomon, the son of David. Solomon had, of course, many wives, so rather than have them slug it out in some sort of mud wrestling match for the title, the crown went to Bathsheba, the king’s mother, who sat at his right hand.

In a similar way, the one the New Testament hails as “the Son of David” rules a Kingdom. Jesus calls it “the Kingdom of God – exactly what David’s kingdom was called in the OT. That kingdom has a Prime Minister, which we saw in this past Sunday’s readings is Peter, who holds the “keys of the kingdom”, like Eliakim did in Isaiah 22.

This Kingdom also has a Queen – a Queen Mother, Mary. This is why foreign dignitaries pay homage to Jesus as to a king, alongside his mother after his birth (Matthew 2:11), just as other rulers would have done in earlier times for Solomon in the presence of his mother.