Does Scripture Change Meaning over Time?


Perhaps I am a little naive, but much of the Scriptures is fairly straightforward in understanding its meaning. “Thou shalt not kill” still means the same today as it did nearly 4000 years ago.

“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is cut-and-dry. No amount of contextualization is needed to understand its meaning.

Messiah will be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7.14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5.2), be killed (Daniel 9.26) and be buried in a rich man’s tomb (Isaiah 53.9). These prophecies were fulfilled as stated.

In a previous post, I alluded to Dispensationalism’s non-negotiable hermeneutic – namely, the text is to be interpreted in its historical and grammatical context.

More specifically, I have stated that this method leads us to find the intended meaning of the text – the single meaning of the text.

This principle – and especially its conclusion – is not agreed upon by all expositors (though, most conservative Bible preachers and teachers would at least say it is true for the vast majority of passages – with questions left to be answered about prophetic passages, etc).

Why a single meaning?


Language is a gift from God to man. Its purpose is for communication. God uses this language to communicate with His creation.

If language is God’s method of communicating with mankind (or, at least one of His methods), it seems consistent to say that He would do so in a way that would be understandable.

It seems inconsistent for God to claim to communicate with man about Himself, His work, and His plan in a way that would invite confusion or lack of clarity.


Closely related to the previous reason, a hermeneutical approach that believes the meaning is static – governed by the text and not the times – is rooted in objectivity.

All expositors – myself included – have hermeneutical presuppositions we bring to a text. Grounding the meaning in its historical context provides a better opportunity for impartiality with the meaning.

Preservation and translation discussions revolve around the question: What did God say? Hermeneutical discussions revolve around the question: What did God mean?


We have a blueprint already in the Old Testament. The prophecies concerning the Messiah, concerning some of the ancient cities such as Tyre or dominant world kingdoms – these were fulfilled literally, not spiritually or allegorically.

Prophecies concerning where the Messiah would be raised, what type of ministry He would have, His resurrection – these were stated in clear terms for those who had “ears to hear / eyes to see.”

A Test Case

Hosea 11.1 – When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.

Hosea has been preaching to the nation of Israel, or Ephraim. His statement is not forward-looking (prophetical), it is backward-looking (historical).

To see if this principle of single-meaning works in practice, there are two questions we must answer: 1) What did Hosea mean? and 2) Did Matthew change that meaning in Matthew 2.14-15?

What did Hosea mean?

Hosea makes a statement – how did he intend to be understood? How would his audience understand his message?

Israel – as a child – refers to the nation’s early days. The passage sets the historical context unambiguously – it deals with the Exodus event when God brought Israel out of Egypt.

Did Matthew change the meaning?

In Matthew 2, the apostle declares that Jesus is the “fulfillment” of Hosea’s message. Whatever Matthew’s hermeneutical method may be, he intends to show the Scripture as authoritative to Jewish readers. In effect, he is proving Jesus is their Messiah-King.

What are the options for us in understanding Matthew’s handling of Hosea?

Matthew changed the meaning

Matthew was not ignorant when it came to the OT Scriptures. He uses the formula, “As it is written…” time and time again. To say he simply took a passage out of context to prove his point is unreasonable.

If Matthew is taking Scripture out of context, to prove to people who know the Scriptures, then rest assured he will be called out on it. His writing will lose the very authority that he is seeking to give it (from a human perspective, by quoting Scripture).

Given the context of Matthew’s purpose, I personally cannot say that Matthew changed Hosea’s meaning to suit his theological goal.

Matthew unlocked a meaning that was hidden to Hosea

This is a different approach than before. In the first option, Matthew is being disingenuous with the text. In this option, Matthew is not to be blamed – he is writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Basically, the same Spirit that inspired the OT passage inspired the NT passage. In theory, He could have been ambiguous enough to allow this statement to cover two events.

This is similar to a prophetic interpretation that sees a “near” fulfillment and a “distant” fulfillment. Thus, Matthew is not misinterpreting Hosea – he is simply interpreting him with a greater historical awareness.

Good, conservative Christians hold to this view. It is not heretical. It does have a presupposition that God is communicating in such a way as to be less-than-clear. My own presuppositions of the purpose of language prevent me from taking this option.

Matthew used a correspondence in type

Call Matthew’s method rabbinic, midrashic, or Second Temple hermeneutics (I’ve seen them all used) – the name is not as important to me. I’m more interested in what he was doing.

Matthew has a way of using the story of Israel as a whole to serve as a backdrop for the story of Jesus. Notice:

  1. God gave the law to Moses on Mount Sina; Jesus gave His law on a mountain
  2. God fed the people in the wilderness with manna; Jesus fed the 5000 in the wilderness
  3. Israel was in the wilderness for 40 years; Jesus was in the wilderness for 40 days
  4. Israel was brought out of Egypt; Jesus was brought out of Egypt.

It is not so much that Matthew is interpreting Hosea as he is taking the story of Israel and finding points of correspondence to Jesus’ life.

This is not taking Matthew out of context. It becomes similar to what Paul does with the story of Hagar and Abraham…He doesn’t change the meaning of the original passage. But, he does find points of correspondence to a current situation.


Matthew’s usage of the OT, in my opinion, does not do a disservice to the single meaning found in those passages. He is not changing the meaning, nor is he providing a new level of meaning.

Instead, he is using typology / correspondence to make the same point in a different setting. Thus, the meaning of Scripture remains static, rather than dynamically changing with the times.

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