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Matthew's Birth of Jesus

Posted on: December 17, 2011

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THE BIRTH OF JESUS ACCORDING TO MATTHEW

©David Galston (SEE Matthew 1:18-25)

The Gospel of Matthew does not have a virgin birth story, though it is often read that way. When a closer look is taken, Matthew is not concerned with the details of his story. He is concerned with telling the reader how the circumstances of the birth of Jesus are irrelevant to the life of Jesus.

Matthew makes a lot of mistakes in his proposed genealogy for Jesus. It might even be said that Matthew is clumsy with it. He tries to show how things are balanced. As he records, there are 14 generation from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the Babylonian exile, and 14 from the Babylonian exile to the birth of Jesus. There are 3 distinct periods, and 14 generations in each.
But this balance is not borne out in the information provided. In fact the inconsistencies make Matthew’s genealogy a critic's paradise. Anyone who wants to show the Bible contains errors need look no further.
  1. If the generations are counted, there are not 3 eras of 14 generations each. There are three eras of 13, 14, and 13 generations.
  2. There are a bunch of lost generations: the first set of “14” generations is missing three kings: Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah. Then, Matthew records that Hezron was the father of Aram and Aram the father of Aminadab, but that covers 400 years!
  3. Matthew misnames King Amon as King Amos; the latter never existed (though there was a prophet by that name).
  4. Matthew says Josiah was the father of Jechoniah, but that’s wrong too. Josiah was the father of Jehoiakim and Jehoiakim was the father of Jechoniah. This mistake makes his second count of 14 generations really 15 generations.
Matthew’s genealogy is an attempt to align Jesus with King David, but it is evidently a clumsy and contrived effort.

THE INTERESTING AND PECULIAR

Yet, even though Matthew's genealogy is a critic's paradise, it holds some interesting and peculiar things that demonstrate the theology of this Gospel.
  1. First, Jesus is linked to King David. Jesus is not linked to the line of Priests but the line of Kings. This makes Jesus the centre of a change of government, not a change of ritual. When the magi come to visit King Herod (2:2), they report that they heard a new king was born. Basically, they are saying to Herod, “Hey man, you‘re out of business!”
  2. Another element is the four women recorded in the genealogy. None of the women are Jewish, and all of them have interesting if questionable biographies. 
    • Tamar was the widow of Judah’s two sons. She was childless. She disguised herself as a prostitute in order to have sex with her father-in-law. She bore twins. It seems she was shameless but in fact the shame was on the father-in-law because he failed to find her a husband. 
    • Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, but she hid Israelite soldiers who were on a reconnaissance mission. When Jericho was conquered, her life was spared and she was held up as a symbol of courage. In Matthew's genealogy (but nowhere else) she is named the mother of Boaz.
    • Ruth was a childless widow from Moab  who takes the risqué initiative of approaching the wealthy landlord Boaz. Though nothing is explicit, the story of the encounter is very suggestive. Ruth used sex appeal to secure a household and to have children. 
    • King David took advantage of Bathsheba, who was the wife of Uriah the Hittites. Then, when David learned she was pregnant, he had her husband killed. Her child was Solomon.

There is something strange and noteworthy about these women being in the genealogy Matthew composes. It seems as if Matthew has gone out of his way to show that 1) the presence of gentiles in the royal geneaologies of Israel makes no difference. That point seems consistent with the Book of Ruth. Then, Matthew seems to be saying that 2) regardless where or how a child comes into the world or whatever the status of the mother, God or destiny (if you like) is still with that mother and with that child. In Matthew, the Jesus birth story is not a factual story but it is a theological story. The question is what is the theology?

THE BIRTH THEOLOGY

Matthew brings the theology of the story to life through the character of Joseph. Mary and Joseph are "betrothed," which in the ancient world does not mean engaged. It means that they are married but are still at a point where Mary has not left her family to be part of Joseph's family. However, before Mary moves into the family of Joseph, it is discovered that she is already pregnant (and Joseph knows he is not the father). Matthew tells us that Joseph is “righteous,” so he decides not to shame her. Instead he will seek a quiet divorce.

What is Mary's shame? It is probably the case that she had sexual relations with someone either while she was betrothed to Joseph or before she was betrothed. The story does not tell us under what circumstances this happened. Nevertheless, she is in a situation where she could be accused of adultery. Joseph seeks a quiet divorce to prevent her from publicly receiving this accusation. Even though we might consider this story sexist today, this story comes to us from the ancient world where sexuality was understood differently and where the situation for women could be quite precarious. Matthew’s point here is to have us admire Joseph for being righteous and for having compassion on Marry.
Then, just when we might be caught up in admiration for Joseph, he has a dream in which an angel tells him that the child Mary bears is of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean Mary is a virgin mother and the father is the Holy Spirit. It means that whatever the circumstances were for Mary, this child is one of destiny. Basically, God wants this child and God wants Joseph to raise it. Joseph is being asked to be “righteous” in a way he never imagined. He must adopt Jesus as his own son even though he does not know who the father was. His righteousness now is to accept Mary, and her story, and her child as his wife, part of his story, and their child.
In telling this story of righteousness re-defined, Matthew refers to Isaiah 7:14 where it says in Hebrew, "A young woman is with child and shall bear a son." Unfortunately Matthew copies this down in Greek where the word for "young woman" can be interpreted either as young woman or as virgin. There is no doubt that Matthew means "young woman" since first this makes historic sense. A first time betrothed woman like Mary in antiquity was 14 to 16 years old. Secondly, in any case, Matthew is quoting from the Jewish Bible where it is clear the word is young woman. There is no virgin birth in Matthew. There is rather an attempt to define righteousness in relation to a woman with child that the society of that time would normally scorn.
Matthew's genealogy for Jesus is very significant to the Gospel as a whole because from the start it challenges the reader to see past a situation that, at first glance, looks shameful (or, at least, it would look that way if we were Matthew's contemporaries). Instead, from this background God's righteousness will play out. Secondly, it is important to Matthew because he seems determined to show that whether or not one's family includes Jews or gentiles, it makes no difference to the intention God has for history.
We may not find Matthew to be all that liberal from our modern context. We may even think that his God-idea is a little over the top. Nevertheless, we can appreciate and maybe can hear that his underlining point is powerful. It is at the bottom of history that we find the meaning of history. It is in those places that we might normally ignore or even scorn that there is a great hope for humanity should we choose to open our minds.
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