The Birth of Good News, or Judgement?
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-17, 1:18-25
An account of the genealogy [or: birth] of Jesus the Messiah,the son of David, the son of Abraham.
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph,* 8and Asaph* the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos,* and Amos* the father of Josiah, 11and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah,*fourteen generations.
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah [the Christ] took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
’22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Another Contested Text
The story of the birth of Jesus is contested text. It is contested text because point three of The Five Fundamentals (see here for one example of many) affirms the literal physical virgin birth of Christ.
The birth of Jesus is also contested text because it is "owned" by secular European Australians in their observance of our last remaining religious feasts. Excessive spending upon gifts and booze and food, (and upon hot cross buns and Easter eggs), may be the more common manifestations of these feasts, but behind them, especially Christmas, there is often a vague religious recollection. Carols, camels, stables, three wise men, and a baby in a manger, are a collective property which people do not wish to have disturbed. These feasts are part of "being Australian" in an uncertain world scrambling for identity. (See comments on Pauline Hanson)
These two contests become defensive filters.
Fundamentalism inclines a person to defend the notion of a physically true virgin birth rather than read the text. What matters in arguments around this issue is to win, to defend one's social construct, which is not to be questioned and challenged, least of all by the text itself. The meaning of the text has already been decided. Therefore, the theology of the virgin birth— what the text of the virgin birth says about God— becomes secondary, even invisible.
But note! This means that the person reacting against Fundamentalism is also prone to focussing on the argument instead of upon the text.
"The Christmas Story," as much as it is present in secular consciousness, is part of the "feel good" Christmas. To suggest that Jesus is a refugee who would be locked out of the Egypt of Australia if he sought asylum here, can get people very upset. This sermon had me heckled, people walked out, and another chastised me during morning tea!
Those of us who "know" the story can get so annoyed by the commercialism of the season, that we, too, fail to listen to the story; fail to notice stark differences between the accounts of Matthew and Luke, not to mention the silence of the rest of the New Testament and Gospels about Jesus birth; are surprised to hear that there were no Kings, that the number varied, and that the whole tradition of the stable might be a misunderstanding, and often do not ask ourselves what the facts of the story1 are seeking to tell us. We may not notice that we have become familiar with the text, and stopped reading!
A Question: If we are arguing about the meaning of the birth narrative, what are we really arguing about and, therefore, what are we failing to look at?
Assertion: Matthew is written in a violent world where the imagery of violent judgement was no act of imagination or exaggeration— Aleppo was experienced, not known through pictures. Matthew is written to a community living on the edge, struggling to survive. If we imagine a nice comfortable Christmas story with Persil-washed lambs and well-groomed shepherd boys, we have almost certainly misunderstood the story.
Beginning the Story
Point 1. Verse 1 and verse 18 of Matthew 1 begin a multi layered pun.
Matthew begins with the words "Biblos geneseos Iesou Christou...." The title is a pun that has a variety of possible meanings: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Messiah," or "The book of (the) Genesis of Jesus Messiah," or "The book of the origin of Jesus Messiah," and the like. This opening pun connects with the last words of the work: "to the end of the age" (28:20), marking off beginning and end. Moreover, the last passage of the work, an edict by the risen Jesus (28:18-20) closes the Gospel with the same type of passage that closes the Hebrew Scriptures, the edict of Cyrus in 2 Chron. 36:23. Thus the Gospel begins with "the book of genesis" and ends with a final edict of one empowered by God, just like the Sacred Scriptures of Matthew's day. Further, by beginning with a genealogy and closing with an edict, Matthew's work likewise follows the pattern of the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Chronicles. For Chronicles (called in Hebrew "The Book of Days" =genealogy) begins with a genealogy and ends with an edict from one with power over "all the kingdoms of the earth" (2 Chron. 36:22-23; used by Ezra 1:1-2), namely, God's Messiah, Cyrus (Isa. 45:1; see Isa. 44:28).
By whichever allusion, it appears that Matthew offers a new "scripture," which goes all the way from the "beginning" to the "end." In between these brackets, Jesus' five major speeches (each ending with the refrain: "When Jesus had finished . . . ," 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1) would have us think the new "scripture" is a new Torah from the new prophet, the new Moses, Jesus, Son of David, Son of Abraham. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina Richard L. Rohrbau pp[from the Reading Notes and Textual Notes on Matthew 1. My Kindle edition does not give the page numbers.])
Point 2. I notice that NRSV gives a translation option for 1:1 of "An account of the birth of Jesus the Messiah…" which is then echoed by 1:18" "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way."
Therefore, as well as introducing the New Moses, and perhaps even a New Scripture, verses 1-17 are also about the birth of the Messiah. And the Matthew lectionary reading on the birth of the Messiah leaves them out! Yet in these verses, Matthew anticipates the question of his readers, and possible critics: "How can a peasant villager, a carpenter (Matt 13:55) from a dump like Nazareth, possibly be the Messiah!?"
Genealogies encoded the information people needed to know in order to place themselves and others properly in the social order. … By tracing the genealogy back to Abraham, Matthew asserts the social position of Jesus as true Israelite. The immediate mention of David is to underscore the messianic role of Jesus. By providing Jesus with this type of royal genealogy, Matthew has located him at the top of the social honor scale, a position that "explains" how his subsequent career was so out of keeping with the honor status of a village artisan. … In antiquity, the description of the birth and childhood of notable personages always was based on the adult status and roles held by that person. … Hence accounts of childhood were quite securely inferred from the adult behavior of people. Great personages were seen to have certain characteristics from the very moment of birth, which remained with them throughout life. The authors of both Matthew and Luke as well as their audiences believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah whom the God of Israel would send with power. If Jesus of Nazareth is this Messiah to come, raised from the dead by the God of Israel, then obviously his birth and childhood would have been just as the Synoptics described it, even though the accounts of Matthew and Luke really have nothing in common. (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Malina Richard L. Rohrbau pp[from the Reading Notes and Textual Notes on Matthew 1. My Kindle edition does not give the page numbers.])
Point 3. The genealogy does something else. Despite the fact that "[all] of the genealogies of the New Testament - indeed, almost all those known from the agrarian period in the Near East-are patrilineal," (ibid) Matthew includes five women in the genealogy of Jesus! Tamar, (Genesis 38) Rahab, (Joshua 2, 6:22-25) Ruth, (Ruth 3) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11)— named only by her murdered husband, all feature in this "true Israelite" genealogy. All of them are associated with sexual impropriety. The first four prepare us for the story of Mary, the fifth.
We might conclude that Matthew is saying that God works even where the situation is such that "good people" judge others and dismiss them. The true Israel has even the shunned and the dismissed among its forbears, so do not dismiss Jesus upon this account!
Or we might draw a contrast between Matthew and Luke: Luke makes the virgin birth of Jesus a positive highlight of his story, (Luke 1:26-38) yet it almost seems Matthew needs to explain it and apologise for it.
There were rumours of Jesus' illegitimate birth; was Matthew seeking to refute them? This is possible, although such stories are just as likely to be later reactions to the virgin birth motif. (The claims of Celsus are here. Raymond Brown deals with Jewish versions of Celsus' claims in The Birth of the Messiah, (Doubleday Image 1979) pp534-42)
I think Matthew had his own agenda, which is independent of the scuttlebutt about Mary. The theology of Matthew is much deeper than merely attributing divinity, or divine authority, by divine parenthood— read on!
Point 4. Relevant here, is a translation issue regarding Joseph's part in the story.
The NRSV in Matthew 1:20 says Joseph “had resolved to do this,” that is, dismiss Mary quietly. Other translations (NJB, NAB both Catholic translations) besides the NRSV also wrongly imply that Joseph had already made up his mind. However, the original Greek says “he was pondering these things.” Pondering is prelude to decision, implying he had not yet made up his mind, had not yet “resolved to do this.” The King James Bible correctly translates the line as “While he thought on these things.” (Bob Eldan)
Joseph is a figure of openness to God, a person who considers rather than makes snap judgements according to the surface meaning of proof texts. And he dreams. He is modelled on Joseph the Dreamer in Egypt.
Then there is "Joseph’s creative and even “faithful” disobedience to the Hebrew Bible."
Much has been made of the fact that Joseph, having discovered seemingly indisputable evidence of his wife’s infidelity to him, could have exposed her to shame, legal punishment, and even death as revenge against her; instead, he chooses simply to end the betrothal without compromising her integrity. This, in and of itself, is an action of what Peter Rollins might call faithful infidelity to the law—by refusing to abide by the letter of the law, Joseph embodies its spirit. (Robert Saler)
Point 5. Later in Matthew, Jesus will say "Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (9:13) He is quoting Hosea 6 and indicating that faithfulness to God is not measured by attention to the details of the sacrificial cult, but by sacrificial attention to mercy; that is, compassion to others.
If we can get beyond arguments over literality, we find something much deeper. Matthew is not much concerned with the literal nature of the birth! He is writing a new scripture about a new Moses, who from the very beginning, embodies a new "Law." This new Torah is inclusive, mercy-full, and counter-cultural. It criticises the religious status quo, especially the measuring of who is "in" and who is "out." The God we have always known is acting in a new way— or should that be restated: in Jesus, God is once again seeking to enable us to see the depths of mercy, and to drag us out of comfortable stories.
But what about that virgin thing…
A good entry into this comes from John C Holbert:
I used to say, in my haughtier youth, that Hebrew 'almah meant only "young woman," while Greek parthenos could mean either "virgin" or "young woman." Hence, Matthew may or may not have been saying that Jesus' birth was virginal; he may only have been quoting Isaiah 7:14 to do what he always wished to do with his Bible quotations, namely, prove from Hebrew scripture that Jesus was who Matthew said he was, the Messiah of Israel.
In my now older increased scholarly humility—well, somewhat increased humility—I know that that entire linguistic discussion is rather more complex. 'almah could in fact mean virgin, though Hebrew does have another word that usually does mean that, bethulah. Thus, I do not any longer excoriate those who try to prove Jesus' miraculous birth simply by quoting these texts. What Isaiah "meant" and what Matthew "meant" may finally be beyond our ability to recover, given the two millennia and more that have passed since their writing. (My emphasis)
… to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord
But the exact meanings of 'almah and parthenos are a side issue.
Holbert says Matthew "may only have been quoting Isaiah 7:14 to do what he always wished to do with his Bible quotations, namely, prove from Hebrew scripture that Jesus was who Matthew said he was, the Messiah of Israel." Yes, but Matthew is not "proof texting." Quotations of Old Testament verses should always be taken as an invitation to read the whole story which the quotation merely introduces, for this will tell us more.
In Isaiah 7, "the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind," in the face of impending invasion by much stronger forces. Does this not sound familiar to Matthew's situation, or even to our own? The child Isaiah speaks of is a sign:
For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. (Isa 7:16)
But is this good news for Ahaz the king? In the story, Ahaz refuses to trust God by refusing to ask for a sign:
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. 12But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. 13Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
This cherished verse quoted in Matthew 1:23 is part of a criticism and judgement!
16For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’
18 On that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. 19And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thorn bushes, and on all the pastures.
20 On that day the Lord will shave with a razor hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will take off the beard as well….
Because you will not trust God… Matthew is telling us that if we will not trust that God is with us (Emmanuel) and that God saves us (Jesus) there is a judgement to follow.
Joseph the Dreamer in Egypt has dreamed again. And he trusts God against all social convention, takes Mary into his house, and names his son Jesus— God saves. God is with us.
This is the good news. But not to trust the good news will have its cost— judgement.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
- The facts of the story means: the details that the story presents to us. They may, or may not, be literal history, and that does not matter. The facts of the story contain its message, which is often not about surface, or literal, details.