God Is With Us: commentary

First page of the Gospel of Mark, by Sargis Pi...

Matthew 1:18-24. 18 Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man,  yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. 20 Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. 21 She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus,  because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. 25 He had no relations with her until she bore a son,  and he named him Jesus.

Commentary – Joseph and Jesus. Matthew’s gospel does not describe the birth of Jesus, but explains his origin (the virgin conception) and his name in relation to a specific Old Testament prophecy. The passage concentrates entirely on the experiences of Joseph rather than those of Mary. Even the miraculous conception of Jesus is related only as its discovery affected Joseph. This remarkable concentration, compared with the complete silence on Joseph elsewhere, indicates Matthew’s concern to establish Jesus’ legal lineage through Joseph, i.e. to explain how the preceding genealogy applies to Jesus the son of Mary.

Jesus is “son of David” because of his genealogy, yet Joseph didn’t “begat” him! The Davidic descendancy is not transferred through natural paternity but through legal paternity. “By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his own. The Jewish position on this is lucidly clear and is dictated by the fact that sometimes it is difficult to determine who begot a child biologically. Since normally a man will not acknowledge and support a child unless it is his own, the law prefers to base paternity on the man’s acknowledgment. The Mishna Baba Bathra 8:6 states the principle: ‘If a man says, “This is my son,” he is to be believed.’ Joseph, by exercising the father’s right to name the child (cf. Luke 1:60-63), acknowledges Jesus and thus becomes the legal father of the child” (Brown, p. 139).

The Virgin Birth. That Jesus was conceived by a virgin mother without the agency of Joseph is clearly stated throughout this section, and is the basis for the introduction of the quotation in vv. 22–23.

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

In the text this not so much argued or even described, but assumed as a known fact. There may be an element of apologetic in Matthew’s stress on Joseph’s surprise, his abstention from intercourse, the angel’s explanation of Jesus’ divine origin, and the scriptural grounds for a virgin birth, due perhaps to an early form of the later Jewish charge that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate (see Brown, pp. 534–542). But the account reads primarily as if designed for a Christian readership, who wanted to know more precisely how Mary’s marriage to Joseph related to the miraculous conception of Jesus, and Christians who would find the same delight that Matthew himself found in tracing in this the detailed fulfillment of prophecy.

The suggestion that the virgin birth tradition is an imaginative creation by Matthew or his predecessors on the basis of Isaiah 7:14 is precluded not only by this assumption of it as a known fact in Matthew’s narrative, but also by its appearance in a completely different form in Luke 1:26–56; 2:5. Further, vv. 22–23, where Isaiah 7:14 is introduced, are clearly an explanatory addition to the narrative, which would flow smoothly from v. 21 to v. 24 without these verses, and not the inspiration for it. Suggestions that the tradition derives from pagan stories of gods having intercourse with women ignore both the quite different tone of such stories, and the impossibility of their being accepted in a Palestinian Jewish setting; yet the Gospel accounts are both intensely Jewish in their contents and expression.

Betrothal.  Engagement or betrothal in Jewish society of Jesus’ time involved a much stronger commitment than it does in modern Western society. The description of Joseph’s embarrassment and his plans in vv.18–19 may presume his suspicion that Mary had been raped or seduced. As a devout observer of the Old Testament law, Joseph could not take Mary as his wife (see Deut 22:23–27). Not wishing to subject Mary to the shameful trial of the woman suspected of adultery (Num 5:11–31), he decided to forgo the public procedure and took upon himself the responsibility for the divorce. (The “Notes” section contains more information on Jewish betrothal/marriage customs and divorce.)

God’s Plan.  Joseph’s plans are interrupted in vv.20–23 by the appearance of a messenger from God in a dream — a device familiar from the Old Testament account of the birth of Samson (Judges 13). The first words uttered are “do not be afraidto take Mary your wife into your home.” The angel gives an explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, announcing the divine plan is already in motion. The angel also informs Joseph of his part in the divine plan: “you are to name him Jesus.” As explained above, this simple directive makes clear to Joseph that he is to claim Jesus as his own. As the legal son of Joseph, Jesus will be a “Son of David” (v. 20).

In first-century Judaism the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” The language reminds us of similar revelations in the Old Testament (Gen. 16:11; 17:19; etc.), as well as of Isaiah 7:14, soon to be quoted. Names, especially divinely revealed names, are full of meaning, and this is often revealed by a word-play which need not always correspond to the actual etymology of the name. In the case of Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua or Jeshua, a common name) both the sound (cf. Heb. yôšî’a, ‘he will save’) and the probable etymology contribute to the explanation for he will save his people from their sins (v.20).

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

Matthew also sees the virgin birth and naming as a fulfillment of scripture (this is the first of 10 such “fulfillment” passages in Matthew). Here Isaiah 7:14 is the fulfillment text. As noted in the “Context” section, the Isaian passage had a its primary fulfillment in Isaiah’s own time and was not primarily a prediction of an event centuries later. But Matthew sees Jesus as a fulfillment of the whole of Scripture.

Eugene Boring (Matthew, 135) observes Matthew’s use of this text has four characteristics that made it appropriate:

“(1) the original oracle was addressed to the “House of David” (Isa 7:2, 13). (2) Matthew’s faith affirms that Jesus is the one in who the promised deliverance is realized, in and through whom “God is with us.” (3) Since the LXX had translated almah with parthenos…which means primarily “virgin” but can also mean “young woman,” this provided another point of contact with Jesus. It is clear that Matthew already knew the story of Jesus’ virginal conception, which he now understands in the light of Scripture as it fulfillment. (4) The LXX had employed the future tense (the tense of the Hebrew is ambiguous and can mean that the young woman is already pregnant or will become pregnant. The LXX translators may have had the virgin Israel specifically in mind (cf. Amos 5:2), Who by God’s help would bring forth the Messiah. Matthew changes the LXX’s second person singular, “you shall call,” to third person plural…Since third person plural is one of the Jewish circumlocutions to avoid pronouncing the sacred name of God, and since naming in a Jewish context has to do with essential being and not merely labeling, Matthew’s meaning is probably “God will constitute him the one represents the continuing divine presence among the people of God.”

Perhaps as a prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Joseph is facing is “you-have-heard-it-said-but-I-say-to-you” tension. The tension between what Joseph understands the Law to demand and the new thing that Joseph is doing in Jesus. By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom.  Joseph acts in accordance with the divine communication and takes Mary to be his wife (v. 24).

The whole of Matt 1:1–25 serves both to situate Jesus firmly within God’s people and to call attention to his extraordinary status. On the one hand, he is the descendant of Abraham and David and the fulfillment of the promises and hopes attached to those great Old Testament figures. On the other hand, the mode of his birth is highly unusual, and the names given to him — Jesus and Emmanuel — suggest that he far surpasses any of his ancestors.

Some Reflections. The virginal conception of Jesus can not stand as a proof of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.” It is not a matter of “proof” but trust.  Nor does Matthew seem to intend it as such. Matthew bases no theological claims upon the virgin birth and the birth is never again a reference in his gospel. Yet the claim of supernatural conception is not incidental. It is one of the ways Matthew has of confessing that Jesus is the Son of God. Matthew has others, e.g. the Apostle Peter confesses the fundamental Christian faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” (16:16) because it was revealed to him by God in heaven. In the whole of Scripture, for Matthew, the story of Jesus is speaking about God – that God is with us.

Matthew begins and ends his narrative with the fragile human life of Jesus surrounded by God in both the birth story and the Passion account – each of which points to God as the hidden actor of the deeper story. While the Passion narrative is essential, the birth story as a miracle is not. As provocative as that sounds, the virginal conception is not the proof or even the meaning of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.”

Notes

Matthew 1:18 birth: The Greek genesis is used. The normal and routine use of the word is “birth,” (Mt. 1:18. Lk. 1:14), with such derived senses as a. “what has come into being” and “life” (cf. perhaps Jms. 1:23). It is noteworthy that bíblos genéseos is used for “genealogy” in Mt. 1:1.

Jesus: Many early manuscripts do not include “Jesus” saying “…this is how the birth of the Christ came about.” In any case what is clear is Matthew’s intention to emphasize the Messiahship of Jesus, son of Mary.

betrothed to Joseph: betrothal was the first part of the marriage in which there was a formal exchange of vows before witnesses (cf. Mal 2:14) and a subsequent taking of the bride into the groom’s family home (cf. Mt 25:1-13). In Jewish law betrothal, which lasted about one year, was much more than our engagement. It was a binding contract, terminable only by death (which left the betrothed a ‘widow’) or by a divorce as for a full marriage. While “marriage” is often used to designate the second step, in Jewish understanding “marriage” is more properly applied to the first step. The man was already the husband (v. 19), but the woman remained in her father’s house. The marriage was completed when the husband took the betrothed to his home in a public ceremony (v. 24; cf. 25:1–13).

According to Mishnah Kethuboth 1:5 and TalBab Kethuboth 9b, 12a – in parts of Judea is was not unusual for a husband to be alone with his wife in the interval between the exchange of consent and the move to the groom’s home. Thus in Judea interim marital relations were not absolutely condemned. However, in Galilee, no such leniency was tolerated. The woman was expected to be a virgin upon entering his home.  Given the tone of Matthew’s gospel, during the interim period any infidelity would have been considered adultery.

lived together: synérchomai. In Acts 15:38 this word means “to journey with someone” on missionary work. In 1 Cor. 11:17 it denotes the coming together of the congregation; the sense is the same in 1 Cor. 14:23, 26, where Paul is giving direction for the proper use of spiritual gifts in the church.  Used here in Matthew it can have the plain meaning; some commentaries opt for the euphemism of sexual intercourse, but there is scant evidence that this expression is Hebraic or Aramaic in its origin. However, in later use (e.g., Josephus and Philo) synérchomai is used euphemistically for sexual relations.

through the holy Spirit: This information is provided to the reader prior to the narrative flow of the story of Joseph, his dream and the message of an angle. Matthew seems to have place this phrase here so that (a) the listener knows more than the characters in the narrative, and (b) there is no point at which the listener entertains the idea that Joseph might be the natural father.

That the Holy Spirit was the agent in Jesus’ conception (cf. v. 20) is stressed also by Luke (1:35). In the Old Testament the Spirit of God appears as the agent of God’s activity, especially in creation and the giving of life (Gen. 1:2; Ezek. 37:1–14; etc.); thus the divine initiative is made clear. The agency of the Spirit in bringing the Messianic age (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1; Joel 2:28; etc.) is also in view.

Matthew 1:19 a righteous man: Fr. Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 126-7 ) suggests that of the wide array of underlying reasons for “righteousness” (e.g., mercy, awe, etc.) the key factor was that as a devout observer of the Mosaic law, Joseph wished to break his union with someone whom he suspected of gross violation of the law. It is commonly said that the law required him to do so, but the texts usually given in support of that view, e.g., Deut 22:20-21 do not clearly pertain to Joseph’s situation.

unwilling to expose her to shame: In Old Testament law the penalty for unchastity before marriage was stoning (Deut. 22:13–21), but by Joseph’s time divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24:1, was the rule. Joseph, as a reighteous man, could, and perhaps should, have done so by an accusation of adultery resulting in a public trial, but his unwillingness to put her to shame led him to consider the permitted alternative of a divorce before two witnesses (Mishnah, Sotah 1:1, 5). The sense of the underlying Greek is that the shame would be quite public.  As a practical matter, given Mary was pregnant, the matter would eventually be public knowledge.  What is not clear is the grounds that Joseph would have presented.  The penalty for proved adultery was death by stoning; cf Deut 22:21-23. Some scholars speculate that Joseph would have offered less serious grounds (Brown, 128).

Matthew 1:20 the angel of the Lord: in the Old Testament a common designation of God in communication with a human being (cf. Gen 16:7, 13; 22:11, 14; Ex 3:2, 4; Judges 6:12, 14; Hosea 12:5; Isa 63:9)

in a dream: the expression kat’ onar is used in 2:13, 19, 12, 22. These dreams may be meant to recall the dreams of Joseph, son of Jacob the patriarch (Genesis 37:5-11:19). A closer parallel is the dream of Amram, father of Moses, related by Josephus (Antiquities 2,9,3; 212, 215-16).

son of David: It was necessary for Joseph to take Mary (to his house, i.e. complete the marriage) in order to establish Jesus’ legal Davidic lineage. Similarly, to name him (vv. 21, 25) was formally to acknowledge Jesus as his son, and thus to constitute Jesus also as ‘Son of David’ (Brown, pp. 138–139).

Matthew 1:21 Jesus: the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” In addition, some scholars have pointed out that in being named “Joshua” there is another important theme being developed in Matthew’s story.  Joshua inherited and fulfilled Moses’ role.  The Matthean typology of Jesus as the “new Moses” is developed throughout the remainder of this gospel.

Matthew 1:23 God is with us: God’s promise of deliverance to Judah in Isaiah’s time is seen by Matthew as fulfilled in the birth of Jesus, in whom God is with his people. The name Emmanuel is alluded to at the end of the gospel where the risen Jesus assures his disciples of his continued presence,”. . . I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Matthew 1:24 he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded. Joseph is a model of quiet obedience to three angelic revelations in Matt 1–2 (cf. 2:13–15, 19–21). He got up and did exactly as he was told without hesitation or question. This parallels Mary’s humble obedience in Luke 1:38.

Matthew 1:25 until she bore a son: the evangelist is concerned to emphasize that Joseph was not responsible for the conception of Jesus.  In English is something is negated up to a point in time, occurrence after that time is normally assumed. However, the expression (heōs hou) and its Semitic counterpart have no such assumption. The immediate context favors a lack of future implication given Matthew’s stress on Mary’s virginity so that the Isaian prophecy is fulfilled.

Sources

  • G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI;  Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic;  Apollos, 2007) pp. 3-5
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp. 266-68
  • Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1999 updated edition) pp. 123-64
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)  p. 249
  • John J. Collins, “Isaiah” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 421-23
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 81-85
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 154-62
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 864-65
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 5-9
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
  • D. Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) pp. 40-45

Dictionaries

  • G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, eds., Theological dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995)
    F. Büschel, genesis, 1:681–89
    J. Schneider, synérchomai, 2:666–84
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