The Birth of Jesus in Romans 1:3-4 & Galatians 4:4-5

We are blessed with such wonderfully vivid and detailed accounts of the Nativity, it is rather surprising that, apart from these Infancy Narratives (Matt 1-2, Luke 1-2), there is scarcely any mention of Jesus’ birth in the New Testament at all. To judge from the book of Acts and the Letters (Epistles), the Virgin Birth was not an essential component of the earliest Christian preaching (kerygma) and teaching (didache). This should serve as note of caution for theologians and apologists today against exaggerating the importance of the doctrine. On the other hand, a number of scholars have questioned whether the apostle Paul, for example, even knew of (or accepted) the Virgin Birth as such: traditional-conservative commentators generally take for granted that he did, some critical scholars have their doubts; there is precious little evidence, looked at objectively, to decide the issue either way.

In the Pauline Letters, there really are only two passages which speak of the birth of Jesus—Romans 1:3-4 and Galatians 4:4-5.

Romans 1:3-4:

These verses—part of the opening greeting in vv. 1-7 (a single Greek sentence)—are regarded by many critical scholars as an early credal fragment which Paul has incorporated. The basis for such a view is two-fold: (a) the formulaic structure of the verses, and (b) a number of words and ideas which do not occur elsewhere in Paul’s letters (at least the ‘undisputed’ letters), such as Jesus as the ‘son of David’ (but cf. 2 Tim 2:8). There is a very precise parallelism to these verses, which makes for a powerful christological statement. To establish the context, I would outline verses 1-7 as follows (joining elements I have highlighted in bold):

  • V. 1: Paul, a servant [lit. “slave”, dou=lo$] of Christ Jesus—(a) called (to be) an apostle; (b) set apart unto the Gospel [lit. “good message”] of God
    • V. 2: which He announced [lit. “gave as message”] before(hand) through His foretellers [i.e. Prophets] in (the) holy Writings
    • V. 3-4: about His Son …{see below for these verses in detail}… Jesus Christ our Lord
      • V. 5: through whom we have received grace and ‘apostleship’ unto (the) hearing of trust [i.e. ‘obedience of faith’] in/among all the the nations, under His name
        • V. 6: among whom even you [pl.] are called of Jesus Christ
          • V. 7: to all (the ones) who are in Rome, (be)loved of God, called holy (ones)…

Note the structure of verses 3-4:

peri\ tou= ui(ou= aut)tou=
…(about) His Son

tou= genome/nou
the (one) coming to be
{aorist mid. participle}
tou= o(risqe/nto$
the (one) set by boundary [i.e. appointed] (to be)
{aorist pass. participle}
e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d
out of [i.e. from] (the) seed of David
ui(ou= qeou= e)n duna/mei
(the) son of God in power
kata\ sa/rka
according to (the) flesh
kata\ pneu=ma a(giwsu/nh$
according to (the) Spirit of holiness
e)c a)nasta/sew$ nekrw=n
out of (the) standing up [i.e. resurrection] of (the) dead [pl.]

  )Ihsou= Xristou= tou= kuri/ou h(mw=n
Yeshua Anointed {Jesus Christ} our Lord

“His Son” and “Jesus Christ our Lord” form an inclusio, within which we find credal statements summarizing the “two natures” of Christ—his humanity (“seed from David”) and his deity (“son of God…”). The italicized portions above on the right are thought by some scholars to be Pauline additions to the (earlier) line; in any event, the phrases do expand and qualify the formula (on the “Son of God” side). A close study reveals a number of interpretive difficulties (such as the meaning and force of the participle o(risqe/nto$), complicated by the possibility of two layers of meaning at work—that of Paul and that of a (possible) earlier credal formula. Unfortunately a detailed exposition will have to wait for a later article (cf. the standard critical Commentaries).

Galatians 4:4-5:

These verses occur about halfway through the main portion of the letter (3:1-4:31), which is effectively a long exposition of the principal theme (stated powerfully in 2:15-21): that in Christ believers are freed from the burden (and curse) of the Law (the Mosaic covenant and legal code). More specifically, Gal 4:1-7 expounds the argument in 3:26-29, which can be summarized as follows: in Christ we are children (and heirs) of God according to the promise made to Abraham (that is, by faith); we are no longer in slavery (to the Law), but are free. Paul will develop this theme further in a subsequent argument (the allegory in 4:21-31)—Hagar/Sarah, slave-woman/free-woman, earthly-Jerusalem/Jerusalem-above, Sinai-covenant/new-covenant, slave-children/free-children. In 4:1ff, the argument is adapted by the illustration of the heir who is not yet of age: while still a child he is under the tutelage of servants and guardians (the Law), which means he is still under a kind of ‘slavery’ (even though the true heir). Paul is aware that this illustration would seem to apply only to Israelites (Jews), and so extends the analogy with the truly provocative idea that the Law is comparable to the “elements (stoixei=a) of the world” which hold both Jew and Gentile in (equal) bondage (v. 3). However, this period of ‘bondage’ lasts only until the appointed time (v. 2) the Father has set: once the heir comes of age, he is truly free and inherits everything which belongs to the Father.

This is the context of Gal 4:4-5, verses which, like Romans 1:3-4 (see above), are sometimes thought to reflect an earlier credal statement. There is certainly a strong symmetry and parallelism, with structure and wording which might lend itself well to preaching and basic instruction (catechism):

o%te de\ h@lqen to\ plh/rwma tou= xro/nou
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\n ui(o\n au)tou=
but when the fullness of time came,
God set off from (him) his Son

geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$
geno/menon u(po\ no/mon
coming to be out of a woman
coming to be under (the) Law

i%na tou\$ u(po\ no/mon e)cagora/sh|
i%na th\n u(ioqesi/an a)pola/bwmen
that he might buy out [i.e. ransom] the (ones) under (the) Law
that we might receive from (Him) the position of son

Verses 6-7 function in a similar manner, and serve to summarize the entire argument. Here I outline verse 6 chiastically:

But because you are sons (o%ti de/ e)ste ui(oi/)

God has set out from (him) the Spirit of his Son
e)cape/steilen o( qeo\$ to\ pneu=ma tou= ui(ou= au)tou=
into our hearts crying (out):
ei)$ ta\$ kardi/a$ h(mw=n

“Abba, Father!” (abba o( path/r)

I treat verse 7 as a parallel chiasm:

Therefore no longer are you a slave (w(ste ou)ke/ti ei@ dou=lo$)

but a son (a)lla\ ui(o/$)
and if a son (ei) de\ ui(o/$)

(Then) even an heir [lit. lot-holder] through God (kai\ klhrono/mo$ dia\ qeou=)

Relation of both passages to Jesus’ birth:

In each passage, one particular phrase can be isolated:

  • “[His Son] the (one) coming to be out of the seed of David” (tou= genome/nou e)k spe/rmato$ Daui\d), which is qualified by kata\ sa/rka (“according to [the] flesh”)—Rom 1:3
  • “[His Son], coming to be out of a woman” (geno/menon e)k gunaiko/$)—Gal 4:4

In both instances the key verb is an (aorist middle) participle of the verb ginomai. There are two closely related verbs—gennaw and ginomai—both of which have the basic meaning “come to be, become”, and both of which can have the sense of “coming to be born“, though the former (gennaw) tends to carry this meaning more specifically than the latter. Some scholars have thought that the use of ginomai here may suggest knowledge of the virginal birth (or conception) of Jesus—that is, a normal human birth would more likely be indicated by gennaw. However, there are number of instances where a ‘normal’ birth/begetting is expressed by ginomai—cf. John 8:58; Wisdom 7:3; Sirach 44:9; Tobit 8:6, etc. Moreover, it seems clear enough that the context of verse 4, with the parallel participles of ginomai, refers to the human condition in general, rather than to a special form of birth:

geno/menon (“come to be”)

e)k gunaiko/$ (“out of a woman”) u(po\ no/mon (“under the Law”)

For the phrase “come to be (born) out of a woman” as a locution for human nature or the human condition, see also Matthew 11:11 (gennaw rather than ginomai).

Interestingly, in the second-century both Rom 1:3-4 and Gal 4:4-5 were cited by theologians and apologists for this very purpose—namely, to confirm that Jesus was truly born as flesh and blood (i.e., that he was fully human). This was done to combat the “gnostic” or otherwise heterodox (docetic) view that Jesus was only partially, or only seemed to be human—cf. Irenaeus (Against Heresies III.22.1, V.21.1) and Tertullian (On the Flesh of Christ §20, 22). One also finds variants in both passages, where gennw/menon is read for geno/menon, further emphasizing the reality of the birth.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

Matthew 2:5-6, 16ff

By all accounts, the tradition that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem stems from an interpretation of Micah 5:2ff, just as we see in the Matthean Infancy narrative. In the text, Herod brings together the leading religious officials (priests) and scribes (those learned in the Scriptures) and inquires of them “Where (is) the Anointed (One) [i.e. Messiah] to be born?” (Matt 2:4). Their answer (“in Bethlehem of Judea”), as presented in the narrative, is followed by a modified citation of Micah 5:2 [Heb v. 1]:

“And you, Bethlehem, (in) the land of Yehudah {Judah},
are not (in) one thing least among the leaders of Yehudah;
for (one) who leads [i.e. a leader] shall come out of you
who will shepherd my people Yisrael {Israel}.” (v. 6)

The portions in italics indicate points where the citation in Matthew differs from both the Hebrew (Masoretic) text and the Greek Septuagint (LXX). The last line is the result of joining 2 Sam 5:2 to the quotation from Micah. The differences otherwise are relatively slight, except for the first half of line 2, which alters entirely the sense of the original. It is hard to know whether this reflects a variant reading or an intentional change by the author; certainly, an early Christian such as the Gospel writer would be inclined here to emphasize the importance of Bethlehem.

The Messianic significance of Bethlehem relates to its association with David, as the “city of David”. This title normally applies to the original citadel of Jerusalem, as taken over and developed by David and his successors; however, in the New Testament, it refers to Bethlehem as David’s hometown (Lk 2:4; cf. Ruth 4:11; 1 Sam 17:12ff). The tradition of Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace, presumably based on a similar interpretation of Micah 5:2ff as in Matt 2:4-6, is attested in John 7:40-42, where certain people express doubt that Jesus, coming out of Galilee, could be the Messiah:

“Does not the (sacred) Writing say that (it is) out of the seed of David, and from Bethlehem the town where David was, (that) the Anointed (One) comes?” (v. 42)

Matt 2:4-6ff sets the stage for the dramatic scene of the slaughter of the children (vv. 16-18) which functions as a parallel to the Moses Infancy narrative (cf. the previous article). The connection is much more obvious when we consider elements added to the Exodus narrative (1:8-22) in later Jewish tradition. In Josephus’ Antiquities (2.205) the scribes make known to Pharaoh a prophecy regarding an Israelite leader/deliverer who was about to be born:

“One of those sacred scribes, who are very sagacious in foretelling future events, truly told the king, that about this time there would be born a child to the Israelites, who, if he were reared, would bring the Egyptian dominion low, and would raise the Israelites; that he would excel all men in virtue, and obtain a glory that would be remembered through all ages” [LOEB translation]

In Matthew’s version of the Micah quotation, the Messianic implications are heightened by every one of the changes made to the text:

  • “land of Judah” instead of “Ephrathah”—this second reference to Judah widens the scope of the scene to the (entire) territory of Judah/Judea; David’s kingdom was centered in Judah and Jerusalem, from which it extended its influence and authority. The coming Messianic rule would follow a similar pattern.
  • “not in one thing least among” instead of “(too) small to be among”—as noted above, the reference to Bethlehem’s ‘smallness’ has been eliminated; the adaptation (or reading) instead emphasizes Bethlehem’s greatness
  • “among the leaders of Judah” instead of “among the clans/thousands of Judah”—the comparison has shifted from clan and territory to the ruler of the territory. The ruler who comes from Bethlehem (i.e. the Davidic Messiah) will be greater than the other rulers of Judah.
  • “who will shepherd by people Israel”—this citation from 2 Sam 5:2 brings in another Messianic association with David: that of shepherd. David had been a shepherd, and, in the ancient Near East, kings and rulers were often referred to as a shepherd over the people, along with relevant symbolism (cf. Isa 44:28, etc). These two elements come together in passages such as Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 34 (esp. vv. 23-24); 37:24ff, which were influential in the development of Messianic thought.

In emphasizing the connection with Judah, one is reminded of the title earlier in v. 2 (“King of the Jews”). We are clearly dealing with the Messianic figure-type of a future ruler from the line of David. Let us consider how this has been brought out in the Matthean Infancy narrative:

  • The genealogy of Joseph (1:1-17), who is descended from David—vv. 1, 5-6, 17. In verse 20, the Angel addresses Joseph as “Son of David”, a (Messianic) title which would be applied to Jesus during his ministry. It occurs much more frequently in Matthew than the other Gospels (cf. Matt 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15; 22:42). That this is an authentic historical (Gospel) tradition is confirmed by the fact that the title appears nowhere else in the New Testament outside of the Synoptic Gospels. For the earliest (Messianic) use of the title, cf. Psalms of Solomon 17:23(21) (mid-1st century B.C.)
  • Joseph is established as Jesus’ (legal) father. This occurs through the completion of the marriage and his naming of the child (vv. 18, 20-21, 24-25). As a result, Joseph’s genealogy becomes that of Jesus as well (vv. 1, 16).
  • The birth in Bethlehem (2:1, cf. above)
  • Jesus’ identification as “King of the Jews” (v. 2) and “Anointed One” (v. 4)
  • The Star marking his birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10)

For more on this Messianic figure-type, and the title “Son of David”, as related to Jesus, cf. Parts 6-8 of my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed” (soon to be posted here).

That Joseph was a descendant of David should be considered completely reliable on objective grounds. If early Christians had been inclined to accept or “invent” a fictitious (Davidic) origin for Jesus, for doctrinal reasons, they likely would have made Mary a descendant of David. And, indeed, this is precisely what happened subsequently in Christian tradition (cf. already in Ignatius Trallians 9:1; also Smyrneans 1:1; Ephesians 18:2; 20:2). The distinction of a genealogy based on legal, rather than biological, paternity was soon lost for Christians, especially as the faith spread out into the wider Greco-Roman world. Quite contrary to later developments, there is no indication in the Gospels whatever that Mary was herself a descendant of David. If the information in Lk 1:5, 36 is regarded as historically accurate, then it is more likely that Mary came from the line of Levi, rather than Judah. The only New Testament reference which might suggest otherwise is Romans 1:3, especially when compared with Gal 4:4. It has been popular in traditional-conservative circles, as a way to harmonize the apparent discrepancies between the two lists, to treat the genealogies in Matthew and Luke as being that of Joseph and Mary, respectively. However, such a solution is flatly contradicted by the text itself—both genealogies belong to Joseph (Matt 1:16; Luke 3:23).