SS Christmas Studies: Matthew 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25

This first study in our series on the Infancy narratives focuses on the narrative in the Gospel of Matthew. The opening statement in verse 18 is a fitting point to begin our critical study:

“And the coming to be [i.e. birth] of Yeshua (the) Anointed was this (way): his mother Maryam (hav)ing been committed to Yoseph, even before their coming together, she was found (to be) holding in (the) womb (a child), out of (the) holy Spirit.”

This statement both provides the setting for the episode and establishes the essential (traditional) information regarding the birth of Jesus.

We begin with the text, which is reasonably secure, since there are only minor variant readings in the manuscripts. For example, the name “Yeshua” (Jesus) is absent from a number of manuscripts and versions, or occurs at different positions in the text; both factors can be seen as evidence that the name may have been added by copyists. The presence of the name enhances the verse, but really does not alter the meaning. Also, instead of the noun génesis (“coming to be [born]”), some witness read the related noun génn¢sis, very close in meaning, but which more properly denotes a birth. In light of the tendency toward a docetic Christology among certain believers, it is conceivable that scribes may have wished to emphasize (or make clear) that Jesus had a real human birth. The noun génn¢sis would be preferable for that purpose.

When we consider the Matthean narrative from a source-critical standpoint, it is clear that the author is presenting some very specific information regarding the birth of Jesus. A comparison with the Lukan narratives reveals a common set of basic narrative details. Since there is no real indication that either author was familiar with the other’s work, it is fair to assume that each writer received the information independently, through different lines of early tradition. That there are certain details in common suggests that they formed part of a basic historical tradition. This common tradition may be summarized as follows:

    • The names of Jesus’ parents (Joseph & Mary)
    • They were engaged to be married (the betrothal stage), but had not yet been formally united when Mary’s pregnancy became known
    • This implies that Mary and Joseph were not yet living together (and having sexual relations) when she became pregnant (a detail specified in v. 25)
    • It is further stated that this was a supernatural (miraculous) conception, brought about through the agency of the Holy Spirit

There are several other traditional details shared by Matthew and Luke (Angelic announcement, the birth in Bethlehem, the home in Nazareth, etc), but those listed above are all present, more or less, here in verse 18. Indeed, the Gospel writer offers little more than a summary of this basic information.

Which brings us to the historical-critical point—a consideration of the historical background, and the historicity, of vv. 18ff. Quite apart from any doctrinal presupposition (regarding the inspiration of Scripture, etc), there are strong reasons for affirming the historical veracity of the key detail in v. 18: namely, that Mary became pregnant prior to the finalization of her marriage to Joseph—that is, during the period of engagement (betrothal). The potential problems this detail created for early Christians, raising the possibility of an illegitimate birth for Jesus, are such that it would surely not have been invented, not even as pretext for introducing the idea of a supernatural birth.

The Matthean narrative fully acknowledges the difficulty surrounding the historical tradition, recording a further detail in v. 19, regarding Joseph’s initial response to Mary’s pregnancy:

“And Yoseph her husband, being just, and (yet) not wishing to make an example (of) her, was willing to loose her from (the agreement) privately.”

This statement is as simple as it is historically plausible. While the information is altogether lacking from the Lukan Infancy narrative, it is generally in accord with the Lukan portrait of Joseph as a just and upright (díkaios) person, faithful in observing the regulations and requirements of the Instruction (Torah) given by God to Israel. His moral character is further indicated by the detail that, though he knew he must follow the Torah regulations (see Deut 22:20-21, cp. Num 5:11-31), he was also willing to dissolve the marriage agreement as quietly as possible, to avoid exposing Mary to shame and disgrace. As an interesting point of coincidence, there is an Aramaic text from Wadi Muraba’at, dating from 111 A.D., involving the dissolution/repudiation of a marriage agreement between a certain Joseph and Mary (Brown, p. 128).

As mentioned, the devotion to the covenant, marked by faithful observance of the Torah, is an important aspect of the Lukan portrait of Jesus’ parents (2:22ff, 39, 41ff). This theme is not as prominent in the Matthean narrative, apart from here in the opening episode.

This brings us to the literary-critical aspect of the passage—that is, a study of the literary character of the episode in vv. 18-25, and how it fits into the structure of the Infancy narrative (and the Gospel) as a whole. There are several lines of interpretation that should be noted in this regard:

    • The context of vv. 18-25 following the genealogy in vv. 1-17
    • The importance of the annunciation scene in vv. 20-21, 24-25
    • The significance of the Scriptural citation (vv. 22-23)

Let us consider each of these points, commenting on the verses (20-25) along the way.

The relationship to the Genealogy

Verse 18 immediately follows the genealogy of vv. 1-17, which traces the lineage of Jesus, from Abraham through to his father Joseph. It is a legal genealogy, not biological, since the lineage clearly belongs to Joseph, not Mary. Even so, it establishes Jesus’ proper ancestry, the main point being to show that he is a descendant of David (vv. 1, 5-6ff), and thus qualifies for consideration as the Davidic Messiah. The title “Anointed One” (Messiah, Christ) was associated primarily with the royal Messiah, the Davidic Ruler figure type, an association that is brought out at a number of points in both Infancy narratives, but especially in the Lukan narrative. Joseph’s Davidic ancestry is confirmed by the Lukan narrative as well (2:4; 3:23ff).

Another subtle point of emphasis in the genealogy are the references to the Babylonian captivity that punctuate the list (vv. 11-12, 17). The episodes in chapter 2 draw upon the traditional imagery of Israel’s exile, and inform the idea of Jesus as the Savior (vv. 22-23) who will rescue his people from captivity.

As a reminder of the way that established historical tradition affects the literary presentation, compare the way that the details surrounding Jesus’ birth and parentage are described in verses 16 and 18, respectively. The wording and language used in an important aspect of literary style; and the phrasing in vv. 16 and 18 is clearly influenced by the unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth.

The Annunciation Scene

The Angelic announcement of Jesus’ conception (and impending birth) is fundamental to the literary structure of the Matthean Infancy narrative. It was not simply the invention of the Gospel writer, but was included as part of the narrative based on two factors: (1) historical tradition, and (2) Old Testament narrative tradition. With regard to the first point, both Matthew and Luke record an Angelic announcement (cp. Lk 1:26-38); and, while they differ in nearly every detail, the two annunciation scenes share a basic pattern. The Matthean announcement scene follows the narrative introduction in vv. 18-19 (see above), which continues with the opening words of verse 20, to the effect that Joseph’s heart and mind (lit. his impulse) was focused on the issue of Mary’s pregnancy, when suddenly:

“…see!—(the) Messenger of the Lord shone forth to him according to [i.e. through] a dream, saying: ‘Yoseph, son of Dawid, you should not be afraid to take alongside (of you) Maryam your wife—for the (child) coming to be (born) in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit!'”

This Angelic (birth) announcement is similar to those in Luke—to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:8-23, 26-38)—and follows a basic pattern from episodes in the Old Testament (cf. my earlier note on 1:26ff, and Brown, Birth, pp. 155-9). Formally, the wording in 1:20-21 is closest to Lk 1:13, and to Gen 17:19 in the Old Testament. The distinct detail here in Matthew—that the Messenger of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream—may well be an allusion to the Joseph narratives in Genesis.

The scene here (involving Joseph) is very much parallel to the Annuciation to Mary in Luke. The Angel’s words in v. 20b are similar to those in Lk 1:35—as a response/sign to confirm the miraculous message, emphasizing that the conception of the child is due to the supernatural agency of the holy Spirit of God:

“for the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to genn¢thén] in her is out of the holy Spirit

Compare with Luke 1:35: “the holy Spirit will come upon you…the (thing [i.e. child]) coming to be (born) [to gennœ¡menon] will be called Holy”

Thus we have comparable statements by the Angel of the Lord to Joseph and Mary, respectively. The birth announcement proper occurs in verse 21:

“She will produce a son, and you shall call his name Yeshua: for he will save his people from their sins.”

There are three elements to the declaration, each of which has a different subject:

    • birth— “she {Mary} will produce [i.e. bring forth] a son”
    • name— “you {Joseph} shall call his name Yeshua”
    • explanation of the name—”he {Jesus} will save his people…”

On the meaning and significance of the name “Yeshua” (Jesus), see my earlier Christmas study on this passage in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”. In the annunciation scenes from Matthew and Luke, the command to give the name Yeshua to the child is directed at Joseph and Mary, respectively. While this naturally would fit either or both of the parents, here in Matthew there is special significance to Joseph as the one giving the name. It establishes his legal paternity (see above), thus making Jesus legitimately a “son of David” (v. 20; cf. Lk 1:27; 2:4). The importance of this association is confirmed by the preceding genealogy (vv. 1-17). The Davidic aspect of Jesus’ identity will be discussed further in upcoming studies.

Apart from its historical, religious, and theological significance, the annunciation scene has special importance in terms of the literary structure of the Matthean narrative. Consider, first, its place in the episode of vv. 18-25; the relatively simple structure of the passage can be seen by the following outline:

    • Narrative introduction (vv. 18-19)—establishes the character of Joseph (parallel to Zechariah/Elizabeth in Luke)
    • The Angelic appearance and announcement (vv. 20-21)
    • Scripture–Fulfillment of Prophecy (vv. 22-23)
    • Narrative conclusion/summary (vv. 24-25)—the character of Joseph in his response to the message

Beyond this, the angelic appearance pattern is repeated twice more in the narrative, following the episodes in 2:1-12 and 2:16-18 (vv. 13-14, vv. 19-21). Each of these appearance/announcement scenes is also tied to a Scripture (fulfillment-of-Prophecy theme, vv. 15, 23). Thus, the annunciation scene in vv. 20-21ff is part of a wider literary pattern which shapes the structure of the entire narrative.

The Scripture Citation (Fulfillment of Prophecy)

The Scripture citation (from Isaiah 7:14) in verses 22-23 is part of a Matthean literary pattern—both in the Infancy narrative and the Gospel as a whole—where key events in the life of Jesus (and the Synoptic narrative) are punctuated by Scriptural quotations (and/or allusions), to demonstrate how those events are to be regarded as the fulfillment of prophecy. Each of the episodes in the Infancy narrative features a Scripture citation. For a detailed discussion of the passage cited here, the famous prophecy in Isa 7:14, see my earlier article in the series “And You Shall Call His Name…”, as well as the more extensive set of articles in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus”.

It is quite possible that the author of the Matthean Infancy narrative (trad. Matthew) is among the first Christians to make an explicit connection between Isa 7:14 and the birth of Jesus, though the passage may be reflected in Lk 1:28, 31 and the Messianic associations in the Lukan narrative as well. There can be no doubt that Matthew emphasizes the miraculous (virginal) nature of Jesus’ conception and birth, stating it even more directly than Luke. It is mentioned four times in this opening section (vv. 18, 20, 23, 25). It is also certain that the Angel’s announcement to Joseph (vv. 20b, 21a) follows specifically, and is patterned after, the wording of Isa 7:14 (as cited by Matthew):

    • “the (child)…in her is out of [i.e. from] the holy Spirit
      the virgin will have (a child) in the womb”
    • “and she will produce a son”
      “and she will produce a son”
    • “and you will call his name…”
      “and they will call his name…”

In the original context of the prophecy, the name ±Immanû °E~l is a fitting name for a ruler, indicating the divine protection and aid God brings to his reign and his kingdom (cf. 2 Kings 18:7). The Gospel writer, of course, recognizes something deeper than this, as he sets the name as a precise parallel with Y¢šûa±, a name explained as embodying the help and deliverance (salvation) God is bringing to his people (in the person of Jesus). Indeed, the meaning of the name Immanuel relates to two important aspects of (early) Christian belief:

    • Jesus as the Son of God—his deity manifesting the presence of God himself (“God with you”)
    • The power/work of the Holy Spirit—the abiding presence of God (and Christ) with believers is realized through the Spirit

This latter idea is more prominent in Luke-Acts and the Gospel of John, but note the closing words of Jesus in Matthew (28:20): “I am with you…”.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993).

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