The Christmas Stories 4     William Loader



The centre of Matthew’s stories is the birth of Jesus, ‘Emmanuel’, God with us.

Matthew 1:18-25

(18) The birth of Jesus Christ was like this. Mary his mother was contracted to be married to Joseph and before they came to live together Mary was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. (19) Now Joseph her husband being a just man and not wanting to expose her to public shame decided to break off the marriage secretly.
(20) Joseph had contemplated this, when lo and behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid of taking Mary as your wife. For what has been conceived in her comes from the Holy Spirit. (21) She will have a baby boy and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
(22) This all happened so that what was said by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled: it said,

(23) “Look, a virgin will conceive and have a baby boy, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’, (which means in translation: ‘God with is’.” (Isaiah 7:14)

(24) Joseph got up from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord instructed him.
(25) And he did not have intercourse with her until she had the baby boy. And he named him Jesus.

The story 

In chapter 1 we find eight verses describing the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph (1:18-25). Mary was contracted to marry Joseph but they were not yet living together. This reflects the practice of two stages in marriage: (1) the formal arrangement of marriage before witnesses; and (ii) taking the bride to the groom’s house. Sometimes a year elapsed between the stages, sometimes less. Sexual intercourse was generally allowed before the second stage, though there are some indications this might not have been so in Galilee. Mary and Joseph are in this interim stage and have not had intercourse. Matthew’s account presupposes that Mary and Joseph lived when the stricter Galilean provisions applied. Therefore Joseph is acutely embarrassed by her pregnancy.

Matthew states from the beginning that the pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit, but offers no further explanation. His formulation could allow for the Spirit assuming the male role, creating the sperm, but Matthew leaves it at the assertion of the miracle. This is not his new idea, for he mentions it initially as something his readers would have no difficulty in sharing as part of their tradition. We shall consider the miracle of the virginal conception in more detail when we look at it in Luke’s story.

Joseph’s response is portrayed as that of an impeccably righteous man. The translation could read: “being a just man but not wanting to expose her to public shame” or “being a just man and (therefore) not wanting to shame her publicly”. Matthew tends to link being just or righteous with being merciful so that the second translation is more likely. The narrative assumes that adultery (this is how it would have been seen) required divorce. We recognise today that many marriages can work through such experiences and find reconciliation – partly because of what we have learned from the gospel. In those days it was not so. So Joseph is about to proceed with divorce privately instead of publicly. Either way it would have been hard on Mary.

A divorced woman was like a cast off and a woman contracted in marriage but found by her husband not to be a virgin could, if one followed the strict letter of the Law, face death by stoning (Deuteronomy 22). Had Mary been lucky, she might have been taken in by her family and supported, but her pregnancy would expose her. Another common alternative for such a woman was to support oneself through prostitution. Had she been a rape victim she would still have been stoned according to the provisions of Deuteronomy 22, unless she could prove it happened in the country where any cries for help would not have been heard. It was a cruel world for wronged women. Jesus’ later attacks on sexual exploitation of women (5:27-28) and on the male oriented divorce practices which condemned women to destitution (5:31-32) challenge this cruel world. His attitude towards the woman caught in adultery showed a very different kind iof response and affirmed the dignity of women.

The Christmas story could have ended with Joseph’s decision, according to Matthew, but for God’s involvement. God’s angel addresses Joseph in a dream, encouraging him not to be afraid to go through with the second step of marriage and take Mary home. Matthew does not tell us whether Joseph was afraid that people might do premarital arithmetic and make a scandal or whether he was afraid of Mary’s unfaithfulness. The angel reassures Joseph and repeats the information: the Spirit was involved in the pregnancy.

The angel goes on to announce the birth of a son, the name he is to be given and the role he is to play. Matthew supports the promise with a fulfilment quotation from Isaiah 7:14, which includes mention of a virgin, of the birth of a son and of his name. The name here is not “Jesus” as in 1:21, but “Emmanuel”. Matthew translates it for his readers: ‘God with us’.

The story finishes simply. Joseph follows the instructions. He goes through with the second stage of the marriage. He takes Mary home. He refrains from intercourse until the son is born. He gives the name Jesus.

Matthew 1:16 had mentioned the birth to Mary of ‘Jesus the Christ’. In 1:18-25 Matthew records the miracle. He is careful to ward off any suggestion that Joseph had had sexual relations with Mary, even informing the reader that this was the case right up to the birth. God is involved in the story both in the conception itself and in the intervention which prevents Joseph from sabotaging the plan. It possibly also reflects the view held by some at the time that sexual intercourse might do damage to the foetus, something we now not to be so. The note gave rise, however, to later speculation that Mary remained a virgin forever – a most unlikely invention of popular and then official piety, given the evidence that she also bore brothers and sisters to Jesus.

Behind the story 

The words of the angel foretelling the birth and giving instruction about the name are very similar to what the angel Gabriel said to Mary according to Luke. She, too, is told not to fear, for she will conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Jesus (Luke 1:26-37). Similar announcements of births are to be found in the Old Testament. Always it is the angel of the Lord, addressing the woman who has not yet borne children or is barren, or her husband, promising conception and birth of a son, and instructing how the child is to be named, the name always carrying a symbolic meaning. Two of the best known examples are the announcements of the births of Ishmael and Samson:

Genesis 16:7-13 “The angel of the Lord found her and said, ‘Hagar, maid of Sarai, … return. Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son and you shall call his name lshmael because the Lord has “given heed” to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man’.”

Judges 13:3-23 “The angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said, ‘Behold, you are barren. You shall conceive and shall bear a son … the boy shall be a Nazirite to God and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines’.” 

These may be compared with: 

Luke 1:11-20 “An angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘Don’t be afraid, Zechariah, your prayer is heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, shall bear you a son and you shall name him John, and he will be great before the Lord’.”

 Luke 1:26-35 “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a virgin, … Mary, and said, ‘Hail …’ But she was greatly troubled …, and the angel said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And, behold, you shall conceive and shall bear a son and you shall name him Jesus. He will be great …’.”

Matthew 1:20-21 Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid, to take Mary as your wife. For what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She shall bear a son and you shall name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’.”

Both Matthew and Luke are using a standard pattern of formulation here. An angel appears, reassures, promises birth and announces the name, Jesus. 

Matthew has the angel announce the meaning of Jesus’ name as linked to his saving work. This reflects the popular derivation of the name from the verb yasha’ to save, though strictly it derives from the verb shua’ and means ‘Yahweh shall help’. When Luke uses “saviour” in the birth stories (2:11), he, too, seems aware of it.

Perhaps already the material before Matthew had shaped the story in 1:18-25 after the Old Testament pattern of birth announcements and had related the intervention to Joseph to account for his behaviour. It seems that whoever wove the two stories together in chapter 2 using angelic interventions also shaped the story of the angelic intervention in chapter 1. Elements used for this included the tradition of the virginal conception and the etymology of Jesus’ name. Perhaps the story of Joseph’s dilemma is historical reconstruction in the light of what would be considered to be likely to have happened. Luke shows no awareness of the dilemma and has the name giving in a different setting.

Matthew and the story 

If Matthew used a source which incorporated Joseph’s dilemma, the angel’s intervention, and Joseph’s obedience, as well as the story in chapter 2, then his own contribution consists in highlighting the message of the story. He does this in part by underlining the unambiguous nature of the virginal conception claim, perhaps against rising anti-Christian propaganda. He does it also by introducing the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 from the Greek Old Testament.

“Look a virgin will conceive and have a baby boy, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’.”

In using Isaiah 7:14, Matthew expands what is already in the tradition. The angel had said that the child would be called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. Here is a definition the role of the Messiah of Israel for his people. To this Matthew adds Isaiah 7:14 with the name ‘Emmanuel’ and provides its translation ‘God with us’.

Perhaps Matthew already knew of the use of this scripture passage in relation to Jesus’ birth. It may have been known to Luke, but that is uncertain and depends on the assumption that Mary’s virginity was originally derived from this text, which is unproven. 

Originally Isaiah 7: 14 belongs to the political crisis of the late 8th century B.C.E. Syria and the northern kingdom, Israel, had allied against Judah in the south. The situation seemed hopeless. But Isaiah the prophet assured Hezekiah the king: liberation would come in as short a time as it takes for a young woman to conceive, bear a child and the child become a toddler. Symbolically the child should be called ‘Emmanuel’, God with us, as a sure sign of the liberation to come. The answer came indeed. Assyria swept down, overrunning Syria and annihilating Israel. Judah was safe. 

As Christians reflected on the meaning of Jesus and the miracle of his birth, it comes as no surprise that they re-used the prophecy. For here was even greater liberation. Here was Yahweh acting to liberate his people from their sins. While the prophecy related originally to its own day, the principle and the power it represents make it possible for future generations to call upon it. The story of Mary was the connection. The Greek version had made the ‘young woman’ of the Hebrew original into a ‘virgin’. This was probably just to emphasise the period of time: from a woman being a virgin and unmarried, to being married, becoming pregnant and giving birth to a child – as short a time as that. The Greek translation made it possible to connect the prophecy with Mary. An alternative explanation would be that the presence of ‘virgin’ in the text gave rise to the story of Mary’s virginity in the first place. This is certainly possible.

For Matthew, ‘Jesus’, ‘will save his people from their sins’. ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘God with us’ are all basically saying the same thing. Hence Matthew sees no contradiction between the angel’s instruction and the Old Testament prophecy. God will be with us to save through the ministry of Jesus. Matthew would have known he was using a text symbolically and would not have worried that Jesus is nowhere recorded as having the name Emmanuel elsewhere, including in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew wants us to understand that in the man Jesus Christ God meets us. 

Matthew does not have the Johannine view according to which the Word was God and then became flesh and dwelt among us. Matthew is primarily talking about action and activity. He is saying: here is God’s saving action coming in the person of Jesus. Nor is Matthew saying simply that through this man God will act as he has through prophets and heroes of old. For Matthew, Jesus is unique in that he has been created by the Spirit through the virginal conception. He is a man uniquely endowed with the Spirit. This is the way Matthew usually explains Jesus’ divinity when it is challenged (e.g. 12:15-32). Matthew does not tell us, but the miracle of virginal conception probably means for him that Jesus is also substantially different from other human beings.

By emphasising “Emmanuel” and its translation “God with us”, Matthew does not mean: here is God and not a man at all. He is saying: God encounters us in the man Jesus Christ, who was uniquely created and endowed by God through the Spirit. In and through him God is with us. The same promise is evident at the end of the Gospel where Jesus promises that he will be with the disciples to the end of the age (28:20). Because he will be with them, God will be with them.

In such passages Matthew’s Jesus sounds most like what Israel had said of the Law. It spoke of the Law almost as a being which represented God, accompanied his chosen ones, dwelt in their hearts and was present at their gatherings and deliberations (compare 11:28-30; 18:19-20; 23:37-38; 28:20).

‘God with us’ is the high point of Matthew’s birth stories. It means for the Jews that he is their promised Messiah, it means for the universe that he is its star. He fulfils the promises of old. He represents God’s saving grace which reaches beyond all boundaries. He owes his existence to divine miracle. He embarks on a journey that will lead him through rejection and death beyond Israel to the world. The birth stories in Matthew offer altar panels in which we see reflected the story of the passion to come. And at the same time the stories are like an overture. They set the stage and in the chapters that follow the meaning of “God with us” is dramatised before our eyes.

Christmas 5
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