Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Explanatory Notes: Matthew 1:18-25

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus was thus. After Mary his mother had been engaged to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to have in the womb by the Holy Spirit.
We are not told how this marriage came to be arranged, whether by their parents or at Joseph's initiation. It is possible that Joseph is somewhat older than Mary, although the text gives us no indication. In any case, the arrangement is apparently completed, with only the actual transfer of Mary to Joseph remaining.

1:19 And Joseph, her husband, being righteous and not wanting to make an example [of her], was wanting to divorce her secretly.
Joseph is called "her husband," indicating how far along the marriage process has gone. The word for divorce might also be translated as "release," but since Joseph is called "her husband," the word divorce seems appropriate. Joseph does not want to disgrace Mary unnecessarily, even though she has potentially disgraced him greatly. He does not want to stigmatize her. He apparently contemplates leaving her in her father's house without drawing attention to her apparent infidelity.

1:20 And while he was contemplating these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which has been conceived in her is from Holy Spirit.
In Luke, the women are visited by angels. In Matthew, they come in dreams to Joseph.

The fact that Joseph is the son of David reminds the reader of the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew 1. Because Jesus is a descendant of David, remembering that an adopted son is considered just as much a son as a biological one, he is qualified to be king of Israel and to fulfill the prophecies about David's kingdom lasting forever.

The presumption is that the child has no human male parent but that the Holy Spirit is the sole origin of the child's conception. In general, the ancients did not think of the woman as contributing any substance to the child in the womb. She was rather an incubator for the seed of the male. The Holy Spirit would thus be understood to be entirely responsible for Jesus' substance.

Some translations render the verse, "take Mary [as] your wife," giving the impression that she was not yet his wife at this time. But since Joseph is called her husband in 1:19, we should probably simply call Mary his wife. The marriage has not been consummated, but the arrangement is apparently complete. If she were younger and the marriage was arranged, it is possible that Joseph was waiting for her to come of age.

1:21 "And she will bear a son, and you will call his name, 'Jesus,' for he himself will save his people from their sins.
Jesus is of course the Greek form of the Hebrew Joshua. Jesus' name was thus pronounced Yeshua while he was on earth. To say that Jesus would save Israel from its sins is shorthand for saving them from the consequences of their sins.

In general, we might see these consequences in terms of Israel's enslavement to foreign powers like the Romans, and perhaps Matthew saw such freedom as an opportunity of Jesus' earthly mission for Israel. However, for Matthew Israel did not receive the Son and God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed as a consequence (e.g., Matt. 22:7). For Matthew, the consequences of sin seem rather to focus on eternal torment following the final judgment (e.g., Matt. 25:31, 46).

1:22-23 "And this whole thing has come to be so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 'Behold, the virgin will have in the womb and will bear a son, and they will call his name, "Immanuel,"' which is interpreted, 'God [is] with us.'"
This is the first of Matthew's fulfillment texts, a distinctive element of this gospel. In general, Matthew does not seem to carry over much of the context in which he finds verses into his meaning in the text of Matthew. In this case, for example, we need know nothing about the context of Isaiah 7:14 to understand Matthew's meaning here. Indeed, in context, this verse originally referred to a child born as a sign to king Ahaz in the 700's BC. But this original meaning is not relevant to the prophetic meaning in relation to Jesus.

Matthew thus understood these words in the Greek translation of Isaiah to be potent with meaning in relation to Jesus' birth. The fact that the author draws from the Greek Isaiah is a significant argument that the author of Matthew in its current form was a Greek speaking Jew rather than the Galilean disciple. In general, the "first language" Greek of the gospel argues for the same conclusion. The Greek of Matthew is actually smoother than one of its likely sources, Mark, which involves more Semitisms in its style.

The prophet Isaiah thus spoke words that were pregnant with meaning waiting to be applied to the birth of Jesus. The Lord put this hidden meaning in the words of Isaiah.

Jesus is "God with us." This characteristic of Jesus occurs here and then again at the end of Matthew where Jesus tells his disciples, "I am with you all the days until the end of the age." The idea of Jesus as God with us thus forms an inclusio that brackets the Gospel of Matthew.

Matthew has a fairly high Christology. It's sense of Jesus' divine identity and worship is more explicit than much of the New Testament. Following the Parables of Enoch, Matthew 25 has Jesus on God's throne in judgment, an extremely rare image in surviving Jewish literature. And while Jesus tells Satan that only the Lord is to be worshipped, Matthew consistently has various individuals worshipping Jesus.

Matthew does not explicitly share the inner logic of how Jesus is God with us. But throughout the Gospel, Jesus is sometimes presented in terms normally reserved for God alone.

1:24-25 And after Joseph rose from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and he took his wife, and he did not "know" her until she bore a son, and he called his name, "Jesus."
If there were any doubt, this statement makes it clear that Joseph is not the father of the child. He does not have sex with Mary until after Jesus is born. He goes through with the marriage, despite her pregnancy. Matthew knows nothing of later Christian traditions in which Mary remains a "perpetual virgin." The assumption of the text is that Joseph does go on to have relations with her after Jesus' birth.

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