Chapter 1; The Infancy Narrative in Matthew

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 1; The Infancy Narrative in Matthew

1. The genealogy of Jesus, 1:1-17 (compare Luke’s version in 3:23-38)

Matthew’s purpose here is clearly to establish the authentic messiahship of Jesus. He is descended from Abraham, who in faith originally responded to the call of God; and also from David, marking him as the fulfillment of the hope that the Messiah would spring from David’s line. Yet see Matthew 22:41-46, where Jesus seems to reject a messiahship descended from David. Notice also the curious presence of women in Matthew’s list: Ruth, a non-Jewess, and Rahab and Bathsheba, whose moral characters were not exactly of the best. Luke’s list, often differing in detail, differs mainly in going back not merely to the start of Israel’s history but to the very beginning of time itself, to Adam. Jesus, Luke seems to say, is not only the fulfillment of the messianic hope, he is part of God’s plan from the beginning of creation. The problem of reconciling these genealogies has often exercised scholars: some say that Luke gives Mary’s lineage, while Matthew gives Joseph’s; some distinguish between Jesus’ legal descent (Matthew) and his physical descent (Luke). But we should not linger too long over the task of reconciling the lists; the main function of both is to relate Jesus’ appearance to the historic events of Old Testament history. It is difficult, furthermore, to see how a genealogy could have any meaning if the virgin birth tradition is accepted. Verse 16, which has many variant readings in the manuscripts, probably read like this in the original, before Matthew adapted it: “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary; Joseph was the father of Jesus who is called Christ.”

 2. The birth, 1:18-25

“Betrothal” is not technically marriage, but it is very close to it in Jewish law, so Joseph is called “husband” in verse 19. According to law, Joseph could have taken the issue to the courts, but instead he decided to settle the matter privately by a divorce. The appearance of the angel changes his mind. Matthew here quotes the decisive passage in Isaiah 7:14 from the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the so-called Septuagint). The Greek word parthenos usually, but not always, means “virgin” in the Greek Old Testament; the Hebrew original, almah cannot mean “virgin,” so we must conclude that Isaiah does not have a supernatural birth in mind. But Matthew here is interested in showing that Jesus is not only the Son of David, and thus the Messiah (through his legal descent from Joseph), but also the supernatural Son of God — not just from his baptism, as Mark 1:11 suggests, but from his birth. This is the reason the church used the Old Testament passage in this way. It should be noted that Luke and Matthew alone use the virgin birth to portray the divinity of Christ. Mark, John, and Paul, all equally concerned to call Jesus the Son of God, do not make use of this tradition. The evidence for it in Matthew and Luke is sufficient neither for its denial nor for its affirmation as an actual happening. Notice that verse 25 makes difficult the Roman idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary, and fits in with the mention of Jesus’ brothers and sisters in Matthew 13:55-56 and the parallel in Mark 6:3.

3. The visit of the wise men, 2:1-12

Luke, like Matthew, mentions Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but otherwise the two accounts differ somewhat In Matthew, Jesus is apparently born in Joseph’s house (verse 11); in Luke he is born in a stable. Here, we read nothing about the visit of the shepherds or about the census that brought Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Here, we read of the flight to Egypt; in Luke, the family returned to Nazareth (2:39).

This conflicting evidence has led some to question the historical basis of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and to point out that it would be natural for primitive Jewish Christians to use the enigmatic saying of Micah 5:2 as a prediction. Throughout his life, Jesus is always referred to as a Nazarene.

But the symbolism of the story stands, quite apart from the historical questions. The Magi were probably Babylonian astrologers, and the church has been right in reading this story as one concerning the relevance of Jesus to the Gentile world as well as to the Jewish world. Sometimes ancient records have been examined for a natural explanation of the moving star (in 7 B.C. there was a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and in 12 B.C. a record of a comet). but it is not necessary to find this kind of evidence for the event. Matthew here is saying that all of nature is transformed by this unique birth. Later Christian thought found symbolic meanings in the three gifts: gold for Christ’s royalty; incense for his priesthood; and myrrh for his burial; but here the gifts are simply appropriate to his status as the new king.

 4. The conclusion of the story, 2:13-23

Egypt is close to Bethlehem, and there were many Jewish communities there. So there is nothing improbable about the journey here described. But the trip is probably suggested by Hosea 11:1, and further by the tendency in Matthew to see Jesus as a new Moses and lawgiver.

We need to be very careful in our observations of the way the New Testament writers see the story of Jesus in Old Testament patterns and terms. They may add details, but they are deeply convinced that what was going on in Jesus Christ was in fact a fulfillment of Old Testament hopes. Jesus, they are saying, comes into a world prepared by the Old Testament longings and hopes, and his story is the answer to those longings. However we may decide on the historical probability of particular details of the fulfillment of the Old Testament in the New, the fact of that fulfillment and the intimate relation of the Old and New Testaments cannot be surrendered.

In these stories, then, we see two motives at work. First, the desire to show that in the early life of the Messiah there are exact fulfillments of Old Testament predictions; second, the defense of the messiah ship of Jesus against Jewish slanders that he was illegitimate and the son of an immoral woman. The miraculous birth seems designed to meet the second point; the birth at Bethlehem, the visit of the wise men, and the flight to Egypt, refer to the first.