Reactions to last week’s introductory post about the Infancy Narratives have been quite positive. One person, however, did write that he finds much of the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. I respect all who take time to react. I don’t consider the Bible a collection of meaningless fables. But I can understand this man’s concern. For many people, I suspect the Bible is really unknown territory. We really do need to help people read and understand the Bible.
Understanding the Bible is like learning to read a new language. It has nuance, symbolism, metaphor, historical references, and a theological tonality that one needs to learn. Perhaps it is like learning to read music…Starting with the Abraham figure around 2150 BCE, who struggled with his own religious perceptions (at one time he was ready to do a sacrificial burning of his son), all the way to Jesus of Nazareth – Son of Abraham and Son of God — it tells the story of divinity, disclosure, and human belief and discernment.
The biblical narrative has many twists and turns. Many highs and lows, many noble and heroic people as well as some real scoundrels.Throughout the entire biblical account, however, one truth remains: In our deepest experiences, in the very depth of our humanity, even when we are not fully conscious of it, a living presence beats in our hearts. Truly alive and personal, this presence has been called Yahweh, the Sacred, the Divine, the Ground of Being, the Great Spirit: God.
And now, today, we move on to take a look at the Infancy Narrative in the Gospel of Matthew.
A key element in Matthew is the author’s contention that the Hebrew-Christian tradition should not be lost in a church becoming increasingly gentile-Christian. Composed most likely between 80 and 90 CE, Matthew cites the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any of the other gospels.
Matthew’s author? In 125 CE, Papias (c. 60 – 130 CE) the Bishop of Hierapolis (today’s Pamukkale, Turkey) suggested that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was Matthew the apostle. Most contemporary scholars reject that notion. The unknown author clearly wrote for a community of Greek-speaking Hebrew Christians, most likely in Syria, who were greatly shaken by the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Hebrew temple in 70 CE.
Matthew’s infancy narrative, found in chapters 1 and 2, clearly reflects the author’s Hebrew-Christian background.Matthew’s purpose here is clearly to establish the authentic messiahship of the Hebrew Jesus of Nazareth.
Matthew begins with one of the two New Testament creative genealogies for Jesus. The other, which we will see next week, is in Luke. Matthew begins with “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1)
Matthew starts with Abraham, while Luke begins with Adam. The lists in Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies are identical between Abraham and David, but they differ radically from that point on. Somewhat unusual, however, Matthew’s list includes four ancient Hebrew women. They were not the typical Hebrew wives. There are various theories about this. Perhaps, the author of Matthew wanted to call attention to Mary as a non-typical wife, who gave birth to Jesus as a “virgin.”
The function of a biblical genealogy is to link religious VIPs: the starting person and the person at the end. And it includes one or more important people in between. So we start with Abraham, father of the Hebrew tradition. We end with Jesus the Hebrew Messiah. In between we have King David (c. 1000 BCE). He was the second king of ancient Israel. He founded the Judaean dynasty and united all the tribes of Israel under a single monarch.
For Matthew what is important is that Jesus is the “son of Abraham” and the “son of David.” (“Son” here equals “descendant.”) Matthew’s genealogy has three sets of fourteen generations. For an ancient numerical system based on seven, fourteen is twice seven, symbolizing perfection.
Looking at the genealogy, mathematically, if the average life span between one generation and the next is about 25 to 30 years, the period covered in Matthew’s genealogy would be 1,260 years. Abraham (or an Abraham figure) existed around 2,150 BCE. Matthew’s genealogy is not therefore about precise history but a symbolic linking of key people in the Hebrew faith tradition with Jesus of Nazareth.
We continue with Matthew’s infancy narrative: In a dream, a heavenly messenger, an “angel” (from the Greek word angelos meaning “messenger”) announces to Joseph, then engaged to Mary, that Mary is pregnant, thanks to God’s spirit. Thus a virgin birth for Jesus.This Joseph dream calls to mind the story of an earlier Joseph and his many dreams in Genesis 37-50.
About the virgin birth, Matthew here quotes the passage in Isaiah 7:14 from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint. The Greek word used here is parthenos which usually means “virgin.” In the original Hebrew language version of the text, the word used is almah which meant very simply a young woman.
The original text from Isaiah was about the mid 8th century BCE King Ahaz, the twelfth king of Judea. The text promises him that God will make him victorious over his enemies. As a sign that this would happen, Isaiah said that a specific almah (“young woman”) had conceived and would bear a son for Ahaz whose name would be Immanuel, “God is with us.” (The young woman was Ahaz’s wife Abijah. The son was Hezekiah, a religious reformer and a much better king than his father.)
In the ancient world, attributing a virgin birth was a way of stressing the importance of an outstanding ruler. Alexander the Great (356 BCE – 323 BCE) and the Caesars were said, by early commentators, to have been “virgin-born.” Is Jesus’ virgin birth an historic event or a major theological symbol?
Unlike the infancy narrative in Luke, Matthew mentions nothing about a census, nothing about a journey to Bethlehem, and nothing about Jesus’ birth in a stable. In Matthew, after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, the Wise Men from the east visit him at Joseph and Mary’s house in Bethlehem. They were led there by a star, as well as the Hebrew Scriptures prophecy of Micah 5:2, which I mentioned last week, that a ruler for Israel would come from Bethlehem.
Most contemporary scholars do not consider Matthew’s story about a star leading the Wise Men to Jesus to have been an historical event. (Nevertheless each year in the Christmas season we still read speculations about comets that appear in December.) The ancients believed that astronomical phenomena were connected to terrestrial events. Linking a birth to the first appearance of a star was consistent with a popular belief that each person’s life was linked to a particular star.
The Wise Men, the Magi, were later called “kings” because of the belief that they fulfilled prophecies found in Isaiah and in the Psalms concerning a journey to Jerusalem by gentile kings.
The Wise Men brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to Bethlehem. 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, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, the gifts are simply appropriate to the status of a new king.
After hearing about Jesus’ birth from the Wise Men, Matthew tells us that Herod the Great (c. 72 BCE – c. 4 BCE), the ruler of Judea, ordered the massacre of all the baby boys of Bethlehem. (Most Herod biographers, however, do not believe that this event ever really occurred.) Joseph, according to Matthew, is warned again by an angel in a dream, to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. Note the similarities between Jesus’ early life and that of Moses. Matthew’s point is that Jesus is the New Moses.
After Herod’s death, an angel tells Joseph (again in a dream) to return to Israel. Out of fear of Herod’s son Archelaus, the new ruler of Judea, Joseph takes his family to Nazareth in Galilee, where Jesus is raised. He will be known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Next week, a look at Luke. Luke presents a broader worldview and has two infancy narratives: one for John the Baptizer and one for Jesus. And Luke has a very positive attitude about women.