Monday, January 15, 2007

Matthew 1: 18-25

Having said as much as I care to about the genealogy of Jesus' mother, I pass on to ponder a better-loved portion of Matthew's gospel - its account of the birth of Jesus.

18Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
19Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily.
20But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
21And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
22Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
23Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
24Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS

This story will continue in Matthew 2, where we will read about the Magi or "wise men", the vengeful and fearful King Herod, the mass murder of Bethlehem's children, and the flight of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt. But there is more than enough right here in these eight verses of Chapter 1 for us to ponder today. Unlike the first readers of this gospel (or so I assume), we have also read Luke's account and it's inevitable that we will read each in the light of the other, making some comparisons, and asking some questions. I hope that we can do so without closing our hearts to the spirit of wonder, awe and joy that pervades both accounts. Perhaps we can, if we heed George Fox's advice to "...stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here ye learn to read the scriptures aright."

Verse 18 tells us very compactly that before Mary and Joseph "came together" (i.e. had intercourse) she "was found with child of the Holy Ghost". This claim is not found in the gospel of Mark or the gospel of John, and is also not referred to anywhere in the epistles of Paul or other books of the New Testatment. In the gospel of Luke, on the other hand, a story of how it came about and of what it meant to Mary is told in much greater detail. The following is from Luke 1: 26-56

26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.
28And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.
29And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
30And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
31And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
32He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:
33And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
34Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
35And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
36And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
37For with God nothing shall be impossible.
38And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.
39And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda;
40And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.
41And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
42And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
43And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
45And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
46And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
47And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
48For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
50And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
51He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
53He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
54He hath helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; 55As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
56And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.

The "Inquiring Mind", as a certain tabloid's advertising calls it, has many questions here. I will try to address these questions at least briefly, but at the same time I don't want to give them undue importance. The "inquiring mind" has some relation to what George Fox called the "itching ears" of those who came to hear him preach and had to wait instead while he kept silence.

Question 1 of the "inquiring mind" is: What's the "real story" here? Corollary questions are - If Luke's story is right why does Matthew omit so much of it? If either Matthew or Luke are right, why do Mark, John, Paul and all the other New Testament writers ignore the birth narratives completely? Is Luke's version earlier and for some reason censored or suppressed by Matthew? Or is Luke's version later and conveniently invented for some dishonest purpose?

My answers (which may not be your answers and which I suppose will appear to some as mere speculations) are:
  • The "real story" is that the early Jesus movement knew in the Spirit that Jesus was sent from God and was just not an ordinary guy but in some rich sense one or more of the following: a "son of God"/a "son of Man"/a prophet like Moses/ a king like David/ a teacher/ a heavenly priest/ a sacrificial lamb/ a suffering servant/etc. etc. His real identity and importance was not reducible to any single formula or description. Paul knew of Christ as son of God and said so without any reference to the birth narratives. Ditto for John, Ditto for Mark. Paul may not have heard the birth stories, he may have heard them and discounted them, or he may have omitted them because he thought his audience either already knew them or would not believe them.
  • Matthew may or may not have known the story of the annunciation as recounted by Luke. If he knew it and did not repeat it he would not be the first or last man who found the role of a woman, even Jesus' mother, to be unworthy of detailed attention. I hope to "ponder" Luke's account in greater depth when I actually get to Luke in this slowly growing blog. I resist the temptation to "jump ahead" with great difficulty, because I think that the speeches of Mary and Elizabeth in Luke's gospel are among the most beautiful and profoundly spiritual parts of the Bible.
  • Both birth narratives may well have begun with information that Jesus' family pased on to his first followers and they then grew by accretion or were whittled down by selective memory. I am mystified as to why so many Biblical commentators never seem to consider this possibility.
  • The decision of Matthew and Luke to work these stories into their gospels may have stemmed from the need to underline Christ's divine origins for later Christians who had never known Jesus in the flesh.

To continue...Mary was "found to be with child of the Holy Spirit". In other words, she is pregnant and her betrothed is not the father. According to verse 19 Joseph, at first, is of a mind to end their engagement. However he wants to do it "privily" (or "quietly" as some of the more modern translations put it). This predicament of Joseph's is not touched on in Luke's gospel, which - as already hinted - seems to be much more from Mary's point of view. But we can readily understand that it was a real dilemna. Naturally, any repudiation of Mary by Joseph would imply that she was guilty of adultery. It would expose her at a minimum to public shame and at least in theory to death by stoning. (though, possibly, under Roman occupation this penalty would not actually be inflicted). One wonders whether the "and" that connects "Joseph was a just man" to "not willing to make her a public example" was understood by Matthew as "and therefore" or "and nevertheless". That is, is the thought here that even though Joseph was "just" and law-abiding he nevertheless wanted to be merciful? Or is it that because he was just he wanted to avoid exposing Mary to shame and possible death? I think of Joseph's dilemna here as a more concentrated version of one which afflicts all people of faith, and perhaps all people of deep moral principle: the dilemna between "consistency" and the principle of law on the one hand, and a more compassionate consideration on the other. Generally speaking, I vote for compassion over principle, but hope to honor both wherever possible.
In this particular case, Joseph's dilemna is resolved by a dream. Lots of commentators have noticed that Joseph's namesake in the Hebrew scriptures was also a dreamer of dreams. I don't know whether this is somehow significant or just a coincidence. Probably very little in the Scriptures is "just a coincidence".
Actually, I have oversimplified a little in saying that the dilemna is resolved by a dream. The words of the text are that "...behold,the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream" (verse 20). Like most people of our century I tend to internally translate this as "he dreamed he saw an angel". For the author and first reader of this gospel the more natural reading would have been that a real angel (literally, a "messenger") spoke to Joseph, using a dream to do it. Either way, I have no problem affirming that it was right of Joseph to trust his vision of what God wanted and to act on it.
Let's look a bit more deeply at the messenger's exact message (verses 20-21). "...Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from his sins."
Joseph is here addressed as a "son of David" even though his genealogy has not been presented in this gospel. This might be evidence that the gospel's final editor has taken the genealogy from one source and the words of the angel to Joseph from another. Or it might just be that "son of David" is used here in some looser sense than the purely genealogical. I have no special insight to offer about it, but just mention the question.
The core of the angel's message has three parts: an explanation of where the child Jesus comes from ("of the Holy Ghost"), an instruction as to what to call the child ("thou shalt call his name Jesus") and a prediction of what the child's role will be ("for he shall save his people from their sins"). This verse will no doubt justify further "pondering", perhaps in my next post. I hope to dig around and find out what others have discovered about the derivation of the name "Jesus", its relationship to Yeshua/Joshua, and its relationship to salvation, particularly salvation "from sin", which is - of course - only one kind of salvation. For reasons of time and space, however, I hurry on here to summarize the remaining verses of this section.
Verses 22 and 23 interrupt the story slightly to insert Matthew's interpretation of how these events are a fulfillment of prophecy. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
. This, too, will bear further pondering in my next post. Matthew's interpretation of the quoted prophecy is - to put it mildly - open to question and has been sometimes regarded as a deliberate distortion. My own attitude, which is rapidly becoming a theme of this blog, is that any misinterpretation is probably an honest misinterpretation, and that in any case it leaves unaffected the truly central faith claim of the gospel.
The final verses of the passage (verses 24 and 25) round out the story with a simple statement that Joseph arose after his dream, "took unto him his wife", "knew her not [that is, did not have intercourse with her] until she brought forth her first-born son" and "called his name JESUS". More about these verses, also, in my next post (or maybe the one after that).
- - Rich Accetta-Evans


Daniel said...

As Stephen Mitchell points out in "The Gospel According to Jesus," there are a number of problems with the "Christmas story" in both Matthew and Luke.

Of the four gospels, only two (Matthew and Luke) mention the birth of Jesus at all, and there is no mention of the birth of Jesus in any of the letters of Paul. Even Matthew and Luke, there is no mention of Jesus's birth during Jesus's adult ministry.

Even more problematic is that the stories in Matthew and Luke are completely different, with almost nothing in common (other that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, of course). In Matthew, Mary and Joseph seem to be living in Bethlehem, then go to Egypt, and then move to Nazareth, where they had apparently never lived before. In Luke, they start in Nazareth, go to Bethlehem for some reason, and then return to Nazareth.

Both stories also refer to historical events for which there is no other evidence. In Matthew, there is a slaughter of infant males by Herod, which none of the contemporary accounts of Herod ever mentioned, and in Luke there is a census during the reign of Augustus Caesar, for which there is also no historical evidence.

These stories obviously express beliefs about the nature of Jesus, but I don't know that they say much about the historical Jesus.

Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Daniel for his comments (I was beginning to think that no one was reading this blog; which would be understandable since I have said almost nothing that is "new" so far.)

Daniel is right that there are "problems" with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Their respective author/editors were obviously working from at least some sources that they did not have in common. Thus there must have been some Christian communties, prior to Matthew's gospel, that were circulating a story (whether orally or in writing) that "magi" had come to worship the infant Jesus; and there must have been some other Christian communities prior to Luke's gospel that were circulating a story about "shepherds" doing the same. Apparently neither story was known to Paul at the time he wrote his epistles (or if one of them was known, he didn't consider it important enough to mention or refer to).

The point of view I am taking here is that the each of these stories must have been circulated in good faith and must have originated in some form with peple very close to the events themselves. I don't find it credible that believers would simply make up such stories from whole cloth and then present them as the truth. That doesn't mean that we're in a position to sort out all the contradictions and make a final judgement about what "really happened". The same holds true about the Bethlehem/Nazareth question. Very early traditions must have connected Jesus' birth to Bethlehem and his childhood to Nazareth, without making clear how both could be true. It's easy to imagine that the gospel writers, while they were weaving together their narratives from pre-existing fragments, filled in the gaps in ways that seemed natural and thereby introduced questionable albeit unconscious assumptions.

All of this is indeed a "problem" if what we are looking for is an answer to questions like "What was Jesus' hometown". It is not so much of a problem for me. My life's question has been more like "Who was and is this Jesus?". As Daniel says, these stories express beliefs about the nature of Jesus, and that to me is their greatest value.

One other brief note. I notice that Daniel quotes Stephen Mitchell and his book "The Gospel According to Jesus". In my opinion there are a great many problems with Stephen Mitchell's book as well. The first and most obvious one is its title. Stephen Mitchell has done some research into the early source material, has drawn his own conclusions about what is reliable and what isn't, and has translated the part he approves of into modern English. Instead of calling it "The Gospel according to Stephen Mitchell", which would have been appropriate, he calls it "The Gospel According to Jesus" as if he knows more definitively than the original gospel writers called Matthew, Mark, Luke and John what Jesus "really" said, "really" did, and "really" meant. It's interesting that the early Christian Church never remotely claimed Jesus' authorship of any document at all - much less a whole gospel.

That said, I nevertheless, very much enjoyed the documentary movie based on Mitchell's book that was produced by Friend Norris Chumley. Norris travelled around the country filming folks from all walks of life reading excerpts from "The Gospel According to Jesus" (which are, by definition, mostly exceprts as well from one or more of the four good old Gospels). I saw this documentary on videotape some years ago and found it very very moving.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans