by John Shelby Spong
The prologue to Mathew’s gospel, which also serves to introduce the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth, is now complete. Matthew writing as he does to the members of a traditional Jewish community, who were also the followers of Jesus, has grounded the life of Jesus deeply into Jewish history. Jesus is the son of Abraham, the heir of King David, in a line produced by those who had lived the various stages of Jewish life. The Jews were a people who had been born free in the persons of the great patriarchs, driven by famine into the land of Egypt where they descended into slavery, broke free once more in the Exodus, wandered through the wilderness reclaiming what they believed was their promised land, established a lasting monarchy, were torn by secession and civil wars, defeated in battle at the hands of the Babylonians and exiled to a foreign land where they believed the songs of Zion could never be sung again. Then, years later, they were finally allowed to return to their homeland, rebuild their ruins, including their holy city of Jerusalem, and even revive their ancient calling to be “a blessing to the nations of the world.” These were the people who produced Jesus, Matthew was saying. It was in this life of Jesus that Matthew believed was to be vested “the hope of the Jews.”
In his stage-setting genealogy, however, Matthew had also begun to respond to the critics of Jesus, who at this time were identified primarily with the Orthodox party of the Jewish world. What was the content of their attack on Jesus? I think we find hints of that in various places in the New Testament to which I will turn when we have stitched together the content of this criticism. Then I believe we will discover Matthew’s motive for developing the story of Jesus’ origins in the way that he did. Most especially we will be able to understand just why Matthew included in his genealogy the references to those I have called the “shady ladies,” which suggests that the line that produced Jesus also flowed through incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery.
Religion has always been in the business of control. That is why those who cannot abide by its rules face ostracism and excommunication. The religious lines of power are clear. God reveals the divine law to the religious leaders. These religious leaders then claim for themselves alone the power to interpret and to enforce those rules. This means that to disobey the rules is not just to disobey the religious leaders, but it is also to disobey the God who has chosen and empowered these leaders. A religious troublemaker is, therefore, the most direct threat to ecclesiastical power.
Religious reformers and religious visionaries are thus thought of as dangerous people. They challenge the security around which the religious community is organized. That is why reformers are banished, tortured and executed, sometimes by being burned at the stake. Prior to this “final” solution, visionaries are frequently attacked personally, becoming the victims of character assassination. One of the ways this character assassination was accomplished in Jewish society in the first century was to attack the reformer or the visionary’s legitimacy. A base-born person might be prone, they assumed, to struggle against the religious rules that defined him or her as untrustworthy.
That is why there is so much discussion in the gospel tradition about the “origins’ of Jesus. He was not thought of by the religious hierarchy as a legitimate religious leader. He came from Galilee! Search the scriptures; nowhere will you find a hint that a messiah would rise from Galilee. He hailed from the town of Nazareth. That was “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Nothing good could come out of Nazareth. Where did this man get his knowledge, his power? We know his family, his mother, his brothers and his sisters. Echoes of his inadequate origins are found throughout the gospel tradition. Some even suggested that he might be possessed by demons! “By the power of Beelzebub, he casts out demons,” is the way they put it.
Mark, the earliest gospel to be written, makes these charges overt. In chapter three of that first gospel, in which there is no birth story, the family of Jesus is portrayed as becoming alarmed at the reputation that Jesus was accumulating. Believing him to be “beside himself,” that is, out of his mind, his mother and his brothers actually come to take him away. They are rebuked by Jesus who announces that his real family, his real mother and siblings are not his birth and blood relatives, but those who hear the word of God and do it.
By the time one arrives at chapter six of Mark, these charges have finally been identified with Jesus’ questionable paternity. A member of the crowd shouts, “Is not this the carpenter?” Note that Joseph has never been mentioned. Jesus is the carpenter in the first gospel to be written. This nameless voice in the crowd then goes on with this identification process and says, “Is not this the son of Mary, the mother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon and are not his sisters here with us?” Then Mark says: “They took offense at him.”
Three things must be noted here. First, to call an adult Jewish male the son of his mother was a deliberate insult. It carries with it the implication that his paternity is unknown, that his father is compromised, missing or not identified. It is a charge of being illegitimate. The second thing is that this is the only time that the mother of Jesus is identified by the name “Mary” in any Christian writing before the ninth decade. The final thing to note is that in this, the earliest record we have about the family of Jesus, no father, earthly or otherwise, is mentioned. Joseph does not enter the Christian story until we get to Matthew in the ninth decade, and when he is introduced, his role is to name the child and thus to legitimize him.
Another hint of Jesus’ questionable paternity is found in the Song of Mary, called “The Magnificat,” recorded only by Luke. In that song, God is said “to have regarded the low estate of his handmaiden” and to have turned her to a state of blessedness. God exalted her, who was of “low degree.” There was no status of lower degree or lower estate in first century Jewish society than an unmarried woman expecting a child.
A third scriptural hint that rumors were abroad about Jesus’ questionable paternity is found in the Fourth Gospel in which, once again, the subject is the inadequate origins of Jesus that disqualify him from being able to make the messianic claim that was clearly being made for him. In this passage someone in the crowd shouts at Jesus, “We were not born of fornication.” (John 8:41). The clear presumption of this speaker is that Jesus was.
So with Jesus’ origins under attack, with innuendos abroad that he was base-born, a bastard, if you will, and that this is what actually caused him to be a troublemaker, Matthew decides to come to his defense. He will argue that far from being base-born, his life was born holy. God is his father. So, borrowing a popular Mediterranean tradition, which attributed personal greatness to divine origins and to virgin births, Matthew created the narrative of Jesus’ miraculous birth. He then searched the scriptures to find a prophetic text that might point in this direction. He found a verse in Isaiah (7:14). It did not fit but, like many fundamentalists do today, Matthew edited it to make it fit. The text literally said in Hebrew, a young woman is with child. Translated into Greek, the Hebrew word for woman, “almah,” was rendered “parthenos,” in which there is a connotation of virginity, but the phrase “a virgin is with child” is a bit of an oxymoron, so Matthew altered the verse to make it read: “a virgin will conceive.” On the basis of this forced and incorrect rendition of this text, Matthew built the first story of the virgin birth of Jesus to appear in Christian history.
The text in Isaiah actually grew out of a time in the 8th century BCE when the city of Jerusalem was under siege by the combined armies of Syria and the Northern Kingdom. The prophet Isaiah wanted to provide a sign to assure Judah’s King Ahaz that Jerusalem would not fall to these enemies and that the Jewish nation would go on. His reference was to the current pregnancy of a woman in the royal family, probably the daughter in law of King Ahaz. The birth of her royal child would be a sign that the nation would endure and that the House of David would not be destroyed. His re-assuring words were: “A woman is with child.” The context makes it obvious that this verse did not apply to someone who would be born 750 years later!
Matthew, as a follower of Jesus, was convinced of the holiness of Jesus’ life and of the reality of his experience that God was in and with Jesus in a deep and dramatic way. So he crafted the virgin birth story to support that thesis. Matthew, however, must have known that his reasoning was weak. He was enough of a student of the Hebrew Scriptures to know that the text he had chosen would not bear the weight he had assigned to it. So, in the prologue, he covered his other bases. This life is holy. This life is of God. This life is God’s promised messiah, but if you are not persuaded by my argument from scripture, I want you to know that whatever were the circumstances surrounding his birth, God is capable of bringing holiness through any set of human compromises. Out of a line that contained incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery, this holy life of God has emerged. It is thus a powerful story.
Matthew will continue to wrap the Jewish scriptures around Jesus for the rest of his birth narrative. As he does so, the history of the Jewish people and the characters out of that ancient Jewish story re-emerge to bear their witness. Those who possess Jewish eyes will be able to see them. Among these characters will be Moses, the Pharaoh, Joseph the patriarch, Rachel, Isaiah, the Queen of Sheba, Balaam, Balak, Jesse, David, Hosea, Elijah and Joshua. Matthew’s gospel in general, but the birth narrative in particular, must be read through a Jewish lens.
To these other texts and biblical characters, we will turn when this series resumes.