Matthew never allows us to forget that he is a learned scribe in charge of a synagogue made up of Jewish people who are the followers of Jesus. He is writing at a time in history when a battle is being waged for the soul of Judaism. The issues were clear in his mind. Will Judaism turn in his direction and incorporate Jesus into the ongoing Jewish story, just as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and Amos had been incorporated in the past? Would Judaism be able to see and to admit what was so clear to Matthew, namely that Jesus fulfilled the prophets and met all of the concepts of messiah that had long intrigued the Jewish people?
In the mind of Matthew the alternative to his proposal was to go in the direction represented by the Pharisees who, at that moment in Jewish history, were the dominant school of thought in Judaism. The primary emphasis of the Pharisees was first to recover the meaning and the power of the Torah by reinterpreting it in a more open direction, and then to install that newly cast Torah, as the central meaning of Judaism. The Pharisees were not eager, however, to incorporate Jesus into their future because he appeared to them to minimize the centrality of the Law. The tension between these two Jewish groups, the Pharisees on one hand and the followers of Jesus on the other, was palpable. One catches a glimpse of the depth of this mutual hostility when one reads what Matthew has to say about the Pharisees. These were the things operating in Matthew’s mind when he completed his story of Jesus’ birth prior to turning to his narrative of the adult Jesus.
In this final column on Matthew’s birth narrative we look at what are the striking, recurring and dominant themes of what this author believes are the messianic claims for Jesus. Every episode in his groundbreaking birth narrative was written to demonstrate that Jesus’ entry into human history was both planned and executed “in accordance with the scriptures.” Today we conclude this first unit by looking at Matthew’s key argument, namely that the entire sacred history of the Jews pointed directly to the life of Jesus.
Matthew was not a fundamentalist, but he was both a convinced follower of Jesus and an avid student of the Jewish scriptures. In his gospel’s introductory narrative on Jesus’ birth he revealed how he was using these scriptures to document his thesis. By our standards of scholarship, the texts he employed do not come close to saying what he claimed that they said, but studies in first century Judaism help us to understand the mind of Matthew. So our task is to enter his mind and to embrace the way it operated.
In the first section of the birth narrative Matthew chose a text from Isaiah (7:14) on which to build his story of the virgin birth. Next he used a text from Micah to assert a Bethlehem birth place for Jesus. Then he picked a text from Jeremiah to explain the murder of the boy babies of Bethlehem by King Herod. He followed this with a text he plucked from Hosea on which to hang his account of Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. Finally, he quoted a text, the source of which we cannot locate in the Bible, through which to explain how it was that Jesus happened to have been raised in the Galilean town of Nazareth. None of these texts, we can safely assert, had been originally written to be prophesies anticipating the birth of the messiah. All of them were rather narratives through which Matthew tried to show that all of Jewish scripture ultimately found its fulfillment in Jesus.
To treat any of those verses as if they had been written as predictions that Jesus had to fulfill is patently absurd. To stand where Matthew stood and to believe that all Jewish messianic hopes found their completion in Jesus required of him only a masterful and impressive ability to create a memorable story. To understand how he used scripture, one needs only to step away from our modern notions regarding fundamentalism by which the Jewish scriptures have been so deeply violated and read them from a very different perspective. In the words that have almost become a regular theme in this series we must proceed to free the Jewish scriptures from what I have called their “Gentile Captivity.” Let me try now to put these verses into the context of Matthew’s mind.
First, we need to understand the historical context in which this gospel was composed. The Jewish nation was in dire distress. A war against the Romans had begun in Galilee by a group of Jews called “the Zealots” in the year 66 CE. This war, which had been encouraged by the Sadducees and the Temple authorities, ended in the tragedy of total defeat at a place called Masada in the year 73. In the middle of that war, namely in the year 70, Roman legions had conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, banished the Sadducees and the Temple priesthood and began a massive suppression of all things Jewish that would last well beyond the time that Matthew’s gospel was written.
The Sadducees had been replaced by the Pharisees as the group that controlled the destiny of carrying Judaism into a Jewish future. Matthew countered their claim with the Jesus movement, which, he believed, was the only possibility of guaranteeing a Jewish future. Matthew’s vision was, however, of a far more universal religion than most Jews, and especially the Pharisees, could then imagine.
To build his case, Matthew looked at the scriptures of his people in new ways. In Isaiah he found a scriptural justification to use for the supernatural birth, which he planned to describe. This birth was of God not of humanity, he argued. The Holy Spirit, not a human being, has fathered this child. This birth had nothing to do with biology. It was in his Jewish mind, the second great act of creation. In the book of Genesis the Holy Spirit had hovered over the original chaos in order to bring forth the gift of life in the first great act of creation. So now he quoted an Isaiah text that seems to him to make the claim that the Holy Spirit hovered over the womb of a virgin named Mary to bring about this new act of creation. It was in fact a huge literal stretch, but Matthew was willing to make that stretch, unaware perhaps that the word “virgin” never appeared in this Isaiah text in the Hebrew language in which this text was originally written.
Another claim made by the Jews for their messiah was that he must be heir to the throne of David. Paul had first made this claim in his epistle to the Romans (1:1-4) written about the year 58, or 15-20 years before Matthew would incorporate that claim into his story by giving Jesus a Bethlehem birth place. Bethlehem was the city of David’s birth and for Jesus to be born there would solidify his messianic credentials. Micah, an 8th century BCE prophet, had written that the messiah must replicate David’s life. Being born in David’s city was just one part of that. In the power of Matthew’s writing style Jesus’ Bethlehem birth place became part of his story.
In Matthew’s creation of Joseph, the author leaned on the Genesis narrative of the first Joseph in order to tell the story of his Joseph. Since Joseph the patriarch had saved the covenant people from death by taking them down to Egypt, so Matthew’s Joseph must also save the messiah from death by taking him down to Egypt. Then Matthew remembered that the messiah must also relive the history of the Jewish people whom God had long ago called out of Egypt. So without apology he quoted Hosea, who was talking about the Exodus, but Matthew applied it to Jesus as one more sign of messianic fulfillment: “Out of Egypt” God must call God’s “son.”
Having borrowed his story from the Moses cycle in Exodus about the Pharaoh trying to destroy Moses, God’s promised deliverer, in his infancy, so Matthew now moved to replicate it in the life of Jesus. Reflecting the gift in Matthew’s quill, Herod became the new Pharaoh and sought to destroy God’s promised deliverer by killing all the boy babies in Bethlehem. The new Moses escaped, but the dastardly deed was done. Matthew then likened that experience to the destruction of the Jewish people at the hands of the Assyrians. The maternal ancestor of the Northern Kingdom was Rachel, the wife of Jacob and thus the mother of Joseph. So Matthew now quoted Jeremiah portraying Rachel as mourning for her children who “were not” for the Assyrian conquest had destroyed them. This then opened him to develop another messianic claim. Messiah must heal the historic Jewish division between the Joseph tribes of the North and the Judah tribe of the South. Only then would the tears of Rachel be washed away. Matthew did that by making Joseph the protector of the heir to Judah’s King David.
Matthew then made another bold leap, but this time into messianic fantasy. He was aware that Jesus was a citizen of the town of Nazareth and thus a Galilean. In his development of the birth tradition he had maintained that Joseph, Mary and the Christ Child resided in a house in Bethlehem, about six miles from Jerusalem. To uphold his Nazareth and Galilean origins, he now sought a text to help him move Jesus from his place of birth in Bethlehem to Nazareth where Matthew understood that he had grown up. So he quoted an unknown prophet who said: “He (the messiah) will be called a Nazarene.”
The only problem with this text was that no prophets that we know of ever said that. We are left to speculate. Did Matthew get it out of the Samson story where Samson was called a “Nazirite,” that is one who lived under vows not to drink wine or to cut one’s hair? That kind of Nazirite, however, had nothing to do with growing up in Nazareth. Or did Matthew find this crucial text in another quote from Isaiah that said: Out of the “root of Jesse,” the messiah will come. The Hebrew word for root is naser or nazir. We will never know. This text in Matthew’s birth narrative only reveals his eagerness to find in Jesus the fulfillment of all of the prophetic expectations.
On that note, the first birth narrative of Jesus concludes and for the first time in Matthew’s gospel, the adult Jesus began to come into view. He is introduced by a figure we call John the Baptist. To his story we will turn when this series resumes.