Christmas Stories (Part 2)

In my previous blog, I wrote about Luke’s infancy narrative. Now I want to say a few words about Matthew’s. As before, the goal is to focus on Matthew’s core message about the birth of Jesus.

Matthew’s narrative is much shorter than Luke’s. While Luke featured female figures, including Elizabeth, Mary, and Anna, Matthew’s main characters are all male. In fact, Mary and Jesus are only mentioned tangentially: Joseph, Herod, and the magi are those that drive the story forward.

The Birth of Jesus (Matthew 1:18-25)

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Skipping the genealogy in vv. 1-17 of the first chapter (which are interesting and have a role in his narrative but not directly in the infancy story), Matthew starts with the narrative of the birth, telling quite a different story from Luke. Joseph and Mary both live in Bethlehem, though the name of the town isn’t given until 2:1, and are “espoused” (1:18), meaning something like engaged today (see the discussion about marriage in the blog on Luke). They had not yet “came together” (1:18), meaning joined in marriage and started to live together, when Mary was found to be pregnant “of the Holy Ghost” (1:18; or as Alma 7:10 says, “by the power of the Holy Ghost”). Matthew is careful to add that last phrase so we don’t immediately condemn Mary as an adulterer, but the situation is definitely looking bad for the young girl: though Matthew has clued us, the reader, in, Joseph only knows that his bride-to-be is pregnant and he is not the father. Joseph is left with two choices according to custom: “make her a publick example,” meaning call out her sin publicly and potentially have her stoned, or “put her away privily,” meaning a quiet divorce, which only had to be witnessed by two or three and thus minimized Mary’s shame (1:19).

While weighing his options, an angel appeared to him “in a dream” (1:20). Joseph receives four divine communications in the first two chapters of Matthew (1:20-21; 2:13, 19, 22). In each case, The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible (JST) changes “dream” to “vision,” though the language still indicates a nighttime, sleeping vision. This is similar to Lehi’s experience, where that prophet equated the two terms (1 Nephi 8:2).

In this first dream/vision, Joseph was told not to fear to take Mary as his wife regardless of her condition, and then instructed about what Matthew has already told us: “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (1:20). We read over those words quickly today, as they are so familiar, but there is no precedent for such an event. Joseph could cite no scripture or other teaching to justify what he was about to do. Matthew doesn’t tell us of any struggle Joseph had with this pronouncement, but to anyone looking at them from the outside, Joseph was simply accepting a sullied woman and her illegitimate child as his own.

The divine messenger in Joseph’s dream/vision further instructed him to call the name of the son that she would bear Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins” (1:21). “Jesus” is the English version of the Greek name Iēsus, which in turn is a form of the Aramaic name Yeshua, meaning ‘salvation.’ In the Old Testament (Hebrew), the longer form of the name was Jehoshua, or as we see it in the early books of the bible, Joshua, which means ‘Jehovah is salvation.’ Joseph was told to name the baby ‘Salvation’ for that is exactly what he would provide.

Finally, Matthew uses the opportunity in 1:22-23 to quote his first Old Testament scripture, from Isaiah 7:14. We might emphasize the term “virgin” in the quote, but he gets the term from the Septuagint (Greek) translation of Isaiah 7:14. In the Hebrew, the term is ’alma, which has the meaning of a young woman. Of course, most young women would have been virgins, but that isn’t required with the term. Isaiah’s original context is a prophecy about a young woman giving birth in his day which is a sign to the king, so the child he spoke of was born long before the time of Mary. Matthew nevertheless sees it as a prophecy of Jesus because of the language, and this starts a pattern of using OT scriptures in a way that we today might say is out of context, but that would not have been a concern to Matthew or his readers in that day.

The prophecy from Isaiah declares that the child’s name will be the Hebrew “Emmanuel” (1:23), which Matthew correctly translates as “God with us.” That is not, of course, what Joseph and Mary named the baby (though the woman in Isaiah’s day may well have done so), but the angel’s symbolic name represents the condescension of Jehovah, to come down among men and be like us (see 1 Nephi 11:16).

Following the angel’s direction, Joseph “did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him” (1:24), and took Mary as his wife. The ceremony was probably not the grand wedding where the groom paraded through the streets of the city, accompanied by family and friends, but was probably a more private sealing of the covenant between their families that fit the circumstances. Matthew further informs us that Joseph “knew her not” until after the birth of this son (1:25), which is only mentioned in this tangential reference, and whom they called Jesus, according to the angel’s declaration.

That’s is the total birth narrative in Matthew: eight verses, focused on Joseph’s experience, Mary and Jesus being only players briefly mentioned. There is no angelic visit to Mary, no great speeches, and no John the Baptist. Just a simple story of a child born under miraculous circumstances and a man humbly accepting it all.

The Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)

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Chapter 2 starts with “wise men” coming from the east, arriving in Jerusalem in the days of Herod the Great (2:1). The Greek term used for “wise men” is magoi, from which we get ‘Magi.’ The term applies to priests of ancient Persia, usually scientists, diplomats, or religious leaders. They may have been Jews or, more likely, Gentiles who had access to Jewish records, perhaps from the Babylonian captivity. The journey could have taken many weeks or even months. We don’t know the number of people in the party; the traditional count of three comes from the gifts they leave with Mary and Joseph.

The magi arrive in Jerusalem seeking a newborn “King of the Jews” (2:2). Matthew says they were “saying” this. The verb form indicates that the magi were going around the city continually asking their question. They finally asked enough people—or the right people—that it came to the attention of the king, who first did his own research with his scribes and leaders, then brought the wise men in to have them help him solve the threat he felt, though without letting them know that was his goal.

The JST changes the verse slightly: “Saying, where is the child that is born the Messiah of the Jews?” Two things are clear from these changes. First, the wise men came seeking a child. Thus when Herod later asked about the appearance of the star, he was trying to gauge how old the child was, but he knew from the start it was a child they sought. Second, the wise men knew it was the Messiah (Christ in Greek) they were seeking, not just an earthly king. A king might be a threat to Herod politically, and he knew how exactly to handle rivals: he killed them. But a Messiah is more than a king—he has the potential to engender great loyalty among the people and take Herod’s position not by force, conquest, or trickery, but by the sheer will of the people and even the power of God. This was something Herod would fear more than a rival king.

The magi announce that they have come to worship the child because they had “seen his star in the east” (2:2). Many questions are unanswered about this star. What was it—comet, supernovae, alignment of planets and stars, or something else? How did it remain in the east for the wise men, given that everything moves across the sky at night from east to west? Why did they go west when the star was in the east? These questions we cannot answer today. But Matthew may well have been alluding to a Balaam prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “. . . there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel. . . ” It is also possible that it wasn’t a star at all. In many contexts, heavenly messengers are associated with stars or light in the heavens. It is possible that this was such a messenger who appeared to them in the eastern sky and directed them to search out the Jewish Messiah. Indeed, An apocryphal Gospel of the Infancy tells this story, saying that the magi were led an “an angel in the form of that star which had before guided them on their journey.” Whatever its origin, people in the Roman world would have been quite comfortable with the idea of a star or a heavenly messenger heralding the coming a great person.

Herod “and all Jerusalem” (2:3) were troubled by the appearance and words of these people from the east. Herod had not yet met them when he called his own experts together and asked them where the Messiah should be born. They collectively pointed to “Bethlehem” (2:6), based on a prophecy in Micah 5:2. Armed with that information, Herod privately brought the magi to see him (2:7). He determined from them when the they had first seen the star-—presumably to know the timing of the birth of the boy—and sent them on their way to find the child, asking them to let him know their results, that he might “come and worship him also” (2:8). That is, of course, a ruse, as subsequent events demonstrate.

Miraculously, the star which the magi had previously seen, not reappeared and “came and stood over” the very place where they could find the child. This is very unusual behavior for a star and points to it being a messenger, as noted above.

The magi find the young family living in “the house” (2:11). In other words, they’re quite settled in Bethlehem, the picture of a young couple getting started in life. Jesus is also described as a “young child” (2:11), including some passage of time. The magi offered the boy and his parents three gifts, which are symbolic of Jesus’ mission: gold = kingship; frankincense = temple and priesthood; myrrh = death spice (used with dead bodies).

Finally, instead of going back to Herod to tell him of Jesus’ location, the magi were “warned of God in a dream” (2:12), so left for home along a route that would not take them back to Jerusalem.

There is great irony in Matthew’s account of the magi from the east. How is that foreigners from very far away are aware of this great event, the birth of the king of the Jews and the Messiah, when those in Jerusalem are oblivious to it? They bring gifts and worship him while the leaders in Jerusalem are troubled and seek to kill him.

Egypt and Back; Killing of the Infants (Matthew 2:13-23)

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In the next section, Joseph was again warned in a dream/vision to flee to Egypt for Jesus’ safety (2:13-14). It is about 280 miles from Bethlehem to Alexandria, the most likely place for them to have gone because of the large Jewish population there (perhaps one million Jews). Joseph appears to be able to provide for his family with his construction skills, and they set up residence in Egypt for a time. It is also possible that they sold some or all of the gifts of the wise men and were thus able to support themselves during this period of exile, perhaps as much as a year. Matthew notes that they stayed in Egypt until Herod died, which was in March or April of 4 BC. He died of a painful, terrible disease (perhaps intestinal cancer). Though popular for some of his efforts, such as greatly enlarging the temple in Jerusalem, Herod lived a life of paranoia and fear, killing family members and others that he thought threatened him. His last command was to have the Jewish leaders killed so that someone would mourn at the time of his death, but this was countermanded upon his death by his sister Salome. For many years, the Jews held celebrations on the anniversary of his death.

Herod, meanwhile, realized the magi were not returning and issued a command to kill “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof” (2:16) who were two years old or less. The age was derived from his inquiries of the magi about the star’s appearing. We don’t know how many were killed. Some estimate that it might have only been twenty or so babies, given the populations of the day. Whatever, the number, the evil of the event remains and is reflective of the life and brutality of this man.

After Herod’s death, Joseph was again instructed in a dream/vision to leave Egypt (2:19-20), but as they arrived back in Judea, determined not to stay in their former home in Bethlehem, because of the potential threat from Herod’s son, Archelaus. Instead, they moved north to Nazareth, which was under the reign of Herod’s other son, Antipas. Archelaus was even more brutal than his father, Herod the Great, such that just ten years into his reign, Rome deposed him and replaced him with a Roman governor, Corponius, who, twenty years and three other governors later, was succeeded by another Roman named Pontius Pilate.

Thus in Matthew’s narrative, Jesus is born in the home town of his parents, Bethlehem, who then are forced by the need to protect him to move to Nazareth, where Jesus was raised. Luke’s gospel has the opposite movement: Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth, and are forced to journey to Bethlehem where Jesus was born, though he, too, brings Jesus back to Nazareth where he grows up.

Matthew and Us

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Matthew writes to testify that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s love and care for his people. Jesus is Emmanuel (God with us) at the beginning (1:23) and likewise promises to be with the disciples always at the end (28:20). This concept brackets the entire structure of the book to remind us what he does for us.

As mentioned, Matthew tells the infancy stories from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph has the dreams/visions that guide the family through their various challenges. But fascinatingly, we see Joseph in action but he never speaks a word. He is perfectly obedient, is dutiful and even caring toward Mary and her baby, but his voice is not present. Mary and Jesus are almost props in Matthew’s story of Joseph as well, with no personality or voice and with no independent actions; they are obedient to Joseph and does whatever he says to do. Joseph’s story ends abruptly at the end of chapter 2, however, and we never see him again in Matthew’s gospel, which jumps quickly to John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3.

Matthew’s infancy narrative sets the stage for Jesus as a new Moses, especially as the prophet of which Moses testified (Deuteronomy 18:15). In these verses, he cites five OT prophecies that he sees as fulfilled in Jesus’ birth:

  • Matthew 1:23, quoting Isaiah 7:14
  • Matthew 2:6, quoting Micah 5:2
  • Matthew 2:15, quoting Hosea 11:1
  • Matthew 2:18, quoting Jeremiah 31:15
  • Matthew 2:23, quoting possibly Isaiah 4:3; 11:1; 53:2; Judges 13:7; or 16:17

Some see this as an attempt to match the five major sections of his overall gospel, which are organized by doing and sayings of Jesus, each ending with a formulaic phrase to indicate the division.

The whole infancy section appears to be designed to call out as many similarities as possible to Moses and the Exodus, building on Matthew’s theme that Jesus is the new law giver (which extends through the entire book). This includes:

  • Herod sought to destroy the child, so Joseph took him away (Matthew 2:13-14); Pharaoh sought to destroy Moses, so he left (Exodus 2:15)
  • Herod killed all the boys two years and younger (Matthew 2:16); Pharaoh commanded that every male child be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 1:22)
  • Herod died (Matthew 2:19); Pharaoh died (Exodus 2:23)
  • The angel told Joseph to return to Israel because those that sought Jesus’ life were dead (Matthew 2:19-20); the Lord told Moses to return to Egypt because those seeking his life were dead (Exodus 4:19)
  • Joseph took Mary and Jesus and returned to Israel (Matthew 2:21); Moses took his wife and sons and returned to Egypt (Exodus 4:20)

The parallels are even more striking when considering the non-canonical Exodus accounts, such as those in Josephus (Antiquities II.ix.205-237) and Philo of Alexander (Life of Moses). Some of these additional parallels include:

  • Pharaoh had been warned by one of his scribes (or in a dream, in some accounts) of the birth of a Hebrew that would be a threat to his kingdom.
  • Alarmed, Pharaoh and all of Egypt were filled with dread.
  • Pharaoh ordered the death of all Hebrew males, but God appeared in a dream to Amram (Moses’ father) who told him not to despair but that his son would deliver the people.

Matthew’s account assures of that God’s will was behind all the events of Jesus’ life, even his birth and childhood. Gentiles traveled far to testify of him and an inspired father orchestrated all the events that preserved him and brought him eventually to safety in Nazareth.

Final word: JST addition

In a powerful addition to the end of the last verse of Matthew chapter 2, the infancy narrative, the JST adds the following:

And it came to pass, that Jesus grew up with his brethren, and waxed strong, and waited upon the Lord for the time of his ministry to come. And he served under his father, and he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him. And after many year, the hour of his ministry drew nigh.

This wonderful JST addition to scripture gives us the best insight we have into this preparation time of Jesus. If the world found an authentic, early New Testament scroll with these words, it would be the greatest Biblical discovery in the last 400 years, and yet here we have them—in the Joseph Smith Translation. It also smoothes out the transition to the story of John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3.

Jesus patiently “waited upon the Lord” for the right time to start his ministry. The phrase, “he served under his father” is intriguing, as from the text it cannot be determined if the person referenced is his (step-)father, Joseph, or his Father in Heaven. If the former, it demonstrates patient preparation for an inevitable ministry; if the latter, it is an additional witness of Jesus acting fully under the authority of God.

One of the most powerful Christological changes in the JST is also in this verse: “he spake not as other men, neither could he be taught; for he needed not that any man should teach him.” Throughout the Old Testament, there are records of God teaching his people and people seeking to be taught by the Lord. Moses was promised that he would be taught what to do (Exodus 4:15) and then given the Lord’s commandments to teach to Israel (Exodus 18:10; 24:12). Those teachings were passed on to future generations, because they came from God (Deuteronomy 4:10; 6:7; 11:19). Numerous psalms implore the Lord to “teach me thy paths” (Psalm 25:4) and “teach me thy way, O Lord” (Psalm 27:11; 86:11). And Isaiah and Micah proclaim the great day when people will to go the mountain of the Lord, “and he will teach us of his ways” (Isaiah 2:3; Micah 4:2). God himself could not be taught by man (Job 21:22) nor could the power of God’s teaching be exceeded (Job 36:22).

In Jesus’s ministry, he was consistently a teacher, instructing large crowds, synagogue attendees, and smaller, private groups of disciples. On multiple occasions, the power, authority, and uniqueness of his teaching was noted (Matthew 7:29; Mark 1:22, 27; 6:2; Luke 4:36; 20:2; John 3:2) and his enemies questioned his authority to teach such things (Matthew 21:23; Mark 11:28; John 9:34). But when questioned by Jewish leaders as to the source of his teaching and authority, Jesus consistently declined to answer (Matthew 21:24; Mark 11:33; Luke 20:8).

In the JST addition cited above, Matthew proclaims that Jesus could not be taught by other men, nor was it needed. Instead, the source of his wisdom and knowledge and later his teaching, was divine. This matches the language of a promise in 1 John 2:27 that those who follow Christ have an “anointing” received of God, and when that abides in them, “ye need not that any man teach you,” because “the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth.” The anointing referred to is likely the gift of the Holy Ghost, which Joseph Smith had learned not long before working on his translation of Matthew was “the Comforter, which showeth all things, and teacheth the peaceable things of the kingdom” (D&C 39:6; see also John 14:26). Thus we can interpret this JST addition to say that Jesus was fully taught and tutored by the Holy Spirit, and thus did not need any human teaching, for he had full access to knowledge from above (John 8:23). It does not mean that he did not learn and progress in his mortal experience (per D&C 93:10-14), but rather that his progression was not based on mortal understanding or learning. This is a significant addition to Matthew of “high” Christology.jesus-authority-questioned-1138449-gallery

One thought on “Christmas Stories (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Christmas Stories (Part 3): Was Jesus Born in a Stable? | Always Learning

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