Emmanuel: my son

TheAnnunciationJoseph and Jesus. Matthew’s gospel does not describe the birth of Jesus, but explains his origin (the virgin conception) and his name in relation to a specific Old Testament prophecy. The passage concentrates entirely on the experiences of Joseph rather than those of Mary. Even the miraculous conception of Jesus is related only as its discovery affected Joseph. This remarkable concentration, compared with the complete silence on Joseph elsewhere, indicates Matthew’s concern to establish Jesus’ legal lineage through Joseph, i.e. to explain how the preceding genealogy applies to Jesus the son of Mary.

Jesus is “son of David” because of his genealogy, yet Joseph didn’t “begat” him! The Davidic descendancy is not transferred through natural paternity but through legal paternity. “By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his own. The Jewish position on this is lucidly clear and is dictated by the fact that sometimes it is difficult to determine who begot a child biologically. Since normally a man will not acknowledge and support a child unless it is his own, the law prefers to base paternity on the man’s acknowledgment. The Mishna Baba Bathra 8:6 states the principle: ‘If a man says, “This is my son,” he is to be believed.’ Joseph, by exercising the father’s right to name the child (cf. Luke 1:60-63), acknowledges Jesus and thus becomes the legal father of the child” (Brown, p. 139).

The Virgin Birth. That Jesus was conceived by a virgin mother without the agency of Joseph is clearly stated throughout this section, and is the basis for the introduction of the quotation in vv. 22–23.

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

In the text this not so much argued or even described, but assumed as a known fact. There may be an element of apologetic in Matthew’s stress on Joseph’s surprise, his abstention from intercourse, the angel’s explanation of Jesus’ divine origin, and the scriptural grounds for a virgin birth, due perhaps to an early form of the later Jewish charge that Jesus’ birth was illegitimate (see Brown, pp. 534–542). But the account reads primarily as if designed for a Christian readership, who wanted to know more precisely how Mary’s marriage to Joseph related to the miraculous conception of Jesus, and Christians who would find the same delight that Matthew himself found in tracing in this the detailed fulfillment of prophecy.

The suggestion that the virgin birth tradition is an imaginative creation by Matthew or his predecessors on the basis of Isaiah 7:14 is precluded not only by this assumption of it as a known fact in Matthew’s narrative, but also by its appearance in a completely different form in Luke 1:26–56; 2:5. Further, vv. 22–23, where Isaiah 7:14 is introduced, are clearly an explanatory addition to the narrative, which would flow smoothly from v. 21 to v. 24 without these verses, and not the inspiration for it. Suggestions that the tradition derives from pagan stories of gods having intercourse with women ignore both the quite different tone of such stories, and the impossibility of their being accepted in a Palestinian Jewish setting; yet the Gospel accounts are both intensely Jewish in their contents and expression.

Betrothal. Engagement or betrothal in Jewish society of Jesus’ time involved a much stronger commitment than it does in modern Western society. The description of Joseph’s embarrassment and his plans in vv.18–19 may presume his suspicion that Mary had been raped or seduced. As a devout observer of the Old Testament law, Joseph could not take Mary as his wife (see Deut 22:23–27). Not wishing to subject Mary to the shameful trial of the woman suspected of adultery (Num 5:11–31), he decided to forgo the public procedure and took upon himself the responsibility for the divorce. (The “Notes” section contains more information on Jewish betrothal/marriage customs and divorce.)


Matthew 1:18 birth: The Greek genesis is used. The normal and routine use of the word is “birth,” (Mt. 1:18. Lk. 1:14), with such derived senses as a. “what has come into being” and “life” (cf. perhaps Jms. 1:23). It is noteworthy that bíblos genéseos is used for “genealogy” in Mt. 1:1.

Jesus: Many early manuscripts do not include “Jesus” saying “…this is how the birth of the Christ came about.” In any case what is clear is Matthew’s intention to emphasize the Messiahship of Jesus, son of Mary.

betrothed to Joseph: betrothal was the first part of the marriage in which there was a formal exchange of vows before witnesses (cf. Mal 2:14) and a subsequent taking of the bride into the groom’s family home (cf. Mt 25:1-13). In Jewish law betrothal, which lasted about one year, was much more than our engagement. It was a binding contract, terminable only by death (which left the betrothed a ‘widow’) or by a divorce as for a full marriage. While “marriage” is often used to designate the second step, in Jewish understanding “marriage” is more properly applied to the first step. The man was already the husband (v. 19), but the woman remained in her father’s house. The marriage was completed when the husband took the betrothed to his home in a public ceremony (v. 24; cf. 25:1–13).

According to Mishnah Kethuboth 1:5 and TalBab Kethuboth 9b, 12a – in parts of Judea is was not unusual for a husband to be alone with his wife in the interval between the exchange of consent and the move to the groom’s home. Thus in Judea interim marital relations were not absolutely condemned. However, in Galilee, no such leniency was tolerated. The woman was expected to be a virgin upon entering his home.  Given the tone of Matthew’s gospel, during the interim period any infidelity would have been considered adultery.

lived together: synérchomai. In Acts 15:38 this word means “to journey with someone” on missionary work. In 1 Cor. 11:17 it denotes the coming together of the congregation; the sense is the same in 1 Cor. 14:23, 26, where Paul is giving direction for the proper use of spiritual gifts in the church.  Used here in Matthew it can have the plain meaning; some commentaries opt for the euphemism of sexual intercourse, but there is scant evidence that this expression is Hebraic or Aramaic in its origin. However, in later use (e.g., Josephus and Philo) synérchomai is used euphemistically for sexual relations.

through the holy Spirit: This information is provided to the reader prior to the narrative flow of the story of Joseph, his dream and the message of an angle. Matthew seems to have place this phrase here so that (a) the listener knows more than the characters in the narrative, and (b) there is no point at which the listener entertains the idea that Joseph might be the natural father.

That the Holy Spirit was the agent in Jesus’ conception (cf. v. 20) is stressed also by Luke (1:35). In the Old Testament the Spirit of God appears as the agent of God’s activity, especially in creation and the giving of life (Gen. 1:2; Ezek. 37:1–14; etc.); thus the divine initiative is made clear. The agency of the Spirit in bringing the Messianic age (Isa. 11:2; 42:1; 61:1; Joel 2:28; etc.) is also in view.

Matthew 1:19 a righteous man: Fr. Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah, 126-7 ) suggests that of the wide array of underlying reasons for “righteousness” (e.g., mercy, awe, etc.) the key factor was that as a devout observer of the Mosaic law, Joseph wished to break his union with someone whom he suspected of gross violation of the law. It is commonly said that the law required him to do so, but the texts usually given in support of that view, e.g., Deut 22:20-21 do not clearly pertain to Joseph’s situation.

unwilling to expose her to shame: In Old Testament law the penalty for unchastity before marriage was stoning (Deut. 22:13–21), but by Joseph’s time divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24:1, was the rule. Joseph, as a reighteous man, could, and perhaps should, have done so by an accusation of adultery resulting in a public trial, but his unwillingness to put her to shame led him to consider the permitted alternative of a divorce before two witnesses (Mishnah, Sotah 1:1, 5). The sense of the underlying Greek is that the shame would be quite public.  As a practical matter, given Mary was pregnant, the matter would eventually be public knowledge.  What is not clear is the grounds that Joseph would have presented.  The penalty for proved adultery was death by stoning; cf Deut 22:21-23. Some scholars speculate that Joseph would have offered less serious grounds (Brown, 128).

Matthew 1:20 the angel of the Lord: in the Old Testament a common designation of God in communication with a human being (cf. Gen 16:7, 13; 22:11, 14; Ex 3:2, 4; Judges 6:12, 14; Hosea 12:5; Isa 63:9)

in a dream: the expression kat’ onar is used in 2:13, 19, 12, 22. These dreams may be meant to recall the dreams of Joseph, son of Jacob the patriarch (Genesis 37:5-11:19). A closer parallel is the dream of Amram, father of Moses, related by Josephus (Antiquities 2,9,3; 212, 215-16).

son of David: It was necessary for Joseph to take Mary (to his house, i.e. complete the marriage) in order to establish Jesus’ legal Davidic lineage. Similarly, to name him (vv. 21, 25) was formally to acknowledge Jesus as his son, and thus to constitute Jesus also as ‘Son of David’ (Brown, pp. 138–139).

Matthew 1:21 Jesus: the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” In addition, some scholars have pointed out that in being named “Joshua” there is another important theme being developed in Matthew’s story.  Joshua inherited and fulfilled Moses’ role.  The Matthean typology of Jesus as the “new Moses” is developed throughout the remainder of this gospel.


  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp. 266-68
  • Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1999 updated edition) pp. 123-64
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)  p. 249
  • John J. Collins, “Isaiah” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 421-23
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 81-85
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 154-62
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 864-65
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com

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