All in a dream

Today’s gospel is the traditional reading for the 4th Sunday of Advent (year A) but here in Year C, it is placed to tell part of the story that just precedes the birth of Christ. These familiar episodes set the stage for one of the Bible’s best-known passages, the story of Christmas. This reading aligns well with the readings of the seven days of Advent that immediately precede Christmas. Not only do the readings for the daily Masses just before Christmas include the beginnings of the Gospel infancy narratives (Matthew 1 on Dec. 17-18; Luke 1 on Dec. 19-24), but we again get to hear the traditional “O Antiphons,” at Mass. It all begins to answer the question of Advent: who is coming? The reading contribute to the larger answer: Jesus Christ, son of Mary, adopted son of Joseph, son of David, named Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins, and Emmanuel…God with us.

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.)

God’s Plan. Joseph’s plans are interrupted in vv.20–23 by the appearance of a messenger from God in a dream — a device familiar from the Old Testament account of the birth of Samson (Judges 13). The first words uttered are “do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.” The angel gives an explanation for Mary’s pregnancy, announcing the divine plan is already in motion. The angel also informs Joseph of his part in the divine plan: “you are to name him Jesus.” As explained above, this simple directive makes clear to Joseph that he is to claim Jesus as his own. As the legal son of Joseph, Jesus will be a “Son of David” (v. 20).

In first-century Judaism the Hebrew name Joshua (Greek Iesous) meaning “Yahweh helps” was interpreted as “Yahweh saves.” The language reminds us of similar revelations in the Old Testament (Gen. 16:11; 17:19; etc.), as well as of Isaiah 7:14, soon to be quoted. Names, especially divinely revealed names, are full of meaning, and this is often revealed by a word-play which need not always correspond to the actual etymology of the name. In the case of Jesus (the Greek form of Joshua or Jeshua, a common name) both the sound (cf. Heb. yôšî’a, ‘he will save’) and the probable etymology contribute to the explanation for he will save his people from their sins (v.20).

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.” 

Matthew also sees the virgin birth and naming as a fulfillment of scripture (this is the first of 10 such “fulfillment” passages in Matthew). Here Isaiah 7:14 is the fulfillment text. Isaian passage had a its fulfillment in Isaiah’s own time and may or may not have been prediction of an event centuries later – in Isaiah’s expectations. But Matthew sees Jesus as a fulfillment of the whole of Scripture.

Eugene Boring (Matthew, 135) observes Matthew’s use of this text has four characteristics that made it appropriate:

“(1) the original oracle was addressed to the “House of David” (Isa 7:2, 13). (2) Matthew’s faith affirms that Jesus is the one in who the promised deliverance is realized, in and through whom “God is with us.” (3) Since the LXX had translated almah with parthenos…which means primarily “virgin” but can also mean “young woman,” this provided another point of contact with Jesus. It is clear that Matthew already knew the story of Jesus’ virginal conception, which he now understands in the light of Scripture as it fulfillment. (4) The LXX had employed the future tense (the tense of the Hebrew is ambiguous and can mean that the young woman is already pregnant or will become pregnant. The LXX translators may have had the virgin Israel specifically in mind (cf. Amos 5:2), Who by God’s help would bring forth the Messiah. Matthew changes the LXX’s second person singular, “you shall call,” to third person plural…Since third person plural is one of the Jewish circumlocutions to avoid pronouncing the sacred name of God, and since naming in a Jewish context has to do with essential being and not merely labeling, Matthew’s meaning is probably “God will constitute him the one represents the continuing divine presence among the people of God.”

Perhaps as a prelude to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Joseph is facing is “you-have-heard-it-said-but-I-say-to-you” tension. The tension between what Joseph understands the Law to demand and the new thing that Joseph is doing in Jesus. By Joseph’s decision to obey the startling and unexpected command of God, he is already living the heart of the law and not its letter, already living out the new and higher righteousness of the kingdom.  Joseph acts in accordance with the divine communication and takes Mary to be his wife (v. 24).

The whole of Matt 1:1–25 serves both to situate Jesus firmly within God’s people and to call attention to his extraordinary status. On the one hand, he is the descendant of Abraham and David and the fulfillment of the promises and hopes attached to those great Old Testament figures. On the other hand, the mode of his birth is highly unusual, and the names given to him — Jesus and Emmanuel — suggest that he far surpasses any of his ancestors.

Some Reflections. The virginal conception of Jesus can not stand as a proof of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.” It is not a matter of “proof” but trust.  Nor does Matthew seem to intend it as such. Matthew bases no theological claims upon the virgin birth and the birth is never again a reference in his gospel. Yet the claim of supernatural conception is not incidental. It is one of the ways Matthew has of confessing that Jesus is the Son of God. Matthew has others, e.g. the Apostle Peter confesses the fundamental Christian faith that Jesus is “the Christ, the son of the living God” (16:16) because it was revealed to him by God in heaven. In the whole of Scripture, for Matthew, the story of Jesus is speaking about God – that God is with us.

Matthew begins and ends his narrative with the fragile human life of Jesus surrounded by God in both the birth story and the Passion account – each of which points to God as the hidden actor of the deeper story. While the Passion narrative is essential, the birth story as a miracle is not. As provocative as that sounds, the virginal conception is not the proof or even the meaning of the Christian claim that Jesus is the “Son of God.”

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