The Birth of the Messiah According to Matthew
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 18, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I hope that it was a good week for you and those you love, and that you were able to stay warm. I think we were all thrilled by the successful rescue of the passengers on the plane that crashed in New York. Having just flown from La Guardia to North Carolina last week, it was a little weird watching the news. It is encouraging to know that we have pilots and flight crews that are so good in emergencies. Classes began on Wednesday at Wake, and I’ve got about 70 students in two courses this term. Thankfully I already know the names of more than half of them. Kudos to Wake Foret for being the only undefeated men’s basketball team. Several of our students were in Egypt after Christmas, and we are glad they are back home. Speaking of travelers, we have a couple of Home Church members in India, and we offer our prayers for them. Here in the States, people are eagerly anticipating Tuesday and the inauguration of our new President. When we look at situations in the world that appear hopeless, such as the conflict in the Middle East, it is important to remember that change is possible. Who could have imagined that half-a-century after Federal troops were sent to Little Rock to integrate the schools that we would have a President with African ancestry? Who dared to imagine that apartheid could be dismantled in South Africa or that communist regimes in Europe would collapse without bloodshed? History confirms one of the fundamental convictions of Christianity: hope is real and change is possible. Dreams can transform the world if we unite imagination with determination and hard work. If we live in faith and love every day, we can have hope for a better day.
Matthew and Luke: This week we begin looking at the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew. As I mentioned back before Christmas, Matthew tells a different story about the birth Jesus than Luke tells. We tend to combine these stories in our Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, and there is nothing wrong with that as expressions of our religious devotion, but it is helpful to look closely at what each gospel says. We should respect the way each author decided to tell the story of Jesus. We saw that Luke focuses attention on a couple of individuals who were visited by angels before Jesus was born, and several people offer prophecies about Jesus. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna all have speaking roles in Luke’s Gospel. The only one of these people to be mentioned in Matthew’s version is Mary, and she doesn’t say anything.
We also saw that Luke links Jesus to Judaism and the Old Testament through these prophetic individuals and through Jewish rituals, such as circumcision and the purification of Mary. Matthew links Jesus to Judaism by quoting frequently from the Jewish Scriptures. At several important points in the story, Matthew supplies a quotation from the Old Testament to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. This is most noticeable in the birth narratives, but Matthew offers quotations throughout his Gospel. In fact, he quotes Scripture more than any of the other Gospels, which is one reason scholars speculate that he may have been a Jewish scribe or a Pharisee before becoming a Christian. Matthew also shows a great familiarity traditions of Judaism, and he portrays Jesus like a new Moses.
Overview of Matthew’s Account: Matthew and Luke agree on some basic historical points, such as Jesus being born in Bethlehem and that his mother was named Mary, but beyond that they tell quite different stories. Unlike Luke, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus going back to Abraham. One of the things that Matthew tried to prove that Jesus was the legitimate king of Israel, but Luke was much more concerned with placing Jesus in the context of the whole Roman Empire. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph informing him that his betrothed wife would have a child who would save his people. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a new star appeared in the heavens, and sages from the East saw it. They interpreted the star as a sign that a new and important king had been born in Judea, and so they came to honor him with precious gifts. When the king of the Jews heard the report of the birth of a king, he tried to kill all possible rivals to the throne. Joseph took the child and his mother to Egypt where they lived until Herod was dead. Ultimately they moved to Galilee. Luke does not mention precious gifts, wise men, evil kings, a journey to Egypt, or the slaughter of children in Bethlehem. Historians may debate the historical accuracy of many statements in both Matthew and Luke, such as the report of a world-wide census or the appearance of a special star, but in these lessons we are going to focus on the meaning of Matthew’s story. What role do the magi play in his story? Why is it important for Matthew’s gospel that the Messiah was an exile in Egypt?
Matthew’s Sources: Before examining those questions in detail, let’s think about the sources Matthew used. We saw that Luke was a good writer who used a variety of resources in crafting his account of Jesus as the Savior. One of those sources was most likely the Gospel of Mark and another was a collection of Jesus’ teachings that scholars call Q. Matthew used these same sources in preparing his gospel. In fact, he used over 600 verses from Mark, in many cases copying Mark’s text word for word. That is 11/12 of Mark’s Gospel, by the way, which shows how much Matthew loved the older work. The similarity between Mark and Matthew is so strong that for over a thousand years scholars assumed that Mark simply summarized Matthew. Folks thought he had written the Cliff Notes version of Matthew, but modern analysis has shown that Mark is actually wordier than Matthew. It is reasonably certain that it was Matthew using Mark rather than the other way around.
One reason for mentioning all this is to remind us that the gospel writers used a variety sources, including the oral traditions remembered in the Christian community. Matthew and Luke are similar in large part because they relied on some of the same materials, but when it comes to the birth narratives they are quite different. That is because Mark begins the story of Jesus with his baptism, not his birth. Matthew and Luke both thought it important to include narratives about Jesus’ birth, perhaps because some early Christians denied that Jesus was really a human being. Some believers emphasized the divinity of Jesus so much they denied that he had a mother or grew up like any child. They claimed Jesus came down from heaven like an angel. In different ways Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus was once a baby, but they also wanted to show that Jesus’ birth was part of God’s plan
Some of the differences between Matthew and Luke probably reflect the different contexts of the authors. It appears that Matthew was a Jewish Christian and Luke was a Gentile Christian. It is likely that they were writing for different congregations: Matthew’s church appears to have been a rather small church in Palestine or Syria that had separated from the synagogue but was still very Jewish. Matthew has some of the harshest criticisms of the Pharisees, which indicates a lot of real life conflict between Matthew’s church and the synagogue of his day. If Matthew was Jewish, we can assume that it was hard for him when Christians were excluded from the synagogues following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. There is a strong sense of threat throughout his gospel, including the birth narrative. It is only in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear of the Jewish king trying to have Jesus killed.
Genealogy: Unlike the other three gospels, Matthew begins with a genealogy. Genealogies are not the most exciting part of the Bible for modern readers, and I’m sure that most Christians skip the opening words of the New Testament. I sympathize, and I will not read these verses over the air lest you turn the radio off. Though we find these verses boring, I think we should at least ponder the question of why Matthew begins the “greatest story ever told” with a list of begats. Part of the reason is that he was not bored by this list. I am sure there are lawyers who drool with anticipation when they see fine print in a legal document, and there are accountants who can’t wait to read the latest changes in the tax code. Some people love baseball statistics; others are bored to tears by them. I have to remind myself that there are a few people in the world who do not really want to hear all of the exciting news about a dead German count who preached in Pennsylvania.
Ancient scribes loved genealogies the way train enthusiasts love lists of locomotives. In those days, rulers keep official lists of their ancestors to prove their own legitimacy to the throne. It appears that many Israelites kept lists of their ancestors to prove their right to their land. After the Babylonian Exile, Jews used such family lists to determine who was really Jewish. They were also used to prove who had a right to serve in the Temple. In other words, it makes perfect sense that a Jewish scribe like Matthew would begin his account of the Messiah with a genealogy. It is also likely that he took most of this genealogy from written sources, but scholars have discovered that there are differences between Matthew’s list of names and the genealogies of the Davidic line included elsewhere in Scripture. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but will simply point out that Matthew’s list of the kings of Israel skips more than a few generations.
3 X 14 Generation: Matthew was impressed that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian Exile; and fourteen from the Exile to Jesus. This makes for a nice matrix of three times fourteen, but you may have noticed a problem. Matthew actually lists thirteen generations in the first section, fourteen in the second, and only thirteen in the last one. There have been many ingenuous attempts to explain this, but none of them are convincing. It appears either that a name was somehow lost in transmission or that Matthew miscounted. There is another problem for historians in Matthew’s genealogy. Fourteen generations would normally account for about 280 years, assuming the traditional figure of a generation being 20 years. At most fourteen generations would have been 560 years if each of the fathers was about 40 years old when his son was born. That is a relatively short time for the history Matthew refers to. It is interesting that the genealogy of Jesus that Luke gives in chapter 3 has 56 generations for the same period of time. In other words, it is likely that Matthew’s listing of ancestors was not complete. The fourteen generations was probably symbolic rather than historical. In Jewish numerology, the associated with the name David was fourteen.
Luke also gives a genealogy of Jesus, but his comes after the account of Jesus’ birth. It is a long and boring process to examine each of these lists in detail, but scholars are paid to do tedious tasks that few have the desire to do. Scholars have discovered that the names in Matthew and Luke are quite different. The two gospels agree most closely on the names from Abraham to David, which are listed in the Book of Ruth. Matthew and Luke also agree that David was an ancestor of Jesus, but Matthew traces Jesus descent from the kings of Judah, beginning with Solomon. In contrats, Luke claims that it was David’s son Nathan who was the ancestor of Jesus. Thus, almost every name after David is different in Luke than in Matthew. We know that there were people alive during and after the Babylonian Exile that claimed to be descendents of David, but few of those lists have survived, and both genealogies agree that one of Jesus’ ancestors was Zerubbabel, who lived during the Exile.
However, the lists provided by Luke and Matthew disagree almost totally after the name Zerubbabel. They even disagree on the name of Joseph’s father. The differences in the genealogies are so great that for many centuries biblical scholars proposed that Matthew is telling us about Joseph’s ancestors while Luke has given a list of Mary’s ancestors. Some biblical literalists today make this claim. The trouble is that Luke’s list of ancestors clearly ends with Joseph, not Mary.
The discrepancy between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke is disturbing only if you insist that there can be no errors of fact in the Bible. If you accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were working with the resources they had to write an account of the life of Jesus that was true and meaningful rather than factually accurate, then it is less disturbing. Even with our modern record keeping and methods of scientific research, it is hard to establish an absolutely reliable family tree for any of us. Every Scandinavian I know is somehow descended from Erik the Red.
Matthew was not trying to provide a precise family tree of Jesus; he was telling us that the birth of Jesus was part of the history of God’s covenant with Israel. The three sections of his genealogy correspond to three important epochs in Israelite history. There was the age of the patriarchs and judges, which included the Exodus. There was the age of the Davidic monarchy, which ended with the destruction of the Temple. And there was the age of the Babylonian Exile and restoration of the Temple. Therefore, Matthew was showing that Jesus had inaugurated a new age in which the Temple was no longer needed. Jesus was more than a descendent of David for Matthew; he was the turning point of history. Jesus fulfilled the promise given to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the whole earth.
The Women: There is something surprising buried in Matthew’s genealogy. Usually ancient genealogies only list the fathers, but Matthew includes the names of five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheeba), and Mary. Except for Mary, these were all famous women of the Old Testament, and it is possible that Matthew was simply highlighting some of Jesus most famous ancestors. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah who took extraordinary steps to insure the continuation of Judah’s family line. She was a matriarch of the tribe of Judah and thus the mother of all Jews. Rahab was a woman in Jericho who assisted the Israelites when they conquered the Promised Land. For her courage, she and her family were spared the slaughter of Jericho. Tradition held that she married Joshua himself, but Matthew claims otherwise. We discussed Ruth in detail last year, and you will recall that she was famous for her steadfast love to Naomi. Even though she was a Moabite, she has a place of honor in Jewish history as the great-grandmother of David. We haven’t talked about Bathsheeba, who was the mother of King Solomon. It is interesting that Matthew does not give her name, but merely identifies her as Uriah’s wife. She was a powerful political figure who was able to make her son king. Each of these women was famous in Scripture because they took bold action in very difficult situations, and that may be why Matthew included them in his genealogy.
However, you may have noticed something else about these women. Each of them was controversial. Tamar produced heirs for her father-in-law, Judah, by dressing as a prostitute so that he would get her pregnant. She was nearly stoned to death when it was discovered that she was pregnant, but in the end Judah acknowledged her as righteous. Rahab was not just any woman in Jericho. She was a prostitute, and the Israelite spies she helped were probably visiting her in her professional capacity. She is one of many women in history noted as a righteous prostitute, but that she is not the kind of woman you would expect to see mentioned in a genealogy of the Messiah. Ruth’s relationship with Boaz was potentially scandalous in two ways. She was not a Jew, and she arranged her marriage to Boaz directly one night on a threshing floor rather than through more acceptable channels. Matthew reminds us that Bathsheeba was another man’s wife before David made her queen. All of these women could be viewed as bold and heroic or scandalous, and biblical interpreters for centuries have debated how Matthew viewed them.
Mary: It does seem logical that Matthew was intentionally connecting the mother of Jesus to these women in Israel’s history. His genealogy ends with “Joseph the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born.” It is a very odd phrase in whatever language it appears. Matthew carefully avoids saying that Joseph was the father of Jesus; instead he says that Joseph was the husband of the mother of Jesus. Even though the genealogy is of Joseph, Matthew shifts focus at the end to Mary as the mother of Jesus. It seems reasonable to assume that Matthew included the women in his genealogy because of Mary, but it is not clear what he was trying to tell us. Did he view Mary as a heroine who took bold action like Rahab? Or was Matthew acknowledging that some people viewed Mary with suspicion because she was pregnant with Jesus before she was married? Was Matthew reminding us that there were women who wore scarlet letters, so to speak, but who did great things for God?
Whatever Matthew intended by including Mary with Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba, his genealogy prepares us to expect an extraordinary story about Mary and Joseph. We are so familiar with the story of the conception of Jesus we tend to dismiss it, but Matthew was aware just how scandalous the story could be. Instead of focusing on Mary’s role in the conception, the way Luke did, Matthew considers Jesus’ birth from the point of view of Joseph. But that will have to wait until next Sunday. Thank you for listening.