Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 25, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to this live broadcast of the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was a big week for the nation as our new president assumed office. Students and faculty at the Divinity School gathered in prayer before the inauguration and then watched the festivities on CNN. We used the Moravian liturgy for National Occasions to guide our prayers for the nation and our leaders. These are perilous times and we will need divine wisdom and courage to face them. Last Sunday we had our annual Mission Band lovefeast here at Home Church, and Bishop Sam Gray delivered a very meaningful sermon that highlighted the varied ways in which Moravians are reaching out in mission around the world. I want to give a shout out to my friend Russ May, who is a Moravian minister exploring ways to create a community in Winston-Salem modeled on the church in the book of Acts. Life in the Atwood house has become more interesting since we got a Wii for Christmas. It is a video game that is a lot more active than most. We play golf and tennis, but boxing is the real workout. You do have to clear space when playing with the Wii. I’m afraid I had a Wii accident when I knocked over my eggnog while bowling. We call the controller the Wiimote instead of the remote. The other big news is that Grandma arrived yesterday. Now that she has retired from the prison, she is free to travel more. Speaking of traveling, I will be in San Antonio next weekend to lead a workshop for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. It looks like it will be a great conference. My workshop will be on John Amos Comenius. Eight Moravians will be joining hundreds of Presbyterians in Texas. Megan Moore will be teaching the Adult Bible Class next Sunday.
Melissa: I forgot to mention last week that several Moravians were in Israel recently on a pilgrimage led by Rev. Rick Sides. Some of the participants on the pilgrimage are members of this class, and I’ve asked Melissa Mickey to say a few words about the trip this morning.
The Women: Last week we were discussing the genealogy of Jesus as given in Matthew. I did not quite get through that material, and so I’ll pick up where I left off. We were talking about the five women who appear in Matthew’s list: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheeba), and Mary. Except for Mary, these were all famous women of the Old Testament, but they were also controversial. Tamar was the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah who took extraordinary steps to insure the continuation of Judah’s family line. She pretended to be a prostitute so that her Judah would get her pregnant after he had refused to let his son take her as a wife. Tamar was nearly stoned to death when it was discovered that she was pregnant, but she proved that Judah was the father of her children. In this way she became 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. However, 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 not the kind of woman you would expect to see mentioned in a genealogy of the Messiah, but she also took bold action to preserve her family, and she has a place of honor in Jewish history. 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. She is remembered as the great-grandmother of David, but her relationship with Boaz was potentially scandalous in two ways. For one thing, she arranged her marriage to Boaz directly one night on a threshing floor rather than through more acceptable channels. And she was not an Israelite; she was Moabite, which means she came from a tribe that was one of Israel’s traditional enemies.
You probably know all about Bathsheeba, who was the mother of King Solomon. It is interesting that Matthew reminds us that Bathsheeba was another man’s wife before David made her queen. Like the others, Bathsheeba can be viewed as bold and heroic or we can dismiss her as scandalous. Biblical interpreters for centuries have debated how Matthew viewed these women. Did he choose them simply because they were famous or did he want us to see them as heroines who risked their lives and reputations to do what was needed to be done in perilous circumstances? Or could it be that Matthew wanted us to know that Jesus’ family tree included foreigners and sinners, not just saints?
It seems logical that Matthew was intentionally connecting the mother of Jesus to these women in Israel’s history, but he does not tell us what that connection is. Was Matthew reminding us that there were women who wore scarlet letters, so to speak, and yet did great things for God? Did he view Mary as a heroine like Ruth, or was this an acknowledgment that some might view Mary harshly because she was pregnant before she was married? Could it be that Matthew himself was disturbed by the story of Mary and sought consolation in the matriarchs of Israel? Whatever Matthew intended by including Mary with Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba, his genealogy prepares us to expect something extraordinary about the wife of Joseph.
Son of David: Someone in class last week raised another problem with the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph. Matthew agrees with Luke that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but he claims that Jesus was the son of David through Joseph. Careful readers of the New Testament have noted this problem for many centuries, and there is no consensus on an answer. We will explore this problem, but I’m afraid you will have to draw your own conclusions.
First of all, we should look at the significance of the claim that Jesus was a descendent of David. This appears to have been fairly widely accepted in the early church. The apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans appears to be quoting a Christian creed when he describes Jesus as “God’s Son, who was born of the seed of David.” Thus one of the oldest books in the New Testament claims that Jesus was a descendent of David. In all four gospels there are references to the messiah being the son of David, and in the Gospel of John, someone cries out to Jesus as the Son of David. Even though Matthew and Luke give different genealogies of Jesus, we saw last week that they agree that he was a direct descendent of King David. This does not prove that Jesus was indeed a descendent of David, but it does show that most of the authors of the New Testament believed that he was of David’s line.
Why was Jesus’ ancestry important? In ancient Israel, the word Messiah meant anyone anointed to rule Israel. According to II Samuel, God made a covenant with David that his family would always rule in Jerusalem, but the Davidic monarchy was ended by the Babylonians in 586 BC. After the Jews were allowed to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple, there was hope that eventually a descendent of David would restore the monarchy as well. Instead, the country was ruled by the Persians, and then the Greeks took control after Alexander defeated Persia. About 250 years before Matthew’s gospel was written, the Jews rebelled under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. For a brief period of time, they had an independent country ruled by the high priests who eventually, they established a monarchy. This Hasmonean dynasty was rejected by some Jews because the rulers were not descendents of David. There is evidence that many Jews in the time of Jesus believed that God would send a Messiah to restore the throne of David, and it was natural to assume this ruler would be an heir of David.
Not everyone agreed that the messiah had to be a descendent of David. During each of the Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire (ca. 66 and 140) there was speculation that the messiah had appeared even though none of the reputed messiahs claimed to be a son of David genetically. After the failure of the rebellions, some authorities maintained that the true messiah was hidden and would be revealed at the proper time. Interestingly, they claimed no one would know the lineage of this hidden messiah. In other words, people could have view Jesus as a savior or messiah without necessarily claiming that he was a descendent of David. Some scholars think that the early church invented the idea that Jesus was a son of David as a way to buttress the claim that he was the Messiah, but it just as plausable that the knowledge that Jesus was a descendent of David fueled speculation during his lifetime that he was indeed the messiah.
Raymond Brown states “while certainty is not possible, the NT evidence that Jesus was really a Davidid outweighs, in my opinion, doubts to the contrary.” (Brown, Birth, 511). Brown goes on to say that this does not mean necessarily that Jesus was in the royal line, especially since Luke gives his genealogy through Nathan rather than Solomon. More importantly, Brown reminds us that “there would be no irreparable theological damage to Christianity if Jesus were proved to have been of non-Davidic descent. The Christian assertion that Jesus was the Messiah required a radical reinterpretation of that concept.” Jesus himself raised questions about the significance of biological descent from David in Mark 12:35-37. In other words, the early believed Jesus was a descendent of David who was God’s Messiah, but the crucial point is that he is the Messiah not that David was his ancestor.
Joseph It makes sense that Matthew and Luke would connect Jesus to King David, but there is still the nagging issue that it was Joseph who was descended from David and both Matthew and Luke claim that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. It may be a testament to the integrity of both gospel writers that they included genealogical information that seems to contradict the idea of the virginal conception. It is possible that the gospel writers simply recorded what information they had without trying to harmonize it. They may not have noticed a problem.
Many modern biblical scholars speculate that the story of the virginal conception came later than the tradition that Jesus was a descendent of David through Joseph. It is possible that the virginal conception was inserted into the gospels as an expression of popular piety. Other scholars speculate that the genealogies were added to the gospels later to support Jesus’ legitimacy as the Messiah. Still others think that the gospel writers included both points of view and tried to harmonize them by indicating that Joseph was only the husband of Mary rather than the father of Jesus. No one can know for sure how these stories originated or were included in the gospels.
Legal Fatherhood: It might be helpful to keep in mind a point mentioned last week. Ancient genealogies record fathers, not mothers. People were known by the lineage of their fathers, not their mothers. It is common for languages to have a way of identifying a person as the son of a father: Ben Gurion means son of Gurion; O’Reilly is son of Reilly; MacDuff is son of Duff; Johnson is son of John; and so forth. A few languages have a formula to describe the daughter of someone, such as Anderdotter, but even then, it is the father rather than the mother who is identified. In other words, it would have been inconceivable for an ancient scribe to record the genealogy of a famous man’s mother.
There is another point to consider. Joseph was, in fact, Jesus’ legal father even if he was not Jesus’ biological father. By taking Mary as his wife when he did, Joseph was legally acknowledging Jesus as his son. This does not resolve the issue of whether Jesus was the biological descendent of David, that he was of the “seed” of David as Paul says, but it would mean that in first century Galielee Jesus would have been considered the son of Joseph, who was presumably a descendent of David. He could claim the legacy of his lineage even he did not share his father’s DNA. The fact Jesus would have been the legal son of Joseph does not resolve all of the problems with claiming Jesus was both born of a virgin and was a descendent of David, but it may help us understand why Matthew could put two apparently contradictory claims side by side in his gospel. Believe it or not, scholars have a lot more to say about the genealogy of Jesus, but I think we should move on to the story of Jesus’ conception and birth as given by Matthew.
Read: Matthew 1:18 – end
Joseph’s Dilemma: Unlike Luke, Matthew begins the story of Jesus after his conception. His focus is on Joseph who is a righteous man with a problem. He has agreed to marry a young woman, but he learns that she has gotten pregnant before the wedding. We do not know a lot about the history of private life or what the social norms were in ancient Israel, but there are indications in Jewish sources that it was permissible for a couple to have intimate relations after the betrothal and before the marriage. It sometimes happened in those days, as it does today, that a baby might appear just a few months after the formal wedding. Since the primary purpose of marriage was to have children, it is unlikely that Mary’s pregnancy would have been a cause for concern for Joseph if he thought he was the father.
The author of Matthew’s gospel was clearly sympathetic to Joseph’s plight. What should a righteous man do in such a situation? Keep in mind that ancient Israel was like modern Saudi Arabia or Pakistan in its approach to women and sexuality. Though the time was long past when a man could have a woman killed for such a breach of trust, a shamed bridegroom could take her before the authorities and have her condemned so as to preserve his own good name. This was a humiliating process that usually ruined the girl’s future. A woman who was publicly identified as immoral or who had a child out of wedlock would most likely be cast out by her family and left to the mercy of the streets.
It is interesting that Matthew says nothing about what Mary said to Joseph. Presumably they talked about her awkward condition, but Matthew was not interested in Mary’s feelings. He was only concerned with Joseph’s actions. How would he deal with this crisis? Matthew tells us that Joseph chose to put Mary away quietly, which means that he planned to stop the marriage plans. In setting her aside quietly, he may have planned to give her some money to live on. The main concern for Joseph was hard to break off the engagement without hurting Mary or offering himself up to ridicule.
After he has made his decision to deal with Mary as kindly as possible, an angel tells Joseph to follow a different plan. The angel appeared in a dream, which is consistent with the tendency in Judaism toward putting greater distance between God and sinful humanity. Angels are too holy to appear in physical form to people. They come in dreams for Matthew. For some interpreters, this adds to the realism of the story since it is easier to believe in dreams than in angels.
The angel tells Joseph that he should take Mary as his wife because her child comes from God; he is “of the Holy Spirit.” Many of the saints of the Old Testament were conceived through the power of God’s spirit, especially prophets of old. So far in the story, there has been nothing about Mary being a virgin. Many people have suggested that the question Joseph faced was whether to remain faithful to Mary and accept her child as a gift from God despite the implicit scandal. This is in contrast to Luke’s account where the virginity of Mary is central to the story. We’ll return to this issue in a couple of weeks.
Conclusion: We are out of time, so I will leave you with this thought from Martin Luther. There were three miracles of Christmas. First was that God took human form as a baby in a manger. Second was that a virgin conceived. And the third was that Joseph believed, and that was the most astounding miracle of all.