The Birth of Jesus

The gospels seemed to have been formed “backwards.” The initial preaching of the apostles was Christ Crucified and Risen. This is clear from Acts 2:23, 32, 3:14, 10:37-41, and 1 Cor 15:3-5. The teaching of Jesus (didache) was added to the “passion” of Jesus (kerygma). The last (canonical) stage of the development was to include a prologue concerning the origins of Jesus – was he simply a man?  Matthew and Luke include miraculous birth stories, John has a theological prologue announcing that Jesus is the Word who was with God from the beginning since he is God.  Notice the development taking mark as the earliest of the Gospels – there is no birth narrative and virtually nothing about his family history. The earlier one goes into the traditions of concerning Jesus, the less about Jesus’ birth we find.

One might extend this another step historically and include the infancy narratives that are created well after the end of the apostolic era. These apocryphal stories are much more fanciful and creative – and far less historically reliable. On the other hand, there are much more theological presentations of Jesus as well in the writings of the church fathers, in these Jesus becomes the Christ of theology.

Why were the infancy narratives written in the first place? Crossan thought the question should not be what Matthew and Luke tell us about the birth of Jesus, but “why they tell us anything at all?”  What would motivate the gospel writer to include an explanation of the birth of Jesus? Raymond Brown suggested three reasons (Birth of the Messiah, 29).

The most simple explaination for the birth narratives is curiosity.  Since Mark did not have many biographical details that people always seem to want to know about, the later gospels were interested in filling-in that gap.

Apologetic. One possible motivation for Luke’s presentation of John the Baptist’s birth along side Jesus’ birth is to show the superiority of Jesus over John, perhaps to answer non-Christian disciples of John (similar to those we meet in Acts 19) There is an apologetic value of the birth narrative when presenting the Gospel to skeptical Jews as well, helping to explain how the Messiah (who as to be born in Judean Bethlehem) ended up to be a native of Galilee. There is also the charge made by early Judaism that Jesus as of illegitimate birth, answer by both evangelists by the explanation of a virgin birth.

There are obvious theological motives as well. The genealogy in Matthew connects Jesus to David, Moses, Joseph, and the other great men in the history of Israel. Like Moses he survives the slaughter of children by a pagan ruler, and like Moses he goes to the mountain to dispense the Law (Matthew 5-7). There is a developing Christology in the four Gospels, Mark tells us that Jesus is already the Son of God at the baptism.  In the next two gospels (Matthew and Luke are chronological about the same time), Jesus is God from the moment of his conception, and in John he is God from the very beginning.  In fact, John tells us Jesus  is equal with God from  eternity since he is the creator (John 1:1).

I would add a fourth motivation for Matthew and Luke including the birth narratives.  More than Mark, these two gospels are interested in showing that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, beginning with his birth.  Readers familiar with the Old Testament know than God has done a number of miracles to bring special individuals into the world – Isaac and Samuel are examples of children born to elderly or barren parents.  Jesus is the ultimate “miracle child” since he was born from a virgin.

All of this highlights the uniqueness of Jesus at the very beginning of the story.  What might be a few other motives for the writers of the gospels to include the story of Jesus’ birth?  Or to think of it the other way, why did Mark and John omit the brith of Jesus?

Joseph, the Righteous Man – Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph discovered his young wife to be is with child (Matthew 1:18-19). Betrothal in the Second Temple Period was a legally binding relationship which could be set aside only through a divorce-like proceeding. A betrothal period could take up to twelve months (m.Ket 5:2), during which time the woman is still under the authority of her father.

MangerNormally there were no sexual relations between the engaged couple, although it is likely that sort of thing did happen. If the man lived with his father-in-law during the betrothal, he cannot divorce his wife is she is found not to be a virgin. There is a whole section of the Mishnah (Ketuvim) dealing with engagements and breaking those engagements. It is impossible to be certain that the practices described there were in force at the time Jesus was born, but it is likely that some of the things we read there reflect the issues with which Joseph dealt.

Since Mary is pregnant, she must have been unfaithful. Joseph therefore decides to divorce her “quietly” because he does not want to shame her. The verb δειγματίζω is used for the shaming of a woman caught in adultery, as the the scribes wanted to do to a woman caught in adultery in John 8:2. Dio Chryssostom mentions a Cyprian law requiring an adulteress to cut her hair and be “subject to contempt by the community” (Dio Chrys. 47; BDAG). This form of the verb does not appear in the LXX, but the compound verb παραδειγματίζω appears 6x. In Num 25:4 it describes the public hanging of those who fornicated with the prostitutes from Baal-Peor (compare PsSol 2:12-14, a possible allusion to that story).

The divorce (ἀπολύω) is to be “quiet,” an adverb (λάθρᾳ) often meaning “in secret” or “in private.” In Matt 2:7, for example, Herod summons the wise men “in secret.” It is occasionally used outside of the New Testament with the sense of “not going through proper channels.” It is possible that Joseph, being a poor man, did not feel it necessary to spend the money and time to properly punish her, so he would dissolve the marriage without bringing it before proper authorities who would (perhaps) insist on a shaming of Mary and (undoubtedly) money from Joseph.

Since Joseph was described as a “righteous man,” it is possible that he thought he was obligated by the Law divorce Mary (Nolland, Matthew, 95). Numbers 5:11-31 may indicate that if a man discovers his wife in adultery a divorce is required, as well as a public shaming. It is also possible that Joseph did not want to shame himself by declaring to the public that his betrothed wife had been unfaithful. While the text says that it is Mary’s shame that is in mind, Joseph would have a certain level of humiliation when the news became public

Whatever his motives, Joseph is describe as “doing the right thing” and preserving Mary from a public disgrace for adultery.

“Conceived by the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 1:20-21

An angel warns Joseph not to divorce Mary because the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). The angel indicates that the conception of the child is by the Holy Spirit. While we usually talk about this as a virgin birth, it is better to think in terms of a virgin conception and a normal birth. There is nothing in the Bible which implies that there was anything unusual about the pregnancy after it begins. Jesus’ birth was normal and Mary and Joseph go on to have other children.

The-AnnunciationThe Greek text does not have the definite article, the child is conceived by “a holy spirit.” There are a number of suggestions for what this might meet, at the very least it refers to the power of God as responsible for Mary’s pregnancy.

There is little use trying to figure out the “science” of how this happened, then whole point is that this is a miracle from God. The child is not Joseph’s nor is he the son of any human, he is the “son of God.” The connection of the Holy Spirit to the birth of Jesus is important for several reasons.

First, like Adam, the human Jesus is a special creation of God. Paul will use this parallelism between Adam and Jesus in Romans 5:12-21. The virgin birth is therefore analogous to the special creation of Adam in Genesis 2.

Second, the Hebrew Bible refers to the king of Israel as a “son of God.” In Ps 2:7, for example, the enthroned King of Heaven says to the king of Israel “you are my son, today I have begotten you.” The virgin birth is the ultimate enthronement of a king in the line of David. It is significant tat Joseph is called a “son of David” in this text, the only place in the New Testament where someone other than Jesus is given that title. This likely highlights the royal importance of the child to be born.

Third, there are many references to special servants of God in the Hebrew Bible who are born through miraculous circumstances. Beginning with Isaac, several old or barren women have children. Even John the Baptist is born in this classic “Old Testament”scenario. A virgin giving birth is the ultimate unlikely birth!

Fourth, there are a number of references to the coming messiah / servant of God as being specially empowered by the Spirit of God, Isa 11:2, for example, describes the “root of Jesse” as having the seven-fold Spirit of God upon him.

That the child is not the result of unfaithfulness, but rather a divine miracle, would comfort Joseph and assure him that this child is part of the larger plan of God.

Luke 1:46-55 – Mary’s Song

It seems to me I have heard the song, “Mary Did you Know” more this year than usual. The song asks if Mary realized just what the baby Jesus would do later in his life.  There is nothing wrong with the song (other than being overplayed) and it certainly gets the Christology of the incarnation right, but it overlooks the fact that Mary did in fact know a few things about her son.  The Magnificat in Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s reflection on who Jesus was and what he would do.

The song emphasizes God, not Mary’s motherly feelings.  Nearly every line states that God has done something.  The song emphasizes the actions of God, beginning with Mary, but then to all Israel.  t is the “mighty one” who has done great things for the sake of his holy name (49); He is the holy one (49).  These are key terms used in the Hebrew Bible for God, especially when he acts to save his people, as in Isaiah.

What is important to notice is that all of these verbs are in the aorist tense – a complete action usually in the past.  God has acted already in the conception of Jesus to do all that this song describes.

For the ruling class, there is nothing here but judgment.  He has scattered the proud (51); He has brought down rulers (52); The rich he has sent away empty handed (53).  But for the humble, there is hope for mercy and a reversal of their present state: He has exalted the humble (52) and he has filled the hungry (53).  This sounds quite a bit like the Beatitudes in Luke — the Messiah will usher in a time of justice which reverses the injustice of the present.

The reason he has done all of this is because of the promise which he made to Abraham (55).   This is critically important because the promise made to Abraham included a nation and land, neither of which Israel has at the time Mary sang this song.  Most scholars (rightly) assume that this song is patterned after Hannah’s Song in 1 Samuel 2.  There are many similarities (a childless woman is given a miraculous child who grows up to be dedicated to God).  But the context of Hannah’s song is important – she celebrates the coming king who will unite Israel and give her rest from her enemies.  In 1 Samuel, this is David, and Hannah’s song is a foretaste of the Davidic covenant.

In Luke, Mary’s song anticipates the coming of the son of David who will initiate the New Covenant, re-establishing the kingdom to Israel.  This coming New Covenant will be an age when the Spirit of God lives in God’s people, enabling them to keep the covenant.

How revolutionary is this song? It celebrates a coming king who will liberate Israel from her oppressors.  The song comes from the last years of Herod the Great, the representative of Rome.  I suspect that if Herod heard this song, he would hear the allusions to the Hebrew Prophets and understand that this child who is about to be born is a threat to the Herodian power and Roman domination.

If it is, a revolutionary song, why in the world is Mary singing it in response to her virginal conception?  It is possible that she was not sure that she was carrying the messiah until her encounter with Elizabeth; after the testimony of John she then knew for certain that the promises to Abraham and David were about to be fulfilled.

Matthew 1:18-23 – The Sign of Immanuel

In the carol Silent Night, we sing the words “Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child, Holy infant so tender and mild.” This well know Christmas carol was written in 1816 by an Austrian priest named Joseph Mohr and set to music two years later by Franz Gruber. It was first performed on Christmas Eve 1818, accompanied by a guitar because the church organ was broken. The carol was translated into English in 1863 and eventually included in an English Sunday School hymn book. The song usually tops lists of “most popular” Christmas carols and has been translated into 300 languages! According to Wikipedia, it has been recorded by virtually every artist who has produced a Christmas album. (From Bing Crosby to Elvis Presley, the Vienna Boys Choir to the metal band Anthrax, there is even a John Denver version accompanied by the Muppets!)

Silent NightIt is remarkable to me that the song remains popular because the lyrics contain rather traditional theology. When we sing this song we are reminded of the Virgin birth of Jesus, the holy son of God who is pure light, the savior who brings redeeming light into a world darkened by sin.

While it is unlikely that the instrumental versions floating around the background at the local Mall can be construed as “theology,” the idea that Jesus was born miraculously from a virgin mother is part of our culture. This time of year people will point out that Jesus was born to a single mother into the world of poverty, he was homeless, etc. For doctrinal reasons the phrase “Virgin Mary” is common throughout the world, although sometimes for less-than-biblical reasons.

On the other hand, the virgin birth of Jesus is often dismissed as a lame attempt by early Christians to give their founding figure a miraculous birth, like Apollo or some other divine man. Scientifically, women do not reproduce on their own therefore this “miracle” is quickly explained away as legend. This is quite true but the point is that the birth of Jesus was supernatural, a miracle.

But the point that Matthew makes by claiming Mary was a virgin is that the origins of Jesus are different than any other great leader of Israel. Samuel, for example, was born to a woman who was barren in response to her fervent prayer (1 Samuel 1). The stories of the Patriarchs repeatedly include barren or old women giving birth because God gave them a child. The virgin birth of Jesus is the ultimate miraculous birth.

But two of the Gospels begin the story of the virgin birth, and Matthew states that the virgin birth happened “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet.” In this case, the prophet is Isaiah and the sign of Immanuel. It is important to read the words of Matthew in their proper context, looking back to what God did in Isaiah’s day. In the context of Isaiah 7, God is with his people at a time when they are apathetic towards the covenant and the King is in open rebellion against his God. Yet the sign of Immanuel is given because God is still working to preserve the Davidic Dynasty.

In Matthew 1, the sign of Immanuel is given once again for the same reasons. While the details are different, the people of God are still apathetic toward the real heart of the covenant and many are in open rebellion against it – yet God is still working to preserve the people of Israel, to redeem them from their sins and to bring the real King, the Son of David into the world.

Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

BethlehemPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area. Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).

Born in Bethlehem, Called a Nazarene?

One of the most secure facts about Jesus from New Testament is that he was “from Nazareth in Galilee.”  If he was  the Messiah, son of David, why was he not “from Bethlehem?”  As the readers of Matthew and Luke, we know he was born in Bethlehem and some of the reasons why he did not stay there.  But as with everything in the story of Jesus’ birth, there is more to the story.

NazarethPolitical and economic issues in first century Palestine are the main reasons that Joseph moves from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Just like laborers today, You go where there is work!  Sepphoris and Tiberias, two large cities near Nazareth, had need for stone cutters and other craftsmen.  Joseph went to Nazareth there because there was work in the area.  Bethlehem was a minor town which probably supplied sheep for the Temple.  Perhaps after the census there was simply no way for Joseph to support his growing family so he planned to return to Nazareth where there was family and work.

Matthew has a more theological explanation.  He quotes the prophet Hosea: out of Egypt I called my son, he is a Nazarene. Only in Matthew we are told that Herod intended to kill baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem in an attempt to stop the Messiah from taking his throne.  This “slaughter of the innocent” is analogous to killing newborns in Egypt in the book of Exodus.  This leads to the “flight to Egypt,” although we are not told how long they remain in Egypt before returning to Galilee.

This fulfills the word of the Lord through Hosea, according to Matthew 2:14-15. While this does not seem like an appropriate use of the verse, the idea in Hosea is that Israel is God’s child who has taken refuge in Egypt, and after a period of time in Egypt he would be recalled back into the land of promise.  Hosea is looking back at the story of the Exodus, where Israel was in Egypt for their protection and are called out of Egypt in order to enter the land.

Jesus is, in a very real sense, the Son of God. In another sense, Jesus is re-enacting the experience of Israel by fleeing from the land to Egypt and returning again at the direction of God. There are a number of parallels to the experience of Israel in the gospels, for example, he too will be tempted in the wilderness; on the cross Jesus takes the curse of the law on himself and pays for the nations rebellion himself.

That the family should settle in Nazareth fulfills another scripture for Matthew (2:21-23). This is a bit more problematic since there is no specific text which says that the messiah should be called a Nazarite, or as the NIV translates, a Nazorean.  Nazareth was another extremely small, insignificant village, so it is unlikely that a Hebrew prophet would have predicted that he would come from this town, especially since the messiah was to come from the town of David. It is possible that the phrase does not mean that he would come from the town of Nazareth, but rather that he would be a Nazarite, someone who has taken a Nazarite vow. But again, no scripture really says that the messiah would have taken a Nazarite vow.

Another possibility is that the line in Matthew refers to Isaiah 11:1, which says that the messiah will be a “root from the stump of Jesse,” or a branch. The Hebrew word for root / branch is nezer, and Matthew is making a play-on-words with the name of the town (although these are two different words).

Another possibility is that Nazarene was slang for a person from a remote place (Blomberg, Matthew, NAC, 69 suggests this).  Perhaps it is like saying that someone is from “Hickville.”  Most regions have an “other side of the tracks,” Nazareth was proverbially on the wrong side.

Whatever the reason he was called a Nazarene, the title points to humble origins.  As with his birth in Bethlehem, Jesus’ time in Nazareth is an indication that God will do great things through the Messiah who is hidden, who is small and insignificant at first (Matt 13:31-33).