Vynette Holliday today continues her challenging argument that the Gospel of Matthew when read through its original Jewish meaning does not provide a justification for the virginal birth of Jesus. This is the second of two parts examining the Gospel of Matthew in a wider series arguing that in the Jewish religious setting in which Jesus moved he would not have been viewed as divine or viewed himself as divine.
The Gospel of Matthew Part II
Allusions to the theme of a Davidic Messiah were expressed repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures but the Second Book of Samuel, Chapter 7 verses 12-17, is undoubtedly the primary text upon which Jewish expectations of a Messiah of Davidic ancestry is based.
"And when your days be fulfilled, and you shall sleep with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, which shall proceed out of your bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you: your throne shall be established forever. According to all these words, and according to all this vision, so did Nathan speak to David."
The three major elements of this text are:
Because the translators have been so remiss, I will supply the proper translation for them.
"The book of the generation(s) of Jesus Anointed, the son of David, the son of Abraham." (Matthew 1:1)
Although it may seem strange to our modern perceptions, the unique religious and political character of ancient Israelite society mandated the keeping of genealogies. Genealogies were a testament to God's providential rule of history and defined a person's identity within the family and the tribe. By the time of Jesus, the two major genealogical registers considered most vital to maintain were those of the descendants of the kingly house of David and those of the priestly house of Levi.
Matthew's genealogy is similar to that given in Ruth 4:18-22 in that it is concerned with recording only the highlights of God's saving plan for Israel through the Davidic line.
When we read through the genealogy, verses 2-17, we see that it serves three major purposes:
Purpose 1: To demonstrate God's salvation plan for Israel…
By removing several generational steps which, for whatever reason, he considers unimportant to the story he is presenting, Matthew is able to construct a genealogy around the three great rise and fall periods of Israelite history: Captivity-Freedom; Freedom-Captivity; Captivity-Freedom.
Purpose 2: To demonstrate that God's salvation plan has been achieved in the past through strange and unusual circumstances…
If you refer back to the stories of the four women mentioned in Matthew's genealogy — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba — you will find that all of them took decisive steps vital to the fulfillment of God's purposes for Israel, regardless of whether their actions had contravened normal social relationships or whether they were "outsiders" — non-Israelites.
For Israelites, the names of these women would have evoked memories of the inscrutable yet saving purposes of God, which have never been constrained by biology, social norms, or ethnicity. (See Ruth 4:17.)
Purpose 3: To demonstrate that God's salvation plan has been achieved in the present through similarly strange and unusual circumstances…
Unlike most other genealogies in the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew mentions Jesus first, then switches back to Abraham and then down through the generations to Joseph. Jewish readers would have been immediately alerted to something not altogether regular.
Matthew has carefully prepared the ground for the two revelations of verse 18.
"Now the birth of Jesus Anointed was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found with child of the Holy Spirit."
Firstly, God is working out his present salvation plan through another woman, Mary, just as he did those four times previously through Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.
Secondly, Joseph is not the father of Jesus. Matthew knows that his readers will wonder why he has gone to considerable trouble to carefully construct and provide a genealogy only to then inform them that Jesus is not the son of Joseph? He also knows that his readers, his Jewish readers, will search back through the genealogy to find the answer, and they will find it and understand.
The contemporaries of Jesus, if they ever gave it more than a passing thought, believed that Jesus was the son of the parents who raised him — Joseph and Mary — but Matthew found it necessary to deny this common perception for a compelling reason that had absolutely nothing to do with a 'virgin birth.'
Write this man childless
So what is Matthew's compelling reason for denying Joseph's biological connection to Jesus? Well, in verse 11 we read:
"And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon" (1:11).
The following passages in Jeremiah 22:24, 29-30 reveal to us why Matthew went to great pains to stress that Jesus was not the son of Joseph:
"As I live, says YHVH, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet upon my right hand, yet would I pluck you thence..."
"O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of YHVH. Thus says YHVH, Write you this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah."
Matthew's gospel was written for the purpose of convincing Jews that their expected Messiah had come, but before presenting Jesus' credentials for 'messiahship', however, Matthew had to demonstrate the fact, the prerequisite, that Jesus was not descended from David through Jeconiah, as was Joseph. Joseph was indeed a "son of David" but disinherited!
Matthew knows that Jesus is not the son of Joseph when he begins to construct his genealogy, yet he still prefaces his account by calling Jesus the "son of David". How is he able to have the Magi ask the question "where is he who was born King of the Jews..." with such superb assurance? Only a patrilineal descendant of King David would qualify to be called the "King of the Jews".
Matthew is certainly sure of the Davidic ancestry of Jesus, but how detailed was his information? As we will discover when we come to examine Luke's infancy narrative, more comprehensive information about the biological ancestry of Jesus was available to an earnest seeker like Luke, but the question of whether or not Matthew had access to this comprehensive information remains an open question. It is obvious that Matthew's infancy account is told from Joseph's point of view so Matthew's source originated, in whatever chain of transmission, from someone close to Joseph. Therefore, we would not expect Matthew's source to have access to the type of intimate information that could have originated only with Mary herself.
The Holy Spirit...
Two passages from Matthew commonly adduced to support the virgin birth doctrine are 1:18 and 1:20:
"she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (1:18)
"that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (1:20)
It is quite obvious in 1:20 that the 'Holy Spirit' does not refer to the manner of conception but to "that which is conceived in her".
A consistent theme of the Hebrew Scriptures is that the Spirit of God (the 'ruach ha-kodesh') is regarded as the agent of every human birth.
"The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty has given me life." (Job 33:4)
"So Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife; and he went in to her, and YHVH gave her conception, and she bore a son." (Ruth 4:13)
"YHVH visited Sarah as he had said, and YHVH did to Sarah as he had spoken. Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son..." (Gen 21:1-2)
"YHVH visited Hannah, and she conceived..." (1 Samuel 2:21)
"And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man with the help of YHVH." (Gen 4:1)
To use this theme in a 'particular' or 'exclusive' way only where it refers to Jesus is to make a mockery of the Scriptures and wrest the words of gospel writers into a meaning which they never intended.
One need only to consult Luke to appreciate just how insupportable it is to use these verses from Matthew to justify a 'virgin birth'. References to the workings of the Holy Spirit abound in Luke Chapters 1 and 2 e.g. John the Baptist was "filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb," (1:15) and a few months before John was born, his mother Elizabeth was "filled with the Holy Spirit." (1:41)
What's in a name?
In verse 21, we read:
"And she will bear a son, and you will call his name Jesus (Yeshua) because he will save his people from their sins."
It should be immediately apparent that the logical and causal relationship indicated by "because" is missing. It may be interesting to those Catholica members who participated in previous discussions on the question of Hebrew originals underlying our present Greek gospels to point out that this causal relationship is also missing in the Greek.
The Hebrew name Yeshua is a shortened form of Yehoshua, the name of the successor of Moses — Joshua. It is derived from YHVH and the Hebrew verb root yasha meaning to save or to deliver. Only on the basis of a Hebrew original is this logical and causal relationship between the name and the function explicit i.e. "you will call his name YHVH is our salvation because he will save..."
Note that the child was not named Immanuel. Again pointing to a Hebrew original is the fact that while the explanatory note providing the meaning of the name Immanuel (verse 23) has been translated into English according to English word order, the Greek preserves the original Hebrew word order — Immanu (with us) El (God).
The Corporate Personality
The Jewish religion, both past and present, is communal. In the words of the Jewish scholar Nicholas de Lange: "To be a Jew means first and foremost to belong to a group, the Jewish people, and the religious beliefs are secondary, in a sense, to this corporate allegiance."
Most Jewish prayers were, and still are communal, as we see in the "Our Father". An old Hasidic saying goes like this: "A prayer which is not spoken in the name of all Israel is no prayer at all."
Central to the idea of Hebraic community is the concept of the "corporate personality". From ancient times, the entire community, past, present and future, was considered to be one personality, as "a living whole, a single animated mass of blood, flesh and bones."
Even today, at Passover, modern Jews are required to think of themselves as personally taking part in the Exodus and receiving the Torah at Sinai. Matthew draws on this Hebraic concept of the "corporate personality," in his presentation of Jesus.
Signs of Deliverance
Drawing on the meaning of Jesus' name, to save or to deliver, Matthew paints Jesus as recapitulating in his individual existence a selection of deliverance themed passages in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially those associated with Moses. For Matthew, Jesus is the representative Israelite, the one standing for the many, the corporate personality, the one who fulfills in his individual existence God's salvation plan for the whole people of Israel. Jesus is Israel: Israel is Jesus.
Discover Matthew's method for yourself by reading these passages from the Hebrew Scriptures in their original contexts:
Ch. 1:23 quoting Isaiah 7:14
One of the deliverance themed Scripture passages Matthew presents as being fulfilled in Jesus was the sign given to King Ahaz by the prophet Isaiah (Is. 7:14).
The one and only significance of Verse 1:23 is that it forms part of Matthew's overall presentation of Jesus as the representative Israelite.
The proponents of the virgin birth doctrine seem not to realise that Jews loved their own Scriptures and knew them intimately. Matthew was certainly not going to expose himself, and Jesus, to their ridicule by claiming the fulfillment of a non-existent virgin-birth prophecy. See the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth : Part 1 for a full discussion of this passage from Isaiah.
Jesus, as Matthew's representative Israelite, as the one standing for the many, as the corporate personality, can very obviously be no different in any essential respect from his fellow Israelites.
There is absolutely no justification for asserting that the doctrine of the virgin birth is based on the Gospel of Matthew. To do so is to utterly destroy Matthew's Jesus.
Vynette Holliday, 28 Aug 2010
What are your thoughts on this commentary?