Real Bible Studies: Matthew, Part 1

The Infancy Narrative

Though scholars largely agree that the first written Gospel was Mark, the Christian New Testament starts with Matthew. This is most likely due to Matthew’s inclusion of an infancy narrative and a genealogy. Otherwise, Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus beginning his ministry as an adult just as Mark’s does. This leaves a considerable gap between when the family flees to Egypt and when Jesus is baptized by John, with no transitional information in between.

The author of Matthew makes liberal use of Mark’s Gospel, lifting entire passages verbatim from the earlier work, though putting a different spin on them, and sometimes correcting items Mark got wrong such as place names and geography of the region. Evidence suggests the author of Matthew was familiar with Jerusalem and Galilee and the author of Mark was not. Also Matthew concentrates on Jesus’s teachings, framing much of the narrative in the form of sermons delivered by Jesus. Scholars believe the Gospel was written in the mid- to late-first century CE and, though attributed to an apostle, was most likely not written by an eye-witness to the events described.

The congregation which produced Matthew appears to have been comprised of educated Egyptian Jews, living as expatriates, who probably had access to the legendary library at Alexandria. Some commentators have speculated that their brand of Christianity may have sprung from attempts to create a Jewish mystery religion to compete with the cults of Attis, Mithras, and Adonis prominent in the Pagan world in which they lived. This would not have been out of the ordinary, as the region was overrun by many cultures that borrowed from and influenced one another. People throughout the Middle East had been adapting stories, rituals, and beliefs to suit their own purposes for generations.

Matthew is also well-grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures. The genealogy that starts the Gospel follows the typical pattern found throughout the Jewish scriptures (the Christian Old Testament), beginning with Adam, and proceeding through Noah, Abraham, and Jacob, then the House of David, from which the Messiah must originate. The author indicates that Joseph descends from Solomon, which contradicts the genealogy laid out in Luke sometime later. Matthew frames the genealogy in sets of fourteen generations between events such as the Flood and the Babylonian Exile. It culminates with Joseph, which becomes somewhat problematic as readers will learn once Mary is introduced.

There is evidence, from the text, that Matthew was intended as a satire, possibly mocking Pagan attempts to transform a failed messianic contender into the dying and resurrected savior-god from the mystery religions. The story developed in the nativity portion is that Joseph and Mary were to be wed, but Mary was pregnant without having been with Joseph. This may have been influenced by the Jewish scriptures in which numerous Biblical matriarchs, most notably Abraham’s wife Sarah, found themselves pregnant after visits from mysterious strangers. It’s also possible Mary was betrothed or married to a relative of Joseph who died, as there were provisions within the Law for a family member marrying the widow of a deceased relative to perpetuate the family line. If such was the case, this might explain why the Pharisees questioned Jesus on this very point of Law. Another possibility is that the author of Matthew wanted to explain why a heavenly entity such as the dying and resurrected savior was leading an insurrection against Roman rule in Jerusalem.

Whether or not the author of Matthew knew of Jesus’s parentage or was simply responding to lack of knowledge of Jesus’s paternal line is unknown, but Joseph is only documented within Matthew in the first two chapters which contain the infancy narrative and is not mentioned again in Matthew’s Gospel. Like Mark, Matthew mentions Jesus’s mother and siblings in the incident where they try to subdue him, whereas Mark and John don’t mention Joseph at all. In the incident with his family, Jesus is identified as a carpenter — craftsmen tended to learn their craft from family members or through apprenticeships. All we have today is evidence from this Gospel that the author of Matthew felt the need to explain Jesus’s parentage in this manner and, since much of Matthew’s Gospel is devoted to drawing attention to inconsistencies in Jesus’s history, we can conclude this was another of these inconsistencies.

The author of Matthew isn’t just borrowing large passages from Mark, but from the whole of Jewish history and traditions. Jesus’s name hints at his intended purpose. “Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Yeshua, and this name has been rendered elsewhere in English as Joshua, the legendary hero who led the conquest of Canaan. Matthew’s audience of educated Jews would have recognized the allusion, whereas an audience of First Century Gentiles with little knowledge of Jewish history, may not have.

To start with, Matthew cites a passage from Isaiah, claiming it’s fulfilled by Yeshua’s conception by the Holy Spirit.

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emman′u-el” (which means, God with us).

Matthew 1:23 (RSV)

The actual quote is from Isaiah 7:14-16 and has to do with God giving a sign to King Ahaz that a pair of combatants will be vanquished. In context, this prophecy states that the child born of the young woman will still be a baby when these enemies have been dealt with.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Isaiah 7:14-16 (RSV)

At no point in the Gospels is Yeshua ever referred to as “Imman’u-el”, nor any of the other names ascribed to him in the “prophecies” that are quoted about him. Examining each reveals them to be about some unrelated event several hundred years in the past, or too vague to be specifically applied to Yeshua. The various incarnations of Isaiah, for instance, had to contend with the Assyrian conquest of Israel and the exile of most of the Northern tribes, Ephraim in particular, which was enough to concern them in their own times without worrying about events many generations afterward. Often, when a prophecy fails to be fulfilled, true believers will recycle it rather than acknowledging the failure, which we frequently see today with the work of Nostradamus and modern faith healers.

Matthew tells us that after the Wise Men leave, Joseph is warned by an angel of God to take his family to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. The author then relates how Herod carries out what is known as the “slaughter of the innocents” killing all male children of a certain age. The author cites a passage from Jeremiah, which is said to foretell this massacre:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.”

Matthew 2:18

The passage is from Jeremiah 31:15 and foretells the return of Ephraim from exile, which is obvious when the entire passage is read.

“Thus says the Lord: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” Thus says the Lord: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for your work shall be rewarded, says the Lord , and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, says the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country. I have heard E′phraim bemoaning, ‘Thou hast chastened me, and I was chastened, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for thou art the Lord my God.”

Jeremiah 31:15-18 (RSV)

Judah was the majority tribe in Judea, and Genesis tells readers that Judah was the son of Leah, not Rachel. Ephraim, on the other hand, was the grandson of Rachel, so, the tribe that claimed Ephraim as its founder would have been considered Rachel’s “lost children” and they were lost after being exiled by the Assyrians. With the exception of scattered remnants that may have fled to Judah in the wake of the Assyrian conquest, the tribe of Ephraim was still lost in Yeshua’s time and its fate remains unknown to this day. The educated readers among Matthew’s community would have known that this passage had nothing to do with the murder of innocent children under Herod the Great many generations after Jeremiah issued the prophecy.

There appears to be no historical basis for Herod’s atrocities against the male children in Judea outside Matthew’s Gospel. Had Herod carried out such an action, the entire region would have been aware of it and it would appear in contemporary texts. It doesn’t, not even in Luke’s Gospel. Flavius Josephus, the historian who wrote extensively on Jerusalem and Jewish antiquities doesn’t mention it, though many of Herod’s other atrocities are documented.

Herod’s murder of innocent children appears to have been fabricated to mirror the actions of Pharaoh in the story of Moses in order to draw a contrast between the two redemptive figures. Yeshua Bar Abbas, as he was sometimes known, was heralded as the redeemer who would deliver Jerusalem from Roman occupation, just as Moses was the redeemer who delivered the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. The difference is, Moses succeeded and Yeshua didn’t. In just the first two chapters of his Gospel, Matthew is already highlighting the most problematic aspect of Yeshua being “The Messiah” which is that he did not succeed in rescuing Judea from Roman occupation and reestablishing the monarchy as The Messiah was supposed to do.

The angel’s instructions seem to have a further ironic intent, given that Moses led his people out of Egypt on God’s orders and Joseph is counseled by the angel of the Lord to return to Egypt to hide from Herod. Throughout, Matthew seems to be winking at his readers by detailing Joseph’s lineage from the house of David, only to reveal Joseph wasn’t Yeshua’s actual father; having the family of “The Messiah” flee to Egypt, to escape from an event that didn’t actually happen; and by using an unfulfilled prophecy about the tribe of Ephraim to add weight to the story.

Flavius Josephus provides us with a more contemporary reference to Egypt. In relating several Messianic contenders active in Judea during the time leading up to the sack of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE, Josephus identities one as The Egyptian. This individual is said to have been an itinerant preacher and a miracle worker. The fact that Matthew was most likely written in Egypt may provide evidence that the Jesus of Matthew’s narrative is the individual identified by Josephus as The Egyptian.

At last, Matthew tells us:

“And he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

Matthew 2:23 (RSV)

The reference in the RSV identifies this as another passage from Isaiah, but the passage does not appear to reference Nazareth:

“There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

Isaiah 11:1 (RSV)

Numbers 6:2-21 establishes the concept of a “Nazirite” which is an individual dedicated to performing the work of God. Among the requirements are the following:

“Say to the people of Israel, When either a man or a woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to separate himself to the Lord, he shall separate himself from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar made from wine or strong drink, and shall not drink any juice of grapes or eat grapes, fresh or dried. All the days of his separation he shall eat nothing that is produced by the grapevine, not even the seeds or the skins.”

Numbers 6:2-4 (RSV)

There is a town called Nazareth in Israel, which Wikipedia says is the largest city in Galilee, but Isaiah doesn’t appear to provide a prophecy referencing it. Matthew’s readers most likely would have been aware of this. Another trait of Nazirites is that they never cut their hair throughout their term of service and nowhere in any of the Gospels is Jesus described as such.

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