The Annunciation in Matthew (1)

Part Two

The Annunciation of Jesus’ Birth in Matthew

Matthew famously begins his Gospel with a stylized genealogy.  Placing a genealogy upfront like that bespoke a narrative rooted in the Jewish heritage.  Starting your book off with a genealogy hardly seems to us to be a great attention-grabber, but Matthew’s Gospel certainly didn’t suffer on account of it (by all accounts Matthew was the most popular Gospel in the early Church.)[1]  Certainly, this way of beginning a narrative about a person would have been more eye-catching for a Jewish reader than it is for us today. 

The genealogy is, as everyone knows, stylized.  The selectivity and pointedness of the structure of these verses would have been noticed right away by any Jew, although this would doubtless have been lost among many Gentile readers.  “Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1) immediately connects not only the historical personages of Abraham and David; two of the most illustrious figures in Israel’s history, but it also links Jesus with the covenants that God made with them.  And as the list continues, some of the kings from Judah are named, and then after the Babylonian captivity, we get some of their descendants (from the line of kings), until we arrive at Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph in verse 16.  Then Matthew draws a conclusion based on the shape of the genealogy he has constructed.[2]  

Matthew has written a Gospel for his people, the Jews[3], and would have suited both curious Jews or Christian Jews, although such a remark must be followed up with a recognition of the fact that one of the principal things he is communicating to his people is God’s open hand to the Gentiles.  Matthew “clearly intends the theme of the good news for Gentiles to bracket the whole Gospel.”[4]  That the “fourteen generations” of which the author speaks are somewhat artificially arrived at tells us something about how Matthew is going to use the OT (he quotes a form of the LXX[5]).  Here he uses it to call attention to the Davidic ancestors of Jesus.  The Hebrew name “David” has a numerical value of fourteen. 

Is Matthew being deceptive?  It is certain that Jewish readers of his book would know of the omissions, and they would also be aware of the unconventional inclusion of proselyte women into a genealogy.  They would easily detect Matthew’s stylizations; and there is no doubt that he wanted them to.  Matthew 1:17 is there to confirm those very suspicions.  But it is there too to draw the readers’ attention to the Davidic ancestry of Jesus, and therefore of His claim to the throne.  This is especially brought out in the two episodes recorded on chapter 2:1-12, but also in the angel’s declaration that “He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21); “His people[6]” being a way of speaking which Luke employs three times to refer to Israel (Lk. 1:68, 77; 7:16).  That the David/Jesus link was at the forefront of the author’s mind seems clear also from the lack of any interest in the Maccabean period.[7]   Hence, Jesus’ lineage through Joseph made Him the rightful heir to the covenant promises to David.

The first “fulfillment formula” in this Gospel has to do with the virgin conception:

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” – Matthew 1:22-23.

What Mathew does with this quotation from Isaiah 7:14 is to show first that Isaiah was referring to a virgin birth, but he also employs the birth of Jesus as a literal fulfillment of the prophet.  As we shall see, this is not the only sense of fulfillment that Matthew uses. 

The second chapter opens with the visit of the Magi, “wise men from the East,” who followed a star to Bethlehem, and who somehow knew that the king of the Jews had been born.  Significantly, they also knew that this king was divine, for on no other accounting could their “worship” of Him be explained (Matt. 2:1-2).  The Holy Spirit leaves us with tantalizingly little information about these men, who would have been accompanied by a notable retinue.  In my opinion the sanest understanding of the star is that it was supernatural and probably angelic (cf. Rev. 9:1).  Stars in nature do not move and stand over buildings (Matt. 2:9).  Therefore, it is pointless trying to associate this star with a celestial body.[8] 

One thing is for sure; the arrival of the Magi in Jerusalem caused a big stir.  Enough of a stir that King Herod himself was disturbed by the commotion: so much so that he “gathered all the chief priests and scribes” and had them tell him “where the Christ was to be born.” (Matt. 2:4).  These were the “upper echelon of the priestly order[9],” showing perhaps the perturbation of Herod.  What is interesting about this enquiry is that aside from the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-18, Herod’s question is the first mention of the “Christ” in the Gospel.  But the visitors did not refer to Him as the Christ, only as the king.  Hence, here we have Herod, an Idumean who was learned in Jewish religion, tying together the titles of Christ and king (or at least Matthew does so).  This again shows how alive the expectation of prophetic truth was at this time; and it is even more heightened by the quotation of Micah 5:2 by the religious leaders (Matt. 2:6).  The use of the verse as a proof text is straightforward enough, and it gave the impatient Herod the information he wanted: Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, Judah.[10]   

[1] See e.g., John W. Wenham, Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke.

[2] By saying this I am not claiming that the descendants of Joseph listed here are fictitious; only that Matthew has deliberately omitted certain names while including those of four women. 

[3] Hagner says, “There is…little in the Gospel that is effectively explained as finding its raison d’etre in a supposed gentile readership.” Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1 – 13, Dallas: Word Books, 1993, WBC, lxv.

[4] J. D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered, 341.

[5] “Of the twenty formal quotations peculiar to Mt, seven are Septuagintal. Seven are non-Septuagintal. In six there is a mixture of Septuagintal and non-Septuagintal” – Robert H. Gundry, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1967, 149. 

[6] Recall that this is spoken to Joseph, whom the angel addressed as “son of David” (Matt. 1:20).  In Matthew, all nine occasions the phrase is used (twice in Matt. 20:30-31) the focus is upon Jesus’ lineage.  This is even true of Matthew 1:20 where the angel is speaking to Joseph, since the message is about Jesus.  

[7] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, 85

[8] David Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, NCBC, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982, 83

[9] John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, 112.

[10] As the Magi were “divinely warned” after seeing the child (Matt. 2:12), it may not be a stretch to surmise that they were likewise supernaturally informed about the birth of Christ. 

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