Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.
Book One: The Matthean Infancy Narrative, p. 45-232

(Detailed summary)


The author of the gospel according to Matthew is probably a Pharisee convert who wrote around the years 80 or 85 in Syria. His native language seems to be Greek, but his way of quoting Scripture shows that he knew Hebrew. His work is addressed to a community of Jews and Gentiles and is primarily catechetical, although there are apologetic elements.

The same author composed the infancy narrative and the whole gospel, and the infancy narrative does not seem to have been composed afterwards: it was part of the initial plan. Four units can be discerned: the genealogy, the conception of Jesus, the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt and the return to Nazareth. These four units seek to answer questions about the identity of Jesus: who is he? how is he? where was he born? where did he come from?

In his genealogy of Jesus to demonstrate that he is the son of David and the son of Abraham, Matthew insists on a surprising structure: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen from the exile to Jesus' birth. In this numerical structure of 3 x 14 (where 14 corresponds to the name "David" according to gematria), formed partly by pure coincidence in the genealogy and partly by additions by Matthew himself, the evangelist would have seen the key to God's plan of salvation. To obtain this genealogy, he used two lists, one from the OT and the other from popular Greek Christian circles. In addition, he adds to the genealogy four women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and (Bateba) the wife of Uriah), women whose union with their partner is extraordinary and irregular, a union which, though perceived as scandalous, maintains the blessed lineage of the messiah; Matthew added these women because they foreshadow the role of Mary who will experience a scandalous situation when she becomes pregnant before cohabiting with Joseph.

To compose the main plot of his infancy narrative centered on Joseph, the father of Jesus, and Herod, who has a grudge against the child's life, Matthew uses a tradition composed in Greek by an anonymous author and inspired by the OT narrative of the patriarch Joseph, who was known to have dreams and to know how to interpret them, as well as the legend surrounding the young Moses and his conflicts with Pharaoh; this tradition is punctuated by three revelations to Joseph by an angel in a dream. There is a second tradition that Matthew reuses, that of angelic birth announcement, a tradition that borrows the usual pattern of birth announcements of important figures found in the OT. The evangelist takes up and integrates these two traditions, and adds to it three times quotations from Scripture to show that all this was part of God's plan.

After the genealogy, the account of Jesus' conception continues the explanation of Jesus' identity, this time emphasizing his title of son of God by introducing the citation from Isaiah 7:4 ("the virgin will bear a son and will call his name Emmanuel"), which deals both with the house of David and with God's presence among his people. But at the same time, he intends to explain "how" he is the son of David and the son of God. He is the son of David because of his legal adoption by Joseph who agrees to take the mother and her son into his home. He is the son of God, because his conception is the work of the Holy Spirit.

After the answer to the questions "who is he" and "how is he" of ch. 1, ch. 2 intends to answer the question: where is he from? This chapter 2 consists of two acts. In the first act, the answer is first: he is from Bethlehem. This is what the story of the Magi intends to show. Matthew uses a tradition of the magi that existed before him, inspired by the oracle of Balaam in the book of Numbers, whereby wise men or astrologers would have traveled from the East to Bethlehem to pay homage to the new king who had just been born, following the appearance of a new star, a sign of the birth of an important person; it must be assumed that this star appeared in the constellation of Pisces in the zodiac, associated with the Hebrews. Matthew adds a citation from Micah to confirm that it was in Bethlehem, the city of David, that the messiah was to be born, and a quotation from Samuel to confirm that he was the new shepherd of Israel. But he also adds a citation from Isaiah and Ps 72 to emphasize the fact that he is the son of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed, as illustrated by the magi with all their gifts; Jesus is not only the king of Israel, he is the king of the nations. Matthew's art is to manage to "sew" together this totally independent narrative of the magi with that of Herod, which is the main plot of the infancy narrative.

Where does it come from? Another answer is given in the second act of ch. 2 by the story where Herod tries to kill the child Jesus. The first scene of this second act shows that Jesus is from Egypt, because he had to flee Herod's fury. Matthew reuses here this tradition around Joseph and Herod which was inspired by the rescue of the child Moses from the hands of the wicked Pharaoh. To confirm where Jesus is from, the evangelist adds this citation from Hosea 11:1 ("Out of Egypt I called my Son"). The second scene focuses on the slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, and echoes the slaughter of the Hebrew male children by Pharaoh. But by adding the citation from Jeremiah 31:15 that concludes this scene, Matthew also echoes another tragedy of Israel, the exile, both to Assyria and to Babylon. Thus, Jesus also comes from exile. The third scene presents first the return of the family to the land of Israel, and thus Jesus lived the exodus and the march towards the promised land. Finally, with the family's departure for Galilee, specifically Nazareth, Matthew can explain why Jesus was known as coming from Nazareth.

Book One: The Matthean Infancy Narrative

  1. General Observations on the Matthean Gospel and Infancy Narrative
    1. The Matthean Gospel
    2. The Matthean Infancy Narrative
      1. The Relation of Chs. 1-2 to the Rest of the Gospel
      2. The Internal Organization of Chs. 1-2
  2. The Genealogy of Jesus
    1. Matthew's Purpose in the Genealogy
      1. General Observations
      2. How Matthew Composed the Genealogy
      3. Why Bring on the Ladies?
      4. Fourteen - the Magic Number
      5. Could Matthew Count?
    2. Matthew's Genealogy Compared to Luke's
      1. Who Was Jesus' Grandfather?
      2. The Family Tree of the Son of God
  3. The Composition of the Basis Matthean Narrative in 1:18-2:33
    1. Matthew's Formula Citation of Scripture
      1. Purpose of the Citations
      2. Relation of the Citations to Their Context
      3. Origin of the Formula Citation
    2. The Detection of Pre-Matthean Material
      1. The Method Employed in the Detection
      2. Summary of the Results
  4. The Conception of Jesus
    1. Matthew's Message: the Who and the How - a Christological Revelation
      1. The Quis: Who Jesus Is
      2. The Quomodo or the "How" of Jesus' Identity
    2. The Formula Citation of Isaiah 7:14
      1. The Placing of the Citation
      2. Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles
      3. The Matthean Use of Isaiah 7:14
    3. Matthew's Use of Pre-Matthean Material
      1. The Annunciation of Birth
      2. Begotten of a Virgin through the Holy Spirit
      3. Summary
  5. The Magi Come to Pay Homage to the King of the Jew
    1. Matthew's Message: the Where and the Whence - Reactions to a Christological Revelation
      1. The Place of 2:1-12 in the Plan of Chapter Two
      2. The Relation of the Plan to Matthew's Message
    2. Matthew's Use of Scripture in the Service of His Message
      1. The Formula Citation of Micah 5:1 and II Sam 5:2 in Scene 1
      2. The Implicit Citation of Isa 60:6 and Ps 72:10-11 in Scene 2
    3. The Pre-Matthean Background of the Magi Story
      1. History and Verisimilitude
      2. The Balaam Narrative
    4. The Magi in Subsequent Christian Piety
  6. Herod Unsuccessfully Seeks to Destroy the King of the Jews
    1. Matthew's Message as Enhanced by His Use of Scripture
      1. Chap. Two, Scene 3 (v. 13-15)
      2. Chap. Two, Scene 4 (v. 16-18)
      3. Chap. Two, Scene 5 (v. 19-23)
    2. The Three Formula Citations
      1. The Citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15b
      2. The Citation of Jer 31:15 in Matt 2:18
      3. The Citation of Isa 4:3 and Judg 16:17 in Matt 2:23?
    3. The Pre-Matthean Background of the Herod Story
      1. History and Verisimilitude
      2. The Joseph/Moses Narrative
  7. Epilogue

  1. General Observations on the Matthean Gospel and Infancy Narrative

    1. The Matthean Gospel

      Most biblical scholars maintain that the gospel of Matthew was written in the 80s in Syria by an unknown Greek-speaking Jewish Christian to a community of people of both Jewish and Gentile origin. Matthew's dependence on Mark and Document Q tells us that he was not an eyewitness to Jesus' ministry. Moreover, since he improves on the Greek text of Mark and there is no evidence in his gospel of any translation from a Semitic language, we must conclude that he was a Christian whose native language was Greek. On the other hand, some of his citations from Scripture indicate that he must have known Hebrew. Finally, his deep respect for the details of the Law and the authority of the scribes and Pharisees, while at the same time making the fiercest attacks on them, indicates that he may have been a Pharisee convert himself, and that the following remark may have been autobiographical: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old" (Mt 13:52).

      The determination of a possible date for the gospel is guided by the fact that in the year 70 the temple was destroyed and the Jewish revolt put down, which led to a restructuring of the Jewish community around the Pharisees. And in the year 85, the twelfth of the Eighteen Blessings (Shemoneh Esreh: one of the main prayers recited in the synagogue) was modified to include a curse on the minîm or heretics, which was aimed primarily at those Jews who began to believe in Jesus as the messiah. All this went hand in hand with an exclusion from the synagogues, which cut the umbilical cord of many Jews of Christian origin. All this contributes to the tense and acrimonious relations with the Jewish community, which are reflected in the apologetic atmosphere of the infancy narratives.

      Nevertheless, the catechetical intent is much more important than the apologetic intent in the infancy narratives. For Matthew seeks to instruct and exhort the Christians in his community, which was composed of people of both Jewish and Gentile origin. Although he emphasizes that Jesus' mission was only to the Jews (Mt 10:5-6; 15:24), his gospel ends with the sending of the disciples to the whole world (Mt 28:18). This reflects a situation where the community, initially composed of Christians of Jewish origin, has seen Gentiles join it to the point of perhaps being in the majority. In such a context, Matthew wants to show that the gospel has as much meaning for the Gentiles as for the Jews. Thus we are led to locate this community in Syria, where there was a large community of Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles, not far from Palestine, with a significant synagogue presence, and where it was possible to find a converted scribe who could write in Greek while knowing Hebrew. The most important city in this region was Antioch, where Peter seems to have stayed for some time (Gal 2:11), which would explain the important role he plays in the gospel, as well as the similarities with the Didache, and the fact that Ignatius of Antioch knows this gospel.

      One of the features of Matthew's gospel is that it is very well organized and has grouped into thematic units elements that are scattered in the other gospels, making it a suitable tool for catechetical formation. Thus, biblical scholars divide chs. 3 to 25 into five books, based on five major speeches of Jesus which all end with an indication that he has finished speaking (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). These five speeches would constitute a form of Pentateuch, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount with its beatitudes would be the equivalent of the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses at Sinai. This structure provides the background for his infancy narrative, which is divided into five episodes.

    2. The Matthean Infancy Narrative

      1. The Relation of Chs. 1-2 to the Rest of the Gospel

        The infancy narrative is so different from the rest of the gospel that the question arises: did Matthew write his gospel beginning with v. 1 of ch. 1, or did he begin as Mark did with the ministry of Jesus, and afterwards add the infancy narrative?

        In style and ideas, the infancy narratives and the rest of the gospel are so similar that the same author composed it all. But beyond style and ideas, we are confronted with two worlds: the rest of the gospel completely ignores what was learned in the infancy narratives, so that if chs. 1 and 2 did not exist and the gospel began with 3:1, we would never have the impression that chapters were missing.

        That said, it is possible that these two worlds are simply a reflection of the unique origin of the infancy narrative material, rather than that of the gospel composition process. Moreover, chs. 1 and 2 are somehow connected to the next section (3:1-4:16) with a geographically centered plot: Bethlehem (2:1), Nazareth (2:23), Capernaum (4:13) which is the center of Jesus' ministry. In this case, the real beginning of the section on Jesus' ministry would be 4:17 with: "Then Jesus began to preach". And the citation formulas (five in chs. 1 and 2) would continue with two more in 3:3 and 4:14-16, and on the Christological aspect, the statements of Jesus son of David and son of Abraham (chs. 1 and 2) would continue with Jesus son of God (3:17). Finally, the analogy with Moses as a child in chs. 1 and 2 would continue in 3:1-4:6 with Moses as a young man. All these arguments are interesting without being decisive, but they are sufficient to affirm that the composition of the infancy narratives was part of the initial plan in the composition of the gospels.

      2. The Internal Organization of Chs. 1-2

        The discernment of a structure in these two chapters depends on a decision about what constitutes the main emphasis and whether there are various sources which Matthew would have sought to unify. Here are the data to be considered.

        1. The genealogy of 1:1-17 constitutes a unity of its own, where the beginning and the end respond to each other to present Jesus in connection with David and Abraham.

        2. The genealogy is linked to the conception of Jesus that follows (1:18-25), for this new section continues the motives of the genealogy by explaining "how" this genesis or origin of Jesus took place, in particular the Davidic descent of Jesus through his adoption by Joseph

        3. Section 1:18-25 is also related to what follows (ch. 2). For there we find the same approach of quoting Old Testament prophets to show that their prophecies are fulfilled through the Jesus event, just like those angelic apparitions that give instructions that Joseph fulfills to the letter.

        4. Nevertheless, there is a separation between ch. 1 and 2. For 2:1 gives the impression of a new narrative that begins, and this narrative does not presuppose anything of ch. 1. These chapters appear as parallel narratives, one ending with the child who is called "Jesus," the other with the child who is called "Nazarene.

        5. If we consider ch. 2 as a unit, however, we must recognize the existence of two overlapping wefts. The first storyline (vv. 1-2, 9-11) is that of the wise men guided by a star to Bethlehem and the birthplace of Jesus. The second storyline (vv. 3-8) is that of Herod directing the magi to Bethlehem and asking to inquire about him. This storyline will be further developed in vv. 13-23 and will constitute a story in itself.

        6. A geographical motif runs through ch. 2: first Bethlehem, then the flight to Egypt and the return journey to Nazareth. Each place is introduced by a similar grammatical style ("Then, when (or after)..., behold") and becomes the subject of a scriptural citation.

        None of the proposed structures is able to fully account for all these data. Here are the two most popular ones.

        Introduction:1: 1-17The genealogy
        Scene 1:1: 18-25(Isa 7: 14)First dream of Joseh
        Scene 2:2: 1-12(Mic 5: 1)Herod, magi, Bethlehem
        Scene 3:2: 13-15(Hos 11: 1)Second dram of Joseph
        Scene 4:2: 16-18(Jer 31: 15)Herod, children, Bethlehem
        Scene 5:2: 19-23(Isa 4: 3?)Third dream of Joseph

        This structure accounts for (a), (c), and (e), but takes little account of (b), (d) and (f). It revolves around references to Scripture, but it is doubtful that Matthew has built his gospel around Scripture citations that are in fact scattered throughout. But this structure has the advantage of emphasizing the Christological significance of the events narrated.

        A second proposed structure is even more popular and presupposes the division into two parts according to the chapters, each with a subdivision.

        ch. 1:1: 1-17:Genealogy
        1: 18-25:The conception of Jesus
        ch. 2:2: 1-12:The coming of the magi to Bethlehem
        2: 13-23:Flight of the family to Egypt and return to Nazareth

        The first chapter would answer the question "who": Jesus is the son of David, the son of Abraham and the savior of his people. The second chapter would answer the question "from where", a chapter focused on places (Bethlehem, Egypt, Ramah) offering a geographical/theological itinerary. This structure accounts for (b), (d), and (f), but less so for (a), (c), and (e).

        Each proposed structure has its advantages and disadvantages. The difficulty probably arises from the fact that Matthew has incorporated into his narrative raw material that he found around him: A list of patriarchs and kings, a messianic family tree, a messianic birth announcement built on the model of the OT birth annunciations, a birth narrative involving Jesus and Joseph picking up on the model of the patriarch Joseph and the legends surrounding the birth of Moses, a story of the magi and their star picking up on the story of the magus Balaam coming from the east and seeing Jacob's star rise. To all of this Matthew would have added carefully chosen citations from Scripture. The complexity of chs. 1 and 2 comes from the fact that all this raw material probably had its own structure, which we were able to detect through points (a) to (f) earlier, and which Matthew has only partially succeeded in masking.

        This being said, we can propose a structure based on an expansion of the second proposed structure: to the questions "who" and "from where", we add the questions: "how" and "where":

        1:1-17: The "who" question of Jesus' identity as son of David and son of Abraham is illustrated by his ancestors, both Jews and Gentiles, reflecting the Matthean community. The presence of the women anticipates the role of Mary and the Holy Spirit.

        1:18-25: the "how" question about the identity of Jesus: he is the son of David, not by physical conception, but by Joseph's acceptance, of Davidic lineage, of what was conceived by the Holy Spirit.

        2, 1-12: the question "where" about the birth of Jesus: he was born in Bethlehem, underlining his identity as son of David. The event of the Magi, the Gentiles, begins to explain "how" he is the son of Abraham.

        2:13-23: the question "whence" of Jesus' destiny: the answer is introduced by the hostile reaction of Herod and the authorities. Jesus is called to providentially relive the experience of Moses in Egypt and of Israel in its exodus. He must leave Bethlehem, the land of the Jews, for Galilee, the land of the Gentiles, and it will be as Jesus the Nazarene that he will undertake his ministry.

  2. The Genealogy of Jesus

    Translation Mt 1, 1-17
    * In italics, the five female characters

    1The birth record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham;
    2Abraham was the father of Isaac;
     Isaac was the father of Jacob;
     Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers;
    3Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah; by Tamar;
     Perez was the father of Hezron;
     Hezron was the father of Aram;
    4Aram was the father of Amminadab;
     Amminadab was the father of Nahshon;
     Nahshon was the father of Salmon;
    5Salmon was the father of Boaz, by Rahab;
     Boaz was the father of Obed, by Ruth;
     Obed was the father of Jesse;
    6Jesse was the father of David the King.
     David was the father of Solomon by Uriah's wife;
    7Solomon was the father of Rehoboam;
     Rehoboam was the father of Abijah;
     Abijah was the father of Asaph;
    8Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat;
     Jehoshaphat was the father of Joram;
     Joram the father of Uzziah;
    9Uzziah was the father of Jotham;
     Jotham was the father of Ahaz;
     Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah;
    10Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh;
     Manasseh was the father of Amos;
     Amos was the father of Josiah;
    11Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
     at the time of the Babylonian Exile.
    12After the Babylonian Exile,
     Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel;
     Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel;
    13Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud;
     Abiud was the father of Eliakim;
     Eliakim the father of Azor;
    14Azor was the father of Zadok;
     Zadok was the father of Achim;
     Achim was the father of Eliud;
    15Eliud was the father of Eleazar;
     Eleazar was the father of Matthan;
     Matthan the father of Jacob;
    16Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary;
     of her was begotten Jesus; called the Christ.

    17 Thus the total generation from Abraham to David were fourteen generations; and from David to the Babylonian Exile fourteen more generations; and finally from the Babylonian Exile to the Christ fourteen more generations.


    v. 1

    • "birth record" (Biblos geneseōs). Literally: "Book of the genesis". For the word geneseōs, we could translate: genealogy, but the same word genesis appears in v. 18 where it is translated: birth, and so to translate v. 1 and 18 differently would destroy the relationship Matthew intended to introduce. For the word biblos, usually translated as: book, we have preferred: record. It is quite fanciful to think that we would have here a formula of introduction to the whole gospel seen as "the book of the origins of Jesus Christ". Rather, we have here an introductory formula to a genealogy similar to what we have in Gen 5:1: sēper tôlĕdōt (LXX: biblos geneseōs, act of descent).

    • "of Jesus." Some biblical scholars make the mistake of seeing the name Jesus as a subject genitive, i.e., the book of genesis (new creation) brought by Jesus. Jesus is rather the object of the genealogy.

    • "Christ". The name "Christ" appears five times in the infancy narrative, but it cannot be translated the same way each time. While it is legitimate to translate Christos in 2:4 as "messiah" (from Aramaic mešîḥā'), the anointed one, i.e., the anointed king of the house of David, just as in 1:16-17, on the other hand, here and in 1:18 it must be translated as Christ, for this name has become the proper name of Jesus, as has the compound name: Jesus Christ.

    • "son of David, son of Abraham". Why put David before Abraham? It is a logical order, because in v. 1 we have the ascending order in time: Jesus / David / Abraham, and this allows us to follow up with what follows, which begins with Abraham and goes down in time. Moreover, this allows Matthew to have an inclusion with v. 17 which has the descending order: Abraham / David / Jesus.

    v. 2

    • "was the father of" (engennēsen). The Greek verb literally means: to beget. This is the classic expression for genealogies in the OT (see Ruth 4:18-22 and 1 Ch 2:10-15) before the Davidic period, whereas 1 Ch 3:10ff uses the expression "sons of (i.e. descendants of) Solomon: Rehoboam, Abijah his son, Asa his son" after the Davidic period. Matthew keeps the same formula everywhere: "A begot B" or "A was the father of B".

    v. 3

    • "Perez was the father of Hezron". While the OT contains accounts of the first four names (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah), it offers nothing about the names that follow until Boaz, except for their mention in genealogical lists such as those in Ruth 4:18-22 and 1 Ch 2:5.

    • "Aram". While up to now the names of the genealogy have not been translated literally from the Greek text of Matthew, but from the Hebrew text of the Massoret, here, however, rather than the name "Ram" of the Hebrew text, we have opted for the Greek version of Matthew (Aram), the same name which is also in the Septuagint of Ruth 4:19 in the form "Arram". As we shall see, the ancestor of Matthew's list is Greek rather than Hebrew.

      Hezron, the father of Aram, is linked to the patriarch Joseph and his stay in Egypt, while Aram's son, Amminadab, is linked to Moses and the stay in the desert after the Exodus. Matthew thus presents us with two characters to cover a period that traditionally would have lasted 400 years. The genealogy that Matthew inherits was probably influenced by a different tradition about the Hebrews' stay in Egypt than the one we have.

    v. 4

    • "Amminadab was the father of Nahshon". The book of Numbers (2:3 and 7:12) speaks of Nahshon and Ex 6:23 tells us that his sister, Elisheba or Elizabeth married Aaron, the Levitical high priest. In Luke and Matthew we find a mixture of Judah and Levi in the presumed ancestors of Jesus.

    v. 5

    • "Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab". Apart from appearing in the list of Ruth (4:21) and 1 Chronicles (2:11), he does not appear anywhere else. That Boaz is the child of Rahab is nowhere confirmed and is problematic: for the famous Rahab of the OT belongs to the period of the conquest, almost two centuries before the period of Boaz. Yet it is almost certain that this is the famous Rahab that Matthew has in mind. According to rabbinic tradition, she married Joshua.

    v. 7

    • "Asaph". This is the reading that should be preferred to "Asa". It is the copyists who confused "Asaph" (see the beginning of Psalms 50 and 73-83 and Ch 15:5-27; 2 Chr 29:30) with King Asa of Judah (1 Kgs 15:9) and changed the original text to "Asa", a recension retained by the Byzantine, Latin and Syriac tradition.

    v. 8

    • "Joram was the father of Uzziah". This note reflects a first omission in the list of Davidic kings, specifically three kings, three generations and 60 years separate the kings Joram and Uzziah. If the list were complete, we would have: Joram, Ahaziah, Jehoash, Amaziah, and Uzziah. This point will be discussed in the commentary. Note that it happens that we know both the birth name and the royal name of the kings of Judah, which is the case for Azariah whose birth name was Azariah but whose royal name was Uzziah.

    v. 10

    • "Amos". This is the same problem as with Asaph / Asa underlined in verse 7: copyists have observed that Matthew has confused the prophet Amos with king Amon of Judah (2 Kings 21:19), and so have replaced Amos with Amon. Some biblical scholars, in an effort to spare Matthew from making a mistake, have instead blamed the copyists for confusing Amos with Amon. These biblical scholars overestimate Matthew's knowledge of Scripture: yet in 27:9 Matthew attributes a citation from Zechariah to Jeremiah, and in 23:35 he confuses the prophet Zechariah, son of Berechiah, with another Zechariah who was murdered in the temple three centuries earlier (2 Ch 24:20-22).

    v. 11

    • "Josiah was the father of Jechonias and his brothers". Here Matthew has preferred Jechoniah, the name at birth, to Jehoiachin, the royal name, the opposite of what he does in v. 8. Moreover, this note contains a second omission in the list of Davidic kings: Josiah was the grandfather of Jechoniah, and the latter had only one brother. The correct list is: Josiah was the father of Jehoiachin and his brothers (he had two brothers) at the time of the Babylonian exile. Thus, Matthew has confused Jechoniah (Jechoniah), the grandson of Josiah, with Jehoiakim, his son.

    v. 12

    • "Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel". That Zerubbabel was the son of Shealtiel is confirmed by Ezra 3:2,8; 5:2; Neh 12:1; Hag 1:1,12,14; 2:2,23 and the Septuagint of 1 Ch 3:19). On the other hand, the Hebrew text of 1 Chr 3:19 gives us Zerubbabel son of Pediah, who was the brother of Shealtiel and the third son of king Jechoniah. Zerubbabel, active in the period 520-515 BC in the rebuilding of the temple after the exile, would have been appointed peṣah or governor of Judea by the Persian king. This Zerubbabel became the focus of Davidic Messiahship after the exile, hence his presence in Matthew and Luke. He is the last figure about whom we have information in the OT.

    v. 13

    • "Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud". Abiud is not listed among the eight children of Zerubbabel in 1 Chr 3:19-20.

    v. 16

    • "Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary; of her was begotten (egennēthē) Jesus, called the Christ." The verb gennan is ambiguous when applied to a pregnant woman: it can refer to conception (begetting), or birth, both steps in the generative process. In 1:20 the verb refers to conception in the womb, but in 2:1 it refers to the child already born. Here, since it is situated in the middle of a genealogical list where A begat B, the verb can be translated as "was begotten" provided it is not understood as a natural begetting by Joseph; for Matthew does not write "Joseph begat Jesus", the begetting being linked to Mary, which he takes the trouble to clarify in 1:18-25. Thus, Matthew does not affirm that Joseph is the biological father of Jesus.

      1. The reading of v. 16 proposed here, let us call it (a), is supported by the best manuscripts such as the codex Vaticanus and the Sinaiticus. But there are two other readings, let us call them (b) and (c), supported by a minor textual tradition. These other readings would have gone unnoticed had it not been for biblical scholars who saw in them evidence for a natural conception of Jesus with Joseph as his biological father. In addressing these two variants, we must separate these two questions: 1) Is it likely that these variants are preferable to our reading (a)? 2) Do these variants imply that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus?

      2. One of the variants comes from Greek (Koridethi codex and the Ferrar family manuscripts) and Latin (Old Latin) manuscripts and could be translated as follows:
        Jacob was the father of Joseph, to whom the bethrothed
        virgin Mary bore [gave birth to] Jesus, called the Christ.

        Note that Joseph is not called Mary's "husband" and Mary is explicitly referred to as a virgin. This clue and the fact that the typical formula of genealogy (A begat B) is no longer used offer even less support to the idea of a biological father.

      3. The other variant, supported by even fewer manuscripts (the clearest is the ancient Syriac Sinaiticus), gives us this:
        Jacob was the father of Joseph; and Joseph, to whom
        the virgin Mary was betrothed, was the father of Jesus,
        called the Christ

        Here we find the typical formula (underscore) of the genealogy.

      How to explain the existence of three readings of the same text?

      1. A first hypothesis is to imagine that there would have been an original text (which would have been lost) which would have kept the genealogical style: "Jacob was the father of Joseph; and Joseph was the father of Jesus". And our three readings (a), (b), (c) would then be an attempt by scribes to modify the impact of the statement that Joseph would be the father of Jesus, and thus deny the virginal conception. But can we really believe that Matthew would have written that Joseph fathered Jesus when he devotes section 1:18-25 to demonstrating the opposite? Even if he did write it, one could only understand such a statement in a non-biological sense.

      2. Another more satisfactory hypothesis is to consider one of the three variants as original (Matthew's hand), and the other two as modifications by a copyist to clarify matters. Some biblical scholars consider variant (c) to be original, i.e. Matthew claims that Joseph is the biological father of Jesus, and copyists, scandalized by this claim, would have created variants (a) and (b). But this argument is not very convincing. First of all, if the author of (c) intended to affirm that Joseph is the biological father of Jesus, why does he insist that Mary is a virgin and does not designate Joseph as her husband, and why does he not use the typical formula: Joseph was the father of Jesus by Mary? Second, if, for example, the author of variant (a) intended to correct the statement in (c) to protect the virginal conception, why would he delete the statement that Mary was a virgin, which would have been an argument in his favor?

      3. A much more satisfactory solution is to assume that the reading (a) is the original text of Matthew and that the variants (b) and (c) are the work of copyists uncomfortable with (a). What could be the source of their discomfort if (a) does affirm the virginal conception? The problem might have been the mention of Joseph as "Mary's husband" which was considered an indelicacy in light of the growing tradition of Mary's perpetual virginity (i.e., she remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus) which was the subject of intense theological debate between the second and fourth centuries.


    The study of OT genealogies has taught us that a genealogical list can serve different functions, and it is normal for an individual to have more than one genealogy depending on the role one wants it to play. It is rare that one is simply faced with a simple list of biological ancestors.

    The interest in ancestry in Israel reflects its tribal origins where the identity of a tribal member is his or her passport to survival: a tribe takes care of its members. But in addition to establishing an individual's identity, biblical genealogies are used to validate occupancy of the positions of king and priest where lineage is important (see Ezra 2:62-63; Neh 7:64-65). Finally, another function of genealogy is related to the notion of collective personality where certain traits of the ancestors are reflected in the descendants, so that history becomes an expansion of genealogy (i.e., the past continues into the present).

    Given this context, we would be surprised if the NT did not give us a genealogy to reflect the importance of Jesus. Matthew and Luke will do that. But they do it in different places. Matthew places his genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, while Luke places it after Jesus' baptism, as he begins his ministry. We have similar situations in the OT: in Gen 5-9 the genealogy precedes the story of Noah, and in Gen 11:10-32 the genealogy precedes the story of Abraham; on the other hand, in Ex 6:14-25 the genealogy of the tribes and of Moses is placed after Moses' call, just before he begins his mission to bring his brothers out of Egypt.

    1. Matthew's Purpose in the Genealogy

      1. General Observations

        Matthew begins his gospel as follows: "The birth record of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham". One of the best parallels is found in 5:1: "The record of the genesis (Greek: biblos geneseōs, Heb. sēper tôlĕdōt) of Adam." This genealogy introduces the story of Noah. The greatest difference between the two genealogies is that Adam's is about the descendants up to Noah, while Jesus' is about the ancestors, since in Jesus the story has reached its end.

        "Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham". In one sentence Matthew introduces the major themes of his infancy narrative. The name "Christ" links Jesus to the title "Messiah", and thus prepares us for the genealogy that follows and the Messiahship hope that Jesus will fulfill. This Davidic filiation will be the theme of the first chapter, present in the genealogy and in the account of the angel's message. The theme of Abraham is also present, but in a more subtle way. By being the son of Abraham, Jesus fulfills Yahweh's promise to Abraham: "Through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed" (Gen 22:18). This is the meaning of chapter 2 with the arrival of the Magi, prototypes of the Gentiles, who have come to pay homage to the king of the Jews. For Matthew, the fact that Jesus is the son of David and the son of Abraham is important, because it allows him to justify the presence in his community of both Jews and Gentiles.

        This emphasis on Jesus' relationship to David and Abraham is not a creation of Matthew's, but comes from an ancient tradition, as evidenced by those Pauline epistles (Rom 1:3; Gal 3:16) written in the mid-50s. Matthew's originality lies in weaving these two themes together throughout his infancy narrative. For the evangelist, such a connection to David and Abraham is not a matter of human chance; rather, he sees it as God's plan in salvation history.

        This providential plan is expressed in the division of the genealogy into three sections of 14 generations, as each section corresponds to a major portion of salvation history. In the first section, the divine selection appears in the fact that Jesus is the son of Abraham, not through Ishmael, the firstborn son, but through Isaac; he is the son of Isaac not through the firstborn Esau, but through Jacob; he is the son of Jacob through his fourth son, Judah, to whom was promised an eternal scepter (Gen 49:10). At the same time, by mentioning "Judah and his brethren" Matthew intends to include the twelve tribes of Israel, justifying Jesus' choice of his twelve disciples. This section ends triumphantly with the mention of "David the king" who, by God's grace, has supplanted Saul. The second section lists the kings of the Davidic line who ruled in Jerusalem until Jechoniah who, despite the Babylonian exile, managed to give an heir, allowing the Davidic line to survive. The last section links the end of the monarchy and the arrival of Jesus, the final anointed one of David, the messiah. This is how Matthew inserts Jesus into history and into a people.

      2. How Matthew Composed the Genealogy

        Matthew probably made use of two genealogical lists written in Greek which existed in his time and were partly dependent on the Septuagint. The first covered the pre-monarchic period and was similar to that found in Ruth 4:18-22 and 1 Ch 2:5ff. He added to it the names of women, despite their unconventional history and irregular marital status, seeing in them the hand of God in carrying out his plan. Moreover, he noticed that this list from Abraham to David contained 14 names, thus 14 generations. The other list, covering the monarchical and early post-monarchical period, was a popular list of the royal house of David, containing the names of the kings who ruled in Judea and some descendants of Zerubbabel who were considered descendants of David. This list is dependent on the OT, but circulated in popular circles and not in official records, as some of its errors and the confusion of some royal names suggest.

        Matthew would have noted that in the (accidentally abbreviated) monarchical section of the popular list, there were also 14 generations. Even more, in the alleged list of Zerubbabel's descendants, one could spot a sequence of fourteen generations if one added Joseph and Jesus. In this numerical structure of 3 x 14, formed partly by pure coincidence in the genealogy and partly by additions by Matthew himself, the evangelist would have seen the key to God's plan of salvation. But the final product (1:1-17) is thoroughly Matthean in its theology and emphasis.

      3. Why Bring on the Ladies?

        In addition to Mary, there are four women in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and (Bathsheba) the wife of Uriah. The mention of these women breaks the rhythm of the expression "A was the father of B" in the genealogy, and it is Matthew's way of drawing attention to the divine selection, the work of his providence, as we see when the rhythm is broken by the mention of men ("Judah and his brothers"; "Perez and Zerah"; "Jechoniah and his brothers"). The question then arises: what do the four women have in common that Matthew chooses them? Is there a connection between these women and Mary who is named at the end of the genealogy? Three answers have been proposed.

        1. St. Jerome (On Matthew 9) had already suggested that these four women were sinners, and their presence anticipated Jesus' role as savior of sinners. But when we look more closely, it is not clear that the Bible makes all these women sinners. For example, it is not clear that Ruth sinned with Boaz. Moreover, in Jewish piety, despite the fact that Tamar was a seductress and so-called prostitute, that Rahab was a prostitute, that the wife of Uriah committed adultery, they were nevertheless esteemed, Tamar as a holy Jewish proselyte (a Canaanite convert) who continued the family line of her deceased husband Judah's son, Rahab as a heroine for having contributed to Israel's victory at Jericho, and even as a model of faith in Christian circles (Heb 11:31; 1 Clement 12:1), and Uriah's wife as the mother of King Solomon. It is unlikely that Matthew's audience perceived these women as sinners.

        2. A second answer has been proposed by Luther: these four women were foreigners and Matthew would have included them to show that Jesus, the Jewish messiah, was related by his ancestry to Gentiles. In fact, Rahab and Tamar were Canaanite women, Ruth was a Moabite, and if Bathsheba was Jewish, she had married Uriah, a Hittite, which would explain why Matthew names her only by her husband's name. But there are two objections to this answer for it to be the only or most important explanation for the presence of these women. The first is that this explanation fails to show the connection with the fifth woman, Mary, who was not a stranger. Second, it is not at all clear that the Jewish milieu of the first century regarded these women as strangers: the emphasis was rather on their status as proselytes or converts to Judaism. It is therefore difficult to understand how the gentiles in the Matthean community could have identified themselves as converts to Judaism, when it was Jesus they welcomed into their lives, not Judaism.

        3. The third answer, widely accepted today, identifies two elements common to the four women that they share with Mary.

          1. The union with their partner is extraordinary and irregular, a union that, although perceived as scandalous, maintains the blessed lineage of the messiah
          2. These women have taken initiatives or played an important role in God's plan, to the point of being considered as instruments of Providence or of the Holy Spirit.

          It is this combination of a scandalous and irregular union and divine intervention through these women that explains their choice of Matthew in his genealogy. For these women foreshadowed the role of Mary, Joseph's wife. In the eyes of men, Mary's situation, pregnant before she cohabited with Joseph, was scandalous; yet this child had been begotten of the Holy Spirit, a work of God fulfilling the promise of the Messiahship.

        This third response fits best with the overall view of the infancy narrative. But the second answer, which focuses on the foreign status of these women, may be part of a secondary theme in Matthew; it may not anticipate Mary's role, but the arrival of Gentiles in God's plan. In any case, the presence of these women in the genealogy is part of Matthew's theology and can only come from his pen, not from an earlier tradition.

      4. Fourteen - the Magic Number

        Matthew's genealogy is "artificial" rather than strictly "historical" because even God could not arrange things so that exactly 14 generations separate the great moments of salvation history such as the call of Abraham, the accession of David to the royal throne, the Babylonian exile and the arrival of the messiah. Moreover, the period covered by these sections is too large to have only 14 generations per section, since 750 years separate Abraham from David, 400 years separate David from the Babylonian exile, 600 years separate the Babylonian exile from the birth of Jesus. This is why we find many more generations in Luke. Moreover, when we examine the OT genealogies, we notice that Matthew has omitted generations.

        How then can we interpret the insistence in Matthew (1:17) on the motif 3 x 14? First of all, it does not seem that Matthew is aware of his omissions, otherwise it would be difficult to understand why he would want to share his wonder at a motif which he considers providential if it were the result of his own manipulations. Is it not possible that he discovered this pattern in whole or in part in the material he found? This is quite plausible if we consider the lists of 1 Chr 1 - 2 which present exactly 14 names from Abraham to David exclusively. As for the second section, Matthew was able to get his hands on a list of kings which accidentally included omissions and which, if interrupted at the exile and counted the last kings as one ("Jechoniah and his brothers"), gave 14 generations. A catalyst for this approach is gematria (assigning a numerical value to each name based on the order of its consonants) practiced in the Jewish world: thus the name David is written: dwd, so 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. Such an approach suited Matthew to show that Jesus is the son of David. So it may be that he decided to apply this pattern to the post-monarchic section as well, adding Joseph and Jesus to a traditional genealogical list of people who claimed to be of the Davidic line from the descendants of Zerubbabel.

        That Matthew saw a plan of God in this pattern is consistent with his view in the infancy narrative when he quotes scripture five times and introduces it four times with the formula: it happened in order to fulfill the Scripture. God planned the origins of the messiah from the beginning with precision.

        This idea of a list of ancestors of a famous man, beginning with Abraham, which is divided into numerical sequences of equal length, is not foreign to the Jewish spirit. Consider the list of priests from Aaron to the exile (1 Chr 5:27-41), the Midrash Rabbah XV 26 on Ex 12:2 (15 generations from Abraham to Solomon and 15 generations from Solomon to Zedekiah), Enoch 93:1-10 and 91:12-17 where history is divided into ten weeks of years (10 x 7 = 70 years), the first three being pre-Israelite, and the other seven covering the period from Jacob to the end, to Pirke Aboth 5:2-3 where there are 10 generations from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham, to II Baruch 53-74 where world history from Adam to the Messiah is divided into 12 periods, the Messianic period being the last. All these lists share with Matthew an eschatological perspective, so that the arrival of the Messiah marks the end of a plan meticulously laid out by God.

      5. Could Matthew Count?

        Although Matthew insists on the pattern of three sections of fourteen generations (3 x 14), a close analysis of this genealogy shows that its arithmetic capabilities leave something to be desired. For example, the first section from Abraham to David includes 14 names, but only 13 generations, unless one implicitly adds that Abraham was the son of a father to constitute the first generation. Only in the second section is it possible to calculate 14 generations (but at the cost of omitting four historical generations and six kings who reigned). In the third section, only 13 generations are counted.

        In this analysis, let's start with the omissions from the second list. In v. 8, Matthew writes: "Joram was the father of Uzziah". We have already pointed out that between Joram and Uzziah there were Ahaziah, Jehoash and Amaziah who were omitted. If they were omitted, it was not because they would have been evil kings or murdered or cursed. The simplest solution would be that the copyist confused the Greek form of the names Uzziah (Azariah) and Ahaziah, so that Joram, instead of being the father of Ahaziah, became the father Uzziah (Azariah). This would confirm the fact that the list received by Matthew was already in Greek and already contained the error.

        Another error in the second section concerns the following sequence: Josiah was the father of Jehoiakim who was the father of Jechoniah. Matthew's list omits Jehoiakim when it says, "Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers. This omission probably stems from confusion between Jehoiakim and the Greek version of the name Jechoniah (Jehoiachin), a confusion fostered by the fact that both figures had a brother named Zedekiah and that in Greek their names are sometimes spelled the same way: Iōakim.

        In the third section, from the Babylonian exile to Jesus, there are only thirteen generations. Many more ingenious solutions have been proposed: to create a new generation with the Messiah in addition to that of Jesus, or to consider Mary as a generation on her own, or to move "Jechoniah and his brothers" from the second section to the third section, for it was actually from Jehoiakim that Josiah was the father. But was Matthew aware of this last omission in the first place and could he have had these sophisticated reasonings made? With ingenuity one can rescue Matthew's arithmetic, but it would have been better if the evangelist had been clearer.

    2. Matthew's Genealogy Compared to Luke's

      Here is the genealogy of Jesus in Luke, which begins with the father of Jesus and goes all the way to God, since just before that there was that voice from heaven which said: "You are my son" (Lk 3:22).

      Table 1 (Lk 3: 23-38)

      Now, as Jesus began his minisry, he was about thirty years of age,

      1the supposed son of Joseph43the son of Jesse
      2the son of Eli (Heli)44the son of Obed
      3the son of Matthat45the son of Boaz
      4the son of Levi46the son of Sala (Salmon)
      5the son of Melchi47the son of Nahshon
      6the son of Jannai48the son of Amminadab (Amminadam)
      7the son of Joseph49the son of Admin
      8the son of Mattathias50the son of Arni
      9the son of Amos51the son of Ezrom
      10the son of Nahum52the son of Perez
      11the son of Hesli53the son of Judah
      12the son of Naggai54the son of Jacob
      13the son of Maath55the son of Isaac
      14the son of Mattathias56the son of Abraham
      15the son of Semein  
      16the son of JosechPre-Abrahamic
      17the son of Joda57the son of Terah
      18the son of Joanan58the son of Nahor
      19the son of Rhesa59the son of Serug
      20the son of Zerubbabel60the son of Reu
      21the son of Shealtiel61the son of Peleg
        62the son of Eber
      Monarchical63the son of Shelah
      22the son of Neri  
      23the son of Melchi64the son of Cainan
      24the son of Addi65the son of Arphaxad
      25the son of Cosam66the son of Shem
      26the son of Elmadam (Elmodam)67the son of Noah
      27the son of Er68the son of Lamech
      28the son of Jesus (Joshua)69the son of Methuselah
        70the son of Enoch
      29the son of Eliezer  
      30the son of Jorim71the son of Jared
      31the son of Maththat (Matthat)72the son of Mahalaleel
      32the son of Levi73the son of Cainam
      33the son of Simeon74the son of Enos
      34the son of Judah75the son of Seth
      35the son of Joseph76the son of Adam
        77the son of God.
      36the son of Jonam  
      37the son of Eliakim  
      38the son of Melea  
      39the son of Menna  
      40the son of Mattatha  
      41the son of Nathan  
      42the son of David  

      Let us now compare the genealogies of Matthew and Luke with those provided by the OT.

      Table 2: The Pre-Monarchical Period
      * The names have been standardized on the Hebrew; in Luke each seventh name is in bold type

       Matthew: Generations from Abraham to DavidGenealogy according to 1 Chr 1 28.34; 2, 1-15 Ruth 4: 18-22 The Genealogy in Luke
      1Abraham was the father of IsaacAbraham; Isaac56Abraham
      2Isaac " " JacobIsrael54Jacob
      3Jacob " " Judah and his brothersJuda53Juda
      4Juda " " Perez and Zerah by TamarPerez52Perez
      5Perez " " HezronHezron51 Hezron
      6Ezrom " " AramRam (Aram, LXX: Arran)50Arni
      7Aram " " d'AmminadabAmminadab48Amminadab
      8Amminadab " " NahshonNahshon47Nahshon
      9Nahshon " " SalmonSalma (LXX: Salmon)46Sala
      10Salmon " " Boaz by RahabBoaz45Boaz
      11Boaz " " Obed by RuthObed44Obed
      12Obed " " JesseJesse43Jesse
      13Jesse " " David the kingDavid42David

      Table 3: The Monarchical Period

       Matthew: Generations from David to the ExileGenealogy of the Kings of Judas according to 1 et 2 Kings Genealogy in Luke
      1David was the father of Solomon by Uriah's wifeSolomon (961-922 BC)42(David)
      2Solomon " " RehoboamRehoboam (922-915)41Natham
      3Rehoboam " " AbijahAbijah or Abijam (915-913)40Mattatha(n)
      4Abijah " " AsaphAsa (913-873)39Menna
      5Asaph " " JehoshaphatJehoshaphat (873-849)38Melea
      6Jehoshaphat " " JoramJehoram or Joram (849-842)37Eliakim
        Ahaziah (842)36Jonam
        Queen Athaliah (842-837)35Joseph
        Jehoash or Joash (837-800)34Judah
        Amaziah (800-783)33Simeon
      7Joram " " UzziahUzziah or Azariah (783-742)32Levi
      8Uzziah " " JothamJotham (742-735)31Maththat
      9Jotham " " AhazAhaz or Jehoahaz I (735-715)30Jorim
      10Ahaz " " HezekiahHezekiah (715-687)29Eliezer
      11Hezekiah " " ManassehManasseh (687-642)28Jesus (Joshua)
      12Manasseh " " AmosAmon (642-640)27Er
      13Amos " " JosiahJosiah (640-609)26Elmadam (Elmodam)
      14Josiah " " Jechoniah and his brothersJehoahaz II or Shallum (609) 25Cosam
        Jehoiakim or Eliakim (609-598) 24Addi
        Jehoiachin or Jechoniah (597) 23Melchi
        Zedekiah or Mattaniah (587-587)22Neri

      Table 4: The Post-Monarchical Period

       Matthew: Generations from Exile to the MessiahPost-Monarchical Davidids (1 Chr 1: 19-24) Genealogy in Luke
      1Jechoniah was the father of ShealtielShenazzar or Sheshbazzar (595)21Shealtiel
      2Shealtiel " " ZerubbabelZerubbabel (570)20Zerubbabel
      3Zerubbabel " " AbiudHannaniah (545)18Joanan
      4Abiud " " EliakimShecaniah (520)17Joda
      5Eliakim " " AzorHattush (495)14Mattathias
      6Azor " " ZadokElioenai (470)13Maath
      7Zadok " " AchimAnani (445)11Hesli
      8Achim " " Eliud 9Amos
      9Eliud " " Eleazar 8Mattathias
      10Eleazar " " Matthan 6Jannai
      11Matthan " " Jacob 4Levi
      12Jacob " " Joseph, the husband of Mary 2Eli (Heli)
      13of her was born Jesus, called the Christ 1Joseph of whom Jesus was supposed son

      Let's make some preliminary observations.

      • Overall: Matthew presents us with a descending list from Abraham to Jesus using the formula: "A was the father of B; B was the father of C", while Luke presents us with a descending list from Jesus to Adam and God, using the formula: "A, (son) of B, (son) of C". Luke's list contains 77 names compared to Matthew's 41.

      • The pre-monarchical period: this is the only period in which the Luke-Matthew agreement was fairly extensive, if not total.

      • The monarchic period: the two lists diverge completely, and agree only on David. Luke's list contains 27 names compared to Matthew's 15.

      • The post-monarchic period: the two lists agree only on the first two and the last two names. And these names are the only ones on which we have biblical information.

      In the face of so many differences, we must remember what we said about the biblical genealogies: they have different functions, and so it is normal that they diverge; Matthew intends to show that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, while Luke intends to show that Jesus is the son of God.

      1. Who Was Jesus' Grandfather?

        For Matthew, Joseph's father is called Jacob, while for Luke he is called Heli. This brings us first to the third section of Matthew's list, where the nine names between Zerubbabel and Joseph are completely unknown to us. Where did Matthew get these names? Three explanations have been proposed.

        1. It is a creation of Matthew

          This explanation does not hold water, for the first two sections of his genealogy refer to existing lists in the OT, and it would be surprising if he did otherwise for his third section. Moreover, in v. 17 he seems to marvel at his discovery of the 3 x 14 pattern in his three lists, which would be incomprehensible if he had created this last list from scratch. Finally, since the return of the Jews from exile many genealogical lists were circulating in Judea in order to establish their rights and privileges.

        2. Matthew copied an existing genealogy from the Davidic lineage

          Let us distinguish between individuals who claim descent from King David, and the existence of a royal lineage that would have survived. As far as individuals are concerned, there are a few examples such as Rabbi Hillel who claimed to be of Davidic descent through his mother, or, in the first Christian millennium, the head of the Jewish community in Babylon; Roman emperors (Vespasian, Domitian, Trajan) are said to have persecuted a certain number of these claimants. The existence of these claims suggests that lists may have existed.

          As for the existence of a House of David which would have continued after the exile, at least until the period of the Maccabees, the fact can be confirmed by the existence of discussions at the time of Jesus about the Davidic origin of the Messiah. Does this imply that official lists existed about a royal lineage? It is possible if we believe Julius Africanus, who informs us that Herod the Great had family records burned for fear of having his power challenged. The OT itself gives us a list of five descendants of Zerubbabel. But it is doubtful that this list was continued and nothing is known for the period from 400 to 200 BC.

          Matthew's genealogical list is too short to cover the period from Zerubbabel to Jesus, and neither his nor Luke's list coincides with that found in the OT. Thus, even if such an official list existed, we have no indication that Matthew would have referred to it. Instead, he seems to have used a popular list from Greek-speaking circles, probably derived from speculation about the coming of the Messiah. And it is to this list that he would have added the names of Joseph and Jesus. Finally, if Jesus was ever of Davidic descent, it can only be through a side branch of the family, not a direct royal line: there is no indication in the account of Jesus' ministry that his ancestors were of nobility or royalty; on the contrary, he seems to have come from an uninteresting background and an unimportant village.

        3. Matthew had access to Joseph's family records

          Before examining this explanation, it is necessary first to settle the question of the differences (with the possible exception of Joseph's grandfather called Mathan in Matthew, Matthat in Luke) between Matthew's list and that of Luke. A first proposed solution was to consider Matthew's list as coming from the archives of Joseph, and Luke's from the archives of Mary. Unfortunately, this solution cannot be taken seriously: first, a genealogy from the mother would not be normal among the Jews, and second, Luke clearly tells us that he traces Jesus' descent from Joseph. One might add that we have no indication that Mary would belong to the Davidic line.

          The other proposed solution appeals to the custom of the levirate (Deut 25:5-10) where a relative of a deceased husband without children must marry his widow to give her offspring: thus, one of the genealogical lists would give us the family records from Joseph's natural father, the other from the legal father, the one who had died. This solution encounters major difficulties which will be discussed in Appendix I.

          In view of all these difficulties, most biblical scholars today reject the idea that either Matthew's or Luke's genealogical list comes from the family records. While maintaining that Matthew may have drawn on a popular list from a Davidic genealogy, let us examine Luke's list more closely.

      2. The Family Tree of the Son of God

        Like Matthew's, Luke's genealogy has a theological purpose. Why does it go back to God? A voice from heaven at Jesus' baptism just said, "This is my beloved son". Why does this genealogy go through Adam? Luke is writing for the Gentiles of the Pauline communities for whom Paul drew a parallel between Jesus and Adam (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22,45). This has the advantage of accentuating the paradox of Jesus as truly God, and truly man.

        In Luke's list, we can detect a pattern around the number 7.

        • The genealogical list includes 11 x 7 = 77 names
        • There are 7 patriarchs from Adam to Enoch, and then 70 names between Enoch and Jesus, perhaps an echo of the tradition of 70 generations between the sin of the angels and the day of judgment (see Enoch 10, 12)
        • There are 3 x 7 = 21 names for the postexilic period as well as for the monarchic period
        • For the pre-monarchic period there are 2 x 7 = 14 names before David
        • The names of David (#42) and Abraham (#56) appear as multiples of seven.

        Thus, the set of names in Luke's list (see table 1) has the following pattern: 21 (post-monarchic) + 21 (monarchic) + 14 (pre-monarchic) + 21 (pre-Abrahamic) = 77.

        Some biblical scholars have questioned this reasoning, considering that Jesus and God could not be assigned a number. Moreover, different manuscripts offer different numbers. Even allowing for all this, the fact remains that the motif around the number seven is present at least in part in Luke's list, and this allows us to question whether it is more historical (in the biological sense) than Matthew's.

        When we examine Luke's list, we note this:

        • The Davidic line goes back to David through Nathan in Luke, a more humble figure than Solomon in Matthew; but this is not a guarantee of authenticity Some names from the pre-exilic period (Levi, Simeon, Joseph, Judah) are anachronisms, since the custom of naming children after the patriarchs developed only after the exile
        • Several names in the list (sequence 28-32: Levi, Matthat, Jorim, Eliezer, Jesus) seem to be a repeat of the names at the beginning of the list (sequence 1-4): Jesus, Joseph, Heli and Levi
        • The name Joseph appears three times, and six names are very similar: Matthat (twice), Mattathias (twice), Maath, Mattatha(n), names associated with the Maccabean or Hasmonean family of the House of Levi in the 2nd century BC.
        • Rather than making Shealtiel (#21) the son of Jechoniah, the last king, as in Matthew, Luke makes him the son of Neri, who is otherwise totally unknown to us; Luke's motivation may be theological, for according to Jeremiah 22:30: "Thus says the Lord: 'Write about this man (Jechoniah), 'A failure, a boy who has not succeeded in his life! Not one of his children will succeed in taking the throne of David, in keeping the power in Judah".
        • In the list from Zerubbabel to Jesus, there are duplicates and Levitical names, and signs of confusion such as the one around the name Rhesa, which seems a misunderstanding of the Greek transcription of the Aramaic rēšā' (prince), opening the possibility that the pre-Lukan text may be referring here to Prince Joanan, the son of Zerubbabel

        In short, although Luke's list may seem more plausible than Matthew's, it is not the exact record of Jesus' biological genealogy. What is certain is that the list has been artificially organized by numerical pattern, and this list contains inaccuracies and signs of confusion, suggesting a popular provenance in Greek-speaking Jewish circles. Luke would have taken this list and inserted it between the baptism of Jesus and the temptation scene. The message about Jesus is not that he is in fact the grandson of Jacob (according to Matthew) or of Heli (according to Luke), but that he is theologically the son of David, the son of Abraham (according to Matthew), and the son of God (according to Luke).

  3. The Composition of the Basis Matthean Narrative in 1:18-2:33

    When we looked earlier at possible structures of Matthew's infancy narrative, one thread could be the four or five citations from Scripture. It is therefore worth studying the technique of formula citations throughout Matthew's gospel to determine whether the citations in the infancy narrative are from the evangelist or from a pre-existing source. This will later allow us to study the relationship of the citation to the immediate context, and thus determine whether the rest of the narrative has the same origin as the citation.

    1. Matthew's Formula Citation of Scripture

      Here is a table of formula citations in the Synoptics.

      EvangelistText of the citationAuthor cited
      Matthew1: 22-23: All this happened to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which is translated, "God with us".Isaiah 7: 14
       2: 5b-6: For this is what is written by the prophet: "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are not the least of the chief towns of Judah: for out of you shall come the ruler who shall feed my people Israel.Micah 5: 1 et 2 Samuel 5: 2
       2: 15b: This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."Hosea 11: 1
       2: 17-18: Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." Jeremiah 31: 15 (LXX 38: 15)
       2: 23b: so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, "He will be called a Nazorean."Isaiah 4: 3 et Judges 16: 17
       3: 3: This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" Isaiah 40: 3
       4: 14-16: so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned." Isaiah 8: 23 - 9: 1
       8: 17: This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases." Isaiah 53: 4
       12: 17-21: This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope Isaiah 42: 1-4
       13: 14-15: With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn - and I would heal them.'Isaiah 6: 9-10
       13: 35: This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."Ps 78 (77): 2
       21: 4-5: This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey." Isaiah 62: 11 et Zechariah 9: 9
       26: 56: But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled." Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. Nil
       27: 9-10: Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me." Zechariah 11: 12-13 (perhaps combined with echoes of Jeremiah 32: 6-15; 18: 2-3)
      Mark15: 28: And the scripture was fulfilled which says: and he was numbered with the evildoers (verse present only in some minor manuscripts)Isaiah 53: 12
      Luke18: 31: Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.Nil
       22: 37: For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was counted among the lawless'; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled."Isaiah 53: 12
       24: 44: Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you - that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."Nil

      Note: were discarded Mk 1: 2-3; 14: 59; Lk 3, 4-6 which are not really formula citations and reference to an accomplishment of the Scripture.

      As can be seen, these formula citations are a particularity of Matthew's in the synoptic narratives that has standardized the way of linking Jesus to the fulfillment of Scripture. And the link he makes does not refer to the full meaning of the text or its context, but rather to an aspect of the text that has some similarity to Jesus or an event. And the way he quotes a prophet directly rather than incorporating him by allusion into the wording of the story is indicative of a Christian effort to provide the story about Jesus with a scriptural background.

      1. Purpose of the Citations

        For many biblical scholars, the purpose of these citations is primarily apologetic, allowing Christian Jews to prove to their Jewish brethren in the synagogue that Jesus' career was foretold in the OT. But if this was the main purpose of these citations, it is difficult to explain why there are so few of them in the account of the passion and crucifixion which was really the stumbling block for the Jews. A more satisfactory explanation is to see a didactic objective: a catechesis to support the faith of the Christians in the community.

        The distribution of these formula citations throughout Matthew's gospel is remarkable. For in his infancy narrative, we find five citations out of a total of fourteen. It is as if the infancy narrative was still unexplored in reference to the OT, in contrast to the passion narrative which had been analyzed from the beginning of Christian preaching in relation to the scriptural background. We can then think that the infancy narrative belongs to a time when preaching became less missionary and more didactic, addressed to well established Christian communities.

      2. Relation of the Citations to Their Context

        There are two competing theories about the relationship of the citations to the story they illustrate. The first is that the citations gave rise to the stories: the evangelist would have thought imaginatively and creatively about the citations, or at most, he would have gathered some fragments of tradition around a passage of the OT. The second theory is that the citations were added to an existing narrative: a fairly well-developed and important set of traditions already existed, which Matthew patched together into a continuous narrative, and the scriptural citations were added as a finishing touch. Which theory is more plausible? Several factors support the second theory.

        1. Take for example section 2:13-23. It is very difficult to imagine that the three scriptural citations ("from Egypt I called my son," "Rachel weeps for her children," "he will be called a Nazarene"), which have a fairly marginal connection to the story, could have given rise to the story itself: Joseph and family flee to Egypt, Herod feels cheated and slaughters children, Joseph and family return to the land to settle in Nazareth. Similarly, in 2b-6, it is very difficult to imagine that the scriptural citation ("Bethlehem, land of Judah, you are not the least...") could have given rise to the story of the magi. Finally, in 1:22-33, it is very difficult to imagine that the scriptural citation ("the virgin will conceive...") could have given rise to a narrative around the figure of Joseph.

        2. The five citation formulas appear to have been added. They could be removed, and the narrative would be even more harmonious. Except for the citation about Bethlehem (2:5b-6), the citations have a marginal relationship to the narrative.

        3. we have several examples where it is clear that Matthew has added a citation to his narrative after the fact. Consider the following example where Luke and Matthew copy a scene from Mark.
          Mk 1: 14Lk 4: 14Mt 4: 12-16
          And after John was given over, Jesus came to Galilee And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the SpiritNow when Jesus heard that John had been given over, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles - the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

          What does Matthew do here? After copying Mark's text, he adds a citation from Isaiah 8:23-9:1 (in italics). But he has to introduce this citation, so he mentions the fact that Jesus leaves Nazareth to go to Capernaum, by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali (underlined). It is unthinkable that Matthew could have created a scene of Jesus going to Galilee from this citation from Isaiah.

      3. Origin of the Formula Citation

        Once we have opted for the theory that the citations were added after the fact to the infancy narratives, we must answer the question: how did he choose the citations he inserted in his narratives? Are they the product of his personal reflection, or were they known in the Christian tradition? Three paths have been explored by biblical scholars to answer this question.

        1. The possibility of a broader use of the citations

          The study of the gospels shows that before the publication of the gospel according to Matthew, there was a tradition of using prophetic texts that Matthew only made more explicit. For example, in the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem reported by the synoptics, only Matthew explicitly quotes Zechariah 9:9, a scriptural association also found in the independent evangelist John (12:15-16). If, therefore, an association of OT texts with certain events in the life of Jesus existed in the pre-evangelical tradition, on the other hand, it would be difficult to understand how a pool of all-purpose citations could have existed and from which it was sufficient to draw, like those good fortune texts in fortune cookies: how could the reference to Hosea 11:1 ("from Egypt I called my son") or Jeremiah 31:15 (Rachel weeping for her children) have existed independently of their present context?

        2. The wording of the citation in relation to the Hebrew and Greek OT

          The wording of the citation text varies in Matthew. When he copies a citation that is at least implicitly found in Mark, Matthew adheres closely to the wording of the Septuagint text. In other cases, Matthew is much freer from the Septuagint. In fact, in the first century CE there were several textual traditions both of the Hebrew of the Masoretic text and of the Aramaic Targums and Greek translations. In the face of all this, it is difficult to determine whether a citation is from the pen of Matthew or from a pre-Matthean tradition. On the one hand, it is possible to think that when Matthew introduces a citation that is well known in Christian circles, he must have used the wording that was familiar to everyone. On the other hand, when a citation was the result of his personal reflection, we can presume that he chose the formulation that best suited his purposes.

        3. The relation of the citation to the Matthean theology

          The idea is this: if a formula citation fits Matthew's overall theological interest, Matthew himself would have found it in the OT; on the other hand, if the citation does not fit his theology very well, Matthew would have simply taken it from common Christian usage. But how do we determine theological relevance and how a scriptural citation fits? There is a danger here of a circular argument. For, as we shall see, all the citations from the infancy narrative can be interpreted as linking Jesus to different moments in Israel's history: the Davidic Messiah, the exodus, the Babylonian exile, etc.

        In short, it is likely that it was Matthew himself who added the citation formulas to the gospel traditions. In many cases, he would have been the one who first spotted the applicability of an OT passage to an event in Jesus' life. He would then have chosen the Old Testament tradition that best illustrated this applicability, or he would have proposed his own translation into Greek. In rarer cases, this applicability would have been detected in a pre-Matthean stage of the tradition, and Matthew would have been content to reproduce it as is. It should be noted that these citations do more than highlight the accidental agreement between the OT and the life of Jesus, for they correspond to his theological view of the uniqueness of God's plan and his pastoral interest in dealing with a Christian community composed of Jews and Gentiles.

    2. The Detection of Pre-Matthean Material

      Having recognized that it was Matthew who chose and added the five formula citations to the infancy narrative, we must ask the question: what about the content of the different stories that make up the narrative? From the outset, we must exclude the hypothesis that Matthew had before him a well-formed narrative to which he simply added the formula citations. For there is too much of Matthew's style, starting with the vocabulary. Then there is the insistence on the genealogy afterwards, even though we have seen that he is the author of this genealogy. We can also add the presence of the motif of the five alternating episodes, a motif found elsewhere in his gospel. To say the least, Matthew played an important role in shaping the story as it appears to us today.

      1. The Method Employed in the Detection

        Biblical scholars have used three criteria to detect pre-Matthean material.

        1. The first refers to the amount of Matthean elements regarding vocabulary, style and motifs in a verse or section of the infancy narrative

        2. Then there are sometimes tensions and conflicts within a passage itself, indicating that two different pieces of the tradition have been merged

        3. Finally, there is the presence of parallels that can be found elsewhere in the gospels, such as the elements common to Matthew and Luke in their infancy narratives, a sign of the existence of a prior tradition from which the two evangelists have drawn.

        To illustrate, let us apply these three criteria to section 2, 19-23.

        19 Now, when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was king over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to return there. And being warned in a dream, he went off to the district of Galilee. 23 There he went to dwell in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: "He will be called a Nazorean."

        Let us first apply the second criterion: the internal tensions in the section. A line of tension appears in the geographical locations: Joseph is asked to take the child and his mother and go "to the land of Israel", i.e. Judea, and then to go "to the region of Galilee". Both geographical targets are ordered in a divine dream. If the story was originally a unit, why the need for two different dreams, and why did the angel not tell Joseph in the first dream to go to Galilee, rather than this unnecessary detour to Judea?

        But we must be careful, for what is illogical for us may have been logical for the ancient authors. So let us apply the other criteria, specifically our first criterion on Matthaean style. The mention of "the region of Galilee" and "a city called Nazareth" is in harmony with the formula citation of 23b. One suspects that Matthew added the specification of Galilee and Nazareth to a tradition that presents Joseph returning to the land of Israel in order to prepare the formula citation on the Nazarene. This suspicion is confirmed by comparing 2:22-23 with that other passage in Matthew (4:12-16) we saw earlier.

        Mt 2: 22-23Mt 4: 12-16
        But when he heard that Archelaus was king over Judea...But when he heard that John had been arrested...
        He went off to the district of Galilee. There he went to dwell in a city called NazarethHe went off to Galilee. There, leaving Nazareth, he went to dwell in Capernaum
        So that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled [formula citation].In order that what was spoken by Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled [formula citation].

        It can be seen that the structure, grammar and vocabulary of these two passages are clearly the same and reflect Matthew's style. On the other hand, the preceding passage, i.e. 2:19-21, which brings Joseph back to Judea, is in tension with 2:22-23, which suggests to us that 2:19-21 belongs to pre-Matthew material.

        The conclusion that emerges is reinforced when we apply the third criterion, that of parallels. Matthew did not invent the fact that Jesus grew up in Nazareth; there is a consensus on this in the gospel tradition. Rather, his challenge was to explain how Jesus could have grown up in Nazareth in the face of a tradition that he was born in Bethlehem. There is no common pre-gospel tradition that provides such an explanation, since Luke offers a different version. Using the third criterion again, we find a parallel with the account of Moses in Midian when Pharaoh has just died: "The Lord said to Moses in Midian: 'Go, return to Egypt, for all those who sought your life are dead'" (Ex 4:19). The theme of Moses' infancy runs through the whole of Matthew's narrative in 1:18 - 2:23. Finally, a parallel can be drawn between the structure of 2:19-21 and the rest of the infancy narrative, more precisely the one in which an angel appears in a dream, makes a request, gives the reason for the request, and Joseph follows up on the request. If 2:19-21 is pre-Matthean, we can assume that the other passages in which this stereotypical motif appears are as well. Here is a chart of the angelic appearance motif in a dream:

        The Pattern of Angelic Dream Appearances
        An introductory resumptive clause connecting the appearance with what precedes:
        A)1: 20As he was considering this, behold...
         B)2: 13When they had gone away, behold...
         C)2: 19When Herod died, behold...
        1) An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream (1: 20; 2: 13; 2: 19)
        2) The angel gave a command, saying:
         A)1: 20Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home...
          1: 21She will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Jesus...
         B)2: 13Get up; take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you...
         C)2: 20Get up; take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel...
        3) The angel offered a reason for the command:
         A)1: 20for the child begotten in her is through the Holy Spirit.
          1: 21for he will save his people from their sins.
         B)2: 13for Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.
         C)2: 20for those who were seeking the child's life are dead.
        4) Joseph got up and fulfilled the command:
          A) 1: 24-25 So Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took his wife home, but he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
          B) 2: 14-15a So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went away to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.
          C) 2: 21So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to the land of Israel.

      2. Summary of the Results

        1. The Pre-Matthean Material

          When we speak of pre-Matthean material we are speaking only of traditions that existed before Matthew produced his gospel. It is possible that the gospel went through several editions, i.e., that a basic gospel appeared before the final edition, but we have no way of knowing. We present first what was the main pre-Matthean narrative, and then other pre-Matthean episodes, without eliminating the possibility that the two sets were merged by the time Matthew wrote his gospel.

          1. The Main Pre-Matthean Narrative

            A Reconstruction of the Main Pre-Matthean Narrative
            A)Now, when Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Take Mary your wife into your home, for she will give birth to a son who will save his people from their sins." So Joseph got up from sleep and took his wife home, and she gave birth to a son.

            Now Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king. When Herod the king heard this [in a dream], he was startled, and so was all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem of Judea," they told him. Then he sent (secretly) to Bethlehem with the instruction: "Go and search diligently for the child."

            B)Now, when [Herod had done this], behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him." So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went away to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

            Then Herod [when the search for the child was unsuccessful] fell into a furious rage. He sent into Bethlehem and the regions all around it and massacred all the boys of two years of age and under [according to the time he had ascertained from the dream].

            C)Now, when Herod died, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to the land of Israel...

            The first caveat is that any pre-Matthew material may have been so extensively altered that it is often almost impossible to find the original text. All that can be said is that the proposed reconstruction presents in a partial and approximate way the content of the narrative that Matthew used.

            A second caveat is that the reconstruction is based on the angelic apparitions, which offer only the skeleton of the story, and therefore do not allow us to establish all its details, such as Mary's pregnancy, the messianic child, the coming of the magi or Herod's attempt to take the child's life. To determine what comes from the same source or tradition as the angelic apparitions, we need to apply the second and third criteria we identified earlier, specifically the internal tensions that indicate that two pieces of material have been merged, and the parallels of the Jewish traditions.

            Let us begin with the Jewish traditions that probably served to flesh out the skeleton of angelic apparitions. Jesus was "son of Joseph" according to the tradition common to all the gospels. Nothing is known about this Joseph and he does not appear anywhere in the accounts of Jesus' ministry. But a description of this figure could very well come from the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis. Two memorable elements in the saga of this patriarch are his ability to interpret dreams (Gen 37:19: "a man or expert in dreams") and his sojourn in Egypt where he had to interact with the Pharaoh. These two elements are also found in Jesus' father. And if the first Pharaoh with whom the patriarch Joseph interacted was benevolent, the second was wicked, had the male Israelite children killed, and also sought to kill the child Moses, so that the latter could not return from exile until he was dead. So we can see the parallel: on the one hand, we have the patriarch Joseph/the wicked Pharaoh/Moses as a child, and on the other hand we have Joseph/the wicked king Herod/Jesus as a child. Thus, in the absence of information on the father of Jesus, we used what the Bible said about the patriarch Joseph.

            Let us now turn to the parallel between Moses and Jesus, a parallel deeply rooted in Christian thought, and particularly important to the Jew Matthew to the point of marking his writing of the ministry of Jesus. Thus, finding a tradition in which the young Moses appears as a filagram allowed him to complete this Jesus-Moses parallel more perfectly. And just as the book of Exodus already shows God's hand on young Moses before he even begins his ministry of liberating the Israelites from Egypt and mediating the covenant between God and his people, so Matthew does the same with his infancy narrative before Jesus even begins his ministry of salvation and the new covenant. Let us look in more detail at both the biblical and non-biblical tradition about the young Moses.

            1. The Biblical Account

              Let us recall the main features of this story told in the book of Exodus. Faced with the explosion of the Hebrew population despite their state of poverty and forced labor, Pharaoh ordered that the Hebrew midwives and ultimately the Egyptians themselves kill the newborn children. To save her child, Moses' mother put him in a papyrus basket coated with bitumen and placed it among the rushes on the bank of the Nile. There, Pharaoh's daughter found him and brought him to the court where he grew up and was educated. One day, as an adult, Moses kills an Egyptian who was bullying a Hebrew. Faced with an angry Pharaoh, he had to flee to the land of Midian. Here is a list of parallels between the book of Exodus and Matthew.

              Mt 2: 13-14: Herod was going to search for the child to destroy him, so Joseph took the child and his mother and went awayEx 2: 15: The Pharaoh sought to do away with Moses, so Moses went away.
              Mt 2: 16: Herod sent to Bethlehem and massacred all the boys of two years of age and under. Ex 1: 22: The Pharaoh commanded that every male born to the Hebrews be cast into the Nile
              Mt 2: 19: Herod died Ex 2: 23: The king of Egypt died
              Mt 2: 19-20: The angel of the Lord said to Joseph in Egypt: "...go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead. Ex 4: 19: The Lord said to Moses in Midian: "...return to Egypt, for all those who were seeking your life are dead."
              Mt 2: 21: Joseph took the child and his mother and went back to the land of Israel. Ex 4: 20: Moses took along his wife and his children and returned to Egypt.

            2. The Non-Biblical Tradition

              The list of parallels is much larger when one turns to the Jewish midrashic tradition on the childhood of Moses (see Appendix VIII). Finding relevant material in the first century CE, when Matthew's gospel was written, is a challenge. But two works stand out, Philo of Alexandria's Life of Moses and the Antiquities (II ix; #205-37) where Flavius Josephus recounts the birth of Moses. The details that follow, drawn mainly from Josephus' work, reinforce the parallels we have already identified.

              • In addition to wanting to control the Jewish population, Pharaoh is warned in a marvelous way of the birth of a Hebrew who will be a threat to the Egyptian kingdom, just as Herod will see the birth of the messiah as a threat

              • This marvelous warning comes to Pharaoh through a sacred scribe, just as Herod learns from the high priests and scribes where the messiah is to be born

              • According to other accounts, Pharaoh learns of the birth of the child through a dream that his magicians or occult specialists must interpret. All of this opens up the possibility that Herod, too, could have learned of the messiah's birth in a dream (which we have bracketed squarely in our reconstruction of the pre-Matthean material), a detail of the pre-Matthean narrative that Matthew could have modified after introducing the account of the magi and their star, thus shifting the source of Herod's information

              • Pharaoh is troubled by the news of the coming birth of the liberating Hebrew, and the thought of such a birth strikes terror into the Egyptians, just as Herod and all of Jerusalem are troubled by the news of the messiah's birth

              • Pharaoh's plan to kill the promised child by executing all male children among the Hebrews is thwarted by God who appears in a dream to Amram, father of Moses, whose wife is pregnant, and tells him not to be discouraged, for the unborn child will escape his enemies and save the race of Hebrews from their slavery. The parallel with Matthew is clear.

              The parallel between the Moses legend and the pre-Matthean Jesus story could be further strengthened if, in the pre-Matthean story, Herod had been warned in a dream of the messiah's birth (a detail in square brackets in our reconstruction), as had Pharaoh, even before the angel intervened with Joseph to tell him about the child's future. And this is very possible, because our reconstruction of this pre-Matthean material has preserved the alternating characters pattern typical of Matthew, which was probably not the case with the original material. Moreover, in the Moses legend, God's intervention in Amram's dream is intended to silence his hesitation at the prospect of the birth of a child who would be exterminated anyway, a scene reminiscent of Joseph's hesitation to take Mary into his home. Matthew has probably disrupted the order of the pre-Matthew material to introduce the virginal conception.

          2. Other Pre-Matthean Episodes

            It seems that even before Matthew's editing work, the story of the angel's appearance to Joseph and his struggle against a devious king may have attracted small episodes or vignettes. We will only name them for now, reserving their analysis for later, when we comment on Matthew's text.

            • A birth announcement story. When we consider the table of three angelic dream appearances, we can notice that the first appearance (A) is different from the other two (B, C), because it contains two requests (2-A) and a reason for each of these two requests (3-A). This doublet is the result of the fusion of two literary forms: an angelic apparition in a dream and a birth announcement. The latter is an independent form well attested in the OT with well-stereotyped elements:
              • the name of the person who has a vision,
              • the injunction not to be afraid,
              • a message that the pregnant woman will conceive a child,
              • the name that the child will have to bear
              It is reasonable to assume that an annunciation account of Jesus' birth must have existed independently, since it is found in Luke 1:26-38 with the announcement to Mary. And it is this account that probably originally contained the conception of the child by the Holy Spirit, a common theme in Matthew and Luke.

            • A story of wise men from the east who see the star of a king at its rising and are led by it to Bethlehem. This story presupposes the widespread belief that the birth of a great man was accompanied by an astronomical phenomenon. But the immediate inspiration for the story of the magi came from the story of Balaam (Numbers 22 - 24), a man with magical powers who came from the east and predicted that a star would rise from Jacob. And in Jewish tradition, this star was interpreted as a reference to the Royal House of David, and thus to the messiah. To integrate this Balaam-inspired story into the main pre-Matthew narrative required only minor adjustments, such as having Herod announce the birth of the messiah through the magi rather than through a dream, or delegating the search for the child to the magi rather than through his own intelligence service.

            By the time these pre-Matthean traditions reach Matthew, it is likely that they have already been integrated into a single narrative, or at least before he puts the finishing touches on his account.

        2. The Matthean Editing

          By the term "editing" we mean not just the finishing touches to a complete work, but also the rearrangement of material, the retelling of a story in one's own words and the careful integration of it into one's theological vision. Here are the clearest elements.

          • The addition of the five formula citations that give new light and emphasis to the original story.
            1. Although the idea of a virginal conception was already present in the original narrative, the addition of the citation from Is 7:14 ("the virgin will conceive...") showed that the continuation of the Davidic line by virginal conception had long been part of God's plan
            2. Although the pre-Matthew narrative around Joseph and Herod already contained the theme of a birth in Bethlehem, the addition of Micah 5:1 ("And you Bethlehem...") provided a scriptural basis for the birthplace, and the addition of 2 Sam 5:2 ("he will feed his people Israel") to Micah's text set the tone for Matthew's understanding of how the newborn will rule
            3. the addition of Hos 11:1 ("Out of Egypt I called my son") evoked the exodus and emphasized the parallel between Moses and Jesus
            4. The addition of Jer 31:15 ("A voice in Ramah was heard") where Rachel in Ramah weeps over her exiled children evokes the exile of Israel.
            5. Finally, the addition of "He will be called a Nazarene" (Isa 4:3; Jdg 16:17) showed that Jesus fulfilled the paradoxical expectation of the Messiah to be from Bethlehem and Nazareth, Nazarene being understood by Matthew to mean: from Nazareth.

            All these citations constitute a theological geography that evokes the stages of salvation history: the exodus to Egypt, the exile and the ministry of Jesus. And they help answer questions about Jesus: who, where, how, whence.

          • But in order to add these citations, Matthew had to make some changes, such as making sure that Joseph did not have a sexual relationship with Mary to preserve the motive of the virginal conception, or providing a plausible reason for moving Jesus from Bethlehem to Jerusalem

          • To merge the genealogy with the main narrative, Matthew had to create an introduction (1:18) to ensure a smooth transition and to show that what follows gives the account of the birth of Jesus whose birth record was presented in 1:1-17, and will explain the particular way in which he was born, since in 1:16 it was not said that Joseph "fathered" Jesus. It will be understood that 1:18-25 is the most complex section of the infancy narrative and the one where Matthew's editing work is most apparent.

  4. The Conception of Jesus

    Translation of Mt 1: 18-25

    18 Now, as for (Jesus) Christ, his birth took place in this way. His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph; but before they began to live together, it was found that she was with child - through the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph was an upright man, but unwilling to expose her to public disgrace; and so he resolved to divorce her quietly.

    20 Now, as he was considering this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for the child begotten in her is through the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

    22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet who said,

    23 "Behold, the virgin will be with child And will give birth to a son, And they will call his name Emmanuel (which means 'God with us')."

    24 So Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took his wife home, 25 but he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.


    v. 18

    • "Now, as for (Jesus) Christ". The majority of manuscripts have the recension: Tou de Iēsou Christou (lit.: then, of the Jesus Christ), which fits well as the beginning of a narrative that follows the genealogy which ends thus: "Joseph, the husband of Mary; of her was begotten Jesus called the Christ" (1:16). Nevertheless, the presence of the word "Jesus" is suspect for the following reasons:
      1. The name is omitted in a minor manuscript, as well as in Irenaeus and some Latin and Syriac translations
      2. The place of the word "Jesus" in the sentence varies among the witnesses who have this variant, the sign of a copyist's addition
      3. The addition of the word by a copyist to imitate v. 16 is more likely than its omission to imitate v. 17 which has only the word "Christ"
      4. There is no other case in the NT where the expression "Jesus Christ" is preceded by an article (of the Jesus Christ)

    • "birth". The same Greek word genesis appears in v. 1, a way of linking this narrative with genealogy. Some manuscripts have gennēsis, which also means: birth, but whose semantic range is much narrower than genesis (birth, creation, genealogy), probably due to the fact that gennēsis, which referred to the Nativity, was more familiar than the rarer word genesis

    • "betrothed". In both Matthew and Luke (1:27; 2:5), the verb mnēsteuein (to be betrothed, to be engaged) in the passive and middle form is used to describe the relationship between Joseph and Mary, not the verbs gamein and gamizen (to marry) or the noun gamos (wedding, marriage). In the Jewish world, the matrimonial process took place in two stages: 1) the formal exchange of consents before witnesses (Malachi 2:14), and after about a year, 2) the bride's departure for the groom's home. The consent usually took place when the girl was 12 or 13 years old. The exchange of consents in step 1 constituted the legally ratified marriage in modern terms, for it gave the man all rights over the girl; she was now his wife and any violation was adultery. According to later Jewish commentaries, there were two different customs in Judea and Galilee. In Judea, it was not unusual for the husband to be alone with his wife on occasion even before the period of cohabitation, without such marital relations being condemned. But in Galilee such permissiveness was not tolerated. It is clear, explicitly in Matthew, implicitly in Luke, that Joseph and Mary have passed stage 1, but have not yet reached stage 2. But it is risky to try to apply the customs of Judea or Galilee to their situation, because according to Luke, Joseph and Mary are from Galilee, and thus in a restrictive environment, and even if according to Matthew Joseph and Mary are from Judea, the evocation of the possible scandal fits better with the environment of Galilee

    • "before they began to live together (synerchesthai)". Living together refers to stage 2, which we have just discussed. The verb synerchesthai has a wide range of meanings: to live together, to have sexual relations, to form a family.

    • "it was found that she was". Literally: she was found to be. This is not the secret discovery by a snoop, but rather the general sense of "being found" in a specific situation.

    • "with child". Literally: "having in the womb", without mentioning a child.

    • "through the Holy Spirit". In our translation, we have separated this expression from the rest of the sentence by a hyphen, because it is an explanation from Matthew to his reader: the conception of the Holy Spirit is not part of the story as such and the news will only be revealed in v. 22, but Matthew wanted to spare his audience the same suspicions that haunt Joseph.

      Note that the Greek expression "Holy Spirit" is in the genitive and without an article: of Holy Spirit. Even if the translation speaks of a child, we must not imagine that the Holy Spirit is the father of the child. Never does Luke or Matthew suggest that the Holy Spirit is the male element of a union with Mary. Not only is the word "spirit" not masculine (feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek), but the type of conception is implicitly creative, not sexual. Moreover, in Matthew (also in Lk 1:35) "spirit" has no definite article, and so is literally translated as: a holy spirit. Let us recall that the relationship of the Holy Spirit with the divine filiation of Jesus was first articulated in reference to his resurrection, and only later was the moment of his baptism included, and much later, after a long theological reflection, the moment of his conception. But we must not assume that Matthew or Luke see the Holy Spirit as a person, let alone the third person of the Trinity. Rather, we must refer to the Old Testament image of the breath of life given by God (Ps 104:30; Mt 27:50), or to the power with which God moves the prophet to speak (Mt 22:43), or to the principle that animates the whole ministry of Jesus and which descended upon him at his baptism (Mt 3:16) and which he himself communicated to his disciples after his resurrection (Jn 20:22; Acts 1:8).


    • "Her husband ". For Matthew, since Joseph and Mary have passed the first stage of the exchange of consents, they are truly "husband" and "wife". Luke, on the other hand, continues to consider Mary as "betrothed".

    • "an upright man (dikaios)". In the present context, dikaios (right, just) would mean: observer of the Law, a meaning also found in Luke's infancy narrative (1:6) where Jesus' parents are presented as models of respect for the Law. However, this does not correspond to the usual meaning of dikaios in Matthew, who uses it 19 times, which leads us to think that the word here comes from the pre-Matthean tradition.

      This word has given rise to much debate among biblical scholars: does Joseph's decision to divorce come from the fact that he is an upright man? Or, on the contrary, does his unwillingness to expose Mary to public shame show that he is an upright man, expressing a form of mercy by not wanting to apply the Law rigidly? The various answers proposed can be grouped into three categories, the first two interpreting the beginning of v. 19 as "an upright man and therefore he did not want to expose her to public shame", while the third reads v. 19 as "an upright man but he did not want to expose her to public shame. Let's take a closer look at each of these categories.

      1. Kindness or mercy would be the key factor in Joseph being upright or just. Thus, he shows himself to be upright by not wanting to apply rigorously what the Law requires in the case of adultery and by seeking the easiest possible way out for Mary. This perception is found in Ps 112:4 ("the Lord is tender, compassionate and right"), in Ps 37:21 ("the righteous has compassion and gives"), in Wis 12:19 ("the righteous must be a friend of men"). Unfortunately, this interpretation fails to explain why in v. 20 the angel says to Joseph: "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home"; for the angel's message implies that Joseph has a qualm about completing the matrimonial process with step 2, a qualm that is logically related to being upright. Moreover, there is a difference between saying that justice or righteousness consists in mercy, and saying that it is moderated by mercy.

      2. Respect or awe for God's plan of salvation would be the key factor in Joseph's being righteous or just. This interpretation assumes that there is no hyphen in v. 18: "it turned out that she was with child (-) by the Holy Spirit", i.e. the mention of the Holy Spirit is no longer an explanation by Matthew for his reader, but a fact known by Joseph himself. Joseph's reaction would therefore be this: he could not take as his wife the woman whom God had chosen as his sacred vessel. And the angel's message to Joseph not to be afraid would be to reassure Joseph that God's plan includes the final stage of the marriage process to give the child his name and the Davidic heritage. Unfortunately, this explanation runs into serious difficulties. For although it is possible that dikaios could have a connotation of piety or holiness, it presupposes that Joseph would have known in advance that Mary's pregnancy was due to a divine intervention, which the text we have does not say at all. And if Joseph really did have an earlier divine revelation, why didn't that revelation also include the instruction to complete the marriage process with the taking of Mary into his home, rather than having to return with a new message? From the present account, it is clear that Joseph learns from the angel only in v. 20 about the divine origin of the child in Mary's womb. And even if we assume that he already knew that the child was of the Holy Spirit and that it was out of religious fear that Joseph intended to divorce her, how could this decision have protected Mary? One cannot imagine that people who knew of Mary's pregnancy and now knew of the divorce would have immediately concluded that the child was the creative work of the Holy Spirit. Joseph would then have expressed his "righteousness" at the expense of Mary's reputation.

      3. Obedience to the Law would be the key factor in Joseph's being upright or just. This meaning is clearly present in Luke (1:6) when it is applied to Zechariah and Elizabeth ("Both were righteous (dikaios) before God, and they followed all the commandments and observances of the Lord without reproach"). This same understanding of Joseph's righteousness is present in the Protevangelium of James ("If I hide her sin, I am fighting the Law of the Lord", 14, 1). The point of the Law at issue here is made clear by Deut 22:20-21, which deals with the case of a young bride whose husband takes her into his home and discovers that she is not a virgin: the Law requires the stoning of the adulterer, or in a less severe legal system, the need to expunge the evil may be met by the act of divorce. In this framework, Joseph's decision to divorce is a response to the requirement of the Law, and his unwillingness to expose her to public shame leads him to proceed without accusation of a serious crime. Thus, Joseph is a righteous man, but also merciful. According to this interpretation, Joseph assumes that Mary has been unfaithful and has broken the Law, but the angel's role is precisely to convince Joseph that Mary is not adulterous and has not broken the Law, because the child is the work of the Holy Spirit and Mary is still a virgin.

      Of the three proposed explanations, only the third is really convincing.

    • "but unwilling (kai mē thelōn)", literally: and not wanting. We have translated kai (and) as "but", to be consistent with the meaning of "right man" in our third explanation above. Note that the expression "not willing" is not part of the Matthean vocabulary

    • "to expose her to public disgrace (deigmatizein)". The verb deigmatizein usually means: to put to shame, to make an example of, hence to mock. In the Greek world, this verb could be used in the context of an adulterous woman.

    • "to divorce (apolyein) her". Some biblical scholars have tried to minimize the significance of this action, associating it with a "separation of body and property," even though there was no cohabitation yet. But we have no evidence that such a separation existed in Judaism at the time of Jesus. Other biblical scholars have made the dubious assumption that Joseph was simply trying to abandon Mary in order to make it appear that he was the guilty party and take the blame for the separation. All of these hypotheses overlook the meaning of apolyein elsewhere in Matthew (5:31-32; 19:3.7-9), which does mean divorce.

    • "quietly". It is not clear what is meant by this adverb and how Joseph intended to achieve this goal. According to later rabbinic writings, a completely secret divorce was impossible, because the divorce act required two witnesses. In any case, Joseph could not have kept Mary's pregnancy hidden for long and eventually people would have made the connection between the divorce and the pregnancy. It is likely that Matthew means that Joseph did not plan to make public accusations of adultery and subject Mary to a trial by ordeal, as provided for in Numbers 5:11-31 in a case where there were no witnesses to the adultery. Joseph's option was to accuse her of adultery on lesser grounds, as the Pharisees of the school of Hillel allowed. Thus, "divorce quietly" meant: divorce in a benign manner.

    v. 20

    • "Now, as he was considering this, behold (tauta de autou enthymēthentos idou)". Literally: Then, having considered these things, behold. We have here a beginning of sentence with a participle in the absolute genitive form accompanied by the postpositive de and followed by the demonstrative particle "behold", a structure regularly found in Matthew. On the other hand, it is very rare that a continuous action is expressed with an aorist. The verb enthymesthai is found only here and in Mt 9:4 throughout the NT.

    • "an angel of the Lord. This figure will reappear in 2:13 and 2:19. Most of the time in the OT, the expression "angel of the Lord" is not this personal and spiritual being, an intermediary between God and man, but simply another way of designating the visible presence of God among men. For example, in Gen 16:7 we read: "The angel of Yahweh met Hagar by a certain spring in the desert", and then a few verses later (Gen 16:13): "To Yahweh who had spoken to her, Hagar gave this name..."; thus "angel of Yahweh" and "Yahweh" are interchangeable. Only in post-exilic Jewish thought do angels become intermediaries with their own personality and name. Outside the infancy narrative, the angel of the Lord appears only at the empty tomb (Mt 28:2), an argument in favor of the proposition that the infancy narrative is a vehicle for postpaschal Christology.

    • "in a dream (kat' onar)". The expression appears five times in the infancy narratives and only once elsewhere in Mt 27:19 (the dream of Pilate's wife) throughout the Bible. In the Septuagint, various words are used for revelations in dreams: enypnion, hypnos (sleep), and horoma nyktos (night vision). Josephus (Antiquities, II, v, 1: #63) uses onar for a dream that the patriarch Joseph must interpret. Note that in Matthew it is not the dream itself that brings a revelation, but it only provides the context for the intervention of the angel of the Lord from whom the revelation comes.

    • " Joseph, son of David". Compare Lk 1:27: "a man from the House of David whose name was Joseph".

    • "do not be afraid (mē phobēthēs)". This verb in the aorist tense seems to have the meaning: do not hold back out of fear.

    • "to take (paralambanein) Mary your wife into your home". Literally: to take Mary your wife. Some translate: to take Mary as your wife; this is forgetting that in Jewish matrimonial procedures Mary was already Joseph's wife, even if they were not yet living together. The Syriac translator translates: bring home Mary your betrothed. Note that paralambanein also has the meaning of: to bring, to take with oneself (see Mt 2:14, 21)

    • "for (gar)". The other two occurrences of gar in the angelic appearances are in 2:13 and 2:20 where Joseph learns something he did not know. And so it is quite justified to give gar a causal meaning: for, because.

    • "the child begotten (en autē gennēthen)". Literally: what was begotten. The verb gennaō (to beget) is of the same root as the word genesis (origin, birth) in 1:1,18 and is used throughout the genealogy (A begat B, or A was the father of B), and appears as such in 1:16 (was begotten Jesus)

    • "is through the Holy Spirit (ek pneumatos estin hagiou)". Literally: is of a spirit which is holy. See the note on the subject at v. 18.

    v. 21

    • She will give birth to a son (texetai de huion)". In Lk 1:31 we have: kai texē huion (and you will bear a son). The old Syriac translations add at the end: for you, a way of emphasizing Joseph's paternity, while safeguarding Mary's virginity. These Syriac translations are close to the OT usage, as shown for example in Gen 17:19: "Behold, Sarah your wife will give birth to a son for you.

    • "you will call his name Jesus" (kaleseis to onoma autou Iēsoun)". The awkward expression "to call someone's name X" is in fact a Semitism for: to call someone X, or: to name someone X. The expression reappears in M 1:23.25 and Lk 1:13.31. In Matthew, it is Joseph who names the child, while in Luke it is Mary, both customs being recognized in the patriarchal era (Gen 4:25-26; 5:3).

    • "for he will save". The "for" indicates that "he will save" is an etymological interpretation of the name given to the child. Iēsous is a Hellenized version of the Hebrew Yēšûaʿ, often shortened to Yēšûʿ. The full Hebrew name is: Yĕhôšûaʿ, meaning: Yahweh helps, from the root: šwʿ (to help). But the popular etymology of the name and its shortened form is: yšʿ (to save), and the name yĕšûʿâ (salvation). It is this popular etymology that is reflected in Matthew's interpretation of the name "Jesus": God saves.

    • "his people". For Matthew, Israel includes both Jews and Gentiles. The interpretation of "his people" is more difficult in Lk 1:17 in connection to John the Baptist, where it seems to refer only to the Jews

    v. 22

    • "took place (gegonen)". In Greek, the verb is in the active perfect tense, thus referring to an action that took place in the past. But it can have the meaning of an accomplishment that continues cumulatively in time

    • "to fulfill". For a list of stereotypical achievement formulas see the table of citation formulas.

    • "what the Lord had spoken". In Matthew, what is fulfilled is not simply the plan or intention of God, but the "words" of Scripture

    • "by the prophet". The Codex Bezae, the old Latin and Syriac translations add: Isaiah

    v. 23

    • "they will call". The Septuagint of Isaiah 7:14 has instead: "You (sing.) will call", and this reading also appears in Matthew's Codex Bezae. The Hebrew text has: "She will call".

    v. 24

    • "So Joseph got up from sleep (egertheis de ho Iōsēph apo tou hypnou)". Literally: then, having risen the Joseph from sleep. In the three angelic appearances in the dream (see table), the description of Joseph's response always begins with : "having risen", except that here Matthew has added: from sleep.

    • "and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him". This is the only time in the three appearance narratives where we find the expression "to do what has been commanded". This emphasis on obedience is not unlike the obedience of the patriarch Joseph in the OT

    • "He took his wife home (parelaben tēn gynaika autou)". Literally: he brought his wife, or he took his wife with him. See the note in verse 20 about the order Joseph carries out.

    v. 25

    • "he had no sexual relations with her before (ouk eginōsken autēn heōs hou)". Literally: he did not know her until. This phrase is omitted by the old Latin and Syriac translations, no doubt the work of a copyist who wanted to preserve Mary's perpetual virginity. The question of this perpetual virginity is contentious. To answer it, we must consider how the phrase in v. 25 fits with the immediate context and then with the whole of Matthew's gospel. First, in Greek the phrase heōs hou after a negation (do not...until) has no implication about what will happen after the limit expressed by "until" is reached; thus, the immediate context tells us nothing about Mary's situation after Jesus' birth, Matthew being concerned only about Mary's virginity before Jesus' birth so that Isaiah's prophecy about the virgin giving birth would be fulfilled. Thus, v. 25 gives us no information about what happens after Jesus is born. What does the rest of his gospel say? In Mt 12:46-50; 13:55-56, Matthew mentions Mary with the brothers (and sisters) of Jesus. In antiquity, there is a great debate about the interpretation of the word "brother": for the Protevangeliium of James and Epiphanius, these are Joseph's children from a previous marriage; for St. Jerome, they are cousins (the children of Joseph's brother or Mary's sister); for Helvidius, they are blood brothers (the children of Joseph and Mary). But before asking the question of what is really going on, we must first ask the question: Was Matthew in a position to really know the facts? Did he believe that the brothers of whom he speaks were really the children of Joseph and Mary, or was it simply an assumption on his part?

    • "she gave birth to a son". Later Greek manuscripts added "his firstborn", probably under the influence of Lk 2:7

    • "he called (ekalesen)". The Greek verb does not specify whether the subject is masculine or feminine, so that one version of the Syriac translation has opted for the masculine, and another for the feminine. But in the light of v. 21, where the angel specifies what Joseph is to call the child, the subject is clearly male, since it is Joseph


    1. Matthew's Message: the Who and the How - a Christological Revelation

      Section 1:18-25 is linked to ch. 2, because the angelic appearances will continue there. But it is also linked grammatically by v. 18 ("Now, as for (Jesus) Christ, his birth took place in this way") to the beginning of the genealogy: "The birth record of Jesus Christ" (1:1) and to the surprising ending of the genealogy: "Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom Jesus was born, called the Christ". It is therefore time for Matthew to answer the question raised by the genealogy of the Quis (who), i.e. son of David and son of God, and the Quomodo (how), the two questions related to his identity.

      1. The Quis: Who Jesus Is

        The genealogy of Jesus revealed to us that he is the son of David and the son of Abraham. The "son of Abraham" motif and its connection to the Gentiles will be explained with the story of the magi. Matthew focuses first on the title son of David, and in doing so he also introduces the notion of divine sonship. This is what we now need to explain.

        Matthew is interested in the title son of David, which he uses ten times, whereas it is used only four times in Mark and Luke and is absent from the gospel of John. However, in Matthew this title does not express all the mystery of Jesus' identity, because it is never used by Jesus himself or his disciples, but mainly by strangers who recognize him as Messiah because of the miracles he performed. According to Mt 22:41-46 ("The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand...'") and Mt 16:16-17 ("You are the Christ, the Son of the living God"), Jesus is not simply the son of David, but primarily the son of God.

        The association of the title "Son of God" with the risen Jesus is part of the first Christian professions of faith ("of the lineage of David according to the flesh, appointed Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by his resurrection from the dead", Rom 1:3-4). But by the time the gospels were published in the last third of the first century, Jesus was recognized as the son of God not only in his resurrection, but also during his ministry. This is what Mark tells us (1:11) with the scene of the baptism and the voice from heaven that addresses Jesus directly and calls him beloved son. But in Mark the disciples will never recognize him as the son of God while he is alive. It is different in Matthew as we can see from these parallels (the title son of God is underlined).

        Mark 6: 51-52Matthew 14: 32-33
        And he went up to them in the boat and the wind died down. And they themselves were astonished.And as they got into the boat, the wind died down. Those in the boat bowed down to him, saying, "You are truly the Son of God.".
        Mark 8: 29Matthew 16: 15-16
        And he asked them, "But what do you say that I am? "Answering, Peter said, "You are the Christ."He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Now Simon Peter answered and said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

        This relationship between son of David or Messiah or Christ and son of God also appears in Matthew's infancy narrative. Since the genealogy is basically a testimony of the OT, it can only establish the divine intention on the Davidic character of the Messiah. Only through the divine revelation of the angel of the Lord will Jesus be presented as "God with us" (Emmanuel) and his conception as the work of the Holy Spirit. From then on, Jesus is no longer the son of God only at the resurrection or at his baptism, but from his birth. If Joseph can recognize Jesus as the son of David by giving him a name, it is God and his Holy Spirit who designate him "son of God".

        For Matthew, the two titles "son of God" and "son of David" are harmoniously interrelated, and this comes from the very appearance of the term in 2 Sam 7:8-17 when the prophet Nathan has to transmit this message from God to David: "I will be a father to him and he will be a son to me". It is a question of a filiation of adoption, as we see in Ps 2:7, used at the time of the enthronement of a king: "You are my son; today I have begotten you".

        In the early days of Christian preaching, the resurrection of Jesus was interpreted in the light of Ps 110:1, the psalm of David's enthronement: "The Lord (God) said to my Lord (the king), 'Sit at my right hand'" (see Acts 2:32-36; Mt 22:44). Acts 13:32-33 applies Psalm 2 to the resurrection of Jesus: "You are my son; today I have begotten you. When the proclamation of divine filiation passes from the moment of the resurrection to the baptism of Jesus, Ps 2 will be reused and coupled with Is 42:1: "This is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom my soul delights". Of course, this begetting of Jesus as son of God is totally figurative. It will be different when we consider that Jesus was the son of God from his birth, and therefore of a real begetting. However, neither in Matthew nor in the Gospel is it a sexual begetting: the Holy Spirit is the agent of God's creative power.

        When Matthew tells us that Jesus, who became a descendant of the Davidic line through the recognition of Joseph as his son, was begotten in Mary's womb by the Holy Spirit, he perceives a very close link between Davidic and divine filiation. This connection will be further strengthened when he introduces the citation from Is 7:4 ("the virgin shall bear a son and shall call his name Emmanuel") which deals with both the house of David and the presence of God among his people.

        In concluding our presentation on the identity of Jesus, let us note what is indicated by the very name of Jesus (God saves) that Matthew takes pains to interpret in 1:21: "for he will save his people from their sins". We have noted rather that the pre-Matthew material bore the mark of the story of the young Moses, the one who was to save his people from the slavery of Egypt. So there is a parallel between the role of Jesus and that of Moses. But it is not Moses, but Joshua, a name that is a variant of the name Jesus, who will lead the people into the promised land. Jesus will play the role of both Moses and Joshua.

      2. The Quomodo or the "How" of Jesus' Identity

        Matthew establishes Jesus' identity as the son of David and the son of God. He must explain how he is.

        1. The son of David

          In Matthew 1:21 Joseph is called "son of David," and this is the only instance in the NT where this title is not applied to Jesus. Matthew draws attention to the fact that the source of Jesus' Davidic descent is Joseph. But, at the same time, he insists that this descent is not communicated through the normal sexual relations of a man and a woman. Also, to avoid confusion in his reader, Matthew warns him in advance in 1:18 that Mary's pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit. To avoid any ambiguity, he goes even further by stating that Joseph and Mary did not have sexual relations before the birth of Jesus. Therefore, Davidic descent will be transmitted not by biological paternity, but by legal paternity.

          Matthew insists that this legal fatherhood is part of God's will, and he does so in two steps: first, God's angel asks Joseph to set aside his plan for divorce and take responsibility for the mother and the unborn child, and then, more importantly, God's angel asks Joseph to name the child Jesus, and thereby recognize him as his child. Jewish law is clear: fatherhood is based on the man's recognition of a child as his own. The Mishna Baba Bathra 8:6 establishes this principle: "If a man says, 'This is my son,' he must be believed". This results in a kind of precedence of legal paternity over biological paternity, as seen in the law of levirate where the child is attributed to the deceased husband, and not to the biological father who took the responsibility of making the mother pregnant (See Appendix I).

        2. The son of God

          We learn from the voice of the angel of God that Jesus is the son of God, because he is begotten by the Holy Spirit. But Matthew is not very specific about the "how" of the Holy Spirit's action. When he writes that Jesus "was begotten," he gives us the impression that Jesus became the son of God at the moment of his conception.

          Let us consider for a moment the evolution of theological language. At the beginning of Christian preaching, various verbs are used to express the Christological vision of the risen Jesus: apart from the verb "to beget", we have "to make" (Acts 2:36: "God has made him Lord and Christ"), "to exalt" (Acts 5:21: "God has exalted him by his right hand", "to establish" (Rom 1:4: "established as Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness", "to give" (Phil 2:9: "God has given him the Name that is above every name". This language reflects the idea that Jesus became the son of God in his resurrection. But when it was realized that Jesus was the son of God from the beginning of his ministry, at his baptism, it was the language of adoption that was used, while the voice from heaven declared Jesus the beloved son (Mk 1:11), giving the impression that he was not the son of God before. This impression was corrected by establishing divine sonship from the moment of conception, as Matthew and Luke testify. But there was also a Christological movement that went even further and affirmed the pre-existence of the son of God, as witnessed by some NT hymns (Phil 2:6; Col 1:15; Jn 1:1). Conception-oriented Christology and pre-existence-oriented Christology were two ways of dismissing the adoptianist. But the two theological approaches would soon be harmonized, so that the pre-existent Word of God would be presented as taking flesh (see John) in the womb of the virgin Mary (see Matthew and Luke); hence the virginal conception would no longer be seen as the begetting of the son of God, but as his incarnation.

          In Matthew as in Luke, it is the Holy Spirit who is the principal agent of this begetting of the son of God. But Mary has a certain role to play, a major role in Luke, a minor role in Matthew. In our analysis of "how" Jesus is the son of David, we saw the two stages specified by the angel of the Lord. For Jesus the son of God, the stages are also specified by the angel of the Lord ("She will bear a son... the child she has borne is by the Holy Spirit"). But we do not have any more details about the "how" and we learn only indirectly that she is a virgin by the formula of the citation from Is 7:14. In short, the "how" of Jesus' identity as son of God goes hand in hand with that of son of David, of which he is the other facet: thus, Joseph is the one through whom Jesus is begotten as son of David, Mary is the one through whom Jesus is begotten as son of God.

          Matthew's presentation is above all theological. But one cannot rule out an apologetic motive in the face of rumors in Jewish circles that Jesus was an illegitimate child. If this rumor was circulating at the time Matthew wrote his gospel, his account can be seen as a response to all the gossip about Jesus' birth. But would such a situation, where Jesus was conceived before Mary and Joseph lived together, be the product of the Christian imagination? It would be hard to understand why a situation would have been invented that would have opened the possibility of scandal, when a scene could have been created in which Joseph and Mary were simply engaged, without a child; the rest of the narrative (1:20-25) would have followed its course unchanged, as is the case in Luke's account, and there would have been no scandal. But if Matthew's account corresponds to real events, then we understand the charge of illegitimacy of some and our account becomes a response to that charge. We also understand why Matthew added these women's names to his genealogy, women with extraordinary or irregular unions with their partners. If in the eyes of those around them their lives seemed scandalous, it is nevertheless through them that the blessed lineage of the messiah continued. The same is true of Mary, except that through her pregnancy the messianic promise was fulfilled.

    2. The Formula Citation of Isaiah 7:14

      The clearest way for Matthew to answer the "Who" and "How" question of Jesus' identity is this citation from Isaiah. Let's take some time to analyze it.

      1. The Placing of the Citation

        The placing of the citation is awkward, as it is in the middle of a story, rather than at the end of the story, as it is elsewhere in his gospel. Why didn't Matthew wait for Joseph to do what the angel asked before introducing the Isaiah quote? The most likely answer is that Matthew wanted this episode to end as it does now: "And he called his name Jesus," and thus the reference to Davidic descent, one of the answers to the "who" and "how" of Jesus' identity. Otherwise, the scene would have ended with the mention of Emmanuel, a name which, despite the reference to "God among us", does not interest him as a name and will never be mentioned again.

        If this insertion of a citation in the middle of a narrative is unusual, it is nonetheless Matthaean, for the same structure is found in ch. 21 in the scene that precedes Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

        Setting1: 18-19: "As for (Jesus) Christ, his birth..."21: 1: "When they approached Jerusalem..."
        Command1: 20-21: "...do not be afraid to take Mary ..."21: 2-3: "Meet me in the village across the street..."
        Formula citation1: 22-23: "All this took place to fulfill ..."21: 4-5: "All this took place to fulfill..."
        Execution of the command1: 24-25: "Joseph ...did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him"21: 6-7: "So the disciples went and did as they were commanded..."

      2. Isaiah 7:14 in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles

        Let's compare Matthew's text with the Greek version of the Septuagint and the Hebrew Massoretic text.

        MatthewSeptuagint (LXX)Hebrew (MT)
        Behold the virgin (parthenos) will be with child (en gastri hexei) and will give birth to a son, and they will call his name EmmanuelBehold the virgin (parthenos) will conceive (en gastri lēpsetai), and will give birth to a son, and you (sing.) will call his name EmmanuelBehold the young girl (ʿalmâ) is (will be) with child and will give birth to a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel

        The variation between "young girl" (MT) and "virgin" (LXX) has given rise to some of the most heated debates in the history of exegesis, with conservatives seeing the translation "young girl" rather than "virgin" as a denial of Mary's virginal conception. The problem comes from a vision of the prophet who would have foreseen the virginal conception of Jesus 700 years in advance. Today, no serious biblical scholar supports the prophet's vision of future events, and it is widely accepted that what the NT claims as "fulfillment" of the OT goes much further than the OT author anticipated. For the latter is primarily concerned with God's challenges in his time, and if he speaks of the future, it is in very generic terms in the event that one accepts that challenge. And if he speaks of messianic salvation, there is no indication that he has foreseen a single detail of Jesus' life.

        Here are some remarks on the various versions of Isaiah 7:14.

        The Hebrew form of Isaiah 7: 14.

        • Isaiah's oracle is addressed to the wicked king Akhaz (c. 735 to 715 BC) during the Syrian-Ephraimite war of -734 to give a sign to the skeptical monarch of a contemporary event
        • The child who will be born is not the Messiah, a notion that will develop later, but a Davidic prince who will deliver Judah from its enemies. An ancient Jewish tradition identifies him with the son of Ahaz, Hezekiah, a very religious king
        • The word ʿalmâ refers to a young girl who has reached puberty and is therefore available for marriage. There is in itself no connotation of virginity, except by the very fact that she is not married and, according to the customs of the time, she should normally be a virgin.
        • The presence of the definite article "the" girl makes it likely that Isaiah means someone whose identity the prophet or king Ahaz knew, perhaps someone he had just married and belonged to his harem
        • The participial construction of the Hebrew does not allow us to determine whether the girl is pregnant or will become pregnant. However, the birth is certainly a future reality

        In short, the Hebrew text does not refer to a virginal conception. The sign given by the prophet points to the imminent birth of a naturally conceived child of the Davidic lineage who will illustrate God's providential care for his people.

        The Greek form of Isaiah 7, 14.

        In Alexandria, in the 2nd half of the 2nd century BC, when this Greek translation called Septuagint was being completed, the translator opted for parthenos to translate the Hebrew ʿalmâ, whereas this Greek word was usually used to translate the Hebrew betûlâ, which means: virgin. Other Greek translations (Aquila, Symmachus, Theodotion) after the Septuagint opted instead for neanis (young woman) to translate the Hebrew ʿalmâ. Even so, the Septuagint's choice of parthenos does not mean that the translator intended to speak of the virginal conception of the messiah, and this conception is clearly placed in the future. All he intended to say is that a woman, who is a virgin at the moment, will conceive a child in a natural way the day she is united to a man. At most he means that it will be a firstborn.

        Both the Hebrew and the Greek versions say nothing about the manner of conception, as Matthew does. Thus, Matthew's interpretation goes further than the Isaianic text, and at the same time it is not the Isaianic text that would have planted the idea of a virginal conception by the Holy Spirit in Matthew's mind; at most, the Isaianic text has colored his way of expressing the virginal conception.

      3. The Matthean Use of Isaiah 7:14

        Matthew saw this passage from Isaiah as supporting the "who" and "how" of Jesus' identity as son of David and son of God. For in Isaiah 7:13, the verse before our citation, the prophet addresses the king as being from the house of David. Then, in v. 14, he speaks of a pregnant virgin about to give birth. So Matthew sees all this as a plan meticulously prepared by God, which he expresses with the phrase, "his birth was in this way," "this way" being first the genealogy which is a precise mathematics of the three sets of fourteen generations to produce a "son of David," and then the voice of the prophet Isaiah who not only announces a "son of David" but also an Emmanuel, a "God with us." For Matthew to accuse Jesus of illegitimacy was downright slanderous. So let's look at how Matthew used Is 7:14.

        1. Matthew uses hexei in gastri (lit.: will have in the womb), rather than the lēpsetai en gastri (lit.: will receive in the womb) of the Septuagint (if we take the Codex Vaticanus version of the Septuagint, as the Codex Alexandrinus and Sinaiticus also have hexei, which could be an attempt to harmonize the copyist with Matthew's text). Why would Matthew replace lēpsetai (receive) with hexei (will have)? Since we have here an account of a birth announcement by an angel of the Lord, Matthew would have followed the standard structure of this literary genre in the Septuagint where it does say: to have in the womb (en gastrei echein), not: to receive in the womb (see Gen 16:11; 17:17; Jdg 13:3,7).

        2. Matthew writes "they will call him" rather than "you will call him" of the Septuagint. Why is this? First of all, the Hebrew text has the verb qārāʾt, which normally represents the 2nd person singular, and rightly the Septuagint translated: you shall call him. But the majority of biblical scholars agree that we would have here the ancient Hebrew form of the 3rd person feminine, and that we should translate: she will call. But there is also the possibility that Matthew had in his hands a version of the Hebrew text similar to a version of the Qumran text of Isaiah (1QIsa) where the root qr' could be translated: his name will be called, a translation equivalent to that of Matthew: they will call him. However, the simplest explanation is that Matthew deliberately changed the Septuagint text of Isaiah to fit his narrative: quoting the prophet Isaiah, he could not put in his mouth "you (Joseph) will call him by the name of Emmanuel". By having "they will call him" Matthew changes the subject to a much wider audience, the "they" being able to refer to the people of whom he spoke in v. 21, the people whose sins Jesus will save, a people which seems to include the Gentiles; therefore, if it is this great universal people who will call him "Emmanuel", then Jesus may truly be the son of Abraham, the one in whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

        3. "Emmanuel (which means "God with us")". Does the explanation of the meaning of the name Emmanuel come from the pre-Matthean material or from Matthew himself. It is likely that Matthew, in adding the citation from Isaiah, also added the explanation of the meaning of Emmanuel, a meaning that must have eluded non-Jewish Christians. This meaning is suggested to him by Isaiah 8:10, a passage that follows 8:8 where the mention of Emmanuel comes up for the second time: "whatever your words are, they will not be fulfilled; for the Lord is with us". It is this interpretation that interests him more than the name Emmanuel itself: it allows him to support Jesus' divine filiation in addition to his Davidic filiation, and it allows him to make an inclusion with the last words of his gospel: "And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age". And this inclusion reflects Matthew's vision of the Messiah, which he sees as a presence that is felt eschatologically, i.e., the final and once and for all manifestation of God's presence.

        In short, Matthew has not only added this citation from Isaiah to the pre-Matthean material, but he has adapted it to his context and purpose. On the other hand, is he original in perceiving the Christian applicability of this passage, or is he simply reiterating a passage that was already popular in Christian circles? We lack the evidence to give an answer.

    3. Matthew's Use of Pre-Matthean Material

      We need to return to the main pre-Matthean material we identified earlier, specifically to section A on the first appearance of the angel, which is the basis of our section 1:18-25. But this section 1:18-25 contains much more information than the pre-Matthean material: first there are additions from Matthew, but there is also other pre-Matthean material. This is what we now need to explain. We have placed in parallel first (on the left) the main pre-Matthean material identified earlier, and then on the right the actual text of Matthew. The main pre-Matthean text has been underlined. In bold type we have identified what comes from Matthew's pen to fit the narrative to his theology, such as the fact that Joseph does what the angel commands, or the insistence that Mary did not have sexual relations until Jesus' birth to protect the mother's virginity as foretold by Isaiah. In italics is the other pre-Matthew material, which is not from Matthew's pen, but which Matthew used to complete his account, e.g. Joseph as the son of David, Mary who is said to be already pregnant by the Holy Spirit, the child who receives his name before his birth. Where did Matthew get this information? Our hypothesis is that this material comes from birth announcement narratives. This is what we need to examine. In what follows, Matthew's underlined text reflects what comes from the main pre-Matthean tradition, the bolded text comes from Matthew's editing work, and the italicized text would come from another pre-Matthean tradition around the annunciation stories.

      Main Pre-Matthean MaterialMt 1: 20-25 (without the formula citation)
      Now when Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, behold an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Take Mary your wife into your home, for she will give birth to a son who will save his people from their sins." So Joseph got up from sleep and took his wife home, and she gave birth to a son..20 Now as he was considering this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for the child begotten in her is through the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 24 Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took his wife home, 25 but he had no sexual relations with her before she gave birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

      1. The Annunciation of Birth

        We have already pointed out that the first appearance of an angel in a dream (see A in the table of appearances) is distinguished from the other two (B and C) by the presence of two requests from the angel accompanied by a reason for each of them. It is also distinguished by a different context prefaced by two introductory verses. This is a sign that the account of an angel's appearance in a dream has been merged with that of an angelic birth announcement. Here is the structure of such a birth announcement story which includes five stages.

        Steps in Annunciation of Birth Narrative

        1The appearance of an angel of the Lord (or appearance of the Lord)
        2Fear or prostration of the visionary confronted by this supernatural presence
        3The divine message
        1. The visionary is addressed by name
        2. A qualifying phrase describing the visionary
        3. The visionary is urged not to be afraid
        4. A woman is with child or is about to be with child
        5. She will give birth to the (male) child
        6. The name by which the child is to be called
        7. An etymology interpreting the name
        8. The future accomplishments of the child
        4An objection by the visionary as to how this can be or a request for a sign
        5The giving of a sign to reassure the visionary

        Using the 5-step structure, let's parallel three scenes from the OT, as well as the birth announcements in Luke and Matthew. The brackets indicate verses where the substance of the stage is found, but in an unusual form.

        References for the 5 steps
        John Baptist
        116: 717: 1; 18: 113: 31: 111: 261: 20
        216: 1317: 3; 18: 213: 221: 121: 29 
        3a16: 8(17: 15) 1: 131: 301: 20
        3b16: 8(17: 15)  1: 281: 20
        3c  (13: 23)1: 131: 301: 20
        3d16: 11 13: 3 1: 31(1: 20)
        3e16: 1117: 19; 18: 1013: 41: 131: 311: 21
        3f16: 1117: 19 1: 131: 311: 21
        3g16: 1117: 17; 18: 13-15   1: 21
        3h16: 1217: 16.1913: 51: 15-171: 32.33.351: 21
        4 17: 17; 18: 1213: 8.171: 181: 34 
        5 (17: 20-21)13: 9.18-211: 201: 36-37 

        As can be seen, Matthew's account does not fit as easily into the standard framework as Luke's. The absence of steps 2, 4, and 5 can be explained by the fact that Matthew incorporated it into an account of an angel's appearance in a dream, which had the effect of dislocating it somewhat. For example, step 2 refers to the motif of the visionary's fear, but the second and third dream angel appearances do not contain it, and it is not clear why Matthew would have added such a motif to the first appearance, since it was not part of the story.

        Let us compare the message of some of these birth announcement narratives with Matthew (italicized are words that do not belong to the main pre-Matthean text, but rather to a pre-Matthean birth announcement narrative).

        Gn 16, 8.11Gn 17, 19Lc 1, 13Lc 1, 28.30-31Mt 1, 20-21
        "Hagar, maid of Sarah,...you re with child and will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Ishmael [i.e., God hears], for the Lord has been attentivve to your humiliation."(to Abraham): "Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you; and you will call his name Isaac [i.e., he laughs - see 17: 17 and 18: 13-15 where Abraham and Sarah laugh]".(to Zechariah): "Zechariah, do not be afraid, ...your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will call his name John.""Hail, O favored one... do not be afraid, Mary, ...you will conceive in your womb and will give birth to a son; and you will call his name Jesus."(to Joseph): "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home, for the child begotten in her is through the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

        If we take the standard structure of the birth announcements, we note that Matthew's phrase: "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid", meets the stages 3a to 3c, that the phrase: "for the child begotten in her... She will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins", meets the stages 3d to 3g. As for the Lucan account of the announcement to Mary, it is noted that it meets stages 3a to 3f. The great difference between Matthew and Luke is that Matthew's account is addressed to a man, Luke's to a woman, just as Gen 16:8 was addressed to a woman, Hagard, and Gen 17:19 is addressed to a man, Abraham. Apart from this point, there are many similarities between Matthew and Luke: the mention of the "son of David" (a man of the house of David in Luke), the theme of salvation, the attribute "upright person" (for Joseph in Matthew, for Elizabeth and Zechariah in Luke). Because of all these similarities and the fact that Matthew and Luke did not know each other and are independent of each other, it must be concluded that they had in their possession a pre-evangelical account of the birth announcement which they each adapted in their own way.

      2. Begotten of a Virgin through the Holy Spirit

        Having seen the similarities of the birth announcement narratives with those of the OT, it is now necessary to consider what is unique about those of the NT: Matthew and Luke agree that the announcement occurred after Joseph and Mary had been engaged, but before their cohabitation, and the two evangelists also agree that Mary will conceive a son through the action of the Holy Spirit.

        Let us recall that at the beginning of Christian preaching, the begetting of the son of God was first associated with the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13:33), then with his baptism (Mt 3:17), and much later, but before the publication of the gospels of Luke and Matthew, with the conception of Jesus. This last vision would have been articulated around the tradition of the birth announcement according to a format well known throughout the Bible for salvific figures, and according to the perception that the figure of the son of God went hand in hand with that of the son of David, as we see with Ps 2:7 on the royal enthronement ("You are my son; today I have begotten you"); thus, with natural procreation was born the one who was at the same time son of David and son of God. On the other hand, if the Holy Spirit was associated with the begetting of the son of God in the resurrection, it was normal that he was also associated with his conception. The prophet Isaiah had announced the birth of this marvelous child who was both from the house of David and the sign of God's presence among us, Emmanuel (Isa 7:13-14), who would sit on David's throne, and would be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6-7), and on whom "the Spirit of the Lord will rest: the spirit of wisdom and discernment, the spirit of counsel and valour, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord" (Isa 11:2).

        It is therefore easy to explain why the Holy Spirit was associated with the conception of Jesus, but how can we explain the begetting of the Messiah from a virgin? In the birth announcement stories in the Bible, it is to overcome a human obstacle that God intervenes with his Holy Spirit. In the OT, for example, it is mainly the infertility of the mother that is the obstacle. But the Christian authors could not find any example of the obstacle of being a virgin and not having sexual relations with a husband. This idea of a virgin birth does not come from Matthew or Luke, but from a pre-Gospel tradition.

      3. Summary

        We can now understand the composite aspect of Mt 1:18-25. First, there is a kerygmatic proclamation of Jesus as the son of God, begotten of the Holy Spirit, which emerged after a very long Christian reflection where what was first applied to the resurrection of Jesus was now applied to the moment of his conception. Then there was a tradition of angelic annunciation of the birth of a Davidic Messiah created on the model of the OT birth announcements. This annunciation tradition and this kerygmatic proclamation have been amalgamated, thanks especially to the fact that the notion of "son of God" and that of "son of David" have long been associated in Christian preaching. It should be noted that the setting in which the tradition of the birth announcement appeared was that in which Joseph and Mary were engaged, and Mary was still a virgin. This is the pre-Gospel tradition that Matthew and Luke receive.

        It is this pre-evangelical tradition that each evangelist will elaborate in his own way. Luke rewrites the annunciation story to create a parallel announcement of the birth of John the Baptist, one addressed to Mary, the other to Zechariah. Matthew, on the other hand, integrates into his annunciation narrative a popular tradition in which the story of Joseph and the infant Jesus is modeled on the adventures of the patriarch Joseph and the infant Moses, adventures structured by a series of angelic appearances in dreams. Thus Matthew expanded the first angelic appearance to include the birth announcement story.

        This composite narrative fit perfectly with Matthew's overall theological intent. For example, the strains of Davidic and divine descent that had emerged, he used to establish a genealogy, one that starts from Abraham and proceeds through David to Joseph, and which he concludes in such a way that Jesus can be seen as a descendant of David without being begotten by Joseph. How is this possible? This is what the birth announcement narrative will explain. The integration of the tradition that presents Joseph and Jesus on the model of the patriarch Joseph and the young Moses makes it possible to associate Jesus with a major episode in the history of Israel, the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus. Thus, the childhood of the one who bore the same name as Joshua and was called to save his people from their sins, would evoke the historical deliverance of Israel from Egypt.

  5. The Magi Come to Pay Homage to the King of the Jew

    Translation of Mt 2: 1-12

    1 Now, after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the East came to Jerusalem 2 asking, "Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage." 3 When King Herod heard this, he was startled, and so was all Jerusalem with him. 4 Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 "In Bethlehem of Judea", they told him; "for thus it is written by the prophet:

    6 'And you, O Bethlehem (in the) land of Judah,
    Are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
    For from you will come forth a ruler
    Who will shepherd my people Israel.'"
    7 Then Herod summoned the magi secretly and ascertained from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them off to Bethlehem with the instruction: "Go, search diligently for the child. As soon as you find him, bring me word that I too may come and pay him homage." 9 Obeying the king, they set out; and behold, the star which they had seen at its rising went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were greatly overjoyed. 11 And entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they bowed down and paid him homage. Then they opened their treasure-boxes and brought out gifts for him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 But, since they had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went away to their own country by another route.


    v. 1

    • "Now, after the birth of Jesus... behold". In Greek, we have here an absolute genitive, i.e. a genitive participle ("Jesus having been begotten") accompanied by the postpositive particle de ("Now") and followed by "behold", a structure that brings a development to what precedes.

    • "Bethlehem". Located five miles south of Jerusalem, this city is traditionally the place where David received the royal anointing from the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16:1-13; 17:12,15; 20:6,28). Matthew does not specify the birthplace either, except that it is the house of Mary (and Joseph), while Luke, on the other hand, tells us that Mary and Joseph were visiting Bethlehem without a place to stay and that the child was placed in a manger, which is the origin of the Christian tradition of a birthplace in a cave. The present basilica of Bethlehem, built by Constantine (325) and rebuilt by Justinian (550), is situated on a series of caves.

    • "of Judea". Why this specification? Various explanations have been proposed. First of all, in the Old Testament the expression "Bethlehem of Judah" (Jdg 17:7,9; 19:1-2) is used to distinguish the city from "Bethlehem of Zebulun" (Josh 19:15). Then it has been suggested that this is Matthew's intention to prepare us for the citation in v. 6 where it speaks of "Bethlehem, the land of Judah". But all this ignores the fact that Matthew writes Judea, not Judah. The key to understanding Matthew is probably in v. 2 where he speaks of the king of the Jews, and so he would insist that the king of the Jews was born in Jewish territory, Judea.

    • "Herod the king". According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities vi 4: #167 and ix 3: #213), Herod the Great died after an eclipse of the moon and before the Passover, which brings us to the year 750 of the foundation of Rome or the year 4 BC, more precisely in March/April of the year -4 (the eclipse took place during the night of March 12 to 13, one month before the Passover) According to Matthew (2:16), Jesus was born two years earlier (in the year 6 BC), which is consistent with Luke 3:23, which tells us that Jesus was about 30 years old in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, which in the latter case puts us between October 27 and October 28 of the Christian era. It may seem strange that Jesus was born 6 years before the Christian era, but this is all due to an error by Dionysius Exiguus (Denis the Short) in 533 who, wanting to establish the year 0 of the new calendar using the date of Herod's death, made a mistake of six years in his calculations.

    • "magi". What do we know about them? Herodotus (Histories I) describes them as a priestly caste among the Medes (6th century BC) who had the special power to interpret dreams. In the Persian period (around 550 BC), they are identified with the Zoroastrian priests. In the Greek Daniel (2nd century BC), magicians are everywhere in Babylon, along with enchanters, astronomers, those who interpret dreams or receive messages in visions. Philo of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, distinguishes between scientific magicians and those who are charlatans and magicians. Tacitus (Annals II 27-33) denounces in Rome these astrologers, magicians and all those who interpret dreams (they would have been banished by the emperor around the year 19 of our era, according to Suetonius). For its part, the Acts of the Apostles names some of them: Simon the magician in Samaria (Acts 8:9-24), Elymas or Bar-Jesus in Cyprus (Acts 13:6-11). Josephus (op. cit., vii 2: #142) tells us of Atomos, a Cypriot who was active in Caesarea Maritime around the year 50. In short, the term "magi" refers to all those engaged in the occult arts, and this covers astronomers, fortune-tellers, and magicians alike.

      Various biblical scholars, like Christians in the early centuries of the Christian era (Didache II 2; Ignatius of Antioch: Ephesians xix 3; Justin: Dialogue lxxviii 9), have seen in Matthew's account an apology against false magicians and astrology: just as the sorcerers of Egypt were defeated by Moses, so the power of the astrologers is broken by the coming of Christ; the homage of the magicians is a gesture of submission from defeated people. However, in the text of Matthew there is no indication of this. On the contrary, the magi represent the best of the pagan world that goes to Jesus based on the revelation of nature, just as Balaam in the Old Testament received a revelation from God even though he was not an Israelite.

    • "from the East (apo anatolōn)". This is the same expression found in the account of Balaam (LXX: Num 23:7). This latter account is part of the context of Matthew, as we shall see in the comment, but without the East designating a more precise place. Nevertheless, biblical scholars have tried to specify this place and can be grouped as follows.

      1. Parthia or Persia

        The "magus" is traditionally associated with the Medes and Persia. Also, early Christian art depicts them dressed in belted tunics with long sleeves, long pants and wearing the Phrygian cap. The fathers of the Church associated the Magi all the more easily with Persia and its Zoroastrian religion, since, according to their belief, the prophet Zoroaster had predicted the coming of the Messiah. Unfortunately, we have no evidence that Christians in Matthew's day shared this perception.

      2. Babylon

        The association with Babylon comes from the fact that the Babylonians or Chaldeans had developed a great interest in astronomy and astrology. And since the Jews were exiled there in the 6th century BC and many settled there permanently afterwards, they were able to communicate their messianic expectations to them. And as we noted earlier in connection with the Greek Daniel, it is in the description of the Babylonian court that the word "magus" occurs most often.

      3. Arabia or the Syrian desert

        This place is suggested by the gifts offered. For, according to Is 66:6 and Ps 72:15, gold and incense are associated with the desert caravans arriving from Midian (northwest Arabia) and Sheba (southwest Arabia). In the Old Testament, the "people of the east" often refers to the desert Arabs, and they had a reputation for wisdom (1 Kings 5:10; Prov 30:1; 31:1). Moreover, since the time of Solomon, Israel's trade relations with southern Arabia were very active. And early Christian generations associated frankincense and myrrh with districts around Arabia.

    • "came to Jerusalem" (Hierosolyma)". Here we have the Hellenized form of the name of the city, as is the case nine times in the gospels. Only Mt 23:27 presents the Semitic form of the name: Hierousalēm.

    v. 2

    • the newborn King of the Jews (lit.: the has been born, king of the Jews)". The order of the article (the), followed by the participle (having been born) and followed by the noun (king) is unusual in Matthew, for usually the sentence begins with the noun followed by the participle which acts as an attribute: the king, having been born. By emphasizing "king of the Jews", the title Herod bore, Matthew presents him as a sort of rival.

    • "his star". In ancient times it was widely believed that a cosmic phenomenon accompanied the birth or death of important people, or the arrival of significant events. Examples:

      1. A star is said to have guided Aeneas to the site where Rome was to be founded (Virgil, The Aeneid II 694)
      2. A star and a comet are said to have stood over Jerusalem for a year before the fall of the city in the year 70 (Josephus, The Jewish War, vi v3 #289)
      3. Persian magicians would have predicted the birth of Alexander the Great by seeing the burning of the great temple of Diana at Ephesus in the early hours of the morning, because the event was the sign of a great peril for all of Asia (Cicero, Histories I xxiii 47)
      4. the births of Mithridate and Alexander Severus would have been accompanied by the appearance of a new star in the sky
      5. Nero was so alarmed by the presence of a comet for several days, an omen of the death of an important person, that he had several notables killed

      Thus, that a star marks the birth of the Messiah or that Herod seeks to kill the child was quite plausible to Matthew's audience. Even if one doubts the historicity of Matthew's account, it is still worth asking the question: is it possible to find an astronomical phenomenon at the time of Jesus' birth? For it is not impossible that Christians would have remembered an unusual phenomenon and associated it with the birth of Jesus. Three candidates have been proposed, and the third would be the most important.

      1. A supernova or "new star".

        A supernova comes from the implosion of a star at the end of its life, which is accompanied by a gigantic explosion making its luminosity extremely great, so that it can be visible even during the day. But there is no record of a supernova just before the birth of Jesus.

      2. A comet

        A comet describes an elliptical movement around the sun and becomes visible only when it approaches the sun and the earth, especially if it develops this famous luminous tail of gas and dust. The most famous is Halley's comet which appears every 77 years and whose first testimony dates from the year 240 BC in Europe, China and Japan. According to astronomical calculations, Halley's comet would have appeared in the year 12 BC, that is to say about 6 years before the birth of Jesus. All this being said, the idea of a comet runs up against a great difficulty: Matthew does not speak of a comet, but of a star. Moreover, the appearance of a comet was usually associated with the announcement of a catastrophe, not with the birth of a salvific figure. Finally, the date of -12 is much too early to associate it with the announcement of the birth of Jesus. But it is possible that the arrival of foreign ambassadors in 10 BC to greet King Herod on the occasion of the completion of the city of Caesarea maritima was combined with the appearance of Comet Halley in 12 BC in the story of the star and the wise men from the east.

      3. A planetary conjunction

        Jupiter and Saturn are two planets that pass each other every 20 years. It even happens that the planet Mars passes in front of them at the same time or shortly after. Kepler witnessed this in 1604 and calculated that the phenomenon occurs every 805 years, and therefore must have occurred in the year -7 or -6. The phenomenon would have been mentioned in cuneiform tablets: the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would have occurred in the year -7, and that of Mars early the following year in the constellation of Pisces of the zodiac. Now, this constellation was associated with the last days and the Hebrews, while Jupiter was associated with the rulers of the world and Saturn was identified with the star of the Amorites of the region of Syria-Palestine. Thus, it has been claimed that this conjunction led Parthian astrologers to predict the arrival of a world ruler in Palestine among the Hebrews in the last days. But all this is highly speculative.

    • "at its rising". In v. 1 the Greek expression was apo anatolōn (lit.: from rising), here it is: en tē anatolē (lit.: in rising). The associated verb is: anatellein (to rise). Matthew may want to make a pun between the rising of the star and the birth of a king, since the underlying Aramaic word mwld can refer to the birth of both a star and a person.

    • "and have come". So far there is no indication that the Magi set out following the star that would have accompanied them: they only saw a star at its rising. It is only in v. 9 that this will be specified.

    • "pay him homage". The Greek verb proskynein appears 13 times in Matthew, including three times in our account. It literally means "to prostrate oneself" and is used to describe the homage paid to a dignitary or an authority, as well as the worship and adoration of the deity. For Matthew's audience, the image of the Magi coming from the East to pay homage to a king by bringing royal gifts must not have had the naive romanticism that it may have today, for it could refer to a number of events.

      1. In the year 10/9 BC, ambassadors from different countries came to Palestine with gifts for the inauguration by King Herod of the new city of Caesarea Maritima
      2. In the year 44 CE, Queen Helen of Adiabene, who had converted to Judaism, came to Jerusalem with a multitude of gifts for the people affected by the famine that was devastating the country
      3. In the year 66, Tiridates, king of Armenia, came to Italy with the sons of three rulers of the neighboring Parthian regions to "pay homage" to Nero, and then in the end, did not return to his country by the same route, but by taking the sea (Dion Cassius, Roman History lxiii 1-7; Suetonius, Nero 13). It is worth noting that Pliny (Natural History XXX vi 16-17) refers to Tiridates and his companions as magi.

    v. 3

    • "he was startled". The Greek verb tarassein (to stir, to agitate, to disturb, to upset) appears only once more in Matthew, at the time of the epiphany of Jesus in the account of the walk on the water, which leads to the confession that Jesus is the son of God by the disciples.

    • "all Jerusalem with him". Josephus (Antiquities II ix 2-3 #206.215) describes the terror of the king (Pharaoh) and the Egyptians upon learning of the birth of a child (Moses) among the Israelites, a child who was to be a threat to the king's authority.

    v. 4

    • "Assembling". The verb synagein is frequent in the passion narrative to describe the fact that the enemies of Jesus gather against him, an echo of Ps 2:2 where the assembly of the rulers gathers against the king-Messiah.

    • "all the chief priests and scribes". The Sanhedrin was made up of priests, scribes and elders, and so it seems to suggest a session of this body. Why the plural in the expression "high priests" when there could be only one high priest in office? This is because the term included, in addition to the current incumbent, the previous incumbent if he was still alive, and all the members of the privileged families from which the high priests were chosen.

    • "of the people". In the passion narrative (27:1), Matthew speaks of "the elders of the people". Why does he write "scribes of the people" here instead? It is possible that he is depending here on a tradition based on the birth of Moses where they spoke of "priestly scribes" who advised Pharaoh.

    • "the Messiah". Herod speaks of the Messiah, while the magi spoke of "king of the Jews". For Matthew, the terms are interchangeable, as we see in the passion narrative, when the chief priests question him about his messiahship, but he will be crucified under the title of "king of the Jews".

    v. 5

    • "the prophet". The following is a combination of Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2.

    v. 6

    • (in the) land of Judah. The Greek expression is awkward, because it seems to put Bethlehem and "the land of Judah" in apposition. Some manuscripts (Bezae, old Latin) have added: "of" (Bethlehem "of" the land of Judah).

    v. 7

    • "Then (tote)". Here's a word Matthew loves and prefers to Mark's conjunctive phrase "and" (kai).

    • "ascertained ...the exact". The Greek verb akriboun is a technical term in astronomical observation. Matthew prepares us for what follows, the slaughter of children under two years of age.

    • "the star had appeared". This refers to the year, month and day the star appeared on the horizon.

    v. 8

    • "the child (paidion)". Matthew uses paidion nine times to refer to Jesus, while he will use pais and teknon to refer to the massacre of the children of Bethlehem and Rachel (on the distinction of all these terms, see the Glossary).

    • "bring me word (apangellein)". This Greek verb means: to bring news or to announce. Is it simply a matter of sending a word or of bringing the news oneself? According to 2:12, it is the latter.

    v. 9

    • "Obeying (lit.: having heard).

    • "the place where (hou)". While the motif of a star leading people to their destination is known from ancient times, driving over a house is unusual.

    v. 10

    • "were greatly overjoyed". Matthew emphasizes the intensity of joy.

    v. 11

    • "house". It must be assumed that Matthew, unlike Luke who presents them as visitors, states that Mary and Joseph were residents of Bethlehem. Several biblical scholars have tried unsuccessfully to reconcile Matthew and Luke.

    • "treasure-boxes" (thēsauros)". Unlike Mt 6:21, the word refers not so much to the hoarded treasure itself, but to the chest that contained it.

    • "gold". Some biblical scholars have suggested that it should be translated "incense" instead, since the Hebrew word zāhāb, reflects the proto-Semitic ḏhb (gold) which in southern Arabia refers to incense, and so it is possible that zāhāb could also mean: incense. To this we must reply that in Matthew's time the Hebrew word clearly referred to gold.

    v. 12

    • "warned in a dream (chrēmatizein)". Unlike other passages in Matthew (1:20; 2:13,19), it is not an angel who intervenes, and thus leads us to believe that this account was not part of a pre-Matthean set of accounts of angelic appearances in dreams.


    1. Matthew's Message: the Where and the Whence - Reactions to a Christological Revelation

      What is remarkable about both Matthew and Luke is that the account of Jesus' birth is an entity in itself, somehow independent of what precedes it. And even the town of Bethlehem is not mentioned until chapter two.

      1. The Place of 2:1-12 in the Plan of Chapter Two

        Chapter two contains two acts, each with a few scenes that express his theological vision of the story.

        Act I (2: 1-12): the Magi from the East receive the revelation of God
        Scene 1 (2, 1-6)The Magi who come from the East represent the Gentiles who receive God's revelation through nature (star) and need to be further enlightened by the Jewish Scriptures. Once in Jerusalem, they are redirected to Bethlehem. The scene concludes with a citation from Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2, which mention Bethlehem
        Scene 2 (2: 7-12)The Magi go to Bethlehem to pay homage to the child and offer their gifts, then return by another route. There is the implicit citation from Ps 72:10-11 and Isa 60:6 about the strangers bringing gifts of gold and incense to honor the king, the royal son of God.
        Act II (2: 13-23): Herod seeks to kill the newborn king
        Scene 3 (2: 13-15)Despite his knowledge of Scripture provided by the Jewish religious authorities, Herod wants to kill the newborn king. So Joseph flees to Egypt with the child and his mother. The scene concludes with a citation from Hosea 11:1, which mentions Egypt
        Scene 4 (2: 16-18)Herod orders the massacre of children in Bethlehem. The scene concludes with a citation from Jeremiah 31:15, which mentions Ramah (thought to be near Bethlehem).
        Scene 5 (2: 19-23)Joseph returns with the child and his mother not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth of Galilee. The scene ends with a citation (Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 16:17?) to mention what comes from Nazareth.

      2. The Relation of the Plan to Matthew's Message

        Chapter 1 answered two questions: who is Jesus and how is he who he is? The answer to the first question was: He is the Messianic son of David and "God among us" as the son of God. The answer to the second question was: He was born of Mary by the Holy Spirit, and he is the son of David by receiving his from Joseph who was of Davidic lineage. Chapter 2 will answer the question: where is he from?

        The answer to these questions is required by the Jewish opposition who not only deny his divine origin, but also that he could be the Messiah, given his origin in a humble family of Nazareth. So Matthew intends to show that Jesus comes from Bethlehem, the village of David. Moreover, it is no accident that he was known as coming from Nazareth, for the same God who announced that the Messiah would be from Bethlehem, he also spoke through the prophets of a Nazorean, emphasizing his status as a messianic nēṣer (descendant), and nāzir (the "holy one") of God. And in this move from Bethlehem to Nazareth, Matthew alludes to the exiles of the tribes in the words of Jeremiah to describe the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem, and in sending him to Egypt to return, Jesus experiences both the exodus and the exile of the people of Israel.

        Although Matthew seeks to refute the arguments of the Jews of his day, his primary focus is on his own community of Jews and Gentiles. In ch. 1, the reference to Gentiles came in the genealogy through the mention of foreign women and through the mention of both the sons of Abraham with the sons of David, even though the emphasis was really on Davidic descent, in ch. 2 Matthew focuses on Jesus as the son of Abraham with these Gentiles coming from the East.

        By the time Matthew wrote his gospel in the last third of the first century, it was the Gentiles who were flocking to join the Christian community, even though the preaching was first directed to the Jews. The majority of the Jews rejected Jesus as the messiah. All this contributed to the evolution of the Christological moment, i.e. the moment when the revelation of Jesus as Messiah and son of God was situated with the power of the Holy Spirit. In the aftermath of Easter, this moment was linked with the resurrection of Jesus, followed by the proclamation of his lordship first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, a proclamation that elicited two reactions: acceptance and reverence, or rejection and persecution. But over time this Christological moment shifted to the beginning of Jesus' ministry, at his baptism, with the voice from heaven about Jesus' identity, and the preaching that followed also provoked two opposite reactions, acceptance or rejection, a rejection that would culminate in the trial and execution of Jesus. Finally, this Christological moment has moved again to the beginning of Jesus' life with the revelation of the angel at the moment of his conception, and all of Matthew 2 is the account of the proclamation of this revelation and the double reaction of the listeners.

        In ch. 2, the role of proclaiming Jesus as the messiah is given to the wise men from the East, wise and learned among the Gentiles. Since they are Gentiles, the revelation came through nature, the star of the sky, the Star of David. Yet, for a complete revelation about Jesus, they also need the Scripture that was entrusted to the Jews. And this creates a real paradox: on the one hand, the Jews, who possess the scripture and are able to understand the prophets, reject what is proclaimed, as shown by the attitude of Herod, the chief priests, the scribes and all of Jerusalem, while the wise men among the Gentiles pay homage to the king of the Jews This portrait of Matthew echoes first of all what was happening in his time with the conversion of the Gentiles and the persecution of the Christians in the synagogues and the sanhedrins by the Jews. But it also echoes the passion narrative when the secular authorities, the chief priests and the elders of the people will bring Jesus to justice and condemn him under the title of "king of the Jews". But while it is through his resurrection that Jesus will triumph over death, in the infancy narrative it is through his flight to another country and his return that Jesus will escape his opponents. In both cases, it is the realization of Ps 2:2 where God confounds the kings and rulers who have gathered against his messiah.

        Thus, ch. 2 completes ch. 1 in the sequence of revelation, proclamation and double reaction, making the infancy narrative a gospel in miniature.

    2. Matthew's Use of Scripture in the Service of His Message

      1. The Formula Citation of Micah 5:1 and II Sam 5:2 in Scene 1

        The coming of the Gentiles from the East illustrates the theme of Jesus, son of Abraham, through whom "all the nations of the earth will be blessed" (Gen 22:18). But the themes of the son of Abraham and the son of David run together throughout the infancy narrative, and it is not surprising to find here the theme of the son of David through the citations from Micah 5:1 and 2 Samuel 5:2. The first citation affirms that from Bethlehem will come the one who will be the leader of Israel, and the second is set in the context of the tribes of Israel asking David to become their leader.

        Let us compare the original texts of the Hebrew and Septuagint texts with the quotation given by Matthew. .

        Mt 2: 6Septuagint (LXX)Masoretic Hebrew (MT)
        And you, O Bethlehem (in the) land of Judah,(Mic 5: 1a) And you, O Bethlehem, house of Ephrathah,(Mic 5: 1a) And you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
        are by no means least among the rulers (hēgemōn) of Judah;(Mic 5: 1b) are too small to be among the thousands (chilias) of Judah;(Mic 5, 1b) small to be among the clans (lit.: thousands) of Judah;
        for from you will come forth a ruler (hēgoumenos),(Mic 5: 1c) from you there will come forth for me a leader (archōn) of Israel(Mic 5: 1c) from you there will come forth for me one who is to be a ruler in Israel.
        who will shepherd my people Israel(2 Sam 5: 2a) You wil shephered my people Israel(2 Sam 5: 2a) You will shepherd my people Israel

        Let's comment on these different versions.

        Line 1: Matthew omits the mention of Ephrathah and replaces it with "land of Judah". The reason is probably theological: the term "Judah" reminds the reader that the messiah is descended from Judah, whereas the term "Ephrathah" must have meant little.

        Line 2: Matthew refuses to consider Bethlehem as an insignificant hamlet, as Micah 5:1b asserts, since for him Jesus was born there. If this is a deliberate Christian modification, it is not so in the following, where "thousands" becomes "chiefs": the Hebrew consonants ʾlp (thousands) can be read as ʾallupē (chiefs, heads of clans) or as ʾalpē (thousands, clans).

        Line 3: Matthew has shortened the text of Micah 5:1c, first eliminating "Israel" which will be mentioned in line 4, and then "for me." The reference to the leader is made with hēgoumenos, presumably to match it with hēgemōn in line 2.

        Line 4: Note a simple minor grammatical change required to weld the two citations together.

        Analysis of these differences leads us to conclude that these changes were made with scholarly care. It is possible that the gospel version of Micah 5:1 came to Matthew in a form already fixed by Christian usage and to which he would have added 2 Sam 5:2. The evangelist leads us to believe through the characters in the story that Micah 5:1 was already accepted by the Jews as a reference to the birthplace of the messiah.

        Some biblical scholars refuse to consider Mt 2:5b-6 as a formula of citation/fulfillment, because we do not find the usual formula: "All this happened so that what the Lord had said by the mouth of the prophet might be fulfilled". To this we must reply that we have here a direct style in which it is precisely the specialists in Scripture who interpret the text correctly, and therefore makes the usual introduction unnecessary. Moreover, like the other formula citations of ch. 2, we have a reference to a geographical place.

      2. The Implicit Citation of Isa 60:6 and Ps 72:10-11 in Scene 2

        In scene 2 of act 1, the magi bring gifts to the newborn Jesus. But unlike scene 1 where there were explicit citations from the Old Testament, here everything is implicit. For at the basis of Matthew's account of the Magi, there is the account of Balaam (Num 24:17) as we shall see below, and this account which speaks of the star at the rising may have suggested to him other passages of the OT which speak of light at the rising, such as Isa 60:1: LXX "Be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Then a few verses later:

        LXX "Then you will see, and you will be in awe, and you will be ecstatic in your heart; for the wealth of the sea, the nations and the peoples will be brought to you. And there shall come to thee herds of camels, and the camels of Midian and Gephah shall cover your ways. All the men of Sheba shall come laden with gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the good news of the salvation of God" (Isa 60:5-6)

        Thus, this passage from Isaiah allowed Matthew to add details to his sketch from Balaam's account, in particular by pointing out that the representatives of the nations, the magi, bring gifts of gold and frankincense, for the light and glory of the Lord has risen upon them. Another OT text probably offered him material to color this scene further:

        LXX The kings of Tharsis and the islands will give him gifts; the kings of the Arabs and of Sheba will bring him their offerings. And all kings shall worship him, all peoples shall serve him (Ps 72:10-11; LXX: 71:10-11)

        Thus, while the citations from Mic 5:1 and 2 Sam 5:2 in Scene 1 emphasize Jesus' Davidic traits and the fact that he is the king of Israel, the citations from Isa 60:6 and Ps 72:10-11 in Scene 2 emphasize his role as the son of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed; Jesus is not only the king of Israel, he is the king of the nations

    3. The Pre-Matthean Background of the Magi Story

      1. History and Verisimilitude

        1. Intrinsic implausibility

          Here is a list of implausible items:

          • That a star rose in the east, then appeared over Jerusalem, then turned south toward Bethlehem before landing over a house would have been a celestial phenomenon without parallel in astronomical history; yet there is no record of such a phenomenon at the time.
          • To say that Herod was able to gather priests and scribes for consultation betrays a complete ignorance of the opposition that existed between him and the priests
          • Our story suggests that the birthplace of Jesus was unknown and was a matter of scholarly research by scribes, whereas John 7:42 tells us that everyone knew it
          • It is unlikely that Herod, who was so suspicious, could have let the Magi go to Bethlehem, five miles from Jerusalem, without having them followed by his security service, and without discovering the whereabouts of the child, whereas exotic Magi with all their gifts would certainly not have gone unnoticed in the village.
          • The massacre of children under two years of age is not mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, although he gives us the details of Herod's horrors.

        2. Irreconcilability with Luke

          Luke, who also tells us about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, completely ignores the intervention of Herod or the coming of the Magi or the massacre of children or the flight to Egypt. And his account that Jesus was brought to Jerusalem after 40 days is irreconcilable with Matthew's so-called stay in Egypt.

        3. Conflict with accounts of Jesus' ministry

          The claim that all of Jerusalem was troubled by the news of the birth of the king of the Jews and that it was known that this king was born in Bethlehem clashes with the gospel account in which the people of Nazareth are unaware of this and misunderstand Jesus' behavior and claims (Mk 6:1-6), and in which the people of Jerusalem are unaware of a Bethlehem birth of Jesus (Jn 7:40-42). Moreover, Herod Antipas seems to have no prior knowledge of Jesus, despite the measures his father (Herod the Great) would have taken against him.

          Some have tried to underline certain plausible elements of the story, such as the expectation of a leader from Judea, certain astronomical phenomena (conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn) around the time of Jesus' birth, the interest in astrology at the time, the reputation of the magi among Jews and Gentiles, or certain embassies from the East who brought gifts to Jerusalem and Rome as a tribute. But all of this merely underlines the cultural acceptability of the story in Matthew's time, and does not constitute conclusive evidence of historicity. It only helps us to understand that in the East, where there were large Jewish communities, the Gentiles' knowledge of the messianic expectation of the Jews could be dramatized as a readiness to welcome the birth of Jesus.

      2. The Balaam Narrative

        We argued earlier (see "Detecting Pre-Matthean Material") that the basis of Matthew's account of Jesus' birth came from pre-Matthean material structured around angelic dream apparitions and inspired by Old Testament accounts of the patriarch Joseph, a dream interpreter who went to Egypt, and of the birth of Moses, the child who escaped the king's evil plans and became the savior of his people. We presented earlier this ancient tradition that Matthew would have had in his hands, but let us take up an extract that concerns more precisely Mt 2:1-12:

        Now Jesus was born in the days of Herod the king. When Herod the king heard this [in a dream], he was startled, and so was all Jerusalem with him. Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. "In Bethlehem of Judea," they told him. Then he sent (secretly) to Bethlehem with the instruction: "Go and search diligently for the child."

        Unfortunately, as we can see, this pre-Matthean material does not allow us to explain the arrival of the magi from the East nor the existence of a star at its rising that leads them to the place where the child is.

        Moreover, in the present account of the Magi, there are inconsistencies that are indications of a tinkering with two accounts that were merged. For example, why didn't the star lead the magi directly to where the child was in Bethlehem, avoiding the unnecessary stop in Jerusalem. Or Herod's failure to find the child would be perfectly understandable if there were no magi from the East and if Herod simply had a general knowledge of Bethlehem from Scripture to guide him. Finally, the total absence of Joseph in the narrative is inexplicable if Matthew only had in his hands the ancient tradition that we presented earlier and which was precisely centered around the figure of Joseph. So, with very precise criteria, it is possible to isolate in Mt 2:1-12 what was probably the pre-Matthew material, and which gives us the following account:

        Now, after the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea, behold, magi from the East came to Judea saying, "Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage." And behold, the star which they had seen at its rising went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. (When they saw the star they were greatly overjoyed.) And entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they bowed down and paid him homage. Then they went away to their own country.

        Thus, our present account would be the fusion of two ancient traditions that Matthew had in his hands, one centered on Herod who is disturbed to know that a king is born and is told that it is in Bethlehem that the messiah is to be born without any further precision, which leads him to send for him, and the other centered on the magi who saw a star rise and which led them to the child's house in Bethlehem where they paid him homage. Matthew's art was to merge the two narratives, creating connections and modifying them slightly to create a certain coherence, for example, by introducing the Magi's stop in Jerusalem, or by having them return "by another way" to their country.

        But then the question arises: where does this tradition centered on the Magi come from? Just as the Joseph-centered tradition is inspired by the patriarch Joseph in Egypt and the story of the birth of Moses, the Magi-centered tradition is inspired by which passage of the Old Testament? The most likely candidate is Numbers 22-24 which tells us the story of Balaam.

        Let's recall this story. King Balak once summoned a famous seer named Balaam to put a curse on Israel. Balaam is a curious figure, a non-Israelite, an occult visionary who practiced sorcery. Philo of Alexandria (born around 20 BC, died around 50 AD), in his commentary (Vita Moysis I, L #276) calls him a magician and recognizes in him a true spirit of prophecy. Now, this Balaam arrives from the East with two servants (Num 22:22), and he thwarts the hostile plans of king Balak by delivering oracles predicting the future greatness of Israel and the arrival of a royal leader.

        Let us now examine the oracles and visions of Balaam. The vision of a future leader becomes explicit in Num 24:7: (LXX) "There will come a man out of his (Israel's) seed, and he will rule many nations ... and his kingdom will be increased". But the most famous description is in Num 24:17:

        Hebrew version (MT)Septuagint version (LXX)
        "I see him, though not now;"I will point to him, though not now;
        I behold him, though he is not near;I bless him, though he has not drawn near;
        a star will come forth from Jacob,a star will rise from Jacob,
        and a scepter will rise from Israel"and a man will stand forth from Israel".

        In Jesus' day, this passage was applied to the Messiah, the anointed king; the star clearly refers to a king. So Balaam predicts that a star symbolizing the Messiah will rise. Now, this star rising symbolizing the Messiah is exactly what the magi in Matthew saw. Of course, in Balaam's story the star does not guide him to the Messiah's location. But the ancient tradition about the magi may have borrowed this motif from the Exodus story when the light shone on the people by night and preceded them for guidance (Ex 13:21; 40:38). For Matthew, it is now the Gentiles who receive this privileged light.

        The story of Balaam ends with the latter returning to his country, just like the Magi. This detail was valuable for Matthew, because it allowed him to explain why Herod could not question the magi, and theologically, it allowed him to explain why, in the next chapter when Jesus' ministry begins, there are no believers around him (only the magi know his identity, but they are no longer there).

        In short, the ancient tradition centered on the figure of Herod presents us only with characters hostile to Jesus. But the insertion of the ancient tradition around the magi/Balaam introduced positive figures on stage. This is how the evangelist was able to give us the double reaction to the revelation and proclamation of Jesus' identity. The echo of the Balaam story could remind the reader familiar with the Bible and the Jewish midrashic tradition, as it was in Matthew's community, that already in the Old Testament God had revealed his salvific plan for the Gentiles.

    4. The Magi in Subsequent Christian Piety

      Very early on, the figure of these "wise men" struck the popular Christian imagination, much more than the shepherds of Luke. In the catacombs, frescoes of the Magi were found as early as the 2nd century, whereas the shepherds did not appear until the 4th century. Relics of the Magi were brought from Persia to Constantinople in 490 by the emperor Zeno. Today, these relics are in the Magi Chapel of Cologne Cathedral. It is only recently that biblical scholarship has taken the trouble to explain the fictional nature of the Magi story.

      Yet Matthew's account of the magi is a remarkable example of Christian midrash (see Appendix VIII on the literary genre of midrash). And if midrash is understood as the popular and imaginative exposition of Scripture in support of faith and piety, then it may well be applied to the way in which the Christian tradition has interpreted and embellished the stories of the magi. And the first step in this tradition was to elevate them from the 2nd century (see Tertullian, Adversus Marcion iii 13) to the rank of kings, to become the "Magi-Kings", no doubt because of Matthew's reference to Ps 72:10-11: "The kings of the Arabians and of Sheba will bring him their offerings. And all the kings will worship him". Another step in this midrashic process was to specify the number of Magi, mostly "three", presumably because of the number of gifts (but the numbers range from two to twelve). Finally, there was the step of giving them names, the earliest of which appear in Eastern tradition (perhaps in the fourth century): Hormizdah, king of Persia, Yazdegerd, king of Saba, and Perozadh, king of Sheba. In the West, the tradition known through Excerpta Latina Barbari, a Latin translation of a Greek chronicle of the 6th century, speaks of : Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. It is under these names that the Magi appear on the mosaic of S. Apollinaris in Ravenna in the 6th century. Finally, the symbolism of the gifts brought by the Magi appeared in the 2nd century with Irenaeus of Lyon, who associated gold with the king that is Jesus, incense with his divinity and myrrh with the son of man called to die.

      One can smile at all these anachronistic descriptions. But this work of the imagination is not too far from Matthew's anticipation of the coming of non-Jewish Christians into his community. These Christians, guided only by their closeness to nature, were able to open themselves up to God, and then through contact with the Scriptures of the Jews, began to believe in and honor Jesus. This midrashic process continued through the centuries and took on the colors of different cultures and different times. Elements of the Creed were used to describe their gesture: the Magi worshipped him as man and as God. And the gifts were used to describe the everyday Christian life filled with good works, prayers and sacrifices. Of course, this is all naive. But it is a valid effort at hermeneutics and actualization.

  6. Herod Unsuccessfully Seeks to Destroy the King of the Jews

    Translation of Matthew 2: 13-23

    13 Now, when the magi had gone away, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him." 14 So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went away to Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet who said,

    "Out of Egypt have I called my Son."

    16 Then, when Herod saw how he had been deceived by the magi, he fell into a furious rage. He sent into Bethlehem and the regions all around it and massacred all the boys of two years of age and under, according to the exact time he had ascertained from the magi. 17 Thus was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah who said,

    18 "A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud mourning,
    Rachel crying for her children;
    and she would not be consoled,
    because they are no more."

    19 Now, when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." 21 So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to Israel.

    22 But when he heard that Archelaus was king over Judea in place of his father Herod, Joseph was afraid to return there. And being warned in a dream, he went off to the district of Galilee. 23 There he went to dwell in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled:

    "He will be called a Nazorean."



    • "Now...". Much of the vocabulary and grammar of the sentence reflects the stereotypical structure of angelic appearances in dreams (see appearances chart)

    • "the magi. The Greek text has simply: they

    • "appeared". Despite the aorist verb tense in 1:20, we have here a historical present tense in the Greek text as well as in 2:19; the Vaticanus codex "improves" the text by using the aorist.

    • "child". Paidion (See note on v. 8)

    • "for". The conjunction gar introduces a proposition that gives the reason for the angel's request.

    • "is going to search". The idea is that it is imminent: he has already made his decision to seek

    • "to destroy him". The same verb (apollynai) appears in the passion narrative in Mt 27:20: "The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for the release of Barabbas and to destroy Jesus.




    • "Then, (tote) when Herod". The same adverb tote that introduces an action of Herod and followed by a formula citation was also used in 2: 6.

    • "deceived (empaizein)". The verb empaizen carries a note of mockery, and it will be the same verb used for the mockery of Jesus as king in the passion narrative (Mt 27:29,31,41).

    • "He sent into Bethlehem ...and massacred . Literally: "And having sent, he massacred in Bethlehem..."

    • "all the boys (pais)". While Matthew uses the word pais here, in v. 18 he will use the word tecknon (child) when quoting Jeremiah. By repeating "all" the surrounding regions and "all" the boys, he gives us the impression of a great number. Some biblical scholars, forgetting the narrative's storytelling atmosphere, set out to calculate the exact number of deaths, taking into account the mortality rate of the time and a population of a thousand, to arrive at the result of about 20 boys killed. And of course, the Christian midrashic tradition took over the story: the Byzantine liturgy on the innocent saints sets the number at 14,000, the Syrian calendar of saints at 64,000, and finally 144,000 under the influence of Revelation (14:1-5).

    • "of two years of age and under". This cut-off date, based on the birth star of the king of the Jews at its rising, has led biblical scholars to date Jesus' birth to 6 BC, two years before Herod's death. It is difficult to argue against this date, knowing that Luke dates the conception of John the Baptist 15 months before the birth of Jesus ("in the days of Herod").


    • "Thus (tote) was fulfilled". Literally: "then", oddly enough a second tote in a row after the one in v. 16. This formula citation in reference to Jeremiah 31:15 is different from the one found in 1:22; 2:15b; and 2:23b where Matthew indicates the purpose or intention of an action of God: "All this happened so that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled". Why this change here? It is likely that the evangelist did not want to make the killing of the boys an intention of God. He will do the same thing in the case of Judas and his thirty pieces of silver (Mt 27:9).


    • "Ramah". How could Rachel's voice be associated with Ramah? According to Gen 35:19; 48:7, Rachel died and was buried "on the road to Ephrathah". And according to 1 Samuel 10:2 Rachel's grave is located "in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah", i.e. near Bethel, which is about eleven miles north of Jerusalem. The same location is implied in Jeremiah 31:15 which Matthew quotes. But it happened that a number of the clan of Ephrathah came later to the Bethlehem area and the name (Beth-)Ephrathah became associated with Bethlehem; hence the tradition of Rachel being dead and buried on the road to Ephrathah became associated with Bethlehem (see Micah 5:1), which led the copyists to add this gloss to Gen 35:19 and 48:7: "on the road to Ephrathah, that is, Bethlehem". It is this late (and erroneous) tradition that Matthew uses here. Even today, Muslims still venerate Rachel's tomb just outside Bethlehem.

    • "loud mourning". Literally: much mourning.

    • "Rachel crying". In Jeremiah, Rachel's cries probably refer to the deportation and captivity of the tribes of the northern kingdom (Manasseh and Ephraim, as well as Benjamin) by the Assyrians in 722/721 BC. But it is possible that Jeremiah is referring only to the Benjaminites who were also mixed up with the southern kingdom that was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC and 587 BC. According to Jer 40:1, the captives of Judah and Jerusalem were taken to Ramah. To complicate matters, how did Matthew himself interpret the text of Jeremiah? In any case, the evangelist changes the meaning of the text of Jeremiah. Whereas in the prophet's text a message of hope is given with the announcement that the children will return from captivity, nothing of the sort is found in Matthew.

    • "children". See note on v. 16.


    • "Now...". Much of the vocabulary and grammar of the sentence reflects the stereotypical structure of angelic appearances in dreams (see the chart on appearances)

    • "appeared". See note on 2: 13.


    • "the land of Israel". This expression appears only here in the entire New Testament. A possible influence is Ezekiel 20:36-38: "As I established my right over your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I do with you... I will bring them out of the land where they have migrated, but they will not enter the land of Israel."

    • "for those who were seeking the child's life are dead". Matthew quotes the Septuagint almost verbatim on Exodus 4:19 ("for all those who sought your life are dead"). Why does Matthew use the plural ("those"), when it is only Herod? This is probably an allusion to the other members of the plot (all of Jerusalem; the chief priests and scribes) who disappear from the scene when the attempt fails.


    • "So...". It is a constant motive for Joseph to do exactly what the angel asked of him.


    • "when he heard". This source of information seems to come from something other than revelation; this is surprising, given that absolutely everything has come to Joseph in the form of revelation so far. This is a clue that vv. 22 and 23 come from Matthew's pen, not from the pre-Matthean source that ends in v. 21.

    • "Archelaus was king over Judea". Literally: "that Archelaus reigns over Judea", a present tense as in a direct style. At Herod's death in 4 BC, his kingdom was divided between his sons: Archelaus and Herod Antipas (son of the Samaritan woman Malthace) received Judea-Samaria-Idumea and Galilee-Perea, while Philip (son of Cleopatra of Jerusalem) received the eastern and northern regions around Lake Galilee. As ethnarch of Judea, Archelaus proved authoritarian and cruel, slaughtering 3,000 people at the beginning of his reign, and his brutality became so intolerable that a Jewish delegation to Rome succeeded in having him deposed and exiled in 6 CE, after a reign of 10 years (Josephus, The Jewish War, II, vi 2: #89; Antiquities, XVII xiii 2: #342-44)

    • "to return there". For Matthew, Mary and Joseph are citizens of Bethlehem, so it is natural that they should return there. So he has to explain instead why they end up in Nazareth. In Luke it is the other way around: Mary and Joseph are citizens of Nazareth, so he must explain why they are in Bethlehem.

    • "to the district of Galilee". Three geographical locations, all introduced by the preposition eis (to, in, into), appear in turn with an ever-narrower scope: the land of Israel, the district of Galilee, Nazareth. Herod Antipas, the one we find in Jesus' ministry, reigned from 4 BC until 39 BC, before being deposed by Rome.

    v. 23

    • "Nazareth". Archaeological excavations have shown that the site has been occupied since the 7th century BC. Unfortunately, there is no mention of the city in pre-Christian Jewish documents. In the New Testament, there are twelve occurrences of the name, ten in the form Nazaret(h), and two in the form Nazara (in Document Q: Mt 4:13 || Lk 4:16). Nazara is a neuter plural noun, but understood by Matthew as a feminine singular noun. This form also appears in a writing of Julian the African (c. 221). When Jewish writings finally mentioned the city in the 8th century CE, the name appeared in Hebrew as Naṣrat(h). But in the Greek transliteration, the Hebrew ṣade (ṣ) took the Greek form of zeta (z- Nazareth), rather than the normal Greek sigma form (s- Nasareth), a peculiarity found in some Septuagint manuscripts of Job 1:1, Gen 13:10, Jer 48:34 (LXX: 31, 34). And it would seem that we would be looking at a feature of the Palestinian Aramaic dialect where the Hebrew ṣade (ṣ) between two consonants is equated with a Hebrew zayin (z). Finally, let us mention that in the lectionary of the Jerusalem church, which reflects the pronunciation of Palestinian Christian Aramaic, the name appears as Nāzōrăt(h).

    • "what was spoken by the prophets". The following citation is not a word-for-word citation or an adaptation of a known passage of Scripture. Biblical scholars have gone in four different directions to interpret the text of Matthew.

      1. Matthew would quote known OT passages, but in a loose combination. In our commentary, we will explore the possibility that it is Isaiah 4:3 and Judges 16:17

      2. Matthew would quote a book of Scripture that was not later retained as part of the canonical group; recall that the Jewish canon was not fixed until the second century CE. But the hesitations about the canon concern only the third part of Scripture (i.e. the Writings), not the first two parts (the Torah and the Prophets). It has been suggested that Matthew could mean "prophet" in a broad sense, as in Mt 13:35, where "prophet" refers to a psalmist, and thus to a book that is part of the Writings. The problem with all this is that Matthew, whenever he mentions a prophet in a formula citation, always refers to known books of the OT.

      3. Matthew would quote a text for which he did not know the Old Testament sources, drawing from a kind of storehouse of citations from Jewish writings that the Christians used

      4. Matthew did not intend to quote any particular text, but either referred generally to all the prophetic messages about Jesus as Nazarene, or, considering that the expression "said" does not follow the word "prophet", he should translate: "so that what was announced by the prophets was fulfilled by the fact that (hoti) he was called Nazarene. This interpretation is difficult to accept, since the conjunction hoti normally introduces a citation, and this is also seen in Matthew (4:16; 21:16). And it would run counter to the general pattern of the fulfillment formulas.

    • "He will be called". This "he" refers to Jesus, even though the first "he" in the sentence refers to Joseph. Here is another example of the awkwardness that comes from Matthew's editing work, as here he adds a citation to a text that he added to the pre-Matthew material.

    • "a Nazorean (Nazōraios)". What does this word mean and where does it come from? Before addressing this discussion, a word of caution is in order. First, one cannot use phonological rules alone, for in the biblical world etymologies are often the result of analogy. Secondly, the various possible origins of a word are not exclusive, the biblical attitude often being to say: one and the other, rather than: one or the other. With that in mind, let's look at three theories about the meaning and source of "Nazorean.

      1. A name derived from Nazareth

        This is certainly an interpretation that Matthew accepts. In the gospels, two adjectives are applied to Jesus: Nazarēnos (Nazarene) which appears four times in Mark, twice in Luke, but never in John and Matthew; and Nazōraios (Nazorean) which appears eight times in Luke/Acts, three times in John, and twice in Matthew. The two terms seem equivalent (compare Mk 14:67 (NazarēnosNazōraios)). But while it is easy to see that the term Nazarēnos is derived from Nazareth (e.g., Magdalēnos (Magdaleine) comes from Magdala, Gadarēnos (Gadarenes) comes from Gadara)), it is more difficult with the term Nazōraios.

        But we have precedents for Nazōraios in terms for sects: Saddoukaios (Sadducee), Pharisaios (Pharisee). Now, in Acts 24:5 the Christians are called "the sect of the Nazōraioi." Moreover, if we take into account the phonology of the particular dialect of Galilean Aramaic, it is likely that Nazōraios could have been derived from the name Nazareth. But once this etymology is accepted, there is no reason why other etymologies could not have been added, such as the following.

      2. A name derived from Nāzir

        Nāzir refers to someone who has consecrated himself to God by a vow, and thus has become holy. The Semitic root nḏr means: to take vows. The description of this is given to us by Numbers 6:1-21: he must separate himself from other men by not drinking wine or strong drinks, by not cutting hair, and by having no contact with the dead. The OT gives us two great figures of nazir, Samson (Jdg 13:2-7) and Samuel (1 Sam 1:11). The ideal of the Nazirite is propagated in Christian memory, as we see in Luke, where a word of Jesus about John the Baptist ("he eats no bread, he drinks no wine", Lk 7:33) is translated in the infancy narrative by a Nazirite figure in the words of the angel to Zechariah: "he will drink neither wine nor fermented beverage" (Lk 1:15). James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church, was considered a Nazir by Hegesippus (around 180).

        Could Matthew have had the Nazir figure in mind when he speaks of Jesus as a Nazarene? It is possible. Recall that the three great Nazir figures (Samson, Samuel, John the Baptist) are always presented in the context of their birth. And Luke's infancy narrative draws a parallel between Samuel the Nazir and Jesus (see the parallel between Mary's hymn in Lk 1:46-55 and the hymn of Samuel's mother Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10; see also the description of Jesus in 2:52 and Samuel in 1 Sam 2:25). Of course, it is not from the point of view of asceticism that the connection with Jesus could be made, but rather from the point of view of consecration to God from the womb.

        To this we can add the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew nāzîr by: naziraios (nazir), or translated by: hagios (saint). The similarity is quite clear between naziraios, a Nazir, and Nazaraios, Nazēraios, and even Nazōraios, the one from Nazareth. One can imagine that Matthew might have appreciated the irony of a title of Jesus linked to his hometown with a similarity to heroes like Samson and Samuel. The synonym "saint" for Nazir was also associated with Jesus by tradition in the form of "the Holy One of God" (Mk 1:24; L 4:34; Jn 6:69), which Matthew would express as "he will be called a Nazarene.

      3. A name derived from NēzerNēzer

        On this point, the key passage is Is 11:1: "There will come forth a shoot from the root (gr.: riza) of Jesse (David's father), and from his roots a branch (Heb.: nēṣer; gr. anthos) will blossom." The prophet Isaiah was referring to the arrival of a king from the house of David who would succeed the reigning monarch, but Judaism thereafter will see it as the announcement of the expected Messiah. In Christian circles this passage from Isaiah will be the object of Christological reflection. Justin (Dialogue cxxvi 1) sees Jesus in the "branch" (nēṣer). Jerome does the same in commenting on this text from Isaiah: "...and from his root will grow (the) Nazorean". Even Jewish tradition keeps the memory that Jesus would have been referred to as Nôṣrî and the Christians as Nôṣerîm.

        How likely is it that Matthew had this passage from Isaiah in mind when he wrote: he will be called a Nazorean? The strongest clue comes from the fact that this offspring that will spring up is the Emmanuel announced by Is 7:14, and which Matthew mentioned in 1:22-23. As for the philological difficulty of the Hebrew ṣade (ṣ) of er which would have become a Greek zeta (z) in Nazorean, we have shown instead that it is quite normal when this letter is preceded and followed by a pronounced consonant, i.e. nṣr. Some biblical scholars have objected that of the four occurrences of er, three do not refer to the Messiah (i.e. Is 14:19; 60:21; Dan 11:7). To this we must reply that this occurrence of er in Is 11:1 is the most influential among Jews in the NT era, as evidenced by a Qumran document (11QH vi 15, vii 19, vii 6.8.10) where er designates the community elected to participate in final salvation.

        In the same vein, one could add other names that also have a messianic flavor and that Nazorean could evoke.

        1. ṣemaḥ (branch, shoot): "In that day a shoot of Yahweh will be magnificent and glorious" (Is 4:2)
        2. šōreš (root) "Before Him, this one vegetated like a shoot, like a root coming out of a dry land" (Is 53:2)
        3. maṭṭaʿat (planting) "Your people, yes, all of them, will be righteous, forever they will inherit the Land, they, the offshoot of my plantings" (Is 60:21)


  1. Matthew's Message as Enhanced by His Use of Scripture

    Chapter 2 includes two acts that describe two opposite attitudes towards the Christological revelation of the virginal conception of Jesus: in act I, we have the acceptance of the revelation by the Gentiles represented by the magi; in act II, we observe the rejection of this revelation by the Jewish authorities and the persecution of Jesus. Note that Matthew does not speak of rejection by all the Jews, because part of his community is composed of Jews, but of the secular leader, the chief priests, the scribes of the people and all of Jerusalem. Moreover, to reflect that, if Jesus was crucified and died, he also rose again, he presents us with a Jesus who escapes the wrath of his persecutors, and after some time, returns to the land of Israel for a new presence. Joseph, an upright man, representative of all the Jews truly faithful to the Law and the Prophets, is the instrument of this deliverance from the hand of the persecutors.

    Act II, which we are now analyzing, includes three scenes, each of which ends with a formula citation that gives us the theological key.

    1. Chap. Two, Scene 3 (v. 13-15)

      The basic scenario, which comes from a pre-Matthean tradition, is that of the rescue of the child savior from the hands of the wicked king by fleeing to Egypt. This scenario is in part an echo of the rescue of the child Moses from the hands of the wicked Pharaoh. The quote from Hosea 11:1 ("Out of Egypt I called my Son") that ends this scene refers to Israel's exodus from Egypt. For Matthew, the people of Israel are now summed up in Jesus, who by his very life relives the destiny of his people. Hosea uses the expression "my Son" to express the idea that Israel, as a people, is a son of God. For Matthew, this title applies all the more to the one who "will save his people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). The reference to Jesus as the son of God is indirect here, for only God can reveal directly who his son is.

      This will happen at Jesus' baptism when God says, "This is my beloved son" (Mt 3:17). At this point Jesus is led into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights before returning to his ministry, a symbolic reenactment of Israel's 40 years in the desert before entering the promised land. Whether it is the infancy narrative or the baptism of Jesus, there is a fundamental Christian insight that the preparation for Jesus' ministry was the story of Israel in Egypt and the Exodus, accompanied by the gift of the covenant, a model that would serve to structure the beginning of the story of the new covenant.

      Let us note in closing that this scene 3 echoes only in part the story of Moses and the Exodus. The details that we have are very spare and are far from the Christian midrashim that proliferated later (see note 14). For if the child is saved, it is by going to Egypt, like the patriarch Joseph who left Canaan to go to Egypt. Joseph, the father of Jesus, thus finds himself walking in the footsteps of the patriarch who brought Jacob/Israel to Egypt.

    2. Chap. Two, Scene 4 (v. 16-18)

      The scenario of this scene, which comes from the pre-Matthean material, focuses on the slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem and the surrounding areas, and echoes the slaughter of the Hebrew male children by Pharaoh. But by adding the citation from Jeremiah 31:15 that concludes this scene, Matthew also echoes another tragedy of Israel, the exile, both to Assyria and to Babylon. In Israel's theology, the persecution in Egypt and the exile were two great trials, and two moments when Yahweh will demonstrate his saving power. The parallelism between the two events is clear in Deutero-Isaiah, which presents the exile as a second Exodus. Matthew's genius is therefore not to put the exile and the Exodus together, but to link them to what happened in Bethlehem: on the one hand, he evokes the persecutions in Egypt, and on the other, through the mention of Rachel's tomb in Bethlehem and her weeping for her children, which is heard as far as Ramah, the exile. Thus Jesus relives the great moments of Israel's past.

      Matthew's exegesis through his citations could be considered a bit fanciful. But for the evangelist the important thing is to grasp God's plan. For the three formula citations in ch. 2 mention Bethlehem, the city of David, Egypt, the land of the Exodus, and Ramah, the place where the exile is mourned, three places in the theological history of Israel in the form of a geographical miniature.

    3. Chap. Two, Scene 5 (v. 19-23)

      This scene has two parts: 19-21 which comes from a pre-Matthew tradition, and 22-23 which represents the addition of Matthew. If Moses' childhood was in the background until now, now we move to the adult Moses who, after the death of Pharaoh, will begin his mission to lead his people to the promised land, anticipating that of Jesus who, after the death of Herod, will be able to go to the place where his mission will begin.

      The axis of the narrative passes through three geographical points, each introduced by the Greek preposition eis (2:20, 22, 23): the land of Israel, the district of Galilee, and a city called Nazareth, each point representing an ever more clearly defined place. The indication of these geographical places comes from a revelation, because for Matthew, in his theology, all this responds to a plan of God:

      1. the return to the land of Israel allows Jesus to relive the journey of the people of God leaving the slavery of Egypt for the promised land;
      2. the detour to Galilee, called the land of the Gentiles, allows him to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah (8:23-9:1) which Matthew will specify in 4:14-16: "Galilee of the Nations! The people who were in darkness have seen a great light...";
      3. Finally, the word Nazorean not only evokes the city of Nazareth which is the starting point of his ministry, but also evokes the Nazir that he was like Samson and Samuel, consecrated to God from the womb, the "holy" of God, just as it evokes the nēṣer, the offspring that blossomed from the Davidic root that was foretold in Is 11:1, who is in fact Emmanuel.

      It should be noted that the first two geographical indications (Israel, Galilee) suggest the two major groups that make up Matthew's community: Jews and Gentiles. The last geographical indication brings us to the place where Jesus' ministry will begin. These indications give Matthew the opportunity to explain why the Messiah, though born in Bethlehem, began his public life in Nazareth. Finally, let us note Matthew's ingenious symmetry:

      1. He uses the themes of Isaiah in his first citation ("And they will call him Emmanuel", Is 7:14), and in his last ("He will be called a Nazarene", Isa 11:1);
      2. The first citation concerns his conception, birth and identity, the last concerns his mission and destiny;
      3. the announcement of the child's birth ends with Joseph naming the child Jesus, and the whole story ends with Joseph bringing the child to Nazareth so that he can be called a Nazarene.
      We now have the full identity of Jesus: son of David, son of Abraham, and finally son of God by his title of Nazorean.

  2. The Three Formula Citations

    It is in this section 2:13-23 that the formulas of citation are most abundant, as nowhere else, constituting a third of its content. Let us try to clarify their origin, both from the point of view of their characteristics and of their previous use in Christian circles.

    1. The Citation of Hosea 11:1 in Matt 2:15b

      The location of the citation is surprising: why did Matthew not place this citation about "coming out of Egypt" at the point where Joseph leaves Egypt (after 2:21), rather than here where he goes to Egypt instead? One possible answer is that he wanted to emphasize the journey to Nazareth for the return from Egypt, and thereby to evoke the Exodus first before evoking the exile with the citation from Jeremiah that follows.

      Let us compare the text of Matthew with that of the Hebrew text and the Septuagint translation (what is similar to Matthew in the LXX and the MT is underlined).

      MatthewHebrew text (MT)Septante (LXX)
      Out of Egypt have I called (kalein) my Son From Egypt have I called my sonOut of Egypt have I summoned (metakalein) his children (tekna)

      It is clear that Matthew did not copy the Septuagint, but a Greek version closer to the Hebrew text. But did he follow a Christian practice that attributed this passage from Hosea 11:1 to the ministry of Jesus? For Christians who usually used the Septuagint, it is hard to see how they could have associated "his children" with Jesus, especially since the context of Hosea is that of a condemnation of an unfaithful people. It is therefore likely that we are dealing with an original touch by Matthew in the updating of Hosea 11:1. Let us also note that of the four formula citations we have seen so far, the two that could have been used in Christian circles (Isa 7:14; Mic 5:1) are quoted in a different form from the Hebrew text, whereas it is the opposite with those that seem to come from an observation proper to Matthew (2 Sam 5:2; Hos 11:1).

    2. The Citation of Jer 31:15 in Matt 2:18

      Let us compare the version of Matthew with the Septuagint (LXX), the version of the Codex Vaticanus (B), then that of the Codex Alexandrinus (A), and finally with the Hebrew Massoretic text (MT). Similarities with Matthew are underlined, similarities with the Hebrew text (MT) are in italics.

      MatthewLXX (B)LXX (A)MT
      (1) A voice was heard in Ramah, A voice was heard in Ramah A voice was heard on high A voice is (or was) heard in Ramah,
      (2) weeping and loud mourning, of lamentation and weeping and mourning; of lamentation and weeping and mourning, lamentation and bitter weeping,
      (3) Rachel crying for her children (teckna); Rachel, who was crying, of Rachel's crying over her sons (huiois) ; Rachel weeping over her sons
      (4) and she would not be consoled, would not cease on behalf of her sons (huiois), and she would not be consoled, refusing to be consoled over her sons,
      (5) because they are no more because they are no more. because they are no more. because they are no more.

      Let's analyze each line.

      1. Matthew remains faithful to the MT as does LXX (B) by referring to Ramah, without attempting to interpret this reference as does LXX (A).

      2. The MT has three words (lament, weeping, bitterness), but the last two are linked together in Hebrew in a constructed form, which leads one of the two words to become an adjective (bitter weeping). Now LXX (B) and LXX (A) have missed this nuance, whereas Matthew has captured it well in the form: loud mourning. Moreover, Matthew has correctly grasped MT which appends "lamentation and weeping" to "a voice", which LXX (B) and LXX (A) have not understood and which has transformed it into a noun complement, i.e. a genitive construction (of lamentation, weeping and mourning). On the other hand, Matthew somehow reversed the order of "weeping... mourning" in the MT, while the two LXX versions kept the same order in the first two.

      3. It is surprising that Matthew translates the Hebrew bānîm (son) as tekna (the plural of teknon: child), whereas son is said in Greek huios, as did LXX (A) and (B). This is all the more surprising since earlier in v. 16 he used the word pais (boy, but in the plural can refer to both sexes) to refer to those whom Herod had slaughtered. So we must believe that Matthew sometimes adapts his citations according to the context, sometimes he is content with the standard Greek translation.

      4. Matthew and the LXX (A) agree with MT in speaking of Rachel's refusal to be comforted (LXX (B) speaks rather of ceasing).

      5. No Greek text exactly matches the strange MT lesson with the singular, and this may be because our MT version is corrupt.

      To summarize, it is clear that the Greek version of Matthew is more faithful to the Hebrew than the Septuagint in the Vaticanus version (LXX B). From this point of view, it is closer to LXX (A), but knowing that LXX (A) probably represents an effort to be more faithful to the Hebrew text (MT). The differences between Matthew and MT may be explained by the fact that the evangelist had a better Hebrew version of Jeremiah. Finally, the fact that such a faithful citation from the Hebrew could hardly have come from Greek-speaking Christian circles, and that it is difficult to imagine that these circles would have applied this passage from Jeremiah to Jesus, forces us to conclude that we are dealing here with the work of Matthew himself.

    3. The Citation of Isa 4:3 and Judg 16:17 in Matt 2:23?

      Where does the quote, "He shall be called a Nazarene" come from? In note 23 we presented three possibilities from which the word Nazarene would come: from the name of the city of Nazareth, from nēṣer (a branch of the house of David), and Nazirite, the one consecrated to God from birth. It was probably Nazirite that Matthew had in mind when he wrote, "what was foretold by the prophets". These prophets are Isaiah ("He who remains in Zion and abides in Jerusalem will be called holy", 4:3) and Judges (Judges belongs to the section of prophets in the Hebrew Bible) ("I have been a Nazirite of God since my mother's womb", 16:17). Let us examine the various versions of the OT, that of the Septuagint (LXX), according to the Vaticanus (B) or the Alexandrinus (A) when there is a divergence, and the Hebrew Massoretic text (MT).

      Matthew LXX (Isa 4: 3) MT (Isa 4: 3) LXX B (Judg 16: 17) LXX A (Judg 16: 17) MT (Judg 16: 17)
      He will be called a Nazorean (Nazōraios klēthēsetai) They will be called holy (hagioi klēthēsontai) He will be called holy (qādôš) I am a holy one (hagios) of God I am a Nazairite (naziraios) of God I have been a Nazirite (nāzîr) of God

      To understand Matthew's use of the OT in his citation, it is necessary to know that the Hebrew word nāzîr is sometimes translated into Greek as naziraios (LXX A) or hagios (saint) (LXX B). The Greek translation hagios (saint) is applied only once in the Bible to an individual, Samson, in Judg 16:17 (LXX B). However, the Hebrew text in this passage speaks of Samson as a Nazirite, which LXX A has translated more literally as naziraios. This hagios/naziraios connection probably reminded Matthew of this other passage: "He will be called a saint (hagios)" (Isa 4:3). Since there is an equivalence between hagios (saint) and naziraios (Nazirite), it was not a problem for Matthew to read Isa 4:3 as "he shall be called a naziraios". And it was legitimate for him to apply it to Jesus, who was a saint by virtue of his consecration, and that naziraios evoked his homeland: Nazareth. Moreover, the comparison with the Nazirite Samson was legitimate since the latter is presented as the one who will save Israel from the hand of the Philistines (LXX A: Judg 13:5), and Jesus is presented as the one who will save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21).

      This type of exegesis may seem confusing to us. But for Matthew it is the same God who speaks through the prophets and who planned the birth and career of his son in great detail. If he was able to detect such a plan in Scripture, it was by virtue of his skill as a scribe versed in the intricacies of translating the Law and the Prophets, "a scribe instructed in the Kingdom...who draws from his treasure both the new and the old" (Mt 13:52).

  3. The Pre-Matthean Background of the Herod Story

    Is the story of the flight to Egypt and the massacre in Bethlehem historical, or is it the product of reflection from the OT and Jewish themes?

    1. History and Verisimilitude

      Let us begin with the flight to Egypt. There are no echoes of such an event in the account of Jesus' ministry, and such a stay in Egypt is inconsistent with Luke's account of an uneventful and expected return from Bethlehem to Nazareth soon after Jesus' birth. The Jewish polemical writings against the Christians in the second century cannot be considered as an independent testimony, because they are based on infancy narratives which they seek to ridicule: Mary would have taken refuge in Egypt because of Jesus' scandalous birth, and Jesus would have learned black magic there in order to deceive the people.

      For the Bethlehem massacre, there is no mention in the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who nevertheless well documented Herod's cruelty during the last years of his reign. Biblical scholars have tried to find support in various texts. For example, around the year 400, Macrobius (Saturnalia, II iv 11) presents a pun to demonstrate the cruelty of Herod the Great who had three of his sons killed: it is better to be Herod's pig than his son. Now this pun is presented in the setting where children up to two years old would have been killed by Herod. But it is likely that it is Matthew's account that provided Macrobius with his setting. Similarly, Revelation 12:1-5, which speaks of a dragon wanting to devour the child of a woman about to give birth, for it is in fact a reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Finally, there is the Jewish writing of the first or second century CE, the Assumption of Moses (6:2-6), which speaks of an insolent king who will destroy young and old as the Egyptians did; but this is such a vague statement that there is no way to link it to the event of which Matthew speaks.

      There are therefore serious reasons for considering the flight into Egypt and the massacre at Bethlehem as unhistorical. But nonetheless, Matthew had to present his theological account in such a way that it would appear plausible to the audience of his day. The well-known massacre of male children by the Pharaoh of Egypt could be plausibly attributed to the cruel Herod the Great, especially in the last years of his life. And this slaughter was all the more plausible because it stemmed from Herod's fear of a possible rival king; Josephus (Antiquities, XVII ii 4: #43) tells us that Herod had Pharisees slaughtered who had predicted that his throne would be taken away from him for the benefit of his brother and his wife and any children born to them. Matthew's setting is very evocative: Herod was buried in the highly visible fortress of Herodium, a few miles from Bethlehem, the city of David, contrasting God's anointed and the wicked king. As for the flight to Egypt, see the note on v. 14 where we have presented Egypt as the usual place of refuge for those fleeing the tyranny of the kings of Palestine, and so Matthew's audience must have found the event plausible.

    2. The Joseph/Moses Narrative

      We have already suggested that Matthew did not rely on an account of historical events, but rewrote a tradition that associated the birth of Jesus, son of Joseph, with the patriarch Joseph and the birth of Moses. Earlier (see reconstruction of pre-Matthean material), we thus reconstructed this pre-Matthean tradition with respect to Herod.

      Now, when Herod had done this [i.e., sent to Bethlehem to search for the newborn Messiah], behold an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him." So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went away to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.

      Then Herod [when the search for the child was unsuccessful] fell into a furious rage. He sent into Bethlehem and the regions all around it and massacred all the boys of two years of age and under [according to the time he had ascertained from the dream].

      Now, when Herod died, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, "Get up; take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead." So Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went back to the land of Israel.

      If we remove the formula citations from 2:13-23, we notice that Matthew has added little to the pre-Matthean tradition, except for some "seams".

      • 2, 13a: "when they (the magi) had gone away"
      • 2, 16a: "when he (Herod) saw that he had been decieved by the magi"
      • 2, 16d: "according to the exact time he had ascertained from the magi

      The fact that the two pre-Matthean narratives (Jesus' birth and the magi) can be easily separated is the strongest argument for their original independence. The pre-Matthean account of the birth of Jesus already contained motives of hostility to the revelation of the Messiah's birth, as well as to God's intervention. The first motif also appears in Lk 2:34-35 (Simeon's prophecy to Mary that the child will be a contested sign) and confirms for us that it is a motif that appeared before the gospels. Matthew's work was to integrate his sources into a gospel message.

  • Epilogue

    Matthew has shown great skill in sewing together disparate traditions to produce a preface to his gospel. For the ministry of Jesus was prepared not only by the ministry of John the Baptist, but also by the whole activity of God in Israel as recorded in the Law and the Prophets in Scripture: this is what Matthew intends to show by his genealogy going back to Abraham, by a narrative based on some important events in the Law, and by explicit references to the prophets.

    The infancy narrative is the place where the old and the new meet, i.e. the OT and the gospel. On the one hand, Jesus relives the major events of his people such as the Exodus and the exile, and Joseph, the main thread of the narrative, is an upright Jew, faithful to the Law, and it is he who protects his son from hostile forces and will lead him safely to the Galilee of the Gentiles. On the other hand, the revelation of Jesus' identity in the gospel is already present through his titles: son of Abraham, messiah or Christ, son of God. The rejection of this revelation, which will reach its climax with the story of the passion and the crucifixion, is already anticipated by the hostility of Herod and the Jewish authorities and of all Jerusalem, while the proclamation of the gospel to the Gentiles is anticipated by the story of the magi. The infancy narrative is a gospel in miniature.

    The effectiveness of Matthew's dramatization of the gospel message is demonstrated by the popularity of the infancy narrative even among those who know almost nothing about the gospel. It has been the subject of countless paintings, hymns, plays and poems. Some are embarrassed by such popularity and see it as an obstacle to the true gospel. Yet, while the infancy narrative is a drama that easily captures attention, it is also in essence a proclamation of the coming of the reign of God and its possible rejection. Of course, the characters in this drama seem to wear exotic clothes like oriental potentates or a Jewish king with priests, but that is precisely why they are not forgotten. But behind these clothes we can see the believers of Matthew's time and their opponents, and even the drama of Christian proclamation of all times.