Saturday, November 28, 2009


Matthew began his narrative with a long genealogy of Jesus. Luke did not include a genealogy until the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (Luke 3:23-38). A quick comparison reveals that not only are the two set in different contexts, they include different names and follow totally distinctive patterns. Most surprising, perhaps, is that Matthew began with Abraham and traced Jesus’ lineage down to Joseph, “the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” Luke began with Jesus” the son (as was thought) of Joseph” and traced Jesus’ ancestry back to “Adam, son of God.” Sonship was important to Luke, as some of his parables also indicate.

Leaving Luke’s genealogy aside, Matthew stated his intent in defining Jesus’ ancestry in the first words of his text: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” He wished his audience to understand that Jesus, as Messiah/Christ, was descended from Abraham, the father of God’s holy people, and also heir to the royal line of David. The forty-two generations in three segments of fourteen may have referred to the mystical number seven. Almost certainly this genealogy was artificial rather than historical.

The audience for whom Matthew wrote was most likely a mixture of Jewish and Gentile Christians, but mostly Jewish. Matthew the author was probably not the so-named apostle but someone using his name. He may have been a Greek speaking Jew very familiar with the Hebrew scriptures and also a Pharisee. Although he generally favoured the Pharisees, he was adamantly negative toward those scribes and Pharisees who rejected Jesus. The expulsion of Jewish Christians from synagogues dominated by the Pharisees the Synod of Jamnia (ca. 85 CE) may well have been the historical background of his narrative.

There is a real possibility that Matthew sought to present Jesus as the new Moses sent by God to lead God’s people to a new destiny. He wrote in the 80s CE possibly in Edessa, a city east of the Euphrates River then in Syria and now in southeastern Turkey. His vision of the kingdom of God was of a people far more pluralistic than his own Jewish nation had become since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The Bible is full of family genealogies, most of them plainly boring, but quite significant. They legitimated priests and kings by tracing the priesthood back to Aaron of the tribe of Levi and monarchs back to the royal line of David. They also could be used to settle contested inheritance of ancestral property. Generally they included only male ancestors.

Surprisingly, Jesus’ genealogy included five women - Tamar, who seduced her father-in-law; Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho; Ruth a Moabite; and Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, and mother of Solomon by King David. This was Matthew's way showing that although Jesus was Jewish, he was also descended from non-Jews and women of humble if not doubtful social status. Mary was named only to anticipate the next part of Matthew’s narrative.


The Nativity of Jesus has been studied in depth by many and diverse scholars. Far be it for us to add to this corncucopia of scholarly debate and discussion. But we shall make use of only a few of the many sources in our search for an clearer understanding of what the only two gospel authors Matthew and Luke were saying in their exclusive narratives.

Passing reference may also be made to commentaries and other works which make brief mention of the problems these narratives raise in the minds of modern readers. Some were Christian believers and others were of other faith traditions. Two authors in particular have provided the greater part of the material for this study: Raymond E. Brown and Geza Vermes.

In 1979 Brown published an exhaustive work called The Birth of The Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY. Doubleday Image Book). It remains the standard authority, although recognized as the work of a Roman Catholic priest and published with the nihil obstat of his Church and under the imprimatur of the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of New York. Brown closely examined the Gospel tradition and a vast amount of scholarly commentaries. In the end he sustained the traditional view of his Church.

In 2006 Geza Vermes, professor emeritus of Jewish Studies at Oxford University, published a short but carefully analyzed study of the Gospel narratives: The Nativity : History and Legend. (London: Penquin Books) He presented a unique viewpoint on the key question most people ask: Was Mary a virgin when Jesus was conceived? Vermes had included a brief excursus on this subject in his earlier work, Jesus the Jew (London: William Collins, 1973; SCM Books, 1983.)

As our study begins, quotations from two other renowned scholars bear repeating. In his Pelican New Testament Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, (London, 1963) the late Professor George Caird wrote: “Those who believe that the virgin birth was simple history must hold that the story came ultimately from Mary herself. For those who find this belief an unnecessary impediment to faith an alternative theory of origin has been put forward ... that the doctrine arose out of a misunderstanding when the story was taken from it original Judean environment in the Greek world.”

Sherman E Johnson, author of the Introduction and Exegesis of The Gospel According to St. Matthew in The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN. Abingdon Press, 1951) wrote on the subject: “Matthew and Luke have knowledge of such a story from separate and independent sources. The story first appears in Christian circles which are in close touch with the Jewish tradition. If it arises out of pious speculation, it is nevertheless based on faith in the unlimited power of the one God, not on pagan mythology."

So now we turn to our study in earnest.

Friday, November 27, 2009

1 - The Nativity Under Scrutiny

Suppose you have been assigned to write your own story of the Nativity of Jesus. What do you put into it? What would you leave out? What is your story line or plot? What would be your opening scene?

If those questions were put to any of us, we would most likely tell the story as we heard and saw it performed, or participated in it ourselves in Christmas pageants as children. Then, if we sat down and read the actual Nativity narratives in Matthew and Luke, we would quickly find out how much we had missed. So why not sit down and read the two narratives right now?

Do you see how different they are? Do you see how much our Christmas pageants leave out? Or add? Have you any idea why that is so? And why are Matthew and Luke the only two Gospels - or any other New Testament texts - that have anything at all to say about Jesus’ birth?

Did you notice too that his actual birth was perfectly normal for a human being? As Paul said in Galatians 4:4, he was “born of a woman.” That can happen only in one way. So while the Nativity narratives do describe very briefly that Jesus was born in a very human way, the idea of a virgin birth is just not there. What is there is a virginal conception. And that is where our theological and interpretation difficulties begin.

Did Matthew and Luke believe in a viriginal conception by the Holy Spirit? That certainly is how the narratives read. But is it credible in this day when we know all the scientific details about human biology, evolution, genetics and so forth?

It was not a problem for the two Gospel authors in the 1st century of the Christian era. Jews of that time might have had more difficulty with it than Greeks. No one in either cultures had the slightest idea exactly how conception took place. In fact, as examples in the Hebrew Scriptures attest, it was believed that it was the man’s seed the woman received and she was no more than the vessel carrying the developing foetus until she gave birth in a painful way (Gen. 3:16;12:7). Their model was the way plants grew in soil (Gen. 1:29).

Greek culture, on the other hand, did have numerous examples in their mythology of gods who gave birth to children in unusual ways. Gods impregnating women was well known. There is also an instance of this in Genesis 6:1-4 which Hebrew thought regarded as remarkable but wrong. Scholars have long wondered whether this aspect of Greek culture influenced Matthew and Luke. After all, the text is in the Hebrew scriptures o which they depended for so much of their material.

As we proceed this study will try to show that they had another agenda in mind. They were rooted far more in the Hebrew tradition although they also wrote for Gentiles who would hear their stories.