The Birth of Christ Narrative

(Matt. 1:1 - 2:23)

Bruce Satterfield

Department of Religious Education, Ricks College

The birth of Christ narrative is divided into six sections: the genealogy of Christ (1:1-17), the annunciation to Joseph (1:18-25), the visit of the wise men (2:1-12), the escape to Egypt (2:13-15), the massacre at Bethlehem (2:16-18), and the return to Nazareth (2:19-23). In each of the last five sections Matthew quotes an Old Testament prophecy of Christ with an appropriate fulfillment phrase (e.g., "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet . . . ").

Concerning the birth of Christ narrative, John Maier has written: "Matthew is the only one of the four canonical Gospels that begins with the O.T. literary genre of genealogy (1:1-17). This underlines a major message of the whole work, echoed often in the fulfillment formulas: the prophecies of the O.T. are fulfilled in the life of Jesus." He then suggested that the three groups of 14 generations reflect the ancient mind set that "all salvation history is divided into epochs that are guided by God to the consummation of his plan." He then stated: "The annunciation to Joseph (1:18-25) has as its main point the theme of continuity: by naming Mary's child and accepting him as his own, Joseph son of David inserts Jesus into the Davidic line. Yet the element of discontinuity is also present; the virginal conception is the supreme 'holy irregularity,' making this Son of David also Emmanuel, God with us. Chapter 1 thus explicates the first titles of 1:1, 'Jesus Christ, son of David.'

"But," states Maier, "Jesus is also 'son of Abraham,' the Abraham in whom all the nations were to be blessed (Gen. 22:18). This promise is to be fulfilled at the end of the gospel, with the mission to all nations (28:16-20), but a foreshadowing of all nations' coming to Christ is seen in the coming of the Magi. While the united front of Judaism (Herod, chief priests, scribes, all Jerusalem) rejects Jesus, the gentiles follow the hints of natural religion and O.T. prophecy to reach and adore the King of Jews. The Jerusalem rulers seek to kill Jesus, but amid the carnage God rescues his Son out of death (proleptic Passion Narrative). By his going down to Egypt and subsequent exodus, Jesus recapitulates the history of Israel, the son of God in the O.T. The high point of the Infancy Narrative is reached in God's declaration through Hosea that Jesus is not only sons of David, son of Abraham, son of Joseph, son of Mary, but preeminently 'my son' (Matt 2:15)" (Maier, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, pp. 629-630).

The Genealogy of Christ

Matthew begins his Gospel by delineating the genealogy of Christ. Too often, the reader will quickly overlook this introduction and rush to the meat of Matthew's work. In so doing, they miss a wonderful insight into one of the purposes of Matthew's gospel which is to prove to his Jewish readers that Jesus is the Messiah. To validate his claim, Matthew selects a variety of stories which he feels verifies his thesis. The first evidence used by Matthew is Christ's genealogy.

He begins the genealogy by first declaring that Jesus Christ is "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1). For Matthew, it is paramount that his reader understands that Christ is the son of David for according to prophecy the Messiah would come from the loins of David. But it is equally important that the reader understand that Christ descended from Abraham for according to the covenant God made with Abraham all the gentile nations would be blessed with the opportunity for gospel blessings through Abraham's posterity.

He divides the genealogy of Christ into three sets of fourteen: from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian captivity, and from the captivity to Joseph. It seems clear that Matthew attached great importance to the numbers 3 and 14, finding mystical meaning in their significance.

Fourteen is the sum total of the numerical value of David's name. In Hebrew, each letter is also a number. Therefore, every name is also a number. David's name is spelled with three letters, . With = 4 and = 6, David's name is 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. With this in mind, Matthew sees that the name of David predicts when Christ would be born: he would be born at the end of the third set of fourteen generations.

Further insight concerning the genealogy of Christ was given by Elder Bruce R. McConkie: "Matthew identifies his Gospel as 'The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.' Then he gives a genealogy down to 'Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.' Luke begins with this same Joseph and traces the genealogy back to 'Adam, which was the son of God,' or, as the Joseph Smith Translation has it, to 'Adam, who was formed of God, and [was] the first man upon the earth.'

"Matthew's and Luke's accounts seemingly do not agree, though in fact the two of them taken together give a perfect picture of what is involved. Both purport to give the genealogy of Joseph, whose bloodline is not involved, but who was of the royal lineage. It is generally agreed that Matthew's account gives the royal lineage and therefore records names of those whose right it was to sit on David's throne, and that Luke's record contains the personal pedigree of Mary's husband. Matthew says Joseph was a son of Jacob, and Luke says that he was a son of Heli. It appears, however, that Jacob and Heli were brothers and that Heli was the father of Joseph and Jacob the father of Mary, making Joseph and Mary first cousins with the same ancestral lines. How fitting it is that the New Testament should preserve both a royal and a personal pedigree of these two, so that there could be no question, either by blood or by kingly right, as to the noble and exalted status of the Son of David" (McConkie, The Promised Messiah, pp. 471-472).

The Annunciation to Joseph

Having delineated the Savior's genealogy, Matthew now begins his narrative of the birth of Christ. Unlike Luke's gospel, his focus is not on the Savior and Mary but on Joseph. Emphasizing the importance of Joseph continues the O.T. theme that permeates throughout his gospel, for the similarities between Joseph sold into Egypt and Joseph, husband of Mary, are obvious: both received divine guidance through the medium of dreams.

Matthew speaks of Mary and Joseph as if the reader is already aware of who they are. The story begins after Mary and Joseph were espoused or betrothed. But before the two were married, Mary was found to be pregnant. "Jewish weddings involved three separate steps. First, there was the engagement. This was often arranged by the parents or by a professional matchmaker while the couple were still children. At a later stage came the betrothal, a legally binding relationship lasting for one year. During this period the couple lived apart and had no sexual relations. Should either party not wish to go ahead with the marriage, a divorce was required . . . The third step was the marriage itself.

"It was during the second stage (the betrothal) that Mary was found to be pregnant" (Mounce, Matthew, p. 9).

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a "just man" (Gk. dikaios, meaning law-abiding) which meant that he was careful to observe the law of Moses. The law of Moses would have required, at the least, that he divorce Mary because of her condition (Deut. 24:1), and at the extreme, have her brought before a law court and made a public example by having her put to death by stoning (Deut. 22:23-24). Joseph found himself in a dilemma. Being just or a respecter of the law, he could not overlook Mary's apparent sin. On the other hand, because he must have had feelings for her, he did not want to disgrace her publicly but wanted to deal with her as tenderly as possible. He decided to divorce her secretly. "Divorce was no great problem for an Israelite man: he simply had to give the lady 'a bill of divorce' before two witnesses and send her away" (Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 28).

Before he could carry out his plans to divorce her, God intervened through the medium of a dream. An angel appeared unto him and said: "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus [Heb. Yeshua, or Joshua, meaning salvation]: for he shall save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:20). Obediently, Joseph took Mary and married her. However, Matthew is quick to inform his reader that Joseph "knew her not [i.e., they had no sexual relations] till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and called his name Jesus" (Matt. 1:25).

"Wise men from the east"

Matthew tells us nothing about the birth of Christ except that Mary "brought forth her firstborn son . . . in Bethlehem" (Matt. 1:25-2:1). His concern is not with the details of the Savior's birth but with the reaction of the Jews to his birth.

We are told that when Jesus was born, "there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem" (Matt. 2:1). The Greek word magoi (English, Magi) translated as "wise men" means in this verse those who possess "special (secret) wisdom,' especially concerning the meaning of the course of the stars and its interconnection with the world events" (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 358). Nothing is known of whom these men were, how many there were, or where they came from except for the statement, "from the east" (Matt. 2:1). Yet the east would have suggested gentiles to the Jewish mind. This is because Babylon was east of Jerusalem. It was to Babylon that the Jews had been taken into bondage at the time of Nebuchadnezer. But when an opportunity to leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem was offered the Jews, most stayed in Babylon and her sinful trappings. Therefore Isaiah pled for the Jews to flee Babylon and go back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 48:20). In so doing, the Jews would return to God (symbolized by the temple in Jerusalem). The wise men coming from the east were doing just that. But instead of Jews returning, it is gentiles who are coming to worship the Jewish Messiah.

When the wise men arrived in Jerusalem they inquired, "Where is the child that is born, the Messiah of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him" (JST Matt. 3:2). To whom they made this inquiry is not mentioned. However, "When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matt. 2:3). The last phrase of verse three is ominous. Of this Leon Morris stated: "Herod was troubled; he was an Edomite, not a Jew, and he had been made king by the Romans. The news that the Magi were bringing sounded suspiciously like the emergence of a genuine descendant of the royal line of David as a claimant to the throne . . . And if Herod was troubled, the whole city was troubled with him. When Herod the Great trembled the whole city shook" (The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 37).

Herod called in "the chief priests and scribes" and asked of them where the Messiah was to be born. They replied, "In Bethlehem of Judaea," basing their answer upon the biblical prophecy found in Micah 5:2. Herod then called in the wise men privately enquiring of them when they first saw the star that signaled the birth of the Messiah. He then sent them to Bethlehem to search for the child with the instruction that they were to return to him and tell him where the child was.

The wise men located the "young child" in a "house" in Bethlehem. They gave him three gifts of gold, and frankincense, and myrrh (Matt. 2:11). Matthew loves to report things in three for three is a symbolic number. Though often symbolism has been attached to these gifts (gold represented the Savior's royalty, frankincense used in the cultic sacrifices represented the Savior's sacrifice, and myrrh used as an incense in burials represents his future death for mankind's sins), Matthew makes no comment about the gifts. Nonetheless, the gifts would have represented a great deal of money. Obviously, the giving of the gifts showed the great respect the wise men had for the birth of the Savior and what that meant.

In contrast to the wise men's adoration, Herod had no respect for the birth of the Messiah. Instead, he sought to destroy the child. His actions seem to foreshadow the future rejection of the Savior by the Jewish nation.

Of this story, Morris states: "Matthew may well have included this story to bring out the truth that Jesus is Lord of all peoples; since this is so, it was appropriate that at the time of his infancy people came from a distant Gentile country to pay their homage. In this narrative the Jews and their king are ranged against the infant Jesus, but Gentiles do him homage. There will also be the motif that the purposes of God cannot be overthrown. Earthly kings like Herod may try to circumvent the divine purpose, but in the end they are always defeated" (Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew, p. 35). Similarly Hill has noted that the story of the wise men "is the means of affirming (a) that the place of Messianic origin is Bethlehem, and (b) that the appearance of the Messiah (of the Davidic tribe of Judah) on the stage of history provoked hostility on the part of the leaders of his own people, but was acknowledged by representatives of the non-Jewish world; their search for and worship of Jesus prefigure the conversion of the pagan nations to Christ (cf. 8:11)" (Hill, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 80).

Jesus is the New Moses One of the underlying themes of Matthew's Gospel, one that is not precisely stated but is nonetheless evident, is that Jesus is the Prophet that was to come that would be like Moses. The Lord said to Moses, "I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee" (Deut. 18:18). In the birth of Christ narrative, Matthew shows several similarities between the birth of Moses and the birth of Christ. Just as there was an attempt to destroy the infant Moses by Pharaoh (Exodus 1) so Herod attempted to destroy the child Jesus (Matt. 2:16-18 ). As Moses came from Egypt, so Jesus also came from Egypt where Joseph and Mary had fled to escape the butcherous hands of Herod's soldiers (Matt. 2:13-15). Referring to this, Elder McConkie stated: "And now Joseph, as directed by an angel, takes Jesus into Egypt for a short season, 'that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son' -- all to the end that whenever Israel remembers how God had delivered them with a mighty hand from the bondage of Egypt, they will think also that the Son of God was called out of Egypt to deliver them from the bondage of sin.

"All Israel went down into Egypt to save themselves from death by famine, even as the infant Jesus was taken down into Egypt to save him from an assassin's sword. As the Lord's chosen people came out of Egypt into a land of promise to receive his law and walk in his paths, so his Beloved and Chosen came out of Egypt into that same promised land to dispense the new law and invite the chosen seed to walk in the appointed course.

"In the minds of ancient Israel there was no greater miracle than their mighty deliverance from Egypt: a deliverance made possible by an outpouring of plagues upon Pharaoh's people; a deliverance assured by the saving power of a wall of water on the right hand and a wall of water on the left, as Moses led them through the Red Sea; a deliverance made effective because the Lord rained bread from heaven upon them lest they die from famine.

"But now, in the minds of all men, there should be the thought of an even greater deliverance: a deliverance from the chains of sin; a deliverance from death, hell, the devil, and endless torment; a deliverance from mortality to immortality; a deliverance from spiritual death to eternal

life -- all through the great Deliverer, who like Israel of old overcame the Egypt of the world to dwell in the promised land.

"And so Joseph, having saved Jesus by taking him into Egypt, now brings him back to Palestine that he might bring salvation to all men" (McConkie, The Mortal Messiah, vol. 1, pp. 364-365).

The theme of Christ being the new Moses is carried on into the first narrative and discourse of the Savior's ministry as we shall now see.