Matthew Chapter 2:13-23

We are in the final part of the birth narrative.

13 Ἀναχωρησάντων δὲ αὐτῶν ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου φαίνεται κατ’ ὄναρ τῷἸωσὴφ λέγων, Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ φεῦγε εἰς Αἴγυπτον, καὶ ἴσθι ἐκεῖ ἕως ἂν εἴπω σοι: μέλλει γὰρ Ἡρῴδης ζητεῖν τὸ παιδίον τοῦ ἀπολέσαι αὐτό.

They (the magoi) having left, behold, an angel of the lord appearned in a dream to Joseph, saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. And there remain until which (time) I telll you. For Herod to seek the child for his (the child’s) destruction.”

OK, another dream, the third so far. God, the Lord, is heavily involved in all of this. We’ll save the rest for later. 

I really do have to figure out what to do with << ἰδοὺ >>. “Behold” is really out of place in English, but it’s there. If this is going to be useful as a crib, I can’t just ignore it.

13 Qui cum recessissent, ecce angelus Domini apparet in somnis Ioseph dicens: “ Surge et accipe puerum et matrem eius et fuge in Aegyptum et esto ibi, usque dum dicam tibi; futurum est enim ut Herodes quaerat puerum ad perdendum eum ”.

14 ὁ δὲ ἐγερθεὶς παρέλαβεν τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ νυκτὸς καὶ ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς Αἴγυπτον,

He having gotten up, took the child and his mother by night and departed the coutry to Egypt.

Does anyone else have the sense, or get the impression that the wording here is more about Mary than it is about Joseph? The formula “take the child and his mother” is repeated twice. Such formulae are part of a poetic tradition, which starts to take us out of a truly historical narrative. But what it does is make the two of them a unit; it sort of leaves Joseph on the outside looking in. It’s like, ‘take care of them, because they’re the important part here’.  To some degree, I believe this reinforces the message we got at the end of the genealogy, when we are told that the mother of Jesus was Mary, when we have gotten no other female ancestors in the whole lineage. And this is consistent with Joseph’s name not being mentioned by Mark. In the earliest tradition(s), Jesus was the son of Mary; no father was named. This was unseemly; the patronymic was a hugely important part of one’s identity in the Hebrew, Greek, and Roman worlds. Not having a recognized father was pretty much an open statement of bastardy. No doubt the followers of Jesus felt this lack, and so came up with Joseph. And not only that, they came up with a lineage tracing back to the most famous family and forebear in the Hebrew tradition: David.

The question we (or at least I, anyway) would like to answer is who created Joseph and the lineage? Now, there is no reason that these two pieces were created by the same person(s), at the same time, or in the same place. I have said, and I want to continue to stress that there were many traditions about Jesus, not all of them consistent. Remember, Paul has stated in two separate letters that there were different gospels. I hate to keep harping on this, but it’s a staggeringly important fact to remember at all times. Jesus’ identity differed in different traditions, so there is no reason why the name of Jesus’ father, and his royal ancestry had to come from the same group or the same place.

I referred to “the child and his mother” as a formula. The choice of that term is deliberate, because it’s what you get from oral poetic traditions: “The child of Morning, rosy-fingered Dawn”, or “Achilles, fleet of foot”. I seriously doubt that an epic poem was constructed about Jesus; rather, I’m wondering if the same sort of conditions, or impulses, that eventually created The Iliad  weren’t at work in the period between Jesus’ death and the time that Matthew wrote. I suggested that the reason Mark wrote his gospel was to weld some of these disparate traditions into a single narrative. My tentative hypothesis is that Matthew wrote to fill in the holes left by Mark. This would explain the addition of a birth narrative, a father, and a grand lineage.

The point is, assuming that Matthew knew Mark’s gospel, Matthew must have felt that important pieces were missing, that Mark was somehow incomplete. Why else do you sit down to write a different version of essentially the same story? 

14 Qui consurgens accepit puerum et matrem eius nocte et recessit in Aegyptum

15 καὶ ἦν ἐκεῖ ἕως τῆς τελευτῆς Ἡρῴδου: ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος, Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου ἐκάλεσατὸν υἱόν μου.

And he was there until the death of Herod.  This was so the the writing might be fulfilled, according to the prophet of the lord, saying, “From Egypt I have called my Son.” 

The prophecy is from Hosea. The “son” in the quote is the nation of Israel, and the entire quote is a reference to the Exodus. So…Given the original context of the quote, it really makes the insertion of this whole part of the story so that a non-existent prophecy could be “fulfilled” seem like it’s taking the long way around to get to the point it wants to make. I say “non-existent” because , in Hosea, it’s a reference to a event that had occurred long, long ago, not to something that will happen which is pretty much the definition of a ‘prophecy’. That Matthew went so far out of his way to work this in provides, I think, some really keen insight into the purpose, the reason why Matthew wrote. So far, we’ve had an event of such cosmic experience that it required the introduction of a new star. Now, we have the Lord stating flatly that Jesus was the son of the Lord: he is the “my son” of the prophecy. Recall how tentative Mark was about this throughout most of his gospel. I suspect this has a lot to do with why Matthew felt a new telling was necessary. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

15 et erat ibi usque ad obitum Herodis, ut adimpleretur, quod dictum est a Domino per prophetam dicentem: “Ex Aegypto vocavi filium meum”.

16 Τότε Ἡρῴδης ἰδὼν ὅτι ἐνεπαίχθη ὑπὸ τῶν μάγων ἐθυμώθη λίαν,καὶ ἀποστείλας ἀνεῖλεν πάντας τοὺς παῖδας τοὺς ἐν Βηθλέεμ καὶ ἐν πᾶσι τοῖς ὁρίοις αὐτῆς ἀπὸ διετοῦς καὶ κατωτέρω, κατὰ τὸν χρόνον ὃν ἠκρίβωσεν παρὰ τῶν μάγων.

Then Herod, seeing that he had been deceived by the magoi, became enraged, and he sent out to kill all the children of Bethlehem and its surroundings from two years and down, according to the time which he had enquired about diligently from the magoi.

Here is where we really see just how far Matthew has gone to work in the cite from Hosea about calling “my son” out of Egypt. We are told that Herod killed all the (male) children two years and younger in Bethlehem and its environs. There is absolutely no evidence from anywhere that such an atrocity ever occurred. And an event of this magnitude could be expected to have been mentioned somewhere; even the other evangelists ignore it. Josephus was not exactly well-disposed to the memory of Herod; he tells us in prurient detail how Herod murdered many, many members of his family. A crime like this would have been an awfully juicy tidbit to corroborate this reputation, so that Josephus is silent on it must carry weight. There is another reason to doubt this: we do not know that Jesus was born while Herod was alive. Luke places it in the governorship of the Roman Quirinius; the two periods did not overlap. Herod was dead before Quirinius became governor. Now, there are reasons to prefer Matthew over Luke, but the point remains that this was not a settled matter. Otherwise, Luke would not have felt free to change the date of Jesus’ birth the way he did.

As as result, the implication seems to be that Matthew so badly wanted to work in that line from Hosea, that he had to come up with a very compelling reason for Jesus to be in Egypt; he succeeded in coming up with that reason, but only by coming up with a pretty monstrous lie. Or the creation of a monstrous act.

One final point. We are not told how much time passed between the departure from Jerusalem of the magoi and the Slaughter of the Innocents–as it became known in the Roman tradition. But the fact that Herod killed all the boys under two gives us a pretty good indication that the journey of the magoi had taken some time. Granted, no doubt Herod would have erred on the side of caution and raised the age just to make sure, but there is a recognition that some time had passed. I mention this because I find it fascinating that Matthew took this into consideration when making up the story. On the one hand, he has no qualms about telling a whopper, but OTOH, he calculates in that a certain amount of time had elapsed between the birth and the arrival of the magoi. Now, someone might want to point out that this actually provides some support for the whole story, and I would have to agree that it does. However, this slender reed of an argument is far outweighed by the mighty tree of the story of the Slaughter of the Innocents. 

16 Tunc Herodes videns quoniam illusus esset a Magis, iratus est valde et mittens occidit omnes pueros, qui erant in Bethlehem et in omnibus finibus eius, a bimatu et infra, secundum tempus, quod exquisierat a Magis.

17 τότε ἐπληρώθη τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ Ἰερεμίουτοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

Then the pronouncement of the Prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled, which said (lit = saying),

Comment deferred

17 Tunc adimpletum est, quod dictum est per Ieremiam prophetam dicentem:

18 Φωνὴ ἐν Ῥαμὰ ἠκούσθη, κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὀδυρμὸς πολύς: Ῥαχὴλ κλαίουσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτῆς, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν παρακληθῆναι, ὅτι οὐκ εἰσίν.

“A great voice in Ramah was heard, with great crying and wailing, ‘Rachel weeps for her children, and she did not wish to be consoled, because they were no more’.”

Overall, this is pretty much the same idea as the quote from Hosea: a reference that to an event that happened centuries before, and one that was backward-looking even when it was written. The only difference is that it’s from a much more prominent prophet, this time Jeremiah. Again, I have to wonder who the intended audience was here; was it fellow Jews who might crinkle their brow at this odd use of an old prophet? Or was the intended listener a pagan, who might be impressed that the destruction of the children Matthew describes had been “predicted” several centuries prior? Remember, Paul sometimes played a little fast and loose with his OT references, perhaps knowing that the audience may not be keenly aware of Hebrew Scripture. And so, in a slightly different way, perhaps Matthew sought OT references that sounded good–if they weren’t scrutinized too closely.

The thing is, I believe that the reason Matthew has Herod kiiling the children od neighboring towns was to allow him to use this verse, thereby including Ramah as one of those nearby towns. Now, I checked a map; there are actually at least two (possibly three) places called Ramah, but none of them are particularly near Bethlehem. Bethlehem of Judea is south of Jerusalem; Ramah is north of Jerusalem, which makes it even more odd. All in all, Matthew certainly went out of his way to work this in. 

18 Vox in Rama audita est, ploratus et ululatus multus: Rachel plorans filios suos, et noluit consolari, quia non sunt ”.

19 Τελευτήσαντος δὲ τοῦ Ἡρῴδου ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου φαίνεται κατ’ ὄναρ τῷ Ἰωσὴφ ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ

Then, Herod having died, behold, an angel of the lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, (saying)

Comment deferred

19 Defuncto autem Herode, ecce apparet angelus Domini in somnis Ioseph in Aegypto

20 λέγων, Ἐγερθεὶς παράλαβε τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ πορεύου εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ, τεθνήκασιν γὰρ οἱ ζητοῦντες τὴν ψυχὴν τοῦ παιδίου.

“Get up (and) take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those seeking the life of the child have died”.

First, we’re now up to our fourth dream. The thing is, I just realized how special the whole dream thing is. Matthew will use it again in V-22 below, and once more when Pilate’s wife has her dream. And that’s it. For the entire NT. Five times in Matthew Chapter 2,  once in Matthew Chapter 22. And nowhere else. Admittedly, I don’t know exactly what the significance of this is, but I have no doubt that it is significant. Does this represent an older block of a story that Matthew incorporated more or less whole? Perhaps like the story of the Gerasene demonaic that we found in Mark? The (over)use of the dream motif indicates a certain world-view, an attitude towards the interaction between the divine and the human. But the attitude disappears, or goes dormant, for twenty chapters. Why? I wish I knew.

And again, we have the “the child and his mother” formula. This, in conjunction with the repeated dream motif, may indeed indicate that this had become something like a folk-legend, perhaps in verse? An oral poem? The story of Jesus and Herod and the magoi from the east?

Here’s a question. Why do we call it Israel? This was Judah, or Judea, as the Romans called it. Note that Israel had not existed for half a millennium or longer at this point. But is that the point? Again, I keep coming back to the need for a pedigree, the longer the better, to impress the pagans. As such, “Israel” is perhaps a deliberate archaism. Because how would a Jew react to this? Would there be a sense of wistful nostalgia? Again, hard to say. Regardless of the audience, or the reaction, it’s an anachronism here.

Internal update: I wrote the bit above about Israel a day or two ago. In the meantime, something has occurred to me. Of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, Israel had much the more storied past. As such, I believe Matthew is trying to connect Jesus to that more storied past. Here’st the thing: I seriously doubt that there was ever a united monarchy; or, if there was, Judah was under the rule of Israel, and Israel was more pagan than not. But it was more powerful. Much more powerful. So after the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians, the now independent (mostly so, but recognizing Assyrian suzerainty) aspired to place itself as not only an integral part of Israel, but somehow dominant, by placing David at the apex of both kingdoms. But Israel had the name recognition, so Matthew wants Jesus associated with the royal splendor of the unified kingdom.

One last thing: “those who sought the life of the child”. Two things. Again we get “psyche”, in the sense of “physical life” rather than anything non-material.  Second, why “those”? It was Herod who wanted the life of the child. I suppose this could include the court and the sycophants and the hangers-on who surrounded the king, but it seems a bit of an odd formulation. Here’s a thought: is it an indication that this story was in verse? In epic poetry, the formulations would change with the case of the noun. So, in some cases, Achilles was the “son of Peleus”, while in others he was “fleet of foot”. The choice would depend on the requirements of the metre. So, here, did “those who sought” fit the metre, where simply “Herod”, or “the king”, or something else didn’t work?

20 dicens: “ Surge et accipe puerum et matrem eius et vade in terram Israel; defuncti sunt enim, qui quaerebant animam pueri ”.

21 ὁ δὲ ἐγερθεὶς παρέλαβεν τὸ παιδίον καὶ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς γῆν Ἰσραήλ.

Having risen, he took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.

Comment deferred

21 Qui surgens accepit puerum et matrem eius et venit in terram Israel.

22 ἀκούσας δὲ ὅτι Ἀρχέλαος βασιλεύει τῆς Ἰουδαίας ἀντὶ τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτοῦ Ἡρῴδου ἐφοβήθη ἐκεῖ ἀπελθεῖν: χρηματισθεὶς δὲ κατ’ ὄναρ ἀνεχώρησεν εἰς τὰ μέρη τῆς Γαλιλαίας,

Hearing then that Archelaos was the King of the Jews, against his (Archela0s) father Herod, he (Joseph) feared to enter (Judea). He was warned in a dream to depart for the land of Galilee.

That’s the last dream until Chapter 22. And, strictly speaking, Archelaos was not the King of Judea. He was a tetrarch, because the territory of Herod the Great was divided into four (tetra) parts as a result of civil unrest bordering on civil war among the would-be successors. The outcome was that four of Herod’s relatives were given nominal privileges of rule, but all were under the auspices of the new Roman governor; Quirinius, of Luke, was the first of these. Pilate would come later. 

22 Audiens autem quia Archelaus regnaret in Iudaea pro Herode patre suo, timuit illuc ire; et admonitus in somnis, secessit in partes Galilaeae

23 καὶ ἐλθὼν κατῴκησεν εἰς πόλιν λεγομένην Ναζαρέτ, ὅπως πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν διὰ τῶν προφητῶν ὅτι Ναζωραῖος κληθήσεται.

And coming they dwell in the city called Nazareth, so that fulfilled was the dictum from the prophet that, “He will be called a Nazarene”.

23 et veniens habitavit in civitate, quae vocatur Nazareth, ut adimpleretur, quod dictum est per Prophetas: “ Nazaraeus vocabitur ”.

This is interesting. My hard copy Greek NT (English Bible Society; I bought it at the University of Toronto Bookroom a decade or two or three ago) cites this bit about the Nazarene to Isaiah, 11:1 & 53:2.. However, upon looking, I find no mention of Nazareth. So I googled it. As it turns out, there is no direct quote of this in the OT. Rather, it’s an allegorical interpretation, such as was, apparently, fairly common in First Century Jewish interpretation; Philo of Alexandria, of course, was the most famous of these. So what does it mean? Well, that turns out to be an excellent question. One school of thought believes that this should be read as “He shall be called a Nazirite”, this being a term for one consecrated to God. It seems that Biblical scholars have sought the cite, in vain, for about 2,000 years. Calvin says that St John Chrysostom was baffled by the reference.

One possibility is that Matthew misunderstood what he heard. “Nazirite” is a Hebrew term, and we have already seen that Matthew read his Scripture in Greek. So maybe this came from an oral source, and Matthew garbled it, so that the word morphed into “Nazarene”, as something that he recognised. There is a term in Linguistics for this: where someone hearing a word, especially in a foreign language, and interprets it in terms that the hearer can understand. The example my prof always used was an Anglophone hearing the term “contre danse“, and repeating it as “country dance”. Now, if this is true, it sure shoots holes in the “Jesus of Nazareth” theme. If you’ll recall, based on the internal evidence in Mark, my inference was that Jesus actually lived in Caphernaum. Based on what we’ve read here, I’m not convinced he was from Nazareth.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on October 1, 2014, in Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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