Summary Matthew Chapters 1 & 2

Something more than half of Chapter 1 was the genealogy of Jesus. Since this is basically a work of creative writing, I didn’t see much point in going through it. I am not even remotely qualified to comment,  or to compare this genealogy with that of Luke. There is one very interesting aspect to the begats, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I am combining the summary of the two chapters because the major theme of both is the birth narrative. It starts in one and takes up most of Chapter 2 as well. There are a number of interesting aspects. First, if I had to guess, or were forced to chose, I would say that the basic narrative pre-dated Matthew. There are too many clumsy moments, places where what Matthew says and what the narrative say don’t exactly line up.  They are small things individually, but as a composite, they carry weight. The most significant one, I think, deals with Joseph and the working of the spirit to impregnate Mary.  It’s done rather awkwardly, as if Matthew wanted to add things to the narrative, but didn’t feel he could make wholesale changes, perhaps because the community for whom he was writing was too familiar with the pre-existing birth story. Another is the repetition of “the child and his mother”. This almost has the feel of an epithet from epic poetry. Like I said, small things, easy to explain individually, but with a cumulative weight. This is a sense I get, rather than something I firmly believe. It’s hard to pin down. But, if forced, I would say it did pre-date Matthew.

Then there are the parts in which it almost seems the narrative is built around Mary rather than Joseph. The purpose of the birth narrative is to give Jesus both a father and a lineage. The latter effort is wildly successful, putting Jesus into the royal house of Judah, and associating him with Israel, the more renowned of the two kingdoms (that were not unified under David). Jesus was the “son of Mary” in Mark; that was, or could be taken as, an admission that he was a bastard. That simply would not do. But the cover-up was not complete; Mary is the only woman mentioned in the patrilineal list; her prominence cannot be swept completely under the rug. It would be very interesting to know if Matthew was the father of Joseph, if the latter were the creation of the former. I suspect not, given the large role of dreams in the birth story, and the subsequent dearth of dreams in the rest of the gospel. To me this says that Matthew was working with pre-existing material.

And the odd thing is that, in the final analysis, Joseph was not actually Jesus’ father anyway. As H. D. Kitto said in The Greeks. having a god as a forebear was sometimes the equivalent of saying, “And who his father was, god only knows…” And here is where I wonder if we’re not dealing with two separate themes that Matthew tried to weld together. The first version said that Jesus’ father was Joseph; the other said that Jesus was the son of God via God’s sacred breath. In short, Jesus was a demigod, pretty much like Herakles: a divine father and a human mother. And honestly it’s this this second version that truly matters. For here Jesus is, from the outset, from birth and before, divine. Matthew wants to leave no doubt.

And just to make sure we get this, there is added the whole story of the star and the Magoi. And it’s not just any star, but his star. Anyone who has a star pretty much has to be divine, right? He was foretold and ordained from on high, to the point that the Magoi had understood that the universe had arranged not only Jesus’ birth, but the appearance of a star to announce it to those who knew how to read it. IOW, God sent a sign. And as if being divine isn’t enough, Jesus is also of royal birth, of the House of David. The Magoi thus do double-duty; they underscore and affirm both Jesus’ divinity and his royal title by calling him the King of the Jews. And they use this title to describe Jesus to the real King of the Jews, Herod the Great. That’s about as in-your-face as one can get to a sitting king. Finally, just to cover all the bases, we are told that this king is also called the Anointed. However, while it didn’t occur to me at the time, the way this is written, it could easily have been a later insertion.

Then there are the prophecies. One from Hosea, one from Jeremiah, and one from…no one is exactly sure. It seems to echo some of the sentiments found in Isaiah. It’s not a direct quote, but we’re meant to take it as foretold. And there is the whole moving about, from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth in Galilee, all of which seems rather contrived. And recall that Mark said nothing about Bethlehem; this was obviously introduced for the connection to David. Nor is it a very clear narrative. But the truly contrived aspect of this is the creation of an atrocity by Herod, the sole purpose of which seems to be to allow Matthew to insert two of these prophecies. This should provide fairly conclusive proof that we are not reading an author who is writing history.

All in all, on the surface there really nothing very tentative about all of this. Matthew wants us to know from the opening bell that something very special has happened here, that Jesus was someone very special, even from before his birth, conceived as he was by way of the sacred breath of God. And yet, and yet…there are all these little cracks in the edifice, minor things that seem odd, peculiar, and just a bit out of joint. What this points to, I believe, is that we are dealing with another work of assimilation, in which the (nominal) author is actually piecing together a number of different stories. I suppose we should be used to that by now.


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 3, 2014, in Chapter 1, Chapter 2, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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