THE FIRST CHRISTMAS
AND THE FIRST FAMILY – PART III
NARRATIVES IN THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
I. The Gospel according
to Matthew emphasizes the fact that Jesus fulfills Jewish history and
brings her promises to the world.
A. The Gospel according
to Matthew emphasizes how Jesus fulfills Jewish prophesies, frequently
cross-referencing them. See Matt. 1:23, 2;7:15, 18, 23, 4:15-16,
8:17, 12:18-21, 13:35, 21:5, 25:56, 27:9-10.
Thus, for example, the Gospel traces Jesus' genealogy) back to David
and Abraham, that is through Israeli history. (By contrast, Luke's
Gospel traces Jesus' genealogy goes back to Adam.)
Likewise, the infancy narratives stress the role of St. Joseph, through
whom Jesus is in the line of kings.
- The Gospel begins with
the word "The Book of Genealogy," which in Greek is translated "The
Book of Genesis," a clear reference to the fact that the Gospel is
a new beginning of the history begun in Genesis.
B. The Gospel has a sophisticated
structure that balances narrative discourses and sermons by Jesus to
lead up to the Death and Resurrection of Christ and His commissioning
of the disciples. Thus, the Gospel features five long sermons,
probably reflecting the five books of the Pentateuch, the center of
Hebrew Scriptures; the first of these sermons, the Sermon on the Mount,
is meant, in large part, as a fulfillment of the Mosaic law. See
1. One proposal is
to organize the Gospel along the lines of alternating narratives and
sermons, each fulfilling the other. One common organization is
as follows. See Benedict Viviano, "The Gospel According to Matthew"
in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary 42:8. Although Fr.
Viviano does not think of it in this fashion, this organization can
be seen in a traditional sense of five narratives and five discourses,
pointing to the climax in Jesus' redeeming sacrifice and resurrection.
a. Chapters 1
to 4 narrate the birth of Jesus, His Baptism, the beginning of His ministry,
and the call of His first disciples.
2. Another way of
seeing the Gospel is in five parts, again reflecting the five-fold structure
of the Pentateuch. Cf. The Navarre Bible: The Gospel
and Acts 45-48 (with a similar organizing principle.) The
sections are as follows.
- There is a dramatic
contrast between Jesus as the promised king, whom the angels and the
just of the earth (represented by the magi) honor and King Herod, the
earthly king, whose violence and treachery are emphasized by the narrative.
II. The Gospel
begins with a genealogy, which is meant to emphasize the fact that Jesus
is the fulfillment of Jewish history, bringing the promises made to
Abraham to the world. He is the long awaited Messiah, who will
save His people and bring the kingdom of God to all the world.
- God had promised
Abraham that His descendants would be innumerable and that, through
his descendants, all nations would be blessed. See Gen. 12:1-3,
15:4-6, 17:1-8. The prophets and psalmists had likewise spoken
numerous times of a king to come who would bring God's kingdom of
righteousness to all nations. See, e.g., Ps. 2, 89, 110; 1 Sam.
8; Isaiah 9:2-7, 11:1-12:6; Zech. 9:9-12; 10:1-7; 12:10-14; Micah 5:1-4.
By tracing Jesus' genealogy back to Abraham and David, the Gospel
is indicating the fulfillment of these promises. The Gospel will
later emphasize Joseph and then Jesus as the Son of David. See
Matt. 1:20, 12:23, 15:22, 20:30-31, 21:9, 15.
- The idea that the
line of kings had been restored was particularly dramatic, for there
had not been a king since 586 B.C. when the last king was exiled.
After the exile ended 40 years later, the Medes, who were then dominant,
would not permit Zerrubabel, who was the next likely successor, to be
crowned, possibly trying to prevent the prophesies from being fulfilled.
Even though the Jews achieved independence from 143 – 63 B.C., there
was no king from the Davidic line. And then a dynastic dispute
about who should be ruler over the Jews allowed the Roman general Pompey
to establish that empire's dominance over the area.
- At the time of Jesus,
there was a great expectation that the Messiah, i.e. the Anointed One,
would soon arise. And so this Gospel is announcing that Jesus
is that one.
- The genealogy as
three sets of 14, probably for two or possibly three, reasons.
1. First, in
Hebrew, as with the Romans, there were no separate symbols for numbers.
Instead, letters from the Hebrew alphabet represented numbers.
In particular, the letter corresponding to D represented 4, and the
letter corresponding to V (or actually more like a combination of V
and U) represented 6. One common way of representing the number
14 was thus DVD (4 + 6 + 4). Because there were no vowels in written
Hebrew, that term would also be the name of king David.
- The figure can also
be seen a six sets of seven. That would make Jesus the seventh
of the sevens. Because seven was considered a symbol of perfection
in Judaism (e.g., the seven days of creation), Jesus would be the perfection
- Dr. William Barclay
also suggests that, the three sets are meant to represent: (1) the glory
of humanity (symbolized by Abraham to David); (2) the sinfulness of
humanity (symbolized by the descent of Israel into the Exile); and (3)
the redemption of humanity, leading up to Jesus. See Barclay,
The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew 16-17.
- The genealogy does
not necessarily represent biological descent. An adoption was
sufficient to establish succession, as is the case between Joseph and
Jesus. That can explain the differences between the genealogies
between this Gospel and that of Luke.
- The genealogy also
skips some generations. There are five generations from David
to the exile that are apparently skipped. See Fr. Viviano, "The
Gospel According to Matthew" in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary
42:10. In addition, it is unlikely that there were only 14 generation
between Abraham in about 1850 B.C. and David 800 years later or between
the exile in 586 and Joseph about 550 years later.
- In Jewish thought,
the terms "father of" or "son of" could refer to any number
of generations between the two parties. Thus, the angel refers
to Joseph as "son of David." See Matt. 1:20.
- The genealogy includes
reference to four women: (1) Tamar, the daughter – in law of Judah,
who became pregnant by him after he broke his promise to replace her
deceased husband; (2) Rahab, the harlot of Jericho who assisted the
Jews in their initial conquest of the Holy Land; (3) Ruth the just Moabite
woman who married a Jewish man and became Jewish, and then became the
great-grandmother of king David; and (4) "the wife of Uriah," i.e.
Bathsheba, who committed adultery with King David, but later married
him after her husband's murder and became the mother of Solomon.
Scholars have heavily debated the reasons for these inclusions.
- One argument is
that they were generally outsiders, whom God incorporated into His saving
- Another explanation
is that God works in unexpected ways and even through sinful people,
or (as in the case of the just Ruth) despised pagans. See Duet.
23:3 (prohibiting Moabites from being a part of Israel to the tenth
- Another possibility
is to emphasize that God often works through irregular unions, and thus
will work through the union of Joseph and Mary. However, this
explanation does not seem to work well, for the marriage of Joseph and
Mary was normal, and the conception of Jesus higher than the law, not
- The numbering in
the genealogy has a curious absence. In the first two sequences,
there are fourteen generations with: (1) 14 figures from Abraham to
David inclusive; and (2) 14 figures from David's son Solomon to Jechoniah
inclusive. However, there are only 13 new figures in the last
list, from Jeconiah's son Shealtiel to Jesus. One explanation
is that Jesus counts twice, once as the (adopted) son of Joseph, and
once as the Son of God, as the next passages will explain.
- The last line of
the genealogy changes the language to say that Jesus was born of Mary,
who was the wife of Jesus. In every other passage, even the passages
that mentioned women, the text says that the man "was the father of"
the next in line. Here, however, the text clearly omits any reference
to Joseph being the father of Jesus.
III. The text describes
the birth of Jesus is a simple, surprising bluntness.
- The text begins
by describing the situation. Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but
- At that time, there
were three stages to a marriage.
First, there was the engagement, which could be made by parents when
the couple were children. It was not completely binding, and could
be called off if either side were unwilling.
Second, there was an betrothal of about a year. This betrothal
was considered to make the couple husband and wife, even though they
did not live together. If the husband died during this time, the
wife was considered a widow. And it would take a divorce to separate
there was the full marriage, the celebration of which could last a week,
during which the couple actually came together. John 2:1-11 describes
such a wedding at Cana.
- It appears that
Joseph and Mary were in the period of engagement.
- Then, the text makes
the stunning statement that Mary was found with child through the Holy
1. The notion
of the Spirit of God was a common one in the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Spirit (ruach, which also means wind or breath) was there at creation,
inspires and guides the prophets, is in holy people and even craftsmen,
and is promised to dwell in the people of God in the great Messianic
era. See, e.g., Gen. 1:2 (the Spirit at creation); Gen. 41:38;
Is. 62:11 (guiding prophets); 1 Sam. 10:10, 16:13; Is. 11:2-9 (coming
upon kings); Ex. 31:3, 35:31 (guiding craftsmen); Ez. 36:26, 37:4; Joel
2:28-29 (the spirit coming to all peoples in the last days.) There
are over 50 references to the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God in the
2. There was
also a concept of people being symbolically the sons of God.
Thus, for example, angels, the king, the people of Israel, the just
man, or even Adam are called sons of God. See e.g., Ps. 29:1,
Job 1:6, 2 Sam. 7, Hosea 11:1, Wisdom 3:18; Luke 3:38.
- However, here there
is plainly a sense of a divine intervention outside the usual framework.
Jesus clearly becomes man without the intervention of a man. That
alone does not of necessity imply that Jesus is God, as well as man.
For Adam likewise was created directly by God. But there is a
miraculous birth and a first hint here, which the Gospel will later
develop, or God dwelling with us.
- The focus then turns
to Joseph, the just, prayerful and merciful man.
The first emphasis in on Joseph's justice and compassion, a balance
that Jesus focuses on later. See, e.g., Matt. 5:6-7, 5:17-26,
18:1-35. Joseph begins as a model disciple.
is just and thus does not want to take a sinful wife. On the other
hand, the penalty for adultery was (at least in principle) stoning,
and at a minimum lifelong shame. And he was too compassionate
to inflict such a fate on what he thought was an erring woman.
- An angel then suddenly
appears to Joseph to give him consolation and instruction.
- Angels had appeared
at rare times to the just in the past. See, e.g., Gen. 16:7 (to
Hagar), 19:1-23 (to Lot), 22:11 (to Abraham), 28:12 (Jacob and the latter
with angels); Josh. 5:13-14; Judges 6:11-40 (Gideon), 13:3-21 (Samson's
parents); 1 Kings 19:5 (Elijah); Dan. 3:49 (Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego),
6:22, 8:16, 9:21, 10:5 (Daniel); Zech. 2-6; Tobit. And, as the
Book of Tobit indicates, the angels guide people of God and the just.
See Ex. 23:20, 33:2; Num. 20:16; Ps. 33:8, 90:11.
- However, it had
apparently been centuries since angels had appeared to men, as it had
been four centuries since the last prophet, Malachi, had proclaimed
the word of the Lord. Once again, the long period of waiting,
here the time before an angel would appear again, had come to an end.
- The angel refers
to Joseph by the exalted title, "Son of David," which those in need
and then the people of Jerusalem will later use for Jesus. The
implication is that he is the successor to king David, and now is restoring
the line of kings. The succession to the kingship did not necessarily
go to the firstborn; there was discretion over who would inherit the
right to be king. Thus it was not clear who in David's sizeable
line was the one through whom the kingship would come.
- As angels usually
do, the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid. But here, the fear
the angel refers to is the fear of taking Mary as his wife. It
appears that he was not as fearful at the angel's simple presence
as others were. He is more like Abraham or Moses, who spoke more
freely to God, but were nervous about their roles.
- The angel then informs
Joseph that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and that her son will
be called Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.
- In Hebrew, the name
we render Jesus was roughly Jeshua, which is the same as the name for
Joshua. Joshua led the people into the Holy Land, a feat that
Moses, because of his slight sins, was unable to do. There is
a signification here that Jesus will lead His people to the Promised
Land, which Moses, for all of his glory, could not do.
- The name Jesus (or
Jeshua) is based upon the Hebrew word for Savior or "God saves."
And thus the name is fitting for the Savior of the human race.
For, as the angel points out, Jesus is the only one who can save us
from the final evil master, that is, from sin itself. See
Catechism of the Catholic Church 430-32.
- This revelation,
like the other revelations to Joseph or the magi, is during a dream.
The Bible is generally skeptical of claims that revelations have come
through dreams, seeing them more as based upon one's own desires.
See, e.g., Duet. 13:1-5; Sir. 34:1-8; Jer. 23:16-32, 29:8. They
are generally fleeting images. See. Ps. 73:20, 90:5. However,
the Bible does recount some rare instances in which God communicates
through dreams. See, e.g., Gen. 31:10-24, 37:5-11, 39:-23, 41:14-45;
1 King 3:5-15; Dan. 2.
- The Book of Sirach
indicates that the key is to live a virtuous life, and all else will
be provided. The book of Deuteronomy indicates that false dreams
will lead one to false gods, and the Books of Jeremiah and Sirach say
that false prophets will report dreams that fulfill their own wishes.
- Here, the dream
is vivid, comes to a just and holy man, and gives a message that he
would not have come up with on his own.
- The text then records
in straightforward fashion the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of the
1. The text begins
by stating that this nativity fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah.
In that prophesy, Isaiah gave comfort to the people of Israel by telling
them that a child would be born and would be called Immanuel, which
means "God with us" and that, in that within his lifetime, the enemies
of Israel will be vanquished.
a. The context
was that the northern kingdom of Israel, with its ally in Syria, had
invaded the southern kingdom of Judah in an attempt to depose the king
Ahaz and place a puppet king in his place. Isaiah was assuring
King Ahaz and his court that God would protect him. In that assurance,
Isaiah tells King Ahaz to ask for a sign, but King Ahaz will not do
so. Isaiah then speaks of the sign that God will give all the
b. The prophesy
says that an alma will give birth. That term could mean either
a young woman or a virgin. The Septuagint, a Greek translation
of the Hebrew Scriptures that was made in Alexandria during the century
before Christ and in common use at the time, translated that word as
a virgin. It thus implied a future birth of a king to come, not
the child born to Ahaz at the time. Matthew is adopting that translation,
although not rejecting the idea that the prophesy could have had a partial
fulfillment with a young woman having a child, namely Ahaz's wife
having a son, namely, Hezekiah the heir to the throne.
- The child will be
named Emmanuel, which means "God with us." A later passage
in Isaiah indicates that the name Emmanuel could be used for Hezekiah,
who was king of Judah from about 715-687 B.C.. See Is. 8:8.
For, although flawed, he was more just than his predecessors and was
considered God's representative among the people, as the kings were
supposed to be. See 2 Kings 18:5-6; see also Ps. 2, 45, 110 (describing
the king as God's representative.) However, the prophesy is
fulfilled only completely in Jesus Christ, who is totally and in fullness
God with us.
- The text then says
in a straightforward fashion that Joseph, this righteous man, did as
the angel told him. That may seem obvious, but his unquestioning
obedience is in some contrast with the hesitant obedience of the likes
of Gideon from the Old Testament, or Zechariah from the New Testament.
a. It would
not have been easy for Joseph to take Mary, both because he would not
have a normal marriage, and because the world would think that he had
taken a sinful wife, or perhaps had sinned with her before marriage.
In the ancient Jewish culture, that would have been looked down upon.
- Unlike other heroes,
Joseph's words are never recorded. His faithfulness is of a
silent, active type, in contrast to the noise of the world.
- The text makes plain
again that Mary had a son without intercourse with Joseph. The
Gospel emphasizes for a third time that Jesus is directly from God.
- The text
says that Joseph did not have relations with Mary "until" she had
born a son. The word "until" here, (eos in Greek) does not
imply that there were relations afterward. In a like manner, for
example, at the end of the Gospel, Jesus promises that He will be present
with His disciples until the end of the age (or end of the world), certainly
not implying that He will not be with them afterward. See Matt.
- The text emphasizes
Joseph's authority as a husband, and in fact the successor to the
kings by making it clear that he names the child Jesus. Even though
not the biological father, he fulfills all of the roles of a father,
and therefore becomes the model for all fathers.
IV. The Gospel then
turns to the gathering of the magi around Jesus, a first promise of
the gather of the nations into the kingdom of God.
- The Gospel begins
by saying that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Gospel according
to Luke describes the events leading up to His birth in this city, but
St. Matthew simply stated the fact. Bethlehem, which means "house
of bread" in Hebrew, was the hometown of King David. And the
prophet Micah, who was a prophet of the seventh and eighth centuries
B.C. and a contemporary of Isaiah, had prophesied that the saving king,
who would bring in the world-wide kingdom of God, would come from Bethlehem.
See Micah 5:2-4.
- The background is
the reign of King Herod, who was king over the area from 37 – 4 B.C.
He became governor of Galilee in 47 B.C. and, through political maneuvering
and a very authoritarian structure of government, had managed to become
king of the entire region, surviving the downfall of his patron Marc
Antony, and currying favor with the new emperor Augustus Caesar.
Although not born of Jewish parents (he was from Edom, whose people
were descendants of Esau), he found it helpful to support Jewish projects
and in particular expanded the Temple to a glorious height. But
his personal life was ruthless, and he put any suspected enemies to
death, including his wife and three of his sons.
- Suddenly magi from
the East come onto the scene, inquiring after the child Jesus.
- The term magi could
mean different things. According to Herodotus, the magi had been
a political class among the Medes, but eventually turned to more spiritual
and philosophical matters and became a priestly class. See Histories
1.101. Other magi were a combination of philosophers, spiritual
leaders, astrologers, magicians, and doctors. Professions were
not as distinct at the time. In any case, they would be considered
learned men and, in some sense, spiritual leaders.
- They have also been
classified as kings because of three prophecies that spoke of the gathering
of kings as signs of the nations coming before the restored Israel:
(1) Psalm 72:10-11, which speaks of kings of three countries coming
to make offerings to the Messiah; (2) Isaiah 49:7, which speaks of the
kings and rulers prostrating themselves before the Redeemer of Israel;
and (3) Isaiah 60:6, which describes rulers coming from three countries
bringing gold and frankincense to the new light of God.
- These magi came
"from the East," which most likely meant Persia, in the Parthinian
Empire, although it could also have meant Syria or Arabia, which were
in the Roman Empire. They may or may not have been from a similar
area. It is customary to present one from Europe, one from Persia
or Arabia, and one from Africa, which most likely would mean Ethiopia.
- According to tradition,
their names are Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and their relics are
buried in the cathedral at Cologne, Germany.
- They cam to Jerusalem
and reported that they had seen a star indicating that a new king had
been born, and that they had come to worship him.
- There was a common
belief at the time that a Savior would arise from the eastern part of
the Roman Empire and indeed from Judea. Roman historians such
as Cicero, Tacitus, Virgil, Suetonius, and the Jewish Roman Josephus
recount such expectations. See Barclay, The Gospel According
to Matthew 31-32; Fulton Sheen, The Life of Christ
- It is not clear
what the star was. It could have been a comet. (Haley's
comet had appeared in 11 B.C., although that would be a bit early.)
It could have been the convergence of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred
in 7 B.C. It may have been a miraculous physical light, or a spiritual
light that they alone had been able to see. On a similar note,
the star may have been an angel appearing to them as a brilliant light.
Cf. Job 38:17 (the stars associated with angels praising God);
Rev. 9:1 (a fallen angel symbolized by a fallen star); Matt. 28:2-3
(an angel appearing like lightening).
- There is no endorsement
here for astrology. Even if the star they saw was a physical one,
it was only by a particular revelation to them that that star had any
specific meaning. God may have told them that, when they saw a
special star, that would be the indication that the new king had been
born. Although the stars are considered to be signs of God's
wonder and, in their inanimate way praising God, see, e.g., Ps. 8:3,
19:1-2, 148:3, and as signs of His providence, see Gen. 15:5, 22:17,
there is no indication of them predicting anything in any other passage.
- This use of a star
could have been a symbol of God bringing even the pagans, who usually
did believe in astrology, through their real although limited understand,
to the Christ child. In this way, it could be a parallel to the
inclusion of the sinful or pagan women in Christ's genealogy.
3. It is unfortunate,
but in some ways predictable, that the reaction of Herod and the rest
of Jerusalem at the magi's report was being troubled. They should
have rejoiced at the birth of the Messiah. But such a birth would
also upset their comfortable lives; and that consideration seems to
have been dominant.
- Herod's reaction
shows his usual duplicity, although that will only become apparent later.
He inquires where the Messiah is to be born, under the pretext of wanting
to worship him too.
a. The chief
priests and scribes, i.e., the most learned ones, inform him of the
prophecy of Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
They add the prophecy of Samuel that the David "would shepherd My
people Israel." See 2 Sam. 5:2; 1 Chron. 11:2
- Their reaction is
odd; they do not bother to investigate themselves, but rather wait for
the magi. They may have been to "busy" to go find out themselves,
or they may have been afraid, either of Herod or of popular opinion,
or perhaps of the embarrassment if the adventure turned out to be a
false hope. See Barclay, The Gospel According to Matthew 35.
- The magi then come
to Bethlehem with the famed gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
- The star shines
specifically on the house where the Holy Family was, indicating that,
even if it was a natural star, there was a supernatural radiance that
extended from it to earth, a radiance that apparently only the magi,
and perhaps a few other select people, saw.
- The text emphasizes
that their reaction was one of joy. The term for "exceedingly,"
in Greek sfodra, means vehemently, almost violently and beyond any ordinary
bounds. In addition, it is probably no coincidence that the word Matthew
uses for "rejoice" (magalein) is the same as the word Luke uses
to translate Mary's song of her rejoicing in the Lord, as described
in the Gospel according to Luke. See Luke 1:46.
- They come to the
house where Mary and Jesus are. This arrival is sometime after
the birth of Jesus Christ, and likely after His presentation in the
Temple 40 days later. By this time, Joseph (perhaps with some
help from pious members of the community) had found a house for the
Holy Family, and was likely out working when the magi came. In
any case, this event is a classic example of coming to Jesus in the
presence of Mary.
- The gifts of gold,
frankincense and myrrh, partially foretold by Isaiah, are at one level
three of the most valuable gifts they could bring. See Is. 60:6-13.
At another level, they are symbolic of the roles Jesus will fulfill.
Gold was the fitting offering for a king, as well as being a useful
gift. Incense represented holiness and prayers, used frequently
by both Jews and pagans in worship; that gift reflects Jesus' role
as the high priest. Myrrh was the oddest gift. It was a
perfumed oil, used most commonly at burials. The magus who brought
this gift presumably understood that Jesus would be a sacrifice for