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The Birth of Jesus: Two Gospel Narratives

The Annunciation of Joseph

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In Matthew’s infancy narrative, Joseph is the primary character. Like his namesake in Genesis chapter 37, he receives messages in dreams and must make decisions based on these messages. (In Luke, it is Mary who receives a divine message and must choose.

Recalling the scandalous doings associated with some of the women noted in Matthew’s genealogy, Mary is found to be pregnant before her marriage to Joseph has been consummated. Matthew assures his readers that she is with child through the Holy Spirit, thus reiterating the divine providence implied in the genealogy.

Joseph, presented by Matthew as “a just man,” will not subject Mary to a public inquiry to determine whether her pregnancy was from consensual or coerced intercourse, as discussed in Deuteronomy chapter 22. Instead, he decides to terminate the marriage quietly.

Joseph’s decision here models the sophisticated observance of the Torah that Matthew desires of all the members of his strongly Jewish church. They are to observe “the smallest part of a letter” of the Torah (Mt. 5:17-19) as authoritatively taught by the Matthean Jesus, but with mercy as the preeminent principle of application.

An angel tells Joseph in a dream that the pregnancy is through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is instructed to name the child Jesus. Importantly, such a naming has significance in law. It makes Joseph the legal father of Jesus, thus affirming the Davidic descent so important in Matthew’s genealogy.

The dream message parallels an episode in Josephus’ Antiquities where Moses’ father is told in a dream that his son soon to be born would save the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. A Jesus/Moses pairing will be a recurring motif in Matthew’s Gospel.

Matthew cites the Greek Septuagint version of Isaiah 7:14 to identify the child to be born to a virgin as Emmanuel (“God is with us”). This saying forms a “book-end” or inclusio with the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel. The resurrected Jesus says, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:20).  For Matthew God’s promise always to be with his people has achieved its ultimate realization both in the birth of Jesus and in the presence of the resurrected Jesus in the church.