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Lesson #3 The Birth of Jesus

(Matthew 1: 1 2: 23)

In Lesson #2 we defined a gospel as:

an account of the good news of the coming Kingdom of God and of the redemption of humanity through the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as seen through the eyes of a living faith tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit, 30-60 years after the events it portrays. We also examined the oral teaching and preaching that formed the basis for the written canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John); we viewed the hypothetical relationships among the four written Gospels; and we examined the transmission of the written texts in manuscript form.

In Lesson #3 we will examine the architectural structure of Matthew and discusses why Matthew is the first Gospel in the Christian canonical order, even though Mark was probably written first. We will then take a close look at Matthews infancy narrative, including: the genealogy of Jesus the birth of Jesus the visit of the Magi the flight to Egypt the Massacre of the Infants and the return from Egypt.

Codex Schoyen (MS 2650), early 4th century. Private Collection, Zurich. The earliest surviving manuscript of The Gospel according to Matthew.

The Gospel according to Matthew sits at the head of the New Testament, functioning as a swinging door that links the Old and New Testaments. Written by a Jew for a Jewish audience, Matthew begins with a genealogy: The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham . . . (Matt. 1: 1). The first verse swings back to the Hebrew Scriptures and Gods covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12: 2-3, picks up Gods covenant with David in 1 Chronicles 17: 10-14, and brings both forward to introduce his story. In one deft movement Matthew not only links the entire linear narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures to the birth of Jesus, but he also makes the birth of Jesus the culminating event in Jewish history.

Standing at the head of the New Testament, Matthews story plays an important role in the literary structure of the Christian Bible.
Harvard Professor Frank Kermode observes that the Old Testament is to the New Testament as A is to B in Hebrew parallelism.

If we look at an example of parallelism in Psalm 6: 10 we read: A B The Lord has heard my plea; The Lord will accept my prayer.

The B line doesnt simply repeat A; it exceeds it, transforming the A line and fulfilling it. Note that the verb has heard in the first line is in the past tense, while the verb in the second line will accept is in the future tense. The psalmists condition hasnt changed, but the strength of his faith has.

Narrative: Jesus as Messiah, Son of God (1-4) Minor discourse: John the Baptist identifies the authority of Jesus (3:7-12) B Great Discourse #1: Demands of true discipleship (5-7) C Narrative: The supernatural authority of Jesus (8-9) D Great Discourse #2: Charge and authority of disciples (10) E Narrative: Jews reject Jesus (11-12) F Great Discourse #3: Parables of the Kingdom of Heaven (13) E Narrative: Disciples accept Jesus (14-17) D Great Discourse #4: Charge and authority of church (18) C Narrative: Authority and invitation (19-22) B Great Discourse #5: Judgment on false discipleship (23-25) Narrative: Jesus as Messiah, suffering and vindicated (26-28) Minor discourse: Jesus identifies the authority of the church (28:18-20)

Notice that the entire chiastic structure of Matthew is enveloped by the name of Jesus. Reaching back to Isaiah 7: 14, Matthew says, they will call him Immanuelwhich means God with us (1:23). At the last line of the Gospel, Jesus says, And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (28:20). This framing device is common in Hebrew poetry especially in the Psalms: it is called inclusio.

Matthew builds the entire chiastic structure of his story on an underlying 3-part Christological foundation: 1) the person of Christ (1: 1 - 4: 16) 2) the proclamation of Christ (4: 17 - 16: 20) and 3) the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ (16: 21 - 28: 20). Also, prior to Great Discourse #3the central element of the chiasm Jesus directs himself to the Jewish people: they neither listen to him nor understand him; after Great Discourse #3, he directs himself to his disciples, who accept him and believe in him.

In addition, the Greek word seismos rumbles beneath the narrative. It occurs seven times: 8: 24, 21: 10, 24: 7, 27: 54, 28: 2, and 28: 4. It suggests an earthquake, a sudden shock that shakes the storys foundations, recalling Haggai 2: 6-7:

For thus says the Lord of hosts: In just a little while I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all the nations, so that the treasures of all the nations will come in. And I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts.

We saw this very same chiastic structure in the our study of the Flood Story in Genesis 6: 9 9: 19
Transitional Introduction (6: 9-10) A Corruption in creation (6: 11-12) B 1st divine speech: Resolve to Destroy (6: 13-22) C 2nd divine speech: Enter the Ark (7:1-10) D Beginning of flood (7: 11-16) E Rising flood (7:17-24) E Receding flood (8: 1-5) D Drying the earth (8: 6-14) C 3rd divine speech: Leave the Ark (8: 15-19) B 4th divine speech: Resolve to Preserve (8: 20-22) A Covenant with creation (9:1-17) Transitional conclusion (9: 18-19)

And we saw the very same use of inclusio in our study of the Creation Story in Genesis 1: 1 2: 3
In the beginning created God the heavens and the earth (1: 1) A B C ****** Thus the heavens and the earth C and all their array were completed. On the seventh day God B completed the work he had done in creation (2: 1-3). A

Beethoven. String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, Opus 131.

Matthew is a Jew writing for a Jewish audience and he employs narrative techniques at the structural and stylistic levels that are familiar to his audience.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matthew 1: 1). 1. 2. 3. Abraham to David (14 generations) David to the Babylonian Captivity (14 generations) Babylonian Captivity to Jesus (14 generations)

The middle set encompasses the kings of Judah, but Matthew omits three of them in the second set: Ahaziah, Joash and Amaziah. Why?

14-pointed star marking the traditional place where Jesus was born. Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. Photography by Ana Maria Vargas





It places Jesus as a direct descendent of Abraham and David, positioning him to fulfill both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. It establishes Jesus legal claim to the throne of Israel by positioning him as a direct descendent of David, through the line of the kings. It links the entire linear narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures to the birth of Jesus, making the birth of Jesus the culminating event in Jewish history. It initiates the final step in Gods plan of redemption, the introduction of Jesus into the world as Redeemer, the one who will save his people from their sins (1: 21).

The Birth of Jesus

Gentile de Fabriano. Madona of Humility (tempera-on-panel), c. 1420. Museo nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa.

The Heros Journey is a basic narrative pattern found in many stories across a variety of times and cultures. Joseph Campbell describes it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, his 1949 seminal work on the archetypical hero. Borrowing from James Joyces Finnegans Wake, Campbell calls the pattern a monomyth. The narrative structure of Matthews Gospel reflects this Heros Journey pattern.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Departure: Jesus supernatural birth (1: 182: 23); Initiation: Jesus baptism by John (3: 1-17); First Trial: Jesus tempted by Satan (4: 1-11); Movement from the familiar: Jesus relocates to Capernaum (4: 12-17); Choosing Companions: Jesus gathers his disciples, his inner circle of companions (4: 18-22); 6. The Journey begins: Jesus travels throughout Galilee teaching, preaching and healing (4: 23-18: 35); 7. Final Trial: Jesus leaves Galilee and heads for Jerusalem and the cross (19: 120-34); 8. Entering enemy territory: Jesus Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem (21: 117); 9. Engaging the enemy: Jesus escalating encounters with the religious leaders (21: 18-25: 46); 10. The climatic battle: The Passion (26: 1-27: 66); 11. Victory: Resurrection (28: 1-15); and 12. Reward: The Great Commission (28: 16-20).

Marriage in New Testament Times

An engagement in biblical times was much like an engagement today. Two people met, fell in love and agreed to marry. The engagement gave the bride time to prepare for her new role and adjust relationships within her family and with her future in-laws. The engagement gave the groom time to do the same, plus build a house (or make other arrangements) in which he would raise his family.

Marriage in New Testament Times

In biblical timesand today in many cultures arranged marriages were common. Often, families would make such arrangements when children were very young, even at times before they were born. Such an arrangement is a betrothal. A betrothal involved a formal, binding contract between two families that included a dowry or bride price; a broken contract involved repayment of the dowry and restitution to the aggrieved family. A betrothal carried much more weight than a simple engagement; breaking a betrothal required the legal process of a formal divorce.

Herod the Great

(37 B.C. 4 B.C.)
1. Herod was born c. 74 B.C., a half-Jew/half-Edomite. Although he 1 considered himself a Jew, the Jewish leadership, observant Jews (Pharisees & Sadducees) and nationalist Jews (Zealots) did not. Rome appointed Herod governor of Galilee in 49 B.C. Though supported by Rome, the Jewish Sanhedrin condemned Herod and loathed him for his brutality. In 40 B.C. the Roman Senate elected Herod King of the Jews, and placed him in charge of the entire land. To secure his position, Herod married the teenage niece of Antigonus, Mariamne, banishing his current wife Doris and his son Antipater (who was executed in 4 B.C. for plotting the murder of his father). Herod secures the throne in 37 B.C. During his reign, Herod executed several members of his own family, including his wife Mariamne. Herod dies in 4 B.C.

2. 3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8.

Visit of the Magi (Polychrome granite tympanum), c. 1325. From the chapel of Dona Leonor, now in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Photography by Ana Maria Vargas

Who were the Magi?

Tradition holds that the coming of the Magiwise men from Persiato visit the infant Jesus in Bethlehem marks the recognition of the Messiah by the Gentile world, thus fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 49: 6It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. Later tradition further identifies the Magi as kings, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 60: 3Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Who were the Magi?

Tradition also holds there were three Magi, based upon the three gifts they presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Tradition names the Magi: Melchoir, Caspar and Balthasar. Tradition goes on to say that Saint Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, discovered the bones of the Magi on her famous pilgrimage to Palestine (A.D. 326-328), and that upon her return to Constantinople she deposited them at the great 4thcentury church of Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia. Istanbul, Turkey. Photography by Ana Maria Vargas

Who were the Magi?

Later, tradition holds, the bones were moved to Milan. In A.D. 1158 the remains of three bodies said to be the Magiwere found in the Church of St. Estergio. Emperor Frederick Barbarosa captured Milan in A.D. 1164 and moved the remains to Cologne, where today they are said to rest at the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Hohe Domkirche St. Peter und Maria in Cologne. In Chaucers Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, we are told that the Wife of Bath visited the three kings on a pilgrimage to Cologne!

The Shrine of the Three Kings is a gilded sarcophagus dating from the 13th Century, the largest reliquary in the Western world. The shrine was opened in 1864, revealing the remains of three men, along with 2,000-year old clothing.

We remember the Magi liturgically on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany

The Three Wise Men, detail from Mary and Child, Surrounded by Angels (Mosaic), c. 525. Basilica of SantApollinare Nuovo. Ravenna, Italy. Photo Credit: Nina Aldin Thune

The Star
Many have attempted to explain the Star of Bethlehem, the phenomenon that directed the Magi to Bethlehem. Explanations range from: 1. a miraculous event, fulfilling prophecy (Numbers 24: 17); 2. an astronomical object, such as a planet, comet or meteor; 3. an astrological event, such as the convergence of two planets; or 4. a pious fiction.

The Star
In the ancient literature of Egypt, Greece and Rome, astrological phenomenon were routinely associated with the birth of important people. In Egypt, Sirius is the brightest star in the eastern sky. Starting in April, for a period of 70 days, Sirius disappears below the horizon, not emerging until the beginning of the summer solstice at the time of the Nile Rivers inundation, bringing renewed life to Egypt. Sirius was the star of the virgin goddess Isis, consort of the great god Osiris and mother of Horus, who triumphs over evil and ushers in a new beginning. The rising of the star Sirius recalls the story.

In early Christian art, Isis and Mary are frequently associated with one another.

As we have antecedents to many of the stories in Genesis (e.g., the Creation, the Flood, God visiting Abraham in the appearance of a man), so do we have antecedents to the Infancy narrative in Matthew.

The Flight to Egypt

Warned in a dream that Herod is going to search for Jesus and destroy him, Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee Bethlehem and take refuge in Egypt.
Recall that Abraham and Sarah flee the Promised Land to take refuge in Egypt.

Later, told in a dream that Herod was dead, Joseph, Mary and Jesus return home, but afraid to stay in Bethlehem, they continue on to the remote village of Nazareth in Galilee, where they settle and Jesus grows up.
Recall that Moses also leaves Egypt to lead his people to the Promised Land.

The Massacre of the Infants

The Massacre of the Infants recalls the story of Moses as an infant in Exodus 1, when Pharaoh orders that all the newborn male Hebrew children be drowned in the Nile River. It is Moses through whom God will redeem his people from slavery in Egypt. Likewise, it is Jesus through whom God will redeem all of humanity from slavery to sin and death.

Concluding Thoughts
1. The Gospel according to Matthew is a brilliantly told tale, structured and executed using literary techniques common to ancient Hebrew narrative and poetry. Matthew carefully builds a bridge linking his Gospel to the Hebrew Scriptures, fulfilling and transforming them. Matthew links Old Testament prophecy to events in his story, seeing those prophecies as being fulfilled. Matthews use of dreams adds a supernatural element to the forward progression of his narrative. Matthew draws on ancient literary antecedents as models for shaping and telling his story, especially The Heros Journey archetype.

2. 3. 4.



2. 3. 4. 5.

Why does Matthew build his genealogy on 3 sets of 24 generations, when Scripture clearly shows in Hebrew Scriptures that there were more than 14 kings from David to the Babylonian Captivity? Given the events of Marys pregnancy as understood by Joseph, what were Josephs alternatives? The Magi only appear in Matthew. Why does he include then in the account of Jesus birth? Why do Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee to Egypt of all places? Why not somewhere else? How does Matthews use of literary antecedents as models for his own narrative (e.g., The Heros Journey, the Sirius star, the Isis/Osiris/Horus story), deepen the credibility, veracity and spirituality of Matthews Gospel?

Copyright 2014 by William C. Creasy

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