FINDINGS V By Harry T. Cook

Advent IV - A - December 22, 2013 

Matthew 1: 18-25


Harry T. CookBy Harry T. Cook



Matthew 1: 18-25  

The birth of Jesus the anointed one happened as follows: When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, and before they had carnal knowledge of one another, she was found to be pregnant by a mysterious invisibility. Joseph, her spouse, being a man of good character and not willing to have her shamed publicly, wished to annul their betrothal in secret. But as he was troubled over this, a messenger from Yahweh showed up in a dream he was having and said to him, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary to wife, for what is conceived in her is [the work of] a mysterious invisibility. She will bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus, because he will save his people from themselves." These things occurred to fulfill what Yahweh had said through his spokesman: "See, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel," which means God is with us." When Joseph woke up, he did what the messenger said and took Mary to wife. However, he did not know her carnally until she had borne a son. He [took him as his own and] named him Jesus. (Translated and paraphrased by Harry T. Cook.)


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Matthew is the first gospel document to append to the basic story Mark proposed ("Jesus came preaching") both a genealogy and an infancy narrative. Luke follows Matthew's example. Both efforts are attempts to set the character of Jesus in a historical succession of heroes of the Hebrew bible, both real and imagined. Matthew was the first to write about the birth of Jesus, connecting it with a passage from the first Isaiah (7: 10-16). Our focus will be on 7:14b in which the sign is said to be that "the young woman is pregnant and will have a son and give him the name Emmanu-el."


When we read עלמה ("almah") in the Hebrew text, we are reading "young woman of marriageable age," i.e. a fecund female. In the process of translating the Hebrew into the Greek of the Septuagint, the "almah" of the first Isaiah's Hebrew, became the Greek παρθενος which means "virgin," ordinarily used of a woman whose hymen had not been violated. However, evidence exists that such was not always the case./1 But that nuance is observed by neither Matthew nor Luke. Matthew was writing to those on the cusp between continuing Judaism and its more innovative cousin, Jesus Judaism - the latter being a small but scrappy competitor in a world filled with dying and rising sons of the gods. The stories of the births of such gods' sons more or less followed the pattern set forth by Suetonius' "Life of the Caesars" in which Augustus was said to have been conceived in a midnight tryst between Apollo and Atia./2


Why Matthew, and Luke after him, went to such lengths in proposing out of whole cloth birth and pre-birth narratives of Jesus is one of the delectable inquiries in New Testament scholarship. Paul gave short shrift to origins (Philippians 2:6-7, probably not Pauline to begin with, and Romans 1:3). Mark evidently found the subject irrelevant or beyond knowing. Matthew's and Luke's efforts may have been made in response to second and third generation Jesus Jews who wanted to know more about the one whose teachings they were being recruited to follow, often enough into the teeth of persecution.


In any event, Matthew got right to it, beginning with the genealogy that starts with Abraham (Luke, the over-achiever, begins with Adam) and, by way of Isaac, Jacob, Boaz, Jesse, David and Solomon, ends with Joseph -- unmistakably connecting Jesus with Tamar, the prostitute; Ruth, the Moabite and Bathsheba of dubious connection to David. Thence to the appearance of Emmanu-el.


The implication is that Mary and Joseph had been materially betrothed, but before she had effected the ceremonial remove from her parents' home to Joseph's, she discovered she was pregnant. Since Joseph is obviously a fairly fictional character, one wonders what was working in Matthew's imagination. Though Mary or the type the character is meant to represent might not have been "parthenos" in the common use of the word, she was certainly "almah." The "mysterious invisibility" could have been a euphemism for "damned if we know who the father is." But Matthew is careful to have that part of the story vouchsafed to Joseph in a dream after he learned of the impending birth. Whatever the case, Matthew causes Joseph man up, making the child his own and honoring the betrothal.


It may be that Matthew wanted his audience to understand that the mysterious invisibility was not a substitute for the ordinary male function in the conception process, but, rather, that he wanted that audience to think Joseph was moved to take responsibility for the child, thus engrafting what may have been somebody else's son into Davidic lineage.


A word about "the name." "Emmanu-el" is pretty explicit: "God is with us." In the Bible the word "name" is often equivalent with "nature." The name Emmanu-el, then, could mean that the human being bearing it could be considered to embody the nature or disposition of whatever imagined deity is important to the imaginer.


How the homilist or class leader/participant approaches this text will depend on what he or she wishes to make of the so-called incarnation. The traditional theist's approach will be to take the text as an approximate metaphor for a reality otherwise unexplainable. The homilist who is unsure or ambiguous about theism and conventional hermeneutic may wish to look more closely at what might have been the necessities late first century CE Jesus Jew communities faced -- perhaps something ranging from a general longing to a demand to know for sure who Jesus had been and, therefore, what validity the claims of the leaders of his posthumous communities might have.


The homilist or student might hearken back to last week's Matthean gospel reading in which Jesus is depicted as telling John's disciples who wanted to know who he was that his identity -- and therefore validity -- had to do with what he had done, not who he may have been. As Jesus himself is quoted (by Matthew at 7:16, in fact): "By their fruits they shall be known."


/1 Robert J. Miller, "Born Divine: The Births of Jesus & Other Sons of God," 2002, Polebridge Press, pp. 94-95

/2 Lives of the Caesars, the Deified Augustus 94:4


Copyright 2013 Harry T. Cook. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

What a Friend They Had in Jesus: The Theological Visions of Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Hymn Writers

Have you ever found yourself humming a favorite childhood hymn, only to realize you could no longer embrace its message? Harry Cook explores how hymns reflect the religious beliefs of their times. He revisits the texts of popular hymns, posing such questions as: How true are they to the biblical texts that seem to have inspired them? What aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century piety have persisted into the twenty-first century through the singing of those hymns? And, how does one manage the conflict between the emotional appeal and the theological content of such hymns?

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