Matthew 1-4

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces the ancestry of Jesus back through David to Abraham. The author of the gospel of Matthew notes that there were fourteen generations between Abraham and David, and then fourteen generations between David and the deportation of the leaders of the Israelites to Babylon, and finally fourteen more generations before the birth of the Messiah. (In fact, the gospel only identifies thirteen generations in the genealogy between the deportation and Jesus.) The story of Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of Israelite and Jewish history. We may, therefore, assume that this gospel was written for a predominantly Jewish church. 

It is interesting that the genealogy includes some women as well as men, perhaps to clarify which wife of a man gave birth to his son. There is nothing in the Hebrew Bible to confirm that Rahab is the mother of Boaz, but she is named. She and Ruth are both women from outside the tribes of Israel. David's sin against Uriah is remembered by including a reference to Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, as "Uriah's wife," for David raped Bathsheba and then arranged to have Uriah killed in battle, so he could legitimize his son. Finally, Joseph is named as the husband of Mary, "who gave birth to Jesus."

The geneaology is inconsistent with the Chronicles account. Asaph probably refers to Asa, the fifth king in the line of David. According to 1 Chronicles 3:11-12 Joram was the great-great-great grandfather of Uzziah, who in first Chronicles is called Azariah. In addition, 1 Chronicles 3:15-16 records that Josiah was the grandfather of Jeconiah, 1 Chronicles 3:19 does not mention Abiud among the sons of Zerubbabel, and after Mathan the genealogy no longer follows 1 Chronicles. Apparently it was more important to the author of the gospel of Matthew to identify the lineage of Jesus than to be sure that the details are consistent with the Hebrew Bible.

The Birth of Jesus

The story of "the birth of Jesus Christ" emphasizes Joseph, as the human (if not the actual) father of Jesus, and relates that Joseph was directed "by an angel of the Lord" in a dream not to have sexual intercourse with Mary until after her son is born. The angel explains to Joseph that Mary has conceived "through the Holy Spirit" to fulfill "what the Lord declared" through Isaiah the prophet: "A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel," a name that means "God is with us." (Isaiah 7:14) The author of the gospel of Matthew is using the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (often called the Septuagint after the seventy rabbis who reportedly did the translation), because the quote in Greek uses a word that means "virgin" rather than "young woman," which is the meaning of the Hebrew version of this passage from Isaiah. 

It is also important to recall that the name of God in the Hebrew scriptures, YHWH, was replaced in Jewish reading of scripture with the Hebrew word Adonai, which means the Lord. In Jewish scripture in English this is printed as LORD to indicate that it stands for YHWH, and is not simply to be understood as “lord.” In the Greek Septuagint translation, however, LORD became kyrios, so when the books of the New Testament were composed in Greek the word Lord was used both to refer to LORD (YHWH) and Jesus Christ as Lord. Thus, any quote in the New Testament from the Hebrew scriptures containing the word LORD, will use the word Lord—which many Christians understand as meaning Jesus as well as God.   

Joseph names the child Jesus, which is derived from the biblical name, Joshua (in Hebrew Yeshua), meaning "God is salvation." We do not hear that Mary shared in this decision nor is any explanation of the name given in the gospel account. Because Isaiah says the name of the son conceived by a virgin is to be Emmanuel, it is unclear in the story why the name Jesus is given to Mary's son.

The gospel then tells of the magi (astrologers)  who came to visit the new "king of the Jews." In the gospel of Mark there is no reference to Jesus as a king until Pilate asks him if he is "the king of the Jews." In the gospel of Matthew, however, Jesus is immediately identified as "the newborn king of the Jews" whose birth was revealed by the stars to the astrologers from the east who have come looking for him. When King Herod asks the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah is to be born, they quote to him Micah 5:2, which says that a ruler is to be born in Bethlehem to "be the shepherd" of Israel.

The astrologers follow the star to where Jesus lay and "entering the house" they present their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Presumably, Jesus and his family are still in Bethlehem, but the travelers from the east who bring them gifts do not find them in a stable (which is central to the birth story in the gospel attributed to Luke). After they depart, Joseph is warned in a dream that King Herod plans to kill their child, so the family flees to Egypt. 

When the astrologers do not report back to King Herod to tell him where he might find the child, as he requested, Herod orders a massacre of all boys two years and younger in and around Bethlehem. The gospel of Matthew asserts that this bloodshed fulfills the words of the prophet Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children in Ramah. (Rachel was the wife of Jacob, who was the father of twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. Rachel was the mother of Judah and Benjamin, whose families lived in the area around Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Ramah was the place from which the Israelites were sent into exile in Babylon.)

After Herod dies, Joseph again is told in a dream by an angel to return to his homeland, but when Joseph hears that Herod's son is ruling over Judaea, he is afraid to go back to Bethlehem. In another dream Joseph is told to move north of Jerusalem to Galilee. Then the gospel of Matthew relates that Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settled in Nazareth to fulfill the prophecy that the Messiah is to "be called a Nazarene." As none of the prophets of ancient Israel actually make this prophecy, perhaps it is a way of explaining to the gospel's Jewish readers why Jesus, of the tribe of Judah and David's line, conducted most of his ministry in Galilee rather than in Jerusalem.

We may wonder, as we read of the birth of Jesus, why there is no reference to the shepherds who visited the stable where he lay. This story, however, only appears in the gospel of Luke. The two gospels have separate and different stories of the birth of Jesus. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is born in Bethlehem where his family is living, flees to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath, and then returns and settles in Nazareth. In the gospel of Luke, Joseph and Mary are living in Nazareth but travel to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus and then return to Nazareth. 

These differences (and others) among the gospels were obvious to the church authorities that included the gospels in the New Testament. Therefore, it seems clear that they were not trying to authorize a factual history of the life and death of Jesus, but were more concerned with preserving the gospel accounts that had nurtured the growth of churches within the Roman Empire. The letters of Paul and the gospel accounts written in Greek in the New Testament were accepted as authentic for their meaning, not for their facts. 

It is clear from early church writings that there were additional accounts of the teachings and ministry of Jesus being read in Christian communities. Moreover, discoveries in the twentieth century of ancient manuscripts dating back to the first century provide clear evidence of the enormous diversity of understanding among early Jewish and Jewish Christian communities. 

The Baptism of Jesus

The baptism of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew seems to be an edited and expanded version of the account in the gospel of Mark. In the gospel of Matthew, John's call to repentance is related before the quote from Isaiah, but the most significant change is the additional material about judgment. The Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism are harshly condemned, and we are told that "every tree that fails to produce good fruit is cut and thrown on the fire." In the gospel of Mark, John the Baptist says that Jesus will baptize "with the Holy Spirit," but the gospel of Matthew adds to this, "and with fire." Moreover, in the gospel of Matthew, John says that the "one who comes after" him will separate the wheat from the chaff and will burn the chaff "on a fire that can never be put out."

The gospel of Matthew also adds that John tries to dissuade Jesus from being baptized by him, saying, "It is I who need to be baptized by you." But Jesus replies that they both should do "all that God requires." This exchange is not reported in any of the other New Testament gospels and is probably the author's way of showing that John acknowledged Jesus as the one who was to come after him. 

Then the story of John the Baptist concludes as in the gospel of Mark. When Jesus is baptized, he sees a dove descend from heaven and hears a voice saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight."

If the descent of the Spirit (as a dove) marks the point at which Jesus is "the Son of God," as the gospel of John affirms (Jn. 1:34), then the descent of the Spirit may be seen as the anointing by God that makes Jesus the Messiah (Christ). When did this Spirit leave him? The gospel of Mark reports that just before he died Jesus cried out in his native tongue of Aramaic, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The gospel of Matthew contains the same plaintive cry, although expressed in Hebrew. Is this part of an early tradition among Jewish Christians that sees Jesus as the Christ during the time he is full of the Spirit, from his baptism until just before his death on the cross, when the Spirit left him?

The Temptation of Jesus

The gospel of Matthew also adds details to the story in the gospel of Mark about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. We now hear that Jesus not only spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, but also fasted the whole time. (This would remind Jewish readers of the fasts of Moses and Elijah.) We also hear how Jesus was tempted. First, "the tempter" says, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answers by quoting from the Hebrew scriptures: "Man is not to live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Deut. 8:3) Then the devil urges him to put God to the test by throwing himself down from the heights of the temple, because Psalm 91 says the angels will protect him. Jesus responds: "You are not to put the Lord your God to the test." (Deut. 6:16).

Finally, "the devil" takes Jesus up onto a mountain and offers him the whole world, if Jesus will worship him. Jesus now names his tempter as "Satan" and once again quotes scripture: "You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone." (Deut. 6:13) We find the same material in the gospel of Luke, although the temptations are in a different order, which suggests that each gospel writer had a document about the life and teachings of Jesus that the author of the gospel of Mark either did not have—or if he had it, did not use. 

Call to Repentance

When Jesus hears that John has been arrested, the gospel reports that he leaves Nazareth and settles in Capernaum in order to fulfill prophecy (Isaiah 9:1-2). All the gospels of the New Testament see Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy, but the gospel of Matthew makes this central to its proclamation. This is likely because the author of the gospel is writing primarily for a community of Jewish Christians that understands Jesus as the promised Messiah of Jewish scripture.

This may also explain why the author of this gospel changes the report in the gospel of Mark that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee with the words: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is upon you; repent, and have faith in the gospel." In the gospel of Matthew we find Jesus saying: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." As Jews avoided speaking or writing the name of God directly, it seems the author of the gospel of Matthew has changed "the kingdom of God" in the report of the gospel of Mark to "the kingdom of heaven." 

In addition, the gospel of Matthew omits the call to faith that appears in the gospel of Mark. Faith, we know, is the heart of Paul's preaching. The gospel of Matthew will affirm faith in Jesus as the Messiah, but it seems that in the beginning of the gospel the author wishes to emphasize the call to repentance rather than the call to faith. 

The gospel of Matthew relates the calling of the disciples and says that Jesus traveled through Galilee "teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and infirmity among the people." We are told that the fame of Jesus spread and large crowds followed him "from Galilee and the Decapolis, from Jerusalem and Judaea, and from Transjordan.” (The Decapolis refers to ten Greek, independent cities, all but one of which were located East of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.) © Robert Traer 2016