For Advent this year, I wanted to put up a few posts looking at Matthew and Luke’s Nativity stories as they weren’t meant to be read: as two separate stories with their own purposes and themes. We often just mush them together, and I think we lose something in that process. Today, we look at Matthew’s Christmas Story.
It’s well-known that the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectations. But the path Matthew takes in doing this moves against the way most messianic expectations played themselves out at time. Matthew recalibrates these expectations to show how even in Jesus’ infancy and birth, his “Messiah-ness” includes a retelling of Israel’s own history, both good and bad.
You can see this especially clearly in the way Matthew crafts his version of the Nativity story. Today, we’ll look at three particular aspects of this story that show his unique thematic and purposeful crafting of the birth story: his use of people and names, geography, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament.
Names & People
When focusing on Matthew’s use of names and people in the Gospel, let’s begin with the use of Jesus’ own name. Though Matthew uses the name “Jesus” nearly as often as the other Gospels, his conspicuously doesn’t have Jesus ever actually being addressed that way by others. Matthew also sort of translates this name “Jesus”, saying that he will save his people.
Okay, so what? In doing this, Matthew seems to use the name “Jesus” more as a formal title than a name. From his very birth, then, Matthew’s Jesus comes with multiple titles and is connected to multiple characters in Israel’s story. This shows that he comes in both authority and foreordination. Here are a few of those characters:
Matthew’s Gospel famously opens with a genealogy of Jesus. In contrast to Luke, Matthew roots this genealogy in Abraham, the father of Israel, and not Adam, the father of all humankind.
Jesus’ name of “Emmanuel” and its translation (“God with us”) anticipates the ending of Matthew, where Jesus is portrayed as a Messiah that, no matter what happens, will be “with” his people.
In Joseph’s dream sequence, when the angel announces Jesus’ birth and name, and references Joseph’s righteousness, this seems to parallel Abraham’s divine proclamation of his own righteousness and his angelic visitor who also gives him good news concerning his child’s coming.
And lastly, throughout Matthew, there is a clear parallel between Jesus and Herod, and Moses and Pharaoh (more on the significance of this Exodus parallel in a little bit).
This is an easily missed yet really strong dynamic in the Gospel. The first chapter of Matthew focuses on the “Who?” of the Jewish Messiah, the second focuses on answering the question “Where?”.
Israel’s history is tied closely to its land, and so the story of Israel’s Messiah must be told through a lens of geography. Richard Burridge in his classic Four Gospels, One Jesus? talks about this. After Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the story continues:
“….wise men from the East come [asking]: ‘where is he who is born King of the Jews’ (2.2). Geography moves with the wise men to Bethlehem (v.8) and their return by a different route (v.12); the flight of the holy family into Egypt (v.14); the massacre of the infants in Bethlehem (vv. 16-18), and the return from Egypt to settle in Nazareth (vv. 19-23). Unlike Mark, Matthew is quite clear who this Teacher of Israel is, and where he come from and been.”
The rest of Matthew’s version of the Nativity story is effectively driven by geography, emphasizing the source of the Messiah as Israel, even though the emphasis of his mission is global.
Matthew is so intent on connecting every geographical feature to his larger portrayal of Jesus’ significance that he has to do some pretty wacky interpretive gymnastics to give Jesus’ growing up in Nazareth some theological importance.
Lastly, Matthew’s interesting (and infamous) use of Hosea in 2:15 is also crucial to Matthew’s purposes. This doesn’t quite mean what we usually take it to mean. Rather than trying to say that Jesus was sent to Egypt just so he could be “called out”, this quote comes after Jesus’ family leave for Egypt, but before they get the word to return. This implies that the “Egypt” Jesus’ family is leaving is actually Israel. Matthew sets up Israel as the “New Egypt” with Herod as a “New Pharaoh”.
In this, Matthew not only sets up the global nature of the Messiah’s mission, but also sets the stage for Jesus’ continual conflict with leaders of Israel. And we find it in the Nativity story.
Fulfilling the Old Testament
Matthew is the most explicit Evangelist in connecting the story of Jesus to the story of Israel and the Old Testament. I’ll just a point out a few ways he does this in the Nativity Story.
First, Matthew frequently uses what’s called “formula citations”, which is whenever he says something like “to fulfill what was written”, or “for as it is written” and then goes on to mention some Old Testament thing Jesus’ birth and life fulfills. Matthew has these peppered throughout his Gospel, but especially in the birth narrative.
Another interesting thing is that Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ “birth” by using the word genesi rather than any of the more common Greek words for “birth”. This connects Jesus’ coming as a new “Genesis” for God’s plan of salvation.
Even as early as the birth narrative and the Magi’s visit, Jesus is already receiving proskuneo (“worship” or “homage”), hearkening to Old Testament Yahweh worship. Proskuneo is the word used throughout the ancient Greek translations of the Old Testament to describe the worship of the one true God. The visit form the Wise Men is the first time this is used for Jesus.
So why does Matthew do all of this? Why connect the birth of Christ to the Old Testament? Pheme Perkins lends us an answer, “Matthew has crafted his story to demonstrate that everything that happens to Jesus fits the divine plan. Matthew does not present the cross as a contradiction to God’s plan”.
The way Matthew presents Jesus’ birth frames how one is supposed to see his death. Jesus’ coming, life, and death were not “Plan B”. They were part of God’s plan all along, and so the Jews (who were likely a large part of Matthew’s first readers) need not be scandalized by God having died. And neither do we.
Matthew uses these elements in the Christmas story to set the stage for Jesus’ messianic fulfillment, conflict with religious leaders, and global purview for his mission. Luke’s Gospel, on the other hand, emphasizes Jesus’ significance to the entire world, all parts of society, and the entire cosmic order. Tomorrow, we turn our attention to that Gospel’s presentation of Christmas.