Matthew writes, not history, but his story …


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In a previous post, on the genealogy that opens Matthew’s Gospel, I was saying, let’s value these books for what they are, not for what they aren’t. Matthew’s aim was persuading us that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and, from the Jewish scriptures, he engineered a three-piece genealogy designed to ‘demonstrate’ this. It was never his intention to write what we call ‘history’, but to tell a persuasive story.

Throughout the centuries, worldwide, there have been stories about the extraordinary births of preeminent people, often involving divine beings, supernatural interventions, and celestial portents, including some in the Jewish scriptures. Matthew and Luke reckoned the same should apply to Jesus. Despite the best efforts of ‘nativity plays’, their stories are dissimilar, inconsistent and contradictory but, being stories, this need be neither unexpected, nor troubling.

As in the construction of his genealogy, Matthew makes use of the Jewish scriptures. He wants to persuade Jews that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah, and non-Jews that the Jesus movement is not some new-fangled arrival on the religious scene, but rooted in ancient and venerable writings. As a Greek speaker, he has trawled the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible, to unearth texts he can use to ‘prove’ that the arrival and mission of Jesus had been prophecied long in advance. So what has come up from the deep in his nets?

Isaiah 7:14 “A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel (which means God is with us)”. Here is the seed from which the ‘virgin birth’ story grew. Although the Greek Septuagint uses the word ‘virgin’, the original text in the Hebrew Bible does not, so Matthew’s story is based on a mistranslation. In addition, the original text refers to current political events, and makes no reference to any future ‘messiah’. 

Micah 5:2 ““Bethlehem in the land of Judah .. from you will come a leader who will guide my people Israel”. If Jesus was to be recognised as the Jewish Messiah, then a story of his being born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the archetypal messianic figure, King David, would be a great help. In Matthew, Jesus’ parents lived in Bethlehem, and so he needed a story, as we’ll shortly see, about how they then came to stay in Nazareth. In Luke, however, Jesus’ parents lived in Nazareth, and so he needed a story that would get both parents to Bethlehem in time for his birth. The seed from which that story grew was the census held in 6 CE, (when Jesus would have been around 10 years old), when Rome deposed Herod Archelaus and appointed Quirinius as governor instead. That census, however, was local, not empire-wide – the information being collected where the people lived, not where their family had supposedly come from centuries before. But we shouldn’t let this spoil colourful and dramatic tales.

Numbers 24:17 “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a sceptre will arise from Israel.”  Here is a likely source for the idea of a star suitably heralding an auspicious birth. As in Numbers, the star is symbolic, and in Matthew even visionary, and so it can ignore Newton’s laws of motion, guide people in a direction of its own choosing, and stop to hover over a particular house (saving on lighting costs).

Isaiah 60:3 “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising”. As I noted in my post about Matthew’s genealogy, he included non-Jews in his list. And so gentiles are included again, led by the ‘light’ of the star, and suitably laden with kingly treasures. This theme of light and darkness is reinforced in Matt. 4:15-16, with a quote from the prophet Isaiah 9:1-2. Matthew then uses the arrival of these travellers to introduce a story that presents Jesus not only as a messianic figure like David, but also as a saviour figure like Moses. As there was a slaughter of children in Egypt, so there is another one in Bethlehem, for which there is no corroborative evidence whatsoever, but Matthew’s rummaging around in the scriptures comes up with a ‘prophecy’ …

Jeremiah 31:15 “In Ramah there is a sound of crying, weeping and bitter sorrow; Rachel weeping for her children; she will not be comforted for their loss”. Just as ‘Jacob’ represents Israel, (its tribes said to be descended from his children), so ‘Rachel’, his wife, is represented by Jeremiah as weeping for the loss of the children of Israel, either slaughtered or carried off into exile in Babylon. To suggest that this verse has anything to do with a supposed Herodian bloodbath centuries later, stretches the phrase ‘far fetched’ beyond credibility.

Hosea 11:1 “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt.” To have this refer to Jesus, makes necessary the story of the ‘flight to Egypt’. The idea is that just as Moses became the deliverer of Israel from Egypt, so Jesus will become the saviour of God’s people.

(* * *)  “He will be called a Nazarene”. Still apparently troubled that he’s known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’, Matthew attempts to set the seal on his story of how Jesus got there by coming up with another suitable ‘prophecy’. Centuries of research, however, continue to fail to find any source for this other than the author’s imagination.

Why have I bothered to go into all this? It’s because I believe that we do the Gospels, and the Bible as a whole, an injustice and a disservice, by making claims in relation, not to metaphysical, but to historical ‘truths’, which are manifestly unsustainable. Does this matter? I think it does, when there are people who nevertheless use the Bible as an ‘authoritative’ weapon to attack views they ‘disapprove’ of, and sometimes also the people who hold them. Let’s just enjoy the stories which as such, like all stories, can often contain profound insights, and teach us how better to live with ourselves and one another.

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