The Genealogy of Jesus Christ, 1-17

1:1 This is the record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Mt 1:1–17 = Lk 3:23–38
Mt 1:3–6 = Ruth 4:18–22
Mt 1:7–11 = 1 Chron 3:10–17

The record of the genealogy – (Mt 1:1-17) This phrase is very similar to ‘book of the genealogy of Adam’, in Gn. 5:1. Another version of the genealogy of Jesus Christ is found in Lk 3:23-38. The many differences between them are sometimes explained by the theory that Matthew gives the ancestry through Joseph, whereas Luke traces it through Mary. This is thought by most scholars to be unlikely. In the words of R.T. France (NBC), ‘probably Luke offers us a ‘physical’ family-tree, while Matthew gives the official throne-succession list (which would not necessarily pass from father to son, but would remain within the family). His concern is with Jesus’ right (through Joseph) to the title ‘King of the Jews’.’  Against the theory that Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy through Mary is the fact that his genealogy consistently focuses on fathers, and the indication that Mary herself was of the tribe of Aaron, and not Judah (she is described as the ‘kinswoman’ of Elizabeth, who herself is said to be ‘from the daughters of Aaron’, Lk 1:5).

Genealogy – Gk. genesis, which is ‘used chiefly in the LXX for toledot, and employed in the same sense in Mt 1:1 (see 1, above). In the other NT occurrences, however, it is used in the sense of ‘birth’ (Mt 1:18; Lk 1:14; Jas 1:23, ‘his natural face’, lit. ‘face of his birth’; Jas 3:6, ‘cycle of nature’, lit. ‘course of birth’).’ (NBD)

‘At the very beginning of the Gospel According to Matthew, we read, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Immediately we are back in the Old Testament, for the very first thing that Matthew can think to tell us about our Lord is that he is of Hebrew descent. And so to know who Jesus Christ is, we must know something about the Hebrew David and Abraham…Or to put it another way, Christianity did not start with the events recorded in the New Testament. The roots of our Christian faith lie deep in the Old Testament.’ (Morna Hooker)

‘The purpose of the Evangelist seems to be, by the genealogy, to show that Jesus, though born of a virgin-mother, was nevertheless legally of Abraham’s seed and a son of the royal house of David.’ (NBD)

According to The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible, this is ‘a boring genealogy like that we are told to avoid in 1 Tim 1:4’.  But it is not reasonable to suppose that a teacher like Paul, steeped as he was in the Jewish scriptures with their many genealogies, would reject genealogies per se.  It is not absolutely clear what Paul meant ‘myths and endless genealogies, but we are given hints when he says that they lead to ‘meaningless talk’, 1 Tim 1:6; and ‘quarrels and strife’, 1 Tim 6:3-5.

Jesus Christ – ‘For modern readers ‘Christ’ is no more than a ‘surname’ of Jesus, but Matthew clearly uses it here with its full force as a title, ‘Messiah’, the true king of Israel in the line of David, whose coming they eagerly awaited.’ (NBC)

‘Christ’ was used by our Lord only occasionally (Mt 23:8; 23:10; Mk 9:4), and by others only at the close of his earthly ministry (Mt 26:68; 27:17).  The full form, ‘Jesus Christ’, was used by the Lord just once (Jn  17:3), and by his followers not at all until after his ascension and the establishment of the church in his name. (JFB)

The son of David, the son of Abraham – ‘It is like a pedigree given in evidence, to prove a title, and make out a claim; the design is to prove that our Lord Jesus is the son of David, and the son of Abraham, and therefore of that nation and family out of which the Messiah was to arise. Abraham and David were, in their day, the great trustees of the promise relating to the Messiah. The promise of the blessing was made to Abraham and his seed, of the dominion to David and his seed; and they who would have an interest in Christ, as the son of Abraham, in whom all the families of the earth are to be blessed, must be faithful, loyal subjects to him as the son of David, by whom all the families of the earth are to be ruled. It was promised to Abraham that Christ should descend from him, (Ge 12:3 22:18) and to David that he should descend from him (2 Sam 7:12; Ps 89:3, etc.; 132:11); and therefore, unless it can be proved that Jesus is a son of David, and a son of Abraham, we cannot admit him to be the Messiah. Now this is here proved from the authentic records of the heralds’ offices. The Jews were very exact in preserving their pedigrees, and there was a providence in it, for the clearing up of the descent of the Messiah from the fathers; and since his coming that nation is so dispersed and confounded that it is a question whether any person in the world can legally prove himself to be a son of Abraham; however, it is certain that none can prove himself to either a son of Aaron or a son of David, so that the priestly and kingly office must either be given up, as lost for ever, or be lodged in the hands of our Lord Jesus. Christ is here first called the son of David, because under that title he was commonly spoken of, and expected, among the Jews. They who owned him to be the Christ, called him the son of David, ch. Mt 15:22; 20:31; 21:15. Thus, therefore, the evangelist undertakes to make out, that he is not only a son of David, but that son of David on whose shoulders the government was to be; not only a son of Abraham, but that son of Abraham who was to be the father of many nations.’ (M. Henry)

‘In calling Christ the son of David, and the son of Abraham, he shows that God is faithful to his promise, and will make good every word that he has spoken; and this. 1. Though the performance be long deferred. When God promised Abraham a son, who should be the great blessing of the world, perhaps he expected it should be his immediate son; but it proved to be one at the distance of forty-two generations, and about 2000 years: so long before can God foretel what shall be done, and so long after, sometimes, does God fulfil what has been promised. Note, Delays of promised mercies, though they exercise our patience, do not weaken God’s promise. 2. Though it begin to be despaired of. This son of David, and son of Abraham, who was to be the glory of his Father’s house, was born when the seed of Abraham was a despised people, recently become tributary to the Roman yoke, and when the house of David was buried in obscurity; for Christ was to be a root out of a dry ground. Note, God’s time for the performance of his promises is when it labours under the greatest improbabilities.’ (M. Henry)

The son of David – Cf. Mt 12:23; 15:22; 21:9; Mk 10:48; 12:35; Jn 7:42; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5.

‘The word son, among the Jews, had a great variety of significations. It means, literally, a son; then a grandson; a descendant; an adopted son; a disciple, or one who is an object of tender affection-one who is to us as a son. In this place it means a descendant of David; or one who was of the family of David. It was important to trace the genealogy of Jesus up to David, because the promise had been made that the Messiah should be of his family, and all the Jews expected it would be so. It would be impossible, therefore, to convince a Jew that Jesus was the Messiah, unless it could be shown that he was descended from David. See Jer 23:5; Ps 132:10,11; compared with Acts 13:23; Jn 7:42.’ (Barnes)

‘The name “Jesus” is from the Greek (and Latin) for the Hebrew “Jeshua” (Joshua), which means “the Lord is salvation.” “Christ” is from the Greek for the Hebrew Meshiah (Messiah), meaning “anointed one.” son of David was a highly popular messianic title of the times. The genealogy is here traced through Joseph, Jesus’ legal (though not natural) father, and it establishes his claim and right to the throne of David. (Mt 1:6) The genealogy in Lk 3:23-38 is evidently that of Mary, though some believe it is also Joseph’s, by assuming that Matthan (Mt 1:15) and Matthat (Lk 3:24) were the same person and Jacob (Mt 1:16) and Heli (Lk 3:23) were brothers (one being Joseph’s father and the other his uncle).’ (Ryrie)

A dull list of names?

‘The modern reader finds this list of names a dull way to begin a book. For Matthew and his readers, however, it was far from dull: it was all about the fulfilment of Israel’s story in the coming of their true king. A record of the genealogy is, in Gk., the title of the ‘Book of Genesis’, so that the reader thinks of a new beginning. The list begins with Abraham (the hero of the book of Genesis and the patriarch from whom Israel traced its origin), leads on to David (the first true king of Israel), and continues down the royal line of Judah to the point where its monarchy was destroyed at the exile to Babylon. The division into three sets of fourteen generations (17) emphasizes these turning-points (and perhaps for a Jewish reader the point is reinforced by the fact that the three Hebrew letters of the name David, used as numerals, add up to fourteen!).’ (NBC)

We may go further than this, by agreeing that Matthew’s genealogy signals ‘end of exile’: ‘Matthew’s genealogy is creatively and carefully crafted to present Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited deliverer – descended from David, who will bring an end to the exile and restore the land promised long ago to Abraham.’ (Enns, The Bible Tells Me So, 207)

God works in spite of failures

‘In the first seventeen verses of Matthew we meet forty-six people whose lifetimes span two thousand years. All were ancestors of Jesus, but they varied considerably in personality, spirituality, and experience. Some were heroes of faith-like Abraham, Isaac, Ruth, and David. Some had shady reputations-like Rahab and Tamar. Many were very ordinary-like Hezron, Aram, Nahshon, and Achim. And others were evil-like Manasseh and Abijah. God’s work in history is not limited by human failures or sins, and he works through ordinary people. Just as God used all kinds of people to bring his Son into the world, he uses all kinds today to accomplish his will. And God wants to use you.’ (Handbook of Biblical Application)

1:2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 1:3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah (by Tamar), Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 1:4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 1:5 Salmon the father of Boaz (by Rahab), Boaz the father of Obed (by Ruth), Obed the father of Jesse, 1:6 and Jesse the father of David the king.

This genealogy includes four OT women (plus Mary, Mt 1:16): Tamar, (Mt 1:3) Rahab, (Mt 1:5) Ruth, (Mt 1:5) and Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. (Mt 1:6) The mention of four mothers in vv3-6 is remarkable. Each was probably non-Jewish, and in each case there was something unusual or even scandalous. It has been suggested that Matthew wished to demonstrate precedent and scriptural support for the unusual circumstances of Jesus’ birth. He may even be bearing in mind his own background as a former social outcast.

Rahab…Ruth – ‘Women did not need to be recorded in ancient genealogies, but Matthew includes four women (Mt 1:3, 5-6), three of them Gentiles (Ge 38:6; Jos 2:1; Ruth 1:4) and the other also a Gentile or at least the wife of a Gentile (2 Sam 11:3) -even though he omits the matriarchs prominent in Jewish tradition, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. Thus he hints from the Old Testament that God has always planned missions to all peoples.’ (Mt 28:19) (NT Background Cmty)

Crossing ethnic lines

‘Through four interracial marriages Matthew teaches us about missions and racial reconciliation (Mt 1:3, 5-6). While Matthew’s most obvious point is the connection of Jesus with Israel’s history, another point would also strike his biblically sensitive readers forcefully. Genealogies need include only men (those in 1 Chron exemplify this pattern), so the unexpected appearance of four women draws attention to them. Had Matthew merely meant to evoke the history of Israel in a general way, one would have expected him to have named the matriarchs of Israel: Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. Or to evoke supernatural births as a prelude to Mary’s, he could cite Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, whose wombs God opened. Instead he names four women whose primary common link is their apparent Gentile ancestry: Tamar of Canaan, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite and the ex-wife of Uriah the Hittite.

‘In a world divided by races and cultures, an interracial marriage can appear scandalous, an act of treachery. The traditional white prejudice in some parts of the United States against black-white intermarriage is rooted in the history of slavery and racism. Yet a genuinely divinely ordained interracial marriage can testify that Christ is a bond that runs deeper than race. One Tamil-Sinhalese couple in racially torn Sri Lanka declared, “Our marriage crosses the ethnic lines that divide our nation” (Williams 1992:10). By contrast, many North American Christians fail to actively pursue even interracial friendships.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

1:6b David was the father of Solomon (by the wife of Uriah), 1:7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, 1:8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, Joram the father of Uzziah, 1:9 Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 1:10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, 1:11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

‘Three of the kings of Judah (Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah) are omitted (as is Jehoiakim in v11) to keep the number of generations to fourteen. The list is in any case selective, since the thirteen generations after the exile cover 600 years.’ (NBC)

‘Abridgment is the general rule in biblical genealogies. Thus, for example, Mt 1:8 omits three names between King Joram and Ozias (Uzziah), Ahaziah, (2 Kings 8:25) Joash (2 Kings 12:1) and Amaziah. (2 Kings 14:1) In Mt 1:11 Matthew omits Jehoiakim. (2 Kings 23:34) Matthews goal is to reduce the genealogies to a memorable three sets of fourteen individuals, for fourteen is the number of David1, D = 4, V or Hebrew waw = 6 and the last D = 4, for a total of 14.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

Uzziah the father of Jotham – Here is an example of the abridgement just mentioned.  According 1 Chron 3:11f there were three generations between Uzziah and Jotham.  These were Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah.

David was the father of Solomon (by the wife of Uriah) – ‘The New Testament book of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that deliberately highlights some of the more scandalous moments in the Davidic line, including that “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” By saying “wife of Uriah” instead of “Bathsheba,” the genealogy underscores David’s adultery rather than his kingly glory.’ (Cameron B. R. Howard)

Jeconiah = Jehoiachin, king of Judah, ‘who was taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C. In the Heb., Jeremiah contracted “Jeconiah” to “Coniah.” (Jer 22:24,28 37:1) A curse was pronounced on Coniah that none of his descendants would prosper sitting on the throne of David. Had our Lord been the natural son of Joseph, he could not have been successful on the throne of David because of this curse. But since he came through Mary’s lineage, he was not affected by this curse.’ (Ryrie)

1:12 After the deportation to Babylon, Jeconiah became the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, 1:13 Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, 1:14 Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Achim, Achim the father of Eliud, 1:15 Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, 1:16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

The exile of Babylon – The exile of the people of Judah in Babylon is normally counted from 597 BC, when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar first took captives.

What about the curse of Jeconiah (Jer 22:24-30)?

22:30 The LORD says,
“Enroll this man in the register as though he were childless.
Enroll him as a man who will not enjoy success during his lifetime.
For none of his sons will succeed in occupying the throne of David
or ever succeed in ruling over Judah.”

This is startling, since Jeconiah has seven sons (1 Chron 3:17).  But the point is that none of his descendants would inherit the throne.  This does not invalidate Jesus’ claim to the throne, in Matthew’s eyes, because this Evangelist is emphasising our Lord’s legal, rather than physical, title (so Osborne, Wilkins and others).

Joseph, the husband of Mary

By whom is feminine in the Gk., showing that Jesus was not the physical son of Joseph. ‘The word is feminine singular, indicating clearly that Jesus was born of Mary only and not of Mary and Joseph. It is one of the strongest evidences for Jesus’ virgin birth.’ (Ryrie)

‘Matthew 1:16 and 18 make it clear that Jesus Christ’s birth was different from that of any other Jewish boy named in the genealogy. Matthew pointed out that Joseph did not “beget” Jesus Christ. Rather, Joseph was the “husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”‘ (Wiersbe)

The point of Matthew’s genealogy is to trace Jesus’ legal (not physical) line of descent.

The uniqueness of Jesus’ birth. ‘Matthew 1:16 and 18 make it clear that Jesus Christ’s birth was different from that of any other Jewish boy named in the genealogy. Matthew pointed out that Joseph did not “beget” Jesus Christ. Rather, Joseph was the “husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”‘ (Wiersbe)

Moffat’s translation of this verse attracted severe criticism in its day: “Joseph (to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed), the father of Jesus…,”

Jesus the Son of David

‘Both Mary and Joseph belonged to the house of David. The Old Testament prophecies indicated that the Messiah would be born of a woman, (Gen 3:15) of the seed of Abraham, (Gen 22:18) through the tribe of Judah, (Ge 49:10) and of the family of David. (2 Sam 7:12-13) Matthew’s genealogy traced the line through Solomon, while Luke’s traced it through Nathan, another one of David’s sons. It is worth noting that Jesus Christ is the only Jew alive who can actually prove his claims to the throne of David! All of the other records were destroyed when the Romans took Jerusalem in A.D. 70.’ (Wiersbe)

Joseph, did you know?

  • That you came from a line of kings? (Matt 1:20, Luke 1:27)
  • That you were a son of David? From the tribe of Judah?
  • That your son would be the “Seed” promised in Genesis 3:15?
  • That the prophet Isaiah was talking about your Son when he wrote, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”?  (Isaiah 7:9)
  • That when you fled to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, to escape King Herod, you were protecting The Seed?

(Jeff Anderson)

1:17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ, fourteen generations.
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The genealogies of Matthew and Luke differ in a number of ways.  As Peter J. Williams notes: ‘Matthew’s genealogy runs from Abraham down to  Jesus in three groups of 14 generations. Luke’s genealogy goes from Jesus all the way back up to Adam, and indeed God before him.  While the two genealogies are similar between Abraham and David, they diverge dramatically between David and the exile, meeting for Shealtiel and Zerubabel, before diverging again and only meeting with Jesus’s legal father, Joseph. Consequently, Joseph is presented as having two different fathers: Jacob in Matthew and Eli in Luke.’

Various explanations for the divergences have been offered.

(1) One (probably Matthew) records the ‘official’ genealogy through Joseph, the other the ‘actual’ genealogy through Mary.  This is the view of Howe and Geisler (When Critics Ask).  Matthew addresses the interests of his mainly Jewish readers, who needed to know that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  Luke addresses those of his mainly Greek readers, who would be more interested in Jesus as the Perfect Man.  However, there is nothing in the text that would suggest this.

(2) One (probably Matthew) spiritualizes the genealogy rather than following it literally.

(3) The lines of descent cross but are different because one list includes several adoptive lines through levirate marriages (Deut 25:5-10) (NT Background Commentary).

F.F. Bruce (Answers to Questions, p40f) inclines to the view that Matthew’s genealogy gives the line of succession to the throne of David (which did not always correspond to the line of descent from father to son, whereas Luke gives the line of Joseph’s descent from David by another branch of the family.  Machen is quoted: ‘There is nothing at all inherently improbable in such a solution.  When a kingly line becomes extinct, the living member of a collateral line inherits the throne.  So it may well have been in the present case.’

Peter J. Williams stresses that ancient genealogies do not necessarily conform to modern ideas of such things: ‘To us, genealogies record faithfully and accurately our lineage, step-by-step, through the generations, without missing any out.’

Williams continues: ‘The two gospel genealogies make different points. Matthew traces from Abraham through the royal line to Jesus, and strikingly mentions four women who were either non-Israelite (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth) or at least had foreign connections (Uriah’s wife). Among other things this prepares us for the end of the book, which shows the gospel going to all nations.  Luke’s genealogy connects Jesus with the first man and helps us to think of the contrasts between Jesus and Adam (and all other humans generally). It’s a perfect prelude to the temptation narrative in Luke 4:1–13 in which Jesus refuses food in the barren desert in contrast to Adam who took the forbidden fruit in a garden full of other fruit.’

‘Not every generation needs to be listed in a genealogy, as is the case here. Why the division into three groups of 14? Possibly because the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters in the name David (the focal point of this genealogy) equals 14. The repetition of Jeconiah in verse 12 makes the fourteenth name in the last grouping.’ (Ryrie)

Fourteen [generations] from the exile to the Christ – There appear to be only thirteen generations in this last division.  According to Mounce, ‘Schweizer is probably correct in his observation that, since ancient reckoning always included the first and last elements of a series, the sequence should be (1) Abraham to David, (2) David to Josiah (the last free king), (3) Jeconiah (the first king of the captivity) to Jesus (p. 23). This would place fourteen generations in each division.’

‘The Matthean genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:2–17), which repeatedly emphasizes the “exile to Babylon” as a major turning point in its tripartite, fourteen-generation structure (Mt 1:11, 12, 17), suggests apparently that the entirety of the final fourteen generations “from the exile to Babylon to the Messiah” is characterized as a period of “exile” in some sense.’ (J.M. Scott, art. ‘Exile’, DJG 2nd ed.)

‘That there should be difficulty in these genealogies is not surprising, considering,

  1. the want of sufficient materials of comparison;
  2. the double or triple names given to the same persons;
  3. the intermediate names omitted;
  4. the name of sons given to those who were only in the direct line of descent, and of brothers to those who were only collaterally related;
  5. the Levirate law, by which one is called the son, not of his actual, but of his Levirate father (see Deut 25:5-6; Lk 20:28).

From these causes great perplexity and much discussion have arisen, nor is it possible to solve every difficulty. So much, however, is clear as to make it “evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda” (Heb 7:14), and was “the Seed of the woman” “who should bruise the Serpent’s head.”…To a Jewish Christian how delightful it must have been, and to any unprejudiced Jew how conciliatory, to find themselves, in the very first section of this Gospel, so entirely at home, and to see even the more external lines of their ancient economy converging upon Jesus of Nazareth as its proper goal.’ (JFB, numbering added)

The Birth of Jesus Christ, 18-25

Although many English versions identify this section as being about ‘the birth of Jesus’, the nativity itself is mentioned only in passing.  And, by the time of the visit of the Magi, Jesus is described as a ‘child’.  So we must look for other emphases in Matthew’s narrative, and the following notes will attempt to point these out.

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, this account fits the genre of annunciations stories, a genre found regularly in the Bible.  ‘They serve not to record historical fact but to interpret the role a child is destined to play in salvation history and to emphasize that that role is initiated by God. The appearance of an angel and the announcement of the child’s future destiny form the core of the genre. Usually there is some impediment to the birth, e.g., sterility or old age. The situation here is that Mary has become pregnant between her betrothal and the consummation of the marriage, with the apparent suggestion of illegitimacy.’

1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ happened this way. While his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

The birth of Jesus Christ happened this way – It is noticeable, however, that, unlike Luke, Matthew does not describe Jesus’ birth.  In fact, Matthew does not use the usual word for ‘birth’ (gennesis γεννησις), but the same word that he uses in v1 for Jesus’ ‘genealogy’ (genesis γένεσις).  The main point of this section, then, would seem to be the vindication of Jesus as the (adopted) son of Joseph, and therefore the rightful heir of the throne of David.

Additionally, Matthew’s purpose here seems to be to answer the calumny that Jesus was an illegitimate child of Mary, and to defend the action of Joseph.

Matthew’s account, then, focuses on the circumstances of the conception and naming of Jesus very much from Joseph’s perspective.  Of course, Mary had also received an angelic visitor, Lk 1:26-35.

‘The story of the birth of Jesus is filled with the surprise and excitement that one might expect when God begins to act in fulfillment of the promise and preparation of the past. In particular, it portrays the wonderful mixing of the miraculous and the ordinary, the divine and the human.’ (WBC)

‘There may be an element of apologetic in Matthew’s stress on Joseph’s surprise, his abstention from intercourse, the angel’s explanation of Jesus’ divine origin, and the scriptural grounds for a virgin birth, due perhaps to an early form of the later Jewish charge that Jesus birth was illegitimate. But the account reads primarily as if designed for a Christian readership, who wanted to know more precisely how Mary’s marriage to Joseph related to the miraculous conception of Jesus, and who would find the same delight that Matthew himself found in tracing in this the detailed fulfilment of prophecy.’ (France)

‘The situation described in these verses is Joseph’s legal engagement to Mary. If typical Jewish custom were followed, she may well have been still a young teenager. Joseph may have been considerably older. Engagement in ancient Judaism was legally binding and required divorce if it were to be broken, but sexual relations and living together under one roof were not permitted until after the marriage ceremony. Joseph could therefore be spoken of already as Mary’s husband, but Matthew emphasizes this was “before they came together.”‘ (Blomberg)

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph – Such betrothal usually took place at the age of 12 or 13, with marriage itself following a year later. ‘Mary would have probably been between the ages of twelve and fourteen (sixteen at the oldest), Joseph perhaps between eighteen and twenty; their parents likely arranged their marriage, with Mary and Joseph’s consent. Premarital privacy between betrothed persons was permitted in Judea but apparently frowned upon in Galilee, so Mary and Joseph may well not have had any time alone together at this point.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

‘Joseph appears as a very real person, confronted with an understandable dilemma. Yet this righteous man, of such little significance to the narrative on the one hand and such great significance on the other (bestowing Davidic descent upon Jesus), receives a revelation to which he is submissive and obedient.’ (WBC)

Before they came together – before they left their respective parental homes and before sexual relations began.  ‘Although “before they lived together” is a legitimate translation of the Greek prin ē synelthein autous, given the context, the equally legitimate “before they had sexual relations” is also implied.’ (DJG [2nd ed.], art. Birth of Jesus’)

With child through the Holy Spirit – See also v20.  This expression does not demand, but is surely consistent with, a virginal conception.

‘We do not have here the pagan notion of a god having sexual relations with a woman but rather of the creative power of God at work within Mary in order to accomplish his purposes.’ (WBC)

Remarkable restraint

‘Matthew is clearly describing a supernatural conception here, but he uses remarkable restraint in that description. (similarly Lk 1:35) Most non-Christian legends of virginal conceptions were quite different and much more detailed and/or crass. Belief in this kind of conception obviously depends on one’s approach to the supernatural more generally. On the virginal conception in particular, it is often said that such a belief stems from prescientific superstition. But even the relatively primitive stage of first-century science was sufficiently advanced for people to know that in every other known instance it required a biological father as well as a biological mother to produce a human child. The Christian notion of a virginal conception was no more plausible in first-century Judaism than it is in the twentieth-century Western world, yet it has formed an integral part of Christian belief for two thousand years.’ (Blomberg)

God’s ways are not our ways

‘Seen in the context of the whole Gospel (with its especially “embarrassing” crucifixion), the embarrassing pregnancy of Mary, the first narrative in the Gospel, may have served Matthew’s purpose by showing at the very beginning that God’s ways are not our ways and that God’s righteousness is not our righteousness.’ (Bruner)

1:19 Because Joseph, her husband to be, was a righteous man, and because he did not want to disgrace her, he intended to divorce her privately.

Because or ‘although’, in which case the sense would be, ‘Although Joseph was a righteous man and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace…’ Joseph’s righteousness would have led him to want to be obedient to the law, which required the stoning in the case of adultery. (Deut 22:20-21, 23-24, but not thought to have been insisted on in NT times) But he was clear that he must divorce one so clearly guilty. In kindness, he chose private divorce proceedings.

‘So we should read this as Joseph both being an obedient, observant Jew—but also being a man of compassion and care.’ (Ian Paul)

Her husband – ‘Although Joseph and Mary were not yet married, so sacred was the year of engagement, or betrothal, that they were by custom considered as if married (cf. Gen 29:21; Deut 22:23-30).  Consequently, Joseph’s only recourse seemed to be to “put her away,” which meant to give her a bill of divorce, a certificate saying, in effect, “This woman is not my wife; I am not her husband”.’ (see Hos 2:2) (Ryrie)

A righteous man – Matthew ‘affirms, against any possible misinterpretations of the virgin birth, that Joseph controlled himself, practicing sexual restraint. By calling Joseph righteous (Mt 1:19) Matthew invites us to learn from Joseph’s character about fidelity, discipline and preferring God’s honor above our own. This paragraph assumes the principles of sexual fidelity and discipline that both Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries demanded. (see Mt 5:27-30) Like most first-century Jewish people, Joseph was faithful to his future spouse in advance, awaiting marriage, and he expected the same in return. So clearly does Matthew want his audience to understand that this was part of Joseph’s character that he points out that even once he and Mary were married, they refrained from marital relations until Jesus’ birth (Mt 1:25). This would have taken considerable self-control; in many Middle Eastern societies observers simply assume that “if a man and woman are alone together for more than twenty minutes they have had intercourse” (Delaney 1987:41). The self-control of this young couple challenges those today who doubt their ability to control their passions.’ (Keener)

Kenneth E. Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes) asks what it means for Joseph to be described as ‘righteous’ (just).  He would have held God’s law in high esteem.  Knowing that he himself was not responsible, he might have invoked Deut 22:23, which requires the stoning of both parties in the pregnancy.  But, for him, ‘righteousness’ meant going beyond the just requirements of the law.  He invoked, instead, the spirit of Isa 42:1-6 – ‘Justice, as understood by this special servant of God, is neither “retributive justice” (you harm me and I will see that you are harmed) nor is it “equal application of law” (I pay my taxes and so must you), but here justice means compassion for the weak and exhausted…Joseph looked beyond the penalties of the law in order to reach out with tenderness to a young woman who was no doubt bruised and exhausted.’

He had in mind to divorce her quietly – Betrothal was so solemn that it could be broken only by divorce. ‘Jewish and Roman law both demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery…Further, Joseph had another reason to divorce her. Because others would assume that Joseph himself must have gotten her pregnant unless he divorced her, his reputation was at stake for the rest of his life. Under these circumstances, Joseph would be righteous in divorcing Mary; to fail to do so would violate law and custom, would bring enduring reproach on his household and would constitute embracing as wife one who had betrayed him in the worst manner conceivable in his culture.’ (Keener)

‘When he discovers Mary’s pregnancy, he naturally assumes that she has been unfaithful to him. He is called a “righteous” man, which for Matthew does not imply sinless perfection but regularly refers to one who is law-abiding, upright in character, and generally obedient and faithful to God’s commandments. Here Joseph’s righteousness leads him to want to spare Mary the disgrace of public divorce and censure and the legal proceedings for a suspected adulteress. Jewish laws typically required a man to divorce an adulterous wife, but Joseph proposes to divorce her “quietly,” which is perhaps better translated “privately” (Goodspeed), in the sense of a settlement out of court.’ (Blomberg)

‘Joseph could have profited by divorcing Mary publicly. By taking her to court, Joseph could have impounded her dowry-the total assets she brought into the marriage-and perhaps recouped the bride price if he had paid one at betrothal.’ (Keener)

How Joseph must have agonised! He loved Mary, and wanted her to be his wife. He thought her trustworthy, and yet had been unfaithful! He was a man of principle, who viewed the marriage vow with utmost seriousness. But he was also kindhearted. He might have made an accusation of adultery that would have led to a public trial before a magistrate, but preferred instead to consider a private divorce that would have been before two witnesses.

‘A woman with a child, divorced for such infidelity, would be hard pressed ever to find another husband, leaving her without means of support if her parents died.’ (IVP Background Commentary)

‘Joseph had a difficult decision to make. Being a righteous man, he did not want to go against God’s laws. To marry Mary would have been an admission of guilt when he was not guilty. To have a public divorce would have exposed Mary to public disgrace, and apparently Joseph’s compassion would not allow him to expose her to public humiliation. Therefore, he chose the option to have a private divorce before two witnesses and dismiss her quietly. This way he could keep his reputation, while still showing compassion.’ (Life Application)

‘The nativity is not often drawn into discussions of divorce in Matt 5 and 19. Our text seems to teach that a decision to divorce can in some cases be a form of righteousness, even in a Gospel that so counterculturally protects marriage against divorce. Later, a certain Joseph-like “first-righteousness” may even be solicited in the expression, unique to Matthew, in which Jesus forbids divorce “except in a case of unchastity” (Mt 5:32; cf. Mt 19:9–10), probably meaning that in some cases a disciple should divorce. It is remarkable that the problem of divorce appears as early as the Gospel’s first story.’ (Bruner)

They knew how babies were made!

‘I have heard it seriously argued that we can no longer believe in the virginal conception of Jesus now that we know all that we do know, with the aid of modern medical research, about the process of conception and birth. The ancients, we are assured, didn’t know about the scientific view of life, and so were completely open to the possibility of all sorts of odd things happening here and there.

‘This again simply misses the point. We do, of course, have access to all kinds of medical details that nobody in the first century had dreamed of. Well, it is certainly true that we know a good deal more than they did, at the level of detail. But the fact remains that first-century folk knew every bit as well as we do that babies are produced by sexual intercourse. When, in Matthew’s version of the story, Joseph heard about Mary’s pregnancy, his problem arose not because he didn’t know the facts of life, but because he did.’

N.T. Wright, Who Was Jesus?, p78.

1:20 When he had contemplated this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 1:21 She will give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

When he had contemplated this – Bailey says that the word translated ‘considered’ (enthymēomai) can also mean ‘to become angry’.  This would have been a very natural reaction, in the circumstances.

The implication seems to be that he had made up his mind to divorce Mary quietly.  But then the angel of the Lord intervened.

An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream – Revelatory dreams occur in three main parts of the Bible: Genesis 20-41; Daniel 1-7; Matthew 1-2.

There are a number of details in the birth narratives that could only have been known by one or two people.  A good case can be made for supposing that Matthew draws particularly on material derived from Joseph, whereas Luke’s account relies on Mary’s testimony.

“Joseph son of David” – The marriage was necessary to establish Jesus’ legal Davidic lineage. ‘Jesus, the legal son of Joseph, as he shall become through Joseph’s obedience, is therefore reckoned as of Davidic descent with the concomitant note of eschatological fulfillment.’ (WBC)

‘To the ancient world there would be no inconsistency here, for adoption provided one with ancestors as assuredly as did biological descent.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

“Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife” – ‘The protestations of innocence that Mary had doubtless made to Joseph were now seen indeed to be true.’ (WBC) Even though his own concerns had been allayed, husband and wife would still have to face malicious rumour and gossip.

‘In view of the whole Gospel story, their acceptance of God’s call unquestionably cost them dearly at times: as the recipients of slander and gossip, in lingering confusion as to when and how Jesus would fulfill what was announced of him, and ultimately Mary’s deep grief at seeing Jesus crucified—plus her added difficulties of not (fully) understanding that Jesus was to be raised from the dead or the saving significance of his death until some time after the resurrection.’ (DBT, art. ‘Virgin Birth’)

‘The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is seen through the eyes of Joseph; in Luke’s gospel, we see it through Mary’s. No attempt is made to bring them into line. The central fact is the same; but instead of Luke’s picture of an excited Galilean girl, learning that she is to give birth to God’s Messiah, Matthew shows us the more sober Joseph, discovering that his fiancée is pregnant. The only point where the two stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.’ (Wright)

“What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” – This underlines Joseph’s and Mary’s passivity in the matter: the initiative and action was all God’s. ‘Jesus was conceived when God took off the glove of nature and touched Mary with his naked finger. Thus, Jesus did not evolve up and out of history.’ (C.S. Lewis)

‘The angel explains to Joseph that Mary has not been unfaithful and that her child has been supernaturally conceived. He reminds Joseph of his messianic lineage by calling him “son of David.” He commands Joseph not only not to divorce Mary but to go ahead and marry her. The child will therefore legally be Joseph’s son and thus legally son of David.’ (Blomberg)

This passage is strongly Trinitarian. God the Father reveals himself through his Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

‘In Judaism the Holy Spirit was supremely the one who revealed God’s will to the prophets: he was equally at work in the creation of the world. What is more, re-creation was seen to be the Spirit’s work, as the marvelous story of the valley of dry bones makes so clear, Ezek 37. And Isaiah had predicted long ago that when the coming great deliverer was born the Spirit of the Lord would “rest” or “remain” upon him, Isa 11:2. So know the Spirit finds a perfect vehicle through whom to reveal God and re-create broken humanity.’ (Green)

The idea of a virgin both has no precedence in ancient Jewish literature. Pagan concepts of the gods coming down and having intercourse with women are very wide of the mark.  Indeed, ‘in contrast to the promiscuous stories of Greek mythology in which male offspring appear as by-products of liaisons between the gods and earthly women, the virgin birth as God’s creative work in no way compromises or offends his holiness or his supreme lordship over all creation. The virgin birth is the revelation of a holy God through his equally righteous Son.’ (EDBT)

“You will name him Jesus” – ‘Joshua’, a common enough name.  But the underlying meaning, ‘The Lord saves’ is invested with unique significance in the description which immediately follows.

“He will save his people from their sins” – Cf. Psa 130:8.

To ‘save’ can mean to deliver from various kinds of trouble.  The common Jewish expectation would have been of the destruction of their enemies.  But here the significance of the name is made clear by the addition of ‘from their sins’.

‘His people will be in the first instance the Jews (Matthew uses this term laos particularly for the chosen race), but the man who wrote Mt 28:19 must have expected a wider application ultimately.’ (France)

The significant thing here is not the name itself (Jesus, ‘Jehovah saves’, was a common enough name) but the statement that ‘he will save his people from their sins’.  Matthew’s assumption is similar to that in Mk 1:3 – the coming of Jesus is the Lord himself coming to his temple.  (Macleod, The Person of Christ, p34)

The note of grace

‘We should not miss the point that the note of grace is struck so early in this Gospel. The impression is sometimes given that Matthew stresses upright living whereas Paul speaks of saving grace. It is true that these two writers have their own emphases, and we should not interpret either as though he were setting forth the other’s thoughts. But neither should we overlook the fact that all the New Testament writers refer to the same Savior. And all stress the importance of grace. Matthew will later return to the idea that Jesus brings forgiveness (e.g., Mt 20:28; 26:28).’ (Morris)

1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”

No less than ten times Matthew introduces an aspect of the birth or life of Jesus with the kind of formula that is found in this verse. Mt 1:22-23; 2:5-6; 15,17-18,23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 21:4-5; 27:9-10.  This indicates a very high view of Scripture.

This is, no doubt, a comment on the part of the Evangelist, rather than a continuation of the angelic message. Note Matthew’s role as a teacher: he does not just relate the story; he also explains its meaning.

Verse 23, together with the promise of the continuing presence of Jesus in Mt 28:20, form a framework for the entire Gospel.

The wording here ‘accurately expresses the evangelist’s and the early Church’s view of the Scriptures as stemming from God and mediated to human beings by the agency of prophets.’ (WBC)

“The virgin will conceive” – ‘Although the Hebrew of Isa 7:14 does not use the technical term for ‘virgin’ b’tula, neither does it use the normal word for ‘woman’ or ‘wife’, which we might have expected. Instead, the unusual term ‘alma for ‘young woman’ is used, someone sexually mature but not necessarily married, which the Greek translation (the Septuagint, LXX), translates parthenos. It is this term that Matthew uses, which our ETs rightly translate ‘virgin’.’ (Ian Paul)

The virgin will conceive?

Isaiah 7:14 ‘Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.’

Matthew 1:22 This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: 1:23 “Look! The virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they will call him Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”

The issue here is that Matthew (following the LXX) takes the Heb. ‘almah’ (young woman) to mean ‘parthenos’ (virgin).  This is regarded as a simple, but far-reaching, mistranslation by sceptics such as Jonathan Pearce (The Nativity: A Critical Examination, ch. 1).

There are several things here that invite discussion.

What is the meaning of ‘Almah’ (‘young woman’?

Kidner (NBC) comments that ‘the nearest English equivalent is “girl.” The Hebrew word describes a potential bride in Gen 24:43, and the young Miriam in Ex 2:8; it presumes rather than states virginity and is a term outgrown at marriage. Before its NT fulfilment its miraculous implications would pass unnoticed.’

Watts concludes his word study by referring to ‘two different and contrasting semantic implications which provide an invitation to double entendre. The one implies the spotless candidate for marriage. The other implies a type of available sexual partner not condoned by Yahwistic norms or the Law. The common meaning signifies one who is sexually mature. It is difficult to find a word in English that is capable of the same range of meaning. “Virgin” is too narrow, while “young woman” is too broad.’

It might be wondered why the word almah is used, rather than bethulah, which, it is claimed, unambiguously means ‘virgin’.  Yet, if the meaning of bethulah is so unamibuous, why does the narrator in Gen 24:16 feel the need to add, with reference to Rebekah, that ‘she had never known a man’?  And does not bethulah in Joel 1:8 clearly refer to a married woman?

Childs: ‘The term ‘almāh (“maiden”) has in the past evoked much controversy, initially because of its translation in Greek by the LXX as parthénos (“virgin”), and its subsequent role in Matt. 1:23. The noun is derived, not from the root “to be concealed” as suggested already by Jerome, but from a homonym, meaning “to be full of vigor,” “to have reached the age of puberty.” Thus the noun refers to a female sexually ripe for marriage. The emphasis does not fall on virginity as such and, in this respect, differs from the Hebrew betûlāh. However, apart from the controversial reference in Prov. 30:19, the women in all the other references to an ‘almāh do actually appear to be virgins (e.g., Gen. 24:43; Ex. 2:8; Ps. 68:26). It is very unlikely that a married woman would still be referred to as an ‘almāh. In sum, the English translation of the Hebrew by the AV as “virgin” is misleading in too narrowly focusing on virginity rather than on sexual maturity. Conversely, the preferred modern translation of “young woman” (NRSV) is too broad a rendering since it wrongly includes young wives.’

It is sometimes objected that this word, often translated ‘virgin’, does not necessarily bear this meaning, and only denotes a young woman, or maiden. However, the context seems to emphasise the unmarried state (and by implication, virginity). After all, what would be miraculous (i.e. a ‘sign’) about a young woman having a baby? There is no known instance where the word is used definitely to refer to a woman who is not a virgin. The Septuagint certainly understood the word to mean ‘virgin’, rendering it ‘parthenos‘ (and Matthew, in quoting this, gives us clear authority for this translation, Mt 1:23). On the other hand, it is significant that the Jews themselves do not seem to have applied this prophecy at any time to the Messiah – a circumstance which tends to disprove the theory that it was this text that suggested the story of a virgin birth to the early church.

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘Martin Luther allegedly offered a hundred gulden to anyone who could show a reference in the OT to a married woman designated by this term.’  (The one possible exception is Prov 30:19).

Who is the ‘young woman’ referred to in Isaiah 7:14?

‘Based on Matthew’s quotation (Mt 1:23), Christian tradition has identified the young woman in Isaiah 7 as the Virgin Mary. The identity of the young woman in Isaiah’s original context has been variously identified as Isaiah’s own wife (Isaiah’s sons received symbolic names [Is. 7:3; 8:3–4]) (Gottwald), the wife of King Ahaz (Scullion) or even a random young woman whom Isaiah can point to. O. Kaiser interprets it collectively: women will name their sons “Immanuel” in gratitude and praise for the nation’s deliverance.’ (Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets, art. ‘Women and Female Imagery).

Webb (BST) concludes that the woman is Zion (cf. Isa 1:8), and that her son would be ‘the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings’.  His name, ‘Immanuel’, would reflect God’s continued presence with his people.  This would be supported by Mt 1:23, where Jesus Christ, ‘Immanuel’, is (in Jackman’s words), ‘the personification and fulfilment of the remnant promises.’

Notice that the description carries the definite article. So, some particular person is being referred to. Perhaps Isaiah is referring to some maiden in the crowd.

It is reasonable to assume that the young woman was at the time betrothed to Isaiah, and a virgin at the time.  Isa 8:1-4 seems to refer to their marriage and the conception of their son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.  It may be significant that she is called a ‘prophetess’ in Isa 8:3.

Who is the child?

We cannot be sure of the identity of the child of Ahaz’s time. We are given no information about the father, and the mother is spoken of in only the most general terms. Some (e.g. Watts) think that the reference is to the birth of Hezekiah. However, he was 25 years old at his accession in 516 (2 Kings 18:2) and was therefore born in 741, at least six years before these events. In any case, there would be no reason to refer to his mother – already married – in this way. Another alternative is that the child is Maher-shalal-hash-baz. However, the description of this same child in Isa 9:6,7 shows that the ultimate fulfilment is in the Messiah.

Is this a messianic prophecy?

Some interpreters, including Hill and Brown, think that there is no Messianic element here, and that the reference is to a child (possibly Hezekiah or Maher-Shalal-Hashbaz) born to a young woman in Ahaz’ day.  An implication of this interpretation would be that Mt 1:23 is mistaken in positing a prophecy/fulfilment link between this this verse and the birth of Jesus.

According to Goldingay (Isaiah For Everyone), Isaiah’s words may mean ‘a virgin will get pregnant’, but even this (he says) does not imply a miraculous birth, because it may simply mean that a girl who is at present a virgin will marry and conceive in the usual way.  This writer adds: The point is that by the time a few months have passed and the girl has had her baby, the crisis that preoccupies Ahaz will be over.  It will have been proved that “God is with us,” and she will be able to call her baby God-is-with-us, Immanuel.’

Goldingay continues: ‘Hundreds of years later, Jesus came and was born of a girl who was a virgin when she conceived and whose baby turned out to be “God with us” in a more personal sense, and Matthew can utilise the words in Isaiah to help his Christian readers understand something of the wonder of that event.’

It is clear that Goldingay does not regard this passage as a Messianic prophecy.  In UBCS he writes that the ‘reapplication’ of OT passages found in Matthew 1-2 ‘do not depend on a link with the actual meaning of the passages in question. They are inspired reapplications of the inspired words. This particular reapplication may have been encouraged by the fact that the Greek translation of the OT, which Matthew likely knew, translated ‘almah by Greek parthenos, which means “virgin.”’  We think that this is a one-sided recognition of biblical inspiration: allowing ‘inspired’ interpretation by Matthew, while disallowing ‘inspired’ prediction by Isaiah.

Others, including Young, Motyer and Harman, think that this is a prophecy that refers only to a far distant event.  Harman notes (among other things) the close proximity of this prophecy to that recorded in Isa 9:6f, which speaks uniquivocally of the divinity of the Messiah.  (Harman also notes some difficulties with this interpretation: notably that a far-distant birth could hardly serve as a sign to Isaiah’s contemporaries).  It may also be observed, in support of this interpretation that Ahaz’s son Hezekiah had already been born at this time, and that Isaiah’s wife, who had already born children, could not now be called a maiden/virgin.

Osborne (in his commentary on Matthew) says that there is a ‘growing consensus’ concerning a view between these two extremes.  ‘The prophecy was given to Ahaz and introduced by “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.” In other words, it was mainly intended for Ahaz that God would destroy the kings he dreaded (Isa 7:14–17). So at least a partial fulfillment is indicated for Ahaz’s time. Yet the larger Isaianic context indicates also that a greater picture was envisaged as well. This promised “Immanuel” would bring a dawning of a great light (9:2–3) and would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6). He is the “shoot from the stump of Jesse,” the “Branch” on which the Spirit rests (11:1–11), showing a distinct messianic longing.’

Osborne adds: ‘The LXX recognized this greater thrust and chose to interpret ʿalma with the narrower “virgin” (παρθένος), thus emphasizing the supernatural manifestations of the child’s birth. Matthew utilized this Septuagintal emphasis and applied it to the virgin birth of Jesus.’

This is, in essence, the view of Calvin (who thought that this passage refers to two births – the Messiah in v15 and another (possibly Shear-jashub) in v16), J.A. Alexander, and Grogan.

The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary detects a Messianic ‘trajectory’: ‘The unusual name “Emmanuel” (Heb., “God with us”) now harbors in it prophetic implications for the destruction of Judah as well as Syria and Ephraim (Isa 8:6–8) and, finally, for the nations in the future that will so threaten Judah (Isa 8:9–10). The “child sign” seems to continue in Isa 9:1–7, where the birth of a child (Isa 9:6) portends a comparable claim of God’s presence with Israel (Isa 9:4) in the period after the Exile, when “the people walked in darkness” (Isa 9:2). Even if the original tradition of Isa 9:1–7 was once an independent, nonmessianic “royal psalm,” its present context in the book invites a messianic interpretation.’

Carson (on Matthew) agrees that ‘Isa 7:1-9:7 must be read as a unit – i.e. 7:14 must not be treated in isolation. The promised Immanuel, Isa 7:14, will possess the land, Isa 8:8, thwart all opponents, Isa 8:10, appear in Galilee of the Gentiles, Isa 9:1, as a great light to those in the land of the shadow of death, Isa 9:2. He is the Child and Son called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” in 9:6, whose government and peace will never end as he reigns on David’s throne forever, Isa 9:7.’

Childs remarks that ‘the mysterious name of Immanuel in Isa 7:14 receives clarification in two passages in chapter 8 that belong roughly to the same period of the Syro-Ephraimite crisis (cf. below). The judgment announced by Isaiah will come and cover the whole land, but the remnant has hope because the land belongs to Immanuel (Isa 8:8). Again in Isa 8:9ff., in spite of the evil plans of distant nations their counsel will not prevail because God has so willed it through Immanuel (v. 10). In sum, Immanuel is no longer the unborn child of Isa 7:14, but the owner of Israel’s land and the source of the divine force that brings the plans of conspiring nations to naught (Ps. 2:1ff.). Notwithstanding the extraordinary mystery and indeterminacy surrounding the giving of the sign of Immanuel, there are many clear indications that it was understood messianically by the tradents of the Isaianic tradition, and shaped in such a way both to clarify and expand the messianic hope for every successive generation of the people of God.

‘Isaiah 8:3, introducing this son, echoes the language of 7:14 as Isaiah goes to his wife, and she conceives and then gives birth to the child with this symbolic name (“quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil” [NIV mg.]). The next verse repeats the sense of 7:15, describing how the wealth of Damascus (in Aram) and Samaria (in Israel) will be plundered before the child can say “My father” or “My mother” (8:4). This same son is called “Immanuel” in 8:8, which is explained in 8:10 as “God with us,” accounting for Matthew’s linking the two portions of Isaiah together. In 8:18 Isaiah describes his two sons, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Shear-Jashub (cf. 7:3), as “signs and symbols in Israel,” which description ties back in with the sign God promised in 7:11, 14. But in 9:1–7 the more distant future is in view, as exiles are once again restored to Galilee. Here, in 9:6, another description of the birth of a wonderful child appears, one who can be called “Almighty God,” “Eternal Father,” and “Prince of Peace,” who will rule from David’s throne and establish universal justice forever—prophecies that scarcely could have been fulfilled in a mere earthly king.’ (Blomberg, in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament)

‘For Isaiah and his followers the Immanuel sign meant the promise of God’s protecting presence and the eventual fulfilment of God’s good purposes for his people. The preservation of the remnant in Isaiah’s day was part of a process which led finally to the coming of Jesus, the perfectly faithful and righteous one, in whom all God’s promises come to fulfilment. So Matthew was right to see the ultimate fulfilment of the Immanuel saying in Jesus Christ.’ (Webb)

Oswalt says that if it were not for Matthew’s use of this saying, it would have provoked little controversy. ‘On the surface the sign seems to be that before a child conceived at the time of the saying is twelve years of age, the two nations that so frighten the house of David will be destroyed, Isa 7:16. However, there are three factors in the sign itself that raise some question about this apparently straightforward interpretation:-

1. God himself urges Ahaz to ask for a remarkable sign. On the surface, there seems nothing remarkable about the sign that God actually gives.

2. The second unusual feature is the choice of the word used to identify the mother of the child. The word is not the normal one for “woman” or “girl,” but a relatively unusual one meaning “young woman of marriageable age.” When we discover that the LXX translates the word with “virgin,” the mystery is deepened.

3. Finally, the choice of a name for the child is a bit strange since its immediate relevance to the historic situation is not clear, whereas there is a direct relevance in the names of the other two children mentioned, Isa 7:3, 8:3. The mentioned of this second child highlights another oddity. The verbs describing the conception, birth, and naming of that child are the same as those in 7:14.’

Oswalt concludes that there is more to this prophecy than first meets the eye, and that Matthew was not wrong in appropriating the text to his own day. The text has ‘a single meaning but a double significance. Its meaning is that God is with us and we need not fear what other human beings may do to us. The first significance is for Ahaz’s own day. He need to go to Assyria because God is with Judah…In its first significance the virginity of the mother at the time of the announcement of the sign is all that is being intended. Thus, the typical word for “virgin” is not used; it would have called too much attention to itself. Yet for the real significance of the sign to be realised, the virginity of the mother at the time of the birth is critical. Thus, the common words for “woman” or “girl” cannot be used.’

As further alternative approach, Webb says that ‘if the “young woman” is Zion cf. Isa 1:8, then her son is the faithful remnant who will emerge from her sufferings cf. Isa 66:7f. That is why he is given the name Immanuel, “God with us.” God will be with the faithful remnant who gather round Isaiah, cf. Isa 8:16, not with the unbelieving Ahaz and the rebellious nation as a whole.’

Alan Richardson (TWBB) offers the following weak support to the predictive element in prophecy: ‘It would be false to the standpoint of the NT if we were to say that the significance of OT prophecy consists solely in “forth-telling” and to discount the element of “foretelling” altogether. The “argument from prophecy” is still impressive when it is restated in the light of modern knowledge. We can indeed no longer imagine that the OT writers were given a miraculous “preview” of the events of the life and death of Jesus, or that detailed predictions of his ministry and passion were divinely dictated to them; nor shall we look for precise fulfilments of particular OT texts, as writers in the pre-critical period have done ever since the days of the author of St. Matthew’s Gospel. (e.g. Mt 1:22-23; 2:5-6,15,17-18,23, etc.) We shall notice rather that the prophets, standing in the midst of the stirring events of their times, discerned therein the character and purpose of God, more particularly his judgement and mercy. The pattern of his action, both for judgement and salvation, was discerned and forth-told by them in their declaration of his will. As their sense of God’s unfolding purpose deepened, they came increasingly to look forward to a denouement, a climax of Israel’s history, a “day of the Lord” in which those things which were now but partially revealed should be fully and finally made manifest.’ (Art. ‘Prophecy’)

It is with similar scepticism that C.F.D. Moule says that Matthew’s use of the Old Testament ‘to our eyes [is] manifestly forced and artificial and unconvincing.’

Robert Miller (cited by John Loftus in God or Godless?) claims that Matthew:-

  1. attributes meanings to the prophets that they did not intend
  2. interprets their words in ways that are impossible in their own contexts
  3. relates prophecies to events that never happened
  4. invents a prophecy that did not exist

It is the last of these objections that most clearly shows the bankruptcy of such scepticism.  Miller is obviously thinking of Mt 2:23.  It is absurd that suppose that Matthew, steeped as he was in the scriptures, did not know (or thought his readers would not know) that there is no passage in the Old Testament that contains the actual words, ‘He will be called a Nazarene’.  Sceptics need to try a little harder to determine what sense might be made of such a statement before dismissing it so lightly.

As Wright says: ‘people have suggested that Matthew made his story up so that it would present a ‘fulfilment’ of the passage he quotes in verse 23, from Isaiah 7:14. But, interestingly, there is no evidence that anyone before Matthew saw that verse as something that would have to be fulfilled by the coming Messiah. It looks rather as though he found the verse because he already knew the story, not the other way round.’

It is well-known that the original Hebrew of Isa 7:15f did not specify ‘virgin’, but rather young unmarried woman.  As Macleod (The Person of Christ, p26) says, the point is ‘rather academic since young, unmarried women would be expected to be virgins’ (cf. Deut 22:1ff).  The LXX translation used the word ‘parthenos‘, which more definitely implies virginity.  Matthew, himself writing in Greek, quotes from the LXX.  So, even though the original text in Isaiah did not specifically predict a virgin birth, and no such expectation developed in Jewish thinking, Matthew found such a meaning latent in the prophet, supported by the line that the LXX had taken.

So, as Macleod remarks, ‘whatever the merits of Matthew’s exegesis, his assertion of the virgin birth is quite independent of it.  Isaiah 7:14 may be difficult to interpret.  Matthew 1:18,25 are not.’  Furthermore, ‘Matthew cannot be accused of trying to accommodate the truth to the expectations of his readers.  The Jews never applied Isaiah 7:14 to the Messiah: not even after the Septuagint had rendered ‘alma by parthenos.’  Then again, whatever problems there may be in the exegesis of Isa 7:14, it is clear that the birth referred to there was to be a ‘sign’.  A sign requires some unusual circumstance, ‘and what more unusual than that the child should be born from one who was an ‘alma/perthenos in the natural meaning of these terms?’

Michael Heiser (I Dare You Not to Bore Me With The Bible) points out that a more precise word – betulah (בתולה) – was available for ‘virgin’ (as in Lev 21:3; Judg 21:12; Deut 22:23, 28; Exod 22:15).  In most of the passages where almah (עלמה) is used, there is no clue as to the sexual status of the woman referred to [this is disputable: in most, if not all cases, virginity is implied].  In Song of Solomon 6:8, however, almah is used in a way that suggests virginity (queens and concubines were, of course, sexual partners of the king, and so it can be assumed that the third category, ‘virgins’ (alamot) were not sexually active.  Rebekah is referred to as both betulah (Gen 24:16) and almah (Gen 24:43), showing that the two terms do overlap in meaning, and to that extent are synonymous.

Aside from such word studies, Heiser writes, ‘In an ancient patriarchal culture, a “woman of marriageable age,” like Mary, was a female who had at least reached puberty and so was capable of bearing children. Daughters in such a culture were under close supervision and restraint. Even in today’s sex-saturated culture, a significant number of girls in their teen years are virgins—how much more those in a patriarchal culture? Matthew was raised in this culture—and with the book of Esther—so it should not surprise us that he saw no incongruity in understanding almah (עלמה) to mean “virgin.”’

‘The reference in Isa 7:15-16 to the short period of time in the promised child’s life before the kings Ahaz dreads are destroyed seems to require at least a partial fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah’s day. Nevertheless, the LXX translation of almah as parthenos (both words often though not always mean “virgin,” though the Greek term is less equivocal) shows that some Jews already two hundred years before Christ favored an interpretation in which this immediate fulfillment was not seen as exhausting Isaiah’s prophecy. Further exegetical clues in Isaiah support the LXX’s interpretation. Isa 8:4,8 seems to equate Immanuel with Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, but Isa 7:11 8:18 suggests that this child will be a “sign,” a term that regularly in Scripture refers to a more remarkable event than the simple birth of a child to a normally impregnated woman. By the time one reaches Isa 9:6, the prophet is speaking of a child, naturally taken as still referring to Immanuel, who is the “Mighty God.” In no sense can this prophecy be taken as less than messianic or as fulfilled in a merely human figure. So it is best to see a partial, proleptic fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in his time, with the complete and more glorious fulfillment in Jesus’ own birth.’ (Blomberg)

‘Matthew is operating typologically. Old Testament events, viewed as of crucial significance in the history of salvation, are seen to display patterns of God’s activity, which are being repeated in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Such parallels can be attributed only to God. A text that may well have had a previous historical referent is seen as being completed or filled full, a common meaning of the verb plero (“fulfill”). Much controversy in an often polarized and heated debate concerning Matthew’s use of Isa 7:14 in Mt 1:23 could be defused if these hermeneutical principles were recognized.’ (Blomberg)

The Virgin Birth was neither anticipated within Judaism, nor can it be paralleled within paganism.  ‘It appears that Judaism never understood Isaiah 7:14 as messianic or describing a virgin birth and that Philo, a first-century Jewish scholar, never imagined a literal divine betting in his allegorical understanding of the birth of several Old Testament characters (cf. On the Cherubim, 40–52). Pagan parallels are scarcely more fitting. Greek and Egyptian mythology, for example, depict lustful pagan deities begetting male offspring through carnal relations with women. The New Testament accounts, in contrast, mention no father figure. God is not described as procreator or as sexually desiring Mary. The virgin birth is solely a creative work of God through his Holy Spirit. Comparative religions offer no precursor that remotely parallels the special theological features of the New Testament virgin birth stories; it suggests nothing that could have logically and naturally given rise to them.’ (EDBT)

Immanent deity

‘Verse 21 introduces the key Matthean theme of God’s presence with his people, which is emphasized again at the end of his Gospel in Mt 28:18-20. The church in every age should recognize here a clear affirmation of Jesus’ deity and cling tightly to this doctrine as crucial for our salvation. At the same time, Matthew wants to emphasize that Jesus, as God, is “with us;” deity is immanent. Too often those who have rightly contended for Jesus’ full deity have created a God to whom they do not feel close rather than one who became human in every way like them but without sin. (Heb 4:15) As God “with us,” Jesus enables us to come boldly before God’s throne (Heb 4:16) when we accept the forgiveness of sins he made available (Mt 2:21) and develop an intimate relationship with him.’ (Blomberg)

This bracketing of two references to the divine immanence at the beginning and end of the Gospel (Mt 1:23 and Mt 28:20) serve highlight its overall message: ‘In combination, they reveal the message of Matthew’s story: In the person of Jesus Messiah, his Son, God has drawn near to abide to the end of time with his people, the church, thus inaugurating the eschatological age of salvation.’ (J. D. Kingsbury, Matthew as Story, 2nd ed.  His italics).

This theme permeates the nativity accounts

‘“Immanuel … God with us” (Mt 1:23 NIV) is the motif that permeates the accounts of Christ’s nativity: God becomes a common man; the transcendent becomes immanent. The most beautiful story ever told is highlighted by the wonder of the incarnation, the union of the divine and the human. The exalted and the humble are juxtaposed in the nativity. Angels in all their glory greet common people-shepherds, a carpenter and his fiancée-in the midst of their daily activities.’ (DBI, art. ‘Nativity of Christ’)

A visited planet

‘If New Testament Christianity is to reappear today with its power and joy and courage, men must recapture the basic conviction that this is a Visited planet. It is not enough to express formal belief in the “Incarnation” or in the “Divinity of Christ;” the staggering truth must be accepted afresh-that in this vast, mysterious universe, of which we are an almost infinitesimal part, the great Mystery, whom we call God, has visited our planet in Person. It is from this conviction that there springs unconquerable certainty and unquenchable faith and hope. It is not enough to believe theoretically that Jesus was both God and Man; not enough to admire, respect, and even worship him; it is not even enough to try to follow him. The reason for the insufficiency of these things is that the modern intelligent mind, which has had its horizons widened in dozens of different ways, has got to be shocked afresh by the audacious central Fact-that, as a sober matter of history, God became one of us.’ (J. B. Phillips, New Testament Christianity)

An incredible claim

‘[The incarnation is] that incredible interruption, as a blow that broke the very backbone of history.… It were better to rend our robes with a great cry against blasphemy, like Caiaphas in the judgment, rather than to stand stupidly debating fine shades of pantheism in the presence of so catastrophic a claim.’  (G. K. Chesterton)

“They will call him” – ‘They’ are those whom he has saved from their sins.

“‘Immanuel’…God with us” – ‘What a claim, right at the outset of the Gospel! It is so ultimate, so exclusive. It does not fit with the pluralist idea that each of us is getting through to God in his or her own way. No, says Matthew. God has got through to us in his way. And Jesus is no mere teacher, no guru, no Muhammad or Gandhi. He is “God with us.” That is the essential claim on which Christianity is built. It is a claim that cannot be abandoned without abandoning the faith in its entirety.’ (Green)

God with us

‘When one reflects on the two parties on either side of the preposition: on the one hand, God, infinitely holy, in whom there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5), who is of purer eyes than to behold evil with any degree of approbation (Hab. 1:13); and on the other hand, human beings, of whom none is righteous (Rom. 3:10) and who are all children deserving God’s wrath (Eph. 2:3), one could hardly blame God had he sent his Son as “God against us” or “God opposed to us.” When, however, he reveals his Son as “God with us,” the messianic task, full of grace and the promise of salvation, is suggested.’ (Reymond, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., art. ‘Immanuel’)

A corollary

There is a corollary to the principles of “God with us” and “I with you”; like the third side of an equilateral triangle the Lord asserts the assurance, “you (they) with Me (Him).” Jesus chose his disciples that they might be with him (Mk 3:14). When he foretold his departure he told them he was going to prepare a place for them so that they could be where he is (Jn 14:3). In another place the eternal summation is given: “So we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17).

Type and antitype

‘There were great distinctions between the Immanuel of Isaiah’s day and Immanuel the son of Mary. The first was a type; the other, the antetype; the first was the shadow, the other the Reality. The one symbolized deliverance from foreign oppression, the second was the Deliverer from the oppressor. The first represented God’s presence for but a few years; the second Immanuel is the son who abides for ever.’ (Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, art. ‘Immanuel’)

How God makes himself known

Michael Green summarises five ways in which God makes himself known in this passage:

(a) the genealogy shows that he speaks through history;
(b) dreams (five times in the first two chapters);
(c) angels, Mt 1:20; 2:13,19;
(d) Scripture (twelve times are we told that what took place was in fulfilment of what the Lord had said through the prophets);
(e) Immanuel, God with us.

‘Behold at once the deepest mystery and the richest mercy. By the light of nature we see the eternal as a God above us: by the light of the law we see him as a God against us; but, by the light of the gospel, we see him as a God with us, reconciled to us, at peace with us, interested for us, interceding in our behalf. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift! (Hughes, in The Bible Illustrator)

1:24 When Joseph awoke from sleep he did what the angel of the Lord told him. He took his wife, 1:25 but did not have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

‘Much later rabbinic tradition charges that Mary slept with another man, but Joseph’s marrying her (Mt 1:24) demonstrates that he did not believe this was the case.’ (IVP NT Background Commentary)

‘Joseph values commitment to God above his own honor, another principle Matthew articulates elsewhere. (compare Mt 7:21-27 23:5-11) When God reveals the truth to Joseph, he immediately believes and obeys God’s will, unbelievable as the truth would seem without a deep trust in God’s power. (compare Lk 1:37) (By contrast, many unmarried men today refuse to take responsibility even when they are the father!) Joseph trusted God enough to obey him. Yet such obedience was costly. Because Joseph married Mary, outsiders would assume that he had gotten Mary pregnant before the wedding. Joseph would remain an object of shame in a society dominated by the value of honor. This was a stressful way to begin a marriage! By waiting to have intercourse, (Mt 1:25) hence failing to provide the bloody sheet that would prove Mary’s virginity on the wedding night, (Deut 22:15) Mary and Joseph also chose to embrace shame to preserve the sanctity of God’s call. Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.’ (Keener)

‘Matthew presents Joseph as a human being of remarkable spiritual stature. He possessed the boldness, daring, courage and strength of character to stand up against his entire community and take Mary as his wife. He did so in spite of forces that no doubt wanted her stoned. His vision of justice stayed his hand. In short he was able to reprocess his anger into grace.’ (Bailey)

‘His action revealed four admirable qualities: (1) righteousness, (Mt 1:19) (2) discretion and sensitivity, (Mt 1:19) (3) responsiveness to God, (Mt 1:24) and (4) self-discipline.’ (Mt 1:25) (Life Application)

He had no union with her until she gave birth to a son – A Jewish marriage would normally be consummated on the first night of the seven-day wedding. ‘The grammatical construction translated “until” strongly suggests (but does not prove) that Mary and Joseph proceeded to have normal sexual relations after Jesus’ birth.’ (Blomberg)

Whom he named Jesus – This indicates Joseph’s formal adoption of Jesus and establishes the latter’s Davidic lineage. ‘The fact that Jesus is adopted by Joseph in no way makes Jesus’ Davidic lineage questionable. In Jewish circles a child became a man’s son not so much by physical procreation itself as by acknowledgment on the part of the man.’ (DJG)

In fact, this whole account focuses on Joseph as the legal father of Jesus, and tends to confirm that the genealogy offered by Matthew follows David’s (rather than Mary’s) line.

Faith tested

‘Was faith ever more tested than the Virgin’s faith, when for no fault of hers, but in consequence of an act of God himself, her conjugal relation to Joseph was allowed to be all but snapped asunder by a legal divorce? Yet how glorious was the reward with which her constancy and patience were at length crowned! And is not this one of the great laws of God’s procedure toward his believing people? Abraham was allowed to do all but sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22); the last year of the predicted Babylonian captivity had arrived ere any signs of deliverance appeared; (Dan 9:1-2) the massacre of all the Jews in Persia had all but taken place; (Es 7 8) Peter, under Herod Agrippa, was all but brought forth for execution (Acts 12); Paul was all but assassinated by a band of Jewish enemies (Acts 23); Luther all but fell a sacrifice to the machinations of his enemies (1521); and so in cases innumerable since-of all which it may be said, as in the song of Moses “The Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone”.’ (Deut 32:36) (JFB)