Matthew 1 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

When a Virgin Gave Birth

If the genealogy indicates that Joseph descended from King David, this narrative explains in what sense this son of David (1:20) became Jesus' legal father by adoption. In this brief narrative Matthew provides not only an account of the virgin birth but reinforcement of the Christian view of Scripture and of Christ along with various principles of Christian ethics. Because this is Matthew's opening narrative, I treat it in rather extensive detail as a sample of the kinds of applications we can draw from Matthew's accounts. I must first, however, respond briefly to the skepticism with which some have challenged this account.

Arguments raised by more skeptical scholars against the virgin birth account are open to challenge. Whether this account makes historical sense rests largely on one's presuppositions. Would anyone whose logic was not shaped by Enlightenment thought doubt that of all the miraculous births of history, the Messiah's should be the most miraculous? One cannot deny testimony for a miracle by dismissing it on the grounds that miracles cannot happen; that is circular reasoning (see Craig 1986; compare Borg 1987:33-34; Meier 1994:11, 519-21; R. Brown 1994:143-44; on the historical context of modern skepticism, see Kee 1983:3-16; Bockmuehl 1988). Further, the proposed parallels to the virgin birth are inadequate (see Davies and Allison 1988:214-15).

We must evaluate the function and reliability of the virgin birth story by tools more reliable than philosophical presuppositions. On the one hand, ancient writers did like to recount miraculous births when possible. Greco-Roman biographies, or "lives," frequently included birth narratives (Aune 1987:65), including miraculous signs such as dreams when appropriate (Schuler 1982:94). Thus it is not surprising that Matthew would focus on such events, although his birth narratives do not perfectly fit this genre, since they lack the typical structure of miracle stories (see Theissen 1991:123).

Yet on the other hand an inclination to report a kind of event does not render evidence for that event unhistorical. The basic account of the virgin birth is earlier than either of the Gospels that describe Jesus' infancy; neither Gospel is clearly dependent on the other (see R. Brown 1977:162; pace Drury 1976:123-25). Reliable sources also stand behind the account; Jesus' birth is likely one of the stories whose reliability Luke investigated (Lk 1:3), since he had direct access to a younger son of Mary (Acts 21:18; see introduction). Members of Jesus' family remained in positions of prominence in early Christianity (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19; 2:9), when this pre-Matthew tradition (shared with Luke) was circulating.

But Matthew is less concerned to prove the virgin birth to his audience, which both accepted Jesus as Messiah and acknowledged the miraculous. Matthew is more interested in teaching, and an important lesson his narrative teaches is that Jesus' birth fulfills Scripture (1:22-23).

Matthew affirms the inviolability of God's plan promised in Scripture. Theologians debate why Jesus had to be born from a virgin, sometimes suggesting, for instance, that God sent Jesus through a virgin so he could escape the sin nature. Yet for whatever other reasons God incarnated Jesus through a virgin, the only reason Matthew states is that Scripture might be fulfilled (1:22). Thus Matthew trusts the authority of Scripture.

This basic point is clearer than the actual nature of Matthew's argument from Isaiah, however. Because the Hebrew term `almah in Isaiah 7:14 need not always mean virgin, most Jewish interpreters reject the messianic interpretation of this text (Berger and Wyschogrod 1978:41). Yet Matthew knows the context. In context, the child of Isaiah 7:14 was an urgent sign to Ahaz and would still be young when the kings oppressing Ahaz were carried into captivity (Is 7:7-25); Isaiah probably thus referred to his own son "Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil" (Is 8:1, 3 mg), who would perform exactly the same function as Immanuel (8:1-4). But because Isaiah's children were for "signs" (8:18), Matthew was right to recognize in Immanuel (compare Is 8:8) a sign pointing to the ultimate presence of God and triumph for Judah in the Davidic Messiah who would be born to Israel (Is 9:1-7; Blomberg 1992:60; Keener 1993:48). Matthew recognizes that Scripture reveals the divine plan, and those who trust its authority need doubt no miracle it promises.

At much greater length, Matthew provides us various lessons from a righteous man's obedience. Matthew emphasizes Jesus' purity by recounting the obedience of the family who raised him, and in the process teaches us much about how we should live (Mt 1:19, 24-25). One of Matthew's purposes in his Gospel is to transmit Jesus' ethics (28:19); here he portrays a righteous young man and woman as models for Christian living. Luke focuses on God's revelation to Mary; Matthew focuses on the revelation to Joseph.

In this passage Matthew may work from an assumption that some people, both in his day and in ours, would challenge: the ability to obey God does not depend on age. Many modern cultures could learn from the valuable emphasis in Matthew's culture on respect for the aged; yet Matthew's culture, and sometimes our own, made seniority too great a criterion for such respect. (In the whole of Matthew's Gospel he praises not only young adults the age of Mary and Joseph but also children-18:2-6; 19:14; 21:16). Jewish men in Joseph's day generally married around the age of eighteen or twenty, after working to save some money (see, for example, m. 'Abot 5:21; N. Lewis 1983:55). Jewish women could marry as young as twelve or fourteen, upon reaching puberty (Jeremias 1969:365), though, like Greek and Roman women, they could be married much older.

Yet aside from his background assumptions, Matthew also provides clearer lessons in this narrative. First, he affirms, against any possible misinterpretations of the virgin birth, that Joseph controlled himself, practicing sexual restraint. By calling Joseph righteous (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 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 (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.

Second, Matthew implicitly teaches about the nature of commitment in marriage: infidelity is always unjust, whereas divorce is just under some circumstances. Because Matthew wrote his Gospel as a whole, his narratives often illustrate principles that he teaches more explicitly in other contexts, and this is one such case (see 5:32). Some modern readers of the Gospels have treated divorce as sinful regardless of the reason, including cases of adultery, abandonment or abuse. This text challenges that prejudice, inviting readers of Matthew's divorce teaching in 5:32 and 19:9 to remember Joseph's righteousness and the exception that Matthew's Jewish audience would have understood permitted Joseph divorce and remarriage (see Allison 1993a).

For Joseph to "put Mary away" (1:19, literally) meant for Joseph to divorce her (NIV). Ancient Mediterranean fathers generally arranged their daughters' marriages through a custom called betrothal. Betrothal was much more serious than our modern practice of "engagement": it left the survivor of the man's death a widow, and if both partners lived it could be ended only by divorce (for example, m. Ketubot 1:2; Yebamot 4:10). Yet though Joseph was preparing to divorce Mary, the text calls him righteous.

At the same time we should observe that the circumstances under which Joseph was planning to divorce Mary were hardly light. Unlike today, Joseph had no option of giving Mary a second chance, even if he wanted to. Jewish and Roman law both demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery (Keener 1991a:31, 156). Roman law actually treated a husband who failed to divorce an unfaithful wife as a panderer exploiting his wife as a prostitute (Gardner 1986:131-32; Richlin 1981:227).

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. Joseph probably also did not know Mary as well as we would expect of engaged couples today and had little reason to trust her innocence; if our sources are reliable, Galilean couples apparently enjoyed no privacy together until the wedding (Safrai 1974-1976b:756-57; Finkelstein 1962:1:45; though Matthew, unlike Luke, does not clarify at this point that the family already settled in Galilee). Joseph hence experiences the pain of betrayal, the breach of a contract more binding than a business deal in his culture (unfortunately our culture has less respect for commitment and fidelity). Because a wife's adultery could imply the husband's inadequacy or his family's poor choice of a mate, Mary's apparent unfaithfulness shamed Joseph as well (compare 2 Enoch 71:6-11).

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. Modern Western society offers little sympathy for Joseph's pain. Our culture encourages marital betrayal that wounds trusting hearts, devastating homes where children should be nurtured in love and crushing whole families with the despair of abandonment. Unfortunately our churches often understand such pain no better than the culture does, counting as "unrighteous" those who legally divorce an unrepentantly unfaithful spouse. Unlike Matthew, we treat all kinds of divorce harshly yet often excuse adultery. Some of the same Christians who clamor for greater punishment for violent crimes or drug dealing counsel betrayed or abused spouses to be perpetually patient as if no consequences were appropriate for the betrayers or abusers.

By calling Joseph righteous Matthew challenges both our culture and our church in their lax views of sexual fidelity. The evil of divorce is in the breaking apart of what God has put together, but a person who abandons, betrays or abuses his or her spouse has already done just that. Matthew thus does not permit us to punish the innocent party in a divorce (in cases where one exists) any more than we should punish the innocent party in a rape (Deut 22:25-27) or any other crime. Yet for Joseph and for Matthew the exception remains a last resort, not a rationalization for a dissatisfied spouse to seek greener pastures.

Third, Matthew exhorts us to temper justice with compassion, a central principle in his Gospel (9:13; 12:7). Joseph was righteous not because he was divorcing Mary (although, as noted, this did not make him unrighteous); rather, Joseph was righteous for divorcing Mary quietly or privately-that is, for not bringing unnecessary shame on her. He knew suffering already awaited her: her premarital pregnancy had likely already ruined any chance of her ever marrying (see Delaney 1987:42), a horrible fate in an economically and honor-driven male-centered society. (Deut 22:21-24 mandated execution for this offense, but that penalty could rarely be carried out in this period; see, for example, Jos. War 2.117; Sherwin-White 1978:32-45.)

Yet 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. By simply providing her a certificate of divorce in front of two or three witnesses, he would forfeit this economic reimbursement-simply to minimize her public dishonor (see m. Gittin 2:5; 9:3, 4, 8). Even though Jewish tradition ruled that a wife could lose her dowry for infidelity or for as little as scolding her husband (m. Ketubot 7:6), in normal divorces where the wife was not charged she kept her dowry (N. Lewis 1983:56). Joseph would have to enlist the help of a village scribe or elders to get the money, and this would increase Mary's public shame.

I have known of some churches that publicly shamed a young woman who became pregnant, usually leaving the less obvious father of the child concealed from public reproach. Joseph's "justness" or "righteousness" reminds us that justice is not merely a matter of punishment and shame but also a matter of mercy. Joseph was going to divorce Mary, but wounded though he felt, he would do everything in his power to minimize her shame.

Fourth, Joseph values commitment to God above his own honor, another principle Matthew articulates elsewhere (compare 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 (1:25), hence failing to provide the bloody sheet that would prove Mary's virginity on the wedding night (Deut 22:15; p. Ketubot 1:1, sections 7-8; Eickelman 1989:174), 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. Many Christians today, probably much older than Joseph and claiming the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, have yet to learn his lesson.

Matthew also emphasizes that Jesus is the Savior (1:20-21). At times when I have preached principles of sexual fidelity and betrayal from this passage, many hearers have been moved to repentance. At that point I am happy to turn to the other main character in the passage. Not only does Matthew teach us about the authority of Scripture through Isaiah and about fidelity, commitment and obedience through Joseph, he also provides teaching about salvation from sin through Christ. Even while Jesus is in Mary's womb, the angel declares that his name will be Yeshua (here in its Greek form Iesous, translated "Joshua" in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New), which means "salvation." Jesus would bear this name because he would save his people from their sins (1:21). Jesus' other acts of "salvation" (8:25; 9:22; 10:22; the Greek term is broad in meaning) point to his ultimate redemption of his people. One who expounds this paragraph in public thus may want to echo Matthew's call to accept Christ's salvation.

But Matthew speaks of more than personal repentance; he evokes the Old Testament hope of the salvation of God's people, including the justice and peace of God's kingdom. For Matthew, and for us, salvation from sin cannot end with a prayer. Matthew promises salvation not only from sin's penalty but also from its power. Christ's followers are not merely heirs of his coming kingdom but servants of the King, committed to exemplifying the values of that future world in the midst of this present evil age.

More than anything, Matthew's narrative of the virgin birth, like every other event in Matthew, explains and exalts the character of his Lord. Many Bible readers today want to hear the Bible made "relevant" and "practical" to issues like those Matthew teaches through the example of Joseph, but nothing Matthew tells us is more practical than the way he reveals the heart and character of our Lord. As we get to know Jesus better through the Scriptures, we get to know Scripture's author and our character becomes more like his (see 2 Cor 3:14-18).

In view of Matthew 18:20 and 28:20, Matthew clearly understands God with us in Isaiah 7:14 to mean that Jesus is truly God (Mt 1:23). But as God "with us," Jesus is also the fully human one who save[s] his people by the cross. Matthew thus invites us to consider and worship the God who accepted the ultimate vulnerability, born as an infant to poor and humiliated parents into a world hostile to his presence. Oppressors must hate such a God, for his abandonment of power for love is contrary to everything they stand for. But the broken and oppressed find in him a Savior they can trust in a world where trust is generally dangerous. Of all the world's faiths, only Christianity announces a God who embraced our pain with us.

Previous commentary:
Accounts of Jesus' Childhood

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.

Bible Gateway Recommendations

A Way To Pray
Retail: $6.00
Our Price: $5.49
Save: $0.51 (9%)
Revelation, Crossway Classic
Retail: $17.99
Our Price: $11.99
Save: $6.00 (33%)
View more titles