ONLY two of the four Gospels relate the birth of Jesus, and as we reflect on them through Advent towards Christmas, it can feel that Luke’s graphic account of the coming of Christ quite overshadows that of Matthew.
We find Luke’s version of the Nativity is as gripping as any event in history, with the dramatic Annunciation to Mary, her elderly cousin’s pregnancy, the census of Caesar Augustus, a population on the move, and subsequent crowded birth quarters.
As the baby is laid in his borrowed crib, and angel hosts confront the overawed shepherds sending them to be eye-witness to the truth of his birth, the reality of the Incarnation hits us yet again: God is entering the upheaval and trauma of human life.
By contrast, the story told in Matthew’s account might feel somewhat muted. The opening chapter plunges the modern reader into an unfamiliar process, confronting us with a long list of obscure names. A complex genealogy of who begat whom in generations before Jesus, systematically packaged in three epochs has none of the emotional and spiritual impact of Luke.
By the time they get to the exile in Babylon, where Shealtiel begat Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel begat Abihud and Abihud begat Eliakin, some of Matthew’s contemporary readers might move sneakily on to the story of Mary and Joseph. Even then, with no Annunciation, no census, no manger, no angelic chorus, and no shepherds, the stories of the angel in Joseph’s dream and the visit of the Magi from the East have a lot of work to do in carrying the narrative forward.
Yet this assessment is superficial. The significance of Matthew’s account is enormous. Every aspect of his report is carefully weighed and considered; every inclusion has purpose. Matthew knows what he is doing.
ALTHOUGH the New Testament opens with Matthew’s Gospel, few scholars today would regard it as the first to be written down. Most give priority of dating to Mark’s Gospel, and it is easy to see the parallels and overlapping material between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.
It seems likely that Matthew was written in the last quarter of the first century, specifically for the Jewish-Christian community, for whom their joint heritage was precious. The estrangement and hostility from the mother faith had taken its toll, and this crucial biography of Jesus would have reinforced their common commitment and discipleship.
Yet though this book was not written first, the position of Matthew’s Gospel does have some relevance. For this Gospel, more than any other, connects its readers systematically with the writings of the Hebrew scriptures.
Matthew’s earliest audience would have seen the opening genealogy as spellbinding. The Evangelist’s intention was to show the conclusive links between this child born in Bethlehem and their own prophetic writings. He wanted to confirm Jesus’s identity as the long-awaited Anointed One of Israel.
Matthew establishes his descent through the royal line of the tribe of Judah. He identifies him decisively as the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, the one spoken of by the prophets.
This long though incomplete roll-call of Jesus’s ancestors includes both famous and infamous characters. With so many names available to Matthew in the 42 generations he covers, his choices might strike us as odd. His list certainly does not reveal the most moral, God-fearing people in history — one author calls them “an odd assortment of adulterers, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers and harem-wastrels” — but their ancestral lineage was incontrovertible.
The juxtaposition of the integrity of Jesus and the waywardness of his forebears may carry the message that, though our ancestry can identify us, it does not define us. Only our relationship with God does that.
REFERENCES to the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament — do not stop with the genealogy but continue throughout the Gospel. In fact, they make up half the text of Matthew’s story of the Nativity. They punctuate the flow of the narrative as Matthew pauses in his account and points us back to the prophets of Israel.
If we removed them all we would still be left with a perfectly coherent narrative. Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, Joseph’s assurance from the angel in his dream, the birth of the child, the coming of the Magi, and the fleeing of the young family into Egypt would all be left intact. But Matthew’s message would be decimated. Something so central to the Gospel is contributed by the references to the Hebrew scriptures, that if we fail to engage with them, we miss a key aspect of the Gospel’s purpose.
What Matthew is presenting us with in the nativity narrative is less of a detailed account of the circumstances of Jesus’s birth than a reinforcement of his origin, identity, name, and link with prophecy. Like the genealogy, the nativity serves to establish Jesus’s legal lineage and his divine conception.
The Evangelist makes sure to point out Joseph’s feelings at his fiancé’s pregnancy, knowing that the child is not his. The angel confirms that Mary has not betrayed him but carries a child through the power of the Holy Spirit, who will save people from their sins.
Matthew then reasserts this by his reference to Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin will conceive and give birth to a son. The crowning glory is that this son shall be called “Immanuel”, and Matthew adds his own translation for those yet unaware: “which means God with us”. In the dialogue between Joseph, the angel, and his interplay with the prophet, Matthew is showing that the nativity is about nothing less than God made flesh.
Matthew piles prophecy upon prophecy — from Isaiah, Hosea, Jeremiah, Micah, Zechariah — opening up the scriptures to those who knew them so that they might recognise without doubt that those scriptures point to Jesus. The prophecies were not necessarily predictive; their fulfilment often pointed to something deeper than was evident in the original text,. But in Matthew’s hands they reinforce the identity of Jesus: his name, the place of his birth, his kingship, and his purpose in God’s redemptive plan.
MATTHEW’s account also offers readers one other incident of momentous significance: the visit of the Magi. The story of the journey of sages from the East falls into the 20 per cent of material found uniquely in Matthew. Though not technically part of the birth narrative — Jesus would have been aged around two —this is seen as belonging to the nativity story.
The arrival of the wise men (more literally “magicians”) with gifts clearly designed for a king conveys powerfully both the Jewish and the global significance of this child. God’s call for people to worship him extends beyond the boundaries of Israel, for he has come to break down ethnic and racial barriers and open up a relationship with all people.
Matthew uses the visit of the wise men for another purpose also, showing the huge political and religious consequences of Christ’s birth. The sages first enquire at Herod’s palace, and we see Herod as a latter-day Pharoah, ready to destroy the lives of innocent babies, as Pharoah did in the book of Exodus.
And Matthew quotes another Jeremiah prophecy, now tragically fulfilled, the weeping of Rachel for her children. Yet Herod fails, as Pharoah did before, to annihilate the very one he feared. Instead, Joseph will take his family to safety, and Jesus, too, will be called out of Egypt. In his subtle Israel-Jesus typology, Matthew points to a new exodus from bondage ushered in by this child’s birth.
Matthew’s account of the Nativity is rich and far-reaching. He leads us gently through narrative, allusion, and prophetic fulfilment to the truth about Jesus, and invites us all into a covenantal relationship with God which has Emmanuel at its heart.
Dr Elaine Storkey is the author of Meeting God in Matthew, published by SPCK (£9.99; Church Times Bookshop £9; 9780281081950).