Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, in the days when Herod was king of the province. Phillips We might think from this that Matthew started the birth story a little late. Of course, in chapter one we get the actual birth, sort of.
The birth of Jesus Christ happened like this. When Mary was engaged to Joseph, just before their marriage, she was discovered to be pregnant—by the Holy Spirit. Whereupon Joseph, her future husband, who was a good man and did not want to see her disgraced, planned to break off the engagement quietly. But while he was turning the matter over in his mind 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! What she has conceived is conceived through the Holy Spirit, and she will give birth to a son, whom you will call Jesus (‘the Saviour’) for it is he who will save his people from their sins.”
All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet—‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’. (“Immanuel” means “God with us.”)
When Joseph woke up he did what the angel had told him. He married Mary, but had no intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son. Then he gave him the name Jesus. Phillips
That is it. Matthew does not tell us the popular story of the creche. There is no baby in the manger and not shepherds.
The Bible can be a source of frustration because it does not tie everything into neat packages. Matthew ignores the birth scene while Luke gives us detail. Who is right?
Anyone who reads the Bible will run into hundreds of niggling details and many outright contradictions because many authors working independently over an unknown number of centuries wrote it. We cannot say with any certainty how long it took to write down the Tanakh, the Old Testament, but the New Testament took most of a century; though some argue for another half-century.
Every author had a particular story for a particular group of people. Isaiah spoke to the divided Kingdom about the coming exile. Nehemiah spoke to the people in return from exile. Matthew, as a Jewish follower of the Messiah, believed other Jewish followers need to hear about how Yeshua fulfilled the many prophecies of the expected Messiah. That is why he filled his book with Tanaka quotes such as: ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’. Isaiah 7:14
Unfortunately, that gives us a problem. The Hebrew word translated here as virgin is almah. The definition in Strong’s (the standard for the Bible) is a lass as veiled, damsel, maid, virgin. To use the last definition choice requires a support sense in the rest of the text. But virginity is not suggested in the Hebrew text. It reads like this: Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. JSB
By the second century BCE, a Greek translation of the Tanakh had been completed. It is called the Septuagint—abbreviated LXX—because it was worked on by seventy scholars, all of whom checked every word. The word almah was translated as parthenos in the LXX. Strong’s has it as a maiden, an unmarried daughter, a virgin. Again, virgin is the last option.
The Roman Catholic Church has chiseled the word into granite, and it remains with us to this day. It is worth noting that Matthew does not put any stress on virginity. He simply writes, she was discovered to be pregnant—by the Holy Spirit. Phillips
Basically, Matthew takes it as a given and does not press the issue. It is far more important to him that we understand that Joseph is his earthly father. When Joseph woke up he did what the angel had told him. He married Mary, but had no intercourse with her until she had given birth to a son. Then he gave him the name Jesus. Phillips
Notice through chapters one and two that Matthew stresses Joseph. He has the dreams; the angel gives him the name of Yeshua: he takes his family to Egypt. That is in line with the genealogy in the first chapter which ends with Joseph.
Another thing to remember about the virginity issue is that many important people of ancient days; generals, saints, politicians, philosophers, were said to be born of virgins. As far as people knew in the first century, gods made special people pregnant. Remember, they were not far removed from the days of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Matthew stresses the Righteousness of God throughout the Gospel, and he puts Joseph to the test first thing. Joseph planned to break off the engagement quietly Phillips to save Mary some public humiliation, but God said no, marry the girl. Joseph had to add himself to the list of the humiliated to be righteous.
In chapter 2, Matthew gives us another problem; the Magi from the East. The story is based on Numbers 24:17. A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel. NIV We don’t know much about the men, including their number. They may have been astrologers from what is now Iran or even India, but they could have come from present-day Yemen. Either trip would have taken at least six months. If they were closer, perhaps three months. If they were not astrologers most of our guesses are out the window.
Don’t overlook the facts about such a trip. Only wealthy men could put it together. They needed to own or rent several hundred camels to carry at least six months’ supplies and a large crew to take care of the animals and the wealthy men. Three hundred camels will attract attention.
Notice in the text that the Magi did not seek out Herod. He sent for them when he got word of what they were looking for. And yet, we are to believe they just disappeared without Herod’s spies noticing. And, by the way, don’t you think Herod would have sent a crew to follow the Magi?
The star is a puzzle. We have extensive records of the heavens from several different cultures of the period. There is no listing anywhere of an unusual star, comet, supernova, etc. No one has a clever notion of how a star could appear to start the Magi on their journey, disappear and reappear after they left Herod’s palace. And why didn’t it just lead the Magi to the house in the first place?
There is no record of a mass slaughter of boys under two years of age, not even by Josephus who hated Herod and slammed him at every opportunity. Yet, this is the stated reason why Joseph took his family to Egypt.
These twelve verses in Matthew are some of the most difficult to defend. The easy out is to say, the Bible says it, it’s true. With that statement, we are telling nonbelievers we are willing to accept falsehood as truth. I think that is dangerous.
Any time we find difficult statements in the Bible we need to seek an understanding of the author, the initial audience, and the intent of the message. The author tells us about himself in how and what he writes. We only call the Gospel Matthew because it was an early tradition, not because he signed it. For the same reason, we assume he is the Apostle Matthew.
Matthew concentrates on proving Jesus is the Messiah by quoting Scripture and comparing Jesus to the promises. Most Christians at the time of his writing were Jews who were looking for solid evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew gave them the evidence.
He read Micah 5:2, 2 Samuel 5:2, Isaiah 60:3,6, Psalm 72:10,15, Exodus 1:22, Exodus 2:23, Exodus 4:19, and Exodus 4:20. From all that and more, Matthew created a short story that shows Jesus as the New Moses.
Is it a fabrication? In the modern sense, probably. In the first century, no. All the key points are true. Jesus was born in the city of David and of the line of Abraham, Moses, and David. Herod may have had a few boys in Bethlehem killed. His paranoia was at its worst then. There is no reason to say the family did not go to Egypt. Carpenters were well paid, and they could afford to make the expensive trip. Joseph would have found work there easily.
We can’t throw everything out just because of a few problems in the text. Or, for that matter, of a lack of physical evidence—no star in the records.
The message of the Messiah is the Gospel.
Be righteous and do good.