What does Joseph add to the story of Jesus’ origins in Matthew 1?

This Sunday’s lectionary reading for Advent 4 in Year A is Matt 1.18–25. It is a short reading, but laden with significance as Matthew gives his distinctive account of Jesus’ origins.

One of the presenting issues in engaging in the two narratives of Jesus’ birth in Luke and Matthew is their very distinctive perspectives, leading to the question of whether they are compatible—and therefore whether they are ‘history’ or ‘myth’. But it is worth noting that, although the two accounts have almost zero overlap in wording or concerns, they nevertheless agree about the main elements of the story:

  1. A betrothed couple name Mary and Joseph;
  2. Joseph is of Davidic descent;
  3. Mary conceives through the power of the Holy Spirit without human intercourse;
  4. Jesus’ name is determined by angelic revelation;
  5. Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod the Great;
  6. he is brought up in Nazareth. (see R T France Matthew NICNT p 42)

That is a good deal of agreement! Beyond this main storyline, the accounts simply do not overlap, with Luke focussing on the experiences of Mary and the events seen through her eyes, whilst Matthew focuses on Joseph and the other male actors in the drama. (The main apparent discrepancy is Luke’s depiction of the story beginning in Nazareth, with Matthew offering no awareness that this was Mary’s home in Matt 2.22–23).

There are two important clues in Matthew’s wording which point to his concern in this passage, and they are mostly smoothed over by English translations.

First, all ETs introduce this pericope as about ‘the birth’ of Jesus and how it came about. But Matthew, unlike Luke, offers no account of Jesus’ birth or its situation, and passes right over it; his concern is about Jesus’ descent and Joseph’s role in that. This is confirmed by the word that Matthew uses here—genesis γένεσις rather than the usual term for ‘birth’ which is gennesis γεννησις—which is the same word he used in Matt 1.1, there most often translated ‘genealogy’ or ‘generations’. Matthew is in both passages concerned with Jesus’ origins, and in both his concern is demonstrating the Davidic line, made clear in the numerology of arranging the genealogy in generations of 14, corresponding to the gematria value of the name of David in Hebrew.

Secondly, and supporting this, whilst most ETs refer to ‘the birth of [the] Jesus Christ’, there is significant manuscript variation, with some manuscripts having ‘the Christ Jesus’ and others ‘the Christ’. This last is most likely correct, in part because nowhere else in the NT is the definite article used with ‘Jesus Christ’.

So Matthew is not interested so much in the birth of Jesus, but in the origins of the Christ, the anointed Davidic king. The genealogy left us with a problem, since the line of David stops with Joseph, and Matt 1.16 breaks the previous formula because Joseph was not Jesus’ natural father. The verses which form our Sunday reading address this problem by showing us how Joseph adopted Jesus as his own—against his instinct and initial judgement—so that Jesus officially becomes the ‘son of David’.

Understanding the situation of Joseph and Mary requires some knowledge of first century custom. Common practice was for a girl (usually aged around 14 or 15) to be formally betrothed to man a year prior to their marriage. But this was much more formal than modern-day engagement, and much stricter; it involved a public ceremony, and required divorce if the marriage were not to proceed. But it was also a time of abstinence, and the criteria for adultery applied if there was any question of sexual relations with others during this period. Matthew uses both the standard terms for ‘betrothal’ and ‘divorce’, (as well as the euphemistic term for sexual union in marriage, ‘come together’) though the two do not really sit together well in our context.

It is sometimes thought that Joseph being dikaios, just, righteous, fair or good, runs in parallel with his not wanting to make Mary a public spectacle (the same word for ‘shame’ is used by Paul in Col 2.15 where Jesus’ crucifixion made a ‘public spectacle’ of the powers of darkness). But in Matthew, the dikaio- word group is related to obedience to the law, shown in his sevenfold repetition of ‘righteousness’ (dikaiosune). So we should read this as Joseph both being an obedient, observant Jew—but also being a man of compassion and care.

The NIV translates Joseph’s thoughts in Matt 1.20 better than the ESV: the tense of the verb ‘contemplate’ (aorist) implies that Joseph’s mind was made up; he has his dream after he had considered this, not while he was still wondering about it. But behold! suddenly an angel appears to him in a dream. It is interesting that Joseph, unlike Mary, does not experience a real-life visitation of an angel—but this isn’t any mythological construction based on the OT stories, even of Joseph the patriarch, since the patriarch doesn’t have angels appear in his dreams. The importance of the Davidic line is emphasised in the angel’s term of address to Joseph: ‘son of David’.

The language of Mary having conceived ‘from’ the Holy Spirit is parallel to the same phrase in verse 18, where she is pregnant (literally ‘having in her belly’) ‘from’ the Holy Spirit. It is not very natural terminology in English, but it has affected the revised language of the Nicene Creed used in the Church of England:

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,
was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and was made man.

The name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Yahweh is salvation’. But the angel’s interpretation has important Christological implications: the natural inference from the name would be that, through this person, God will save his people, but the angel is unequivocal that Jesus himself will ‘save his people from their sins’. Salvation here is from sin, not from oppressive political powers; Israel is now Jesus’ people as much as God’s people; and Jesus himself makes God’s salvation a reality.

Matthew, like the other NT writers, has a high view of Scripture; what is written in the Old Testament is nothing less that what ‘the Lord’ (Yahweh, the God of Israel) has declared. This unusual and solemn phrase is used only by Matthew in the NT, and in every instance introduces a citation of the OT. Formally speaking, Matthew’s commentary here interrupts his narrative of what has happened, but it is striking that the language of the quotation from Isaiah matches closely the language the angel has used, that the virgin, Mary, has conceived and will give birth to a son, who will be named.

Matthew’s language of ‘fulfilment‘ doesn’t appear to assume that the texts he cites are messianic, or pointing forward to some future reality. For many of them, they are instances in the story of Israel which make sense on their own terms within the story. But the story of Jesus, and particularly of his origins, follows the same pattern of the story of Israel, and so fills it out and brings it to its completion. In the case of Isaiah 7.14, a political and military threat looks about to overwhelm the people; the promise of God’s deliverance is that, in the lifetime of someone not yet born, God will bring deliverance and the people will know that God is with them. Although the Hebrew of Is 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’.

Matthew is unembarrassed that the name ‘Immanuel’ (Hebrew imm- ‘with’, –anu- ‘us’, -el ‘God’) does not match the name Jesus, since they both provide the same Christolgoical emphasis. In the work of Jesus we see God saving his people; in the presence of Jesus we see God truly present with his people. Matthew offers in implicit terms what John makes explicit: the Word that was with God and was God has come to his people (John 1.14).

Joseph has been obedient to the word of the law; now he is obedient to the word of the angel in his dream. The process of betrothal and marriage is completed, though with one exception: Joseph does not ‘know’ Mary, the more usual euphemism for sexual union in OT and NT. Matthew has tweaked his OT citation, which talks of either the mother (Hebrew) or the king (Greek) naming the child, and instead says some unspecified ‘they’ will call him by his name. But for Matthew, it is important that Joseph as (adoptive) father now names the baby: ‘And he gave him the name Jesus’.

Thus the genealogy is finally complete; Jesus is indeed the son of David, and as the anointed one will announce, in his ministry, the coming of the longed-for kingdom of God.

Ten years ago, Mark Greene of LICC in London wrote a great reflection on the role of Joseph in the story of the nativity.

Ordinary Joe – An Unsung Hero

There are many characters in the cast of the Christmas story that have gripped the Church’s imagination but there’s one that has rarely had a place in the spotlight.

There’s the Magi, exotic and somehow still gleaming in their silks after the long, dusty road from the East; there’s Gabriel, winged, magnificent, fearsome and gentle, chosen to make an offer that might be refused; there’s Simeon satisfied, no, exhilarated by something apparently so small – not even a hope fulfilled, just a hope assured; and, of course, there’s Mary, young, vulnerable but open to God’s plan and singing out words that will last forever.

And then there’s Joe. Honest, solid Joe.

The carpenter. The man in the background. Almost always depicted as so much older than Mary, even by Rembrandt. Old enough to be her father – the protector, not the lover, of a young bride. There’s Joe ushering the donkey along the road; there’s Joe being turned away by the innkeepers; there’s Joe watching the Wise Men offer their gifts. No prophetic songs soar from his heart. In fact, the Bible records not a single word of his, and he slips out of the story without even a sentence to mark his passing.

He’s a craftsman, a working man. God did not entrust his son to be fathered by a rabbi or a scribe or a Pharisee or a rich merchant but by Joe. A man who did not need an angel to appear him to change the direction of his life but only a dream. A man who put God’s agenda for his betrothed before his own hopes. A man who left his home and his business for the sake of the girl he loved and the God he loved. A man who set aside the sexual expression of his love for Mary until after Jesus’ birth, just as his son would set aside the joys of marriage and sexual love. A man who risked Herod’s murderous intent and was ready to lay down his life for his bride, just as his son would be ready to lay down his life for his bride – the church.

Maybe Jesus learned a thing or two from honest, solid Joe.

In an era where we like our heroes articulate, powerful and sparkling, Joe offers a different model. The Bible uses a telling phrase to describe him – he was a good man. Would that be epitaph enough for us? Good old Joe.

Collect for Joseph of Nazareth

God our Father,
who from the family of your servant David
raised up Joseph the carpenter
to be the guardian of your incarnate Son
and husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
give us grace to follow him
in faithful obedience to your commands;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

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10 thoughts on “What does Joseph add to the story of Jesus’ origins in Matthew 1?”

  1. As I think you have pointed out elsewhere – though I can’t find it if so – Matt 1:8 “Jehoram the father of Uzziah” is shorthand for “Jehoram the father of Ahaziah, Ahaziah the father of Joash, Joash the father of Amaziah, Amaziah the father of Uzziah.” I don’t have a problem with St Matthew missing out a few – but I do have a problem with Matt 1:17, “…there were fourteen (generations) from David to the exile in Babylon …” which reads like an objective fact, whereas we know, and St Matthew knew, that it wasn’t so.

    There is a similar, but less well-defined anomaly, in Matt 1:3-4, which allows only five generations from Perez to Salmon, These “five” generations cover 470 years: 430 years in Egypt “to the very day” (Ex 12:41) plus 40 more years in the wilderness before Rahab appears on the scene in Jericho. Average 94 years from birth to birth-of-your-son.

    If St Matthew hadn’t been an inspired writer we would be sorely tempted to wonder if he had massaged the facts to fit his theory.

  2. I think I must dissent from some of the linguistic points.

    1. ‘Tou de…’ Although this is an isolated example of ‘the’ before Jesus Christ, this is because, for stylistic reasons, Matthew puts the genitive phrase at the beginning of the sentence. In Matt 2:1 and 26:6 (instances of the genitive absolute) ‘tou de’ also starts the sentence, but here there is no ‘Christ’. Matthew does not mean us to understand ‘the Jesus’ in these verses.
    2. Matt 1:20. I agree with your point about the aorist tense, but neither the ESV or the NIV translate accurately, because they impose Nicene trinitarianism on the text. Translated, the last part of the verse reads: “for that which in her is begotten by spirit is holy.”
    3. Matt 1:18 is not parallel, since there Mary is said to be with child ‘by holy spirit’, ‘holy’ here preceding the noun. ‘Ek’ is the preposition in both, and ‘by’ seems a reasonable translation. There is no definite article before ‘holy’.
    4. The Nicene Creed’s ‘he came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man’ is in my view trinitarian nonsense. It does not reflect biblical revelation. The angel’s message is that Jesus’s parents are, on the male side, God and, on the female side, Mary – God not in bodily form but holy spirit (much as in John 1:13). The Son of God did not have three parents, the Father, the Holy Spirit and Mary – but the Nicene Creed misses out God (the one God, the Father) from its formulation. Man consists of body and spirit. As with any child, Jesus’s body came from the mother and his spirit from God, but in this instance the spirit did not cease to be God (and therefore holy) on becoming incarnate.

    • “As with any child, Jesus’s body came from the mother and his spirit from God, but in this instance the spirit did not cease to be God (and therefore holy) on becoming incarnate.”

      Our bodies come from both parents, surely?

      And the word became flesh.

      • In quantitative terms, the zygote has a microscopic bit of the father. Other than that, the body of the growing baby comes from the mother, right through to birth.

        My first point was not very clear, so I take this opportunity to say it was re the suggestion that Matt 1:18 unaltered speaks of the birth of ‘[the] Jesus Christ’. The presence of ‘the’ [tou] in the text is not an argument for inferring that the original text did not have ‘Jesus’, because the definite article here is required only because ‘Jesus Christ’ in the genitive is at the start of the sentence; it would not be correct to translate ‘the’. Independent of that point, the manuscript support for the omission of ‘Jesus’ is weak. One can make the point that ‘genesis’ does not, in context, mean ‘birth’ but something like ‘origin’ (the English word being narrower than the Greek one) without the textual argument.

        I forgot that I had a 5th point. ‘Parthenos’ should be translated ‘maiden’, not ‘virgin’. See my comment at:

  3. Aren’t salvation from sin and salvation from earthly enemies two sides of the same coin in the Old Testament? Surely the opposite is true–Israel suffers oppression because she disobeys the Lord. In the context of Isaiah 43 God “blots out” Israel’s transgressions and at the same time releases the people from Babylon. God “cleanses” Israel from guilt by restoring Jerusalem on the world’s stage (Jeremiah 33:7-10). Why should this pattern not apply to the gospel story?

  4. The facts that Matthew and Luke:

    (a) agree on certain things while otherwise scarcely overlapping (in other words, where they coincide they agree, even though they frequently fail to coincide because they are not talking of the same matters);

    (b) agree on precisely the *core* elements of the story

    – this is a pattern that would normally shout ‘independence’. The core elements would be widely known, so it would not be surprising if independent accounts both included these; whereas the less core elements would require knowledge of sources. Luke’s only possible source for the birth narratives fails to overlap with Luke on any less-core matters. Ergo, independence. QED.

    However, that is not my view. The core elements being widely known regardless of dependence or independence – on that point I concur. And that explains why the 2 authors share them. But the divergence on less core matters is a matter of templates (Matt’s being the Moses story prefixed by the Joseph story, with some other OT material that immediately suggested itself; and Luke’s being the Samuel story preceded by Samson – though again this accounts for only a certain proportion of the material). Luke says he has thoroughly investigated from the beginning, and given that wording it would be a bit Irish if the actual ‘beginning’ narratives were not included in the fruits of his researches. And that is exactly what we find – they are the passages that have the highest yield of original material. Through Mark’s family etc., he must most likely have had some knowledge of Mary’s family (see Acts 1-2 with Acts 12 re the earliest Jerusalem church). And though Matt and Luke share that they contain a genealogy, Luke probably thinks his one is better researched. Because OT templates must cover the whole gospel narrative and be evenly spaced, it is certain (and is what we find) that the initial passages will be crucial in the template design. So: the key to Matt and Luke’s thoroughgoing difference in the birth narrative is that one is doing a Moses and the other is doing a Samuel. Not that one does not know the other. However, the fact that one knows the other is something that we ascertain largely from *other* parts of Luke’s gospel. Such as his sequential Deuteronomy correspondences in chs 9-18 and his Elijah allusions. All these could not have been painstakingly omitted by Matt so as to leave no trace: therefore it is Matt that precedes Luke rather than vice-versa and Luke that adds these elements to Matt: a sequence already indicated (e.g.) by Goodacre’s work on editorial fatigue e.g. in the parable of the talents.

  5. This is interesting as always (as are the comments) but I’m still waiting for someone to explain what to me is always the main discrepancy: Luke sends the couple back from Bethleham to Nazareth (apparently via Jerusalem) and Matthew sends them into Egypt, with the clear implication that he’d never thought of living in Nazareth until a few dreams and deaths later.

    • “Luke sends the couple back from Bethlehem to Nazareth (apparently via Jerusalem)”

      If we understand that Luke has simply missed out part of the story (Egypt and the return) it does not contradict Matthew.

      “Matthew sends them into Egypt, with the clear implication that he’d never thought of living in Nazareth until a few dreams and deaths later”

      I would suggest a little more than a clear implication. Carlson (Stephen C. Carlson, The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem: κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7 New Test. Stud. 56, pp. 326-342 © Cambridge University Press, 2010 p337) – I think someone has previously posted a link for this paper on this site) Offers the explanation that Bethlehem was actually Joseph’s home. They traveled there as that part of the traditional marriage ritual where the groom takes the bride back to his home for the marriage ceremony.

      That explains why they initially planned to return there on their return from Egypt. However, Archelaus was still too much of a threat and so they went instead to Mary’s home town of Nazareth which was outside his territory.

      It also explains why Matthew says they married and yet Luke said they traveled to Bethlehem as betrothed. Both are correct is the marriage ceremony was in Bethlehem.

  6. As concerning the Word of life, Luke 10 section 25-28 says: On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
    Luke 18 section 18-25 says: A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'” “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
    Matthew 5 section 43-48 says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
    In Old Testament, the Jewish people and their ancestors were given the Law to observe. First, What Adam and Eve should observe was that they could not eat the fruits from the tree of wisdom. Then, their son Cain was told that he should not kill. As sins became increased, the laws were also added more. Up to the generation of Moses, the Law in Old Testament was given to Israelites. We know that the Law is good and the Law is used to punish people who commit sins, but people cannot obey the Law because the sinful spirits are in people. Even that we know stealing and giving false testimony are sinful, but greedy and pride spirits in us drive us to do sinful things. So as Old Testament prophesied we need to get rid of our sinful nature from our spirits.
    Jeremiah 31 section 31-33 says: “The time is coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
    Ezekiel 36 section 24-27 says: “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
    The prophecies are fulfilled when Jesus begins to teach love. The two greatest commandments are ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Love is above the Law and if people have love they are free from the law of sin and death. If people who are full of love will not think about stealing or giving false testimony but are merciful and they feed hungry people or give thirsty people something to drink or invite strangers in or clothe people who need clothes. The Law is for people who commit sins. Nobody will say that he will get reward because he does not steal before. But love is the grace we get. And with love we will get eternal life.
    Romans 13 section 8-10 says: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    Luke 17 section 20-21 says: Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say,’ Here it is,’ or ‘ There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
    John 4 section 23-24 says: Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”


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