What does Joseph contribute 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’. (David Wilson helpfully notes: ‘On the verb at the start of v18, biblehub.com gives various Greek versions. Most have γένεσις, including NA/UBS, and, interestingly, the Greek Orthodox text. But the Byzantine Majority Text and the Textus Receptus have γέννησις. Hence the KJV has ‘birth’, and that casts a long shadow over most English translations.’) 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’.

Kenneth Bailey (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p 45) notes that, alongside the major meaning of the verb enthumeomai as ‘to consider’, there is another meaning noted in some lexicons (in Liddell Scott, though not in BDAG) of ‘to take to heart, to be concerned about, to be angry at’. The reason for this is the etymology of the verb, which is derived from the noun thumos, meaning ‘intense expression of the inner self, freq. expressed as strong desire, passion…a state of intense displeasure, anger, wrath, rage, indignation.’ Thumos describes Herod’s response to his betrayal by the magi in Matt 2.16, and the verb only occurs in one other place in the NT, at Matt 9.4 where Jesus asks ‘Why do you think evil thoughts in your hearts?’

Given that Joseph has undergone the serious rite of betrothal, which will have involved a public bond not only between himself and Mary, but also their families, this would not be a surprising reaction. Bailey concludes:

In his cameo appearance, Matthew presents Joseph as a human being of remarkable spiritual stature. He possess 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 re-process his anger into grace (p 46).

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.

For video discussion of these issues, including the question of Joseph’s response, join James and Ian here:

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

  1. Thanks for bringing the focus round to Joseph. I realised this year that the traditional readings for nine lessons and carols omit this passage, and rely on Luke for the birth of Jesus, further pushing Joseph into the background.
    I noticed your two references to Joseph adopting Jesus. I have been researching Joseph this year and comparing him to a foster father. Interestingly, Catholic writers habitually refer to Joseph as Jesus’ foster father, while Protestant writers tend to see him as adopting Jesus.
    For myself (perhaps because I am a foster father) I tend to see more parallels with foster care, although neither comparison is perfect, with Jesus growing up with two important father figures, as becomes apparent at the end of Luke 2.

    • That’s interesting. As we note in the video discussion, one of the rather odd things about Matthew’s account is that it doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus at all, only events before and after it! That is perhaps why Luke’s account tends to dominate.

      Interesting reflections on fostering. But fostering is usually temporary, whereas adoption is permanent—and surely Joseph is doing the latter therefore and not the former…?

      • Yes, permanence is one difference between adoption and foster care. Another is identity. In adoption, a child takes on / is given a new identity and legal ties to the child’s birth family are cut. In foster care, the child’s birth identity is retained and maintained.
        Whether permanence or identity is seen as key affects whether particular biblical examples are seen as closer to contemporary adoption or contemporary foster care. A number of Old Testament instances which are often portrayed as adoption I would argue are more akin to foster care.
        With Joseph and Jesus, if Joseph adopted Jesus, the question arises of what happened to Jesus’ pre-existing paternal relationship. (At this point it becomes necessary to acknowledge the uniqueness of Jesus having divine and human nature, and divine and human ‘fathers’, but the question is still relevant.)
        Hence my preference for tending towards seeing links to foster care. Of course, no comparison with contemporary definitions is exact – Joseph can also be seen as Jesus’ step-father.

    • If one takes on board the notion, as Ian has explained in the comments, that the journey in Luke 2:4,5 is the journey to the wedding of Joseph and Mary, and also take on board that Luke 2:6 begins with a word in Greek which is used “to start a new section of the narrative”, the wedding has probably taken place before the birth. There is no “Joseph desperately trying to find a place with Mary already in labour.” Thus Jesus would have been born to a married couple, and so in the eyes of the law Joseph’s son. No formal adoption was necessary.

      I think this adds to our view of Good Ole Joe. If there is an urgency brought on by the census it is to ensure that the baby arrives after the marriage and is therefore legitimate even in the eyes of the Empire.

      • Yes, that’s an interesting thought. I haven’t thought of that particular chronology before, although I’ve seen other commentators say that a child born to a man’s wife and acknowledged by the man would have been taken, legally, to be his child.

  2. It’s not so much that Luke begins the story in Nazareth and Matthew in Bethlehem. It’s that a) Matthew clearly implies that Nazareth was an unexpected choice as a home post-Egypt and only chosen to avoid Herod’s heir; and b) Luke doesn’t mention the trip to Egypt at all, instead sending the couple to Jerusalem en route to Nazareth. But I appreciate that this is not the real focus of today’s interesting post!

    • Yes, that is true. However, there is an obvious connection: Bethlehem is clearly depicted in Luke as Joseph’s family home, and where we would expect them to settle. So Luke implies a problem which he does not address. Might this be because he assumes people have read Matthew?

      Or is Matthew including the explanation because he assumes people have read Luke, and he realises that Luke has not explained the change?

      Either way, the two stories work together and, despite omissions, do not actually contradict each other.

    • I wonder if you saw the reply to your comment last year from ‘Nick’:

      “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.

    • A key paragraph is this:

      According to Luke, Mary was still betrothed on the way to Bethlehem, but by the time she gave birth to Jesus in v. 7, she was cohabitating with Joseph. According to Jewish practices in antiquity, marriages were initiated by a betrothal (אירוסין) and finalized by a ‘home-taking’ (נישואין) in which the bride is taken to her husband’s house. Both events were celebrated by a public feast, the former at the bride’s house and the latter at the groom’s house. Accordingly, in the logic of the narrative, the point that Mary was still betrothed upon her arrival in Bethlehem (v. 5) but later cohabited with him there (v. 7) means that Bethlehem was the site of their wedding, when Joseph concluded the betrothal period by taking her into his home.

  3. Ian, I wonder if at some point you might be able to do a full post unpacking this immensely pregnant comment: “Salvation here is from sin, not from oppressive political powers”. It is a topic I’m extremely interested in (the distinctions to be made across those things, and how it links to spiritual struggle and salvation).

    • I agree Sam for the need to “unpack” this particular aspect of a wider hermeneutical context; particularly in relation to what might be construed within this as a possible dichotomy between the “physical” and the “spiritual”. The first part of statement in question is based upon the meaning of Jesus’name and is therefore an integral part the passage’s import; the second part has no particular contextual significance.

  4. An interesting and heartwarming post.

    I wonder if the remnant of faith realised that Jesus was a Saviour from sin. In the OT Israel’s political upheavals were because of sin. Any ultimate political deliverance must include a spiritual deliverance; God must birth a righteous nation. John the Baptist’s baptism was about repentance. Certainly it seems that the leaders of the nation and perhaps many of the people saw no deeper than political deliverance from the Romans.

    I wonder if requiring ‘genesis’ is too precise. The word is also used by Luke (1:14) . I notice Strongs sees ‘birth’ as a possible meaning. James uses it in a way that probably means ‘life’. This reminds me of a debate from a few days ago where two different words could carry the same meaning. Here, given the use of the word in Matt 1:1, the ‘genealogy’ echo is probably intended.

    The other interesting word discussion is ‘alma. I hear your discussion of this word and it may well be right. A good part of me thinks is. However, Motyer believes ‘alma implies more than a young women. He thinks it means virgin while b’tula he thinks may include married women and is not exclusively virgin..

    Joel 1:8.

    Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
    for the bridegroom of her youth.

    Be that as it may. It is perhaps again a case of two words that may mean virgin and the one with lesser frequency used. As you point out Ian the LXX decisively translates with a word meaning virgin. However, if Marg M is right the LXX translators made mistakes and this may well be one of them leaving us on a rocky foundation for OT attestation to the virgin birth. I guess we should be guided by MM (Irony, for those not privy to previous discussions).

    • As far as I know, at the time the LXX translation was produced ἡ παρθένας did not necessarily refer exclusively to a virgin although by the time of Christ this was how the term was widely understood.

      The reference to Joel 1:8 (where LXX uses νύμφην) is interesting but not decisive, if one allows for ba’al in the second line to be a reference to a “bridegroom” or “husband-to-be” rather than a husband. Given its use in, e.g., Lev 21:14, betulah seems to be the most obvious choice, if one looks for the meaning of “virgin” – a meaning which seems less plausible with almah in Prov 30:19 and Song 6:8. The abstract plural form alumim in Isa 54:4 appears to refer to a married woman and so most likely not a virgin.

      My own take is that by and large a girl (naarah) was considered a betulah with the onset of menstruation until she became a wife (being reputably unmarried means she would be a virgin) and that an almah is a sexually mature young woman who is not yet a mother (very often a virgin but not necessarily so).

      • I’m wondering this: do differing spellings help to understand the virgin birth when they are taken out of context? The woman in Joel is grieving ‘like’ a virgin. So the word virgin does not necesserily have anything relevant in it to understand the virgin birth. Its prophetic fulfilment will be when “even those who pierced him…” Revelation 1:7 “will mourn because of Him”
        The sense in Joel is that the thing grieved over never got used, like a new yacht sinking before the insurance kicks in. Like a betrothed who dies before his wedding day.

    • Here, given the use of the word in Matt 1:1, the ‘genealogy’ echo is probably intended.

      I think this must be right. A writer would not use the same word within a few lines intending a different meaning. I was musing last night that perhaps this degree of ambiguity was deliberate. In 1:14 it is a reference to the actual birth, but also to a ‘genesis’ = origin. In this chapter we have an origin in decent from Abraham and a different origin, ‘conceived…from the Holy Spirit’.

      I am probably over-interpreting. However, that this chapter in effect hints at Christ’s two natures is appealing.

      • David, I agree with you. We need to attend to the careful use of language here.

        That is why I am also drawn to Bailey’s interpretation of enthumeomai. Only a few verses later we see the thumos of Herod. Here we have two highly contrasting ways of dealing with anger and disappointment.

  5. Well, it looks as if I’ve been following this blog for approximately a year, because I seem to remember finding it just at the point where Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus was being discussed.

    I confess that I didn’t see anything conclusive in Luke’s presentation which decisively ruled out Joseph being the father – my own belief in the virgin birth is entirely based on Matthew’s account. I remember when I first read Emil Brunner’s `The Mediator’. I had been warned that he was somewhat `liberal’, but the first 335 pages seemed straight down the line and it wasn’t until Page 335 that he dropped a clanger, mentioning that he didn’t believe in the virgin birth.

    I thought this was ludicrous at the time, because Matthew’s understanding of Isaiah 7:14 seemed pretty clear and the language of Scripture seemed clear to me (I don’t know Greek or Hebrew – I only read the translations), but following Ian Paul’s discussion here, I now see that there is an issue surrounding this. I believe in the virgin birth, but I now have more sympathy for those who don’t.

    • I would suggest that Luke 1:34-35 seems reasonably clear that no human male will involved in Jesus’ conception, particularly if you go back to the KJV’s more literal translation: “I know not a man.”

      • David – well, yes – there was a discussion about it last year – I still think I wouldn’t take Luke’s text as conclusive of a virgin birth (at a push, it could be seen as the angel giving her instructions – and indicating that the offspring will be blessed). Matthew, on the other hand, leaves no doubt and is ‘bullet-proof’.

        If there is any doubt about the Hebrew text, then I take it that Matthew’s understanding came from the Holy Spirit. He was, after all, a disciple and hence spoke directly with Jesus.

        As I indicated, I believe the virgin birth (because of Matthew’s treatment); I’m just trying to figure out the grounds that others have for forming a different view – and I think that Matthew is the only text that states this definitively and unambiguously.

      • David, also Luke 1:32. ‘He will be called the son of the Most High.’ If God was his father, then Joseph was not (except adoptively, 2:48). The angel is not suggesting that the boy will be the son of two fathers. Further, in Luke 3:23 the qualification ‘as was supposed’ also implies that Joseph was not the biological father.

        • Steven and David – you are (of course) correct. One of these pieces from Luke taken by itself would not be conclusive; all taken together make it clear that Luke is stating that there was a virgin birth. I stand corrected – and feel that I shouldn’t have been directing any generosity towards heretics.

          • Ian Paul – yes – you are absolutely correct – there is no explicit claim in Scripture about this. But I do find it inconceivable that Joseph or Mary would be minded towards carnal activities, knowing full well what Mary was carrying.

            Anyway, surely it is ‘virgin conception’ (not virginal). A virginal is a sixteenth century musical instrument that I wished I had when I try (unsuccessfully) to hack through the keyboard works of Orlando Gibbons on the piano. (Mind you, you can really make Gibbons rock on the modern piano – as this guy shows)


          • “But I do find it inconceivable that Joseph or Mary would be minded towards carnal activities, knowing full well what Mary was carrying.”

            Jock I have noted before that you have a very poor view of any sexual activity but what are you implying here? That Mary and Joseph couldn’t have had any ‘carnal activities’ because that would offend God? Maybe they didn’t even have carnal activities like going to the lavatory because of what Mary was carrying?

          • On t to be virgin birth issue, why doesn’t Mathew 1:25 answer the question? (And knew her not till she had given birth to a son, and called Him Jesus)

          • Andrew – I just thought of a great new name for a rock group – ‘Virginal Conception’ – for a group that deals with the keyboard music of Orlando Gibbons, originally intended for the virginal – and makes it rock. I personally feel that music has gone steadily downhill since the time of Gibbons.

            On the point you raised, obviously I disagree with you – but this is a discussion probably best left for a different thread (rather than a thread about God became man and dwelt among us).

          • Sorry Jock, I should have explained. The technical definition of a virgin is someone whose hymen has not been broken. It is broken in birth, so it is only conception which is virginal.

            And virginal is the adjective from virgin. The musical instrument is so named because it was usually played by young women.

          • Ian – thanks! All very interesting (but rapidly getting off-topic). Judging from the keyboard works of Byrd and Gibbons, there must have been a large number of extremely talented young women in 16th century England.

  6. We keep on having this discussion. I reproduce my comment from 2019.

    An unmarried woman was assumed to be a virgin unless proven otherwise. A lapse brought not only social stigma but, in principle, stoning to death (Deut 22:13-21). ‘Betulah’ is properly translated ‘virgin’, while ‘almah’ has the same connotations as ‘maiden’. As with the English word, almah primarily means a young unmarried woman, with virginity implicit but not the foremost sense. Almah in Isaiah gets translated as ‘parthenos’, presumably, because Greek does not have two subtly different words. In I Cor 7, Paul is focusing on the question of marriage, not virginity, and when he uses the word parthenos, he means ‘maiden’, a young unmarried woman (virgin understood). In I Cor 7:34 agamos = ‘unmarried woman’ and parthenos are expressly synonymous. Parthenos in Matt 1:23 is best translated ‘maiden’ (even if archaic in today’s world), but ‘virgin’ is not wrong inasmuch as Matthew is bringing to the fore a connotation that in Isaiah may not have been to the fore. As I started by observing, the presumption in Israelite society was that maidens did not conceive and bear children; only married women did.

  7. Part of me is inclined towards a dual -horizon in Isaiah’s prophecy, I’m of the view this is a prophetic device. This would account for the ambiguous ‘almah’. However, a couple of problems exist. The first is that it is difficult to see how a young woman giving birth to a son she names Immanuel is a sign ‘as high as heaven’ that is something extraordinarily convincing (Behold…). Secondly, the use of the definite article with ‘virgin’ suggests one person -there is a particularity in the prophecy. Thirdly, the LXX translation ‘virgin’ and its NT fulfilment in Christ makes me question if Thomas is right though his view is the conventional wisdom and certainly not impossible; but is not the translation of a Jewish Hebraist more likely to be correct than modern opinions?

    The ‘sign’ was that the house of David would not fail. What greater sign could there be than the supernatural birth of Messiah (surpassing even that of Issac), the Son who would prove himself in so many ways to be supernatural.

    If we should object that the sign must be meaningful to Ahaz perhaps we could argue he has forfeited the right to a sign. Indeed the sign is addressed to ‘the house of David’. The plural ‘you’ is used. Here we must remember Isaiah paints on a canvas much bigger than the events with Ahaz. His prophecy reaches out to the much bigger sweep of redemptive history (9:1)

    If the above has weight then what are we to make of the time specific prophecies

    ‘For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”

    Is it possible that ‘the boy’ has changed from the son of the virgin to Isaiah’s son, Shear-Jashub ? Isaiah is specifically told to take his son for the meeting with Ahaz. There is no obvious reason why. The reason is left unresolved. This may well point to him being ‘the boy’. Abrupt changes of reference are not unusual in prophecy. Before Isaiah’s son reaches the age of responsibility, of moral discernment, judgement would fall on Judah’s enemies.

    However, a further prophecy sits on the wings — Judah herself will undergo catastrophic judgement. The unbelief of Ahaz will bring judgement on Judah too. The judgement on Israel and Syria should impress upon Judah this prophecy of judgement on Judah. Yet, God speaks in mercy to Ahaz. Although judgement will be terrible and a number of the nation went into Assyrian exile yet a remnant will return. Such is the deportation from the land that Shear-Jashub now grown eat the best of the land (curds and honey). Yet ‘the boy’ is Shear-Jashub stands as a word of hope. We remember Isaiah’s children are ‘signs’ from the Lord (Ch 8). Both promise the overthrow of Israel and Syria. However it is Shear-Jashab brings hope after judgement. Initial deportation and future Babylonian exile will bring the meaning of Sher-Jashub into even greater clarity and be a voice of hope… a remnant shall return.

    However, real hope then and now is found in the greater sign, the sign of Immanuel.

    The Assyrians would wipe out Ephraim and Syria and will almost engulf Judah too. In time the Babylonians will all but decimate the nation and land. But the land belongs to the virgin’s son, Immanuel, and so its ultimate well-being is secured (8:8). All kinds of voices via for attention in desperate days. God’s people, like Isaiah and his disciples hear only ‘the word and the testimony’. The prophetic word was their light and assurance. The hope of the remnant is ‘God is with us’. If a remnant returns then it will be Immanuel who will accomplish it. This is our hope this Christmas in an increasingly uncertain and hostile world. The future is secure in the virgin’s son.

    • So Jesus’ rescue of us from sin is a bit like God’s rescuing Israel from Assyria. But why do we need Isaiah to know this?

      Did Jeremiah know about Herod when talking about crying from Ramah? Did Hosea know about the flight from Herod when talking about ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’? If so, why don’t those texts fit better?

  8. Very good questions Ian and I don’t have all the answers, that’s for sure. I think the NT uses OT texts in a variety of ways (and some I find difficult to understand).

    Firstly, the OT is the historical stream from which Messiah must come. Messiah is not only the Lord from heaven he is the Son of David very much part of salvation history. Our faith story spans the whole of history.

    Secondly, the OT is the conceptual backdrop from which we understand NT events. We learn from the OT that spiritual apostasy will bring judgement in political and material ways. In the same way obedience will bring existential blessing in spiritual, material, relational terms. Or, to Faithfulness leads to shalom. This written on a bigger canvas is the contours of NT eschatological salvation.

    So OT events, institutions, people trained the believing in Israel what they should expect in the eschaton. Thought forms and vocabulary were given to clothe eschatological realities.

    I don’t think Jeremiah knew about Herod. Nor Hosea about the flight from Herod and the return from Egypt. How do we explain these types of quotations. Different texts may be employing different interpretative methods. Or, to approach from the OT, some OT may have a single referent, some a double and perhaps some a multiple referent. The OT author may have a reasonable understanding of the future he describes or he may be ignorant of its full meaning and fulfilment. At best his insight is partial. Would the weeping at Ramah be an example of a prophecy beyond the prophets Ken.

    ‘Out of Egypt have I called my Son’ refers in the first instance to the exodus. Yet the NT writers, believing there is an organic relationship between Messiah and his people,, believing he was the priest who was made to experience what his people faced, can happily see that Hosea spoke more than he knew.

    NT writers seem to quote from a synthetic understanding of the OT received from Jesus himself.

    A hurried reply. Your own thoughts would be appreciated – even in a post.

  9. Ian, Thanks for this post. I’m really struck by the face of Joseph in the picture. I’ve never looked at it properly before. I’m always turned off by winged fairies/angels in paintings. However, your post about Joseph really is very helpful. In the image we see a man of few words, no words in fact, I’ve met a couple of farmers like that. But how absolutely necessary was he. One can almost see the anger, disappointment, dashed hopes being given to the Lord in faith. A bit like Job. I wonder if he too had friends in Bethlehem able and willing to offer advice?

  10. Thanks for this post, which I’m just catching up with now.
    I wondered whether you had explored the links between the Joseph of Matt 1 and the Joseph of Genesis, or whether you’re aware of others who have developed this? When I preached through the Joseph narrative in Genesis some time ago I was struck by the parallels (most obviously, both sons of men called Jacob; both dreamers; both taking their families to Egypt) and wondered whether Matt 1-2 is deliberately showing Jesus as the son of both Judah and Joseph, and therefore re-uniting Jew and Samaritan (= Gentile?)?
    I realise it’s a little off-topic for this post but would be glad to hear your thoughts (or pointers of where else to look).

    • That’s an interesting question. I am not aware of many links, though as you say, there is the dream connection. But I am not aware of commentators making any wider connection.

      I think the name Joseph was quite common…

      • Fair enough. I think the connections go beyond the name Joseph (and the ‘coincidence’ of both their fathers being called Jacob) though.

        In addition to the dreams (Matthew’s Joseph has 4 dreams which I think may be more than any character in the Bible apart from the Genesis Joseph?), it struck me that Matthew-Joseph’s righteous response to the report of a pregnancy contrasts with Judah’s (“Bring her out and let her be burned to death!” Gen. 38:24); and Genesis-Joseph’s descendants become a group of nations (Gen. 48:19) which – if I’m right about Genesis-Joseph being a type for Matthew-Joseph – perhaps is one of a number of hints in the opening chapters of Matthew towards the Great Commission at the end.

        I admit it’s all a little bit speculative but it seemed to me that there were sufficient possible connections to merit a bit more thought… I suspect that we’ll be surprised and delighted on the last day to realise how much richness and inter-textuality we’ve missed in our reading of scripture 🙂

    • Some scholars believe Matthew’s birth narrative was written (invented) for the purpose of making Jesus out to be the new Moses and to fulfill important Jewish prophecy.

      –For Matthew, the history of Israel is recapitulated in Jesus. Jesus is Israel. Israel is the template for Jesus. For example, it is difficult to know the story of baby Moses in any detail and miss how Matthew uses it as the pattern for the story of baby Jesus in chapter 2. Note these rather remarkable parallels Matthew fully expects us to see.

      1) Matt 2.13-14: Herod desires to slay Jesus so Joseph takes Mary and baby Jesus away

      Ex 2.15: Pharaoh desires to slay Moses, so Moses goes away

      2) Matt 2.16: Herod commands all male boys of Bethlehem, 2 and under, murdered

      Ex 1.22: Pharaoh commands all male Israelite boys to be murdered

      3) Matt 2.19: Herod dies

      Ex 2.23: Pharaoh dies

      4) Matt 2.19-20: The Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, ‘go back for those seeking Jesus’s life are dead’

      Ex 4.19: The Lord speaks to Moses, ‘go back for those seeking your life are dead’

      5) Matt 2.21: Joseph took Jesus and Mary back to Israel

      Ex 4.20: Moses took his wife and children and returned to Egypt

      • I wonder whether this sets *Joseph* up as the Moses-figure, rather than Jesus (though I acknowledge Matt 2:20 it’s those who are seeking the child’s life).
        Joseph is of course succeeded by Jesus (= ‘Joshua’)…

  11. If one reads Matthew’s birth narrative without reading into that story any details from Luke’s birth narrative, one comes away with a startling fact: Joseph and Mary were not originally from Nazareth! They were originally from Bethlehem! There is no mention of anything occurring anywhere else. There is no mention of any angel appearing to anyone in Nazareth. Everything happens in Bethlehem.

    After the visit of the magi, the holy family flees to Egypt. Once Herod the Great dies, where does Joseph want to go? Nazareth or Bethlehem?


    Why would Joseph want to return to Bethlehem if he had only gone there for a Roman census several years earlier?? But Herod’s son is now on the throne and he is just as evil as his father, so Joseph decides to settle his family somewhere out of the reach of this evil king…far away…in Nazareth of Galilee—a completely new city for he and his family!

    • Gary, he goes there because it is his home town, as Luke says in Luke 2.3.

      Mary was from Nazareth; Joseph was from Bethlehem. Joseph, for some reason we are not told, goes to Nazareth, likely because, as a tekton, he could find much work there in the building of Sepphoris. Whilst there, he and Mary are betrothed. But he has land in Bethlehem, so must return there for the census, and to receive Mary into his house as was the wedding custom.

      Neither account gives us all the information, but the information in each is quite perfectly compatible with the other. This is often the case with the different gospel accounts.

      • You are combining the two narratives and making assumptions from thin air.

        If you only read Matthew’s narrative, Joseph and Mary are from Bethlehem. There is no mention of Nazareth until Joseph has to look for a new home after discovering that Herod’s son is still a danger to Jesus.

        Any two stories can be made compatible if you try hard enough.

        • Why would you ‘only read Matthew’s narrative’ on its own?

          ‘Any two stories can be made compatible if you try hard enough.’ Er, no. If Luke has said ‘Jesus was born in Nazareth’ then the two stories would not be compatible. The main elements of each story align completely; what is different is the inclusion or omission of different details.

          Jesus was born in Bethlehem Matt 2:1 Luke 2:2
          In time of Herod (d. 4 BC) Matt 2:1 Luke 1:5
          Mother: Mary Matt 1:18 Luke 1:26
          Father: Joseph (named the child) Matt 1:18 Luke 1:26
          But not the biological father Matt 1:16, 20, 22 Luke 1:34; 3:23
          Brought up in Nazareth in Galilee Matt 2:22-23 Luke 2:39
          From the line of David Matt 1:1 Luke 1:32

          • I am not just arguing my opinion, Ian. That would be foolish as I am not a New Testament scholar. I am arguing the position of the majority of New Testament scholars: The birth narratives are historically suspect. It is possible that they are apologetic constructs, invented to counter late first century Jewish criticism that the Jewish messiah cannot be from Nazareth. And this isn’t just the opinion of liberal Protestants and atheists. It is the majority position of Roman Catholic scholars:

            “Matthew and Luke give very different accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth. In times past we would have assumed that, because these infancy stories were recounted by inspired writers, both were accurate and had to be harmonized. Today, if the evidence is strong enough, we would be free to consider either or both of the narratives as not historical. Obviously this is a conclusion that should not be reached quickly; but we cannot deny a priori the possibility that, since there were no apostolic eyewitnesses for the events accompanying the birth of Jesus, traditions about that birth could have been produced by popular imagination.

            —Roman Catholic NT scholar, Raymond Brown in the Introduction of his book, “The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus”, p. 15-20 (copyright, 1973)

      • It is interesting to note that the word “Bethlehem” does not appear anywhere else in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke except in the birth narratives. Please correct me if I am wrong. How odd. Wouldn’t Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem be an important piece of evidence to convince skeptical Jews that Jesus truly was their Messiah? Yet, not one word in the rest of the Gospels about Jesus being born in the city of David. Neither does Paul mention this fact in any of his epistles. Odd.

        It is almost as if the birth narratives of Jesus were tacked on to an existing story about Jesus. What existing story was circulating at the time these two authors were writing their books? Answer: The Gospel of Mark! Almost all scholars agree that the authors of Matthew and Luke copied, often verbatim, large swaths of the Gospel of Mark. The only major divergence occurs with the birth narratives and the post-resurrection appearances.

        Yes, both Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives and their post-resurrection appearance stories can be reconciled…with a lot of work and imagination…but doesn’t the evidence indicate something much more probable: These two authors used the author of Mark’s story to write their own books but added completely new beginnings and endings to the story, and that is why they are so very different.

        • Correction: I should have said ” not one word in the rest of the [Synoptic] Gospels about Jesus being born in the city of David.”

          There is one mention of Bethlehem in the Gospel of John, chapter 7:

          ” When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.”

        • ‘Wouldn’t Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem be an important piece of evidence to convince skeptical Jews that Jesus truly was their Messiah?’ Yes indeed. The fact that it *isn’t* deployed like this logically suggests that it was a fact that was included, rather than a piece of propaganda that was made up.

          • Or that the birth narratives were invented after Paul was already dead and John’s mention of the topic demonstrates why the virgin birth in Bethlehem was needed to counter Jewish criticism.

          • Why would we expect Paul to mention something that was part of counter to Jewish criticism? We don’t have any content of Paul’s Jewish apologetic as far as I can see.

            This feels like a fantastical construal to solve a problem that is not there.

          • Paul’s silence as to the birth place of “the Christ” does not prove he wasn’t aware of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, but his silence can be used to support the position of a significant percentage of NT scholars who suspect that the birth narratives are works of apologetics (fiction), written to counter Jewish criticism that a man from Nazareth could not be the Jewish messiah.

        • ‘The only major divergence occurs with the birth narratives and the post-resurrection appearances.’

          If you think that this is the only major divergence, you need to read the gospels again! Luke in particular has a heap of unique material.

          • I would encourage you to read the Gospels in parallel, Ian. Have you ever done that? I have. Scholars estimate that the author of Matthew incorporated approximately 90% of Mark’s gospel into his gospel, often verbatim. Yes, he does add some non-Markan material, but for the most part, he keeps to Mark’s story. It is as if he sat down with Mark’s gospel and wrote his only gospel directly from Mark’s, embellishing Mark’s original story here and there with even more fantastical supernatural claims and a few additional stories. How anyone can believe that the author of Matthew was an eyewitness is beyond me. Why would an eyewitness borrow (plagiarize) 90% if Mark’s account (an author whom even conservative Christians doubt was an eyewitness) to write his own eyewitness account??

            Bottom line: If one reads Mark and Matthew in parallel, one comes away with the conclusion that Matthew heavily plagiarized Mark’s story, adding in his own beginning and ending to the story. Matthew’s birth narrative and his post-resurrection appearance stories have NOTHING in common with those of Luke who scholars believe incorporated approximately 65% of Mark’s story into his gospel, adding his own beginning and ending.

          • ‘I would encourage you to read the Gospels in parallel, Ian.’

            Gosh, this conversation isn’t going to go anywhere when you make such patronising comments assuming my complete ignorance.


            I am a professional biblical scholar.

            When you read them in parallel you DON’T see that Matthew embellished Mark. You see differences and similarities, and there is a whole industry offering different explanations of their relation.

            In my weekly commentary and videos we comment on these issues ALL the time.

          • Are you saying that you believe that the author of Matthew did not use the Gospel of Mark as a source; that he did not, at times, incorporate the Gospel of Mark into his gospel, word for word?

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