Friday, December 14, 2007

How say the scribes that Christ is the son of David? (Matthew 1:18-25)

Having finished Joshua, I now intend to turn back to Exodus and do some more work there for a few chapters and then I'll come back to where I left off here after a while and start in on Judges, which is probably the ugliest book of the Bible, loaded full of plenty of sex and violence. For the moment though, I'd been considering going back an correcting the mistake I made before for reasons I do not recall. Two years ago, I did a special Christmas side track and covered Matthew 2 and Luke 2, which was sort of nice. However, I don't know what I was thinking when I skipped over the last few verses of Matthew 1 and the whole of Luke 1, which are closely related to the Christmas story, if not actually part of it. I intend to remedy that now.

Right after finishing up a genealogy, Matthew jumps right into the story of Joseph's side of the story leading up to Jesus' birth. Joseph was engaged to Mary, who of course was supposed to be a virgin, but he found out that she was pregnant, which tends to be pretty damning evidence. In those days, being engaged was a legal status that pretty much had the weight of being married, and Joseph had the right to have her put to death as an adulteress. Instead, he chose to have a divorce quietly and not shame her publicly. (The Bible calls Joseph a "just man" here not necessarily as a general description of his character, although many take it that way, but rather in the context of the fact that he viewed it his legal duty to divorce Mary when he found her to be pregnant.)

The SAB asks a question about Joseph that seems odd to me, because really, the answer seems pretty apparent. Was Joseph Jesus' father? Yes and no. Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but he was the legal father. This also answers an unasked but implied question of the SAB as to what the point is of giving a genealogy of Joseph when he's not the father. It's understood by most people that the genealogy of Joseph shows that if there were still a Davidic monarchy in Israel at the time of Jesus, then Joseph would have been the King rather a poor carpenter. As his adopted son, Jesus inherits the royal line of David.

(I do find it interesting that none of the verses mentioned by the SAB there actually mention Joseph by name, but all refer to Jesus as being the "son of David". It's interesting because here there seems to be the understanding that a person's descendant, no matter how many generations down, can be referred to as a "son", while that understanding appears absent elsewhere.)

The fact is that Jesus' lineage through His mother is considered to be important, as there is a complicated bit of prophecy having to do with a curse on the Davidic line. When I do come to the New Testament in full, I'll have a bit of fun going over the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, and explaining the supposed purpose that most Christians give to those differing lists, and reasons why there is both merit and lingering doubts about the explanation. If any reader is really curious, I'm sure there are a plethora of commentaries out there on this matter. In short, Jesus' lineage is supposedly indicative that He is the legal heir of King Solomon but only a blood descendant of David through another of David's children.

Verse 23 concerns an old prophecy from Isaiah. Many people have picked apart this verse as not being a valid prophecy of Jesus for the very reason the SAB lists, that the Hebrew word "`almah" used here for "virgin" could just as well mean "young woman". Although technically true, there are some problems with this. First of all, what kind of "sign" would it be for a "young woman" to have a child? That happens pretty much every day. Secondly, when the Jews in the time shortly before Jesus was born translated the book of Isaiah into Greek, they chose to use the Greek word "parthenos" which is not vague, but clearly means "virgin". They understood that it was a miraculous sign. Thirdly and finally, this is one of those odd places in the Bible where detractors make what I consider to be very strange: "Jesus raised people from the dead, but it's not like he's the only one who ever did that." "Well, Jesus may have driven demons out of a guy, but why did he have to pick on the pig farmers?" "Okay, so Jesus was born of a virgin, so what?" Are you serious?! Matthew meant what he said; does it really matter that the word choice in Isaiah was too nuanced for 20th century skeptics? How often does something like this happen to humans?

The same prophecy says that the child will be called "Emmanuel", which the SAB rightly notes is not a name Jesus is ever called. However it is worth noting that the name is Hebrew for "God with us", which is the very theological concept behind Jesus' incarnation, so this may be figurative speech. Some people have suggested that while people on earth called Him Jesus, the angels refer to Him as Emmanuel. This is an interesting theory, but there's not much to support it as far as I am aware.

The last issue in this chapter is that of whether or not Mary was an eternal virgin. Of course, not being a Catholic, I don't much care. In fact, I've heard many people suggest that other than to fulfill the Isaiah prophecy, there is no real reason for Mary to have been a virgin, and certainly once they were married, Joseph had every right to have sex with her. So why does Joseph wait to have sex with her until Jesus is born? Who knows? However, in defense of the Catholic belief that Mary was an eternal virgin, I don't quite buy that this particular verse is saying that Joseph and Mary had sex. I assume they did because the Bible says Jesus had brothers (although there are other possible explanations for that), but simply saying that a thing didn't happen before a certain point in time doesn't necessarily imply that it happened after that point in time.


Anonymous said...

Mary was not a perpetual virgin and Jesus had literal brothers and sisters. This is not up for debate, it's just a fact that the Catholic Church likes to deny. There are several verses in the Bible that fly in the face of the Catholic doctrine concerning Mary, and I don't need to quote them here. The arguments they make to prove Mary's eternal virginity are ridicolous and childish to say the least. Somehow the Catholic Church associates Christian sex with sin and uncleanliness.

Brucker said...

While I disagree with this and other tenets of Catholic doctrine, it's not 100% ridiculous. While Jesus does indeed have brothers and sisters, there are multiple possibilities for these that don't involve Mary having sex. Some have suggested that the term "brother" may mean a near relative, which indeed it sometimes does. Others have suggested that these are half-siblings, which is also entirely possible.

One thing (among perhaps a few) about Mary that the Catholic church believes that I strongly disagree with is that Mary was sinless. I'm not in the business of supporting Catholic doctrine here, but I am in the business of pointing out flaws I perceive in the logic of the SAB.