Lesson #2: “Be It unto Me According to Thy Word” #BCCSundaySchool2019 (Matthew 1/Luke 1)


What did the Jews of Jesus’s time think about the Messiah? Who, exactly, were they expecting to show up? Why would anybody think that Jesus would fit the bill? These, I believe, are questions we need to try to answer before beginning to read the New Testament, and, especially, the Book of Matthew.

The New Testament, in its canonical form, begins with an argument that has been turned into a name. The argument is “Jesus Christ,” which is not a first-and-last name combination like “Julius Caesar.” It is more like “Alexander the Great”: a single name followed by an evaluative title. “Jesus” is the Latin version of the Hebrew name Yeshua. Christ, or Christos, is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word mashiakh, or “messiah.”

“Jesus Christ,” then, is an assertion: the man called Yeshua was the Messiah, or the person described in the Hebrew scriptures who would restore the House of Israel. The first words of the New Testament in the King James Version–The book of the generation of Jesus Christ–are a statement of its primary case. Other translations use “Jesus the Messiah” or “Yeshua the Messiah,” instead of ”Jesus Christ,” to make the case even clearer.”


What Were Matthew’s Readers Expecting?
For centuries, Christians have berated the Jews of Christ’s time for not recognizing their own Messiah, suggesting that anybody who was paying attention should have recognized that Joseph’s kid from Nazareth was actually the hero they were all waiting for. That the Jews failed to see this, in fact, became a justification for centuries of anti-Semitism. “God gave you every chance to recognize His son,” Christians said, “and you blew it.”

In truth, though, it would have been very difficult for any Jewish person from the Second Temple period to conclude on textual evidence alone that the recently crucified peasant teacher named Yeshua was the figure that Isaiah and Jeremiah foretold. For one thing, that Messiah wasn’t supposed to be crucified. More importantly, the prophecies that were understood to be Messianic were not nearly as specific as Christians later represented them to have been.

Nearly everything that Christians now consider evidence of Jesus’s Messiahood was first identified as a Messianic marker by New Testament writers trying to prove that Jesus was the Messiah. There are no passages in the Hebrew scriptures that say anything like, “there is a guy coming called the Messiah who will be born of a virgin in Bethlehem, travel into Egypt, come back, disappear for about 30 years before preaching a lot of stuff before being executed as a traitor.”

For Jews living in Roman Palestine, the coming of a Messiah had two be inferred from two bodies of prophecy that were at the core of Jewish belief:

  1. That the Abrahamic Covenant was everlasting and Abraham had been promised that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed“ by Abraham’s descendants. This was a core element of Jewish belief and perhaps the most important reason that Second Temple Judaism inferred the necessity of a coming Messiah. The nature of God’s covenant with Abraham required that Israel become, permanently, a “great nation.” (Genesis 12:2-3).

  2. That the Davidic Kingdom would be restored by a descendent of David, healing the breach between the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and uniting Israel once again under the House of David. who would rule until the end of time. The last recorded words of David give the essence of this prophecy:

The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,
   his word is upon my tongue.
The God of Israel has spoken,
   the Rock of Israel has said to me:
One who rules over people justly,
   ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
   like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
   gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

Is not my house like this with God?
   For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
   ordered in all things and secure. (2 Samuel 23: 2-5)


Prophecies of the Davidic Hero

The identification of a single individual with the restoration of the House of David comes in the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, with an especially clear statement in Jeremiah 33 that

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15 NRSV)

It is in the grandiose visions of Daniel that the Davidic figure is transformed into a global rule of an Everlasting Kingdom that will displace earthly kingdoms such as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome:

I saw one like a human being
   coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
   and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
   that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
   that shall never be destroyed.(Daniel 7: 13-14)

And this was, roughly, the Messiah that the Jews of Jesus’s day were expecting. He had to be descended from Abraham, through David, and have a rightful claim to the Davidic throne. And his Messianic duties would include 1) the reunification of the Twelve Tribes of Israel;, 2) the establishment of a mighty and everlasting kingdom; and 3) blessing all of the nations of the earth.

The first part of Matthew’s argument addresses the one non-negotiable qualification for Messiahship: the Messiah had to be a descendent of King David with a legal right to sit on the throne of Israel. Through a combination of oral history and scriptural records, Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage through David, Solomon, and the Kings of Judah to establish, effectively, a claim on the throne. This is not an end-point, however. It is a starting point. Once the claim has been made, then Matthew has fulfilled the minimum requirement needed to make his case.


Oh Wait, Never Mind

After establishing that Jesus was indeed properly descended, Matthew does something enormously consequential: he undercuts everything that he just said about Jesus’s genealogy through Joseph by acknowledging that Joseph was not Jesus’s father after all, just a stepfather, with the Holy Spirit as the actual father.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly

But just when he had resolved to do this, 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, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
   and they shall name him Emmanuel,” (Isaiah 7:14)

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-23 NSRV)

What is Matthew doing??? Didn’t he just spend most of the chapter meticulously tracing Jesus’s ancestry, through Joseph, back to David, to establish His credentials as the Messiah? Why would he tell us in the very next paragraph, “never mind,” the kid was not his son?

There are several standard answers to this question. Textual scholars point out that the Christian understanding of Jesus’s divinity evolved over time, and, as it did, earlier texts were updated to reflect the new consensus. The genealogy portion of the chapter may be older than the birth narrative part and reflect a different understanding of Jesus’s divinity.

Christians, in the other hand, rightly point out that Matthew is making a legal argument about Messiahship and, under both Roman and Jewish law, a son who has been adopted by a stepfather has all of the legal rights of biological child. Emperor Augustus himself was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, so nobody was going to be in the mood to criticize an heir for having a different father.

Neither of these explanations really captures the dramatic reversal in the canonical text. The second explanation, I think, is especially problematic, as it assumes that the Jews would be more impressed by Jesus being one of thousands of descendents of David than by his being the literal physical offspring of Yawheh, the God of the Universe. It’s like somebody would have said, “yeah, this Jesus guy might be the literal son of God, born of a virgin by the direct action of the Holy Spirit, but who was his great- great-great-great- great-great-grandfather?” Not likely.


What Does Matthew Think Messiahs Do?
Matthew’s argument makes much more sense, I think, when we see it as a rhetorical progression from one argument about Messiahship to another. First part of Chapter One focuses on the very limited understanding of Messiahship that his readers currently have. The next part focuses on the much deeper, more consequential, and more challenging understanding of Messiahship that readers should have by the time they finish the book. The key to this second argument is Matthew’s quote from Isaiah, which he prefaces with “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”

Here’s the thing, though: until Matthew, nobody had ever considered Isaiah 7:14 to be a Messianic prophecy. Nothing in the text signals that Isaiah is foretelling a distant future. Indeed, the text strongly suggests that the birth of the child called Immanuel will occur soon, within King Ahaz’s lifetime.

And Matthew does this throughout his narrative. It was not part of the Jewish tradition that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, or that he would be born in Bethlehem (Michah 5:1-2), or that he would be called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1). These are all passages from the Old Testament that were traditionally seen as referring to other things. Matthew turned them into Messianic prophecies by showing how Jesus fulfilled them.

Matthew, then, is doing something much grander than just checking boxes on a Messiah scorecard. He was fundamentally changing the narrative of what the Messiah represented. He was not just a descendent of David who, according to a few verses, would someday come and restore the Kingdom of Israel. He was the main character in the entire Hebrew Bible and the unique key to interpreting everything in it.

In this view, every hero in the Bible becomes a type of Jesus Christ. Every narrative points forward to the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ. And every prophetic utterance about the future becomes a prophecy about Jesus Christ. For Matthew, as for subsequent Christians, it is simply not possible to understand the most basic things about the Hebrew Bible without realizing that its main purpose is to anticipate the Christian message.

Matthew is not just creating something called “the New Testament” that talks about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. He is also creating, retroactively, something called the “the Old Testament” that is just as much about Jesus as the New Testament is. Both books have the same main character, and both books are required to make sense of each other. This, I suspect, is why Matthew comes first in the canon, even though Mark was the first Gospel written chronologically: right out of the gate, Matthew teaches us what the New Testament is, why it is New, and what both it and its predecessor are Testaments about.

Comments

  1. Great read. Thanks for posting this. Also, thanks for picking a non-KJV translation for those scriptures. That helped me understand more.

  2. Michael Austin says:

    jader3rd, thanks. Basically, the only really good reason that I can think of to use the KJV is that one is a 17th century Anglican Divine trying to win over recalcitrant Catholics in one’s parish. Since there are a vanishingly small number of BCC readers in this particular demographic, I plan to do all of the lessons that I am responsible for this year with the NRSV.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Simply outstanding; thanks!

  4. Wow – there is so much that I don’t know about the New Testament. This was a really helpful look at the genealogy of Christ. And it looks like proof texting has been going on for a long time!

  5. Not a Cougar says:

    Michael, thanks so much. What about rebuilding the temple? It was always my understanding that the messiah was expected to rebuild the temple. This was obviously problematic for Jesus as the temple was up and functioning in his day. Or was that a later tradition under rabbinic Judaism?

  6. Michael Austin says:

    Not A Cougar,

    Yes, rebuilding the temple became part of the Messiah’s job description in 70 AD, when the Romans destroyed it. And, as far as I know, it has been part of it ever since. It was also part of the description of the Messiah of prophecy during the Babylonian captivity, which is why the only actual person referred to by the title in the Old Testament is Cyrus the Great (Isaiah 45:1-3), who did, in fact, permit the Jews to rebuild the temple and subsidize its construction.

  7. Ryan Mullen says:

    Michael, thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with how to structure my next GD lesson. We Latter-day Saints have a strong tradition of harmonizing the gospels, but I find a lot of value in the idea that each gospel paints its own portrait of Jesus. I’ve been working on how/if to introduce this as a scripture study tool to my ward, and your post helped fill in several holes in my lesson outline—particularly that each gospel makes a self-contained argument that Jesus is the Christ.

  8. I love this Mike. Some things I’ve been wondering about were marvelously clean up. Thanks you.

  9. Excellent stuff Mike!

  10. Good stuff Michael. Matthew’s adaptation of OT scripture to the saints of his day is similar to Joseph Smith’s work with the JST to suit a Latter-day saint purpose. I don’t however go in for abandoning the poetic KJV. Compare “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (NRV). with “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was mindedf to put her awayg privily.” (KJV). That’s maybe not the best example. It also seems to me that at times the KJV is a better rendering of the original Greek. Am I wrong on that?

  11. This was great Michael, thank you. A question to all you Gospel Doctrine teachers out there. I’m teaching the next lesson on January 20th for our ward Gospel Doctrine class. Should I be covering material from this lesson as well as next week’s lesson, or just next week’s lesson, or is it just kind of a free-for-all? Would like to hear how people are approaching this. Thanks,

    Sean

  12. Michael Austin says:

    Bro B., I agree that the language of the KJV is much more poetic, and much more beautiful, than that of other, more modern translations. But I think that this is a big problem with the text, perhaps my second biggest objection to it: it turns the whole Bible into lovely poetry.

    But most of the Bible is not lovely poetry. The Koine Greek in which the New Testament is written is rough and workmanlike. The authors of the Gospels were not writers. They were working people for whom writing was a means to an end. Their prose is clunky and utilitarian. It is not poetic.

    Except that sometimes it is. Some verses of the NT actually ARE poetry, such as Mary’s “Magnificat” (see my earlier post) in Luke 1. Here is a fairly lengthy passage from Luke 1 from the NRSV:

    In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be[e] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

    And Mary said,
    “My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
    for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
    for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
    His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
    He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
    He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
    He has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

    Note the huge transition from the clunky prose of 30-45 and the beautiful poetry of 46-53. We are supposed to notice that. We are supposed to see that Mary sings a hymn at this point and that her language is fundamentally different than what came before it. The shift itself contains meaning that we don’t get in the KJV, which elevates all of the langue and therefore eliminates the difference:

    And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

    And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.

    This is, as I said, the second biggest problem I see in the KJV. The first is that, through no fault of its own, it is 400 years old, and its intentionally antiquated language is closer to 500 years old. The language has changed a lot in 500 years, and words and constructions mean different things (think of the difference between the way that “thee” and “thou” were used then and how they are used now). And 4-500 year old English is hard to follow. People read it and miss stuff. I have a Ph.D. in 17th and 18th century British literature, and I miss stuff in the KJV. And this creates a distance between the reader and the text–and between the reader and God–that I simply don’t believe was ever supposed to be threre.

  13. @Bro B., part of the problem of the KJV for the New Testament is that it’s based off of Textus Receptus, which is a bad copy of the Greek. There are parts of it where the author didn’t have any Greek, so he translated some Latin into Greek. As a result Textus Receptus has Greek phrases which don’t appear in any actual other copies of the same scriptures.
    The KJV might be a great translation of the Greek in Textus Receptus, but Textus Receptus is a bad copy to begin with.

  14. I get your points. Whenever I read transliterated Greek phrases in the footnotes they do sound rough and klunky—anything but poetic. And the points you make in the OP come across well no matter which version is read. I may be representative of a pretty large group of Latter-day Saints, as a baby boomer who until very recently, has read nothing but KJV for 40 years. It’s what I’m used to. I do see value in freshening it up sometimes with the new versions. But for my money, I get more out of footnotes to the KJV like in the work of our comrade in arms, Kevin Barney’s excellent book, “Footnotes to the New Testament for Latter-day Saints.”

  15. Aussie Mormon says:

    Yes, Kevin’s NT Footnotes are awesome. I’m using them as part of my home-study come-follow-me reading. It triples+ the time taken, but it’s worth it.

  16. Aussie Mormon says:

    They are here for those who haven’t seen them http://feastupontheword.org/Site:NTFootnotes

  17. @Sean, no, we’re just supposed to follow the schedule. No two lessons in one week.

  18. DoubtingTom says:

    What does it mean “to be born of a virgin?” And how would Jews have understood that phrase? I could see it meaning simply a first-born child born of a woman who was a virgin prior to being married (which would be most women in that time). But would Jews have interpreted the phrase to mean a virgin conceiving and giving birth, all while still being a virgin? In other words, a true miracle as it is commonly interpreted today?

  19. Michael Austin says:

    DoubtingTom,

    I think that there is a lot of room for discussion of what Isaiah meant by “virgin.” But there is no room at all in Matthew, as he makes clear at the end of Chapter 1:

    24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

    So, while it is possible that Matthew was misinterpreting what Isaiah meant by “virgin,” there is no chance at all that modern readers are misinterpreting Matthew. He meant by “virgin” exactly what we mean by it today.

  20. @Sean
    The Sunday School class may cover the lesson from Come Follow Me over the past week, or over the past two weeks. Sunday School presidencies may give guidance to the Sunday School teachers. The instructions include the following
    “With Sunday School classes held every other week, leaders and teachers will need to adapt their
    materials, which currently include lessons for each week of the year. While individuals and
    families continue reading at home according to the weekly schedule in Come, Follow Me—For
    Individuals and Families, Sunday School leaders and teachers will need to select material from
    one or more lessons in order to stay aligned with the individuals and families resource. To avoid
    confusion, Sunday School presidencies may wish to advise teachers and class members about
    adjustments well in advance.”

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