Most English Versions begin the narrative in Matthew 1:18 by rendering the Greek word genesis as “birth” (KJV, RSV, NEB, TCNT, NASB, Phillips, etc.). While this is an adequate translation, it has the unfortunate aspect that it obscures a careful connection which Matthew seems to have intended, that is, that the term genesis (= origin, generation) is repeated in 1:18 from 1:1. As such, the story of how Mary came to be pregnant is directly connected with the whole genealogical scheme in 1:1-17 and provides a direct answer to the implicit question which Matthew has raised by using the passive construction “out of whom was fathered Jesus” (1:16). In the genealogy proper, Matthew has not told his readers who fathered Jesus, but now he addresses this question specifically. Furthermore, the term “virginal conception” is more descriptive of the present passage than the traditional term “virgin birth” since the passage does not as yet describe a birth but only a conception.
To appreciate the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy, it is advantageous to know something of marriage customs among Jewry of the first century in Palestine. Marriage was completed in two stages, a betrothal and a home-taking. In the betrothal, which usually occurred when the girl was between twelve and twelve and a half years of age, the father of the girl received from the prospective groom the mohar (= bride price) in the presence of witnesses. This began the transfer of the girl from her father’s power to her husband’s power. Once the betrothal was valid, the girl was called the “wife” of the man, since betrothal was considered to be permanent. Even though she would not yet live with him for a time, she could be widowed, divorced, or executed for adultery. In Judea, the betrothed couple might engage in sexual relations under certain circumstances, but in
where Mary lived, no such liberties were tolerated; the bride had to be taken
to her husband’s home as a virgin. The home-taking, which usually occurred
about a year or so after the betrothal, was celebrated with a processional to
the new home followed by a wedding feast. At this time, the bride came under
the full power of her husband.
According to Matthew, between the betrothal and the home-taking, Mary was found to be pregnant. How the discovery was made or how far along Mary was in the pregnancy is not explained, but Matthew is quite clear that the news deeply disturbed Joseph. Matthew is also careful to inform the reader that the pregnancy was a miraculous conception “through the Holy Spirit,” something that Joseph did not know as yet. Joseph was left to figure out the problem for himself, and he could only conclude the worst. He knew the child was not his, and seemingly the only other options were seduction and rape. Thus, Joseph resolved to divorce Mary privately rather than publicly expose her.
The two expressions deigmatisai (= to publicly expose) and lathra apolysa secretly divorce) are significant in that they suggest that Joseph considered both seduction and rape as possible causes of Mary’s pregnancy. According to the Torah, if the encounter had occurred in a town, the woman was then assumed to have been seduced, since she had not been heard screaming for help. Both parties were to be executed. If it happened in the country, she was given the benefit of the doubt, since she could have been forced. In this case only the male was executed (Dt. 22:23-27). If there was only suspicion of seduction but no proof, the woman was required to submit to a judicial ordeal, an appeal to divine judgment to absolve or condemn her through the drinking of filthy water and the imposition of a curse (Nu. 5:11-31).
Rabbinic sources are not as clear as one might like regarding how the Jews approached the subject at the time of Jesus. Apparently, the judicial ordeal could have been declined and a divorce could have been effected privately before two witnesses. It is possible that some Jews felt that divorce was required in the case of rape while others felt that it was at least allowed though not mandatory. Thus, if Mary had been raped, Joseph could either have married her or divorced her. If she had been unfaithful, she was subject to execution according to Mosaic law, though the severity of this judgment was probably relaxed by the time of Jesus, and divorce was more than likely to have been the judgment rather than execution. Thus, Joseph wrestled with the most acute dilemma. Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, and he knew not how. Was it her fault, or was it someone else’s? Being a “righteous” man (a Torah-observant Jew), he struggled with the alternatives, finally choosing private divorce in order to spare Mary the worst. He elected not to resort to the judicial ordeal, but chose to shield Mary through a merciful alternative. With nothing being proven against her, she could return to her father’s home and hope for another marriage in the future.
It was in the midst of his acute dilemma but after he had chosen a particular course of action that God intervened to change Joseph’s mind. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, urging him to complete the home-taking rather than proceed with a private divorce.
The messenger to Joseph, the “angel of the Lord”, is the familiar figure of the Mal’ak Yahweh (= messenger of Yahweh) from the OT, a figure that appeared more than once in connection with either an annunciation or a dilemma of a parent and child (Ge. 16:7-16; 22:11-18; Jg. 13:2-22). It was part of the paradoxical character of the Mal’ak Yahweh that he could speak both for God and as God, and it is worth noting that on several occasions, when one saw the Mal’ak Yahweh it was equivalent to seeing God (cf. Ge. 16:13; 31:13; 32:30; Jg. 13:22). This figure appears two times more in Matthew’s prologue, each time to insure the protection of the child Jesus (2:13, 19).
Dreams figure significantly in Matthew’s narrative, and no less than five dreams are recounted (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22). This is in keeping with the OT pattern that revelatory dreams seem to have appeared in clusters (i.e., patriarchal era, time of Daniel). The OT writers may not have made a clear distinction between dreams and night visions, but in the case of Joseph, at least, it is clear that he was asleep when the first angelic appearance was made (1:24).
When the angel addressed Joseph, he called him the “son of David”, a point that Matthew has already substantiated in the genealogy. As is common in annunciation stories in general, this annunciation follows the stereotypical pattern found elsewhere in the Bible:
1. The appearance of an angel
2. The person is saluted by name
3. The person is urged not to be afraid
4. A pregnancy is announced and explained
5. The child is named in advance
6. The significance of the name is explained
7. The future accomplishments of the child are indicated
Joseph was counseled not to be afraid of completing the home-taking, the second stage of Jewish marriage. Of course, to complete the marriage meant that he would be called upon to bear Mary’s stigma as well. It meant that while he was willing to protect her from the overt charges of seduction or rape, he could never remove any popular suspicion that seduction or rape had actually occurred nor could he exempt himself from being suspected of marital intercourse prior to the home-taking. That suspicions of illegitimacy were indeed fostered in the Jewish community is hinted at in the NT (Mk. 6:2-3; Jn. 8:41) and explicitly stated in non-biblical traditions. In the pseudipigraphic Gospel of Nicodemas, also called the Acts of Pilate (AD 4th or 5th century or earlier), the accusers of Jesus at his trial are depicted as charging that he was “born of fornication” (Chap. 2). In the pseudipigraphic Coptic Gospel of Thomas (about AD 140), there is an enigmatic saying which may refer to Jesus as the son of a harlot (Logion 105). Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote in about AD 178, says that Jewish opinion held Jesus to be the son of Mary and Panthera, a Roman soldier who corrupted Mary, and that the story of the virgin birth was “not believed” (Oriqen Against Celsus, 1.28, 32, 39, 69). Rabbinic literature follows this same line, referring to Jesus as Yeshua ben Pantera (= Jesus son of Pantera) as well as by other derogatory epithets of illegitimacy.
Matthew explains the divine action which resulted in Mary’s pregnancy by the phrase, “...what is conceived in her is through the Holy Spirit.” Virtually all scholars agree that this passage intends to teach the virginal conception of Jesus. Non-evangelical scholars may be reluctant to believe what Matthew asserts, of course. J. A. T. Robinson sums up this position of doubt about the historical reliability of the gospel accounts when he states, “We are not bound to think of the Virgin Birth as a physical event, in order to believe that Jesus’ whole life is ‘of God.’” Such skepticism, however, arises largely from the philosophical and scientific convictions that the world has advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold to the New Testament view [i.e., supernatural] of the world. Intelligent Christians are not to be bound by such presuppositions. It may be noted that at least one scholar, Jane Schaberg, seeks to prove that Jesus could have been conceived “through the Holy Spirit” while at the same time being born through normal male-female intercourse, but this controversial approach stands against the historic faith of the church. The phrase “born of the virgin Mary” is uniformly included in the historic creeds of the church, and the virginal conception of Jesus points toward his uniqueness as both human and divine. There is mystery here, of course, and if one wishes to know the exact biological processes of the virginal conception, he/she can only be partially satisfied, though it should be pointed out that from even a strictly biological point of view, a virginal conception is not nearly so absurd a notion as was popularly supposed by biologists a century ago.
In the virginal conception of Jesus, Matthew saw a connection with a prophecy given by Isaiah in the 8th century BC. Matthew goes back to a distinctive section of the Book of Isaiah sometimes called the “Book of Immanuel” (Is. 7:1-l2:6), because of the centrality of the Immanuel figure (7:14; 8:8, 10). Here, we must take a lengthy excursion into the history of Israel to understand what Matthew is doing.
This was the time of Judah’s political crisis during the reign of Ahaz in about 734 BC. Assyria was emerging as a Mesopotamian superpower, threatening the lands on the Mediterranean seaboard. Ephraim (Israel) had formed an alliance with Aram (Syria) in order to withstand any Assyrian aggression. This Syro-Ephraimite league wanted Judah, the Israelite southern nation, to join their coalition, but Ahaz, the king of Judah, hesitated in indecision. His reluctance incited the leaders of the Syro-Ephraimite league, Rezin of Damascus and Pekah Ben-Remaliah, to invade Judah, an attack which included the threat of deposing Ahaz and replacing him with their own man, Ben-Tabeel, a man who was not even of the Davidic family (2 Ki. 16:5; Is. 7:1-2, 5-6). While Jerusalem was under siege, Isaiah was directed by God to meet Ahaz and assure him that the Syro-Ephraimite threat was an empty one and that Ahaz must trust in God (Is. 7:3-4, 7-9). It was in connection with this message to trust in God’s protection that Isaiah spoke for Yahweh and instructed Ahaz to ask for a sign which would confirm the promised divine security (Is. 7:10-11).
Ahaz, however, refused under the guise of pseudo-humility; he would not “put Yahweh to the test” (Is. 7:12). In actuality, Ahaz was not a serious worshiper of Yahweh (2 Ki. 16:1-4), and his refusal was only evidence of his lack of faith. Yahweh was angered at this impudence and gave a sign anyway, a historical sign that a maiden would give birth to a son and would name him Immanuel (Is. 7:13-14). Isaiah does not clearly identify this maiden, though doubtless Ahaz knew of whom he was speaking. A tremendous amount of discussion has been given to the Hebrew word ‘alma in this passage, rendered either “virgin” (ASV, RSVmg, NIV, NAB, NASB based on the LXX) or “young woman” (RSV, ASVmg, NEB, NASBmg). The word probably refers to a girl of marriageable age. However, the word itself is not as precise in meaning as one might hope or as precise as the English translations might seem to suggest. The conclusion of Youngblood is probably the most honest, that is, “The most that can be said of ‘alma is that in all of its OT occurrences it seems to be used of an unmarried woman, a ‘damsel’ which, in situations such as the one before us, carries with it a strong presumption in favor of virginity.”
The name of the child, Immanuel, means “God with us”, a reflection of the divine promise to protect Ahaz if he would put his faith in Yahweh (Is. 7:4, 7-9). God’s presence would be evident in the fact that before Immanuel had reached adolescence, the lands of the Syro-Ephraimite coalition would be devastated (Is • 7:16). However, God’s presence would be there not only to protect, but also to judge, and while Judah would be protected from Ephraim and Aram, she would soon be invaded by Assyria as a further sign of God’s presence (Is. 7:16-25). Thus, the Immanuel sign to Ahaz was double-edged; it was a sign of protection on the one hand, but a sign of judgment on the other. This double-edged character of the sign is reflected in the two names given to the sign-child. Not only was he to be called Immanuel (= God with us), he was also to be called Maher-shalal-hash-baz (= the spoil hastens, the plunder comes quickly) (Is. 8:1-2).
The predicted sign came to pass when Isaiah’s second son was born, and at the time of the birth, the word of Yahweh came to Isaiah confirming to him that this son was indeed the promised sign (Is. 8:3-4). The promise of protection from Ephraim and Aram was to be kept. Yet the promise of judgment from Assyria would also be kept (Is. 8:5-8). The land of the young Immanuel would suffer an invasion so serious that Jerusalem, the capital, would be surrounded by Assyrian armies, so much so, that the city could be compared to someone standing in water up to the neck. That Isaiah’s son was the sign-child is further emphasized by a direct statement to that effect (Is.8:18).
Now, back to Matthew… Over 700 years later, Matthew, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, saw a prophetic connection between the prediction of a sign-child given by Isaiah to Ahaz and the birth of Jesus. The birth of Jesus “made full” the word of Yahweh given to Isaiah about the Immanuel child. Matthew seems to be using the term pleroo (= to fulfill) in the sense of recapitulation. Since Jesus was miraculously born “of the Holy Spirit”, he was Immanuel in the fullest sense of the word, not merely God invisibly among us (to protect and judge us), but God visibly among us (to save us from sin)!
This, then, is Matthew’s account of the virgin conception of Jesus. Joseph’s dream was decisive! He immediately completed the home-taking, just as he had been instructed by the angel. However, as Matthew is careful to point out, Joseph did not have intercourse with Mary until after the birth. When the promised child of virginal conception had been born, he named him Jesus.