Matthew 1: 18 – 25

The considered opinion is that Matthew was written about 80AD, which means it was written about 40 to 50 years after the death of Jesus. The just so story to explain how the Gospels were reliably transmitted is that they were memorized and transmitted orally. I called it a just so story because there’s no evidence that this actually happened; its just a possible way that it could have. It could just so easily be explained by saying that the earlier copies exist but have been lost to the mists of time, or that the writer was directly inspired by God on what to write.

In short, the oral tradition solution doesn’t definitively answer anything and actually opens up a whole can of worms, because while it gives an explanation for how the information was transmitted it doesn’t answer the gaping question of how that information was come by in the first place. This is a problem which is at the core of all of the Gospels but raises its head here first, so let’s take a quick look at it.

There are two adults in these verses who are confronted with a complex and emotional situation – Mary, who finds herself miraculously impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph, who thinks to divorce her but relents when visited by an angel. The pertinent question here is how the writer came by these first-hand accounts.

This is a question which others have looked at and come up with yet more just so stories. Here’s a list of the most common ones:

  1. First-hand knowledge
  2. Other written sources
  3. Interviews
  4. The Holy Spirit

Whichever just so story is chosen it has to take into account several difficult-to-explain points.

God deciding to take on human form by being born as a man for the purpose of saving humanity from sin is the most amazing event in the history of the world. Yet his conception to birth rates a mere eight verses, which comes to a little over 200 words. It’s not like there is a word limit, nor a reason not to say more. The writer deals with this momentous event in fewer words than a high school essay, but with no reason for the brevity.

It’s bizarre and more than a little rude that God waits until after Mary is pregnant to inform Joseph that she has been chosen to give birth to the Messiah. Only when Joseph is considering divorce does God think it’s a good time to send an angel to explain it all out to Joseph, but you’d have to think it would’ve be kinder to tell the couple what is going to happen rather than what has happened. Then Mary and Joseph could talk it out and come to an agreement themselves rather than having the responsibility of raising the savior of humanity foist upon them.

Mary is completely sidelined. She is given no words, no feelings, and barely rates a name. As the only virgin mother who has ever existed and the woman who is carrying the son of God, she has no agency in the story whatsoever. She is a vessel to be impregnated and a wife to be divorced. We are given no idea at all about her reactions to this, and there’s no reason not to be given them. However the information was come by by the writer, it was either woefully lacking or highly edited. If it’s from an interview with Mary, then she either said nothing or the writer redacted her version of the events with abandon. If it’s from the Holy Spirit, then the complete silence attributed to Mary is an oversight unbecoming a god.

Joseph gets off only marginally better than Mary, which is a backhanded compliment. About a quarter of the 200 or so words is taken up by what the angel told him in a dream. Here, either what the angel said was paraphrased or Joseph is not the sharpest axe in the shed, because if the extent of the angel’s argument was those two sentences then you’ve got to wonder why Joseph was convinced. At this point in the story Joseph may technically not have been convinced as the words are, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” so he may have just been doing it because the angel commanded him to do so, and that would certainly fit in with why God wasn’t bothered with the common courtesy of informing Joseph that he was going to impregnate his wife, but then that just comes off as a different kind of bizarre.

In the end I’m amazed that Matthew 1 is taken to be a true and accurate record or what it describes. Most of it is a genealogy filled with people fictions themselves. And the rest is a couple of hundred words about an event that should have had books devoted to it. Mary and Joseph were convinced by the God of the universe that their baby was to be the most important person who had ever lived, and what is left to posterity about that pregnancy by this writer is eight sentences. Sentences which in themselves don’t even pass a credibility test.

8 thoughts on “Matthew 1: 18 – 25

  1. winstoninabox Post author

    Thanks for the comment.
    I’m taking the approach that the gospels are supposed to be accurate records of real events, and then looking at what that means. I’ll see how long my interest lasts as I’m expecting that the same criticisms will keep coming up, so there may not be much after the first few chapters of Matthew.

  2. winstoninabox Post author

    Thanks to me you’re now up to 16 views on YouTube. I dream of having that many readers!

    I doubt I’m going to get through Matthew let alone into Luke, so let’s have a peek at it now. In covering the time from the Annunciation until the Magi Luke adds very little to Mary. Certainly we can read between the lines and create our own versions of her, to which the variety of representations of Mary in your video amply proves the point, but the text itself gives almost nothing of importance.

    In Luke 1: 26 – 38 she’s “troubled” by the angel’s words, but like Joseph comes around after a couple more sentences. The angels are really good at convincing people, but as she was already “the Lord’s servant” I guess it doesn’t take much to convince her. What I do love about the Bible stories is how accepting the characters are of the supernatural. One day you’re sitting around by yourself when suddenly an angel appears and tells you that you’re going to give a virgin birth to the savior of the world. Mary’s reaction is the reaction of someone for whom the supernatural is just a little bit out of the everyday, like being told that the new car you’ve bought has been recalled, but don’t worry the car company is going to supply you with another, more expensive model free of charge. It’s an event out of the ordinary, but not so much that you feel it weird. It’s the kind of story you might later tell for light entertainment at a friend’s party. “You had an expensive bill for your last car service? Well, you’ll never guess what happened to me concerning my new car… Oh, and an angel told me I’m having a virgin birth.”

    Which, when Mary runs to Elizabeth in 39 – 45, is pretty much how Elizabeth handles Mary’s news and her own miracle baby. These 6 verses tell us nothing new about Mary. And that’s pretty much it, for from 46 – 55 Mary spruiks about the glory of God, and 56 is the soul of brevity with, “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.” There’s a third of the pregnancy dealt with in just one sentence.

    So while Luke adds a couple of details that are completely absent from Matthew (which then begs the question where Matthew got his limited version of the tale), it tells us virtually nothing more about Mary, yet likewise asks the question of why the lack of detail. Luke claims to have “carefully investigated everything from the beginning”, but what he turns in concerning the pregnancy contains the barest of details and, with all the speaking removed, no greater in length than Matthew. You’ve got to wonder how he so could so accurately record the words of virgins and angels, yet so blithely omit the millions of minutia and other events that would have been of great interest to future generations. Luke tells us more about a couple of plot points than any real information about the personages.

  3. Marco

    I’ve watched the video too now. Should be up to at least 18. I don’t really know what to say about the biblical narrative of the nativity etc. I guess I am more interested in how it is come to be a really crucial part of the Christian calendar, and for that matter, the calendars in non Christian places such as Japan. Claims made in the gospels IMO are not particularly suitable for nonpartisan analysis, so I do not believe it is proper for me to either challenge or defend individual claims nor the overall claim that these gospels represent the whole truth to the nativity story.

  4. natonoel

    Bro, I applaud your willingness to engage with the gospel in some detail.

    A couple of suggestions that might aid your quest for understanding and increase engagement.

    1. Add hyperlinks to references that support your claims, e.g. “The considered opinion…” – where is this considered? (Hint: Wikipedia is not considered).

    2. You’re looking at the text through 21st century eyes.
    Don’t know what literary criticism you studied all those years ago at JCU, but first rule is “who’s the audience?”.

    Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, which has a profound influence on how he writes – what he includes, leaves out and why.

    Get to know as much about that audience as you can because it will help you understand better at least some of the aspects you’re critiquing.

    3. Although you appear to completely dismiss oral tradition as having any reliability, it might help you to know that this was a culture where their children went to their version of Sunday School and had the Pentateuch (first five books of the OT) memorised by the time they started early primary, and the whole OT memorised well before becoming teenagers (those who were on track to potentially become rabbis).

    So you have a culture with centuries of embedded behaviour of memorising texts by being taught them orally.

    So when God, whether Abba, Jesus or the Holy Spirit does something, their eyes & ears see, hear and interpret what’s happening in a very different way to what we would on first pass.

    Happy to give you a bibliography to help in your quest.

    1. winstoninabox Post author

      I’ll add hyperlinks if I can be bothered. Otherwise assume that all information comes from Wikipedia. As for “(Hint: Wikipedia is not considered)”… Wikipedia is the most read encyclopedia in the world. If you have a problem with information from Wikipedia the easiest way to counter it is to do what you recommend, and hyperlink to the information, either here or there. If you’ve got something that contradicts Wikipedia in these matters and you link to it here and it seems credible, as a sign of good faith I’ll edit it myself into Wikipedia. But on this particular matter, several years ago you challenged the dates on Wikipedia and when called on to bring the new dates you were unable to come up with anything. There comes a time when you just have to say that Wikipedia is right.

      The audience matters not to the critique of length, unless they are people with short attention spans. If you can come up with an audience-based reason why the Gospels are so short then I’m all ears.

      On this point, have a look at what you just did. You proposed a solution – it’s because of the audience – but didn’t explain how this pans out with the reasoning. It’s as if simply proposing an answer is the answer in itself. Which is exactly the same as the oral tradition solution. Yes, they may have been an oral tradition, but there’s no proof that this is really what happened. There’s no analysis on if there was one or many competing traditions. There is just a glossing over of the problem with a solution that goes about 1 foot deep.

      And the oral tradition solution doesn’t cover how the information itself came to be. There’s stuff there that could only be known through interviews or revelation. In either case, the produced content is limited to a couple of hundred words. No explanation.

      When you look at the stories as real accounts produced from first-hand knowledge, interviews, the Holy Spirit, etc. then you realize that they look pretty bizarre.


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