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:
- First-hand knowledge
- Other written sources
- 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.