Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Matthew's Nativity

In his birth story, chapters 1-2, Matthew attempts to improve Mark in two significant ways.

Firstly, in Matthew, Jesus is not just Son of God at his baptism, he is Son of God at birth. In the Hebrew Bible, the nation of Israel is the Son of God(Ex 4:22, Hosea 11:1). Similarly, David and the Davidic kings, as representatives of Israel are also Sons of God(Psalm 1). In Mark’s Gospel, it is at the baptism that Jesus begins to recapitulate Israel’s history. He comes out of the waters, receives both theophany and anointing of God’s spirit, is named beloved son, and is finally driven into the wilderness to be tempted. Matthew of course, retains this baptism schema, but begins Jesus’ recapitulation of Israel’s history at his birth.

Besides attaching Jesus to the line of Abraham, the father of Israel, and David, the king of Israel, Matthew likens Jesus’ birth to the birth of the greatest of Hebrew prophets, Moses. Jesus’ birth contains elements of both Moses’ birth and the exodus of Israel. This exodus of Jesus though, is an exodus not from the king of Egypt, but from the unworthy king of Israel, Herod.

Just as the infant Moses escaped from the hand of Pharaoh, the infant Jesus escaped from the hand of Herod by fleeing to Egypt. Just as God took His son Israel out of Egypt, God too redeems His son Jesus from Egypt. Matthew ends his birth story with a quote from Hosea 11:1 “Out of Egypt I have called my son” which signals the reader to look and see how Jesus’ early life as just narrated figures the history of Israel. As such, Matthew hopes to show his readers that Jesus’ beginnings follow a familiar pattern. For those with eyes to see, Jesus truly is the climax of Israel’s history.

Secondly, and more importantly, the birth story functions to foreshadow Jesus’ climactic recapitulation of Israel’s history in his own final days. Matthew, as with the other Gospels, is at heart an apology for the idea of a crucified Messiah. Its purpose is to answer the question, “How could a man who died on a Roman cross be the Messiah of Israel?” Besides the proof afforded by the resurrection, Matthew tells his passion story in such a way that he too can say with Paul, “Christ died and was raised in accordance with the scriptures.

The death and resurrection in Matthew are replete with images from the Exodus, Israel’s founding story. Jesus likens his death to a baptism, he establishes a new covenant in his own blood, and he finishes the final cup of the Passover on the cross. So if Jesus relives the exodus in his first days, he more so relives the exodus in his last days. As he did with Israel, God faithfully raises Jesus up from the waters, from the grave.

In addition, the ingathering of the nations into Israel which is foreshadowed by the declaration of the centurion at the cross is itself foreshadowed by the adoration of the magi. The new Israel reconstituted by Jesus in his calling of the Twelve will include the faithful Gentiles as well as faithful Jews.  

The Gospel of Matthew is a brilliant attempt at Christian Midrash. Matthew successfully shows how God’s salvation of Israel was figured in His salvation of Israel through Jesus.