Beckett: Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25, The Birth of Jesus Christ

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.


For such a simple reading (at least for Christians who have heard and read this hundreds of times), this text is packed with deep theological significance. Thus, let us deal with them in the order the text presents them.

First, we have simultaneously the person of Jesus Christ and Mary the θεοτόκος (theotokos, Mother of God). Briefly, Jesus is fully man (human) because He was born of a human woman. He is also fully God because His conception was made “from the Holy Spirit,” the third person of the Trinity. Even more, Mary was still a virgin in this conception and even after she had conceived, which is an impossible thing only God can do. Therefore, Jesus must be God. And since God the Son was born of this virgin, Mary is truly the Mother of God (the Son). Not God the Father, not God the Holy Spirit, but God the Son.

If Mary did not conceive God the Son, then Jesus cannot be God and His death and resurrection are meaningless. Additionally, verse 21 is even further proof that Jesus is God. Only God has the power to forgive sins, as the Jews well know (Matthew 9:1-8; Mark 2:7). The angel says this Jesus will save His people from their sins. Who has the power to do this saving but God alone? Therefore, Jesus must be God.

Secondly, silent Joseph, a just man. Consider how bad we think of infidelity today. This taboo was considered even worse in these days. Yet Joseph’s uncommon righteousness is shown in that he wanted to divorce Mary quietly so as not to shame her (which it is a man’s right to divorce his wife for infidelity; Matthew 5:32). That Joseph did not desire to shame her shows both his righteousness (just = righteous, from δίκαιος, dikaios) and his love for his wife.

We also see here Joseph’s silent obedience to God’s will. The gospel writers do not quote Joseph saying a thing not because he’s unimportant, but because he is silently obedient. He therefore acted with faith—faith in God the Son, the promised Immanuel, as the angel quotes from Scripture. As a Jew (especially as a righteous one, an all too rare thing), Joseph would’ve been familiar with this text from Isaiah. He therefore acted with faith in the promise—the promise of Immanuel.

Lastly, and also briefly (yes, this is brief), I do not believe Mary’s semper virgo (the perpetual virginity of Mary) is supported in this text. This is because of the simple use of the conjunction ἓως (heos), “until.” What is the sense of “until”? There are five possible uses according to the BDAG.

(1) It can be used “to denote the end of a period of time,” which would make this verse to mean he did not know her sexually up to the point of birth, meaning he knew her sexually not during the pregnancy but afterwards, thus her virginity during the pregnancy and birth of Christ remains intact (which is vital). (2) It can “denote contemporaneousness,” as in, “as long as, while,” hence, “he knew her not while she was pregnant,” that is, only for the duration of the pregnancy. These first two uses would suggest Joseph did not know her sexually while she was pregnant but did know her after her pregnancy.

(3) It can be used as a “marker of limit reached, as far as, to.” We can omit this since this is a locative use, and location is not what’s being discussed in the verse. (4) It can be used as a “marker of order in a series, up to.” There is no order of series in the text, so this can also be omitted. Lastly, (5) it can be used as a “marker of degree and measure, denoting the upper limit, to the point of.” This can also be omitted with the lack of a degree or measure (BDAG, pp. 422-424).

As we can see, there are only two possible uses of ἓως in this particular text, both of which denote a period of time that ends at a certain point, in this case, Mary’s pregnancy.

However, it is still unclear from the grammar alone whether “until” “[postulates] a time beyond which the reversal of the main clause will actually occur” or whether “the ‘until’ clause is merely a way of saying that the main clause will remain true permanently.” According to Rev. Dr. Jeff Gibbs, “The answer for any given example can only be based on the context, and not on the grammar alone, for in terms of grammar there are examples of precisely parallel ‘until’ clauses on either side of the semantic fence” (Concordia Commentary, 103).

From Matthew 13:55-56, we know Jesus had other brothers, which Gibbs says that “according to its most natural reading, the answer here for 1:25 would seem to be yes: Joseph did begin to know Mary after she [had] given birth to Jesus” (103-104).

Proponents for Mary’s semper virgo will rebut, “It’s Jesus’ metaphorical brothers, much as we say brothers in Christ. They’re not our literal, biological brothers.” Yet there is nothing in the context of Matthew 13—even before and after chapter 13—that suggests this is a metaphorical use of “brothers” to support this claim. Therefore, I agree with Gibbs, that according to the most natural reading of the text, Jesus had biological brothers and, furthermore, Joseph must’ve known his wife sexually after her pregnancy.

That is, the most natural reading of the text and context says Mary was not a perpetual virgin. The argument that these are Jesus’ metaphorical brothers belongs to eisegesis, not exegesis, for the argument places an outside meaning upon the text that is not explicitly said in the text.

Proponents will also rebut with patristics, saying the Church Fathers confessed Mary’s semper virgo. That may well be true, but the Church Fathers are merely men and capable of error; they’re not the apostles. Neither are their words the words of Scripture, Even Luther, who used St. Augustine for support of much of his theology, did not agree with everything Augustine postulated. Furthermore, if we are to say we must confess Mary’s semper virgo simply because the Church Fathers confessed it, we must also hold to all the confessions of the Church Fathers, including the ones we know to be in error (e.g. Tertullian was a Montanist who believed in new prophetic, special revelations, which is heretical). If we must agree with them on one matter, we must agree with them on all matters.

Regardless of whether Mary’s virginity was perpetual or not, whose marriage bed is none of our business anyway, the point here—and of the whole Gospel—is not Mary; it is Jesus. Immanuel is coming! That should be our only concern and reverence.


Author’s Note: I realise I will upset many with my opinion on Semper Virgo, such as Catholics and cancerous Lutherans who don’t know how to love and be patient with their neighbour, but please, keep your anger out of the comments. “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil” (Psalm 37:8). This place is not a forum for such theological debates. If you wish to discuss the matter, talk with me privately. I will not respond to angry/wrathful emails, however. If you leave wrathful comments about your own opinion on Semper Virgo, the comments will be automatically deleted since it is in indication to me that you have not read this note or you simply don’t care (which is sin).

Bibliography

Danker, Frederick William, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019.

Gibbs, Jeffrey A. Matthew 1:1-11:1. Concordia Commentary. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

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