Exodus 4:19, The Virgin Birth, part V of V

Now the Lord has said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who wanted to kill you are dead.”

//For five days, we’ve been discussing why most Liberal Christians assume the virgin birth stories in the Bible are not meant to be read as history. For the final argument, we want to introduce Matthew’s penchant for midrash—in other words, the way in which Matthew compared Jesus to other men of God through story, an exegetical technique quite common in Jewish circles.

A close look at Matthew’s birth story shows a striking parallel to the Hebrew heroes Moses and Abraham. Remember Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” in Matthew? Well, according to Jewish legends, Abraham’s birth is also signaled by the appearance of a huge star, by which astrologers predict a great ruler. They inform their king, Nimrod, who slaughters seventy thousand children.

Recall that Moses, too, just happened to be born at a time when the king had ordered male infanticide. Read what Josephus has to say in Jewish Antiquities about Moses: One of the sacred scribes … announced to the king that there would be born to the Israelites at that time one who would abase the sovereignty of the Egyptians and exalt the Israelites, were he reared to manhood, and would surpass all men in virtue and win everlasting renown. Alarmed thereat, the king on this sage’s advice, ordered that every male child born to the Israelites should be destroyed by being cast into the river. 

In other words, like Jesus, Moses was the occasion for the slaughter, after a “wise man” warns the king. Says Josephus about Moses, “he shall escape those who are watching to destroy him, and, reared in a marvelous way, he shall deliver the Hebrew race from their bondage.”

Now back to Matthew’s Gospel. There, an angel then notifies Jesus’ parents when Herod is dead so they can safely return home from Egypt. This command alludes directly to the instruction God gave Moses to return from exile in Median (see today’s verse, above).

Matthew’s penchant for midrash and for scriptural fulfillment leaves no doubt as to how he conceived the story of Jesus’ birth, and his first readers never imagined that Matthew’s story happened literally. Few Christians of the first century and early second century believed the Bible meant Jesus really was born of a virgin, but understood that Matthew was tying Jesus to revered men of the past. Somewhere along the way, however, our appreciation for honorific myth and midrash dissipated; 1,900 years later, most Christians today believe the virgin birth story happened exactly as written.

I love this time of year. I love seeing the manger scenes and the celebration of our Lord’s arrival. But I love them more, knowing I don’t have to suspend reason and believe literally in the story. I don’t have to worry about whether it should be a manger or a house, whether shepherds belong with the wise men, or whether there were even three wise men in the first place. I can appreciate the meaningful, glorious, beautiful, honorific story it’s meant to be without trying to squeeze it into a historical event.

Matthew 2:6, The Virgin Birth, part IV of V

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

//Having pared the believable birth stories down from two to one—Matthew’s rendition instead of Luke’s—let’s now take a hard look at Matthew, and see if he really meant us to interpret his version literally.

Let’s begin with how Matthew crafts his story as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14, particularly the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the original Hebrew), which in translation erroneously changed the Hebrew word for “young maiden” into “virgin”: “The young maiden” thus became “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Why is this virgin birth important to Matthew? Perhaps because Jesus’ competitor, the Lord and Savior of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, the man who demanded to be called Son of God, shares a similar story. Suetonius, a Roman historian, tells how Augustus was born of the union of the god Apollo and his human mother Atia, after Atia’s husband received a vision of a miraculous child (he dreamed the sun rose from Atia’s womb). This mirrors the union of God and Mary in Matthew’s story, after Joseph learns of its divine sanction in a dream. Matthew is posturing that a greater Son of God than Augustus has arrived. My book about Revelation examines this competition between Christianity and the Imperial Cult in more detail.

With this competition in mind, let’s look next at the massacre of the innocents. The slaughter of children by Herod has an interesting origin, again relating to Jesus’ opponent, Caesar Augustus. Seutonius writes, [A] public portent warned the Roman people some months before Augustus’s birth that Nature was making ready to provide them with a king; and this caused the Senate such consternation that they issued a decree which forbade the rearing of any male child for a whole year.

Few critical Bible scholars consider the “massacre the innocents” by Herod to have really happened; a decree of this nature would surely be recorded by Jewish and Roman historians alike. Was Matthew’s birth story meant, then, merely to heighten the competition between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World?

Another take on Matthew’s birth story tomorrow.