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.