2016-06-30
Think about an ancient gospel written with all-capital letters, minimal punctuation, no space between words or sentences (why waste precious papyrus?), and no verse numbers or chapter headings to help your reading. You would be very glad to have a prologue--a kind of overture to give you the whole story in upfront in summary. This is why each of the four gospels begins with such an overture.

Mark's overture tells the story of John the Baptist's mission and arrest as overture to that of Jesus. John's overture is a magnificent hymn to the Logos of God, Word made Flesh.

Matthew and Luke, however, both chose a birth story as overture to their own stories of Jesus. Let's examine Matthew's overture to see what he was trying to say about Jesus with his birth story. For Matthew, Jesus is the Messiah, long-awaited by his people, but a Messiah who came as a New Moses. You and I, by the way, understand new rather differently from the way that Matthew did. We think of "new" as "better" and therefore replacing the obsolete old. But for the ancients, the old was good and the new was always suspect--except as the old renewed, transfigured, and fulfilled. That is why, for example, Matthew started his story of Jesus-as-Adult atop a (re)new(ed) Mount Sinai, giving a (re)new(ed) Torah, and proclaiming "you have heard of old, but I tell you now" in Matthew 5-7. Torah-renewal, in other words, not Torah-replacement. That is why Matthew has Jesus explicitly warn, "not to think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill."

In composing his birth-as-overture, therefore, Matthew had to write a prologue about Jesus the Messiah, the New Moses of Jews and Gentiles alike. And here was the most difficult part. He also had to foreshadow danger and deliverance, lethal human opposition but eventual divine vindication. He had to hint about crucifixion and resurrection in creating his parable about the newborn Jesus. Finally, he had to do all that in the short space of those two initial chapters.

You can debate whether Matthew's birth story is history or parable. In my own view, it is clearly a deliberate and very powerful parable. But what does it mean? And there is an even more important question which still presses, whether you take it literally as history or metaphorically as parable. It is also the only question Matthew would have thought worthy of debate: Who is your King and what is your Rule? Is it the violent power of a Herod or the non-violent power of a Jesus?

Back, then, to Matthew's birth story. His obvious strategy was to describe the birth of Jesus in parallel with the birth of Moses in Exodus 2. In that story, Pharaoh of Egypt tried to destroy the Israelites by killing all their male infants--but the bravery of the Hebrew midwives, the strategy of his mother Jochebed, and the decency of Pharaoh's own daughter (all females, you will notice) saved the child in his papyrus basket among the reeds of the Nile.

Think of Moses' birth-story as a drama in three acts. The first act is the King's Decree. That created a problem for any reader: Was it not just too coincidental that infanticide was ordered at the very moment Moses happened to be born? The next act is the Parental Crisis. That created another narrative problem. Why did the Hebrew parents continue having children and thereby allow even the possibility of male-baby infanticide? The third act is the Child's Escape. Here the narrative problem was rather different. The baby in the basket was powerfully dramatic for Moses but Matthew could hardly have Jesus saved in a basket among the Jordan's bulrushes by a Herodian princess.

Fortunately, however, there were available several versions of that Moses story which retold the Hebrew original from Exodus 1-2 in Aramaic translations and commentaries. They not only retold it, but they also expanded upon it and improved its narrative coherence on precisely the first two problems--the King's Decree and the Parental Crisis. They never, of course, tried to add, subtract, or change the Child's Escape--any storyteller would recognize the difficulty of improving on that section!

First, the expanded version of the King's Decree is given in the Jewish historian Josephus' Jewish Antiquities 2.205-206: "While they were in this plight, a further incident had the effect of stimulating the Egyptians yet more to exterminate our race. One of the sacred scribes--persons with considerable skill in accurately predicting the future--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 this version there is no coincidence. The infanticide is focused precisely on killing Moses lest he become the future liberator of his people. That expansion allowed Matthew to put Herod in place of Pharaoh. The general male-baby infanticide or "slaughter of the innocents" was precisely to kill Jesus as it had been to kill Moses. Further, since Matthew's Jesus was the New Moses of both Jews and Gentiles, he added in a special element of his own. The Magi, the Gentile wisdom of the East, came to worship Jesus at his birth. Notice, of course, how the "sacred scribes" had interpreted events for Pharaoh, just as "the chief priests and scribes of the people" interpreted for Herod in Matthew 2:4.

Finally, the Magi are guided westward by a star just as the ancestors of the emperor Augustus, descended from the goddess Venus, had been guided westward from Troy to Italy by her star 1,000 years before.

Second, the expanded version of the Parental Crisis is known from two different first-century sources. A first one is in the Book of Biblical Antiquities, once incorrectly attributed to the Jewish philosopher Philo but now more accurately attributed to "Pseudo-Philo:"

"After the murderous decree of Pharaoh, the elders of the people gathered the people together in mourning and said, `Let us set up rules for ourselves that a man should not approach his wife until we know what God may do.' And Amram answered and said, `I will go and take my wife, and I will not consent to the command of the king; and if it is right in your eyes, let us all act in this way.' And the strategy that Amram thought out was pleasing before God. And God said, `He who will be born from him will serve me forever.' And the spirit of God came upon Miriam one night, and she saw a dream and told it to her parents in the morning, saying, `Behold he who will be born from you will be cast forth into the water; likewise through him the water will be dried up. And I will work signs through him and save my people, and he will exercise leadership always.'"

In this expansion, Amram, father of Moses-to-be, refuses to participate in the decision of separation or divorce; his daughter, Miriam, has a divine dream; and the liberator will be her brother, the child of her parents, Amram and Jochebed.

The other expanded version of the Parental Crisis continues this story in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities 2.210-211:

"Amram, a Hebrew of noble birth, fearing that the whole race would be extinguished through lack of the succeeding generation, and seriously anxious on his own account because his wife was with child, was in grievous perplexity. He accordingly had recourse to prayer to God.And God had compassion on him and, moved by his supplication, appeared to him in his sleep, exhorted him not to despair of the future, and told him that [the destined child would be his son]."

Once again, Matthew worked in close parallel with those more developed versions. In his Parental Crisis act, he put Joseph and Mary in place of Amram and Jochebed and had their divorce averted only by heavenly intervention in a dream. In fact, he liked that emphasis on dreams so much that he put in five of them, as well as five scriptural fulfillments, in his birth-as-overture.

That number five was an appropriate number to prepare for Jesus' five great speeches in Matthew's gospel as a (re)new(ed) Torah of Jesus fulfilling the five books of the Torah of Moses. In Jewish tradition, a predestined child was usually conceived not from a virgin but from aged and/or infertile parents. Here, as in the first act, Matthew added in one special element of his own--namely, the virgin birth in fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.

Finally, in the Child's Escape, Matthew had to do something quite different-indeed, quite ironically opposite the Moses story. Eventually, Moses had fled with his people from Egypt to Israel. But now, with Israel under a savage "King of the Jews" appointed by Rome, Matthew had Jesus flee for safety from Israel to Egypt until Herod was dead and he could return home.

I return, in conclusion, to the fundamental questions raised by Matthew's beautiful parable about Jesus' birth. Who rules the world? Is it Rome's appointed Herod or God's appointed Messiah? Is it violence or justice? Whose is the kingdom, the power, and the glory?

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