The Meaning Of Matthew’s Mistakes

So Matthew likes quite a lot of what he finds in Mark. Likes it so much he decides to lift over 90% of it into his own Jesus story. Of course he’ll tweak it a bit because, disappointingly, Mark hasn’t emphasised Jesus’ Jewishness enough. That definitely needs bumping up; it’s what his readers will expect. And Mark has missed a trick or two: he starts his story with Jesus’ baptism, when, as everyone knows, every godman needs a magical origin. Just look at Tammuz, Horus, Romulus and, according to some, the Jewish high priest Melchizedek. So Matthew sets about scouring the scriptures for a prophecy or fable, anything really, that hints that the Messiah would have a miraculous birth. And he comes across this in Isaiah (7.14):

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s not really a prophecy about the Messiah as the context makes clear, but that’s okay. There’s enough of a hint that it could be about a future Messiah that it’ll do. So Matthew sets about creating a birth narrative for his godman based on this verse, yanked from its context. His godman is going to have a virgin birth too.

What Matthew doesn’t realise, however, is that he’s made a mistake. He’s picked up the verse in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the scriptures. If he’d checked, or even been able to read the original Hebrew, he would have soon seen that the verse actually reads:

Therefore, the Lord, of His own, shall give you a sign; behold, the young woman is with child, and she shall bear a son, and she shall call his name Immanuel.

The Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ is alma and that is the word used in Isaiah 7.14. The word for virgin is betulah. It does not appear. The use of it in the Septuagint is a mistake, a mistake that Matthew is not aware of. So he misappropriates the mistranslated verse to create a miraculous birth for Jesus and the myth of his virgin birth is born.

But Matthew hasn’t finished scouring the scriptures for prophecies that appear to be about Jesus. This time he alights on Zechariah 9:9:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout Daughter Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Incredibly, this time Matthew has stumbled upon a prophecy about the Jewish Messiah! According to Zechariah, the Messiah-King’s victorious entry into Jerusalem will follow the defeat of his enemies and the establishment of universal peace. Matthew likes the sound of this. If he can shoehorn an episode into his story where Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, this will show his readers that Jesus really is the long-awaited Messiah-King. Never mind that the Jesus version bears little resemblance to the scenario predicted by Zechariah: Jesus is not an anointed king, he has not recently defeated his enemies nor has he just established universal peace. The only thing the original prophecy and Matthew’s version have in common is that the two principle figures, Zechariah’s Messiah-King and Jesus, ride into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Oh, no, wait. That’s wrong. According to Matthew Jesus approaches on two donkeys; a mother and her colt. He’s made another mistake. He doesn’t know that the use of ‘donkey’ and ‘colt’ in the prophecy refers to the same animal. He thinks there has to be two: a larger one and a smaller one. He is not familiar with the practice of parallelism, common in Jewish writing to emphasise a point by repeating it  but using alternative terminology. There aren’t two animals on which Jesus sits lop-sidedly, there’s one: a donkey, otherwise known as a colt which, to state the bleedin’ obvious, is also the foal of a donkey. Matthew misses all of this and places Jesus precariously on two mismatched animals.

What does this tell us? That Matthew is not describing an actual event. He has, rather, created a story based on a prophecy, designed to illustrate to his readers that Jesus is the Messiah-King prophesied by Zechariah. There is nothing historical about this story; it is an actualisation-in-fiction of a prophecy. A prophecy,  which, incidentally, still has not been fulfilled.

So Matthew is caught out at least twice. There are more examples in his gospel of his forcing an episode from the scriptures into his Jesus fable: other aspects of his birth narrative are clearly based on elements of Moses’ story; Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are based on a story from Zechariah 11, which has no relevance at all to the use he makes of it. There is also evidence that Matthew invented prophecy that he could then show Jesus ‘fulfilling’ (Matthew 2.23, for example.)

What all of this demonstrates is not that Jesus was foreshadowed in the Jewish scriptures, (foreshadowing being a technique beloved of some authors who use it to hint at future events in their fiction) but rather that many aspects of the Jesus story are literary re-imaginings of ‘prophecies’ and often unrelated episodes from the scriptures.

And if some, why not all?

The Virgin Birth: what really happened?

mary2

Menachem Av: Month 2

I’ve missed twice. No pains or discharge now for two months. I thought the first time I was just late. I’ve not been having the uncleanness for long so it could have just been things not working like they should. That happens right? But then a second time. Not so good. And then I started to show. How as I going to explain it – to the family, the village and most of all to Yossef who they’ve decided I’m marrying?

It wasn’t him. We haven’t, you know, done anything. I’ve only met him a couple of times. He’s older of course, nearly twice my age. He seems nice enough, though it wouldn’t make any difference if he wasn’t. He’s going to be my husband. I’m going to be his wife. Or I am if I survive this.

So what am I going to say? Can’t tell them who it really was. Thaddaios, Shim’on the builder’s boy. Same age as me. We just got to messing about. I didn’t want to, knew it was wrong. Knew it would land us, specially me, in trouble one way or another. But I did want to do it too. It was nice. Nice being touched under my clothes. He was gentle and kind.

But then there was blood and mess. The blood was mine, the mess was his. I wasn’t expecting that – the blood, I mean. I was shocked. I touched it and cried. Touched myself after I’d touched him. That’s when it must’ve happened. Some of his mess found its way inside me, off my fingers, and that’s how the seed of his baby began to grow in me.

Technically, though, I’m still a virgin. I can tell Yossef that: ‘technically I’m still a virgin’, ’cause technically that’s true. Thaddaios never put his thing in me. I wouldn’t let him even though he wanted to, ’cause I know how important it is I’m a virgin on my wedding night. Yossef’s family could do bad things to me if they found out I wasn’t. But I am. Technically anyway.

So that’s the story. I’m a virgin but, you know, with child. Yeah, doesn’t make sense. Yossef’s going to have trouble believing it. I know I would. Maybe I can tell him the Lord had a hand in it somewhere. The Lord’s hand instead of my fingers! Maybe. He might go for that. His family’s very orthodox.

Ellul: Month 3

‘Come off it, Miriam,’ Yoseff said when I told him. ‘Who was it?’ But I stuck to my story. So he prayed about it and said the Lord told him he’d to stand by me, so he has done. He says that when it comes everyone’ll thinks it’s his and he’ll just let them. He’s not such a bad sort. It could be a lot worse. But, he says, it’d be best if we took off somewhere, away from all the questions, to hide my shame, he said, when I really begin to show So we’re trekking off to some God-forsaken part of the country where he has relatives or something.

Nissan: Month 9

So that’s how we ended up here, in one room where the animals come in at night. It could’ve been worse, I suppose. His aunt or whoever she is delivered it. The baby that is. It went okay, if you think having your body just about ripped in two is okay. The baby was fine though and I’m recovering. After, his aunt held it up; a bloody mess, arms outstretched. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it won’t change the world, but you have a fine healthy baby.’ I might’ve smiled then. She cleaned it up and wrapped it in the swaddling. I looked and thought, maybe it’s not too bad.

Yoseff came in and peered at it.

‘So,’ he said, as if he was interested, ‘what you going to call her?’

 

Christians’ Favourite Delusions 13: Jesus was born of a virgin… er, no, was descended from David, er…

XmasMessage

That most fallible of books, the Bible, often wants it both ways. Never more so than when it’s trying to add spin to its central character. It wants us to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, with no human male involved, and, at the same time, that he was physically descended from King David on his dad’s side.

He’s got to be born of David’s line, you see, because the prophecies say the Messiah will be just that. The writer of Acts (‘Luke’) knows this and tells his readers that God promised King David that through ‘the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne’. (Acts 2.30, KJV; my emphasis). The reference is to 2 Samuel 7:12, where Yahweh does indeed appear to tell David that he ‘will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his Kingdom’. This is to be a physical descendancy and is the reason for all those ‘begats’ at the start of some of the gospels; they are there to establish Jesus’ (supposed) royal descent on his father’s side. This is why, in his gospel, Luke contrives to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth: ‘Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David‘ (Luke 2.4). That’s Joseph who was descended from David. Not Mary, not Jesus’ uncle Charlie and not the Almighty himself. Joseph.

Perversely, it is also Luke who insists that Jesus is the product of divine impregnation and a virgin birth (Luke 1.32-35). Why doesn’t he realise that if Jesus was virginally conceived, he cannot be the fruit of any human male’s loins? Luke includes the virgin conception and birth in his nativity story while insisting, in both his gospel and in Acts, that Jesus is the Messiah precisely because he is a physical descendant of David (see, for example, Luke 1.27, 1.32, 1.69, 2.4, 2.11, 3.31, 18.38, 20.41). But Jesus can’t be both a physical descendent of David through Joseph and the result of the God helping himself to a nice young girl. Could it be the two conflicting accounts were written by different fantasists?

So, is Jesus the ‘Son of God’ because he was created by the Almighty’s impregnation of Mary or is he the Messiah because he’s King David’s descendant ‘according to the flesh’? Either Jesus is physically descended from David or he is a being conceived through divine rape, like other mythical god-men of the ancient world.

He cannot be both – though he could, of course, be neither.