Matthew’s Genealogy, Part 4: The Virgin Birth

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This post is part of a series. To get the entire context, be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 first.

The Virgin Birth

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it is integral to note Matthew’s telling of the virgin birth. Toward the end of the genealogy, Matthew ends with his listing in verse sixteen with Joseph and Mary: “…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ” (Mt 1:16, ESV). This is curious ending for one very striking reason: Matthew does not list Jesus’ father. Throughout the passage, Matthew begins each generation with the father; however, in this verse, Matthew does not do that. Benedict explains the anomaly:

Mary, who truly marks a new beginning and relativizes the entire genealogy. Throughout the generations, we find the formula: “Abraham was the father of Isaac …” But at the end, there is something quite different. In Jesus’ case there is no reference to fatherhood, instead we read: “Jacob [was] the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt 1: 16)… So the final sentence turns the whole genealogy around.[1]

This is a curious change; and there are several theories as to why Matthew leaves out Jesus’ father. For instance, France proposes that “by introducing [Joseph] here as the ‘husband of Mary’ rather than the father of Jesus Matthew prepares for the explanation of Jesus’ actual parentage”.[2] This is of course doctrinally true. Jesus is the eternal Son of the Father, as the Nicene Creed says. And yet, as Bruner challenges, God could have incarnated his Son with or without a human father.[3] All things are possible with God, including a non-virginal birth of the eternal Son of God. Thus, the creedal import of divine Fatherhood can and probably should be connected the virgin birth, but not necessarily so. This is, of course, not to say that the virgin birth is not important, but simply to say that the importance of it might be located elsewhere. The question is then of what importance the virginal birth has. After wrestling with the many liberal arguments against the historicity of the virgin birth, Bruner lands on its historicity and importance, deriving an argument from Karl Barth. Bruner says this about the virgin birth:

The permanent value of the creedal doctrine of the Spirit’s conception of Jesus in Mary is this; it is the Holy Spirit and not human initiative that brings Jesus into personal life (then Mary’s, now ours). When Jesus comes to anyone in history, even in his Advent coming to Mary, it is always the work of the Spirit, not of human preparation or enterprise.[4]

Bruner explains that the virgin birth is a “pictorial” version of salvation by grace and not by works. God comes not by the work of man, but by the supernatural grace of the Holy Spirit. Benedict agrees with Bruner, saying,

The Virgin Birth is not a lesson in asceticism, nor does it belong directly to the doctrine of Jesus’ divine Sonship; it is first to last a theology of grace, a proclamation of how salvation comes to us: in the simplicity of acceptance,as the voluntary gift of the love that redeems the world… In Jesus, God has placed, in the midst of barren, hopeless mankind, a new beginning that is not a product of human history but a gift from above.[5]

Benedict’s explanation is particularly helpful for the thesis of this paper. He pictures human history as barren, not having produced the fruit of obedience. Thus, God must do something apart from man’s work through the virginal conception. Benedict makes a further insight in another work, saying, “Mary is a new beginning. Her child does not originate from any man, but is a new creation, conceived through the Holy Spirit”.[6] Jesus Christ is properly a totally new ordering of things, not according to Israel’s works, but according to a new creation.

If this is indeed what Matthew means to communicate through his record of the virginal birth, the implications are manifold: the long history of Israel has been fruitless, and she has not upheld her end of the covenant. Yet God through his faithfulness to the promises, is upholding the covenant by another way: through the work of his Son. Thus the virgin birth is the last way Matthew means to display God’s covenant faithfulness.

            [1] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

            [2] Richard T. France. The Gospel of Matthew, 39

            [3] Frederick Dale Bruner. The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, 39

            [4] Ibid, 24

            [5] Benedict XVI. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004, 278

            [6] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 7

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