Matthew 1: 18 – 25
Joseph has been shown to be the “son of David,” the heir to the royal dynasty of Judah, but in v. 16 Matthew has abandoned his regular formula to indicate that Jesus, the son of Joseph’s wife Mary, was not in fact Joseph’s son (and Matthew carefully avoids ever referring to Joseph as Jesus’ “father”). What then is the relevance of this dynastic list to the story of Jesus, son of Mary? These verses will explain, therefore, how Jesus came to be formally adopted and named by Joseph, despite his own natural inclinations, and thus to become officially “son of David;” the angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” in v. 20 will highlight the issue.
Joseph’s decision is directed by God, through an angelic revelation in a dream. Specific emphasis is placed both in the angel’s message and in the subsequent narrative on Joseph’s role in naming Jesus, which was the responsibility of the legal father and which ensured the official status of the son and heir (cf Isa 43:1: “I have called you by name; you are mine”). So not only is the name Jesus in itself theologically significant, but also the fact that it is given to him under divine direction, and by whom it is given. It is through this act of Joseph that Jesus also becomes “son of David.”
Joseph is persuaded to take this bold step by the assurance that Mary’s pregnancy is not the result of infidelity but is of divine origin. The tradition of Jesus’ virgin conception, already hinted at in the formulation of v. 16, is thus central to these verses, and is underlined by Matthew’s statement that Joseph had no intercourse with Mary until after Jesus’ birth. Here is the most impressive agreement between the opening chapters of Matthew and those of Luke, despite their almost complete independence in terms of narrative content. What Luke achieves by his story of the angelic annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26–38), Matthew conveys by the angelic announcement to Joseph. Mary’s incredulity in Luke 1:34 is matched here by Joseph’s initial natural assumption as to the source of the pregnancy, and each needs explicit angelic explanation to overcome it. Both evangelists specifically attribute the pregnancy to the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 21), and both explicitly refer to Mary as “virgin” (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:23 with 1:25).
The difference between our modern concept of “engagement” and that of first-century Jews is indicated by the description of Joseph already in v. 19 as Mary’s husband and by the use of the normal word for divorce to describe the ending of the engagement. Though the couple were not yet living together, it was a binding contract entered into before witnesses which could be terminated only by death (which would leave the woman a “widow”) or by divorce as if for a full marriage (m. Ketub. 4:2); sexual infidelity during the engagement would be a basis for such divorce. About a year after the engagement (m. Ketub. 5:2; Ned. 10:5) the woman (then aged normally about thirteen or fourteen) would leave her father’s home and go to live with the husband in a public ceremony (such as is described in 25:1–12), which is here referred to as “coming together” and will be recorded in v. 24.
That Joseph was “righteous” is sometimes thought to explain his avoidance of a public scandal because he was “merciful” or “considerate,” but the more basic sense of the word is of one who is careful to keep the law. The law as then understood required the termination of the engagement in the case of “adultery;” in OT times the penalty for adultery was stoning. Deut 22:13–21 deals specifically with the case of a woman found not to be a virgin at the time of marriage, and 22:23–24 with that of consenting “adultery” on the part of an engaged woman. But by the first century (when Roman rule had abolished Jewish death penalties) divorce was the normal course.
My translations “came to the conclusion” (v. 19) and “when he had decided on this” reflect Matthew’s aorist tenses, which suggest that before the divine intervention Joseph’s mind was made up. Four times in these chapters we are told of divine communications to Joseph in dreams (cf 2:13, 19, 22), in all but the last case with an angel as the messenger.
The angel’s address to Joseph as “son of David” reminds us what is at stake in the decision Joseph has just reached: the loss of Jesus’ royal pedigree if he is not officially recognized as Joseph’s son. So, despite his previous decision, he is called to take two decisive actions, first to accept Mary as his wife rather than repudiating her and secondly to give her son a name, which will confirm his legal recognition of Jesus as his own son and hence as also a “son of David.”
France, R. T. (2007). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 47–48). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co.