Did Matthew Really Think Mary was a Virgin?

It’s Christmas Eve. What else we gonna talk about other than the birth stories?

Matthew and Luke are the only gospels that contain birth stories. Although most Biblical scholars believe that both Matthew and Luke had a copy of Mark open on the kitchen table for much of their narrative on Jesus’ teachings, both Matthew and Luke were on their own when devising Jesus’ birth story. And if you lay them side by side, you can tell how different they really are — despite Charlie Brown Christmas.

  • Here’s the basic differences. One has wise men; the other has shepherds. One has a census; the other does not. One has a flight to Egypt; the other does not. One has a manger; the other has a house (that one surprised the Chief Editor too). The angel announces the pending birth to Joseph in one, Mary in the other. 
  • Bethlehem. Both manage to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth. That was necessary because of the Old Testament prophecy on the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. Matthew says they were residents there already. Luke has to devise the census story to get them from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Fun fact:  There is no record of any kind of census in that area at that time. 
  • An alternative interpretation on Matthew. We ran across an article by Biblical researcher Robert Miller, who wrote a book entitled Born Divine. Miller asserts that most readers comingle Luke and Matthew’s stories, and assume they both talk about a virgin birth. But Miller argues that Matthew never said Jesus was born of a virgin. He believes that Matthew realized he had a problem to deal with — Jesus the Messiah was born of a mother who got pregnant before she was married. And he has to figure out how to explain that away. Matthew devotes a lot of space to talking about Joseph and the entire decision process. Plus Matthew devotes a lot of Chapter 1 on Jesus’ genealogy, which includes Tamar (see last week’s scandalous post) as well as several other women of ill repute. This was all meant to legitimize Jesus’ birth, but not to insinuate that Mary was was a virgin. Luke pretty much ignores all of this and simply says Mary was impregnated by God.

Birth Stories — Why Bethlehem?

Luke and Matthew are the only two Gospels that have a birth story. They both link Jesus’ birth to late in the reign of King Herod, which would put it around 4 BCE. Both Gospel writers also felt compelled to connect Jesus’ birth to Bethlehem (it’s complicated and has to do with the Old Testament prophecies and the lineage of King David). But they go about it in different ways.

  • Luke says Mary and Joseph were originally from Nazareth. Luke gets them to Bethlehem by creating a census (there’s no independent record of a census ‘of the whole world’ or even in the area in that time period). After the birth, they have him circumcised, go to the Temple in Jerusalem down the road, and return to Nazareth a few weeks later. No flight to Egypt. No wise men. 
  • Matthew says that Mary and Joseph were originally from Bethlehem. No census. Wise Men, but no stable. And there is a flight to Egypt and a return back to a different town — Nazareth. So in both accounts (and in Mark), Jesus starts his ministry from Nazareth.
  • Why the inventions? The Gospels are not intended to be read as historical accounts. The authors were creating mythical birth stories about their Messiah 50 years after his death. This was not an unusual practice in many religious traditions. 

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