Joseph and the Angel Messenger: A Matthew Studies Class for Christmas (Mt 1:18-25)

What Was the Angel's Message to Joseph, and to Us?

Thank you to all who join us today (Christmas 2011) on this first internet meeting of the Matthew Studies Class that my wife Fay and I have co-taught at 9 a.m. every Sunday for 13 years in Oak Park, Illinois at the First Baptist Church (American Baptist, which means "theologically diverse," so watch out!). Since this lesson analyzes a well-known Bible story, and purports here to be an informative essay, we also welcome friends from our Writers Workshop.

Introduction. Today we consider the birth story in the Gospel of Matthew found in the New Testament at Mt 1:18-25. To understand it as literature, we start by asking who the characters are, how Mt dealt with each one of them, and how important each one is to the movement of the story.

So who are the characters in this so-called "birth story"? Joseph is the main character. In fact, the story rarely strays from what Joseph thinks, sees, and hears; how Joseph responds; and what Joseph does about it. Most of this "birth story" occurs in Joseph's head, not in the mother's womb. The second most obvious character is the angel-messenger who drives the story forward by appearing to Joseph "down through" (kata) a dream. The text barely mentions mother Mary (Greek Maria); you have to go to Luke for her story. Remember, even Mt's genealogy leads to Joseph, not Mary.

Mt presents his entire "Source Book of Jesus" (bib-los ge-ne-se-os I-e-sou) as a story of, by, and for men. In ancient times, no one wrote books for women, certainly not for women to read. Very few grown men could read, less than 10 percent, but even fewer women, less than one percent, and then only in the richest familes. Women had other things to tend to, while men ran all public society until very recent times in places touched by Christian culture and its gifted but difficult offspring, modern science, the Enlightenment, socio-economic reform, critical theory, and the objective analysis of ancient sacred texts and experience.

1. What about Joseph? The Greek word di-KAI-os in verse 19 describes Joseph as a righteous man, an "observer of law and custom," a good man for his time and culture, a civilized man of law and order. Not by accident does this first main character illustrate a key theme in Mt, which uses "righteous" 17 times in key passages, and seven times the abstract noun "righteousness" (di-KAI-o-SU-ne). Scholars note often the importance of this idea in Matthew.

2. What about the situation? When Joseph found his fiance pregnant, he wanted no big public fuss, just quietly "to loosen her away," and go look elsewhere for a suitable wife. Why was that? Why would a "righteous man" have this attitude? Because Joseph was also a man of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion, not wanting to see the girl hurt unduly, even if others thought she deserved it.

These are key concepts for Mt's Jesus who alone in NT books teaches forgiveness beyond the ability of many Protestants to bear in 6:14-15 and 18:21-35. He constantly has compassion on strangers, treating the wounded and sick even when needing to get away from them (12:15-22; 14:13-14, 34-36; and 15:29-31). The only OT verse Mt quotes twice is Hosea 6:6, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice."

3. What about the dream? With Joseph mulling things over, Mt says, "Look for yourself!" (King James, "Behold!"), and the angel appears in a dream. This is a real "man part" of the story, because many women (the more practical sex, I'm told) don't want their man chasing after dreams. A woman normally wants her man to do what she wants him to do, out of love and respect for her, if possible, but out of obedience to his vows, if necessary. Very few women encourage their men to go follow their dreams about angels!

4. What about the angel? Greek AN-ge-los (hard "g"), messenger. This passage consists mostly of the angel's message and quotation (74 words, almost half the story's content). The angel would be the key character if not for the greater rarity of a man who heeds divine messages, another key idea in Mt ("those who hear and do vs. those who hear and don't do" in 7:24-27; or three times, "He who has ears to hear, let-him-keep-on-hearing!" in 11:15, 13:9, and 13:43),

5. What about the message? The name "Jesus" (Greek I-e-sous for Hebrew YE-shu-a, "Yhwh saves") more than "fore-tells" the child's vocation, "for he will save his people from their sins."

Mt's Jesus, in fact, barely mentions "salvation," but he does follow the angel's deeper principle: "Yes, Joseph, a tough situation, but don't be afraid of it, for what seems like a problem is really a divine blessing in disguise. Be thankful for it, don't turn your back on it, let it help you realize God always with you. A first-glance massive, unsolvable problem may give the Almighty a chance to work more creatively for good in your life beyond your wildest dreams."

After Mt's Jesus ends the first half of the book visiting Magadan (Mt 15:39), the whole second half of Mt changes as Jesus begins teaching his students "it is binding me to go away into Jeruslem, and to suffer many things . . . , and to be condemned to death, and on the third day to be raised up" (16:21; and 17:22, 10:17-19; and 26:1-2). This culminates with Jesus praying in Gethsemane the night before being crucified, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup go-free-away from me, except not as I-am-willing, but as you-are-willing" (26:39; also 26:42 and 44). Mt's Jesus faces a difficult, dangerous, impossible situation, but by following his understanding of the will of the heavenly Father, it turns into a world-class event for which many hundreds of millions of people, even today, 1,978 1/2 years later, are still grateful enough to gather together in his name.

6. What did Joseph do? Joseph not only listened, he acted on the divine message. In Mt's terms, "Joseph did [Gk e-POI-e-sen] as the angel of Lord [YHWH] drew-up-near [advised] for him, and he-did-take-alongside his woman, and-yet not was-he-knowing her until she bore a son, and he-did-call [e-KAL-e-sen] his name Jesus" (1:24-25).

This Greek word poi-E-o (as in po-em and po-et-ry) exemplifies the acid test for Mt's Jesus and Mt overall (used 86 times on Mt's 80 pages): doing, making, causing, creating, producing, practicing; in short, finding and then doing the will of the Heavenly Father (as in 7:21-23).

So these 161 total words in Mt 1:18-25 not only brilliantly present Mt's account of the birth of Jesus, but they also fortell and illustrate key concepts pervading the entire book of 18,346 Greek words. That's what we've called a tour de force ever since we borrowed the phrase from the French.

7. Any personal application of these ideas? As we say in class, if you can't see how all this might apply to you personally, please talk to us individually after class! But really, folks --

(1) How do we characteristically respond when we see someone with a problem? (2) Are we the angel-messenger who turns attention and energy to higher meaning and purpose? (3) Do we ever look for divine meaning in everyday life events? (4) What is our criteria for finding such meaning? (5) How do we test the various voices we hear, whether in church or some other sacred place? (6) Do we listen for insight from the Almighty (or from scientific Nature if we can't grasp personalization)? (7) Do we ever pay any attention at all to "the bigger picture"? (8) Do we blow people off who try to steer us away from harsh judgmental condemnation? (9) Do we seek the higher ground of love, mercy, forgiveness, thankfulness, and trust? (10) Do we ever seriously study the legitimate and real differences between men and women?

Well, we passed our word count for today, time to quit.
Thanks for being with us, See you next time.

___________________________________________________
Copyright (c) 2011 by Max and Fay Havlick, Matthew Studies Institute, and The Max Havlick School, projects of New World Community Enterprises, Inc., Villa Park, IL 60181-1938, all rights reserved. Here revised and abbreviated from its first presentation at the Matthew Studies Class in Oak Park, Illinois Dec. 20, 2009. Max bases his mostly literal translations on Aland's critical Greek text (27th ed.).

Anyone may start their own local Matthew Studies Class, Writers Workshop, or Realistic Employment Workshop, with or without our help, and use our HubPages info in doing so. But if you prefer to work synergistically with Max and Fay, you may contact us directly at our snail-mail address 60181-1938, or by e-mail with the HubPages button at the top of this page.

The same applies to any serious individual who wants specific help, whether to study writing or other forms of personal communication, or such fields as history, literature, philosophy, religion, or other humanities and social sciences where we have training, experience, and resources available. We visualize a special college for adults to prepare dedicated teacher/organizers for life-time learning programs in individual local communities. (1500 words)

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Comments 7 comments

msbrandon profile image

msbrandon 4 years ago from Altus,OK

I found this too be very inspirational. Thank you.


AKA Winston 4 years ago

Max,

I no longer believe these stories, but I don't mean this comment as an attack on your beliefs; however, how does any thinking person rationalize the massive discrepancies in this particular story between Matthew and Luke? And if virgin birth is critical, why was it totally ignored in Mark and in John?


Max Havlick profile image

Max Havlick 4 years ago from Villa Park, Illinois Author

Thank you, msbrandon, for your nice comment. I see you live in Altus, Okla., and just joined HubPages, so welcome! Fay and I were each raised in Tulsa, but in different generations (see my hub "When Fay and I Got Married"). Her married children live in the Kellyville area SW of Tulsa, her daughter Sandy 42, her youngest son 35.


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Max Havlick 4 years ago from Villa Park, Illinois Author

Winston, thank you for proving there's life out there! Heaven for me would be sitting in a home full of books (like I am right now) with thinking people like you asking me challenging, intelligent questions.

Your questions in a moment, but first, please note that I severely limited the scope of this class/essay to a literary analysis of this one story (Mt 1:18-25), how it foreshadowed major events in Mt's overall story, and personal application of the story ideas we noted.

Now, Winston, please help me understand exactly what it is you "no longer believe" about this story:

(a) You no longer believe it is worth studying as literature by thinking people (even though many of them no longer believe every word literally accurate in a modern journalistic sense)?

(b) You no longer believe it is worth studying by thinking people trying to understand its significant historical and theological influence in the context of Matthew's continuing world-class importance (even though many know other thinking people who do not consider such an effort worthwhile)?

(c) You no longer believe it is worth studying by thinking church people for religious insight and personal value (even when they recognize the various ancient writers had different points of view and often contradictory accounts)?

You see, denying the value of such study rests on a fundamentalist-style belief in "literal inerrancy" that many thinking church people no longer hold. The fundamentalist mindset does consider every word of the Bible literally true, guaranteed throughout by the Almighty as reliable spiritual guidance, because it thinks any errors or contradictions anywhere in the Bible must render it all unreliable and untrustworthy. But as you can see by my essay, I do not teach from that kind of belief perspective at all.

While I respect that point of view held by so many church people (whom it is not my duty to refute and convert, but only to teach and stay out of their way), my calling has a larger perspective than that. My teaching rests on a literary and historical base that respects the whole great diversity of Christian beliefs, and non-Christian belief systems as well, incl. scientific naturalism (see my hub, "New Horizons: A Meditation on Universal Personal Realities that Transcend Debates over Naturalism and Theism"). Our particular American Baptist church allows us ample room to pursue scholarly and literary studies of the Bible so long, of course, as we respect an educated version of the Baptist beliefs in which we were raised.

I hope you find this helpful, Winston, but please don't stop asking questions. You've got the mind for it, as any thinking person can plainly see.


AKA Winston 4 years ago

Max,

My brother holds a Ph.D. in religion so don't get me wrong as far a criticism - it is not meant as personal attacks.

It seems fine to me if one wants to teach that following the major guidelines of the teaching of Jesus is a good thing to do, and utilizing the bible in that purpose is O.K. as far as it goes. But I am of the opinion that a teacher of the bible should honestly express the problems that are inherent in any assumption that the book is anything other than a collection of men's ideas on the subject. The ideas of innerancy or a god-inspired book are too problematic to resolve with intellectual honesty.

Even evamgelical apologist William Lane Craig makes this rather intellectually dishonest statement (paraphrased), that when evidence and reason contradict the Christian belief, it is evidence and reason that should be ignored.

Rather circular, is it not?

It is obvious to me that the 4 gospels (not only written decades apart) were written by individuals trying to "sell" a particular brand of belief to potential converts. This is why the book of Matthew over and over says, "in order to fulfill the prophecies" - because the author of Matthew was trying to sell Jesus as messiah. The author of Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus, and the message of that author is the abandonment of Jesus by the Jews. The book of Mark (which was copied in part verbatim in Luke and Matthew) is strongly Jewish, emphasizing the Jewish apocalyptic ideas that would occur within their lifetimes. John, the last book to be written, appears to change the story to accomadate a better educated audience, and that story is the only one that makes Jesus a divine being who was never conceived but always was.

To me, these differences are better explained as the recounting of something along the lines of an urban legend than giving an historical account from different perspectives.

The book seems to me to describe a concept, not a reality. This is why anytime I see articles about a particular story or message of the bible I feel compelled to offer "the rest of the story". I simply think there are many, many believers who, like I was, are simply unaware that the Christmas story in Matthew and the one in Luke do not match - and there are numerous other accounts throughout the book that simply do not agree with each other.

To me that denotes the work of men, not of god.


Max Havlick profile image

Max Havlick 4 years ago from Villa Park, Illinois Author

Winston, I agree completely with most of your specific points. I've studied an enormous range of scholarly literature on these issues, and perhaps I'll discuss them in more detail elsewhere. You and I, however, use the same kind of data to come to different conclusions about intellectual integrity in teaching, and that difference doesn't bother me in the least, but I hope to answer your question how other thinking people could possibly deal with this data differently than you do.

1. Far from hiding my students from "the rest of the story," I have put to my classes every point you mention as objectively as possible, incl. even explaining some people use the data to come to conclusions like yours! I agree with you it is intellectually irresponsible for teachers, in church or anywhere else, to ignore the range of opinions, positive and negative, that exist among serious people on any material they present.

For one example, several years ago we spent 6 months going line-by-line through a synopsis of the four gospels, discussing every issue you mention and many more. Our church in the well-educated Chicago West suburb of Oak Park knows full well that its annual outdoor Xmas show mixes apples and oranges by putting Mt and Lk together, and every year Fay and I once more remind it and anyone who will listen! But (a) we are not the primary decision makers, (b) the event tradition dates back many centuries, (c) some highly intelligent people with acting talent consider it the high point of the year, and (d) thousands of people (not necessarily religious) flock from far and wide to see it.

2. Intellectual integrity, however, does not require me to go out and protest this Xmas show every year several winter nights in a row! Nor does it require me to focus every class I teach on every possible objection and contradiction to the material at hand.

Teaching Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" may require me to mention differences with Plutarch and modern historical scholarship, and even the issue of Sh's identity, but the meat of any class must surely consist of reading the play itself and helping students experience Sh's world of poetry, drama, and human life. How does this differ from focusing a 50-minute church class (or 1,500 word essay) on a purely literary study of the Matthew birth story which is just as much a part of world literature as the first scene from one of Shakespeare's plays?

In spite of all the objections you raise to Bible study, many intelligent and well-educated people (far beyond the off-center, literalistic evangelist you quoted!) still consider it worth studying the Bible as literature without dogmatic blinders -- not prejudging every idea in it, what God had to do with it, etc., but bec. of its historical, literary, and religious significance for real people in many different Xn and Jewish cultures (with impact on geo-politics reported almost daily in the NY Times). Whether God did or did not write the Bible, or even the question of whether there is a God or not, doesn't seem to me to have anything to do with it.

For some reason you accepted the fundamentalist thesis that errors in the Bible would make it untenable and worthless as a theological basis for the organized religions of Western civilization. This is known in logic as the fallacy of "mischaracterizing the whole by the part."

As a life-long student of intellectual and cultural history, however, I find (a) that people invariably are different, and for legitimate reasons, and (b) that thinking people also have good reasons for how their views diverge from those of others. As you have shown by your passionate comments here, that surely includes you, Winston, and I wish you well as you continue on your path.


ocfireflies profile image

ocfireflies 3 years ago from North Carolina

Max,

I find the questions you present in #7 of your discourse to be of great interest and worthy of much contemplation. I hope you had a Happy Thanksgiving.

Kim

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