Matthew is writing to Jews. His purpose is to show that Christ not only is the Messiah promised in OT Scriptures but also that this Messiah is more than what they had traditionally expected. The Messiah would be God himself. Matthew begins his book with the genealogy of Jesus. That genealogy introduced four major ideas in conjunction with his overall purpose to show Christ as Messiah God. First, it ties Christ to Abraham, giving Christ the covenant responsibilities as well as the potential for covenant blessing. Second, it ties Christ with David, providing his legal claim to the throne. Third, it shows that Christ was born of a woman—Mary, demonstrating that he is human. Fourth, it emphasizes that Christ was not physically from Joseph, establishing the basis for proclaiming him as God.
Matthew’s insistence in 1:17 on the three sets of 14 generations in the genealogy seems puzzling, especially since the last “set of 14” includes only 13 men. I think that Matthew’s point in drawing attention to these sets of 14 is for us to discover that in order to conclude 14 for the last set, we must include Mary in the count. Immediately after Matthew points this out to us, he explains it in verse 18 where we find that Joseph is not the father of Jesus (physically). Mary, during her betrothal period, is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Not much detail is provided by Matthew here. Luke, however, helps fill in some gaps so we can surmise the story.
In Luke 1 we read of Zechariah and Elizabeth, a relative of Mary. Zechariah is a descendant of Aaron and therefore a priest of the temple. While occupied in his duties there, an angel appears to him telling him that even though he and his wife are advanced in years, they will have a child. Zechariah expresses doubt for which he is struck mute until the child, John the Baptist, is born. For our purposes, the story bears particular relevance beginning in verse 24. We find that for five months of her pregnancy, Elizabeth has kept hidden. This is more than just the normal Middle Eastern custom of staying out of the public eye during pregnancy. I think that Luke is implying that she kept this a secret—probably to avoid incredulity and gossip until she started showing.
The next verse tells us that in Elizabeth’s sixth month of pregnancy, the angel Gabriel visits Mary in Nazareth. Gabriel tells Mary that she will be giving birth. And the child is described by Gabriel as the coming Messiah (“the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” – 1:32-33). Mary immediately asks how this will happen since she is a virgin. That may appear to be a strange question.
Mary, we had learned in Matthew 1:18, was betrothed to Joseph. She knew she was about to be married. So why did she not connect her marriage with Joseph to this pronouncement by the angel that she would have a child? The betrothal period was not equivalent to our modern engagement period. When two people were to marry in Jewish culture of this time, a betrothal ceremony was performed that established a marriage connection that could be broken only through normal divorce proceedings. This betrothal period usually lasted about 12 months. (The period was often shortened for a widower to as little as a month.) At the end of the 12 months, another ceremony, the home-going, took place, after which the husband and wife came together and established their home.
From Mary’s question, we could suppose that this visit from the angel was fairly early in her betrothal period—possibly even the night of the betrothal ceremony. She correctly presumes that the impregnation of which the angel speaks would come upon her soon if not immediately. So, even though she was betrothed, that marriage would not be consummated for perhaps another year. The angel explains that the seed would come not from a man, but from God. And Mary accepts this in faith.
This scene is a model for the interaction between God and us in the salvation process. Salvation begins with God. It is he who must first reveal and enlighten in order for our darkened and dead spirits to be awakened to his truth. It is God who makes known to us his will and work. We, as Mary, do nothing—neither by merit nor position do we earn or accomplish salvation. We simply acknowledge by mental assent—faith—God’s gift and act. He then gives us life. I think that as soon as Mary gave speech to her faith in saying, “Let it be to me according to your word,” that the Holy Spirit conceived the child within her.
The angel leaves, and Mary is alone with this knowledge. But before the angel left, he planted also the seed of an idea in Mary’s mind. He told her that Elizabeth (who had been keeping her own secret) was also experiencing a miraculous pregnancy. Mary immediately decides that she must make the long trip to Judea to visit Elizabeth, for Elizabeth is probably the only one to whom Mary could relate and maybe the only one who would believe Mary’s fantastic story.
Mary hastens to Elizabeth, and just as she enters the house, the baby within Elizabeth leaps, and Elizabeth is given revelation by the Holy Spirit of all that Mary has gone through. This is what the Bible speaks of as prophecy—a message spoken by someone with no prior knowledge, who has had that message revealed to them directly by God. Mary has spent the last few days on her trip there wondering and imagining and hoping that Elizabeth would somehow believe her when she revealed her secret. But here now on entrance into the house, Elizabeth speaks all those things that Mary had carried in her heart since the angel’s visit. Mary is overwhelmed and cries out her Magnificat saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months—probably until John was delivered—before returning to her home in Nazareth.
But what now? Her trip probably made her situation even harder to defend. She comes back from being away for three months, and she is, as Matthew said, “found to be with child.” She probably tries to explain to Joseph that she was not with someone else—that this pregnancy was a miraculous gift from God. But Joseph, probably like any of us, finds it difficult to believe. He begins to make plans to divorce her—although quietly. But God interrupts his plans. An angel visits Joseph in a dream and explains the same story that Mary had been begging him to believe. And based on this confirmation, miraculous in itself, Joseph does believe and accepts Mary.
Matthew then ties Mary’s circumstance to Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin would conceive as a sign from God. That passage is in Isaiah 7. The situation there was that Ahaz, king of Judah, was threatened by the joined forces of Israel and Syria. Isaiah comes to Ahaz and tells him not to fear because God would defeat both Israel and Syria. Isaiah tells Ahaz that he can ask for a sign from God that this would be done. Ahaz, however, refuses to ask for a sign, not wanting either to show belief in God or not wanting to be obligated to do nothing if the sign came true. Ahaz already had plans to make his own war partnership with Assyria. But Isaiah tells him, in verse 14, that God would give him a sign anyway: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
The word translated “virgin” in Isaiah is the Hebrew almah which means young girl—almost always associated with virginity. The immediate fulfillment of this prophecy is that Isaiah takes a prophetess as a wife—presumably a young virgin, girl—and she conceives a child. This child, we are told in the prophecy, would not even be old enough to know right from wrong by the time God destroys Israel and Syria. And so it happened.
Matthew, however, shows us that this virgin prophecy had a double meaning. Not only was it intended for Judah at that time, but it was intended in a broader sense that God would send a Savior through the sign of an actual virgin conception that would save all his people in an absolute sense.
Before proceeding into Matthew chapter 2, some historical background surrounding the birth of Christ should be discussed. Again, Matthew gives few details. We are dependent on Luke for most of them. Luke begins in chapter 2 of his Gospel by telling us that the birth of Christ occurred during the reign of the emperor Augustus. Augustus reigned as sole emperor of Rome from about 31 BC to AD 14. Luke also says that Augustus had decreed that all of the Roman world would be registered for tax purposes. And there was a 14 year registration that began about 20 BC and was supposed to have ended around 7 BC.
We know from Matthew that Jesus was born toward the end of the reign of Herod, king in Palestine. Herod reigned as king from 37 BC to 4 BC. Josephus tells us that Herod passed from the world in about March-April of 4 BC just after a comet, visible to the earth, had passed through the skies in that month.
A problem arises when we continue with Luke’s account and read that the tax registration was “the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Although not always exactly accurate, historical records show that Quirinius was governor of Syria around AD 6 to AD 9 (or AD 11 depending on source). And there was a registration/census taken in AD 6 when Quirinius became governor, but it was a census for only the region under his control which included Palestine. Our problem, of course, is that if Herod died in 4 BC and Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until AD 6, we have a gap of about 10 years between the two. Yet, according to the plain reading of Matthew and Luke, both were supposedly in their positions at the birth of Christ. Toward the end of Herod’s life, it was Sentius Saturninus who was governor of Syria, not Quirinius.
Luke provides a little help is by indicating at the beginning of chapter 3 that John the Baptist began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius. Tiberius became emperor after Augustus in about AD 14. Therefore, John began his ministry in about AD 28. Jesus came to John to be baptized at that time. And Luke records in 3:23 that Jesus was about thirty years of age when he began his ministry. Working backwards, then, Jesus birth had to be about 3 BC. Of course, 3 BC is after Herod’s death and before Quirinius becomes governor. So it appears that we still have some disconnect.
We must realize, however, that not only might the historical accuracy of these dates be only approximate, but even Luke gives us breathing room. He does not insist that Christ was thirty years of age, but says only that he was about thirty. Could thirty-three be about thirty? Assuming that it could, Christ could have been born in 6 BC rather than 3 BC, well before Herod passed from the scene. That worldwide census that was supposed to end in 7 BC could very well be delayed by a couple of years in Palestine, where Herod was known to have dragged his feet on certain administrative requirements. Therefore, our timeline could be adjusted as shown in the following chart.
We see that in around 6 BC we have several of the major events aligned—Augustus is emperor, a census occurs, Herod is king, and Jesus is born. We still have the one problem of Luke 2:2 that reads, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
What exactly does Luke’s statement mean especially with regard to this being the “first” registration? Certainly the census of Quirinius’ time is not the first that Augustus ever decreed a registration. And there were not two censuses taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria of which this is the first. There are two other possibilities. The first is that the governorship of Quirinius in AD 6 was the second time Quirinius was governor. We know that Quirinius was a general during the time of Sentius Saturninus in 9 to 3 BC. Perhaps at this time, since Sentius was a noted weak ruler, Augustus made Quirinius a sort of co-governor especially to ensure the completion of the census. While this idea would seem to solve the problem, there is absolutely no firm historical evidence that Quirinius ever was Syria’s ruler prior to AD 6. Insisting on it, as some scholars do, seems a rather weak idea.
A better answer is that the translation we have of Luke 2:2 is incorrect. The word translated “first” is the Greek protos. Checking with our lexicons, we will note that besides its other meanings as “first,” protos also means that which comes before. For example, in John 1:15 we read, “John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before [protos] me.’” An even better example is John 15:18: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before [protos] it hated you.” Here we have even the same construct – where something occurred before the other. So Luke 2:2 could be better translated, “This [registration] was before the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”
While this translation seems to answer the problem, we must consider why Luke would have made this statement. The census of AD 6 when Quirinius was governor was a milestone event. Not only did it cost Palestine a great deal in tax, it was this census that established the temple tax. Most tax was assessed based upon property ownership. But the tax resulting from the AD 6 census had the additional design of assigning everyone a tax based on the temple. Many of the Jews thought this an abomination. An uprising did occur which had to be put down (see Acts 5:37 for Gamaliel’s mention of Judas and this revolt). And each year it grated the consciences of the Jews in having to pay this temple tax. Remember that it was about this tax that the Pharisees and Herodians tried to trip up Jesus with their questioning (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:19-26). Thus, when a census or initiation of a tax was mentioned, the minds of the Jews immediately went to this AD 6 registration overseen by Quirinius. That is why Luke has to make the statement in 2:2. In verse 1 he speaks of a census in relation to Christ’s birth. But in 2:2 he must clear any confusion by telling his readers that this was the census taken before the one that they were thinking about—before the registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Now all the events line up for Jesus birth to have occurred about 6 BC.