When we hear Matthew’s story of the Nativity, our natural response is to ask what it means to us today. But let us try to listen in the way that Christians in the 1st century might have listened. How would it have sounded to them?
The gospel of Matthew, written perhaps about 80 AD, probably came from the ancient city of
on the eastern coast of the Antioch Mediterranean. was the capital
of the Roman Antioch . Four Roman
military legions were stationed there, including the notorious 10th
legion which had taken a leading role in the destruction of province
of Syria . Jerusalem was thus a military city and a centre
of Roman power. There was a lively church there ( Antioch Acts
-26; 13:1-3). The
terrible bloodshed of the Jewish war 66-70 AD and the destruction of the temple
would still be fresh in people’s minds.
Matthew and Isaiah
Isaiah was the favourite scripture of the early church. It was believed that all the major events of the life and death of Jesus were described in this prophetic book. It is not surprising then that when Matthew wanted to present the early traditions about the birth of Jesus Christ he asked his listeners to hear his account against the background of Isaiah. The section of Isaiah that is selected for this purpose was also very significant. Matthew drew his material from Isaiah chapters 7-9, using quotations from Isaiah 7:14 and Isaiah 9:1-2 as the bookends of his account. You can find his quotations in Matthew 1:22-23 and -16. I call these “bookends” because the earlier part of Matthew 1 is basically the family tree of Jesus and Chapter 4:17 introduces the public ministry of Jesus.
These chapters describe the dangerous expansion of the Assyrian empire in the late 8th century BC. An alliance of two small states just to the north of
was trying to set up resistance to Judah Assyria and
threatening to take over
to create a combined block to stop the Assyrians. Isaiah’s message to King Ahaz
was that a young woman would have the courage to name her new baby “God with
us” (Emmanuel) in spite of the threatening war clouds, but that in any case the
Assyrians would soon invade the little states, leaving the Judah
intact. kingdom of Judah
Once again, in the first century AD, the
had been swallowed up by the irresistible power of a pagan empire. The sacred
territories of Naphtali and Zebulon, north of land of Palestine , were under the power of the
Roman soldiers commanded from Judah .
But once again a deliverer would be sent, like Joshua, and the occupied
territories in the north would soon be freed (Matthew ). The “ Antioch Galilee
of the Gentiles” (verse 15), ie the sacred lands now trodden by pagans, would
This is why the child of promise was called Joshua. “Jesus” is simply the Greek form of the name. This is why the empire represented by the puppet king Herod in Matthew 2 tried to destroy the baby, why in Chapter 4 vv 8 and 9 Matthew describes the world empires as being under the power of the devil, why another Roman puppet king arrested John the Baptist (4:12) and why at last the empire succeeded in destroying Jesus (Matthew 27). But the empire did not have the last word.
Millions of hungry people today still live under the power of an empire based upon Western military might and money. We live on the inside of the empire. Does Matthew still have a message for us today?
John M. Hull