Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Birth of Jesus and the power of the Empire

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 Antioch on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Antioch was the capital of the Roman province of Syria. Four Roman military legions were stationed there, including the notorious 10th legion which had taken a leading role in the destruction of Jerusalem. Antioch was thus a military city and a centre of Roman power. There was a lively church there (Acts 11:19-26; 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 4:14-16. 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.

What was the background of Isaiah 7-9?

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 Judah was trying to set up resistance to Assyria and threatening to take over Judah 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 kingdom of Judah intact.

Once again, in the first century AD, the land of Palestine had been swallowed up by the irresistible power of a pagan empire. The sacred territories of Naphtali and Zebulon, north of Judah, were under the power of the Roman soldiers commanded from Antioch. But once again a deliverer would be sent, like Joshua, and the occupied territories in the north would soon be freed (Matthew 4:16). The “Galilee of the Gentiles” (verse 15), ie the sacred lands now trodden by pagans, would be restored.

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

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