Sunday, December 11, 2022

Call Him Jesus. No, Emmanuel. Oh, Okay, Jesus.

Below is a rough translation and some preliminary comments regarding Matthew 1:18-25, the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent. It will always be curious to me how focused Matthew is on Joseph and how focused Luke is on Mary. I'm thankful that we have both, since having access to only one of them would leave us imagining that either Mary or Joseph were just passive parts of the story, instead of engaging as fully as they did. 

Have a blessed Advent and Christmas!

18 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ  γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς 
αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ, πρὶν  συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ 
ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. 
Yet the birth of Jesus Christ was thus. His mother Mary having been engaged to Joseph, before their coming together was found having [a child] in her belly out of a holy spirit.   
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
μνηστευθείσης : APPart, gsf to ask in marriage, to woo. In NT only in passive to be asked in marriage, hence, to be betrothed, affianced.
συνελθεῖν: AAInf, συνέρχομαι, 1) to come together  1a) to assemble  1b) of conjugal cohabitation  2) to go (depart) or come with one, to accompany one
εὑρέθη: API 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  
ἔχουσα: PAPart nsf ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold 
1. I suspect that the phrase, “his mother Mary having been engaged to Joseph” is a genitive absolute, since there is no nominative subject there.
2. The phrase ἐν γαστρὶ can mean ‘the belly’ or ‘the womb. In phrases ‘ἐν γαστήρ ἔχω’ means ‘to be with child.’
3. The phrase πνεύματος ἁγίου is commonly translated “the Holy Spirit.” In this case, there is no definite article, so it is properly ‘a’ and not ‘the.’ In addition, both “holy” and “spirit” are in the genitive case, so it may be possible that this phrase could be translated two different ways: a) “a holy spirit” where both genitives are objects of the preposition ‘out’ (ἐκ). Or, b) “a spirit of holiness” “spirit” is the object of ἐκ and “holiness” is a modifier of “spirit.” I may be bending myself beyond my capability here, so Greek geeks – have at it. For now, as both are genitive, I'm treating it as "a holy spirit."

19  Ἰωσὴφ δὲ  ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, 
ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.
Yet Joseph, himself being a just man and not willing to make her a public example, intended to forgive her/send her away privately. 
ὢν: PAPart nsm, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
θέλων: PAPart nsm, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
δειγματίσαι: AAInf δειγματίζω, 1) to make an example of  
ἐβουλήθη: API 3s, βούλομαι, 1) to will deliberately, have a purpose, be minded
ἀπολῦσαι: ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer) 
1. The word ἀπολύω is very versatile and can mean things as extremely different as ‘divorce’ to ‘forgive.’ Joseph could be intending to “send Mary away,” as a prerogative of a betrothed man whose fiancée is found to be with child, or he could be releasing her from any obligation without all of the community hubbub that accompanies a formal public shaming, or he could be forgiving her quietly. The tone of the verse seems to be shaped by the adjective λάθρᾳ - ‘in private’ or ‘in secret.’ Whatever ἀπολύω is intending to signify, Joseph – as a righteous person – set out to do so privately.
2. The NIV interprets δίκαιος (typically translated as “just” or “righteous”) as “being faithful to the law.” I would say that in many cases being “righteous” and being “faithful to the law” are one and the same, but it appears to me that one ongoing battle Jesus has with his opponents is that one can be faithful to the law and not be righteous about it and, conversely, one can be righteous by not being faithful to the law. I can imagine someone using the law in this instance – alleging faithfulness to it – to see Mary stoned to death. That’s why I think the word “private” or “secret” is the key to this verse and interpreting Joseph’s character. 

 20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ' ὄναρ ἐφάνη 
αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαρίαν τὴν 
γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου: 
Yet he having pondered these things behold an angel of the lord was manifest to him in a dream saying, “ Joseph son of David, may you not be afraid to companion Mary your wife/woman, for the one having been begotten in her is out of a Holy Spirit;  
ἐνθυμηθέντος: APPart gms, ἐνθυμέομαι, 1) to bring to mind, revolve in mind, ponder  2) to think, to deliberate 
ἐφάνη: API 3s, φαίνω, 1) to bring forth into the light, cause to shine, ...  2b) to become evident, to be brought forth into the light,   come to view, appear  
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
φοβηθῇς: APSubj 2s, φοβέω to strike with fear, scare, frighten. Middle or passive as here, to be put in fear, take fright
παραλαβεῖν: AAInf παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self  1a) an associate, a companion
γεννηθὲν: APPart nms, γεννάω, 1) of men who fathered children 1a) to be born  1b) to be begotten  1b1) of women giving birth to children 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. “Joseph son of David,” is a reference to the genealogy that is given in vv.2-16. While this story about Joseph is a beloved part of the birth narrative, the genealogy that precedes it is often overlooked. Matthew makes a clear connection between them. Joseph is no random righteous person and Mary is not just a random righteous woman. There is a backstory. They are part of a narrative that Matthew finds important enough to share all of those genealogical details full of names, a few comments, and some numerical notes that indicate purpose and fulfillment in this birth. 
2. γυναῖκά can be translated either as "wife" or "woman." I'm going to sit on squarely on the fence and render it as "wife/woman" in the next note. 
3. παραλαμβάνω can mean simply ‘to take’ which might mean the angel is saying “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife/woman.” But, the word ‘as’ is added in translations that go this route. The actual phrase is “Mary your wife/woman.” Perhaps this is indicative of different ‘rules of engagement’ – to use that term literally – at work in the 1st century, whereby a fiancée was, already in some way, a ‘wife’ during the betrothal, and the wedding itself began a new kind of companionship. The verb appears again in v.24, when Joseph, in fact, ‘took his wife/woman’ (again, not ‘as his wife/woman.’)
I’m wondering if the different rules of engagement might account for the apparent conflict between Luke and Matthew over whether Joseph and Mary were married before Jesus was born. (Compare Mt.1:24 and Lk.2:5)
4. The verb γεννάω (begotten) is used repeatedly in the genealogy of vv.2-16 and is connected to noun ἡ γένεσις (the birth) in v.18. Notice how v.16 skillfully avoids using this term to connect Jesus and Joseph, bypassing through Mary instead.
5. In v.18 we had the construction ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου. Here we have another genitive construction but with a verb in the midst of it: πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου. Until I am instructed more thoroughly I assume that the “spirit … holy” genitival phrase is subject to the same possibilities as I explored in v.18. 

21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει 
τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν. 
Yet she will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.
τέξεται: FMI 3s τίκτω, 1) to bring forth, bear, produce (fruit from the seed) 1a) of a woman giving birth 
καλέσεις: FAI 2s καλέω, 1) to call  1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice  1b) to invite  2) to call i.e. to name, by name  2a) to give a name to
σώσει: FAI 3s σῴζω, 1) to save, keep safe and sound, to rescue from danger or destruction 
1. She will, you will, he will – all three verbs here are future and assign roles to Mary – birthing; Joseph – naming; and Jesus – saving. The subjects of ‘she will bear’ and ‘you will call’ are implied in the personage of the verbs, but ‘he will save’ has a pronoun attached to it, which I take to signify that Jesus’ role is the one that is most emphasized in this verse.
2. The etymological connection between “Jesus,” a rendering of the Hebrew Joshua or “God saves” and σώσει (“salvation”) is important to note here because of the parallel construction between this verse and v.23 below.

22 Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ 
προφήτου λέγοντος, 
Yet this all has taken place in order that the having been said by the Lord might be fulfilled which is said through the prophet,
γέγονεν: PerfAI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being  2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen  
πληρωθῇ: APS 3s, πληρόω, 1) to make full, to fill up, i.e. to fill to the full  1a) to cause to abound, to furnish or supply liberally 
ῥηθὲν : APPart nms, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
λέγοντο: PAPart gms, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain
1. This rough translation is terribly awkward, but I am trying to honor each of the verbs at this stage. At a later stage it can be smoothed out considerably without doing damage to the meaning, but we have many fine translations that have done that for us already.

23 Ἰδοὺ  παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ 
ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ,  ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ' ἡμῶν  θεός.
“Behold the virgin will have [a child] in belly and will bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel, which is translated ‘the God with us.’”
ἕξει: FAI 3s, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  1a) to have (hold) in the hand, in the sense of wearing, to have  (hold) possession of the mind
τέξεται: FMI 3s, τίκτω, 1) to bring forth, bear, produce (fruit from the seed) 1a) of a woman giving birth 1b) of the earth bringing forth its fruits  
καλέσουσιν: FAI 3p, καλέω, 1) to call 1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 1b) to invite 2) to call i.e. to name, by name 2a) to give a name to 
μεθερμηνευόμενον: PPPart nms, μεθερμηνεύω  to translate from one language into another.
1. Terms from the previous verses are repeated here in this rendering of Isaiah 7:14. ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα from v.18 is repeated in the phrase ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει (have [a child] in her belly); τέξεται (will bear) from v.21 is repeated verbatim; and καλέσεις is repeated in καλέσουσιν (will call).
2. However, key terms are changed as well: καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν (you will call his name Jesus) from v.21 is καλέσουσιν τὸ  ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ (you will call his name Emmanuel) here. And the description of “Jesus” as σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν from v.21 (he will save his people from their sins) in v.21 is now the description of Emmanuel as ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ' ἡμῶν ὁ θεός (which is translated ‘God with us’).

24 ἐγερθεὶς δὲ  Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῷ 
 ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ: 
Yet having risen from the sleep Joseph did as the angel of the lord ascribed to him and took his wife/woman;
ἐγερθεὶς: APPart nms, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake  1b) to arouse from the sleep of death, to recall the dead to life 
ἐποίησεν: AAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.  1b) to be the authors of, the cause 
προσέταξεν: AAI 3s, προστάσσω, 1) to assign or ascribe to, join to  2) to enjoin, order, prescribe, command  2a) to appoint, to define 
παρέλαβεν: AAI 3s, παραλαμβάνω, 1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self  1a) an associate, a companion
1. For Joseph ‘taking his wife,’ see note 3 of v.20 above.

25καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.
And he did not know her until she bore a son; and he called his name Jesus.
ἐγίνωσκεν: IAI 3s, γινώσκω, 1) to learn to know, come to know, get a knowledge of perceive, feel  1a) to become known  2) to know, understand, perceive, have knowledge of  2a) to understand  2b) to know  3) Jewish idiom for sexual intercourse between a man and a woman 
ἔτεκεν: AAI 3s, τίκτω, 1) to bring forth, bear, produce (fruit from the seed)  1a) of a woman giving birth 
ἐκάλεσεν: AAI 3s, καλέω, 1) to call  1a) to call aloud, utter in a loud voice 
1. Again, this verse echoes the verbs τίκτω and καλέω of v.21.

Unlike Luke’s gospel, where the emphasis is on Mary, Mary’s visitation by the angel, Mary’s call to bear the chosen one, Mary’s response of “let it be to me according to your word,” etc., Matthew’s story attends to Joseph. In fact, throughout Matthew 1-2, Joseph has four different dreams and visitations by an angel of the Lord. Here, Joseph is encouraged to take Mary as his wife because the child within her is of the Holy Spirit. Right after the Magi visit in the next chapter, Joseph will be instructed in a dream to take the child and his mother and flee, because Herod is trying to kill the child. After Herod’s death, Joseph will be given the ‘all clear’ in another dream and depart from Egypt. And finally, as they are returning home, but on discovering further news about the distribution of power following Herod’s death, Joseph is warned in a dream without details, and decides to settle in Nazareth instead of returning to Bethlehem. The sojourning to Egypt and the return trip to Nazareth are, for Matthew, ways that the story fulfills Scripture.

In this first dream sequence, the most detailed of the four, something about Joseph’s character is shown in his decision not to put Mary away openly. Deuteronomy 22:21 gives Joseph the right to demand Mary’s death: then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. I do not know if this law were actually in practice during the time of the Roman occupation (even the well-known story of John 8:1-11 is a later addition), but surely there would have been some kind of ritual shaming at Joseph’s disposal as a remnant of the actual permission to execute her. By choosing, before his dream, to put Mary away privately, we see something about Joseph’s character. See v.19 n.1 for the versatility of the verb ἀπολύω, which could mean to send Mary away or perhaps to forgive her. If the best translation of ἀπολύω is that Joseph decided to send Mary away privately, then Joseph’s menu of choices were either a public demonstration of breaking the engagement or a private one. The public demonstration would have been one way of adhering to Leviticus 22:21. One can almost hear the biblical fundamentalists of Joseph’s day demanding such a public demonstration, if nothing else to show how faithful they were to the Scriptures and how highly they regarded a woman’s fidelity to her husband. The dream calls Joseph to do something even more radical than the private dismissal of his pregnant fiancée. He is called to embrace her pregnancy as an act of the Holy Spirit – which means, among other things, to follow God by not following the law. That strikes me as a powerful statement of what it means to follow the living God that is actively at work in the world.


  1. I discovered your blog about a month ago after hearing it mentioned on more than one occasion on the Pulpit Fiction Podcast. The last month I added reading your blog to my Sunday night ritual as I begin to explore the text for the week. Thank you for time, dedication, and generosity to share your insights of the text.

    1. Thank you, Rusty. Glad to have you as part of the journey. MD

  2. Thanks for sharing the results of your studies - you've helped me with my thinking on this passage, and I have a better appreciation now of Joseph's character. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. There is some intriguing depth to Joseph's story. Blessings. MD

  3. Interesting article... Peace on earth.... May I share an article about the Last Supper in Milan in
    Watch also the video in youtube

  4. Mark, I am always enlightened, inspired, and challenged as I read your words. Blessings, Robin

  5. I think many "good" people get confused between following the law and following God. Thanks for naming the distinction. Wonderful commentary as always.

  6. μὴ φοβηθῇς - May you not be afraid. The angel contradicts Joseph's fear-inspired intent to reject Mary - and the unborn child - that would have left her destitute in a world that did most definitely not empower single mothers. The text doesn't say what Joseph feared - ridicule? Loss of standing? Fear is a strong motivator in rejecting people...

    1. Sometimes I feel too far away from that particular social context to be able to speculate how Joseph might have felt or what all of the ramifications might have been. Even placing it within an honor/shame continuum feels a little like romanticizing some kind of noble social code that may or may not have really played out in the daily lives of average folk. Still , if we don't pay attention to those dynamics, we risk not taking the story seriously.


If you want to leave a comment using only your name, please click the name/url option. I don't believe you have to sign in or anything like that by using that option. You may also use the 'anonymous' option if you want. Just be nice.

Blog Archive