Skip to content

Matthew’s Political Baby Jesus

December 17, 2013

The language of Matthew’s gospel – the Greek of the nativity of Jesus – is political. We readers today can do our best to imagine who the original intended readers were. I believe much is clearly lost on us. And yet we can see a few things that give us the sense that the birth historiography is rhetorical and strategic.

1. Here’s a little background. Then 2. we’ll get more to a few adult political phrases in what’s now referred to as the Christmas story told to little children along with stories like The Christmas Carol.

1. Background

Didn’t a writer in Jerusalem, recording the alleged events, have a choice about which language to use? The writers of the gospels of Luke (in a variant text) and of John, recording the death events of Jesus, say clearly that his crime written on the Roman cross was published in Hellene, Roman, and Hebrew (or Greek, Latin, and Aramaic: γράμμασιν Ἑλληνικοῖς καὶ Ῥωμαϊκοῖς καὶ Ἑβραϊκοῖς Οὗτός ἐστιν // καὶ ἦν γεγραμμένον Ἑβραϊστί, Ῥωμαϊστί, Ἑλληνιστί). John’s account, in Greek, peppers the death episode with Hebrew-Aramaic names accompanied by Greek glosses to the Greek reader and pops in the Latin word Caesar with the Greek transliteration / Καίσαρα / for the Greek reader. And right before the languages on the cross are specified, the Greek of John’s infers that the peoples of the region and of the City may have known how to read all of them; Willis Barnstone translates this Greek into English as “Many Jews read the placard because the place where Yeshua was crucified was near the city”: τοῦτον οὖν τὸν τίτλον πολλοὶ ἀνέγνωσαν τῶν Ἰουδαίων, ὅτι ἐγγὺς ἦν ὁ τόπος τῆς πόλεως ὅπου ἐσταυρώθη ὁ Ἰησοῦς. I bring up Barnstone for a couple of reasons.

He’s Jewish and multilingual and multicultural. And Barnstone has long wanted to restore the Jewishness of phrases in the New Testament Jesus. In his first translation of the gospels and the book of Revelation called The New Covenant, Barnstone noted in a footnote the following:  “Jesus (from Greek Iesous [Ἰησοῦς]) can be Yeshua, or Joshua, as it is in translations from the Hebrew Bible with the exception of Everett Fox’s The Five Books of Moses, which restores Joshua to Yehoshua. Joshua is simply an older English way of transliterating Yeshua.” In an earlier book, Barnstone gives a bit of an explanation of Jesus from his viewpoint in the mix of languages and cultures:

Yeshuaben Yosef (Joshua Josephson in American) seems to have been a Pharisee opposed to Roman occupation who was crucified by the Romans as a Jewish seditionist, or some say (less persuasively) and Essene or Zealot. Recently, contemporary theologians speak of him as a Galilean peasant or an itinerant Cynic philosopher. Whoever Jesus was, he favored traditional Jewish biblical beliefs over the Hellenic thought and practices that by the first century had also been adopted by the Hasmonean hierarchy as well as by a large segment of the Jewish populace. Greek names were common. Hellenic culture was almost as dominant in Jerusalem as in Alexandria where a Jew such as the neoplantonist Philo Judaeus (?20 B.C.E. — 50 C.E.?) was Greek in training, language, and philosophy. Jesus’s followers, the sect of the Christian Jews, eventually adopted the essential neoplatonist ideas of eternity and the immorality of the soul. Later, the traditional Jews of Jerusalem were also platonized by Greek philosophy and by the increasingly platonized Christians, and the Jews accepted Greek and Christian ideas of the transmigration of the soul from earth to a heavenly or hellish incarnation. Such transcendental concepts had little or no basis in Torah (the Hebrew Bible) or in Greek scriptures (the New Covenant). But Jews and Christians went along with the dominant ontology of the Greeks and changed, as peoples and scriptures of all religions do, toward the spirit of the age.

While anyone might argue with the particulars of Barnstone’s overview of the historical Jesus, the context of the writing of the gospels and of Matthew’s Greek is pretty well established in this short paragraph. There are shifts of both language and culture to account for.

In Jerusalem, and in Rome, around the time of Jesus, and just before him around the time of Julius Caesar, Roman Latin did not dominate. Greek did. The specter of Alexander the Great loomed large. Still, the Greeks and Jews and Egyptians in Alexandria, who used Greek during that time, were not all together in how they used Greek. Barnstone’s little paragraph above just hints at neoplatonism being a shift. He could have said that there was a great rift. Scholar and historian Eric Havelock suggests that Plato (and then Aristotle and then Alexander) had strong political motivations for instituting a Greek language that worked against that of Homer and the poets. This was, if we will, a sort of Political Correctness for the Greek empire; and the Roman empire could not shake it either.

There was (and were), according to legend, Jewish translation(s) of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, in Alexandria, under the Ptolemies. And according to the scholarship of historian Sylvie Honigman there was much less of an Alexandrian paradigm and much more of a Homeric paradigm for both the historiography of the LXX and the actual literary critical theory and translation practices of the Septuagint. Another scholar, Naomi Seidman, points to the Talmud accounts of the LXX, which call it a “trickster text.” Another, Albert Pietersma, suggests in his reading and translating of the Septuagint’s Greek that the Jewish translator(s) knew the Hellene language well, at least well enough to provide literary sparks and interpretive spins.

Of course, we could argue with Barnstone and any of the others about how they read the Greek of the New Testament and of the Septuagint. What I’m interested in is the linguistic evidence of a resistance to Empire.

2. Matthew’s Political Baby Jesus

Here are a few adult political clauses and phrases in the historiography of Matthew on the birth of Jesus.

Is the backdrop of Egypt and of Empire highlighted?

  • Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου ἐκάλεσα τὸν υἱόν μου. This means roughly “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have called my son.” It is an excerpt of a translation of the Hebrew and maybe a clip of a paraphrase of the Greek translation of Hosea 11:1 – Ἐξ Αἰγύπτου μετεκάλεσα τὰ τέκνα αὐτοῦ.  That roughly means “Out of the birthplace of Egypt, I have recalled his children.” Matthew’s gospel is explaining the history of why the historical Jesus as an infant was in Egypt. It is not explaining what Hosea the Prophet might have meant by calling Israel a child, whether that meant the historical person Jacob as a boy or the nation of Israel. Egypt was the place of empire. Egypt had been the place of more than one empire. Greek readers of Matthew may have been familiar with the Bible’s Hebrew Hosea or with the LXX’s Greek Hosea. Much had come Out of Egypt to recall.
  • Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; εἴδομεν γὰρ αὐτοῦ τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ καὶ ἤλθομεν προσκυνῆσαι αὐτῷ. This is the quotation of what the “Magi” say. Greek scholar and New Testament translator Ann Nyland has notes (in her Source New Testament and also in her Study New Testament for Lesbians, Gays, Bi, and Transgender) around the gospel of Matthew that get at who the “Magoi” were. One note gives context: “By Jesus’ time, the Persian Empire had long been gone, conquered by Alexander the Great. Alexander’s successors had taken over the various parts of the Old Persian Empire…. [T]he Magoi may have been the Official Spiritual Advisors to the Seleucid state [a torn division from Alexander’s Empire].” Nyland also makes a big deal out of the verb in the second sentence I’ve quoted here to begin my paragraph:  human.god.worship

Much has been made of this “Kingly” language too. It appears right here in the birth episode in Matthew’s gospel. Of course it reappears at the end, in the death episode and in the post-resurrection evangelistic episode. It’s the reason for King Herod’s infanticide of baby boys who didn’t make it out to Egypt. It’s the reason for Praefectus Pontius Pilatus’s public trial of the adult Jesus and what appears on the cross in the three languages in the crucifixion.

One way to read the horrors of the second chapter of the Greek gospel of Matthew is a statement of resistance. Jews in Alexandria may have resisted the Ptolomaic Kings’s command for an Imperial Greek version of their Holy Scriptures; out of Egypt instead may have come a trickster text. Jews in Jerusalem and in Alexandria reading this gospel may have seen these worshipers of “the King of the Jews” from the East as those from a rogue split in the Old Greek Empire of Alexander the Great.

Are the names of Jesus subversive?

  • Ἰδοὺ ἡ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ· ὅ ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν ὁ θεός. This may be one of the most hotly discussed set of sentences in this Greek gospel. It riffs off of the Greek “translation” of Isaiah 7, which ostensibly changes the Hebrew word for “young girl” to the Greek word that some insist must mean “girl who’s not yet had sex with a man.” For this reason, it’s been wrongly called a “mistranslation.” Well, anyone who knows her Greek understands that the phrase “parthenos” here is much more loaded than that. It’s hardly some proof text that Miriam (aka Mary) was a “virgin” (since the context already fairly establishes that). Did perhaps the translators in Alexandria, Egypt intend to send a subversive message to the King? Had they been aware of how Hesiod had written: “There is a maiden. Justice, [παρθένος ἐστὶ Δίκη] born of Zeus, celebrated and revered by the gods who dwell on Olympus, and…. Bear this in mind, Kings… and put crooked judgments quite out of your minds.” (We may wonder why this language of pregnancy. Why all the literary spin and the interpretive changes by the Greek for the Prophet Isaiah?) Now, the Greek reader of Matthew’s gospel can clearly see that the baby boy born was NOT actually named “Immanuel, which is translated God With Us.” Or is there something else going on?
  • καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν … καὶ ἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν. “And ye shall [said the Messenger to Josef] call his name Jesus” … “And he called him Joshua.” Here there’s no calling this boy Immanuel (which is a transliteration, which gets interpreted, translated as God With Us). Rather, there’s this other name, Yeshua. It’s Moses’s nickname for Hosea ben Nun born in Egypt. In Hebrew it can mean something like, “G-d will save.” Here Matthew’s readers get the sounds, the transliteration. They get it in Greek like it’s an inside joke. And the whole of the sixth book, after the Five Books of Moses, is named, in Greek, this very name. And there’s another Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua too:
  • The other one is the Jesus mentioned by the Prophet Zechariah (See 3:8 and 6:11-12). In the Hebrew, the name gets interpreted somehow as meaning something like Branch. In the Hellene translation of the Hebrew there’s the strange use of the ambiguous Greek phrase Ἀνατολήν [ / anatolen /], which plays nicely against the verb ἀνατελεῖ in Greek Zechariah 6:12 and against the verb ἀναστήσω (later for resurrection) in Greek Jeremiah 23:5. So what’s that mean? What does the Hebraic Hellene here mean? The Targum of Jonathan (and not only this text) calls the name here Messiah. And Matthew has already used the Greek word for Messiah for Jesus by now. And we’ve already discussed the Magoi worshiping this baby as the King of the Jews under this star, in the East, or in the Rising place of the Sun, τὸν ἀστέρα ἐν τῇ ἀνατολῇ.

The Greek / Hebrew names here for the baby Jesus are rather political in contrast to the Empire of Alexander and the Empire of the Caesar. God With Us, G-d Saves Us Out of Egypt, Messiah Out of the East Where the Sun Rises. There’s much here that’s literary, much rhetorical, much translational, much perhaps resistant to the sort of obvious straightforward history writing that platonic/aristotelian/alexandrian Greek writing would lead readers to. I’m not suggesting that the message of Matthew isn’t clear. Rather, what’s clear to us in English translation today and in the telling of the story as a Christmas one for children may not be all there is.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: