What was Jesus’ background? Did God the Father arrange the Old Testament to prepare the way for Jesus as the Messiah?
By Mark D. Harris
It is interesting that the one part of Jesus’ life that is most recognized in mainstream American society is His birth. We celebrate Christmas, and despite the concerted and oftentimes angry effort to take Him out of Christmas, He remains an important part, even for many who may not believe much else about Him. Both Matthew and Luke provide valid historical accounts.
Overview – Jesus was born in 6-4 BC under remarkable circumstances. An angel announced to Mary’s aged and barren cousin, Elizabeth, that she would bear a great prophet who would be a forerunner to the Messiah. The same angel later announced to Mary that she, a virgin, would bear a son who was destined to be the Messiah. The angel appeared to Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, to convince him to go through with his marriage to her, despite the troubling nature of her pregnancy. In the fullness of time, John the Baptist was born, accompanied by the miraculous return of speech to his father and great prophecies about his future. Not long afterwards, Joseph and Mary traveled 90 miles south from Nazareth through the hill country of Palestine to Bethlehem, a place in which they were alone and homeless. In a stable for animals which was probably a cave, she had a son. His birth was attended by shepherds, angels, and great fanfare (“Glory to God in the Highest…”). After eight days He was circumcised and introduced to Anna the prophetess and Simeon at the temple in Jerusalem. Both understood that he was the Messiah. Shortly thereafter, Magi from the East (probably Parthia) came bearing gifts for the new king, Jesus. King Herod of Judea, fearing a threat to his throne, ordered all male babies under two in Bethlehem to be killed. Escaping in the nick of time, Joseph took his little family to Egypt to live. After the death of Herod, Joseph the carpenter and his family traveled through Judah and settled in Nazareth of Galilee.
Very little is mentioned about his growth and development except that he grew in wisdom, stature and favor with God and man. At age 12 in the Temple, Jesus demonstrated His development in knowledge of God’s word and His ability to reason through it. He also showed His priority focus on God the Father’s ministry for Him. At Jesus’ next appearance in the Bible, he is 30.
Matthew – Jesus’ birth and childhood are mentioned only in Matthew and Luke. Judging by the genealogy and the abundance of OT scripture, it is safe to say that at least one major objective of Matthew in writing his gospel was to convince the Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. The story of the Wise Men, prominently showing His readers the regal honor given the child, despite His humble advent, further supported this goal. But Matthew did not record the angel’s appearance to the shepherds, or their eyewitness account. Including the story of the sojourn in Egypt, Matthew took 29 verses for his account. Matthew used dreams in his accounts of how God communicated with the main human actors in the story.
Luke – Having as a major goal the production of a careful historical account, Luke included a genealogy and also spent time on His birth. A skilled historian, he began with the annunciation of John the Baptist, the forerunner for the Messiah. Then he weaved his narrative through the communications by vision to Mary, and her faithful response in the Magnificat. The prose of Luke 1-2, including the accounts of the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the manger, the angels and the shepherds, is magnificent. Whereas Matthew highlights the regality of Jesus’ birth, Luke highlights the humility of it.
The genealogies in the accounts can be harmonized, but with some difficulty. The following are common attempts to make them consistent. Harmonizing the genealogies is considered important because some Jews, even today, use Jesus genealogy to “prove that he could not have been the Messiah.
- Matthew’s gospel provides Joseph’s genealogy, as he is the legal father, and Luke’s gospel provides Mary’s genealogy, as she is the biological and legal mother.
- Matthew’s gospel provides Joseph’s genealogy through his actual father, Jacob, and Luke’s gospel provides his genealogy through his legal father, Heli. This assumes that Heli died childless and Jacob married his widow and fathered Joseph.
- Matthew’s gospel named the legal descendants of David in the official line of succession to the throne, and Luke’s gospel mentioned the actual line to which Joseph belonged, that Joseph’s father Jacob died childless and Heli became his legal father.
It is not clear which of these attempts, if any, are true. Findings from archaeology, discoveries of ancient documents, and other sources may someday provide answers.