The Birth of Jesus in Matt 1:18-25 (Part 2)

In this post, I wish to look at the first half of Matthew 1:18-25. In the previous post, I suggested that Matt. 1:18-25 could be divided into four sections, and we looked at sections 2 and 4 considered together; in this post, I wish to consider sections 1 and 2 together—that is, the 83 words of vs. 18-21a.


Before we start, I would like to point out an interesting “chiastic” element. The name Joseph occurs 28 words in from the start of the section, and it also occurs 28 words in, counting backwards from the end of the section. (We are using the Textus Receptus for this analysis.) Thus there are 27 words before Joseph and 27 words after: we have seen that 27 is a number that occurs in a couple of other places in the word count analysis, and I will be referring again to this interesting—and I believe significant-symmetrical aspect later in the post

Here is the attempted analysis:



1) We are here, in vs. 18-21a, moving in towards the centre of the “big” chiasm (i.e. vs. 18-25). Thus verses 18-21a constitute half of that big chiasm, but they are also chiastic in their own right! (I realise this is complicated, and I still don’t think I’ve really got all that far in my analysis!) Furthermore, not only are there chiasms within the overall structure, there are also parallel sections (“panels” to use the standard terminology) – an example of which was given in the previous post. Thus, some of the structures we will be looking at will exhibit both parallel and chiastic features simultaneously.

2) The passage we are looking at here (18-21a) contains the essential “plot development” of verses 18-25. Joseph encounters a perceived obstacle (Mary’s pregnancy) to his forthcoming (full) marriage to Mary, his betrothed. He plans a solution, according to his best insights, and they are indeed good insights – he is described as righteous – but that solution is overturned by the dramatic intervention of the Angel of the Lord. All this happens in verses 18-21a. The last half of vs. 18-25 sets these events in context: looking backwards in time, we read that these events were prophesied, and looking forwards, as we saw in the previous post, the angel’s plan is the one that actually prevails.

3) In the diagram of the structure, I have presented the mid-point in a “structural/conceptual” way—it occurs between the initial statement of the “problem” and the two “solutions” – those of Joseph and of the Angel of the Lord. By word count, however, the middle word is “apolusai” – to put away, i.e. divorce, and this occurs within the 3 word noun clause “secretly to divorce her”. This central clause by word count is then the last phrase of the first half of the structure. So, within the passage we have,

27 words


12 words

”secretly to divorce her”

12 words


27 words

This expresses in nuce the plot of the entire section—it is about Joseph and the need to change his planned behaviour with regard to Mary. Alternatively, the structure is

40 words                                                                                       41 words

“ secretly to divorce her”                 or                                         “divorce”

40 words                                                                                        41 words

(Perhaps we can think back to the 40 births of vs. 2-16, or the 41 “generations” (in the traditional sense) —the validity of that entire sequence is threatened by that “divorce”!  Perhaps also we might think of  the 27+12 = 39 words that surround both these mentions of Joseph in the light of this plan: 39 = 13×3 and 13 is not a “good” number in biblical numerology). At any event, these three words close off the first half of the narrative from a “conceptual/dramatic” perspective—and the scene is set for the enactment of the dramatic reversal of Joseph’s plan in accordance with the two-fold heavenly confirmation—the words of the Angel and the words of biblical prophecy (Is. 7:14)

4) It is perhaps worth pointing out here, though it applies to the entire narrative, that, despite their importance, neither Joseph nor Mary speak, and unlike Luke’s gospel, where Mary talks with Gabriel and praises God, Mary is basically passive—she is found with child, she is betrothed to Joseph and taken as wife—Her one action is to give birth. Joseph actively does one main thing—he is obedient to the angel and this breaks down into two actions—he takes Mary as wife, but does not know her, and he names the child Jesus. In the section we are looking at, God, through the Angel of the Lord, is the only one who speaks.

5) I think in this first half, as in the “big” chiasm, there are two “interwoven” narratives. The first, (represented here by A, A`,C and C`) concerns primarily Mary, the birth of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The interwoven narrative concerns Joseph and Mary’s relationship and the dilemma produced for Joseph by the events of first narrative, and the two solutions—Joseph’s and the correct solution—the one prescribed by the angel. God’s dealings with Mary here are through the Holy Spirit; God’s dealings with Joseph are through the Angel of the Lord.

6) The “B’s” have a slightly involved structure:

  1. i) B`(P) and B`(P`) are structured in parallel to each other and
  2. ii) both correspond chiastically to B.

If the analysis is correct, B, B`(P) and B`(P`) all consist of a statement about the relationship of Joseph and Mary, followed by a longer statement about a situation that affects the relationship and which includes, in the lower part, more about the relationship between Joseph and Mary. We can diagram the situation  (using B as an example . . .) as shown in the top half of diagram below:

But how should we represent the fact that “to Joseph” belongs both to relationship information (red) and situation information (yellow)? An answer is given in the bottom half of diagram below:


“q/p` is thus the second half of q and the (chiastic) second half of p combined into one—it is thus equivalent to a conventional p-q-p` structure whose lower half has been compressed so that the second half of q merges with p`! In the diagram, I have just used p – q – p` however.

The three pieces of “new information found in the “B’s” affect the relationship and drive the narrative forward, but the new information is always both “embedded in ” and “merging into” the relationship itself—hence the need for “orange” to simultaneously represent red and yellow .

7) However, there’s an additional consideration here—the tri-partite structure of B` (P-Q-P`) in the lower half does indeed chiastically match the tri-partite structure of B in the upper half( p-q-p`) but at a “higher structural level”, and this is indicated by the use of the capital letters P-Q-P` for the subsections of B`.

In this respect, we can see that B` as a whole is related chiastically to B: the relationship information at the very start and very end of B` (i.e. husband and wife) correspond, but develop, betrothed and “before joining” at the start and end of B.

8) Mary is described in v. 18 as “the mother of Him (Jesus)” even though at this point in the narrative Jesus has not yet been born. This is, to use the technical term, a proleptic (anticipatory) description, and will correspond to the complementary description of Jesus as “the Son of her” in v. 25. Likewise, Joseph is described as “the husband of her” (similarly pointing forward to “wife” in v. 24) – but at this point in the narrative, Joseph and Mary are betrothed. (Betrothal is nevertheless, a strong, legally binding, agreement however: there are many interesting facts about marriage in Biblical times that can be found, for example, on the internet, and which set Matthew’s very precise language in context.) Thus we are initially surprised, and take note, when words like mother and husband are used by Matthew in this anticipatory, proleptic sense. I think that when we are analysing “sub-structures” we must expect that some terms, people events etc. can have multiple functions—and the particular mode of expression for these may alert us to the role of the sub-structure in the “bigger picture” – in these cases, pointing us forward to the corresponding sections later in the chiasm when the “problem” is resolved.

9) The chiasm thus reflects the development of the narrative: in A, B, C the birth is described, in a proleptic sense, as having already been accomplished—the words birth and mother occur. However, Mary is also described as betrothed—rather than fully married – and as pregnant—rather than as “having given birth”.

Now, we know from 1:16 that Mary will be fully married to Joseph—indeed she must be—in order for her to belong “within” the genealogical/birth family line from Abrahamic and David through to Joseph—and therefore for Jesus to be Son of David and of Abraham. The B`, C` and A` sections describe how events resolve so that Jesus will be born when Joseph and Mary are already married.

The “problem” for the realisation of God’s purposes for the whole universe depends on this, and paradoxically it is Joseph’s righteousness— a righteousness according to Law— that looks as though it could, if that were possible, frustrate the grace of God and prevent the divine plan from being implemented. Therefore, God steps in through His angel to rectify the situation, and Joseph, through his obedience shows his righteousness and his good character to great effect.

I think this accounts for the fact that B` is more complicated than B since both the P and the P` parts of B` have to correspond (chiastically) back to B: the problem (described in B) contrasts with the proposed solution in B`(P): Joseph is proposing to step back from the “half way house of the betrothal” to a separation. Likewise, the solution described in B`(P`)` drives forward the situation in B: Joseph is encouraged to go ahead with the full marriage. The Angel of the Lord in Q is here the effective agent –which remind s us of Is. 55:11—”So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

10) Both C and C` end with the Holy Spirit—the difference is that by the time we get to C` God’s solution to the problem of Joseph’s plan to put Mary away secretly has been given.

11) There are lots of smaller details in the chiastic diagram. One interesting little detail is that Joseph is mentioned three times. First it is Joseph, then it is Joseph the righteous and finally, it is Joseph son of David!

In B(P`), publicly contrasts with privately, “expose her” contrasts with “put away her” and willing is compared with purposed. (These corresponding words are all located in structurally appropriate places, but I haven’t found a way to express all this clearly in the diagram!)

The middle section, Q is really brilliantly structured: in the top half, Joseph’s own “meditating” contrasts with the dream (revelation) in the lower half. “These things” – the object of his thoughts contrasts with “saying” – i. e. the words of the Angel. The top half points back, the lower half point forwards! (Behold and seen also correspond in this section).

12) Another, most important, “detail” is that in B`(P`), Mary, fittingly, gets chiastically linked with David.



son of


do not fear to take


(as) the wife of


The purpose of Matthew’s narrative is to embed Mary in David’s lineage through marriage to Joseph. In that sense, this is what all the previous 39 births have been “about” – if this plan, carefully developed through all the long ages fails at this point, we only have 39 births in David’s line; if it succeeds we will have 40, and God’s purposes will be accomplished! ( Possible additional thought: the relationship between 39 and 40 is also expressed in “punishment” (in an inverse sense since punishment is the opposite of obedience): 40 lashes might kill a man, but 39 will preserve his life)).

I have doubtless missed lots of important points that should be included in these notes—Please help!!

(to be continued)

Categories: Chiastic and Other Structures, Matthew's Genealogy of Christ

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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