Many years ago, I stumbled across Raymond E. Brown’s book, The Birth of the Messiah. I learned a lot of carefully detailed things, such as the dilemma that the Greek kai—which usually means “and”—might, in this instance mean “but rather.” Joseph was a righteous man kai he was minded to be gentle and discreet with Mary’s apparent indiscretion. He was so minded because he was righteous? In spite of his righteousness? The word won’t tell us. We have to intuit Matthew’s intent.
But I also learned some very large clunky things. Brown’s book, for instance, is divided between Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and Luke’s account. Matthew’s account makes up the first third of the book and Luke’s, the last two thirds. I learned that each narrative has an integrity of both narrative and tone and that each is different from the other. Just for practice, try to imagine the Matthean Mary breaking out in the Magnificat, when the actual Matthean Mary doesn’t utter a single word.
It is very hard for me to remember that Matthew’s account was meticulously assembled from sources he had access to; he never worked with the account of eye witnesses, even though it sounds like it. We are forced to imagine that the astrologers from the East wrote their memoirs when they got home and that is how we know that the reappearance of the Star as they headed down the road to Bethlehem ‘filled them with delight.” Matthew seems to know that.
With the top of my mind, I wholeheartedly affirm the nature of the narrative Matthew gives us, carefully assembled from diverse fragments. With the rest of my mind, I go right on thinking of the story in the way I first learned it as a little boy. That is why I keep discovering things that are logically entailed in the narrative approach and being surprised. Again.
Here’s the current one. What was the name of Jesus’s father? This is not a biological question. Joseph named the child and made him a part of the family; he is without any question the legal father of Jesus. No, the question I have recently stumbled over is this: what was the name of Jesus’s father? There is no reason to think that Matthew knew. The name of the father, like the birthplace and the adulation of the gentiles who had seen the star, are important parts of the story, but they are not facts of history. Matthew gave Jesus’s father the name Joseph because he wanted to tell the story of a dreamer who learned in these dreams what God wanted of him and who promptly did just that. And that is exactly what Jesus’s father does as Matthew tells the story.
If you ask who the most famous dreamer in Hebrew history is, it takes very little time to arrive at Joseph, the penultimate son of Jacob. Joseph dreamed his way into a jail in Egypt, then into the Chancellorship of Egypt, then invited his family to come to Egypt so they wouldn’t starve in Canaan. So Matthew, as I picture the process, said, “I know, let’s call him Joseph. That way, when these dreams begin to drive his actions, people will say that is just the kind of thing “a Joseph” would do.”
That brings the name of Mary’s husband up from the naive presuppositions, deep in my memory, and into the reexamination I learned from Raymond Brown’s book. “Why did Matthew call him Joseph?” is a really good question, I think, but you can’t get there unless you can find a way to get away from “His name WAS Joseph.”
And, trust me, that is harder to do that you might think.