Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

Mat 1:18  Now the generation of Christ was in this wise. When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost.

“Now, the generation of Christ was this.” After having shown that our Lord was of the seed of David, the Evangelist, to prevent any misconception regarding the manner of His birth, to which the mention of Joseph, as husband of Mary, and the seed born of her might give rise, now proceeds to show that His birth took place in a way quite different from that of all other children. The Greek word for “generation,” ᾕ γενεσις, means “the birth,” hence the words mean, “the birth of Christ took place in the following now and unheard of manner.”

“Espoused,” is generally understood by the Fathers to mean, married, delivered over to him as wife to a husband, and not merely engaged. He is called her “husband” (vv. 16–19), and she his “wife” (v. 20). The Greek word bears the signification of being married (Luke 2:5). It is, moreover, observed that if the Blessed Virgin was merely engaged to Joseph, and exhibited signs of pregnancy while living apart in her father’s house, the Almighty would have hardly sufficiently consulted, humanly speaking, for her character or life which, in these circumstances, would be forfeited to the law, and this is commonly assigned as one of the chief reasons why the Blessed Virgin was engaged in marriage at all. Patrizzi, however (Lib. iii., Disser. xv. de Som. Joseph), maintains, that at the time of his dream (v. 20) Joseph was not married, but only betrothed to the Blessed Virgin. His reasons are:—

1. If married, Joseph would surely have accompanied her on her visit to St. Elizabeth immediately after conceiving the Son of God (Luke 1:39), and have known the mystery of her miraculous conception so loudly proclaimed by Elizabeth (Luke 1:43).

2. He interprets “took unto him,” he now took as his wife her to whom he was before only espoused. For, “doing as the Angel commanded” (v. 24) would, according to him, imply some course of action different from merely passively allowing her to remain in his house.

3. The Greek word μνηστευθεισης signifies espousals, as contradistinguished from ελαβε, married, as appears from Deut. 20:7. St. Jerome also says of Joseph, “Omnia futuræ uxoris noverat” (Comment. in hunc locum). St. Chrysostom (in Matt. Hom. iv. 82) would seem to be of the same opinion.

According to Jewish usage (Philo de spocialibus legibus, p. 788), those espoused were regarded as man and wife; hence, Joseph is called “the husband of Mary,” and this St. Jerome tells us (in Matt. c. 1) is in accordance with Scriptural usage, and hence, whosoever violated another’s spouse was regarded as an adulterer (Deut. 22:24) and punished as such.

As for consulting for the honour of the Virgin by means of marriage, it would not be regarded as a dishonour for a woman to have conceived of her espoused before marriage. Intercourse between them, although forbidden, was not regarded as entailing dishonour. (Selden Uxor. Heb.) Espousals were dissolved by a bill of divorce like marriage (Deut. 24:13; Patrizzi loco citato).

“Before they came together,” a modest expression for conjugal intercourse. “Before,” until, by no means implies carnal intercourse, afterwards; for, as St. Jerome clearly demonstrates from several Scriptural examples against the (Arian) heretic Helvidius and others, such words as, before, until, &c., convey what happened or took place before an event, but by no means signifies what happened afterwards. That point is left undetermined. Thus, “Sit on my right until” I make Thy enemies Thy footstool (Psa 110) by no means conveys that He ceased to sit at His father’s right hand afterwards. “The raven did not return to the Ark till the waters were dried up upon the earth” (Gen. 8:7). This does not imply that it returned afterwards.

“She was found with child” quite unexpectedly by Joseph, who, with all a husband’s care, observed the condition of his blessed spouse. Probably he observed it when she was advanced three months in her pregnancy, after her return from visiting Elizabeth.

“Of the Holy Ghost.” These words are not to be connected with “was found,” as if Joseph knew the meaning or cause of her pregnancy, the contrary appears from the Angel dissipating his fears (v. 20); but with the words, “with child,” as if to say of her pregnancy, the Spirit of God, the source of all grace and holiness, was the author who brought this about by His power and operation, not as the father of Jesus Christ, but as supplying the place of father. Although the conception of Christ was an act of the entire Trinity, still, being an act of sovereign goodness, grace, love and fecundity, it is, by appropriation, ascribed to the Holy Ghost, as the effects of power are attributed to God the Father, and acts of wisdom to God the Son.

To the several reasons commonly assigned why our Lord had chosen to be born of a married woman, St. Ignatius, martyr, adds another, viz., ut partus ejus celaretur a Diabolo, that the devil would be baffled, while thinking Him to be born in the ordinary way. Upon this idea, St. Bernard (Hom. 2, N. 3) on the words, “missus est,” enlarges considerably, and shows that while God might have accomplished the work of redemption in whatever way He thought proper, still, in order to show how far He exceeded the demon in wisdom, He wished that the same instrumentality and course of action should be employed in man’s redemption that had so successfully accomplished his fall. In the one case, the devil tempted the woman, and through her triumphed over the man; in the other, the woman would deceive the serpent in miraculously bringing forth a son, the mystery of which was concealed from the devil, so that her son, Christ Jesus, would triumph over him publicly, and destroy his empire.

Mat 1:19  Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately.

The Virgin’s conception is evidenced by the testimony of Joseph, to whom it caused such perplexity, and of the Angel by whom this perplexity was removed. Both are here adduced as unexceptionable witnesses of this miraculous occurrence.

“A just man.” If he were “a just man,” and therefore observant of the law in all things, should he not expose her, as prescribed (Num. 5:12)? And, moreover, are not those who are conscious of another’s sin commanded to bear witness against him (Lev. 5:1)? The jealous husband who suspects his wife’s fidelity, is allowed in Num. 5:12 to bring her before the priest, but not bound to do so. And as regards Leviticus, it is only when interpellated by the judge, one is bound to expose another’s sin of which he is conscious.

Apart, however, from these answers, the observation does not apply at all here, inasmuch as the word “just” does not refer here to the mere virtue of justice generally regarded as one of the four cardinal virtues; but, it means the aggregate of all virtues including goodness, benevolence, meekness, &c., with which holy Joseph was eminently endowed; and it was because he was thus charitable, meek, and considerate, that he did not wish to expose her publicly, to make a public example of scorn of her, as the Greek word (δειγματισαι) clearly means, but he wished “to put her away privately,” probably by giving her privately a bill of divorce, which he was not bound to give publicly, nor explain the causes of giving it. Others think he meditated leaving her and going into some distant country. It is quite clear that Joseph, whose virtue was tried in an extraordinary way on this occasion, strongly suspected the Virgin, the signs of whose pregnancy were beyond doubt, and with whom he had not cohabited, to be guilty of adultery. Yet still, knowing her great virtue, he was inspired by Jesus Christ himself, whom she bore in her sacred womb, with the prudence of adopting the wise course of parting with her. He would thus consult for himself, and avoid the imputation of sanctioning crime by living with a suspected adulteress, and of carrying patience to the excessively foolish extent of permitting the supposed offspring of sin to be attributed to him. He purposed doing so “privately” to consult for her character.

Mat 1:20  But while he thought on these things, behold the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in his sleep, saying: Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife, for that which is conceived in her, is of the Holy Ghost.

“Thought” had been anxiously revolving these things within himself during his waking hours, without coming to any determinate resolution. From this appears the prudence of Joseph, who acted neither rashly nor without reflection; and his meekness and secrecy, by not divulging his suspicions to any one, not even to the Virgin herself.

“Behold” arrests attention, the matter being a subject of admiration.

“The Angel of the Lord,” generally supposed to be Gabriel, the same who announced the mystery of the Incarnation.

“In sleep.” Whenever the Almighty deigns to manifest His will through dreams, He allows no doubt to exist regarding the reality and divine origin of His communications, as in the case of Abimelech, Pharao, Nabuchodonosor. Whenever clear, certain proofs of divine communication do not exist, then the observance of dreams, which come either from natural causes or the demon, is strictly prohibited (Deut. 18:10). God made known His will to Joseph on this occasion. Indeed, by disclosing to him the private thoughts which God alone, the searcher of hearts, could know, He sufficiently indicated the divine character of the communication.

“Joseph.” The Angel addresses him in a kind, consoling manner, because his suspicion, so far as he was concerned, seemed well founded.

“Son of David,” reminds Joseph of the promises regarding the birth of the Messiah, from the family of David; and thus prepares him for the revelation regarding the conception of our Lord, which he was about to disclose.

“Fear not,” as if you were fostering an adulteress.

“To take unto thee,” to retain in your house and live with her whom thou hast already repudiated in thy mind, and banish all thoughts of either dismissing or leaving her.

“Mary thy wife,” who has been faithful to thee and perfectly sinless.

“Conceived.” The Greek word, γεννηθὲν, means “born,” to denote that our Lord was perfectly formed, that all His members and faculties were matured from the first moment of His conception in His mother’s womb.

“Is of the Holy Ghost,” that is, brought about by no human intervention, but by the power and operation of the Holy Ghost; while the word “conceived” shows that the Blessed Virgin had, according to the order of nature, performed the part of mother in conceiving our Lord, the words, “is of the Holy Ghost,” show that, by a stupendous miracle, in the order of nature, the Holy Ghost had, by His divine operation, supplied the place occupied by a father in the natural order, without, at the same time, being the father of our Lord, since the human nature of Christ received none of the substance of the Holy Ghost, so as to establish, as in the natural order, the relation of paternity.

Mat 1:21  And she shall bring forth a son: and thou shalt call his name Jesus. For he shall save his people from their sins.

Bring forth a son.” Having assured Joseph of the supernatural conception of her offspring, the Angel now tells him what that offspring is. “Shall bring forth,” as a true mother. From this is refuted the error of Valentinus and others who asserted that our Lord brought a body with Him from heaven, and did not take flesh in the Virgin’s womb.

“A son,” and not a daughter. He does not say, as was said to Zachary, “she shall bring forth a son to thee,” because it was not for Joseph, but for the entire world, our Lord was brought forth, “parvulus natus est NOBIS,” &c. (Isa. 9:6).

“And thou shalt call his name Jesus.” Joseph is reminded in these words, of the care he is to bestow on the infant, of whom, although not the father, he is still constituted the natural guardian and foster-father, and also on the mother, on whom, far from sending her away, he should bestow all possible care and attention.

“Jesus.” This is the proper name of the Son of God, brought down from heaven by the Angel, and bestowed on Him at circumcision. It signifies Saviour, the same as the Hebrew word Jesuah, with a slight change of termination, which is derived, according to some, from the Hebrew verb Jasah, to save, or according to others, from the word Jehosuah, of which it is a contraction—compounded of Jehovah, Lord, and suah, salvation, contracted Jesuah, the Lord Saviour. This is the etymological reason of the word assigned by the Angel himself, “for He shall save His people from their sins.” The corresponding Hebrew word is sometimes written Jehosuah, and sometimes, particularly in books written since the Babylonish captivity (as in Esdras 2:2; Nehemias 7:7), in a contracted or shorter form, Jesuah, and this latter is the form preserved in the inscription of our Saviour’s cross in the Church of the Holy Cross, Rome. In every instance the Septuagint interpreters render Jehosuah, Jesus; and so do Philo and Josephus. In the Vulgate it is always rendered Josue, by St. Jerome. In the Old Testament, we sometimes find the same persons called Jehosuah and Jesuah, which proves both terms to be identical. Thus, for instance, the High Priest, the son of Josedec, called Jehoscuah (Aggeus 1:1; Zach. 3:8), is called Jesuah (1 Esdras 5:2; 2 Esdras, or Nehemias 12:26). It was by no means unusual with the Jews to contract and shorten words, as in the case of Jehosuah into Jesuah. In the New Testament, we find the word Jesus—the proper name of the Incarnate Son of God—applied to Josue, the son of Nun (Acts 11:4, 5; Heb. 4:8). He was a distinguished type of Him who was pre-eminently entitled to the appellation of “Saviour,” not of one people alone, but of all peoples, from every tribe of the earth, embracing Jew and Gentile.

Mat 1:22  Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying:

“Now, all this was done.” Some interpreters, among whom are St. Chrysostom, Irenæus, &c., say those words were spoken by the Angel, and form a continuation of his discourse to Joseph (vv. 20, 21). All this mysterious silence on the part of the Virgin, which caused you such perplexity, or rather, this mysterious pregnancy itself on the part of your virgin spouse, Mary, without human intervention, the cause of this perplexity, took place, &c. The generality of commentators, however, say they are the words of St. Matthew, explaining the foregoing words, and adducing the testimony of the Prophet as an additional argument corroborative of the testimony of the Angel. For, with the Jews, whom St. Matthew addressed, the fulfilment of this remarkable, well-known prophecy of Isaias would carry great weight. Patrizzi (De Evang. Lib. iii., Dissert. xv.) advocates the former opinion, chiefly on the grounds—1st, that if “all this” were the words of St. Matthew, they would embrace the message of the Angel to Joseph, which certainly did not take place, in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled. 2ndly. That if these were not the Angel’s words, he would not have sufficiently instructed Joseph as to the divine and supernatural origin of the child of the Virgin’s womb, while the words of the Prophet would have effectually done this. 3rd. The Gospel narrative of what Joseph did (v. 24) would seem to convey that he did it at the close of the Angel’s address, and that, therefore, the words of this verse and of v. 23 were comprised in it.

“That the word might be fulfilled.” The particle “that,” when there is question of the fulfilment of a prophecy, does not precisely express the cause, as if to say, the cause of the event taking place was in order that the prophecy might be fulfilled, since the event to take place was prior, in the mind of God, to the issuing of the prophecy. For, the prophecy was made, because the event it regarded was to take place. It means the consequence, so that, the consequence of all this was the verification of the prophecy. However, while generally denoting the consequence, it might be said here, in some sense, to indicate the cause also. For, among the causes of the conception of Christ by a virgin, was the verification of the promises made by God to the Fathers, which promises were contained in the SS. Scriptures. It may be said to refer to a cause, and to a consequence, at the same time. For, He who issued the prophecy, because He determined on bringing about the event, accomplished the event, because He predicted it, in order to vindicate His veracity, a prophecy, being a kind of promise which a man of veracity fulfils, because He made it.

Mat 1:23  Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

“Behold” arrests attention when a matter of great importance is in question. “A virgin shall be with child,” &c. This celebrated prophecy is found in Isa. 7:14. It was uttered on the occasion of the second expedition of Rasin, king of Syria, and of Phacee, king of Israel, to destroy the kingdom of Juda, over which Achaz then reigned, and of the whole race of David (Isa. 7:6). Achaz with his people were seized with the greatest consternation, owing to the combination of these hostile forces against him. The Prophet was commanded by God to go and reassure Achaz, and tell him not to be afraid; and in proof of the verification of God’s promise, he tells him to ask for some sign either from heaven or the lowest depths. Achaz incredulously refused to ask for any sign; whereupon the Prophet, addressing him and his attendant princes and the whole house of David, as well for the present as for all future times, tells them that the Lord Himself shall give a sign that he and his people shall be saved from destruction. That sign, which is a prodigious, unusual event, is, that a virgin should conceive, without any reference to a man. The Prophet makes no allusion whatever to a man. The Hebrew word for “virgin,” alma, in the several places of SS. Scripture in which it is used, is applied only to one really a virgin, or reputed such in common estimation (Gen. 24:43; Exod. 2:8; Song 1:3; 6:8). St. Jerome (in cap. vii. Isaias) tells us that in the Punic language, which is derived from Hebrew sources, alma, signifies a virgin, and that, as far as his memory served him, he never knew it to be applied to any but to a virgin, and that a virgin young in point of years, “virgo abscondita quæ non patuit virorum aspectibus.” Thus are answered the objections of the Jews against the proof of our Lord’s divinity founded on this passage of Isaias. Moreover, the sign given is that which Achaz refused, “pete tibi signum,” and on his refusing to ask for a sign, a something unusual, uncommon, derived from “the depth of hell, or the height above,” Isaias gives such a sign, “dabit ipse Dominus vobis signum.” There would be nothing extraordinary in a virgin, after ceasing to be such, conceiving and bringing forth a son. In chap. 9:6 the prophet Isaias speaks of the same, as “Wonderful, the Mighty God, the Father of the world to come,” &c. But, how could the birth of Christ and His conception by a virgin, after so long an interval, serve as a sign to reassure Achaz that his enemies would not succeed against him? What connexion is there between the conception on the part of a virgin and the liberation of Achaz and his people? Resp. 1st. There are several signs given in SS. Scripture which occurred after the event to which they referred (Exod 3:12; 1 Sam 10:7–9; 2 Kings 19:29; Isa. 37:30; Jer. 44:29). We are not necessarily to admit that the Prophet gives Achaz here a sign of his liberation. Achaz impiously refused to ask for a sign. Then, the Prophet, transported in spirit beyond the present time, regards with delight a sign of a still greater liberation—the liberation of the human race by the Virgin’s Son—and this sign he gives to the entire family of David, even at the remotest period, without, confining it to Achaz and those who accompanied him and shared in his distrust and incredulity, “molesti estis Deo meo.” 2ndly. The connexion between the liberation of Achaz and the conception by a virgin may be easily traced. It was a thing well known at the time that a virgin, of the house of David, would conceive and bring forth the Messiah. Unless this were the constant tradition of the Jewish Church, surely, the Apostles would not advance an assertion so incredible and difficult to prove. Micheas, contemporary of Isaias, refers to it, as a matter well known and expected by the men of his day (c. Mic5:1–3). Hence the Prophet wishes to inform Achaz that the designs of his enemies, who wished to extirpate the race of David, could not succeed, as the verification of the well-known decrees of God in regard to the birth of a ruler in Israel (Mic 5:2), from a virgin, of the house of David, would forbid it. In truth, this sign given by Isaias was consequent and dependent on the permanent duration of the family of David; so much so, that if the family of David were destroyed, this sign could not take place. Hence, if this sign could not be questioned, neither could the duration of the house of David; and, therefore, from this sign could be concluded that the attacks of the enemies of Achaz, who was of the family of David, would be foiled.

“And they shall call His name Emmanuel, which is interpreted,” &c. In the original Hebrew of Isaias, the corresponding term for “they shall call” is carath, which St. Jerome tells us, in his commentary, should be rendered, THOU shalt call, or “HE or SHE shall call.” If rendered in the third person singular, it refers to the Virgin, who is to conceive—she shall call Christ by this name; if, in the second, “thou shalt call,” addressed to Achab and the house of David—then, it embraces the entire spiritual house of David at all times. Hence, rendered by the Evangelist, “they shall call.” St. Jerome observes (in Isa. 7:14), that, in quoting texts of Scripture, the sacred writers quote not precisely the words, but their meaning. “Call,” in accordance with Scriptural usage, signifies “to be,” and “name” is put for the reality or thing indicated. Hence, the words mean; He shall be, in reality, and shall possess the quality of being “God with us;” just as in c. 9, it is said, “And His name shall be called Wonderful,” &c., that is to say, He shall in reality be, and shall really possess the qualities here indicated. The words may also mean, they shall proclaim Him to be “Emmanuel,” or God with us, residing amongst us, by His incarnation, to which it is clear from the context there is reference here, wherein “the word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us” here on earth, in the visible form of man which He assumed (Baruch 3:38), in which alone He is capable of being a Jesus or Saviour, to save us from our sins. This will answer an objection that our Lord was not called, Emmanuel, in the Gospels, by the people among whom He lived; since Emmanuel only expresses an attribute or quality, just as He was not called “Wonderful” &c., by His contemporaries. These terms, like Emmanuel, only expressed the qualities He would possess; Jesus alone is His proper name. In like manner, in Jer. 23:6, Dominus justus noster, only expresses a quality, but not His proper name.

“Which being interpreted is, God with us.” A similar explanation is given (Mt 27:8, 33, 46). The interpretation of these words is no argument against St. Matthew having written in the Syro-Chaldaic, the vernacular of the Jews at the time; as it is quite common with all writers, to explain certain compound words, or notable foreign words, which were not in use among the people.

Mat 1:24  And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife.

“Joseph rising up,” shows the prompt obedience of Joseph. He obeyed promptly and without delay.

“Did as the Angel commanded him, and (that is, or, namely) took unto him his wife.” According to those who hold that Joseph had been at this time married to the Blessed Virgin, by this is meant, that he retained her and gave up all ideas of privately separating from her, in whatever way that was to be done. According to those who hold with Patrizzi that the Blessed Virgin was up to this only espoused or betrothed to St. Joseph, the words mean, that Joseph now married the Blessed Virgin and took her to his own house. This latter opinion seems to be borne out by the literal meaning of the expression used in reference to the Blessed Virgin (v. 20), “Fear not to take unto thee.” “And he took unto him,” would seem in the Greek παρελαβεν to denote marriage, to which μνηστευθεισης, espoused, expressive of betrothal, is antithetical. Most likely, on being interrogated by Joseph, the Blessed Virgin disclosed to him the great mystery operated in her (Luke 1:38–43), which, from humility, she hitherto concealed.

Mat 1:25  And he knew her not till she brought forth her first born son: and he called his name Jesus.

“And he knew her not,” a modest expression for conjugal intercourse. The particle “and” has the force of “but, however, he knew her not,” a signification the particle often bears before a negative (Matt. 12:5, 39, 43; 26:55–60; Acts 7:5, &c.). The sentence, “and he knew her not,” &c., is thrown in incidentally between the words, “he took unto him his wife—and he called His name Jesus,” the two things enjoined on him by the Angel. The birth of our Lord, consequent on which He was to receive His name from Joseph, is only incidentally introduced in the parenthetical sentence, “and he knew her not till,” &c., the object of which is to show that not only did a virgin conceive, but also a virgin brought forth a son without any human intervention.

“Until.” St. Jerome ably refutes the error of Helvidius, Jovinian, &c., regarding the perpetual virginity of our Blessed Lady, which error these heretics would fain deduce from these words, as if Joseph knew her afterwards, as also from the words “first-born,” as if others were afterwards born of her.

St. Jerome shows, from several Scriptural examples, that the particle, until, and others such, in negative sentences, only convey what was not done, without any inference to what afterwards occurred (Gen. 8:7; Num. 20:17; Deut. 7:24; Psa. 70:18; 109:1; 111:8; 2 Kings 22, &c.). The Evangelist’s only object in this form of words was to show, that Christ was born of a virgin, without any reference to any future occurrence. St. Jerome derisively asks, if any one said, “Helvidius did not do penance till he died,” would it imply he did penance afterwards?

“First-born” does not imply the birth of others, afterwards; otherwise, as St. Jerome argues against Helvidius, the law requiring the first-born to be consecrated to God a month after birth (Num. 18:16) could not be complied with till other children followed. The word only implies, that no other was born before Him; but not, that others were born after Him.

Similar is the answer to the objection founded on the words, “came together” (v. 18). Patrizzi gives another answer. He denies that “coming together” means conjugal intercourse at all; and hence, he says, that St. Jerome dealt rather liberally with Helvidius, in admitting this meaning. He asserts, that the words mean, “before they were married,” and that they refer to the interval between espousals and marriage.

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One Response to Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A | stjoeofoblog

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