November 3, 2012

The Complete Irony of Matthew 2:22

When Joseph fears Archelaus, and chooses Galilee, Matthew winks at the reader. Did Joseph really need divine instructions on where to go? After all, the reader should be aware that Archelaus didn't wind up ruling Galilee after all. His brother Antipas did. That is, at least, Antipas took over Galilee once Caesar finally ruled on King Herod's modified will.

At any rate, Matthew's irony works because *we* know, as his original readers most certainly also did know, that Matthew had no need to fear Archelaus in Galilee. But Matthew says Joseph did not know that, which is why God has to send one more dream with instructions. Trust me. Go north. Well, wphew! Thank God that God knew what Joseph should do! Because Joseph himself, Matthew is telling us, didn't know any place else to go.

This geographical irony is so well recognized among scholars of Matthew's Infancy Narrative that they can refer to it obliquely, or barely in passing, but there is another significant aspect hiding here which I've not seen commented on yet by anyone, and it is simply this. This geographical irony works much better if the reader is somewhat familiar with the basic timeline of that year, the year King Herod died, the year we call "4 BC".

Remember, Matthew claims that Joseph, Mary and Jesus left Egypt on the very night Herod died. Even if critics today take that to be legend (which I do not, but nevertheless) the reference still stands as Matthew's embedded chronological marker, one of three major deaths recorded in Matthew's account. Regardless of Egypt, Matthew is placing Joseph's fear of Archelaus at a time shortly after the death of the King. And (for the critics) if Joseph had not yet left Bethlehem, we should find this massacre of that April was most likely his very best reason for doing so. Likewise (for the faithers) if there was an angel in Egypt, Matthew is still locating this event - Joseph's moment of fearing the new Herod - in a very precise window of time.

Either way, therefore, Matthew is telling us two things, at least: that Joseph took his family to Nazareth for fear of Archelaus, and that it happened very shortly after the King died.

Now, to be more specific; that this time frame includes the famous massacre of thousands at Passover is a fact without question, and IFF the account has a historical basis then it's logical to conclude that the massacre was at least one major factor in Joseph's eventual determination. However, there are no words in Matthew's literary construction that directly refer to any specific events. The Gospel here credits Joseph's fear only to the (purported) news that Archelaus was ruling just like his father.

For Matthew's original readers, a reference to Archelaus at the start of his rule would instantly spark recollection of this massacre. Again, historicity aside, Matthew is directly alluding to a specific time frame that his readers knew well, and Matthew is placing this moment in that one. (More can be said about this. See below.)

The decision to leave Judea is one thing but where to go is another. More critically, why should Joseph need advice from God about how best to avoid Archelaus? And why did Joseph not decide on Galilee for himself? Even without Luke's testimony (which may give us Galilee as Matthew's previously adopted home, but which *cannot* help us in understanding Matthew's text purely on its own terms) Galilee should have seemed like the obvious choice. But this begs the original question: was Galilee even an option?

If Archelaus was truly ruling ἀντὶ ("in the place of" or "just as") his father, does that not include Galilee?


(There is much more to be said here in a future version of this piece. For today, let me cut to the chase.)


This may be the principle objection to the argument, here. Does the irony in Mt.2:22 require a chronological aspect in order to work, as irony?

At first glance, perhaps not. Obviously there are many adept readers who've recognized the geographic and political irony without taking thought for the chronological context, and certainly without having any idea of the year 4 BC's precise micro-chronology (as here outlined in this paper). However, one consistent failure of virtually all scholars who've commented on this passage is a gross over-simplification (if not complete unawareness) of the transitional phase of Galilean government in the year 4 BC. In short, most writers and commentators routinely sum up this transition in one sentence, to the effect that Herod died and Caesar divided his kingdom into three parts (etc). So summarized, time has stopped moving and all is collapsed into one grammatical 'moment'.

What this reveals is that a trans-chronological irony has been detected by scholars who seem to have only a trans-chronological view of the background material. To be fair, readers only have so much mental space for the geographical catalog! Archelaus gets assigned to Judea, in the mind, and Antipas to Galilee. The nuance of development and sequential interaction is never considered, because, of course, such aspects are the very fabric of what makes someone's study historical. (*** In the Academy, of course, what do we have? The historical-critics are indeed free to treat the Egyptian interlude as a fantasy, but in neglecting the return from Egypt they neglect a historical separation between Joseph and Archelaus that still begs some type of explanation. The evangelical-positivists are indeed free to trust that Matthew is providing reliable facts, but they do not proceed here to analyze and reconstruct historically. All a positivist needs is the text and defense of it. That is less than one half of proper Historiography. ***)

Back to Matthew's original readers; aside from recognizing that Antipas took Galilee and recalling that Archelaus was restricted to Judea for nearly all of his 10 seasons of power, what else did they know? If human nature is any guide, we shouldn't expect Matthew's readers remembered anything with a high degree of precision, and we shouldn't even imagine that many participants, even scant decades later, would have been able to reconstruct conversationally a general progression of all the events from the 8 to 12 months of transition in Galilee. In sum, it is highly unlikely that any of Matthew's readers knew the details from Josephus' sources, or that they knew as much from other available means, and to go further we should be certain that Matthew absolutely did not expect his readers to know the precise chronological map of the year 4 BC. But none of that is necessary to this argument.

What I think Matthew's readers did know - and what Matthew expected them to remember - is that there was a brief period in which Archelaus had absolute power, political, military and geographic. As Matthew does in fact say, the young man had begun ruling ἀντὶ his father, or "just as" Herod had ruled. This, necessarily, incorporates Galilee.

What Matthew's readers should have remembered - or the story they should have known well - is that good news came back from Rome some time later, and that all Herodian subjects became greatly relieved. The Galilean subjects and others outside Judea were obviously free from the hothead. The Judean subjects took benefit from their new ethnarch's resources being halved! And the new subjects of every Herodian tetrarch could be glad that Augustus had shown these three would *not* be allowed to rule "just as" Herod had done.

The point here is vital: that, in general, the experience was tremendously memorable. When it finally came, the news-breaking of Caesar's settlement was, by itself, a significant event and (more importantly) a distinct event coming many moons after the death of King Herod. The chronological context does not have to be anything close to complete, or at all so precise, as it can be made through historical reconstruction. The chronological context for a reader of Mt.2:22 only has to be general. But, and this is the crucial justification for this paper's existence - the chronological context at least has to exist.

It really doesn't take much. Matthew's readers only need be aware that there was a progression, a development, that the Herodian transition took place in stages. The most specific knowledge this reading requires is simply that Archelaus' brutal massacre came immediately after the King's death, and that the news about someone else being ruler in Galilee was sent around much later on.

No matter whether this Gospel was written for passing around in the 30's, 50's or 80's of the first century AD wrote in the mid or late first century, we should feel very confident that this basic distinction would have been carried on by social memory, easily recalled by the group being read to when the Gospel was shared.

The wink and the nod here isn't that Antipas ruled Galilee. It's that Antipas ruled Galilee later on. And, see? That's why God's God. Because He knew in advance why it was going to be safe!

The irony of Matthew 2:22 is geographic, political and chronological, but that irony isn't complete without knowing all three.

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