For the Gospel writers as historians, as storytellers, Christ is an Idea that they shape out of an actual life. It is not a Life they shape out of an Idea. Who could read the Hebrew prophets of the Messiah, and invent from them the Jesus of the Gospels? Jesus was clearly a man who had absorbed the Idea of the Messiah. Whether he actually was the Messiah, or simply incarnated the Idea, is hard to answer—maybe it doesn’t matter. Jesus transcended a religious Idea the way a poet transcends an emotional Idea–not through some mystical divinization, but by the explosion of reality. The Life of Christ was the Incarnation of the deepest and highest Idea of the Messiah, the Christ. The Jews thought that the Christ would ascend to God, but Jesus showed that the Messiah-Idea can never come to anything unless God descends to man. Without that, the Jews are forever waiting for an Idea who will never arrive, because to arrive would be the death of the Idea. This is what the priests and pharisees feared: if the Messiah had arrived, what would become of priests and pharisees? They would no longer be the keepers of the Holy; they would lose their place.
“A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1)
In giving the long genealogy, Matthew seems to be giving a straightforward “proof” of Jesus’ ancestral legitimacy. Yet, after recording 42 generations of men who begot, Matthew comes to Joseph, but it is not “of him” (Joseph) that Christ was born, but Mary: “of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16)
In other words, Mary does not complete the genealogical line in Matthew’s narrative, but is entirely an intervention from without. The Messiah was not an Idea that the Jews could build toward, but something entirely outside their possibility—what the prophets prophesied was not Jesus, only a dim Messiah-Idea. Jesus could no more look like Israel than he could look like Joseph; he sprung only from the loins of God in the womb of a Virgin; he sprung from a God who could not be man, and from a woman who could not know man.
The paradoxical history of Israel is that it goes from God to Abraham to David to Joseph, only to find that, rather than a progression, they’ve merely gone back to the beginning—to a God who is outside their descent, their ideas, their progression.
Matthew’s conception of history is not linear, not narrative, not progressive (despite what it looks like), but wholly meaningless. The Messiah does not give meaning to Israel’s story, he says only what Yahweh says–I Am. All mouths are shut, all stories are meaningless, because they all go in search of an end point, and the Messianic end is in the beginning. We see this later in the Gospel, when the Rich Young Man asks Jesus how he can enter the kingdom, and Jesus tells him that to enter another place he has to leave his current place. It’s such a confounding and literal answer to the man’s question: if you want to go there, leave everything here. Yet, even though the man has asked Jesus how do to just that, he is baffled by the answer.
“Her husband Joseph, being a man of honor and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally.” (Matthew 1:19)
The Holy Spirit acts outside the respectable, the honorable, the legitimate. Joseph thinks that Mary has lost her place in the narrative that leads from Abraham to God. But here he learns that God is not in the narrative, but in the womb of a woman untouched by man and his intentions, by Israel and its begettings.
Note, also, that God speaks to Joseph, not merely through an Angel, but through an Angel through a dream. The Angel does not appear as a character in the narrative of the real world, but as an intuition. Joseph’s reason and logic are fine: Mary has fallen from Israel and must be quietly dismissed. But God regards Israel’s reason and logic as little as he regards Israel’s history and its characters—not at all.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy and birth is a lens to understand Christian discipleship: Where shall we look to find God? In doctrine? In an institutional or dogmatic history? In those who are respectable or venerable in religion? No! We must look for God in the irrational, the paradoxical, the dishonorable, the outcast (or, outlier). Whenever we think that we have understood or obeyed God, we see in that very delusion a trap—for God is always outside our narratives and expectations. ALWAYS! That’s why, when the pharisees and lawyers ask Jesus a question, he always answers them indirectly.
“Now all this took place to fulfill the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us.'” (Matthew 1:22-23)
Putting aside Matthew’s attempt to “prove” that a prophecy has been fulfilled, what is the abstracted meaning of this prophecy by Isaiah? It’s a pairing of opposites and impossibilities—Can a virgin give birth to a son? Can God be with us? This is the Idea of the Christ, a paradox, a sign of contradiction. At best, the Gospel writers are right that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies, literally and historically. But at worst, the Gospel writers have made the Messiah-Idea real in their story-making of the Life of Jesus. If that’s the case, does it make Christ any less real in Jesus? No more than in calling each other “Jason” or “Taylor” or “Malcolm” do we lie—not that there really is such a person in these names (we all have different Ideas of the person when we say the name), but is there not some human need to give Ideas a name and a face?
If we tried to deconstruct our daily lives the way scholars try to deconstruct the Gospels, maybe there would be true findings, but what use would there be in living, in seeing each other, naming each other, speaking to each other? The Life of Christ in the Gospels is no more or less real than the lives we live every day. Whether or not one believes in the Life of Christ literally, the Gospels are the literary expression of a Person-Idea greater than any other in history; greater, even, than Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or Don Quixote; more primordial, more divine, more human.