Copyright Victoria & Albert Museum, London/Art Resource, NY

“Fear not,” an angel reassures the sleeping Joseph, carved in ivory on this late-11th-century plaque from southern Italy, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Three times in the Gospel of Matthew an angel appears to Joseph—instructing him to take Mary as his wife, warning him to flee to Egypt with his family and finally telling him when it is safe to return to Israel (Matthew 1:20–23, 13–15, 19–20). Quoting scripture, the angel reassures Joseph that each of these actions “fulfills what was spoken through the prophet.” The marriage and subsequent birth, the angel insists, fulfill Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The sojourn in Egypt fulfills Hosea 11:1: “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

Matthew’s proclivity for presenting Jesus’ birth as the realization of ancient prophecy leads author Mason to ask whether the gospel writer might have reworked the details of the birth story in order to better match Old Testament predictions.