A central key to Scripture is the way in which very disparate books are both driven by the Mosaic law yet also supersede or bypass or even tacitly ignore that law. This combination of two approaches to the Mosaic law, which are in a relationship of tension or paradox or even contradiction, most obviously characterizes Saint Paul’s theology. But the same combination is present more subtly elsewhere.
To give one, and perhaps to many readers a rather surprising, example, consider Ruth. The so-called Levirate law requires the marriage of a childless widow to a brother of her late husband, to ‘raise up’ children to bear the name and inherit the property of that childless, deceased man. This requirement of the Mosaic law is the engine that powers the action in Ruth, as Boaz moves towards and eventually does in fact marry Ruth. Yet the name of Ruth’s first husband, who could have been either of two brothers, is not revealed until the end of the book, at which point the information is conveyed almost in passing (4:10). Then when the list of Ruth’s descendants is given, their progenitor is not listed as that late, first husband, but rather Boaz. On the one hand, the whole point of the law driving the book is to preserve the memory of the childless man. On the other hand, that purpose seems almost entirely displaced and ignored by the outcome of the book.
In short, already in the Jewish Bible one finds that the law is both central and yet also beside the point. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the law is essential but not for the reasons originally assumed.
Again, in the case of the Old Testament itself, the sacrificial system is central, the object of many chapters of the Torah and of vast energies and effort in the history and worship of biblical Israel. Yet for modern Judaism, as much as for Christians, that system is almost entirely set aside. For Christians the system of animal sacrifices is set aside as fulfilled in the death of Jesus and in the Eucharistic representation of that death. For Jews the same system is set aside by the sheer impossibility of its continuation following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. For modern Judaism and Christianity alike, an important aspect of the Mosaic law both matters and does not matter, is both vital and yet is radically altered.
If this theme is most clearly developed by Paul’s theology, it also is present elsewhere – and in a sense everywhere – in the New Testament. Since Matthew’s gospel is deeply concerned with the relationship between the Torah and the prophets, on the one hand, and Jesus and his followers, on the other, it is not surprising to see this theme also in that gospel. The following general notes on the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel show the way in which the evangelist uses the Old Testament in general, but in a complex fashion that suggests both its use and its limit.
Saint Matthew’s gospel opens with these words: ‘The book of the generation [KJV; RSV, ‘genealogy’] of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’. Then Matthew launches at once into a more detailed genealogy. Jesus Christ is, according to Matthew 1:1, a descendant of David, who himself was a descendant of Abraham.
This introduction of the story of Jesus is in accord with familiar Old Testament practice. In Genesis, for example, the stories of Abraham are introduced with his genealogy (Genesis 11:10-32). In other cases of important Old Testament figures such a genealogy introduces a hero. The stories of Samuel so begin: ‘And there was a man from Ramathaim-zophim…and his name was Elkanah son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tobu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite.’ (I Samuel 1:1) Or consider I Samuel 9:1-2 in the case of Saul.
Jesus, then, is presented as a descendant of Israel’s great hero-king, David, and of Israel’s national ancestor, Abraham. Jesus is so presented both (and obviously) by the evidence of the genealogy itself, but also, indirectly and less obviously, by the genealogical form with which his story begins. In other words, this particular story is told from the first in a manner that hearkens back to the Old Testament both in form and in content. And this is, literally, the first fact of this gospel as it presents itself to us. Any consideration of Matthew’s ‘sources’ must quickly turn to the Old Testament.
As I mentioned the story of Ruth above, it should be noted as possibly significant that Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus and the genealogy that concludes Ruth (Ruth 4:17-22) are the only biblical examples of genealogies that begin with the older ancestor and move forward to the more recent figure, the hero of the stories that follow. Is this shared departure from usual procedure a hint of other affinities between the two books?
From the first, Matthew uses language that evokes the Jewish Bible. The gospel’s opening words are, ‘The book of the generation…’ (Biblos geneseōs [βίβλος γενέσεως] Iēsou Christou). Literally, this reads, ‘Book of genesis of Jesus Christ’. There are no articles in the Greek text of the first verse, which contains only eight words, as contrasted with the 16 words that the King James’ Version and Revised Standard Version take to translate it. The word translated as ‘generation’ or ‘genealogy’ is the same as the Greek word for the first book of the Old Testament, ‘Genesis’, and Biblos geneseōs occurs in the Septuagint text of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. In Matthew Old Testament quotations often are from the Septuagint or from other Greek translations and are not simply Greek translations from the Hebrew (Albright, p. 3). The Hebrew term for ‘generations’, toledoth, is an important word in Genesis in particular (see 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10 & 27; 25:12, 13, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2). In short, the first words of Matthew hark back to the Old Testament, particularly in its Greek translation. Matthew resumes and begins anew the story of the Old Testament.
Matthew gives the genealogy of ‘Jesus Christ’ (1:1). ‘Jesus’, of course, is the Greek form of the Hebrew name ‘Yeshua’ (English ‘Joshua’). Our Lord’s name, then, connects him to another Old Testament hero, the man who led God’s people into the Promised Land. The name in Hebrew means ‘savior’ or ‘God saves’. ‘Christ’ is a Greek title which means ‘one who is chrismated’ or ‘anointed one’. The Hebrew version of this title is ‘Messiah’. ‘Christ’ occurs also in 1:16, 17, 18, and 2:4. Where ‘Jesus’ is a personal and typical Jewish name, ‘Christ’ is a title which expresses Matthew’s Christian faith in Jesus as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes for a Messiah. The relation of Jesus to Jewish expectations is a central preoccupation of this gospel. Matthew probably wrote his gospel for a mixed church with a large number of Jewish converts to Christianity. Those people wanted to understand their Lord in the light of the Old Testament and of their own Jewish background. They wanted to see how Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, how he fit into its background, and why many of their fellow Jews did not accept him as Messiah. The gospel therefore opens with a basic assertion of Christian faith in contrast to Judaism, including the orthodox rabbinic Judaism being developed in Jamnia around the same time that Matthew wrote. Matthew’s ‘Jesus Christ’ is, in English, the ‘Saviour-Messiah’: everything in the gospel relates to this initial assertion.
1:1, ‘son of David, son of Abraham’. ‘Son of’ here means ‘descended from’. The Messiah was to be a descendant of David. See, for instance, Isaiah 11:1. The three names in this verse, Jesus, David, and Abraham, form the frame for the rather schematic genealogy that follows.
1:2-17. The genealogy consists of three sections of fourteen generations each, with 42 generations in all, which are outlined in verse 17. The first group of 14 goes from Abraham to David; the second group consists of the kings of the Davidic dynasty of Judah, reaching from David to the ending of the kingdom of Judah in the Babylonian exile; and the third group, with the least Old Testament documentation, reaches from the Babylonian exile to Jesus himself. The reason for groups of fourteen in this genealogy, which seems both deliberate and also not forced by the facts of the Old Testament lists, is uncertain. One possible theory is based on common biblical numerological significance: 42 is six times seven. Seven is often a biblical number representing perfection and completion. Six sevens is just short of the perfection of perfections. The begetting of Jesus, then, stands on the verge of the perfection of perfections, so that that which comes from Jesus is the perfection of perfections. Perhaps.
Matthew’s genealogy is reckoned through the line of Jesus’s foster father, Joseph. A problem arises from this reckoning in that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus: Luke speaks of Jesus ‘being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph’ (3:23): Jesus is not actually, biologically descended from David through Joseph. This fact is traditionally dealt with in two ways. First, Matthew presents Jesus as the legal son of Joseph and thus the heir of the Davidic line, whatever the biological facts: as Augustine notes, even ‘if [Joseph] had adopted a child from another, he would have rightfully been the father of one who was not even born from his own wife.’ Secondly, in pious tradition Mary also was thought to be a descendant of David. It is not unlikely that Mary and Joseph, living in the same area and with families well enough acquainted to consent to a betrothal, were in fact cousins.
However that may be, these attempts to show Christ’s actual biological descent from David are somewhat beside the point. Perhaps Matthew is, in his typical manner, on the one hand, accommodating pious Jewish sensibilities, in this case by showing our Lord’s relationship to David. Matthew might simultaneously on the other hand undermine the real significance of such concerns as merely biological relationship. If this is the case, then this initial problem is itself an example of the central point of the gospel: Christ flows from the Old Testament world of Israel and fulfils it, but also confounds its expectations, surpasses it, and points beyond it to the Church.
Saint Luke’s genealogy of Jesus in his third chapter. It is significant that while Matthew’s genealogy goes back only to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews, Luke’s genealogy goes back to ‘Adam, which was the son of God’ (3:38), the ancestor of all mankind. While Matthew is very Jewish in character, Luke has a universalist perspective and probably wrote more for Christians with a Gentile background. In their genealogies, Matthew places Jesus in his Jewish context (son of Abraham), while Luke places him in a universal context (son of Adam).
The genealogies of Matthew and Luke are largely parallel up to David. Luke begins with Joseph and moves backward to the earlier period; Matthew begins with Abraham and moves forward. After David, however, the two gospels diverge sharply. Matthew traces the Davidic line through the kings of Judah. Luke follows the Davidic line, not through David’s successor as king, namely Solomon, but through another son, Nathan. The two genealogies then do not converge until Joseph, though Joseph’s grandfather in Luke is ‘Matthat the son of Levi’ and in Matthew is ‘Matthan’ whose father is ‘Eleazar’. Traditional, pious interpretation explains the differences by noting that one man might go by two or more names and that we may be descended from one progenitor by two or more lines, especially in a culture where cousins often marry each other.
In addition to the basic genealogical reckoning through the male line, from father to son, Matthew notes four of our Lord’s female ancestors, namely Thamar, Rachab, Ruth, and ‘her that had been the wife of Uriah’ (1:6, Bathsheba — see II Samuel 11-2). It is noteworthy that each of these women is in some way a bit suspect from the conventional Jewish perspective. Thamar pretended to be a prostitute and seduced her late husband’s (or, actually, husbands’) father into incestuous sex; Rachab was a prostitute; Ruth was a Moabitess and not Jewish; and Bathsheba, who had been the wife of Uriah, was adulterously seduced by David. While the line of David and Abraham is highly respectable and conventional, mention of these four women shows the unexpected, unconventional side of Jesus’ background. This also foreshadows the clashes between Jesus and the authorities of official Judaism of his day which will form an important part of this gospel. Those authorities no doubt would prefer to forget the side of things represented by these women. In this respect, Matthew’s strategy here may be compared to that of Saint Stephen in his great speech in Acts 7:1-53, where he highlights those aspects of Israel’s history that are most discreditable to the Jews and omits most mention of Israel’s great national heroes. The New Testament’s use of the Old is not simple.
1:2-6. The first part of the genealogy draws on Genesis, Ruth 4:18-22, and I Chronicles 1:34-2:15, with Rahab and Ruth added to the I Chronicles list. The addition of the women’s names suggests that Matthew is adding them (to Tamar and Solomon’s mother, who are mentioned in the I Chronicles list) deliberately for a specific purpose of his own.
1:3, ‘Thamar’. Tamar in Genesis 38 conceives after pretending to be a prostitute and after tricking her father-in-law, Judah, into sex with her after he failed to provide her another husband following the death of his son and her husband.
1:5, ‘Rachab’. Rahab in Joshua 2 is a Gentile and a prostitute, who saves the Israelite spies who came into Jericho. As a reward, she and her family are kept alive and given a place among the Israelites. This is the only Rahab mentioned in the Old Testament. That would seem to be too early for David’s great-grandmother, but the omission of some generations suggests that Matthew is not attempting a complete, chronologically precise list.
1:5, ‘Ruth’. Ruth is a Gentile from Moab. She certainly is presented as a heroic figure in the Old Testament story called by her name. Nonetheless, she is not an Israelite by birth.
1:6, ‘her [that had been the wife] of Urias’. The bracketed words are inferred. The Greek says ‘of her of Urias’. The woman referred to is Bathsheba, who marries David after he committed adultery with her and then had her lawful husband, Uriah the Hittite, killed in battle (II Samuel 11-2) to cover up his misdeed.
1:6-11. Five names have been omitted from the period of the kings of Judah as given in I and II Kings and in I Chronicles 3:1-16. Matthew evidently wants to keep the scheme of three groups of 14 generations, even if he must force things a bit to do so.
1:12-6. The first three names may be found in Ezra 3:2, Haggai 2:2, and I Chronicles 3:16-9. The later names can only have come from some record such as oral tradition that has not survived to our day but was available to Matthew.
1:15-6, ‘Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Joseph…’. The relevant names in Luke are Levi, Matthat, Heli, and Joseph. 1:16, ‘Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ’. On Joseph, see Luke 1:27; 2:4, 16; 3:23; 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42. Matthew does not say that ‘Joseph begat Jesus of Mary’, and so he breaks the otherwise unvarying pattern of the genealogy. This points us to the miraculous story of Christ’s conception and birth that follows. In what way does Mary fit the pattern of the women in this genealogy? All the first four, except perhaps Bathsheba, showed great initiative and resourcefulness, which may point to Mary’s active response to God’s will (which response, however, is clearer in Luke). The somewhat irregular nature of the other four women may point to the irregularity of our Lord’s conception, which is not that of a normal marital union. Perhaps Matthew is once more showing an Old Testament pattern – in this case that of the somewhat irregular mother – which then is at once fulfilled and surpassed in the gospel.
1:16, ‘Mary’. In Matthew there is no ‘indication of her family background…nor is her experience related for its own sake as in Luke…’ (France, p. 40).
1:17, ‘Abraham to David…unto Christ’. This verse forms an ‘inclusion’ with verse 1, and so brackets the genealogy as a distinct section of material. In verse 1 we have the genealogy of ‘Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Here the same three names occur, but in reverse order. Not only, then, do we have a bracketing ‘inclusion’ formed by the three names, but also a kind of chiasm (a-b-c-d-c-b-a pattern): Christ-David-Abraham [genealogy] Abraham-David-Christ.