Ancient biographies typically began by rehearsing the noble lineage of their subject. Here Jesus is connected with the history of his people from the beginning.
1:1. Greek readers often called the book of Genesis "the book of generations," and the title is also used for genealogies and other accounts contained in it (Gen 2:4; 5:1 LXX). In Genesis genealogies are named for the first person cited, but Matthew's genealogy is named for the person in whom it climaxes, Jesus Christ. For Matthew, Jesus' ancestors depend on him for their historical significance no less than others expected descendants to depend on their ancestors.
The *Messiah was to be a "son [descendant] of David"; "son of Abraham" was applied to Jewish people in general, so Matthew begins by reminding us that Jesus is Jewish. Genealogies could provide unity to a survey of history between major figures (as with Adam, Noah and Abraham in Gen 5, 11).
1:2-16. As in *Old Testament genealogies, but in contrast to Luke and Greco-Roman genealogies, Matthew records the names beginning with the oldest and moving to the most recent.
Genealogies reminded Jewish people of God's sovereignty in arranging marriages and providing offspring. Sometimes they also used genealogies to explain why a person behaved a particular way (e.g., perhaps Moses' descent from lawbreakers like Reuben, Simeon and [directly] Levi in Ex 6:12-30); Greek biographers could use illustrious ancestry to honor a person about whom they wrote. Most important, Jewish genealogies were essential to document a person's proper lineage as a pure Israelite (i.e., not descended from converted *Gentiles), a member of the priesthood, or royalty. Genealogies could also be used as unifying links between major figures in history; Genesis links Adam, Noah and Abraham in this way (Gen 5, 11). Matthew connects Jesus with the Old Testament narratives about the patriarchs, the Davidic kingly line and the exile.
Tradition records that at least partial genealogical records of important (especially priestly) families were kept in the temple. Though the temple was destroyed in a.d. 70, the claim for Jesus' Davidic descent was made before 70, when it still could have been checked (Rom 1:3). Even after 70, tradition reports that the evidence for his Davidic descent was still sufficient to provoke trouble for some of Jesus' relatives with the Roman government.
Ancient genealogies usually omitted women, but Matthew includes four women (1:3, 5-6).Three of these women were Gentiles (Gen 38:6; Josh 2:1; Ruth 1:4) and the other was at least associated with a Gentile (2 Sam 11:3)—though Matthew omits the four matriarchs prominent in Jewish tradition, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and (less relevantly here) Rachel. Thus he hints from the Old Testament that God has always planned a mission to all peoples (Mt 28:19). Yet Jews emphasized their pure ancestry!
Scholars have suggested that some ancient genealogies incorporated symbolic material based on the interpretation of biblical texts. Jewish interpreters of Scripture sometimes would modify a letter or sound in a biblical text to reapply it figuratively. Thus the Greek text of Matthew 1:10 reads "Amos" (the prophet) rather than "Amon" (the wicked king—2 Kings 21), and Matthew 1:8 reads "Asaph" (the psalmist) rather than "Asa" (a good king turned bad—2 Chron 16); most translations have obscured this point.
1:17. Matthew omits some names, as was customary in genealogies (in this case perhaps following the Greek translation of the Old Testament); creating patterns like three sets of (roughly) fourteen made lists easier to remember. Dividing history into eras was common; a later Jewish text, *2 Baruch, divided history into fourteen epochs. By surveying Israel's past, Matthew suggests that Israel was due (or overdue) for a new event in salvation history. Less certainly, some commentators have argued that Matthew uses fourteen generations because the numerical value of David's name in Hebrew letters is 14. (Unlike letters in the English alphabet, Greek and Hebrew letters were also used as numerals; the Jewish practice of counting the numerical values of words and deriving meaning from them came to be called gematria.)
Ancient biographers often included stories about the virtue of their subjects' birth or upbringing. Sometimes they even praised miraculous features of the births of their subjects (especially prominent in the *Old Testament), but there are no close parallels to the virgin birth. Greeks told stories of gods impregnating women, but the text indicates that Mary's conception was not sexual; nor does the Old Testament (or Jewish tradition) ascribe sexual characteristics to God. Many miraculous birth stories in the ancient world (including Jewish accounts, e.g., *1 Enoch 106) are heavily embroidered with mythical imagery (e.g., babies filling houses with light), in contrast with the straightforward *narrative style of this passage (cf. similarly Ex 2:1-10).
1:18. Betrothal (erusin) then was more binding than most engagements are in the Western world today. If Joseph followed earlier tradition, he would pay a bride price, at least part of it offered during the betrothal. Betrothal, which commonly lasted a year, meant that bride and groom were officially pledged to each other but had not yet consummated the marriage; advances toward anyone else were thus regarded as adulterous (Deut 22:23-27). Two witnesses, mutual consent (normally) and the groom's declaration were necessary to establish Jewish betrothals (in Roman betrothals, consent alone sufficed). Although Romans sometimes used engagement rings, Palestinian Jews probably did not use them in this early period.
Mary may have been between the ages of twelve and fourteen (or even as old as sixteen); if this was Joseph's first marriage, he may have been between the ages of eighteen and twenty (the age for men's marriage considered ideal by later *rabbis). Their parents likely arranged their marriage, with Mary and Joseph's consent. Later traditions suggests that premarital privacy between betrothed persons was permitted in Judea but frowned upon in Galilee, so Mary and Joseph may well not have had any time alone together at this point.
1:19. The penalty for adultery under Old Testament *law was death by stoning, and this penalty applied to infidelity during betrothal as well (Deut 22:23-24). In *New Testament times, Joseph would have merely been required to divorce Mary and expose her to shame; the death penalty was rarely if ever executed for this offense. (Betrothals were so binding that if a woman's fiancé died, she was considered a widow; betrothals could otherwise be terminated only by divorce.) But it could be difficult for a woman with a child, divorced for such infidelity, to find another husband, leaving her without means of support if her parents died. The unfaithfulness of a betrothed woman would also dishonor the man to whom she was pledged.
A husband could divorce his wife publicly before a judge if he were charging her with an offense; in this case he could dissociate himself from her publicly, get back any bride price he had paid, and acquire any dowry her father had given her for the marriage. Because divorces could be effected by a simple document with two witnesses, Joseph could divorce her without making her shame more widely known. Much later rabbinic tradition charges that Mary slept with another man, but Joseph's marrying her (v. 24) demonstrates that he did not believe this was the case.
1:20. In the Old Testament, angels often brought messages in dreams; in Greek literature, deceased people (as well as pagan deities) often brought messages, but this occurs nowhere in the Bible. The Old Testament does mention expert dream interpreters, like Daniel (Dan 1:17; 2:19-45) and Jacob's son Joseph (Gen 37:5-11; 40-41). Most stories from here in Matthew 1 to the end of Matthew 2 involve supernatural guidance (dreams or the star).
1:21. The name Jesus (*Aramaic Yeshua, Greek Iesous) means "God is salvation" in Hebrew. Parents often intended the names they gave children to have some meaning, but if God gave the name, it had special significance (cf. Gen 16:11; 17:19). The Old Testament taught that God's people would be saved in the time of the *Messiah (Jer 23:5-6), and Jewish readers in the first century would have understood this salvation to mean more than just personal forgiveness. They prayed for the day when God would deliver his people from the consequences of their sins—from subjugation beneath their enemies; many believed that this deliverance would occur when their people as a whole reformed and turned wholeheartedly to God. Jesus also came to deliver his people from personal sin and thus to deliver them from its judgment.
1:22-23. Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 and indicates a broad familiarity with Isaiah's context. In that context, Assyria would lay waste Israel and Aram before the promised son was grown (Isa 7:14-17); "a son" thus seems to refer to Isaiah's own son in Isaiah 8:3-4. But all the names of Isaiah's children were meant as signs pointing to significant events beyond themselves (8:18), and to whom would "Immanuel," or "God with us" (7:14), more aptly point than to the son of David rightly called "Mighty God" (9:6; cf. 10:21; 11:1)?
1:24-25. Joseph acts like Old Testament men and women of God who obeyed God's call even when it went against all human common sense. Marriage consisted of covenant (beginning at the betrothal; the marital contract also involved a monetary transaction between families), a celebration and a consummation, which ratified the marriage, normally on the first night of the seven day wedding banquet. Joseph here officially marries Mary but abstains from consummating the marriage until after Jesus is born. They abstain even though she could have proved her virginity on the wedding night; in this way Jesus has not only a virgin conception but a virgin birth (1:23). Newly married couples sometimes lived in very small quarters. Jewish teachers thought that men had to marry young because they could not resist temptation (many even blamed a woman's uncovered hair for inducing lust). Joseph, who lives with Mary but exercises self control, thus provides a strong role model for sexual purity.