The Genesis of Jesus Christ: Matthew 1:1-25

Matthew 1:1-17

The Royal Genealogy

Who is Jesus Christ? The question haunts us still. Ultimately the answer is extremely personal. To the extent that we have been drawn into the fellowship of the church, however, the answer we appropriate must participate in the definitions that belong to the shared faith of ancient and modern Christians.

The First Gospel constitutes one of the earliest attempts to articulate a comprehensive answer. Matthew does not begin with a theological definition and proceed to elucidate it by means of the gospel story. Instead, he begins with an important but incomplete definition that must be corrected by amplification in the course of his book until we reach the climactic conclusion of 28:18-20.

The initial definition is given by means of a genealogy. No other Gospel author thought it helpful to begin the story in this way (Luke’s version of the genealogy constitutes an appendix to his account of Jesus’ baptism at Luke 3:23-38). It was, of course, appropriate to begin a biography with a statement concerning the subject’s family background, but why start with a genealogy of over forty generations?

Matthew’s intention is indicated by the opening verse: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Three messages are here enunciated. First, Jesus is declared an authentic king. As David’s descendant he is no usurper but is the legitimate ruler of God’s people. This truth is underscored when the Evangelist traces the descent from David through the glorious Solomon instead of through his little-known brother Nathan, as is done by Luke 3:31 (see II Sam. 5:14; I Chron. 3:5). For further emphasis Matthew divides Jesus’ ancestors into three groups of fourteen. The number is clearly schematic. To obtain a grouping of fourteen in the period from David to Jeconiah, Matthew omits three kings between Joram and Uzziah (also known as Azariah; see I Chron. 3:11-12). It is widely believed that Matthew is making a wordplay. Hebrew consonants must do double duty as numbers. The Hebrew “D” stands for the number 4, the “W” (or “V”) represents 6; thus DaViD has the numerical value of 14 (4 + 6 + 4). By structuring the Davidic posterity in this way, Matthew announces that Jesus is not just a son of David (as is said of Joseph, 1:20) but is the long-awaited Messiah, David’s ultimate successor.

Second, Jesus is presented as an authentic Jew. This is, of course, implicit in “son of David.” Lest Gentile Christians somehow evade the point, however, Matthew makes it explicit: Jesus, like all Jews, is a son of Abraham. For the Evangelist, Jesus was not a disembodied bearer of a divine message; rather, he was the ultimate Jew, the Jew in whom Israel’s deepest hopes would find fulfillment.

It is in this second message that we are to find the meaning of the strangest feature of Matthew’s genealogy. Contrary to custom, four women are included as ancestresses of the Messiah. One might not be surprised to find the names of Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah listed, but it is not these but four questionable women who are mentioned: Tamar, who played the harlot with Judah (Gen. 38:15); Rahab, the Canaanite harlot (Josh. 2:1); Ruth the Gentile (Ruth 1); and Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery (Matt. 1:7 identifies her simply as “the wife of Uriah”). Two of the four are clearly non-Jewish; the other two, Tamar and Bathsheba, were frequently so regarded in Jewish tradition. Their inclusion in the Messiah’s genealogy reminded the Jewish and the Gentile readers of the Gospel that God’s great plan of salvation included Gentiles, even unrighteous Gentiles.

The third message is still more subtly communicated. Scholars have long debated whether the opening line was meant to serve as title for the genealogy only, for the first two chapters, or for the Gospel as a whole. The answer depends on how the second word is translated. It is certainly correct that the Greek word genesis can mean “genealogy,” and so it is rendered in the RSV. The word had other meanings, however. It recurs in Matt. 1:18, where the RSV employs “birth” as its equivalent. Since other words for “genealogy” (I Tim. 1:4) and “birth” (John 9:1) were available, it is possible that genesis is chosen precisely because it can be used with overlapping meanings in these two verses. We must seek a rendering that will refer both to ancestry and to conception. “Origin” is a viable candidate. But why did Matthew choose genesis as the key noun in the opening lines of these first two paragraphs? Worth pondering is the possibility that he wished this word to evoke associations with the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not only was the book referred to among Greek-speaking Jews as Genesis but also his phrase “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ” is strongly reminiscent of the Greek version of Gen. 5:1, “the book of the genesis of human beings,” and Gen. 2:4, “the book of the genesis of heaven and earth.” By imitating these two phrases, Matthew intended perhaps to remind his readers that in Jesus Christ, God had made a new beginning. To borrow from the language of Hollywood, the First Gospel could be billed as “Genesis II, the Sequel.”

Two problems present themselves to modern readers of Matthew’s genealogy: How can Matthew’s report of Jesus’ ancestry differ so sharply from Luke’s? (even Joseph’s father is differently named), and why is Joseph’s ancestry relevant, since he is not regarded by Matthew as Jesus’ father? Students of the Scriptures, ancient and modern, have struggled valiantly to solve these two puzzles. It has been proposed, for example, that Joseph was the offspring of a levirate union as prescribed by Deut. 25:5-10; Luke traces Joseph’s line through his biological father, whereas Matthew names his mother’s deceased husband as his scriptural father. This is hardly acceptable, since the substitute parent was supposed to be “near of kin,” whereas the two lists suggest that the relationship, if known, was a very distant one. The second problem is in some respects still more baffling. Why did Matthew take such pains to supply Jesus with Joseph’s genealogy if his physical descent must be regarded as maternal only? Would it not have been more to the point to show that Mary was descended from David?

Our answer to these two questions must be based on a single observation: apparently they posed no serious problem to Matthew and, by extension, to his first readers. The details of the genealogy were obviously of secondary importance to the Evangelists, as Matthew shows by his intentional deletion of three generations of Judean kings. What was important to him was that Jesus was truly David’s son. He was this not by the natural process of male procreation but by the direct will of God. How God’s intention was effected in this instance is the topic of the next passage.

Matthew 1:18-25

The Supernatural Conception and Naming of the Messiah

In this passage Matthew continues to tell us who Jesus is by describing God’s preparation for his birth and explaining that the Messiah’s advent is in accordance with Scripture.

The most obvious feature of this narrative and the narratives that succeed it in Matthew 2 is that Joseph, not Mary, is the primary human actor. In Luke 1-2, Mary is dominant and Joseph is but a shadow in the background. The traditional explanation—namely, that Luke was in touch with traditions stemming directly from Mary, whereas Matthew knew only stories reported by Joseph—is unsatisfactory; it is most improbable that any family would so rigorously separate its traditions. It is more likely that the Evangelists selected and embellished traditions in accordance with the distinctive messages they wished to communicate. By focusing on Mary, Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Matthew, on the other hand, by selecting Joseph as his leading actor, stresses the active component in the human response. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something. This is fully in keeping with Matthew’s understanding of the Christian religion. For him as for Paul, God is the supreme actor in the drama of salvation; God’s grace (although Matthew never uses this Pauline term) is prevenient.The First Evangelist, however, insists that the human response to saving grace must be active and not merely passive. As we shall see, the key to his perception is found at the climax of the Sermon on the Mount: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7:21).

In Matthew’s story of the miraculous conception (“virgin birth” is the traditional but less accurate designation), Joseph becomes aware of the pregnancy before he learns the cause. His immediate response is that of a “just” man: he must divorce her. That is, it is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract, because she is apparently guilty of fornication, a capital crime according to Deut. 22:23-24. It is not his prerogative to forgive her and act out that forgiveness by consummating the marriage. In this instance, however, justice is tempered by mercy; although he must divorce her in order to demonstrate that his love for God is stronger than his love for Mary, he determines to do it secretly, so as not to cause her public humiliation. Joseph lives in accordance with the principle dear to Matthew, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6, quoted at both 9:13 and 12:7).

Joseph’s purpose is annulled by the Lord’s angel, who addresses him as “son of David.” From this salutation we are alerted to the fact that Joseph’s role in the story has to do with his Davidic descent. It also reminds us that the miraculous conception announced to Joseph has to do with Jesus’ Messiahship.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty that we modern Christians have in appropriating this narrative (and the parallel in Luke 1:26-35) is that we inevitably read it in the light of the Nicene Creed: “Very God of Very God, begotten, not made.” The miraculous birth is seized upon as “proof” of the divinity of Jesus. We surely ought to confess our faith in the incarnation of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, but it is a mistake to buttress our confession with this narrative. To Matthew and his readers the story of the miraculous conception did not involve incarnation as we understand it in the light of Nicaea.

Although the evidence is fragmentary, scholars point to documents that seem to espouse the idea that Moses was miraculously conceived. The same seems to have been claimed for Isaac. The book of Jubilees hints that God, not Abraham, wasresponsible for Sarah’s pregnancy (“And in the middle of the sixth month the Lord visited Sarah and did unto her as He had spoken and she conceived,” Jub. 16:12). In each of these other instances (if valid) the motif of the miraculous birth is concerned not with the nature but with the function of the man so conceived: it identifies him as one who has a major role to play in God’s salvation-historical drama. Just as God had miraculously created Isaac as the one through whom the people of God would come into existence, so now God raised up Jesus as the new Isaac, the one in whom the renewed people of God would cohere. Just as God had miraculously created Moses to be his people’s deliverer, so now God raised up Jesus to be the new and greater Moses, the ultimate savior.

Such an understanding of the miraculous conception seems to be supported by Matthew’s use of Isa. 7:14. Many English translations, including the RSV, are misleading: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.” Matthew’s Greek is ho parthenos (“the virgin”) (correctly rendered by NIV, NRSV), a phrase he takes directly from the Septuagint. It may be permissible to ignore the article in Isaiah’s Hebrew phrase, “the young woman”; it seems less appropriate in a rendering into English of the Septuagint version, where the force of the article must be taken seriously. One can, of course, attempt to explain the Greek article as the result of zealous literalism on the part of the Alexandrian translators—they are simply reproducing the Hebrew—except for one obvious fact: zealous literalism did not induce them to translate ‘almah (“young woman”) with its nearest Greek equivalent. If we can guess what prompted them to select parthenos (“virgin”), we may be able to understand what the definite article meant to them.

Although Isaiah’s Hebrew is ambiguous (is the young woman already pregnant or is she to become pregnant soon?), the Greek translators employed the future: “Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and will give birth to a son.” Does their selection of the future tense indicate that they regarded the prophecy as still to be fulfilled? If this were the case, we could understand their choice of “the virgin” for the role. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is often referred to as a young woman and sometimes specifically as a virgin. One of the classic instances is Amos 5:2: “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel” (see also II Kings 19:21; Isa. 37:22). Firm evidence is lacking, but we can speculate that the translators saw in Isaiah’s words amessianic prophecy and proposed that Virgin Israel would give birth to the Messiah. This postulated state of affairs would make it easier to understand why Isa. 7:14 was selected by Matthew (or by earlier Christians) as an important text for understanding who Jesus was. Accordingly, Mary represents Virgin Israel, who cannot bring forth the Messiah without God’s direct intervention.

However we interpret the story of the miraculous conception, it is most important that we not lapse into paganism by taking it as presenting Jesus as a demigod, half human by virtue of birth from a human mother, half god since begotten by a god. Matthew’s environment was full of such stories. Zeus and other Olympians were credited with the procreation of numerous progeny through union with mortal women. Matthew and his Christian readers would surely have been angered by the suggestion that Mary’s conception through the agency of the Holy Spirit placed her son in the same category. This is a Jewish, not a pagan, story and must be interpreted as such.

In 1:21 we have the New Testament’s only attempt to find meaning in the name “Jesus.” The name was not uncommon among first-century Jews. Iēsous had been adopted as the Greek rendering for “Joshua,” and it occurs as such at Acts 7:45; Heb. 4:8 (where the KJV reads “Jesus,” not “Joshua”). The inter-testamental book Ecclesiasticus was written by Jesus son of Sirach, and we hear of a Christian Jew named Jesus in Col. 4:11. A popular etymology related the Hebrew Yehoshua (“Joshua”) and its later form Yeshua to the verb “save” and the noun “salvation.” While an inexact etymology, such wordplays were popular in Judaism, as witnessed in Ecclus. 46:1: “Joshua the son of Nun … became, in accordance with his name, a great savior of God’s elect.” Although the same etymology is employed in Matthew, the meaning of salvation has dramatically changed; whereas Jesus son of Nun saved Israel from their Gentile enemies, Jesus son of Joseph will save his people from their sins.

Many Christians are uncomfortable with the expression “Jesus son of Joseph,” because it sounds to them like a denial of the virgin birth. For Matthew, it was essential that Jesus be recognized as truly the son of Joseph, because only so was he an authentic descendant of David. But how could Matthew simultaneously deny and affirm the paternity of Joseph? Apparently for Matthew, God’s miraculous action in causing the pregnancy included the miraculous incorporation of the child into Joseph’sfamily. Joseph’s role was simply to acknowledge this part of the miracle by naming the child. It was common for women to name their babies (cf. Luke 1:31). Joseph’s naming of Mary’s baby constituted in this instance an acknowledgment that, by God’s will and act, the boy is authentically his son.

Jack Kingsbury has called Matt. 1:23 “Matthew’s thumbnail definition of his Son-of-God christology” (Matthew: Structure, Christology, Kingdom, p. 137). In a remarkably succinct way the full significance of Jesus’ life and work is caught in this functional definition of who Jesus is. In Hebrew, immanu means “with us”; El is a short form of the word for “God.” Again, we must be careful not to read this through Nicene glasses. In its Matthean context it focuses not on Jesus’ essence but on his function in the divine plan of salvation. At no point in his Gospel does Matthew betray any interest in the philosophy of incarnation. It remained to the Fourth Evangelist to ponder the metaphysical implications of the conviction that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and to articulate this deepest mystery of the Christian faith in his startling declaration: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).