(NOTE: This is a rehash of something I once did over at Catholic Answers Forums. I never got to finish the - admittedly one-man - discussion there as in many of my other threads, but at least I'd like to see this one get a proper closure.)
To be honest, when a lot of us think of the story of Jesus' birth, we often think of Luke's version - the one with the annunciation to Mary, the census, the manger, and the shepherds - first than we think of Matthew's. Sure, Matthew gave us the star and the magoi (the 'wise men'), but come to think of it, even then, we usually take Luke's narrative as the base and then add Matthew's details on top of it. As someone who espouses the idea that each gospel should be looked at separately, in their own terms (harmonization isn't bad, but it's an approach that's been done to death throughout 2,000 years of Christian history) - in other words, seeing Matthew as Matthew or Luke as Luke without combining the two - I'd really like to devote a bit of time looking at the story of Jesus' birth as Matthew wrote it, without adding in details from Luke (though he will probably get mentioned from time to time) or something like that.
Of all the possible ways Matthew could have begun his gospel, he had to choose the one many modern folks would find quite off-putting: beginning with a genealogy. But the genealogy has a lot of interesting details that one might overlook if you simply skipped it.
Matthew begins by announcing: "The scroll (traditionally "the book;" i.e. the record) of the geneseōs" (βίβλος γενέσεως, biblos geneseōs) of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham." There are actually many ways of understanding the word geneseōs. In many translations, geneseōs is usually translated as 'genealogy', understanding the phrase to be the heading of the genealogy in 1:2-17. It could also be understood as 'birth' (as in 1:18) or the 'origin' or 'beginning' and be taken as the introduction to 1:2-25 or 1:2-2:23 or or even 1:2-4:16 - Jesus' 'birth', His 'origins', and the 'beginning' of His earthly and public life.
Another possibility is that geneseōs is a conscious allusion to the book of Genesis. In other words, Matthew begins his work - rather properly, one could say - at the 'beginning': he apparently considers the story of Jesus as the story of a new Genesis, a new creation. In fact the phrase biblos geneseōs, appears two times in the Greek Septuagint version of Genesis (2:4; 5:1-2 NETS):
This is the book of the origin (biblos geneseōs) of heaven and earth, when it originated, on the day that God made the heaven and the earth and all verdure of the field before it came to be upon the earth and all herbage of the field before it sprang up, for God had not sent rain upon the earth, and there was not a human to till the earth, yet a spring would rise from the earth and water the whole face of the earth.Peter Leithart makes the following observation:
This is the book of the origin (biblos geneseōs) of human beings. On the day that God made Adam, he made him according to divine image; male and female he made them, and he blessed them. And he named their name “Adam” on the day that he made them.
Dale Allison argues that Matthew’s opening words, BIBLOS GENESEOS, should be translated as “Book of the Genesis,” a translation ambiguous enough to capture all that Matthew intended – an allusion to the first book of the Bible, a new creation theme, an introduction to the genealogy or birth story, etc. GENESIS was, he argues, established as the title of the first book of the Bible by Matthew’s time. He suggests that Matthew 1:1 is a title: “Book of the New Genesis of Jesus Christ….”You might note that the very first names which appear in 1:1 (Jesus, David, Abraham) also appear in 1:2-16, but in reverse order. So the very first verse offers a triad and the front half of what is known as a chiasmus, as Leithart has explained:
He and WD Davies also note (in their jointly authored ICC volume) how the phrase is used in the LXX of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. There, the phrase does not, as in Matthew 1:1, introduce a genealogy; rather, BIBLOS GENESEOS in Genesis 5:1 introduces a list of descendants and in 2:4 does not (on their reading) introduce any sort of ancestry or genealogy at all.
Let’s assume, though, that Matthew meant to draw a very direct link between his use of the phrase and that of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1. What would that mean?
First, I think it likely that the phrase in Genesis 2:4 does in fact introduce a series of “generations.” This is the use of the similar phrases throughout Genesis. 10:1, for instance, introduces the “generations of Shem, Ham, and Japheth,” and then goes on to list those who are born from them, and the events generated by those generations. In 2:4, the “heavens and earth” are the “parents” who generate (though God’s work) plants, mist, a garden, a man, etc. Adam’s mother is the earth, as his father is the God of heaven; he is taken from the dust, and his Father breathes life into Him from heaven. Genesis 5:1 definitely introduces a list of those “generated” by Adam. Thus, in both places where Genesis uses the same phrase as Matthew, the text goes on to describe those things that come from the one named.
If this is correct, and if Matthew is using the phrase in the same sense, then Jesus is being presented not only as the descendant of those named (though he is that, 1:16) but also as the progenitor of those listed. Israel’s history is initiated by Jesus, even as it also climaxes in Jesus. He is the Alpha and the Omega of this genealogy, the first Man and the Last Man, the beginning Israelite and the final Israelite. This is neatly captured by the chiastic structure of Matthew’s genealogy – moving from Jesus-David-Abraham [v. 1] and then through Abraham [v. 2]-David [v. 6]-Jesus [v. 16].
Jesus is the heavens-and-earth that generates a new world, a new Adamic race, a new Bride; Jesus is the Adam who gives birth to a race of true Sethites.
a.) "Jesus Christ" (1:1b)(Let's take a little breather here, shall we? I suggest we should rest a bit here. I've still a lot to talk about, and reading through walls of text is just tiring - I should know. ;) While we're having a break, here's a video of Matthew's genealogy. Literally.)
b.) "David" (1:1c)a.) "Jesus who is called Christ" (1:16)
c.) "Abraham" (1:1d)b.) "David the king" (1:6)
c.) "Abraham" (1:2)
(Enjoyed your break? We'll continue.)
Perhaps the most notable feature of the Matthean genealogy, however, is its carefully-ordered structure. Fourteen generations fall (inclusively) between Abraham and David, between David and the Babylonian captivity, and (at least according to 1:17) between the Babylonian captivity and Jesus. How are we to account for this triadic scheme? There are a number of possibilities:
1.) One possibility is to tie the (supposedly) fourteen generations between the captivity and Jesus with Daniel 9:24-27, which prophesies that seven weeks of years will pass between the 'going forth of the word to restore and build Jerusalem' and the coming of an anointed one, a king. This explanation however necessitates that the length of a generation be set at thirty-five years in order to work (35 x 14 = 490), which some see as gratituous.Jesus is called by Matthew the "son of David." For Matthew, David is such an important figure that his name is a crucial element in the genealogy (as we've seen above), and with good reason: many (but by no means all) messianic ideas in Second Temple Judaism have the messiah being related to David in some fashion, either by being a literal member of the Davidic line or by being reminiscent of the old king in some way (but not necessarily a descendant). In keeping with this Matthew names David immediately after proclaiming Jesus as "Christ" (i.e. Messiah, the 'anointed').
2.) Another connects it with the lunar cycle, which consists of fourteen days of the moon waxing and another fourteen of the moon waning. The idea then is that the period between Abraham and David is that of waxing, with David's era being the high point; next, the period after David is that of waning, with the Babylonian captivity being the low point; the final period is again that of waning, with its zenith coming with the birth of Jesus. This scheme is attested in Exodus Rabbah on 12:2. There, however, the cycles of the moon, given as 15 + 15 = 30, are explicitly cited.
3.) Because seven but not fourteen is a prominent number in the Bible, a third possibility regards the three fourteens as the equivalent of six sevens, in which case Jesus would stand at the head of the seventh seven, the seventh day of history - in other words, the eternal sabbath. This has a parallel in the Apocalypse of Weeks in 1 Enoch (93:1-10; 91:12-17). In this salvation history is divided into ten weeks: three before Abraham, seven after Abraham, the seventh being the messianic age (cf. Paralipomena of Jeremiah 3.10). However, the counter-argument is that Matthew expressly speaks of three fourteens and not six sevens.
4.) An idea connects the scheme with the pattern found in 2 Baruch 53-74 (the 'Messiah Apocalypse'), which partitions history into twelve plus two or fourteen epochs of alternating bright and black waters. The problem here is that it is difficult to see how Matthew's forty-two generations can be linked to a division of history into fourteen epochs.
5.) Pointing out how the reckoning of fourteen generations from Abraham to David is traditional (cf. 1 Chronicles 1-2; Exodus Rabbah on 12:2; and possibly Luke 3), an idea has it that Matthew simply imitated this scheme for the others, given his penchant for the number three and for order in general. This is less objectionable than the other possibilities, but there is still a difficulty in that because Matthew repeatedly lays emphasis on the number fourteen throughout 1:2-17, it may have had some sort of intrinsic, symbolic significance for him.
6.) A tradition found in the Talmud (b. Sanh. 105b; b. Hor. 10b), a tradition interprets the total number of sacrifices which Balak and Balaam offered in Numbers 23 as forty-two, this being the product of 3 x 14 (= 7 bulls + 7 lambs). But there is no other connection between this and Matthew's genealogy aside from the numbers.
7.) The final possibility which is the most popular today holds gematria as a key. David's name is composed of three consonants in Hebrew (דוד, d-w-d), the numerical value of which amounts to fourteen: d(aleth) + w(aw) + d(aleth) = 4 + 6 + 4 = 14. This explanation has an advantage over the others due to the fact that gematria (or in case of Greek, isopsephy) was practiced in both Jewish and Christian circles close to Matthew's time (cf. Revelation 13:18), and the numerical interpretation of David's name can account for both the numbers three and fourteen. The interesting thing we should note here is that the one name with three consonants and the value of fourteen is the fourteenth name on the list. In addition, this name is mentioned immediately before the genealogy (1:1), and twice at its conclusion (1:17), and that it is honored by the title "king." In the eyes of many scholars, this effectively rules out coincidence.
Hebrew is/was one of those languages
where letters doubled as numbers.
The term "son of David" was a standard messianic title for the later Rabbis (cf. b. Sanhedrin 97a-98a), and a titular use may already be attested in the 1st century BC (cf. Psalms of Solomon 17). Developing out of older expressions such as "sprout of Jesse" (Isaiah 11:10) and "shoot (of David)" (Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12; also 4QPatrBless 3; 4QFlor 1,11-12; 4QpIsaa frags. 7-10, 11-17 for the use of the title in Qumran literature), the title became the focus of a rich tradition. By the time of Jesus, the dominant, although not exclusive, expectation was that the messianic king would be in a way a 'son of David'. A deliverer was expected who would fulfill the promises in 2 Samuel 7, which accounts for the early Christian emphasis of Jesus' claimed Davidic lineage. (cf. Acts 2:29-36; 13:22-23; Romans 1:3-4; 2 Timothy 2:8; Revelation 5:5; 22:16; Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 18.2; 20:2.)
See, O Lord, and raise for them their king, the son of Dauid,
at the time which you chose, O God, to rule over Israel your servant.
And gird him with strength to shatter in pieces unrighteous rulers,
to purify Ierousalem from nations that trample her down in destruction,
in wisdom of righteousness, to drive out sinners from the inheritance,
to smash the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel,
to shatter all their substance with an iron rod,
to destroy the lawless nations by the word of his mouth,
that, by his threat, nations flee from his presence,
and to reprove sinners with the thought of their hearts.
And he shall gather a holy people whom he shall lead in righteousness,
and he shall judge the tribes of the people
that has been sanctified by the Lord, his God.
And he shall not allow injustice to lodge in their midst any longer,
nor shall there dwell with them any person who knows evil;
for he shall know them, that all are their God’s sons.
And he shall distribute them according to their tribes upon the land,
and no resident alien and alien shall sojourn among them any longer.
He shall judge peoples and nations in the wisdom of his righteousness.
- Psalm of Solomon 17.21-29
The sceptre [shall not] depart from the tribe of Judah ... (Gen. 49.10) Whenever Israel rules, there shall [not] fail to be a descendant of David upon the throne (Jer. 33.17). For the ruler's staff (49.10) is the Covenant of kingship, [and the clans] of Israel are the divisions ((reading dgylw 'standards' with the Samaritan Pentateuch contra the traditional rglyw 'feet')), until the Messiah of Righteousness comes, the Branch of David. For to him and his seed is granted the Covenant of kingship over his people for everlasting generations which he is to keep ... the Law with the men of the Community, for ... it is the assembly of the men of ...
- 4Q252 (Genesis Commentary / Blessings of the Patriarchs; 4QPatrBless), 5
[And there shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse and a Branch shall grow out of its roots. And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or pass sentence by what his ears hear; he shall judge the poor righteously, and shall pass sentence justly on the humble of the earth] (Isa. 9.1-3)
[Interpreted, this concerns the Branch] of David who shall arise at the end [of days] ... God will uphold him with [the spirit of might, and will give him] a throne of glory and a crown of [holiness] and many-coloured garments ... [He will put a sceptre] in his hand and he shall rule over the [nations]. And Magog ... and his sword shall judge [all] the peoples.
And for that which he said, He shall not [judge by what his eyes see] or pass sentence by what his ears hear: interpreted, this means that ... [the Priests] ... As they teach him, so will he judge; and as they order, [so will he pass sentence]. One of the Priests of renown shall go out, and garments of ... shall be in his hands ...
- 4Q161 (4QIsaiah Pesher a; 4QpIsaa), frs. 8-10
The Lord declares to you that He will build you a House (2 Sam. 7.11c). I will raise up your seed after you (2 Sam. 7.12). I will establish the throne of his kingdom [for ever] (2 Sam. 7.13). [I will be] his father and he shall be my son (2 Sam. 7.14). He is the Branch of David who shall arise with the Interpreter of the Law [to rule] in Zion [at the end] of time. As it is written, I will raise up the tent of David that is fallen (Amos 9.11). That is to say, the fallen tent of David is he who shall arise to save Israel.
- 4Q174 (Florilegium / Midrash on the Last Days)(Ladies and gents, another break! Can't let you get tired. Here's something from a film known as Visual Bible: Matthew, which - as the label says - is a word-for-word adaptation of Matthew using the NIV translation. This is basically how they handled the genealogy. Relevant part starts at 01:58. ;))
(If you're ready to move on...)
Out of all the evangelists, Matthew lays the most stress on Jesus' being a "son of David," a term which appears nine times within his gospel (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 21; 21:9, 15). The title and its associations are particularly prominent in chapters 1-2: David is repeatedly mentioned (1:6, 17) and huge importance is laid upon Bethlehem, the city of David (2:1-8, 16). In later chapters of Matthew, however, the term also seems to touch on a tradition not directly connected with eschatology: in the OT, the term "son of David" is usually applied to Solomon (with one exception; 2 Samuel 13:1 = Absalom). The fact that Solomon is touted in later Jewish folklore as an exorcist and healer would not have escaped Matthew, since in later parts of the gospel, he often connects the term in context of exorcisms (cf. 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31).
In addition, Matthew also appends the title "son of Abraham." It's a bit unclear as to whether "son of Abraham" refers to Jesus or David, but the overall intent would still be the same. "Son of Abraham" is an identity marker equivalent to 'Jew'. (cf. Matthew 3:9; John 8:33-41. See also the following for uses of "son of Abraham" to refer to Jewish blood: Luke 19:9; Acts 13:26; Mishnah, Baba Qamma 8.6.) The phrase is also used to refer to someone who is worthy of Abraham (cf. 4 Maccabees 6:17, 22; 18:23; Galatians 3:7; Talmud, Betzah 32b). As the Savior of Israel, Jesus must be a true Israelite, and so Matthew traces His origin to Abraham.
Because the Matthaean genealogy covers the period from Abraham to the Messiah it is natural to think of Jesus as the culmination of the history which began to Abraham. But there is probably more to Jesus' being a "son of Abraham." Abraham was a gentile by birth, and it is promised that "all the nations" will be blessed in him (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; etc.) In Jewish literature he was sometimes portrayed either as "the father of many nations" (Genesis 17:5; 44:19; 1 Maccabees 12:19-21) or as the first proselyte (e.g. Talmud, Hagigah 3a); and the promise to Abraham was employed to further the purposes of Jewish mission. St. Paul also represents him as the true father of all believers, Jew and gentile alike (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-29). Therefore the reference may also for Matthew serve to indicate that Jesus is also the Messiah for the gentiles.
Outside of Matthew, the promises made to the "seed" of Abraham and the "seed" of David are brought and conflated together (so in Luke 1:30-33, 55, 69-73; Acts 3:25; 13:23; also cf. Galatians 3:16; Jeremiah 33:21-22; Targum on Psalm 89:4). This perhaps also explains Matthew's juxtaposition of the two terms: the "seed" of Abraham and the "seed" of David to whom the promises apply = the Messiah.
W.D. Davies and Dale Allison, in their commentary on Matthew (which I've made shameless use of here), make three final points:
First, given Matthew’s emphasis on righteousness and upholding the Torah (5.17-20), the mention of Abraham is particularly apt, for the patriarch was revered as one who had been perfectly obedient to the commands of the Law. He indeed kept the whole Torah even before it was written. [Footnote 38: Ecclus 44.19-21; Prayer of Manasseh 8; Jub. 6.19; 16.28; 21.2; 23.10; 2 Bar. 57.2; T. Abr. (A) 1; 4; m. Qidd. 4.14; b. B. Bat. 17a.] Secondly, there was a tradition that Abraham ‘discovered both astrology and Chaldean science’ (Ps. Eupolemus in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 9.17; cf. Artapanus in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 9.18; the Jewish mystical hymn in Eusebius, Praep. ev. 13.12; Josephus, Ant. 1.158, 167-8; LAB 18.5; b. B. Bat. 16b). [Footnote 39: For rejection of this seemingly wide-spread tradition see Jub. 12.15-17; Philo, Sib. Or. 3.218-30; b. Ned. 32a. On the whole matter consult Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism 2, p. 62, n. 264, and C.R. Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, Vol. 1: Historians, Chico, 1983, pp. 180-1.] It is fitting then, that the ‘son of Abraham’ should be honoured by magi from the east (2.1-12). Finally, since the ‘son of Abraham’ in 1.1 is immediately followed in 1.2 by mention of Isaac, and since, as already suggested, ‘son of David’ may have had a double meaning for Matthew, referring to Jesus as both the Davidic Messiah and one like Solomon, it is just possible, one might urge, that ‘son of Abraham’ could also have a double meaning, designating Jesus not only as a descendant of Abraham but as one like Isaac, who carried wood on his back and was willing to give up his life in obedience to God (cf. Rom 8.32?). [Footnote 40: If, as has sometimes been urged, there was a tradition about the virgin birth of Isaac (see on 1.23), this would certainly buttress such a conjecture.] Yet nowhere else in the First Gospel is Jesus clearly associated with Isaac (although see on 3.17).