Monday, January 1, 2007

Matthew 1: 1-17

I remember how pointless all those "begats" in the Bible seemed to me when I first encountered them as a child. The less reverent kids in Sunday School would giggle and snicker over the long, unfamiliar, and seemingly silly names. The adults around us seemed not to care about the begats very much either: not even those who were committed to the view that every word of Scripture was dictated by God and had been infallibly transcribed. But in this blog we will ponder the lists of "begats" as we ponder every other portion of the gospels.

I quote here from the so-called King James Version, feeling that it must surely by now be exempt from copyright. (Though I am more than willing to give credit to Bible Gateway for putting it on-line. The verses below are snipped from that source.)

1The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren;

3And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram;

4And Aram begat Aminadab; and Aminadab begat Naasson; and Naasson begat Salmon;

5And Salmon begat Booz of Rachab; and Booz begat Obed of Ruth; and Obed begat Jesse;

6And Jesse begat David the king; and David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias;

7And Solomon begat Roboam; and Roboam begat Abia; and Abia begat Asa;

8And Asa begat Josaphat; and Josaphat begat Joram; and Joram begat Ozias;

9And Ozias begat Joatham; and Joatham begat Achaz; and Achaz begat Ezekias;

10And Ezekias begat Manasses; and Manasses begat Amon; and Amon begat Josias;

11And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon:

12And after they were brought to Babylon, Jechonias begat Salathiel; and Salathiel begat Zorobabel;

13And Zorobabel begat Abiud; and Abiud begat Eliakim; and Eliakim begat Azor;

14And Azor begat Sadoc; and Sadoc begat Achim; and Achim begat Eliud;

15And Eliud begat Eleazar; and Eleazar begat Matthan; and Matthan begat Jacob;

16And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

17So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David until the carrying away into Babylon are fourteen generations; and from the carrying away into Babylon unto Christ are fourteen generations

Thus the Gospel According to Matthew, placed by the Church at the beginning of the New Testament, places a genealogy at the beginning of its story. The "boring begats" are at the beginning of the beginning of the Greatest Story Ever Told. Generally, anything placed at the beginning of a story is something very significant. Whether 20th and 21st century children would giggle or not, the matter of Jesus' ancestry (or - rather - his mother's husband's ancestry) appears to have been considered very important both when the gospel itself was written and also later when the Christian portion of the Bible itself was put together.

There is more to ponder here than we might at first have thought. Why does the gospel-writer believe that this genealogy is important? It doesn't culminate, as we might have expected, with "Joseph begat Jesus", and thus doesn't offer evidence that Jesus had what we would call "good genes". In fact, the same gospel will go on in the next few verses to flatly tell us that Joseph did not beget Jesus.

One complicating factor here is that the author/editor of the gospel in its present form may not be the same person who compiled the genealogy. The disciple named Matthew or Levi may or may not have contributed some of the material recorded in this gospel, but it seems pretty clear to most readers that he was not the single author of it (and nowhere in the gospel itself does it remotely claim that he is, by the way). The gospel as we have it appears to be a compilation of material from many sources. The final author/editor has inserted clarifications, interpretations and transitions but has usually (it seems to me) been very respectful of the sources themselves, preserving some details because they were there even if they didn't necessarily support the point being made. Thus, the possibility exists that the final author preserved the genealogy of Joseph because it was there in his source material and not because he himself saw its importance in the same light. It would have been possible, if the author were less scrupulous, to say in verse 16 that "Judah begat Mary" instead of "Judah begat Joseph", and thus bring the only-begotten son of God into David's line on his mother's side. But that's not the kind of author we are dealing with.

That, however, just pushes the question back a step. If the final author/editor of the gospel didn't write this genealogy, then an earlier writer did and that writer, too, must have had some ground for doing so, and some ground (I believe) for doing so in good faith. Like most modern readers, I have little interest in Jesus' biological ancestry per se. My belief in Him and acceptance of His authority does not rest on his descent, or lack thereof, from Abraham or David. But it is important to me that the writer of this gospel is a person of integrity.

I take it that the writer of this gospel was a sincere believer in Jesus Christ, who saw Jesus' mission in the context of the whole history of Israel, and who saw Him in some sense as the fulfillment of certain promises by God to the people of Israel, including the promise of a divinely anointed successor to the throne of David. In the light of that belief, the gospel writer naturally would think that Jesus was descended from David (if not biologically, then in the sense of being in David's "household"). This is a logical deduction within its own terms. For most of the details of the genealogy, then, the writer need only turn to existing Hebrew scripture, which already provided a list of the descendants of Abraham and of David up to a certain time.

Finally, I think it's worth noticing that this genealogy is not only a list of men. Barbara E. Reid, author of the commentary "The Gospel According to Matthew" (Liturgical Press; Collegeville Minnesota) points out that
The linear progression of thirty-nine male ancestors is broken at four points by the names of women. They are not the ones who would immediately come to mind as great figures from Israel's past. Each has an unusual twist to her story. Tamar (v.3), after being widowed, took decisive action to coerce her father-in-law, Judah, to provide an heir for her (Gen 38). She conceived Perez and Zerah, who continued the Davidic line. Tamar is the only woman in Hebrew scriptures who is called righteous (Genesis 38:26), a term that is of central importance to Matthew. Rahab (v.5) a prostitute in Jericho (Joshua 2), risked disobeying the orders of the king of Jericho and sheltered spies sent from Joshua to reconnoiter the land... Ruth, a Moabite woman, returned with her mother-in-law, Naomi to Bethlehem rather than stay with her own people after her husband Mahlon died... Finally the wife of Uriah is the one who bore David's son after David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Samuel 11).

Each story speaks of how women took bold actions outside the bounds of regular patriarchal marriage to enable God's purposes to be brought to fruition in unexpected ways. Not only were the circumstances unusual, but some of these women were also outsiders to Israel. Remembering their stories prepares for the extraordinay circumstances of Jesus' birth and the salvation he will ultimately extend to those outside Israel (28:19). The women's presence in the midst of the male ancestors of Jesus also signals the integral role that women disciples play in the community of Jesus' followers. They remind the reader that women are not marginal to the history of Israel or Christianity.

Comments are not only welcomed, but pleaded for.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans


RichardM said...

Since you pleaded for comments...

I have to say that I don't think that whoever came up with the two geneologies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke had as much respect for the truth as I would like. It seems pretty obvious to me that both geneologies are bogus. Matthew's neat division into sets of 14 generations doesn't work. For one thing the numbers don't add up. For another it contradicts the evidence in the Old Testament about who begat whom. For another the amount of time is all wrong. For another Matthew's geneology conflicts with Luke's. The bottom line is that Matthew and Luke wrote after Mark and added stuff they thought would make the story better--unfortunately some of that stuff is not believable.

forrest said...

First of all, we need more good folks over at

so please consider showing up and putting a foot in.

2nd, I agree that this passage says something highly significant to the people who put this story together. This geneology is here to support Jesus's claim to be King of Israel--although all the sons of the last king had been deliberately killed by the Babylonians. A geneology for this purpose has nothing to do with whose genes are swimming in the pool, everything to do with public acknowledgement of legitimacy.

The factuality of the list itself is not necessarily significant; a "son of" David might well mean "someone like" David, who himself was a son of nobody-special, important because of Who made him King, not because of who his family were. Jesus may have well seen things in this light. How do you know who's the legitimate king?--Ask a prophet. John the Baptist, for example. "I'll tell you where I get my authority if you'll tell me where John got his."

That, of course, implies that a later devotee fudged a geneology, believing that Jesus must have had one.

A "son of God," of course, is one "like God." The King of Israel, for instance.

Johan Maurer said...

I'm not sure that lack of literal, archival reliability is the same as adding stuff to make the story better.

A few weeks ago I translated some of Anthony Bloom's reflections on the reason for the Gospel genealogies. That translation appears here.
Bloom cites the genealogies in the service of his thesis (an important reflection of Eastern Orthodox spirituality) that "a lot of what we consider humanness is actually on the divine margin."

Rich in Brooklyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to RichardM, Forrest, and Johan for their comments.
I felt a little reluctant to start my "ponderings" by pondering the genealogy, but decided that the best way to avoid an unconscious filtering of the Gospels was to look at every part, beginning at the beginning. And in the order they are usually presented Matthew is the beginning and the genealogy is the beginning of Matthew.

I agree with RichardM that "Matthew and Luke wrote after Mark and added stuff they thought would make the story better." I almost but not quite agree that "some of that stuff is not believable". Obviously, the genealogy is technically "believable" for the plain reason that lots of people believe it. This is not a trivial point in view of my original determination not to put myself in the position of telling anyone what to think. I think it is also "believable" in the sense that Matthew himself (or whatever we want to call the final author/editor) believed it. More about that in a moment.

I don't mean to evade the question of whether I myself believe the genealogy. That is, do I believe that this is an accurate list of Mary's ancestors? Well, no, not particularly. The 14-generations schema does seem too neat. And I can't imagine how Matthew would know it was accurate even if it was. Nor do I personally find that my faith in Christ depends on knowin who his mother's ancestors were.

I haven't looked into whether the genealogy as given contradicts Hebrew scriptures about who begat whom (though I'm surprised that RichardM says it does). Any details others may want to add about that are welcome, but I am not personally inclined to pursue the question at present. I also don't know whether Matthew's genealogy conflicts with Luke's. Maybe more about that when I get to Luke (maybe 2009? 2010?). Luke's genealogy is a genealogy of Joseph so it would naturally differ From Matthew's.

Why do I think that the gospel writer believed his genealogy of Mary was accurate? Because I believe in his essential integrity. Of course he wanted to "make the story better", but I don't think he would have thought he could do that by adding lies. Obviously he had some source for the genealogy. Perhaps it was an earlier writer's speculation (based on some plausible reasoning). Matthew read it, thought it had the ring of truth, may not have realized it was originally a speculation, and he inserted it in his gospel. I suspect that in his time some of the very things that make the genealogy suspect today (the 14-generation pattern, for example) would have made it appear more credible to him.

I'm aware that some writers say this "doesn't matter". They make the point that Matthew was proclaiming Jesus' role as the fulfiller of Messianic hopes. So, they argue, he was justified in making up a genealogy that strengthened his point. I worry, quite frankly, about whether some of these writers apply the same standard to their own polemical writings. I can trust an author who unknowingly makes mistakes. I can fully understand that standards of evidence employed may vary from time to time and even from writer to writer. But I would have a very hard time in trusting the Gospel of Matthew to tell me anything if I really believed that its author deliberately added lies to his narrative.

Forrest says that "the factuality of the list itself is not necessarily signigicant". I think, though, that he is taking essentially the same point of view that I am. He says that a later devotee "fudged the genealogy, believing that Jesus must have had one". This leaves room for the "fudger" to have at least been trying to be honest, and for the final author of the gospel to have been unaware that he was quoting a fudge.

I'll be receptive to others' further comments about this issue, but I hope myself to move on to the next part of the Gospel.

- -
By the way, thanks to Forrest for suggesting that I drop by Kwaker Skripture Study. I read it often, and will now consider adding comments from time to time. I don't know what process there is, if any, for getting added as one of the people who can directly post to it.

Peace to all,
Rich A-E

b said...

i've been researching the mystery of a common misspelling of the word "dilemma" (correct) vs. "dilemna" (incorrect). this is not just an ordinary shared misspelling, because there are many, many people that ASSERT that they were TAUGHT to spell it "dilemna". this is a global phenomenon!

in another blog, someone said that in matthew 21:1-46 the word "dilemna" appeared. i theorized that this widespread spelling mis-perception may have arisen from a misspelling in a certain version of the bible, but i was unable to find that reference anywhere online.

i did, however, come across this blog where the misspelling did not occur in the verse, but in the commentary. i'm curious as to where your spelling of the word came from.

i bet this will come as a shock to you to find that you have it misspelled -- ie: i bet you are certain that you spelled it correctly because you were taught to spell it that way -- like SO many other people including myself. is that the case?

also, do you know of an appearance of that word in matthew? or anywhere else in the bible?


forrest said...

The process is, you send your email address to me at mine (See my profile!) and put your request pretty plainly in the subject line so I don't mistake you for spam.