The genealogy of Jesus (1:1–17)
What an amazing way to start a Gospel—with a great long list of names! But, to Jews, that was not surprising at all, as we shall see. It sets Jesus of Nazareth in the context of what God had been doing for his people from the earliest days. It ushers in the theme of fulfilment, which is so prominent in this Gospel. The climax of God’s work for humankind throughout the centuries is—Jesus.
There is ample precedent for such genealogies in the Old Testament.1 They were valuable for showing the purity of lineage that was so important to a Jew. Ezra 2:62 speaks of some of the returning exiles who ‘searched for their family records, but they could not find them and so were excluded from the priesthood as unclean’. The great rabbi Hillel was gratified that he could trace his genealogy back to King David, and the Jewish historian Josephus, writing towards the end of the first century AD, begins his autobiography by relating his own pedigree. These documents were kept in the public records by the Sanhedrin. As a matter of fact, Herod the Great was so embarrassed that, as half Jew, half Edomite, his name was not in the official genealogies, that he ordered their destruction, so that nobody could claim a purer pedigree than his own! Far from seeing this as a bit of dull antiquarianism, therefore, the first readers of the Gospel would be fascinated that Jesus could trace his genealogy back to Abraham.
Matthew included Jesus’ genealogy partly for the reasons of validation we have just considered, but mainly because he wanted to draw attention to the links Jesus had both with David and with Abraham. Jesus is the fulfilment of all history, and in particular of God’s promise to Abraham that in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed, and of his promise to David that his throne and kingdom would be established for ever before the Lord. And that, incidentally, is one of the texts found at Qumran in a list of prophecies about the coming Messiah. So it was exceedingly significant.
The genealogy is carefully arranged in three groups of fourteen names each. So it is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather highly selective. It is designed, in fact, to make three names stand out: those of Abraham (2), David (6) and Jesus (16). The high point in the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham in the Old Testament is undoubtedly King David. The climax of the genealogy is great David’s greater Son. The whole thing is arranged with consummate artistry and care so that it could be easily memorized in an age when few could read and fewer still possessed books. The names are arranged as an acrostic on the name ‘David’ to make them easy to remember. In Hebrew, as we have seen, the numerical value of the name ‘David’ is fourteen, which is, accordingly, the number of generations Matthew has selected to mention. In Greek the verb gennaō (be the father of) does not necessarily indicate literal paternity: it can, and often does, mean ‘be the ancestor of …’ The Babylonian captivity was clearly important in this scheme of things (11–12, 17). Just as David represented the high-water mark of Israel’s hopes and development and pointed forward to his descendant, Jesus, so the Babylonian captivity represented the nadir of Israel’s fortunes, the frustration of her hopes, and the end of the royal line; and it too points forward to Jesus the Messiah and his people in whom those fortunes will be restored and those promises fulfilled.
A number of women figure in the genealogy. That might not seem strange in today’s climate, but it was startling in a Jewish genealogy. In both Greek and Jewish culture a woman had no legal rights. She could not inherit property or give testimony in a court of law. She was completely under her husband’s power. She was seen less as a person than as a thing. The Jewish man thanked God each day that he had not been created a slave, a Gentile or a woman. And yet here are four women in Jesus’ genealogy.
And what women! Tamar (3) was an adulteress.4 Rahab (5) was a prostitute from pagan Jericho. Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba (6), was the woman David had seduced and whose first child had died, but through whose subsequent son Solomon the royal line was traced. Ruth (5) was not even a Jewess at all, but a Moabitess, and Moabites and their descendants were not allowed near the assembly of the Lord.8 These are the women introduced into the genealogy to prepare us for the climax of them all—Mary (16)! Matthew could not have found a more amazing selection of women wherever he had looked within the pages of his Bible. Why did he choose them?
It is clear from Mark 6:3; Galatians 4:4 and Revelation 12:1–5 that people were well aware there was something strange about the birth of Jesus. It was different. The Jews put about the rumor that he was the illegitimate child of a Roman soldier and Mary. Nobody thought he was simply the child of Joseph and Mary.9 So Matthew may well be alluding to such rumors when he points out that in Jesus’ ancestry there are notorious women. Sinners they may be, but God works to rescue sinners and to use them in his service. Here at the outset of the Gospel, Matthew goes out of his way to show that the barriers between men and women are broken down: women share in the official genealogy of the Messiah alongside men. The barriers between Gentiles and Jews are broken down too: Ruth plays her part in the coming of one who was to be not only Messiah of Israel but Savior of the whole world. And the juxtaposition of sinful women like Bathsheba and Tamar with Mary, the gentle mother of Jesus, shows that the barriers between good people and bad people have also come crashing down. As Paul put it, ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace’ (Rom. 3:22–24). At the very beginning of the Gospel the all-embracing love of God is emphasized. Nothing can stand in its path. There is nobody who does not need it. Maybe the genealogy is not so dry after all!
The birth of Jesus (1:18–25)
Having prepared us through the genealogy for the appearance of the most important birth in all history, Matthew tells us in no uncertain terms who this baby is. He does so by unmistakable allusions to two Old Testament passages. The child is Immanuel and he is Jesus.
Immanuel (23) means ‘God is with us’. It is not a prayer. It is a statement. It takes us back to Isaiah 7:14: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.’ That child of prophecy, that child who was to be a ‘sign’, has come at last. And he is no less than God with us. The Hebrews had such an exalted conception of God that they did not even make any image of him—something which so amazed their Roman conquerors that they dubbed them ‘atheists’, people without gods. Against this background Matthew claims, not that God has given us a representation of himself, but that he has come in person to share our situation. What a claim, right at the outset of the Gospel! It is so ultimate, so exclusive. It does not fit with the pluralist idea that each of us is getting through to God in his or her own way. No, says Matthew. God has got through to us in his way. And Jesus is no mere teacher, no guru, no Muhammad or Gandhi. He is ‘God with us’. That is the essential claim on which Christianity is built. It is a claim that cannot be abandoned without abandoning the faith in its entirety.
The other great name accorded to the child of promise here is Jesus (21). That word, too, has a meaning: ‘Yahweh saves.’ ‘God to the rescue’, if you like. To be sure, it was a common name. It goes back to the frequent rescue of his people by God in the Old Testament days, perhaps most notably through a man who bore the same name, Joshua (its Hebrew form). But it is clearly very significant for Matthew. As with Immanuel, he explains what it means: Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. This, too, was an Old Testament allusion. It comes from Psalm 130:8, where we are told that ‘God will redeem Israel from all their sins.’ Isn’t that interesting? God promises that he will provide a rescue from sin; and, centuries later, Jesus comes to do it. This is one of many occasions where what is predicated of God in the Old Testament is applied quite naturally and unambiguously to Jesus in the New. Another classic example is Philippians 2:10–11, which asserts that Jesus has the right to that ‘lordship’ which God reserved for himself in Isaiah 45:23. This kind of usage needs to be borne in mind when some theologians assert that Jesus is never called ‘God’ in the New Testament writings.
So here, at the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, we are brought face to face with the central theme of the Gospel. God, who has been at work on his people since the times of Abraham, has come among them in person. And he has come for the specific purpose of rescuing them from the mess they have got themselves into. Christianity is not good advice about morals. It is good news about God and what he has done for us.
And this good news is revealed in a variety of ways. First, God speaks through history: that is one of the points being made by the genealogy. Secondly, God speaks through dreams: five times in the first two chapters of Matthew God makes himself known in this way—and sometimes he still does. Thirdly, God speaks through angels (1:20; 2:13, 19), his spiritual messengers who appear in dreams or visions. Fourthly, God speaks through Scripture. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet, says Matthew (22). Twelve times he uses this particular formula to speak of the Old Testament being fulfilled in the events of the New—an astonishingly high view of the accuracy and inspiration of the Old Testament, and a very clear perception of the unity of revelation down the centuries. But there is a fifth way in which God reveals himself, and that is through Immanuel, God with us. So the heavens are not brazen, and we do not live in a silent universe. God has spoken!
Indeed, we could go further. This passage is strongly, if unself-consciously, trinitarian. God the Father reveals himself through his Son, Jesus Immanuel. But all this is brought about through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Mary was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit (18). What is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Insistently Matthew underlines his point. In Judaism the Holy Spirit was supremely the one who revealed God’s will to the prophets: he was equally at work in the creation of the world.10 What is more, re-creation was seen to be the Spirit’s work, as the marvellous story of the valley of the dry bones makes so clear. And Isaiah had predicted long ago that when the coming great deliverer was born the Spirit of the Lord would ‘rest’ or ‘remain’ upon him. So now the Spirit finds a perfect vehicle through whom to reveal God and re-create broken humanity. All three persons of the Trinity are brought before our gaze, and this is not a dogmatic construction but a very natural piece of writing. The doctrine of the Trinity is not something superimposed on Scripture, as Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain; it emerges out of the natural allusions in the text itself.
Who is Jesus and why did he come? That is the question addressed so clearly in this paragraph. He is no less than God with us, and he came to rescue us. But that claim is so mind-boggling that inevitably problems arise. Four particular questions demand our attention.
First, is there not total confusion about the marriage situation of Joseph and Mary? There seems to be, at first sight. Joseph is said to be pledged to be married to Mary (18), then is said to be minded to divorce her (19), and then took Mary home as his wife (24). To our way of thinking this is most confusing, if not contradictory. But in Jewish marriage custom it is quite natural. Betrothal, the pledge to marry, was a solemn contract between the parties, and lasted for a year before the couple were married in the full sense. Thus it was far more binding than our engagement. Indeed, it could be terminated only by divorce. Way back in Deuteronomy 22:24 a betrothed girl is called a ‘wife’, though the preceding verse speaks of her as being ‘pledged to be married’. And Matthew uses the terms husband and wife (19, 24) in this proleptic sense before they are fully married. Complete marriage, and the sexual union that goes with it, came at the end of the year of betrothal (25).
Secondly, what is the point of the genealogy if Joseph is not the father? Why does Matthew make such a point of the pedigree of Jesus if, as he himself maintains, he is not Joseph’s son at all? Matthew is, as we have seen, interested not in strict biological descent but in legal standing. Legally Jesus was the son of Joseph, and inherited his pedigree. Biologically, Matthew maintains, he was not. He was born of the virgin Mary through the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit. This may help us to understand the divergence in the genealogies of Jesus according to Matthew and Luke after they reach the Babylonian captivity. The line of kings had ended, and there were many collateral lines which could trace ancestry back to David. The rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, could trace his ancestry back to David through one of these lines. It seems probable that Matthew is giving us Joseph’s story and lineage, and that Luke is giving us Mary’s. Matthew certainly gives us Joseph’s story (angelic annunciation, perplexity and obedience), and this fits in well with his genealogy, which is clearly Joseph’s. Luke, by contrast, tells us Mary’s story (angelic annunciation, perplexity and obedience), which suggests that he may well be giving us her lineage as well. Thus Jesus would be legally ‘the son of David’ through Joseph, and biologically the descendant of David through Mary.
Is there any evidence for this? Yes, there is some. For one thing, Jesus’ physical descent from David is given some prominence in the New Testament.13 For another, Luke himself is clear that Jesus is the son of David as well as ‘the Son of the Most High’ (Luke 1:32). And the early patristic witness to his Davidic sonship is strong. Ignatius, writing shortly after AD 100, can say, ‘For our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb by Mary through God’s good purposes, of the seed of David but also by the Holy Ghost’,14 and, ‘He is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, but Son of God by the divine will and power.’15 So we may be right in understanding Luke 3:23 as follows: ‘Jesus … was the son—it was thought, of Joseph—of Heli …’ (my translation). If we make this phrase about Joseph a parenthesis, as the Greek allows us to do, Jesus would be ‘son’, in the broad sense so common in the genealogies, of Heli: actually grandson, for there is evidence in the Jewish writings that Mary’s father was Heli. Because she was a woman, her name would not naturally be mentioned in a genealogy, which would account for the rather odd Greek construction. In a word, there is no reason why Mary should not have had Davidic blood in her veins as well as Joseph. If so, there is every point in having the genealogy as well as the assertion of a virgin birth.
Thirdly, can we believe in the virgin birth? Even if Matthew and Luke assert it, is this something we can credit today? David Jenkins, the controversial former Bishop of Durham, declared on television, ‘I very much doubt if God would arrange a virgin birth.’ But Christianity is concerned with what actually happened, and we are not at liberty to rewrite history in order to fit in with what we imagine to be likely.
Those who disbelieve the virgin birth make a number of points. First, there are two accounts of the genealogy of Jesus: may not both be rival literary constructions? There are pagan parallels to the story. The virgin birth is never part of the early preaching, and is confined in the New Testament to Matthew and Luke. What is more, it is intrinsically improbable, as well as being unnecessary to Christian belief in the deity of Christ.
Let us look at those points in turn. There are indeed two genealogies, and they do not precisely tally. Indeed, they arose in different parts of the church, and no convincing explanations have been given as to how they originated if they were legendary constructions. They are certainly not variants of the same tradition.
There are in fact no pagan parallels to the birth narrative. There are plenty of stories of Zeus impregnating mortal women for whom he lusted; but the purity, the restraint and the wonder of this story are unparalleled in pagan literature. Moreover, it is very Semitic in character, which is odd if it is supposed to be a Hellenistic creation. But it is even more odd to find such an account in the heart of Judaism, which was utterly repelled by any idea of God’s being born among us. No, there are no parallels to this unique story. Not surprising, really: virgin births are uncommon!
To be sure, the virgin birth is not part of the early preaching of salvation such as we meet in Acts. Nor is it a normal part of evangelistic preaching today. But that does not mean it did not happen. There are, in fact, allusions to it in other parts of the New Testament. Moreover, the virgin birth was regarded as fundamental by the earliest post-apostolic writers, particularly Ignatius,18 while the Jewish and Roman opposition never suggested that Jesus was born to Joseph and Mary, but assumed that she had run off with a paramour.
As to its intrinsic improbability, that is true. But if you believe in the miracle of the incarnation and the resurrection, not to mention the other miracles, then there is no a priori reason why God should not select this different method for his Son to enter the world. Why should not the Spirit which brooded over creation not also brood creatively over the womb of Mary? The real objection to the virgin birth (or virginal conception, as it should properly be termed) does not spring from shortage of evidence at all: it springs from the assumption that God cannot or does not do miracles. And nobody who believes that God has entered our world in Jesus Christ should make that bland assumption.
However, it is only proper to say that there is nothing necessary about the virgin birth. The deity of Christ is not inextricably tied to it. God might well have entered his world in the normal manner, or chosen some unprecedented way of becoming one of us. He need not have come through a virginal conception. The documents, however, assert that he did. And if he did so enter our world, it is highly appropriate that one who is both God and human should be born through the fusion of the Holy Spirit and a human womb.
Finally, did Matthew misread Isaiah 7:14? He seems to lay a lot of stress on the prophecy, The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son (23), but does he realize that the Hebrew word translated ‘virgin’ (ʿalmâ) can mean a young woman of marriageable age, and not necessarily a virgin? Matthew is often accused of misreading his Hebrew, but I fancy he knew the language rather better than his detractors. It is true that ʿalmâ normally means ‘virgin’, but certainly can mean ‘young woman’. Does Matthew make too much of it?
In point of fact, ʿalmâ is used only seven times in the Old Testament, of girls or young women. In two cases they are unmarried. Its use in connection with childbirth was so surprising to the writers of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament written some two hundred years before Christ, that they translated it by parthenos, a word which much more decisively means ‘virgin’. They had sound instincts. For the prophecy received its immediate fulfillment in Hezekiah’s own day and the destruction of the kings he feared, but, as was characteristic in Hebrew prophecy, it had a deeper meaning. The child would be a ‘sign’—a word that suggests something more than the mere birth of a baby in the normal way. And by the time we reach Isaiah 9:6, this child is seen as ‘Mighty God’. Matthew quite properly sees in this sign a further application, pointing forward to the fulfillment of ‘Immanuel’, God with us, in the person of Jesus.
It would be a pity if all these questions which arise in modern minds were to rob us of the main significance of this marvelous chapter. The Father loves us enough to send his Son, the one who shares both God’s nature and ours. He comes to rescue his people from their sins, enemies far more deadly than Rome. If God loves like that, it is good news, gospel, indeed