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 Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17)

Julian Spriggs M.A.

To the modern reader, it does not seem very inspiring that Matthew started his gospel, and therefore the entire New Testament, with a genealogy. However, for Jews, knowing their ancestry was extremely important. Since the return from the exile, racial purity was of great concern (Ezra 2:59-63). Each Israelite could name their immediate ancestors and knew to which of the twelve tribes they belonged to. For example, Anna was of the tribe of Asher (Lk 2:36). Pure ancestry had to be proved in order for the person to exercise any civic rights, or to be able to participate in the temple worship, particularly to serve as a priest.

The main theme of Matthew is that Jesus is the fulfilment of all God's purposes and hopes of the OT. So Matthew firstly needed to prove that Jesus was a Jew, by tracing his ancestry back to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. The most important family in Judah was the royal family of David, the family of the messianic hope. Therefore it was very significant the Matthew began his account of the life of Jesus Christ (the Messiah) by showing his ancestry through David.

Differences in the genealogies

The genealogy of Jesus is given in both Matthew (1:1-18) and Luke (3:23-38). Another genealogy of the messianic line up until the time of the return from exile in Babylon is given in 1 Chronicles 1-3, which is probably where Matthew got his information.

Matthew begins his gospel with the genealogy, beginning with Abraham (the father of all Jews) and tracing the family line down the generations through David to Jesus. He divides his genealogy into three symmetrical groups of fourteen generations each (Mt 1:17). This division is not found in Chronicles or Luke.

Luke places the genealogy of Jesus after the birth narratives and baptism, just before the temptations and the start of his public ministry. The list of names begins with Jesus and traces his genealogy backwards up the generations through Abraham back to Adam, the father of all humanity. He gives an unstructured and uninterrupted list of 77 names, plus Jesus, right back to God himself. This would conform to Luke’s theme that Jesus came from God, offering salvation to the whole world. No additional names are given as in Matthew.

First set of fourteen generations

Matthew’s first set of fourteen generations is the same as that in Luke and 1 Chronicles, but the differences begin with the second set of fourteen generations. As mentioned before, Luke additionally includes the generations between Adam and Abraham, as recorded in Genesis chapters 5 and 11.

Matthew 1 Chronicles Luke
1 Abraham Abraham Abraham
2 Isaac Isaac Isaac
3 Jacob Jacob Jacob
4 Judah Judah Judab
5 Perez Perez Perez
6 Hezron Hezron Hezron
7 Ram Ram Ram
8 Amminadab Amminadab Amminadab
9 Nahshon Nahshon Nahshon
10 Salmon Salma (Salmon) Salmon (Sala)
11 Boaz Boaz Boaz
12 Obed Obed Obed
13 Jesse Jesse Jesse
14 David David David

Second set of fourteen generations

When compared with 1 Chronicles, Matthew has left out four generations in order to have a group of fourteen: Ahaziah, Jehoash, Amaziah between Joram and Uzziah, and Jehoiakim between Josiah and Jehoiachin. It is a mystery why Matthew has omitted these particular generations. We should note that the Greek word for 'became the father of' (gennao), can also refer to a grandson or more distant descendant.

From David downwards, the lists in Matthew and Luke are very different, as they are following different family lines. Matthew traces the line down to Jesus through Solomon (Mt 1:7), while Luke traces the line down to Jesus through Nathan, another son of David (Lk 3:31), a list of names which is not found in the Old Testament. The source of Luke's list of names is not known.

Matthew 1 Chronicles Luke
1 Solomon Solomon Nathan
2 Rehoboam Rehoboam Mattatha
3 Abijah Abijah Menna
4 Asa Asa Melea
5 Jehoshaphat Jehoshaphat Eliakim
6 Joram Joram Jonam
7 Uzziah (Ahaziah) Uzziah (Ahaziah) Joseph
Joash Judah
Amaziah Simeon
Azariah Levi
8 Jotham Jotham Matthat
9 Ahaz Ahaz Jorim
10 Hezekiah Hezekiah Eliezer
11 Manasseh Manasseh Joshua
12 Amon Amon Er
13 Josiah Josiah Elmadam
Jehoiakim Cosam
14 Jeconiah

Third set of fourteen generations

Again, these lists are very different. Shealtiel is found in Matthew and Luke, and Zerubbabel is found in all three lists. However, after Zerubbabel, the lists are totally different, and neither of these lists are found in the Old Testament.

It is interesting to note that in Matthew the third set of fourteen only has thirteen names, even though fourteen seem to be intended (1:17). This can be explained in different ways: either by repeating David in both the first and second group, or Jeconiah in both the second and third group. The other possibility is that Mary should be counted as the thirteenth name, so Mary is the natural ancestor and Joseph the legal ancestor.

Matthew 1 Chronicles Luke
1 Shealtiel Pedaiah Shealtiel
2 Zerubbabel Zerubbabel Zerubbabel
3 Abiud Hananiah Rhesa
4 Eliakim Shecaniah Joanan
5 Azor Neariah Joda
6 Zadok Elioenai Josech
7 Akim Semein
8 Eliud Mattathias
9 Eleazar Maath
10 Matthan Naggai
11 Jacob Esli
12 Joseph / Mary Joseph

It is significant to note that Matthew breaks his pattern when he introduces the final generation. For all the previous generations, the pattern is, 'A was the father of B', or literally, 'A begat B'. However the final generation is introduced as follows: “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16). He changes from an active verb (was the father of) to a passive verb (of whom Jesus was born), leaving the father of Jesus unnamed, thus leaving the meaning open until the virgin birth is described in chapter two.

Why is Matthew so different from Luke?

There is no easy answer to explain why the genealogy of Jesus is so different in Matthew from Luke. Different solutions have been proposed.

One possibility is that Matthew gives the family line of Joseph, the legal father of Jesus, while Luke gives the family line of Mary, his mother, but this would be very unusual. Also, Luke specifically says that it is Joseph’s line (Lk 3:23).

Another possibility is that Matthew traces the royal line of Jesus through the kings of Judah, while Luke traces the natural line, the actual physical genealogy down the family from father to son. Matthew would then give the official line of succession to the throne, not necessarily from physical father to son, but so the kingship remained in the wider family. The Greek word gennao, translated 'the father of', or 'begat', is sometimes used in a spiritual sense in the New Testament (1 Cor 4:15, Phm 10).

There are also some smaller differences which should be noted. Firstly, some names are spelt differently in the two genealogies. This probably arises from differences in transliteration from Hebrew to Greek, and from Greek to English.

Secondly, when compared with Genesis 5 & 11, Luke includes a second 'Cainan' (3:36), between Shelah and Arphaxad, in addition to the earlier Cainan (3:37), between Mahalaleel and Enos. This second Cainan is not found in the list in Genesis chapter 11. It is, however, found in the Greek Septuagint (LXX). It has been suggested that this extra Cainan was a result of a copying error in the LXX, which has been included by Luke.

Introduction to Matthew’s genealogy (v1)

Matthew introduces the genealogy, “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ”. This is the same phrase that is used in Greek Septuagint version of the Book of Genesis (Gen 2:4, 5:1 ...). Matthew probably understood the coming of Jesus as the beginning of a new creation and the start of a new era of time, to be compared with the first creation. He also uses the same word (genesis) to describe the birth of Jesus (1:18).

He describes Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One - in Hebrew, the Messiah. In Old Testament, anyone chosen by God for a special task could be called the Anointed One, especially kings and prophets.

Jesus is introduced as "Son of David, Son of Abraham". Both of these are very significant titles of the Messiah. He is Son of Abraham, coming in fulfilment of God’s unconditional promise to Abraham that he will have land, descendants and be a blessing to the nations (Gen 12:1-3). God’s promise gave Israel its land and a special place in God’s purposes. God promised that Abraham would have as many descendants as there stars in the sky (Gen 15:5), so Jesus is the ultimate son of Abraham.

He is also Son of David. God had given another unconditional promise to David that his throne would be established for ever (2 Sam 7:16). Kings of Judah were all direct descendants of David, down to Jehoachin. The Davidic line was broken at the time of the exile, after which there were no more kings.

'Son of David' had become a title of the Messiah. By Jesus being called the Son of David, Matthew demonstrates that God had fulfilled his messianic promises (eg. Rom 1:3). Throughout his Gospel, Matthew proclaims Jesus as the King, the heir to the throne of David. This becomes a very important theme in the birth narratives, shown when the wise men asked where the king of the Jews has been born (2:2). David is mentioned five times in the genealogy (1:1, 6 x2, 17 x2). Only David is described as 'king' (1:6), in contrast to all the other kings in the second group of fourteen.

Why these three sections: Abraham-David, David-Exile, Exile-Jesus

Matthew started his genealogy with Abraham, and then split it into three sections divided by David and the Exile. The three parts of the genealogy can be seen like this: The first shows the origin of the house of David and its rise to power. The second shows the decay and downfall of house of David, while the third shows the restoration of house of David by the promised 'Son of David'.

During the exile in Babylon, the promises both to Abraham and to David seemed to be jeopardised because Israel lost both its land and its Davidic king. The exile happened as the result of the curses of the law of Moses which happened as a consequence of the peoples' persistent unfaithfulness and disobedience. However, the exile raised the difficult question of what had happened to the unconditional promises to Abraham and David.

Matthew probably structured his genealogy to show that this period of jeopardy is now finished. In Jesus, God has acted to fulfil his promises both to Abraham and to David. The problem of the unconditional promises has been resolved, as he was the only one to keep the law fully, as the Son of Abraham and the Son of David.

Why groups of fourteen?

Matthew has structured his genealogy in a rather artificial way. He has fitted the genealogy into three groups of fourteen generations, even if it meant missing out a few generations, so the number fourteen must be significant to Matthew. It is likely that he is using gematria (giving letters numerical values) on the name of David, which has a value of fourteen in Hebrew: D = 4, plus W = 6, plus D = 4, without vowels. This gives a strong emphasis on the fact that Jesus was the Son of David.

The women in the genealogy

It was quite unusual for women to appear in Jewish genealogies. Women were only included if there was some irregularity in the descent, or to specify particular clans or tribes, or to distinguish children of different wives or even concubines. In Matthew’s genealogy, there are four women, in addition to Mary, each of whom were significant in two ways.

All four were probably Gentiles

1. Tamar (Gen 38:2-6)
Although we cannot be absolutely certain, Tamar was probably a Canaanite, like her mother-in-law. This is stated in the Book of Jubilees: “And in the forty-fifth jubilee, in the second week, in the second year, Judah took for his first-born Er, a wife from the daughters of Aram, named Tamar.” (Jubilees 41:1)

2. Rahab (Josh 2:1-14)
Rahab was a native of Canaanite Jericho.

3. Ruth (Ruth 1:4)
Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, was a Moabitess.

4. Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:3)
Bathsheba’s nationality is unknown, but she is probably Hittite like her husband Uriah. Matthew does not name her, only describing her as the wife of Uriah the Hittite.

All four women were considered as honoured proselytes by the Jews. The inclusion of four Gentile women fits one of the significant themes of Matthew, that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, but the message of Jesus was for all nations, as in the great commission (28:19). Jesus fulfilled the promise originally given to Abraham, that the nations (the Gentiles) would be blessed through him (Gen 12:3).

An irregular marriage relationship

All four women had some irregularity in their relationship with their male partner. In each account we see that God included their offspring to become part of the line leading to the Messiah. Some of these women entered these relationships on their own initiative and sometimes at considerable personal risk.

1. Tamar (Gen 38:6-40)
In a rather strange story, Tamar seduced her father-in-law, Judah, by posing as a cult prostitute, and as a result gave birth to Perez and Zerah. Perez became an ancestor of David.

2. Rahab (Josh 2:1)
Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, who risked her life by harbouring the two Israelite spies. She demonstrated faith in God, and was therefore spared when Jericho was destroyed. She therefore played an important role in the conquest of the promised land, and is commended twice for her faith in the New Testament (Heb 11: 31, James 2:25). We see here that she was incorporated into the people of Israel and married into line leading to the Messiah (1:5).

3. Ruth
Ruth was a Moabitess, a foreigner from a nation with a bad reputation. The Moabites were a nation which had their roots in an act of incest, by the drunken Lot and his daughters (Gen 19:30-37). This caused the Moabites to be prohibited from Israel's worship for ten generations (Deut 23:3). Ruth took the initiative of proposing marriage to Boaz, much to his surprise (Ruth 3:6-14). Ruth's son, Obed, was born out of a Levirate marriage with Boaz (Ruth 2-4), and became David’s grandfather.

4. Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2-27)
Bathsheba was seduced by David, who then arranged to have her husband murdered. This was David's worst mistake and failure, but God took it and made it into part of his purposes, following David's repentance (Ps 51). Bathsheba’s son Solomon was chosen by God to succeed David as king. Bathsheba also took initiative in securing Solomon’s succession to the throne (1 Kg 1:11-31).

All four women found themselves outside the normal structures of patriarchal society, and all four were restored and brought under the protection of God's care. All four in some way foreshadowed Mary’s role of being an 'unmarried mother', who was used in a unique way by God to fulfil his divine plan. Mary would also have suffered the stigma of bearing an illegitimate child and therefore being alienated from society. Her neighbours would think that her son was illegitimate, as they described Jesus as the “son of Mary” (Mk 6:3), suggesting that his father was unknown. Mary also would come under the protection of God, because she gave birth to her son under unusual circumstances.

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