Matthew Chapter 1

And so we begin Matthew’s gospel.

A couple of things. First, I am skipping most of the genealogy in Chapter 1. I have nothing intelligent to say about who begat whom; I realize there is a difference between Matthew’s genealogy and that of Luke, and that clever people have been coming up with ever-more-clever ways to explain the differences. I am not qualified to judge between them. Anything I say will be rank speculation without a shred of historical insight. And it’s not like there’s anything to get lost in the translation. Mind, I am not saying that this part of the chapter is not interesting, or that it doesn’t have historical value; neither of those are true. I’m simply saying that I do not have the chops for the task.

Now, I don’t want it to be said that I’m ducking this chapter because I don’t want to take on one of the problems presented. As of this writing, I am convinced that Mark wrote first, then Matthew, with full knowledge of Mark, and then Luke with full knowledge of the other two. The question then becomes:  If Luke had access to Matthew, why did Luke alter the genealogy that he found? The simplest answer to this question is that Luke wrote without knowing Matthew; however, I think that position is simply untenable given the lever of detailed overlap that exists between Matthew and Luke. Another simple answer is that Luke received a different oral tradition than Matthew did, and that is a very viable answer. Luke does not acknowledge the existence of a different genealogy, but simply presents his as if in a vacuum.

This question inserts us into one of those sticky wickets wherein we try to guess what the motivation of the author was for doing something. We can present theories and produce supporting “evidence” to show how our theory is supported by, and consistent with other things said in the gospel. Well, that assumes people are usually consistent, a theory for which I’ve found scant evidence. For instance, it has been suggested that one genealogy traces the paternal and the other traces the maternal lineage, and that may very well be. But the salient still remains that we have two different genealogies for Jesus, both of them written within a generation of each other. What this tells me is that we should be very suspicious of both of them. Having multiple answers often indicates that none of the answers are correct: everyone made up their own because no one suggestion carried any real authority.

However, there is another aspect of this conflict that doesn’t get nearly enough discussion. What the difference between Matthew and Luke does tell us, and very plainly, is that neither of these men were interested in anything that we could remotely begin to think of as historical writing. Source agreement is a fundamental principle of historical writing, one of which Thucydides very much aware 400 years before Matthew and Luke set pen to paper. A genealogy like this is not the stuff of history; it is the stuff of epic poetry and legend. That Luke saw fit to change what he found in Matthew tells us that Luke, like Matthew, was interested in Truth, whether it be poetic or eternal Truth, and not in who Jesus’ forebears actually were. Understanding this, I think, should help jolt us out of the anachronistic notion that either Matthew or Luke were all that much more interested in the actual Jesus than Paul had been.

Second, I’m changing the way I do the text. Heretofore, the Latin has been in a blue font, and the translation has been italicized. I am switching this. I look at the page and it’s the Latin that draws attention by virtue of its color. My apologies if this is confusing, or if I should have done this a long time ago.

Without further ado, we pick up the text on the last “begat”.

16 Ἰακὼβ δὲἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἄνδρα Μαρίας, ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη Ἰησοῦς λεγόμενοςΧριστός.

Jacob begat Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, the one called the Christ.

First, my apologies for the melodrama. I couldn’t resist “begat”. It sounds so much better than “generated”.

Second, I chose to include this last line for one reason: we are told Joseph was the husband of Mary. Granted, Mary was the mother of Jesus, but she is the only woman named in this genealogy. Why? Recall that in Mark, Jesus was “the son of Mary”, rather than Yeshua bar yoseph. Why is that? One reason jumps to mind: Joseph married into the family, even though this genealogy says otherwise. But this lineage is pretty much pure fiction, with the possible exception of Mary being the mother of Jesus. Because it is a little embarrassing that the name of Jesus’ father was not known, something had to be contrived to correct the situation. And no less than descent from the house of David! I will have more to say about this in Chapter 2.

Finally, notice how this sentence ends. “He was called the Christ”. That is very tentative, perhaps more reminiscent of Mark than of what we might have expected given what will come in the next chapter.

16 Iacob autem genuit Ioseph virum Mariae, de qua natus est Iesus, qui vocatur Christus.

17 Πᾶσαι οὖν αἱ γενεαὶ ἀπὸ Ἀβραὰμ ἕως Δαυὶδ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ Δαυὶδ ἕως τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες, καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς μετοικεσίας Βαβυλῶνος ἕως τοῦ Χριστοῦ γενεαὶ δεκατέσσαρες.

Thus there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, and from David to the Babylonian Cohabitation, and from the Babylonian Cohabitation to the Christ there were fourteen generations.

Babylonian cohabitation is a pretty literal translation of  << μετοικεσίας >>, but that is pretty much what the word literally means. The prefix, <<μετ- >>, means “with” and the last half is to live, as in inhabit. So…cohabitation.

Now, if there were any doubt about the contrived nature of this genealogy, the three sets of fourteen generations between each significant milepost should put them to rest. There is no way to take this seriously from an historical point of view. The Romans made stuff up too, stuff that would then fit a pre-conceived idea of what the “correct” number of kings, or successions were.

17 Omnes ergo generationes ab Abraham usque ad David generationes quattuordecim; et a David usque ad transmigrationem Babylonis generationes quattuordecim; et a transmigratione Babylonis usque ad Christum generationes quattuordecim.

18 Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ γένεσις οὕτως ἦν. μνηστευθείσης τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ Μαρίας τῷ Ἰωσήφ,πρὶν συνελθεῖν αὐτοὺς εὑρέθη ἐν γαστρὶ ἔχουσα ἐκ πνεύματος ἁγίου.

The birth of Jesus the Christ was such:  Joseph having been espoused to his (=Jesus’) mother, but before they they came together (as in, consummated the marriage), he (=Joseph) learned that she had in her stomach from the holy spirit.

 “Had in her stomach” is the literal translation; figuratively, it means that Mary was pregnant. One thing: I think this should be taken that he found out she was pregnant, but didn’t know that it was via the sacred breath; otherwise, the next section would not make sense.

18 Iesu Christi autem generatio sic erat. Cum esset desponsata mater eius Maria Ioseph, antequam convenirent inventa est in utero habens de Spiritu Sancto.

19 Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν καὶ μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν δειγματίσαι, ἐβουλήθη λάθρᾳ ἀπολῦσαι αὐτήν.

But Joseph her husband, being a just/righteous man and not wishing to make an example of her, planned to separate from her privately.

If Joseph knew that Mary was pregnant via the sacred breath, he’s not likely to wish to separate from her, as will be made clear in the next verse. So the story-telling is something less than completely clear; Matthew is rather getting ahead of himself, as it were.

But note one thing: this story almost feels like it is being told from Mary’s point of view, rather than from Joseph’s. Notice that it’s ‘her husband being a just man’, rather than he being a just man. Mary somehow has the upper hand; I suspect that’s because the tradition was stronger on her identity than it was on his. It’s entirely possible, after all, that it was Matthew who created Joseph, cast in the role of the earthly husband of Jesus’ mother. However, in this case, I think Matthew is setting down what the tradition created otherwise. This would account for the rather garbled nature of this account, where the antecedents aren’t completely clear, and Joseph is assumed to have knowledge that the following verse indicates he didn’t have.

Finally, the word I translated “just/righteous” is the same one that gets used in Paul for “justification”.

19 Ioseph autem vir eius, cum esset iustus et nollet eam traducere, voluit occulte dimittere eam.

20 ταῦτα δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐνθυμηθέντος ἰδοὺ ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ’ ὄναρ ἐφάνη αὐτῷ λέγων, Ἰωσὴφ υἱὸς Δαυίδ, μὴ φοβηθῇς παραλαβεῖν Μαρίαν τὴν γυναῖκά σου, τὸ γὰρ ἐν αὐτῇ γεννηθὲν ἐκ πνεύματός ἐστιν ἁγίου:

Mulling this to himself, behold, an angel of the lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for what has been conceived (generated) in her is from the sacred breath”.

See, if Joseph had understood about the spirit back in V-18, the dream would not have been necessary. This is why I suspect that this story did not originate with Matthew; at least, not the whole of it. Matthew may have added parts; in fact, I suspect he did, which is why the story feels so un-smooth and clumsy. 

We have not talked about the sacred breath. We are getting to the point, I think, where there may be some justification for talking about a Holy Spirit. This will be one of the themes to follow throughout the rest of the gospel. It was completely anachronistic in Paul; the concept may have some basis in Mark. I think it’s definitely an entity for Luke. So how does it function here? 

Note that the agency is different here, but the process is remarkably similar to the many manifestations of Zeus that impregnated any number of mortal women. Here, the Lord does not manifest physically, as Zeus did when he became a bull, or–most strangely–a swan (Yeats’ poem about this is phenomenal); rather, the breath suffices. Remember, it’s the breath of the Lord that moved across the water in Genesis 1:2. The point, though, is that the Lord (which is, after all, an alternative title for YHWH) is acting very much like Zeus, impregnating a mortal woman to produce a divine son. This is the sort of thing I was getting at when talking about how many of themes attaching to Jesus seemed more pagan than Jewish. In fact, this is the big one. It is so Greek, so thoroughly Greek, it was such a big part of Greek myth that it’s probably hard to overstate just how Greek this idea truly is. In fact, the gradual reification of the sacred breath into a Holy Spirit is also in the best of pagan traditions; Hellenistic religion reified Fortune into a goddess; just so, the sacred breath becomes the Holy Spirit. Or, it will become the Holy Spirit. We will pay close attention to this as we go along.

20 Haec autem eo cogitante, ecce angelus Domini in somnis apparuit ei dicens: “ Ioseph fili David, noli timere accipere Mariam coniugem tuam. Quod enim in ea natum est, de Spiritu Sancto est;

21 τέξεται δὲ υἱὸν καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν, αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ ἀπὸ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν αὐτῶν.

(this is still the angel speaking🙂 “Bring forth the son and call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Lidell and Scott provide an interesting insight into the verb that I have translated as “bring forth”. Basically, it means “produce a child”. For a woman, they say, this is best rendered as ‘bring forth’. For a man, OTOH, they suggest “beget”. Now, in this instance, the latter choice is really not an option, since the child has already been begotten, and is already in utero. That leaves us with “bring forth”. Which is what Mary would do. So again, we’re faced by the prospect that Mary is the central part of this narrative, even though it is nominally focused on Joseph. This may be the first instance of “editorial fatigue” demonstrated by Matthew. This is the term used to describe what happens when a later writer is reproducing, but altering, a previous work. At first, the later author is scrupulous about changing the wording as needed to create the desired new emphasis. As the passage progresses, however, the later writer gets a little sloppy, and inconsistencies start to creep in. As, perhaps, they have done here. While nominally about Joseph, the language seems more directed at Mary.

The name “Jesus” means “salvation of YHWH”. It is the Greek/Latin form of “Yeshua”, a form preserved in the Hispanic name “Jesus”. It came into English at a later date as “Joshua”; however, the ecclesiastical usage maintained the Latin for of “Jesus”. 

And note, we’re back on the idea of saving, and from sins. I have to say: the idea of saving the physical body from sin so that it may be physically taken up to heaven on the day of the lord (1 Thess, 4) is very logically consistent. Because remember that the idea of ‘to save’ expressed in the Greek, usually refers to “saving a life”, as from drowning, or pulling someone from a burning wreck. 

21 pariet autem filium, et vocabis nomen eius Iesum: ipse enim salvum faciet populum suum a peccatis eorum ”.

22 Τοῦτο δὲ ὅλον γέγονεν ἵνα πληρωθῇ τὸ ῥηθὲν ὑπὸ κυρίου διὰ τοῦ προφήτου λέγοντος,

This whole (thing) occurred in order that the words of God be fulfilled through the prophet saying. 

Comment deferred

22 Hoc autem totum factum est, ut adimpleretur id, quod dictum est a Domino per prophetam dicentem:

23Ἰδοὺ παρθένος ἐν γαστρὶ ἕξει καὶ τέξεται υἱόν, καὶ καλέσουσιν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἐμμανουήλ, ἐστιν μεθερμηνευόμενον Μεθ’ ἡμῶν θεός.

“Behold the virgin is with child, and brings forth a son, and they shall call the name of him Emmanuel,” which is translated as “God is with us”.

This is a big one. The reference here is to Isaiah; the thing is, it appears that Matthew read his OT in Greek, rather than Hebrew. The underlying Hebrew simply says “young girl”, and virginity, while perhaps implied, is not a necessary connotation. In Greek, virginity is an explicit connotation of “parthenos”. As such, the Greek overlays an entirely novel interpretation on the meaning of the original Hebrew. That Matthew would have read the OT from the Septuagint (LXX) translation rather than in Hebrew was not terribly odd. With the spread of Jews throughout the eastern Mediterranean and beyond,the ability to read Hebrew became ever-more rare. It had ceased to be a spoken language, which is why Jesus spoke Aramaic. But this is an object lesson in the dangers of translation.

The thing is, in order to “fulfill” this prophecy, Matthew had to come up with circumstances to make it feel possible. How does one explain a virgin birth?  Joseph Campbell addressed this in his monumental Masks of God series (which I cannot praise highly enough). In hid interpretation, the idea of a symbolic ‘virgin birth’ was part of the religious milieu of the eastern Mediterranean, of a piece with the dying and resurrected God. In a way, full-immersion baptism is rather a symbolic virgin birth. So this could mean that Matthew read this part of Isaiah, and interpreted it in the greater religious context of his time and place, largely because the added Greek connotation of the LXX helped it fit into the larger religious context of the time. This was largely coincidental, but history has often turned on such coincidences.

As for the OT cite, we saw Paul doing this as well. While, by the time Matthew was writing, I suspect most converts would have been from a pagan background, connecting Jesus with the ancient religion of the Jews would still have been very important. As I have mentioned, the pagans, largely, did not look kindly on ‘innovation’. Older was better. This led to arguments about whether Moses was older than Homer, and the general consensus was that Moses was. So just because the target audience may not have been as Jewish as it had been, connection to the very old tradition was still important.

23 “ Ecce, virgo in utero habebit et pariet filium, et vocabunt nomen eius Emmanuel ”, quod est interpretatum Nobiscum Deus.

24ἐγερθεὶς δὲ Ἰωσὴφ ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕπνου ἐποίησεν ὡς προσέταξεν αὐτῷ ἄγγελος κυρίου καὶ παρέλαβεν τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ:

Joseph having risen from from sleep, he did as the angel of the lord had directed him and took (her) as his wife.

24 Exsurgens autem Ioseph a somno fecit, sicut praecepit ei angelus Domini, et accepit coniugem suam;

25καὶ οὐκ ἐγίνωσκεν αὐτὴν ἕως οὗ ἔτεκεν υἱόν: καὶἐκάλεσεν τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν.

And he did not know her while she brought forth a son; and they called the name of him Jesus.

25 et non cognoscebat eam, donec peperit filium, et vocavit nomen eius Iesum.

This literally says “he did not know her”. It’s the standard verb for “to know”. 

But back to the pagan references: Joseph was visited in a dream. This was very common practice for pagan manifestations. I have mentioned that this is often how cures were effected at shrines of Asclepius: the patient slept in the temple precinct in hopes of being visited by the god in a dream. I am not as familiar with OT visitations. Off-hand, I can’t think of any stories in which the angel visits during a dream. There are stories of dreams, of course, that are prophetic, but they do not say (IIRC) that an angel came to the dreamer. There is the story of Jacob seeing the ladder in a dream, but this is not quite the same, either. I’ll have to think on this. If anyone can provide an OT parallels, in which an angel imparts a message in a dream, please feel free to point them out. I would appreciate it.

Otherwise, I am left with what The Iliad says: “for a dream, too, is from Zeus…” 


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on September 24, 2014, in gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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