Why Matthew 1.1-17?

Starting a book with a genealogy is, as others have said, not the most interesting approach. Evidently it mattered to the author, must have seemed very significant at the time.

My conjecture [believing that no-one truly knows, within a range of many decades, when this book was begun or when it was last amended] is that the gospels would first be put in written form near the time of Paul’s letters, for much the same reason those were written: to nail down church doctrine and practice when the movement had spread out of Palestine and was starting to include people who weren’t familiar with ‘what everyone knew’ back in Judea.

“Is this Jesus really Jewish, really a blood descendant of David?” — “Yep, here’s his family tree” etc.

“What about those stories we hear, that his father was a Roman soldier?” — “No, his mother’s husband was Joseph son of …. and he didn’t disown him.”

Later readers have observed… that the generations given here from Abraham to David, from David to the deportation to Babylon, from the deportation to Jesus’ birth, don’t really come out to 14 generations each. [I haven’t counted, myself.] The point is probably that these periods, of about the same length, are significant episodes in the history of Israel, that the birth of Jesus takes its meaning from its role in that history.

One remarkable feature… is that some of Jesus’ female ancestors are included. These are, of course, women whose stories were included in the scriptures — and it might be significant that these are women whose sexual history was slightly irregular. If the old argument: ” ‘virgin birth’ vs ‘had no father’ ” goes back this far — and it might — This may be implying: “Hey, God sometimes resorts to odd means to produce essential births.”

It does look like there was some sort of gossip — which would be consistent with a virgin birth, and also consistent with some more common irregularity — and that Luke’s significantly different birth story, which has Mary traveling to Palestine from Nazareth at the time, would make more sense as an effort to defuse such talk.

Two of the gospels get along just fine without birth stories, and why not?

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3 responses

  1. Interesting thoughts.

    If Mark is the earlier gospel (and seems to have been a source for Matthew and Luke) then your idea about the gossip/misunderstandings would certainly explain the addition of birth accounts, and if John is somewhat later the need may have passed, and his focus is obviously different anyway.

    Matthew gives us no hint that Jesus’ family comes from Galilee at this point, though he moves there later on and so could be considered later as Galilean during the trial, whereas Luke brings out the connection now, perhaps to make it clearer. I find it interesting that the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel calls Jesus is Judean not Galilean (though, admittedly, the term is also used of those who lived outside Judea too). What seems clear is that whereas many of the disciples were obviously Galilean (from their accents) Jesus may have been much less so.

  2. I don’t think the idea is dealing with “gossip” so much as dealing with Mark. We believe Mark wrote first because we have textual indicators that both Matthew & Luke had some version of Mark close at hand as they wrote–we get word for word correspondence in places. Mark has no geneology. Both Luke (3:23-34) & Matthew (1:1-17) do. But they are radically different geneologies.

    Mark’s lack of geneology in a world where who you are (and your worth as a human-being) derives from you birth-family–says volumes; there are also indicators that his family was less than keen about his teaching-ministry.

    Matthew launches his gospel with geneology. He declares him “son of David” and messiah–and then begins the geneology with Abraham. Both royal lineage and a child of Abraham means both king by birth-right AND one of the children of Israel. Luke delays the geneology until after the birth narratives, summaryies of childhood and call of the Baptist and even his baptism. He starts with his father Joseph (unmentioned in Mark) and works his way bcak, not just to David or Abraham, but to Adam. Jesus, for Luke, is not justa child of Israel, but a son of Adam.

    1. “A son of Adam” == “One of us” regardless of who that “us” might be…

      Mark has Jesus saying something (13:35) that may have been dealing with the issue of parentage: “How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself… says ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I put my enemies under your feet.’ David himself calls him ‘Lord’, so how is he his son?”

      One way of being called a “son of” David would have been similarity to David, rather than actual ancestry. If one is King of Isreal, annointed by the major living prophet of his time, then he would definitely be following in David’s footsteps. There is also this story about David toward the end of 2 Samuel [24:17]: “Then David spoke to the Lord when he saw the angel who was smiting the people, and said, ‘Lo, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly; but these sheep, what have they done? Let Thy hand, I pray Thee, be against me and against my father’s house.” Was this passage an influence on Jesus? — where he may have found the idea [“in Scripture”] of dying to atone for his people’s sins? [?!]

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