The book of origins of Jesus the chosen one, descendant of David, descendant of Abraham. So begins the first book in the New Testament (in my own translation from the Greek). We know this book as The Gospel according to Matthew.
This book has long been regarded as a keystone of Christian doctrine and has enjoyed a pre-eminent place within the church. Because early believers considered it to be the earliest gospel, it was placed at the very beginning of the New Testament canon and came to be known as “the first gospel”. It thereby sets out some key aspects of the origins and significance of Jesus.
This book starts with an account of the ancestry of Jesus. (In the days before DNA testing, this information was retained and passed on by word of mouth from one generation to the next.) It mimics the Old Testament passages that are sometimes called “the begats” … so-and-so begat such-and-such, such-and-such begat another one … and so on.
You can find extensive lists of “begats” in Genesis, Numbers, and 1 Chronicles, and more briefly in Ruth and Nehemiah. These multiple “begat” passages indicate that a person’s heritage was an important part of Jewish tradition.
The author of Matthew, being himself a faithful Jew, is anxious to establish the credentials of Jesus’ ancestry, so he begins his work with a genealogy (1:1–17) in which he lays out some important signs as to the true nature of Jesus, following the age-old pattern of the Hebrew people.
First, he indicates that Jesus fulfils the promises of scripture by establishing that Jesus was descended from the Davidic kings (1 Chron 28; Ps 18:50), whose house was to rule over Israel forever, as God’s chosen.
Matthew structures the genealogy in three groups of 14 generations; this is quite different from the structure of the genealogy in Luke. In Hebrew numerology, each letter stands for a number; thus, DVD, the three consonants of David, add up to 14. So, the structure of the genealogy in Matthew underlines the claim that Jesus is a descendant of David (1:1).
Matthew also notes that Jesus is descended from Abraham, the first man to receive the covenant (1:2). Abraham was the one whose descendants would fulfil the blessings that God had promised for all the earth (1:2): David, the founder of the royal line and ancestor of the promised Messiah (1:6); and Zerubbabel, leader of the post-exilic community (1:12).
Even more interestingly, Matthew includes five women in the list: Tamar, who posed as a temple prostitute (1:3; Gen 38); Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho (1:5; Josh 2, 6); Ruth, a Moabite who married Boaz after a dubious meeting with him at night on the threshing floor (1:5; Ruth 1–4); the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), who married David after an adulterous encounter (1:6; 2 Sam 11–12); and Mary, who became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph (1:16).
While the inclusion of the male ancestors is not surprising, the addition of these women is most unexpected. Different reasons have been put forward as to why they are there. Some scholars see them as foreshadowing the redemption of Gentiles, others as a more general symbol of the redemption of sinners. Others have felt they vindicate the pre-marital pregnancy of Mary.
One thing does stand out about all five, and that is they were independent of the traditional patriarchal system of Israel. Each one flouted convention in some startling way to ensure the fulfilment of God’s divine plan. All had humble beginnings. All were obedient to their faith and willing to submit to what they felt was the will of God. They are striking figures, each one of them!
Thus, Matthew’s genealogy is not just a list of names, but a theological statement about Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel through Abraham and David from its inception and throughout its history of prosperity and exile. Through Jesus, this plan for the salvation of Israel will indeed be fulfilled, and fulfilled in a most unexpected way. We should be reading the opening of this Gospel, not as a historical treatise or a family tree per se, but as a theological exposition signalling key motifs of the work that follows.
Matthew also includes many special events around the birth of Jesus (1:18– 2:23), events which we would expect to find attending the birth of a great prophet or the Messiah. The announcement of the name of Jesus follows a standard pattern as found in the Hebrew Scriptures for prominent figures: “bear a child … name him … what it means” (see 1 Sam 1:19; Gen 16:11; 17:19; Judg 13:3, 5).
The title given to Jesus in 1:23, “Emmanuel” (from Isaiah 7:14–16), is intended to show that in the coming of Jesus, God’s spirit became present among people through the messiahship of Jesus. In its original context, the text foretold the imminent birth of a child from the Davidic line, who would demonstrate that God continued to care for his people and was thus still “with us”. For Matthew, the verse emphasises further the Davidic origin of Jesus, and declares that the purpose of God was to save Israel at the coming of this child, Jesus.
In these ways, then, Matthew sets out the key elements of the origins and significance of Jesus: descendant of David, descendant of Abraham, chosen one of God. We will be following the story that Matthew offers us, throughout the coming year. It is a book of origins rich with resources for us as we seek to follow the way of Jesus today.
The image is of an early version of the genealogy of Jesus provided in Matthew 1:1-9,12 found on the recto side (the front side) of Papyrus 1, dated to about 250 CE