The origins of Jesus in the book of origins: Matthew 1

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.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

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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

For our instruction … that we might have hope (Rom 15, Isa 11, Matt 3)

As Paul comes to the end of his letter to the Romans—a letter in which he quotes, time and time again, from the scriptures of his people, the Hebrew people, the books we know as the Old Testament—he makes a passing comment which, in my mind, is a penetrating insight into how he operates.

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction,

so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures

we might have hope, he writes (Rom 15:4).

We have that section of the letter included in our readings this coming Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent. I suspect that the reason that this section is included is because Paul here goes on to quote from a collection of scriptures, each of which, in his mind, justifies what he is doing as he writes to the Romans.

My understanding of this letter is that Paul writes to persuade the Jewish Christians that they are to be welcoming, hospitable, and inclusive of the Gentile Christians who are part of the various house churches in Rome; as he says,

by grace, through faith, all are saved; there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (Rom 3)

And so, the letter moves towards its close with this quotation:

I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name”;

and again he says, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people”;

and again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him”;

and again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” (Rom 15)

This passage grounds the reality of the church in the gathering of disparates, Jews and Gentiles; it also grounds our faith in the advent of Jesus, the one who draws Jews and Gentiles together; and it provides us with this seasonal word, during the season of Advent, as it points us to hope.

In the prophetic oracle set in the lectionary alongside the apostolic letter, Isaiah offers a wonderful vision of cosmic peace and universal co-operation:

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD

as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11)

However, this vision of peace appears in our lectionary alongside some harsh striking words, about the judgement that is associated with this vision. As the evangelist writes about the coming of the promised one—the one who will,presumably bring about this era of peace—he reports words spoken by John the Baptiser, which offer this sense of judgement:

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matt 3)

And again, in the Gospel for today, this message of judgement and punishment is vividly conveyed:

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3)

This is a stern word. It seems strange for us, during Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, to be hearing such clanging, jarring sounds. Although, as one of my colleagues said to me earlier this week, as we talked about the offerings on hand in the lectionary during this season:

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

For the incessant message of the prophets is one which calls us to account. The hammer strikes the anvil, once, twice, repeatedly, marking the surface, forging the shape, creating the essence of the person. And the message of the prophets places before us an insistence that we need to act ethically, live responsibly, with justice and equity, as we wait with hope for the coming of the one who will bring in the promised time of peace.

Indeed the prophet, as he envisages the presence of this one, so long hoped for, as he considers how “a shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”, describes him in this way:

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins. (Isaiah 11)

The one to come will exemplify righteousness, and will assess the fruit produced by those he encounters. He will execute judgement by swinging the axe, cutting down the tree, and burning the branches in the fire; and, as the prophet declares,

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

The soundtrack of Advent is not jingle bells;

It is the sound of a hammer on an anvil.

As we reflect on these words during this season, we do so with prayerful anticipation, with resolute hopefulness, with persistence and openness to God’s way in our midst, for we yearn to encounter afresh this chosen one:

The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.

His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The sincerest form of flattery? Or a later, imperfect imitation? (2 Thessalonians)

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. Acts indicates that they went to the synagogue, where Paul declared that the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:2–3). This stirred up antagonism amongst the Jews of the city (Acts 17:5).

Those who accepted Paul’s message, realising that he was just recovering from the experience of prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–24), sent him and Silas on to their next stop in Beroea after only three weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). Paul then travelled to Athens (Acts 17:15) and Corinth (Acts 18:1).

Little of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, apart from a direct comment about his difficulties in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2) and some generalised references to the persecution he was suffering (1 Thess 3:4, 7). Although it is likely that Paul wrote letters before he had visited Thessalonica, none of them are known to us.

1 Thessalonians, dating from the same year (50 CE) as his visit to Thessalonica, is the earliest example of Paul’s letter writing that we have. The letter itself contains no explicit indication of the time or place of its writing; tradition has it that Paul wrote from Athens, although it is more likely that he penned it in Corinth just months after his departure from Thessalonica. His visit was still fresh in Paul’s mind, and he writes with love and concern for the community of believers that he left behind in Thessalonica.

It is obvious that Paul had developed a strong bond with this community, and he is anxious to keep in touch with them (3:5). The letter was in reply to what he had learned from Timothy about their recent progress (3:6).

The letter known as 2 Thessalonians appears in the lectionary this Sunday and in the two following weeks. It seems to run in parallel to 1 Thessalonians in a number of ways. Some of the themes from the first letter are replicated, and varied, in the second letter to the Thessalonians:

• the matter of idleness in the community (1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6–12)

• the general eschatological orientation (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 2 Thess 1:5–2:16)

• an exhortation to imitate Paul (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7).

Also, both letters contain reminders about Paul’s teachings (1 Thess 2:5–7, 12; 4:1–2; 5:1–2; 2 Thess 2:15).

However, the commonality of both general themes and specific words and phrases leads to a question about the relationship between these two letters: is this stylistic variation on common themes written by the same author, or a deliberate attempt to copy the first letter by another scribe at a later date?

Scholars answer the question differently; there are different views on the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. The opening and closing sections of 2 Thessalonians are revealing.

The letter concludes with an insistence that it was written by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (3:17). At first glance, this looks similar to the reference to Paul’s “large letters” in his “own hand” at Gal 6:11; but this is a brief passing comment, whereas the claim is laboured in 2 Thessalonians by the addition of extra phrases, so that we start to have a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much”.

The first twenty words of the opening address of 1 Thess 1:1 are repeated exactly in 2 Thess 1:1–2a; this is unusual amongst the seven authentic letters of Paul, for in every other case there are variations of both minor and major significance in this opening section. (See Rom 1:2–6; 1 Cor 1:2b; 2 Cor 1:b; Gal 1:1 and 1:4; Phil 1:1b; Phlmn 2.)

In the thanksgiving (2 Thess 1:3–4), a string of key words evokes themes from 1 Thessalonians. There is virtually nothing in the thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians which is not present, in some way, in 1 Thessalonians. This is unparalleled amongst the authentic letters of Paul; his usual practice was to contextualise this section of the letter by indicating key issues which will be dealt with in the body of the letter.

There are differences in content in the bodies of the two letters. The friendly relationship evident throughout the first letter differs from the highly critical attitude towards the community in 2 Thessalonians. The eschatological orientation of 1 Thessalonians is present in general terms in 2 Thessalonians, but the difference is that the second letter is marked by a much stronger apocalyptic character. And twice in 2 Thessalonians (2:15 and 3:6), claims are made that Paul taught the Thessalonians material which is not found in 1 Thessalonians.

In my assessment, then, these differences mark 2 Thessalonians as coming from a different hand, in a situation where different issues were at stake. It appears to be a later imitation of 1 Thessalonians.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/