The Genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-17)

Published on Sunday, 15 October 2017 09:20
Matthew wrote his Gospel initially for Jewish readers. There was a tradition in the early church that he originally wrote it in Hebrew and afterwards wrote the same account in Greek. Whether that tradition is true or not does not really matter. We can easily see from the way he writes his account that Matthew wants to remind his readers that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament predictions in different ways, and those prophecies would be common knowledge among Jews. The likelihood of a Jewish readership is also seen in that Matthew links Jesus to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and to David, the first king of Israel. Both Abraham and David had received promises from God about their descendants.

As we can see, Matthew begins his account of the ministry of Jesus by referring to his genealogy. To us, this may seem a strange way of writing an account of his life. I have many biographies at home and none of them begin by mentioned the ancestors of the person whose life is being told. It was very different with the Jews. They valued their ancestry, and we know that several of them appear in the Old Testament.

This is not the only genealogy of Jesus in the Bible. Luke provides one as well (Luke 3:27-35). There are some differences between them, and this is explained by saying that one of them is the line of Joseph and the other is the line of Mary. Both Joseph and Mary were descended from David, but not from the same son of David. Here the son of David that is mentioned is Solomon and in Luke the Son of David that is mentioned is Nathan. Luke also traces the line of Jesus back to Adam whereas Matthew only goes as far back as Abraham. Generally, it is assumed that Matthew gives the line through Joseph and Luke gives the line through Mary, although it could be the other way round. We know that Matthew left some names out of his genealogy (for example, several kings of Judah are omitted, but he does not tell us why they were omitted). 

Many Jewish family lists were lost in AD 70 when the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple in which many of the lists were kept. Both Matthew and Luke were written before AD 70 and it would have been possible for Matthew and Luke to find the genealogies there if they wanted to do so. One interesting aspect of the genealogies of Jesus is that none are given later. There is a message in this in itself because we can see that one purpose of the Old Testament genealogies was to preserve the family lines from which the Messiah would come – he would be a descendant of Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, Judah and David. Once he was born, there is no longer a need for biblical genealogies. 

Matthew divides his list into three sections: from Abraham to David, from David to the exile in Babylon, and from Babylon to Jesus. What is the significance of his division? I would suggest that he is saying something about the state of kingship in Israel. The first division is preparation for the coming of the right King (which was David, not Saul), the second is the list of the kings that descended from David, and the third describes Israel in land without a King, even although they had a royal line. But Matthew has good news for his readers when he says in verse 13 that the permanent King, that is the Messiah, has arrived.

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