The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew

Some notes on Jesus’ background from the first chapter of Matthew:

Ancient biographies often opened with the noble background of their subject, background that would shed light on the identity or character of the person about whom they wrote. By tracing Jesus’ royal ancestry, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus comes from a lineage of kings. This is not Jesus’ genetic line through his mother, but the legal line of Joseph; yet for kingship, it was the legal line that counted. (For that matter, most Roman emperors in this period were adopted relatives of their predecessors, not their genetic sons.)

Like a good rabbi skilled with words, Matthew plays on a couple names in a way that hints that Jesus’ character transcends that of his legal ancestors. Although it is not obvious in most translations, he changes the letters in a couple names. The evil king Amon becomes Amos—alluding to the prophets. The better king Asa becomes Asaph, one of the psalmists, alluding to the Psalms. Jesus’ heritage is not only royal; it evokes the entire heritage of earlier Scripture, the law and prophets and writings.

The opening words of Matthew’s Gospel are literally, “The book of the Genesis of Jesus Christ.” Matthew borrows these words from genealogies in Genesis, especially the genealogy of Adam, for which the Book of Genesis was named (not only in English but also in Greek).

The genealogy that follows is striking, however: whereas the phrase in Genesis identifies a person’s descendants, here it identifies Jesus’ ancestors. In ancient thought, people depended in some sense on their ancestors for their significance; but here, their ultimate descendant heads the list. Matthew does not use the genealogy merely to identify Jesus in terms of his ancestors. Rather, Matthew reads Jesus’ ancestors in terms of him. Jesus is the climax and goal of Israel’s past history; as such, even his famous ancestors depend on him for their ultimate significance.



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