Continued from Conception Deception : Part 3
The Gospel according to Matthew
The contemporaries of Jesus, if they ever gave it more than a passing thought, believed that Jesus was the son of the parents who raised him — Joseph and Mary — but the author of Matthew found it necessary to deny this common perception for a compelling reason that had absolutely nothing to do with a Virgin Conception/Birth, as we will presently see.
The unique religious and political character of ancient Israelite society mandated the keeping of genealogies. Genealogies were a testament to God’s providential rule of history and defined a person’s identity within the family and the tribe. By the time of Jesus, these genealogical registers were still consulted. Josephus, in his autobiographical Life (6 ), refers to the “public registers” from which he extracts his own genealogical information. (See also Josephus Contra Apion I, 28–56 [6–10]) and Genesis Rabbah 98:8 which records that Rabbi Hillel was proved to be a descendant of David because a genealogical scroll was found in Jerusalem.)
An accurate rendering of Matthew 1:1 is vital to an understanding of the premise on which the author bases his entire set of arguments. Most current English versions fail the accuracy test and simply provide an Anglicised transliteration of the Greek word χριστός (chrīstós) rather than a translation (see Notes.)
Verse 1:1, when translated, reads:
The book of the generation(s) of Jesus Anointed, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Within this single verse are contained several points of great significance to Israelite peoples:
- Matthew’s very first words, “The book of the generation(s)” recall for the reader the words of Genesis 5:1, “This is the book of the generation(s) of man…” With this phrase, Matthew introduces the theme of the new beginning, the new creation, a theme which underscores the entire New Testament.
- Matthew’s selection of Abraham and David was not merely because Abraham was the “father” of the Israelite people and David was Israel’s greatest King but, more importantly, because both men were the recipients of great and enduring promises from God.
- Matthew states his belief that Jesus is the Anointed one of God (Messiah), but more precisely that he is the Messiah of the royal House of David. Thus, Matthew’s Jesus is not only the fulfilment of the primary Israelite expectation — that the Messiah will be a descendant of David according to God’s promise — but also that, in Jesus, all the hopes and promises given to his ancestors have now been fulfilled and embodied.
Matthew’s genealogy is similar to that of Ruth 4:18–22 in that it is concerned with recording only the highlights of God’s saving plan for Israel through the Davidic line. When we read through the genealogy, we see in verses 2–17 that it serves three major purposes.
To demonstrate God’s salvation plan for Israel
By removing what he considers unimportant generational steps, Matthew is able to construct a genealogy around the three great rise and fall periods of Israelite history—Captivity-Freedom, Freedom-Captivity, Captivity-Freedom:
- from Abraham’s Babylonian Captivity (Ur of the Chaldees) rising to freedom with the Davidic Kingship,
- from the freedom of the Davidic Kingship sinking to the depths of the Babylonian Captivity,
- from the depths of the Babylonian Captivity rising again to the glorious freedom of the new Kingdom of God under a new Davidic King.
To demonstrate that the plan was achieved in the past through unusual circumstances
If one refers to the stories of the four women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba — one will find that all of them took decisive steps vital to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel, regardless of whether their actions had contravened normal social relationships or whether they were “insiders” or “outsiders” (non-Israelites). For Israelites, the names of these women would have evoked memories of the inscrutable yet saving purposes of their God, which have never been constrained by biology, social norms, or ethnicity (see Ruth 4:17).
To demonstrate that the plan is being achieved in the present through similarly unusual circumstances
Unlike other genealogies in the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew names Jesus first, then switches back to Abraham and then down through the generations to Joseph. Jewish readers would have been immediately alerted to something irregular, but Matthew is just preparing them for the two explanations in verse 18:
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah (anointed) happened in this way. When his mother Mary was engaged to Joseph, before they lived together she was discovered to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18 ISV).
- Firstly, the Israelite God is working out a present salvation plan through another woman, Mary, just as was done those four times previously through Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.
- Secondly, Joseph is not the father of Jesus. Matthew knows that his readers will wonder why he has gone to such trouble to carefully construct and provide a genealogy, only to then inform them that Jesus is not the son of Joseph. He also knows that his readers, his Jewish readers, will search back through the genealogy and find the answer.
Write this man childless
So, what was Matthew’s compelling reason for denying Joseph’s biological connection to Jesus? The answer is provided in verse 11:
And Josias begat Jechonias and his brethren, about the time they were carried away to Babylon (Matthew 1:11 KJV).
The following passages from the Book of Jeremiah reveal why Matthew found it necessary to insist that Jesus was not the son of Joseph:
As I live, saith the LORD, though Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah were the signet upon my right hand, yet would I pluck thee thence… (Jeremiah 22:24 KJV).
O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the LORD, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah (Jeremiah 22:29–30 KJV).
Matthew’s Gospel was written for the purpose of convincing Israelites that their expected Messiah had come. However, before presenting his credentials, the author had to demonstrate the prerequisite that Jesus was not descended from David through this disinherited Jeconias, as was Joseph.
Matthew knows that Jesus is not the son of Joseph when he constructs his genealogy, yet he still prefaces his account by calling Jesus the “son of David”. Unless he was certain of the Davidic ancestry of Jesus, he could not have had the Magi ask the question “where is he who was born King of the Jews…?” with such superb assurance because only a patrilineal descendant of David would qualify to be called the “King of the Jews”.
Despite his conviction, Matthew does not, or could not, provide further clarification. Perhaps this is only to be expected since his account is told from Joseph’s perspective. Only one person would know the truth of the matter — Mary herself.
When we turn to the Gospel of Luke in future articles, we will find that the author has information of such intimacy that it could only have come, through whatever chain of transmission, from the woman in question.
The next article will address concepts from Matthew commonly adduced to support the Virgin Conception/Birth doctrine.
The term מָשִׁיחַ (Mashiach) appears 39 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and in every case it is translated into English as “anointed”. In the New Testament, however, where it refers to Jesus, its Greek equivalent χριστός (chrīstós) is left untranslated and simply transliterated. We are entitled to ask why? (In the case of proper names like Jesus, a Latin/English transliteration of the Greek Iēsou (Yeshua), we should of course adhere as closely as possible to the original but χριστός (chrīstós) is not a proper name—it is a descriptive title.)
The words “Jesus Christ” invite no question, but the words “Jesus anointed” immediately pose questions for the reader — anointed by whom and for what purpose? If the term had been translated into English, we would never have been subjected to the proliferation of Christologies based on concepts such as the “total Christ” and the “cosmic Christ”. Any Christology based on the concept of the “total Anointed one” or the “cosmic Anointed one” is of course inherently ridiculous and would again pose the questions that should have been asked all along — anointed by whom and for what purpose?
Whether wittingly or unwittingly, the failure to translate the Greek word chrīstós into its English equivalent “anointed” has achieved several outcomes:
- concealed the fact that there were other Israelite “Christs” (Messiahs) before the time of Jesus,
- masked the premise upon which every book of the New Testament is based,
- muted the questions that should have arisen about the person, nature and role of the Israelite Messiah,
- caused millions of Christians to assume that “Christ” is a name and not a title.
Jeconias is the Greek form of Jeconiah (1 Chronicles 3:16–17; Jeremiah 24:1), and Coniah (Jeremiah 22:24,28; 37:1).