Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Who Is Jesus? according to Matthew 1

(I'm indebted to pastor Kevin Kim for much of the content here. Any mistakes are mine. This isn't a scholarly paper -- just the opposite! Please see a ministry professional for competent exegetical or hermeneutical advice.)

The very first line of the New Testament, in Matthew 1:1, tells us who Jesus is: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" -- which says Jesus is the Christ, "Christ" being the Greek word for "Messiah," or "anointed one."

"Anointed" means somebody got oil (or ointment), as a sign of being set apart for some particular purpose. From the two-word phrase, "Jesus Christ," any reader of Matthew would immediately understand what Matthew was saying about Jesus, and the next few words would give them lots of information that most of us would miss.

By calling Jesus "the son of David," Matthew means more than just that Jesus was descended from David; he also means that Jesus is a successor to David, who was king over Israel's golden age. So not only has Jesus been anointed; he's been anointed to ascend David's throne. Since Matthew's earliest readers would have been Jews living under Roman occupation, this reference to David would likely have been provocative.

The reference to Abraham I'm thinking was likely a reminder of the covenant: from the burning bush (Exodus 3) God introduces himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; as Jerusalem is about to be sacked (Jeremiah 33), he refers to the Israelites as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I'll further guess that for those discouraged by living under occupation, the reference to Abraham would have been an encouragement, because God's covenant with Abraham dates from over a thousand years before Jesus, and over 400 years before Moses delivered them from their Egyptian oppressors.

Then, starting in verse 2, we have an interesting list -- all focused on the question of "Who is this Jesus we're talking about?" A genealogy was like a person's calling card; it still is today in the mideast. Therefore, if you were listing your ancestors, you'd mention the ones you'd want a hearer to remember when they thought about you. The ancestors named were almost always men, so it's unusual that four women are mentioned here:

  1. "Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar" (Matthew 1:3)

    Judah was Tamar's father-in-law, and two of Judah's sons (successive husbands to Tamar) had died. Tamar dressed up as a prostitute, Judah had sex with her, and she bore a pair of twin boys. (Genesis 38).

  2. "Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab" (Matthew 1:5)

    Rahab was a prostitute living in Jericho while the Israelites wandered in the desert (Joshua 2); she sheltered the Israelite spies and was saved along with her household when the city fell.

  3. "Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth" (Matthew 1:5)

    Ruth was from Moab, and immigrated to Israel with Naomi her mother-in-law (Ruth 1).

  4. "David the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife" (Matthew 1:6)

    For some reason Matthew does not mention the name "Bathsheba," but that's the person in question (2 Samuel 11). She had been bathing somewhere visible from the palace. David had sex with her, she became pregnant, and David had her husband killed.

    Why doesn't Matthew write "Bathsheba"? Two reasons come to mind: first, mentioning Uriah (Matthew's readers would automatically fill in "...the Hittite") establishes her as a foreigner's wife without naming her husband's background (Matthew doesn't write "Ruth the Moabitess" either); second, Uriah was one of David's Thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 23), which makes David's betrayal that much more despicable.

I find this list astonishing in view of what a genealogy is usually for; Matthew is introducing Jesus, anointed to David's throne, as a descendant of foreigners, prostitutes (well, Tamar only acted like one), a woman who bathed in view of the palace, a man who betrayed his friend with adultery and murder.

But it gets even more interesting: verse 16 has, "...Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ." Wait -- we have "the father of... the father of..." and then at the end Joseph is the husband of Mary, not "the father of Jesus." Wha...? Hold that thought for a moment, because Matthew gives us one more oddity:

In verse 17, Matthew says, "Thus there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile...." What's so odd here? To Matthew's first readers, steeped in the history of the kings of Judah, the omissions in David's line (1 Chronicles 1) would stand out: "Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham" (Matthew 1:8-9)? No, no, no! 1 Chronicles 1:11-12 reads (note the names highlighted in yellow): "Jehoram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, Amaziah his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son" -- Uzziah and Azariah being names for the same person.

What's this about? Matthew wasn't working from some different manuscript that lacked those names; Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned a total of 70 years, as described in 2 Kings 8:24-14:18. No, Matthew didn't forget those other kings; he included some people and omitted others in order to present Jesus as the beginning of the 7th set of 7 generations from Abraham. Right? 14 from Abraham to David -- that's two 7s; 14 from David to the exile (the 3rd and 4th 7s), 14 from the exile to the Christ (the 5th and 6th 7s). Programmers and math majors may notice that when counting 14 generations, the beginning and the ending are counted twice. Don't sweat it; the point is, beginning with the migration to the land we call Israel, the first set of 14 generations established the kingdom of Israel, the second set was the duration of the kingdom (of Judah anyway) as a kingdom, the third set was the exile to the start of something new. In other words, Matthew is signaling here that Jesus inaugurates the 7th set of 7 for Jews living in the land of promise.

Back to "Joseph is the husband..." rather than "the father of": Matthew explains it starting in verse 18:
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us." 24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-21
Let me unpack verse 19 a bit. Joseph hasn't had any union with Mary (cf. verse 25), yet Mary is somehow pregnant. He's within his rights to accuse her of unfaithfulness, but he doesn't want to disgrace her. He doesn't want someone else's child, though, and "divorcing her quietly" seems like a reasonable way out. So he was willing to let everyone think him somewhat of a deserter (i.e., for leaving Mary with their child), rather than accusing her to vindicate himself. I really like this guy.

But he has a dream, and obeying it, does not divorce her. (By the way, "pledged to be married" (verse 18) had more meaning in those days than what we think of as engagement. Dissolving it wasn't a matter of just calling the whole thing off.) I have often thought that we don't pay as much attention to Joseph as he deserves. Anyway, he names the baby boy Jesus.

What does it mean "give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (1:21, emphasis added)? For many of us today, a name is only an identifier, a word to disambiguate "that person" or "you there." But even a casual reading of Israel's history shows that names meant a lot more in the ancient world; consider Moses, so named because "I drew him out of the water" (Exodus 2:10) -- or how God changes Abram's name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5-6) or Jacob's name to Israel (Genesis 32:28).

Joseph was told to name the boy "Y'shua", like "Joshua" in the Old Testament. If these names are pronounced like "Y'shua", then why are they spelled "Joshua" and "Jesus" in English? Probably for the same reason the German word "ja" (meaning "yes", pronounced "ya") is spelled like it is. English is Germanic; it's not a Romance language.

And why do "Joshua" and "Jesus" differ so much? Well, I'm not too sure about that first vowel, but I believe that the Hebrew Bible was written without vowels. How did the NIV editors decide to put "Joshua" for the 6th book of the Bible but "Jeshua" in Ezra and Nehemiah? I don't know. Regarding "sh" vs "s" -- Greek doesn't have an "sh" sound and can't represent it. About the different endings -- as mentioned earlier, the New Testament is written in Greek; names are inflected in Greek, unlike in English. Thus when Matthew writes "the book of the genealogy of Jesus", his name is written as "Ἰησοῦ" (i.e., "Iesou"); in 1:16 "of whom was born Jesus", his name is written as "Ἰησοῦς" (Iesous); in 1:21 "give him the name Jesus", it's rendered "Ἰησοῦν" (Iesoun). Editors of English New Testaments have chosen the spelling "Jesus" for some time now; they had to choose one, and I guess they took the nominative.

So not only is Jesus the anointed successor to David's throne and part of a more-than-millennial covenant and a descendant of foreigners and prostitutes, he's also going to save his people from their sins.

But here's the most astonishing part: Jesus Christ had no human father, in fulfillment of a prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. Exactly how did this happen? I'll tell you: I don't know. But Matthew states it simply, just as he states the other events: they were pledged to be married, she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, he was going to divorce her, he had a dream and didn't divorce her, they had no sex until after the baby was born.

This isn't the most important part of the good news of Jesus Christ (Mark doesn't mention it at all in his gospel; neither does John), but it is a fact that Matthew and Luke considered important enough to describe in some detail. I suppose that by calling attention to the supernatural beginning of his life, they prepare the reader for what will come later.

So to this occupied nation, the once sovereign nation of Israel, comes someone with a unique and supernatural origin, to save them from their sins. That's Matthew's introduction to the question, "Who is Jesus?" I'll say that's good news for a troubled world -- in that age or this.

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