Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Matthew 1

Today we have a guest post. I hope you enjoy :-)

"Hi, folks. I'm David; I'm reading the New Testament for the first time, and Betty is graciously allowing me to post my thoughts and impressions as I go along.

I'm trying to give you an honest look at what an unbeliever thinks when he encounters the gospel for the first time, so in some ways, this will be a scripture study from Mars. Some of what I say will be ignorant. Some will be idiosyncratic. But much of it will, I hope, be insightful -- the kind of thing that only an outsider can spot.

Where I find things to praise, I'll praise them (see my comment on Matt 1:17 below, for instance); where I find things that don't seem to match up, I'll point that out too. And I'm always happy to answer any questions that a reader might have. Now let's get this show on the road.


1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Right away, this tells me that Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, and may not even think that Jesus is for gentiles. How can I tell? Because the genealogy goes back to Abraham, not Adam. 

Before we plunge into the begats, let me say this about 'em: I appreciate what Matthew is trying to do on a literary level (see my note to verse 17 for details -- I really am very impressed with what he's done here), but the very fact that he's DOING something literary suggests to me that we should be very cautious about taking his genealogy literally.

As we'll see, Matthew needed to recite a certain number of generations between Abraham and Jesus, and he needed to break them up into evenly divided periods that were linked to significant people or events. If we were looking at ANY other genealogy and we knew it was produced under constraints like that... I mean, very few people would say, "That sounds like an accurate document. We should take its claims at face value." And I would guess that Matthew's audience appreciated the literary/scriptural points that Matthew was making, but didn't take the genealogy as literal truth. 

Nor should they have, because ***SPOILER ALERT*** the genealogy doesn't actually establish that Jesus is of the line of David. I'll go into more depth at verse 16, but here's the deal: if you read closely, Jesus isn't shown to have any blood relationship to David at all. Follow along with me.

2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

In this genealogy, we can safely say that fathers are important, right? Everything here is going through the male bloodline.

3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,

Still going through the male bloodline. Lotta fathers and sons here.

4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Guess what? Male bloodline.

5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,

More fathers and sons.

6 and Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

As an aside: isn't it weird that, if David hadn't murdered Uriah and slept with Bathsheba -- not in that order, either! -- there would be no Solomon the Wise and therefore no First Temple? What are we supposed to make of that? Also: why do we call him Solomon the Wise, given all the idol-worshiping he did later in his career? These are questions that I never thought to ask in Hebrew school.

They can, of course, have faithful answers. *All* the questions that I raise have faithful answers, I'm pretty sure. But they're still worth asking, and asking vigorously. 

7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asa,

Anyway: male bloodline here again. We're now into the House of David, by the way; how is membership in that house being transmitted? Is it... father-to-son?

8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,
Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

Yes! I think it IS!

9 Uzziah the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

OK, you get my point. I'll let the rest of the begats pass without comment, except to say that Joseph is descended from a SUSPICIOUSLY large number of kings for a guy who ends up as a carpenter. I mean, gosh, it's almost as if genealogies are a literary device meant to say "Hey! Reader! Pay attention to this person! He's a big deal," but aren't meant to be literally true.

(I'm an equal-opportunity skeptic on this point, by the way; when I'm reading ANY historical document and come across a genealogy, I trust it juuuuust about as far as I can throw it. Now, that mistrust isn't TOTAL; but the classic function of a genealogy is to *legitimate a ruler* -- it's not to convey true information about his family tree and his legal claim to the throne. Let me put it this way: there was at least one Byzantine emperor who started life as a peasant, rose to the throne, and founded a dynasty [Basil I; pretty interesting guy]. I bet you a penny that his descendants put out genealogies showing their impeccable noble bloodlines, because that's what genealogies ARE. That's what they DO. They're propaganda.)

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud,
15 Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

Did you catch the subtle bait-and-switch? From verse 7 on down, membership in the House of David is transmitted *by the father, to the son*, without exception. Then we come to verse 16 and we get: "Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah." It's meant to imply that Joseph is Jesus' father, but of course, Matthew is about to say this isn't true at all. 

By Matthew's account, Joseph is more of a stepfather, which-- let me put it this way: would we say that Jesus is descended from Joseph? No. Or, again: I have a stepmother. Would we say that I'm descended from her? To ask the question is to answer it. 

*So how can we say that Jesus is descended from David?* Is this a famous problem for people who want an infallible New Testament? I feel like it has to be, right? We're on Page One here, and the author just said "Here's how Jesus is descended from David," *then didn't show it*. Surely books have been written on this?

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.

Matthew is a smart cookie. And more than that, he's able to make a very deft and subtle allusion here. Why do I say this? Because, for Sabbath-related reasons, 7 is an important number in the Old Testament; when you encounter 7 or its multiples, your ears should perk up and you should start looking for subtext re: how good and refreshing the Sabbath is. 

Here, Matthew's claim that "from Abraham to the Messiah" there are 42 generations -- which is 7 x 6 -- does two things.

First, it's a parallel to the Exodus -- the Israelites stayed at 42 named places in the wilderness. 

Second, it invites the reader to EXTEND that parallel and apply it to Jesus. That is, just as Moses has to die before the Israelites can inherit the land of milk and honey (though, OK, "inherit" is perhaps not the right word) -- but the point is, what Matthew is implying here is that: 1) the Israelites, or I suppose the Christians, are about to enter a divinely-ordained time of rest or peace, a better or easier world; and 2) a prophet had to die in order to make that happen. 

This is very neatly done, and requires you to be intimately familiar with the Bible and its Jewish interpretation. Kudos to Matthew. 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 

Matthew doesn't explain what the Holy Spirit is; he just throws it in there like everyone will know about it. This is really interesting!

/I/ certainly don't know what's meant by Holy Spirit. I mean, I'm aware that it's a THING in Christian theology, but Matthew is writing before there *is* an established Christian theology, right? So his audience can't possibly be thinking in modern Christian terms. It'll be interesting to trace the idea of the Holy Ghost throughout the NT and see when -- or whether -- its identity is developed more fully.

19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But 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. 
21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

In a moment, Matthew is going to cite a prophecy that says the son-born-of-a-virgin is supposed to be called Immanuel. The discrepancy doesn't bother me too much; as the text helpfully points out, Immanuel means "God with us." So as long as you buy into the premise that Jesus = God, the kid could have any name (no seriously, ANY name) and the prophecy would still be fulfilled.

I do, however, think the prophecy is inapplicable to Jesus on other grounds. See my note to v. 23.

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 
23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). [The citation here is Isaiah 7:14.]

Let's fact-check this! In fact, I plan to go back and check EVERY Old Testament citation that Matthew or any other author makes; I'm going to read it in context (which means at least reading the full chapter that it's in, and sometimes reading a couple of chapters back or ahead of the citation). Then I'll circle back to the New Testament reference, and see if -- now that I grasp it in context -- it can really be taken as a Jesus preview. 

How does *this* citation fare? Not well. When we go back and read Isaiah 7 (and I invite you to do that yourself! Don't just take my word for it.) -- but when we read Isaiah 7, can we fairly say that Immanuel is a good match for Jesus? I would say no, and here's why.

Let's start by asking: what's Immanuel's life story? Does it fit neatly with Jesus? 

(N.B. This next quote smooshes together Isaiah 7:14 to 7:22, and again I would urge you to check the source material for yourself to make sure I'm being fair.) 

"The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right," which would be fairly early in his lifetime; also, note the food because it comes up again later. "For before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and your people... the king of Assyria. In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the Euphrates River—the king of Assyria—to shave your head and private parts, and to cut off your beard also." Which is a fantastic verse, but also not even a little bit applicable to Jesus' lifetime.

Anyway, Isaiah continues by explaining that some Jews will remain on the land, and God will provide for them: "In that day, a person will keep alive a young cow and two goats. And because of the abundance of the milk they give, there will be curds to eat. All who remain in the land will eat curds and honey." Note that it's the same phrase as before, which is a strong clue that, yes, Immanuel is meant to be living during and after the Assyrian conquest.

Full disclosure: I had a long and fun discussion with Betty about this, and she disagrees with me (surprise!). We agreed that my reading was more natural than hers, but also that a reasonable person could arrive at her alternative reading. 

But really, I think the only reason you would ever go LOOKING for that reading is if you needed to harmonize it with a difficult piece of scripture like, say, Matthew 1:23. The simplest conclusion here is that Matthew is misusing scripture to bolster his claims about Jesus. 

That doesn't make the claims wrong; we're part of the way through one chapter of one book. It's way too early to tell. And it also doesn't make Matthew some kind of horrible monster. It just means he did some sloppy proof-texting -- and what evangelical HASN'T used a proof-text in an argument, then later went, "Oooh, wait. Oh boy, when I actually consider the context, that was... not a good verse to use."? It's just that Matthew's ended up getting canonized. 

That said: I'm already pretty leery of the claim that the Bible is perfect and the NT and OT fit together as one seamless whole. This doesn't help.

Anyway, onward and upward! We're on the home stretch here.

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 

Y'know, come to think of it, when the Bible introduces the concept of angels, it ALSO never really defines what they are. Huh.

25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

I have to say, this narrative is REALLY concerned to make sure you understand that Mary was TOTALLY a virgin who was DEFINITELY pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and she and Joseph for SURE didn't have sex. I think it protests too much, is-- is what I'm gettin' at here. Kinda makes you raise your eyebrows.

1 comment:

  1. Blog matt 1
    Vs 1. The word “begat” in Matthew is from a Greek word meaning “is the ancestor of, unlike the word “begat” in Genesis which is from Hebrew word meaning “he himself fathered.” So, no, Matthew’s genealogy isn’t literal. It isn’t meant to be.
    Vs 2-5 LOL, yes, it is the male bloodline. It would be too confusing to try to do both and men usually care more about such things for some reason. Maybe when a woman carries a baby for nine months than nurses it for up to four years, she doesn’t need the ego boost of having a linage named after her. She’s got the kid she made. You will notice, though, that a few women were mentioned.
    Vs 6 I get that God can work good even from our screw-ups. And I believe David was the only man in the Bible that is described as “a man after God's own heart.” If such a man as that can mess up so badly, there is no hope of earning salvation through our own works.
    And the child isn’t held responsible for their parent’s sins.
    Solomon the Wise, yeah. My 18yo said the other day that he obviously wasn’t so wise. He had 700 wives.
    The Bible does say he was the wisest man ever, but this tells us that human wisdom isn’t “all that.” The wisest man in history was pretty stupid in some ways. So what hope do we have?
    On the other hand, he did describe the water cycle pretty good…
    vs 9 Well, David had several wives, Solomon had 700 plus concubines, His son had many wives…
    With all those wives the number of sons would have had to have been very high. They couldn’t all inherit the royal positions, especially 1000 years later. It’s possible a high percentage of the residents in Jerusalem could be traced back to David with these numbers.
    Vs 16 (This is so fun  ) Matthew was writing to Christian Jews as you mentioned at the start. They were more concerned with Jewish legalese than anything, I think. Joseph was Jesus’ legal father, and likely it was assumed by most non believers, his biological father also. Mary’s genealogy is given in the book of Luke. So, yeah, it is a bait-and-switch to us, but probably not so much to the original readers.
    Vs. 17 I never heard the number of places they stayed counted up before, nor your application worded quite that way. Cool!
    Vs. 18 The Holy Ghost, oh my. There is actually quite a controversy among Christians on exactly who or what He is, other than the general acknowledgement of “God.” I look forward to seeing what you pull from scripture on the subject.
    Vs. 21 Jesus is, I think, Greek for “God saves.” Could be argued that’s about the same thing as “God with us.”
    Vs. 23 I got my opinion from a commentary, though at the moment I don’t remember which one (Matthew Henry?) Just, I didn’t come up with it. I will concede this does look a bit sloppy, though of course I agree with Matthew’s interpretation. I put the sloppiness more on Isaiah’s part for not making it clear when he quit speaking about the Messiah and started speaking of his own son. I mean, surly he knew his own son was not born of a virgin.


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