Finding Jesus in History - Matthew's Genealogy

In 1985, a group of scholars and laymen came together to answer a question:

Was Jesus a real person, or a work of fiction? 

And if Jesus was real, then how reliable are the gospels that were written of him?

The group became known as the “Jesus Seminar”. Over the next two decades their search for the “historical Jesus” became very controversial. Their methods and their conclusions were questionable at best considering they began with the assumption that miracles can’t exist. And even if Jesus was real, at the very least he wasn’t who he claimed to be.

Matthew takes up a similar question to begin His Gospel – “Who is the historical Jesus?” But he begins with far different assumptions.

Matthew approaches Jesus as one who has seen the Messiah face-to-face. He’s seen the miracles, he’s heard the teaching, and he’s come to believe with all of his heart that this Jesus was, in fact, exactly who He claimed to be.

So as Matthew begins his Gospel, he begins by showing that this Jesus, this Messiah and Son of God, has a place in history; and not just any history, specifically the history of Israel.
It is easy (and understandable) for most readers to skip over the first 17 verses of Matthew (The “Genealogy”), or at least skim them quickly to get to the “good parts” (the Christmas story). But that approach misses something important. Something that helps tie the story of Jesus to the whole Bible and even to the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry!

Here are a couple of larger themes that may help breathe new life into this oft-overlooked section of Scripture.
One of the first things we see as we look at these genealogies is that Matthew has been very intentional about how he’s organized this vast family tree.

Beginning in verse 1, Matthew arranges this list of names into a classic Hebrew chiasm, a rhetorical device where a writer first tells a story, then tells it again in reverse order.

Matthew opens his book by describing it as “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). He then immediately begins the same story in reverse, beginning with Abraham, working through David, and ending with the birth of Jesus. The purpose of this pattern is to show how the history of Israel both begins and ends with the person of Jesus Christ. Everything in between then, is pointing toward Him.

But the chiastic structure was not Matthew’s only concern when he arranged this list. We can easily see in modern translations that this list of names is also divided into three distinct sections: first from Abraham to David, then from David to the Babylonian exile, and finally from the exile to Jesus. In verse 17 Matthew explains these divisions: “So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

Clearly, in Matthew’s mind, there is something important about the number fourteen. Most likely, Matthew was employing a common Hebrew method known as gematria. In Hebrew (like most ancient languages), letters doubled for numbers (as in Roman numerals, where I, V, X, etc. all correspond to numbers). So, each word in Hebrew would have also doubled as a number (by adding up the numbers of each letter in the name).

Many commentators have noted that Jesus, in verse 1, is introduced as the “Son of David.” This title appears more in Matthew than in any other Gospel. In gematria, the number of David’s name in Hebrew is exactly fourteen. So, by dividing this genealogy into three groups of fourteen names, Matthew was making and even more pointed connected of Jesus to David, identifying Jesus as the rightful heir to not just David’s throne, but to all the covenantal promises made to him (2 Sam. 7).

In all of this intentional organization of his genealogy, it’s important to understand that Matthew’s priority is primarily theological rather than historical. When he’s crafting his list of Jesus’ 42 ancestors, Matthew’s purpose isn’t to provide a comprehensive historical account for the benefit of future scholars. Instead, it’s to teach his readers something important about who Jesus is.

It can come as a bit of a shock to compare Matthew to Luke’s genealogy and find that there are differences. But there is a reason for this! While the modern historian prides himself in providing information free of bias and personal opinion, biblical writers are focused on showing how God is working through history. It’s not an issue then, when generations  are skipped or altered slightly in these genealogies. Nor is it a problem when the author chooses to follow a different path with the same outcome (as Luke does). The question we should ask isn’t, “How perfectly and completely does this reflect the precise historical facts?”, but, “What does the author want us to see about what God is doing in and through history?”

That is the question Matthew is begging us to ask – and that is the question that we will address more fully in the next blog post.