For most Christians who read the Bible casually or devotionally, Matthew’s genealogy — the very first chapter of the New Testament — is one of the dullest passages in all of Scripture. It was a tremendously important passage for the author and his audience, however; and for me, it is an incredibly fascinating window into the author’s methods and who he thought Jesus was. It also contains numerous puzzles — some more easily solved than others. What’s so interesting about this long list of begats? Read on and find out more than you probably ever wanted to know.
Matthew’s Gospel opens with a suggestive statement. In the Jerusalem Bible, it reads simply:
A genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.
While this is an adequate translation, the Greek suggests something more:
Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ.
A book of the generations of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.
This seems to be an allusion to the opening chapters of Genesis (according to the Greek Septuagint):
Gen 2:4: Αὕτη ἡ βίβλος γενέσεως οὐρανοῦ καὶ γῆς…
This is the book of the generations of heaven and earth…
Gen 5:1: Αὕτη ἡ βίβλος γενέσεως ἀνθρώπων…
This is the book of the generations of mankind…
Could it be that Matthew is introducing his work as a new Pentateuch? Some exegetes have observed that his Gospel seems to be arranged around five key sermons, creating a five-part work reminiscent of the Torah, which the author holds in high regard.
Then, after presenting a genealogy of Jesus, Matthew explains the strategy he has used to create his genealogy:
The sum of generations is therefore: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation; and fourteen from the Babylonian deportation to Christ.
The history of the Israelites, then, spans six “weeks” of generations (a familiar idea to anyone who has read Daniel) to be followed by the Sabbath week — the messianic age inaugurated by Jesus.
That this should be understood symbolically is quite clear. It is not historically plausible for a time span of almost two millennia to consist of only 42 generations — actually 41, since Matthew’s third set of 14 only has 13 names. Theologians who, over the centuries, have treated this genealogy as a factual historical report and striven to account for the discrepancies with Luke’s genealogy have simply missed the forest for the trees. Determining who the real father of Joseph was (Matthew’s Jacob or Luke’s Heli) is the least of our problems if we try understanding it literally.
Matthew and the Septuagint
The source of much of Matthew’s genealogy appears to be 1 Chronicles 1–3 and Ruth 4. Like the Chronicler, Matthew gives us a genealogy from father to son. “Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob,” and so on. What if we compare Matthew side-by-side with the genealogies in 1 Chronicles? Let’s look at the first 30 names on the list.
|Matthew 1:2–16||1 Chronicles 1:23–3 (MT)|
|4||Judah and his brothers||Judah|
|5||Phares and Zara by Tamar||Perez and Zerah|
|11||Boaz by Rahab||Boaz|
|12||Obed by Ruth||Obed|
|1||Solomon by the wife of Uriah||Solomon|
|14||Jechoniah and his brothers||Jeconiah|
We clearly see that Matthew is establishing Jesus as a descendant of Abraham, a Judahite, and the heir to David’s throne. The mention of Judah’s brothers serves to associate Jesus with all Israel and not merely Judah. Several women are mentioned as well — more on that later.
Numerous discrepancies also stand out. One is that Matthew skipped a bunch of names in order to maintain his 14–14–14 structure. Three generations between Joram and Jotham are omitted, as is Jehoiakim further down the line. Secondly, some of the names are different. Leaving aside some mere spelling differences (which are due to the differences between Greek and Hebrew), Matthew has Aram instead of Ram, Asaph instead of Asa, Amos instead of Amon, and Salathiel instead of Pedaiah. Is this just sloppiness, or is something else going on?
Some of these oddities can be resolved once we realize that Matthew wasn’t using the original Hebrew texts to construct his genealogy. Like most diaspora Jews, he was reliant on the Old Greek (Septuagint, LXX for short), which frequently differs from the Hebrew. Comparing Matthew to the LXX clears a few things up. Even more issues can be resolved if we compare Matthew to the minority readings found mainly in LXXᴬ (the 5th-century Codex Alexandrinus) rather than the standard LXX text.
|Matt 1:2–16||Matt 1:2–16 (Greek)||1Ch 1:23–3 (LXX)||1Ch 1:23–3 (LXXᴬ)|
|7||Aram||Αραμ||Ραμ, Αραμ||Ραμ, Αραμ|
Let’s take some of these one at a time.
The LXX lists different sons for Hesron than the Hebrew (Masoretic) text has: Irameel, Ram, Chaleb and Aram (LXX 1Ch 2:9). According to the LXX, Aram and not Ram is the father of Aminadab. Matthew has copied his source correctly. Furthermore, no other mention of Ram or Aram is found in the Bible to compare with — aside from the genealogy of Ruth 4, which is dependent on 1 Chronicles like Matthew.
The text of the LXX does not help us explain the replacing of Asa with Asaph. However, Asaph was a famous psalmist and chief among the Levite priests who ministered before the Ark in Jerusalem (1Chr 16). Goulder¹ proposes that Matthew has changed Asa to make him more musical and more “Chronicular”. This theory is pretty good, especially considering that Jesus quotes one of Asaph’s psalms (Psalm 78) in Mt 13:34–35.
We Three Kings Omitted Are
As noted above, the kings Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah, and Azariah have been reduced to one king, Uzziah, in order to maintain the number 14.
The commentaries I have consulted offer different explanations as to which of those four kings “Uzziah” is supposed to represent. The simplest explanation in my mind is that Matthew copied from a text like LXXᴬ, which mistakenly reads Οζιας (Uzziah) instead of Οχοζιας (Ahaziah) in 1Ch 3:11. Uzziah also appears in some biblical passages as another name for Azariah, which results in a rather confusing mess.
Most commentaries either ignore this discrepancy or say Matthew has confused the prophet Amos with king Amon.² It is true that some early Christian scribes regarded this as an error, since we have manuscripts that have been altered to replace Amos with Amon. However, the best explanation may be that LXXᴬ reads “Amos” in 1Ch 3:14, and that Matthew’s version of the LXX came from the same textual tradition. The text of Matthew is therefore correct as far as its sources are concerned and should not be surreptitiously “fixed” to read “Amon” as certain translations do (HCSB, NASB, JB, ASV, AMP, NET, NIV).
Jehoiakim was one of the last kings of Judah, ruling the kingdom as an Egyptian vassal state. Matthew’s genealogy skips him, moving from his father Josiah directly to his son Jeconiah (Jehoiachin). But perhaps he wasn’t completely forgotten, as we shall see below. Additionally, some later manuscripts of Matthew did add Jehoiakim in, both to rectify the omission and to make the genealogy add up to three fourteens as intended.
The Hebrew text of 1Ch 3:19 contradicts other passages (e.g. Ezra 3:2, Hag 1:1) that give Shealtiel (Salathiel in Greek) as the father of Zerubbabel. The LXX, however, identifies Shealtiel as Zerubbabel’s father, again explaining Matthew’s divergence from the Hebrew Old Testament.
Other Points of Interest
With the name discrepancies and omissions out of the way, there are some other elements of interest among the first 30 names.
Salmon and Rahab
Nowhere in the Old Testament is Rahab ever said to have married into the Judahite tribe and become the wife of Salmon. Josephus hints at no such tradition. The chronology doesn’t really work either. What we see here is an intriguing example of Matthew’s inventiveness. He wants to work Rahab into his genealogy, and this is the only place it will fit. Nahshon and everyone prior to him predate the Israelites’ arrival in Canaan, but everyone after Boaz belongs to a later time when the land has long been settled. We’ll come back to Rahab in a moment.
An Excursus on Hezron (Hesrom)
Hesrom, the sixth person in Matthew’s genealogy, provides a nice illustration of the malleable nature of genealogies in the Bible. Compare the following two passages:
The descendants of Reuben: of Hanoch, the clan of the Hanochites; of Pallu, the clan of the Palluites; of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Carmi, the clan of the Carmites. These are the clans of the Reubenites. (Num 26:5–7)
The descendants of Judah by their clans were: of Shelah, the clan of the Shelanites; of Perez, the clan of the Perezites; of Zerah, the clan of the Zerahites. The descendants of Perez were: of Hezron, the clan of the Hezronites; of Hamul, the clan of the Hamulites. These are the clans of Judah. (Num 26:20–22)
It appears that the Hezronites were originally an important clan in the territory of Reuben. Thus, their eponymous (fictional) founder Hezron was made to be a son of Reuben. Later, the clan was assimilated into Judah, and its founder was added to the genealogy of Judah. The Reubenite tradition, however, was still retained, and the two now sit side-by-side in Numbers 26.
Remnants of both traditions can also be found in the Chronicler’s work. In 1Ch 5:3, he records Hezron as a son of Reuben. In 1Ch 4:1, he records Hezron as a son of Judah along with brothers Perez and Carmi (a son of Reuben in Num 26/1Ch 5). In 1Ch 2:5–9, on which Matthew’s genealogy is based, Hezron is instead a grandson of Judah (and Carmi is a great-grandson). The translator of Greek Chronicles apparently tried to split Hezron into two separate people named Hasron and Heseron in that passage. However, the scribes responsible for LXXᴬ combined them back into one person named Hesrom, and that’s who we find in Matthew’s genealogy.
Five Women of Dubious Sexual Repute
Matthew seems to have a penchant for women with colourful pasts. In addition to his interest in Rahab, he singles out Ruth, Tamar and “the wife of Uriah” (i.e. Bathsheba).
He could have mentioned more famous women from Israel’s history — Sarah, Rebekah, or Rachel, for example. Instead, he has chosen Tamar who seduced Judah, Rahab the prostitute, Ruth who seduced Boaz, Bathsheba the adulteress, and Mary — Mary who got pregnant without a husband. According to some Jewish traditions, she had shacked up with a Roman soldier named Panthera, and claims that Jesus had been the son of prostitute were circulating in the second century (Cf. Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30.6). Did this rumor already exist when Matthew wrote his Gospel? If so, he might have wanted to deflect such negativity, not only with a virgin birth story, but by pointing out the essential role in Israel’s history played by unchaste women.
Not all scholars agree with this interpretation, but I think it is interesting to consider.
One last enigma to point is Matthew’s references to the brothers of Jeconiah in Mt 1:17. There’s a slight problem with that: Jeconiah didn’t have any brothers! No satisfying explanation for this inclusion has been forthcoming.
You Thought This Essay Would Be Over by Now?
Now we come to the last eleven names on the list. After Zerubbabel, Matthew starts improvising with a genealogy of his own invention, apparently drawn from a variety of sources. As we shall see, many of these names are Levite names associated with important priests in the Jewish scriptures, and their use by Matthew establishes Jesus as not only a king of David’s line, but a priest of Aaron’s.
The last “fourteen” (actually thirteen) names in Matthew’s genealogy are:
Let’s pick it up with Zerubbabel’s son Abiud — a name not attested among Zerubbabel’s children in 1Ch 3:19 or anywhere else. My best guess is that this name comes from Abiud the son of Aaron, mentioned in Exodus 6 and 1Ch 5. (He is called “Abihu” in Hebrew.) Abiud appears in Exodus 6:23 along with three other names in Matthew’s genealogy: Aminadab, Naasson, and Eleazar — an interesting coincidence if nothing else.
Next comes Eliakim. There are a few Eliakims in the Bible, including a priest from Nehemiah’s day. Coincidentally (perhaps), Eliakim was also the given name of king Jehoiakim, whom Matthew skipped earlier.
Azor is a mystery. Scholars note that it is not a full name, but a shortened form of a longer one — possibly Azariah, which was the name of one of the kings Matthew skipped earlier on.⁴
Zadok is no mystery. Zadok was perhaps the most important priest in Jewish history. The name of Zadok’s son in the genealogy, Achim, appears to be a shortened form of Achimaas, the son of Zadok whose genealogy appears in LXX 1Ch 5:34. Achimaas’s son is given as Azeriah, which might also explain the Azor above. According to the same genealogy in 1Ch 5, Zadok is a patrilineal ancestor of Jeshua (Jesus) ben Jozadak, an archetype of Jesus and first high priest of the second temple.
Eliud is another mystery. That name does appear in place of Elimouth in the LXXᴬ version of 1Ch 12:20, but it is an obscure character.
Eleazar is an easy one. Eleven people in the Bible have this name, but the most notable is the son of Aaron — high priest of Israel, chief of the tribe of Levi, and ancestor of Zadok according to Chronicles. As Goulder notes, “Zadok and Eleazar are the most high-priestly of all names,” and Jesus Christ is meant to be a high priest just like his earlier namesake, Jeshua ben Jozadak.⁵
Matthan is another toughie. It could be derived from Mattaniah, the son of Jehoiakim who was made the last king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar. He holds the same place in Matthew’s genealogy as one “Matthat” does in Luke’s, so it is conceivable, if unlikely, that Matthew has borrowed the Lukan Matthat and hebraized the name.
The last two names leading up to Jesus are Jacob and Joseph. One is immediately reminded of the patriarch Joseph in Genesis, who also had a father named Jacob and who grew up in Egypt much like Matthew’s Jesus did.
Ancient Apologetics and a Conclusion
Even early readers of Matthew realized that his genealogy ought to be understood in theological terms rather than literal ones — especially those who had Luke’s genealogy to compare it with. In the third century, Julius Africanus noted this widespread view with distaste in his epistle to Aristides:
Some indeed incorrectly allege that this discrepant enumeration and mixing of the names both of priestly men, as they think, and royal, was made properly, in order that Christ might be shown rightfully to be both Priest and King; as if any one disbelieved this, or had any other hope than this, that Christ is the High Priest of His Father, who presents our prayers to Him, and a supramundane King, who rules by the Spirit those whom He has delivered, a cooperator in the government of all things.
Africanus, a forerunner of today’s apologist for biblical inerrancy, posited that if the genealogies traced “no genuine seed to Joseph”, they would be falsehoods that gave no praise to God. (One wonders why it is the genuine seed of Joseph that matters, and not the virgin-born Jesus.) He then concocted a torturous argument on how to harmonize the last two generations of Matthew and Luke before Joseph — as if that were the only obstacle to accepting Matthew’s list as literal history.
Of course, close scrutiny of the kind demonstrated in this essay makes it plain to anyone who cares what the text actually says that to project such intentions on the biblical writers is to miss the point entirely.
- M. D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew, Wipf and Stock, 1974: p. 230.
- For an example of the latter, see Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7 (Hermeneia: a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible): p. 17. Goulder (Op. Cit.), on the other hand, thinks Matthew has deliberately substituted Amon for Amos.
- See Claude Mariottini, “Hezron”, Anchor Bible Dictionary for a fuller discussion.
- Goulder, Op. Cit., p. 230.