The Gospel of Matthew – chap. 1, vers. 1-17 – The Genealogy of Jesus

Ethiopic Gospel of Matthew – British Library

It could seem a strange thing to list a lot of names that represent the ancestors of a famous person like Jesus (click here to see the Matthew’s text). But for the ancient Jews who wrote the Gospel of Matthew it was not so. In fact, in those days it didn’t exist the concept of ‘individual’. Today instead each of us, before to be part of a couple or of a people is first and foremost an individual with insurmountable and inviolable borders and prerogatives. None of us identifies himself with the state or the family to which we belong.

Each jew was instead essentially tied to a people, from which he derived own identity. The hebrew word for ‘people’ is ‘am. This word comes from the same root of ‘im that means ‘with’. Existentialists would say that the identity of an ancient jew was being-with.  Jesus belonged to the people of Israel too. From this membership derived the characterization of his individual person. The evangelist Matthew – who write his gospel for a jewish christian community –  begins his list with Abraham, the father of any good jew. With him began the history of salvation. In fact God called Abraham, telling him to leave his homeland (cf. Gen 12:1-2) to begin the journey to Canaan. Abraham was the depositary of the promises that God made to his people: the land and the progeny as numerous as the sand of the sea. Promises that will be fulfilled with the advent of the Messianic King David (2 Sam 7) ancestor of Jesus Christ himself. The genealogy is divided in three parts:

  • from Abraham to David (vv. 1-4)
  • from Solomon to the exile in Babylon (vv. 5-11)
  • the following period until the exile to Jesus (vv. 12-16)

Lindisfarne Gospels – St. Matthews – (VIII cent.)

Among the ancestors of Joseph – the father of Jesus – there are Abraham, but especially the King David. For Matthew Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise made by the prophet Nathan to David (2 Sam 7). The prophet announced to David an eternal dynasty and that it will be always a davidic successor on the throne of Israel. Unfortunately this was not true! Both the northern kingdom and the southern one were annihilated. The glorious history of the kingdom will end, in fact, in 587 BC with the invasion of Nebuchadnezzar, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem and the deportation of the population in Babylon. Since then, the promise of David’s descendant became charged with messianic hues, but not in the political sense. Isaiah will announce the coming of the Messiah (see Is 7 and 11). This prophecy will be fulfilled with the advent of Jesus. At the Jesus’ times people awaited two messiahs: a spiritual one (the priest) and a political one (the king). Jesus will embody both of these aspects and he will therefore be the worthy and spiritual successor of David.

The genealogy ends with the observation that each of the three sections of the genealogy contains fourteen generations. It is a figure that is obviously wrong from a chronological point of a view. It suffice to say that in the genealogy’s section from the Babylonian exile to Jesus there are about six hundred years. A period too extended to be enclosed in fourteen generations. What is the significance of 14? Some appeal to the gematria. It was a system of calculation adopted by some biblical authors – for example in the Apocalypse – to hide personal names. The most famous case is the ‘666’ of Revelation 13, which conceals the name of Emperor Nero who fiercely persecuted Christians. The number ‘fourteen’ would be here represented by the letters D (Dalet), W (Waw) and D (Dalet) that correspond to the name of David. In fact, David and his descendants are at the center of the genealogy. Fourteen is also the sum of 7 + 7. Seven is a symbolic number in the Bible. The earth was created in seven days. Needless to say, we will never know what really means the number ‘seventeen’. What is certain is that Matthew wanted to include the descendants of Abraham and of David in a pre-established pattern, where he omitted some names. It is certain that Matthew intended to present Jesus as the heir of the messianic promises.

Simone Venturini


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