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No. 131 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 2007

The Literal Sense of Matthew 1

by John F. McCarthy

1. Neo-patristic exegetes, in expounding the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture, begin always with the literal sense and usually with a critique of existing historical-critical interpretations of the respective passage. In undertaking first a literal interpretation of the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, I have chosen to begin with brief critiques of the historical-critical opinions of Jean Daniélou and Raymond Brown. Jean Daniélou, in his Infancy Narratives (DIN),1 finds that Matthew 1 is historical in the one message that it conveys, namely, that Joseph adopted Jesus with the intention of making Him a legal descendant of David (DIN, p. 40). Daniélou, after assuming that Mary was not a descendant of David (DIN, p. 16), claims that Matthew’s problem in this chapter was to explain how Jesus could be of the family of David, and he solves this problem by affirming his adoption by Joseph. Daniélou finds that Matthew’s purpose was not to recount the Virginal Conception of Jesus, but rather to affirm Joseph’s adoption of Jesus in spite of the fact that, knowing instinctively that her conception was virginal of the Holy Spirit, he felt unworthy to take her into his home, and the vehicle that Matthew uses to show that Joseph did adopt Jesus is the midrash of an angelic appearance (DIN, pp. 23-24, 41).

2. A midrash is a fictitious story fabricated upon incidents in the lives of Old Testament persons. In this case, Daniélou speculates that Matthew took the Old Testament figure of the angelic appearance (always fictitious) to show how Joseph was persuaded to adopt Jesus and to take Mary into his home. He reasons that Matthew put the words “You shall call his name Jesus” onto the lips of the fictitious angel to express the idea that Joseph did adopt Jesus, and the words “for he shall save his people from their sins,” are simply Matthew’s theological reflection on the meaning of the name Jesus. He then cites the prophecy in Isa 7:14, “Behold a virgin shall conceive,” etc., which, he says, does not really apply to Jesus, but rather to Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son, and was freely manipulated by Matthew to his own purpose in keeping with the feeling of early Jewish Christians that it was their right to project onto the Old Testament beliefs of the New Testament (DIN, pp. 47-52).

3. Daniélou’s interpretation of Matthew 1, if it were logically correct, would effectively destroy the historical fact of the Virginal Conception of Jesus. To communicate this fact through a fictitious story and a misapplied prophecy, as Daniélou claims, would rule out the fact itself. Daniélou assumes without evidence that Joseph didn’t really have this dream, and his exclusion of Jesus from the prophecy in Isa 7:14 is without cause and unconvincing. His attempt to find midrash behind the dream of Joseph is based upon the false naturalistic idea that there are no angels, while his interpretation of Isa 7:14 results from a failure to read the prophecy and the text of Matthew 1 properly. The prophecy has to do with a “sign,” that is, a miraculous conception in the womb of a virgin, and it is addressed to the House of David. It means that the male seed of the House of David would not produce the Messiah, and Matthew shows this by narrating the genealogy of Joseph and how each forebear “begot” (egennēsen) his son or descendant down to Joseph, but Joseph did not beget Jesus. Then Matthew narrates how the conception of Jesus really took place by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hence, the main message of the chapter is the Virginal Conception of Jesus.2

4. Raymond Brown, in his historical-critical interpretation of Matthew 1, sees that this chapter clearly narrates a virginal conception of Jesus. While Matthew’s interest is theological, he says, intending to affirm that Jesus is truly the Son of God, there is no reason to think that Matthew did not believe in the historical truth of this miraculous conception. Many modern Scripture scholars do not believe in this miracle, but, he adds, there are also serious scholars who do believe in it.3 Still, the modern preoccupation with historicity was not shared by the Gospel writers, and so, even here, “the primary import of the virginal conception was theological, and more specifically christological.”4 Brown, speaking also for a host of other historical critics, maintains that Isa 7:14 does not refer to a virginal conception, but was reinterpreted by Matthew on the basis of a Christian belief in the Virginal Conception.5 While rejecting what he calls the “simple view” that at the moment of the virginal conception it was revealed that Jesus is the Son of God, Brown accepts “the common scholarly agreement” that such a revelation came after the Resurrection. He finds that the Gospel accounts of two consecutive revelations, first to Mary and then to Joseph, are but “developed variants” of one pre-Gospel annunciation tradition, consisting of a popular narrative fashioned along the pattern of Old Testament annunciations of birth and not originating from Mary or Joseph.6 But did the Virginal Conception really take place? Brown feels that the New Testament is more easily explained by positing a historical basis for the tradition than by characterizing it as a purely theological creation.7 Of course, the Virginal Conception is a dogma of the Church based upon the plain, face-value reading of Matthew 1 and Luke 1. Brown strives to fend off this objection by affirming that “In the Roman Catholic tradition, the acceptance of biblical criticism has caused a reinterpretation but not a rejection of the concepts of inspiration and inerrancy.”8

5. Actually, the acceptance of historical criticism has caused a rejection among liberal scholars of the traditional teaching of the Church regarding divine inspiration and biblical inerrancy. While the Magisterium from the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council has consistently declared the absolute inerrancy of the sacred text, Catholic historical critics have time and again attempted to restrict biblical inerrancy to certain truths of religious import. Furthermore, the historical-critical method allows for no discernible role at all for the intervention of God in the formulation of the sacred text. Outstanding in this regard is the twisted manner in which liberal Catholic exegetes and theologians have interpreted the expression in Dei Verbum 11, "that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." If liberal Catholic exegetes stray this far in interpreting a contemporary document of the Magisterium, how can they be trusted to interpret biblical texts written more than nineteen centuries ago?9

6. Daniélou’s distinction between historical facts underlying the sacred text and Matthew’s purpose in interpreting these facts, as well as Brown’s distinction between the historical facts and Matthew’s theo­log­ical interest in narrating them, reflects an unawareness of the scientific distinction between the finis operis and the finis operantis. The finis operis is the purpose of the work itself, while the finis operantis is the purpose of the worker. There is no doubt that Matthew had the purpose of instructing people about the life and teaching of Jesus, but that does not preclude his more basic intention of presenting the historical facts. The founders of form-criticism made the finis operantis paramount in their interpretations for the reason that they assumed that the writers of the Gospels were not free operators but were rather elements of a primitive society responding sub­consciously and instinctively to the needs of their community. There is no basis in reality for this presupposition in relation to the sacred writers. Hence, Brown’s affirmation that “the primary import of the virginal conception was theological, and more specifically christological” has no meaning for historical science. There is absolutely no evidence that Matthew did not seriously intend to narrate the facts as they really were. These facts had deeper meaning, but this pertains first to the level of historical explanation and further to the spiritual senses of the text, which historical critics totally ignore.

7. The Gospel of Matthew opens with the legal genealogy of Jesus. St. Joseph appears as the son of Jacob in the genealogy in Matthew and as the son of Eli in the genealogy in Luke, and the names in Matthew’s list differ almost entirely from those in Luke’s list going back as far as King David. From this Brown concludes that what these two genealogies tell us about Jesus “is not that factually he is also (grand)son of either Jacob (Matthew) or of Eli (Luke), but that theologically he is ‘son of David, son of Abraham’ (Matthew), and ‘Son of God’ (Luke). 10 But what is the value of a “theological” message that is not based on historical facts? What seems to be lurking in the wings of Brown’s analysis is the religious dream-world that the founders and followers of classical historical criticism attribute to the objects of Christian faith.

8. There are at least five possible solutions to the historical problem of the different fathers of Joseph in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. The first and oldest possible solution regards the Law of the Levirate (Deut 25:5-6). According to this solution, Joseph’s grandmother (Estha?) bore Jacob to one husband (Matthan) and Eli to a uterine brother Jacob, who raised up Joseph as seed to Eli. Thus Joseph had Eli as his legal father and Jacob as his biological father. Brown objects that Matthan is listed as the father of Jacob and Matthat as the father of Eli, and this similarity of names constitutes a “dubious coincidence.” But coincidences of this kind do occur. Again Brown objects that it would be “very strange” to have a genealogical list going back through the biological father, but not so strange if Matthew had a particular purpose in doing so. In fact, in another levirate marriage, Obed has his ancestry traced back through Boaz, his biological father (Ruth 4). Brown questions how widely levirate marriage was practiced in the time of Jesus, but it was practiced. And he wonders why Matthew’s genealogy descends through Solomon, while Luke’s descends through Nathan, but the obvious answer is that these are two different lines of ancestry.11 Hence, Brown does not present cogent grounds for abandoning the possibility of this solution, even though it is not a proven fact. In a monumental piece of research, published in French in 1982,12 Jacques Masson has considerably increased the area of discussion of this argument and brought the reader closer to the history behind the genealogies. Jacques-Paul Migne, Urban Holzmeister, and others have questioned the possibility of this solution on the ground that the Law of the Levirate did not apply to uterine brothers, since they did not carry the same male seed, but Masson counters that they would be carrying the same male seed, if they were close relatives, descended from a common male ancestor. In the present case, David is a common ancestor, but more proximately Masson finds Salathiel and Eliud/Esli.

9. The second possible solution regards Marian genealogy. If Matthew gives the legal descent of Jesus from David and Luke gives his real and physical descent, then Luke gives the genealogy of Mary. Brown excludes this theory completely on the grounds that tracing a genealogy through the mother is not normal in Judaism, and also Luke makes it clear that he is tracing the descent of Jesus through Joseph. And besides, he adds, “we really do not know that Mary was a Davidid.”13 But Brown’s reasons here are more than question­able. There was no normal practice in Judaism for a child born of a virginal conception, and, in fact, the Jews did trace some genealogies through women (Judith, Sarvia, Abigail, Rebecca, and the daughter of Sesan). And that Mary was a direct descendant of David is a fact established in Catholic historical tradition. I have discussed this fact at length in an earlier publication.14 Cornelius a Lapide defends the theory that Eli in Luke’s genealogy was actually Mary’s father. He interprets Lk 3:23 as saying that Jesus was only “supposed to be” the son of Joseph, but (really) was the son of Eli.15 Now, an extra­biblical tradition identifies the parents of the Virgin Mary as Joachim and Anne.16 The argument goes as follows. Eliachim is an alternative name for Joachim. Thus, in 4 Kg (2 Kg) it is stated that “Pharao Neco made Eliakim, the son of Josias, king in place of Josias his father, and he changed his name to Joakim” (cf. 2 Chron 36:4). Again, in Judith 4, the high priest is called Joakim in the Septuagint and Eliachim in the Vulgate and in some other manuscripts; in fact, the same man is called by the Vulgate “Eliachim” in Judith 4 and”Joachim” in Judith 15:9. The etymological basis for this interchangeability is that the syllables Jo and El are both abbreviated names of God, and both Joachim and Eliachim mean “God makes firm” or “God raises up.” Hence, it is theorized that, in the Lucan genealogy, the name Joachim was changed to Eliachim and then shortened to Eli.

10. Francis X. Patrizzi, in an elaborate treatise on the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, published in 1853,17 severely criticizes this argument as an unacceptable reading of the text for the following reasons. a) There is no example in Sacred Scripture to exemplify the shortening of Eliachim (or Eliakim) to Eli; in fact, the “E” in “Eli” is actually a different vowel in the Greek from the “E” in “Eliachim,” and in the Hebrew the name “Eli” comes from a different root altogether. b) There was no other way that a man could be called the “son” of another man who was not his biological father except by way of levirate marriage. c) Luke would not have made a parenthesis like the one claimed. d) The name of Mary would have had to be mentioned by Luke. e) Grammatically, the Greeks did not write genealogies in such a manner.

11. In my estimation, Patrizzi’s arguments batter the idea of a Marian link to Eli, but they do not destroy it. a) In the popular shortening of names, etymological rules are often not observed and vowels and conso­nants often get changed. b) In Old Testament law and custom, a man could be called the “son” of another man also by legal adoption. As Urban Holzmeister points out, if Mary was an only child, her father could have legally adopted her husband and transferred to him all of his rights and possessions. c) The word order of Lk 3:23 is somewhat unusual, but not quite as unusual as Patrizzi claims. d) Luke would not have been obliged in this case to mention the name of Mary, if he had a good reason for not doing so. e) The Greeks did not write genealogies exactly in the manner that Luke writes this one. A feature to be noted is the fact that the name of Joseph differs from those of Eli and the following ones in not having the definite article before his name. Could this difference be suggestive of a parenthesis? It could be that the genealogy belongs to Joseph in the plain and simple reading of the text, while there is a connection with Mary in a deeper historical reading of the text, especially if a historical reason could be suggested to explain the situation. I should like to suggest the following possibility. At the census office in Bethlehem, Joseph registered his ancestry according to the genealogy reported in Matthew. When he returned with Jesus and Mary from Egypt, he feared that this line of ancestry might endanger the life of Jesus, and so he decided to adapt the genealogy of Mary as a new credential for Jesus and himself. To disguise this substitution he took the name of Mary’s father, Joachim, (who may also have been his legal father) changed it to Eliachim, and shortened it to Eli. In this way, beneath the adapted genealogy of Joseph lies the real genealogy of Mary.

12. The third possible solution regards legal adoption. Urban Holzmeister maintains that the theory of special adoption by a man without sons of his own is highly tenable. If this happened, the genealogy in Luke could well be materially the genealogy of Mary and formally the genealogy of Joseph, who had inherited Mary’s ancestry from her father by way of adoption. In 1 Chron 2:34-35, Sheshan had no sons, so he gave his daughter (unnamed) in marriage to his Egyptian servant Jarha, and she brought forth to Sheshan a son named Attai. Thus, Attai was the son of Sheshan through his unnamed daughter and his adopted (and named) Egyptian son-in-law.18

13. The fourth possible solution regards consanguinity. Daniélou, Brown, and others claim that Jesus was not a descendant of David through Mary, since Mary was not a descendant of David, but there are powerful arguments to the contrary. St. Jerome affirms that Mary was a close relative of Joseph, and, therefore, a member of the tribe of Judah and of the family of David.19 This testimony is reinforced by St. Ambrose, Tertullian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. John Damascene.20 The Fathers of the Church almost unanimously defend the Davidic descent of Mary, and the same conclusion is in keeping with contemporary research. 21 Cornelius a Lapide holds that both genealogies present the ancestry of Mary. He reasons as follows. While Eli (of Luke’s list) was the father of Mary, Matthan (of Matthew’s list) was the biological grandfather of both Joseph and Mary, because Jacob was the brother of Anne, Mary’s mother. Thus, Matthew gives the ancestry of Mary through her mother Anne, but Anne’s brother Jacob is mentioned in the list instead of Anne. A Lapide notes that according to Num 36:6-10 women who are heiresses of their parents are ordered to marry, not only within the same tribe, but also within the same kindred and closely-related family, lest the inheritance pass to out­siders. He refers to Ambrose, Jerome, Theodoretus, Jeremiah, Bernard, and Suarez as maintaining that the Blessed Virgin Mary was a descendant of David through Solomon and, therefore, through the genealogy of her mother, as presented by Matthew.

14. Patrizzi as well, maintains that, while both genealogies are those of Joseph by levirate marriage, they also reflect the ancestry of Mary and the biological descent of Jesus from King David, because of the blood relationship between Mary and Joseph. Patrizzi follows the explanation of Possini, Zaccaria, and others, according to which Joachim, Cleophas, and Joseph were the three sons of the last Jacob in Matthew’s list, and Joseph was actually Mary’s paternal uncle. Such a marriage, he says, was allowable according to the Law of the Levirate. 22 Masson, after further genealogical studies, concludes that Mary and Joseph were second cousins on her father’s side, seeing that Levi in Luke’s genealogy was the great-grandfather of Joseph and the great-great-grandfather of Mary, and first cousins on her mother’s side, since Anne was Joseph’s aunt.23

15. A fifth possible solution is that of historical reservation. If no single solution or combination of the four possible solutions given above seems likely to a reader, he is not thereby forced to conclude, as Jean Daniélou, Raymond Brown, and historical critics in general do, that the two genealogies in Matthew and Luke are mutually contradictory or that there are historical mistakes in either one. According to the laws of historiography, an historian has diminished personal responsibility for the historical accuracy of an account which he explicitly quotes, and he has no responsibility if he dissociates himself from the veracity of its contents. Now Matthew in chapter one sets up an explicit contrast between the record of the generation of Jesus that he is quoting (Mt 1:2-16a) (which, he says, does not really link up with Jesus) and the way in which the generation of Jesus really took place (Mt 1:18-25). Therefore, it is possible that Matthew did not intend to guarantee the historical accuracy of the genealogy or that he even implies that it is accurate. Matthew presents his genealogy with the words, "The book of the generation (biblos geneseōs) of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham" (Mt 1:1). The Greek word biblos means a written tablet (as does the corresponding Hebrew word sep r). Therefore, the "book of the generation" referred to by Matthew seems to be a written genealogical record to which he is referring - a document that he is quoting. This is therefore an explicit citation of a document. Luke begins his genealogical presentation with the words, "as was supposed." Now, it is clear that Luke is saying that Jesus was only supposed to be the son of Joseph, whereas in biological fact he was not. But it is possible that the phrase "as was supposed" applies as well to other links in the genealogy, or even to the whole genealogy. Thus, Luke may not be guaranteeing the historical accuracy of the genealogy which he presents; in fact, he may be implying that the genealogy is not historically accurate. From these indications regarding Matthew and Luke, it is possible to retain the complete historical accuracy of the two inspired writers according to their express intention, and at the same time to consider possible inaccuracies and confusions in the lists of names themselves. Analysis of the texts of Matthew and Luke according to the principles of true historiography does not, on the one hand, exclude the possibility that one or both of these sacred writers, in presenting a genealogical list, intended to present doubtful or erroneous names to contrast with what they were really affirming about the origin of Jesus. On the other hand, textual analysis does not show unambiguously that either Evangelist did in fact intend not to guarantee his list or that either list is in fact to some degree historically inaccurate.24

16. Matt 1:1. “The book of the generation (bíblos geneseōs). Matthew is quoting from a document, probably from a piece of papyrus, containing a list of names. of Jesus Christ. The list of names purports to be the ancestry of Jesus of Nazareth, but it does not link up to Him biologically. Matthew affirms here that Jesus is the Messiah, the One Anointed by God as the Savior of mankind. son of David, son of Abraham. This summary of the chronological list to follow sets up an historical retrospect as the basis of an historical explanation to be included by the evangelist. It tells us also that the word son will be used also in the broader sense of any direct-line male descendent.

17. Matt 1:2-16. “Abraham begot Isaac. The Greek word egennēsen means “begot” in the sense of physical procreation from the male seed. Paraphrases such as “Abraham was the father of Isaac” (Brown, RSV, Jerusalem Bible), or “Abraham became the father of Isaac” (New American Bible) are incorrect and miss the literal meaning of the chapter, which stresses the passing of the male seed from Abraham to Joseph but not to Jesus (see no. 3 above). The Latin Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims English translations are correct on this point.

18. Matt 1:17. “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations. There are fourteen names in the set from Abraham to David. Abraham is counted as a generation, probably in view of the symbolic meaning of the name. Abram was reborn in faith, and his name was changed to Abraham --“Father of Nations” (Gen 17:5). Brown avers that there had to be more than fourteen generations in the first set, since some 750 years separated Abraham from David.25 But Matthew is not saying that there were only fourteen immediate generations. Matthew is saying that there were fourteen qualified generations in each set, and his point has force as long as there are discernible reasons for his omitting some of the immediate generations in keeping with the purpose of his writing. From the earliest times commentators have remarked that some immediate generations were omitted by Matthew because of wickedness. Thus, the wickedness of Onan, who “wasted his seed on the ground” (Gen 38:9) led to the elimination by God of one generation in the descent of the seed from Abraham to David, and this could be a reason why Matthew added Abraham to make the number fourteen.

19. “And from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations. The second set of fourteen names in the Matthean genealogy says that “Joram begot Uzzziah (Matt 1:8), whereas we know that Joram was actually the great-great grandfather of Uzziah (otherwise known as Azariah), because in 1 Chron 3:11-12 we read: "and Joram begot Ochoziah, from whom sprang Joas, and his son Amasiah begot Azariah." Hence, Matthew omits the generations of Ochoziah, Joas, and Amasiah from his list, and the judgments given in the Old Testament upon these people may tell us why. St. Jerome26 sees a reason in the fact that Joram married Athaliah, the daughter of Jezebel of Sidon, who drew him deeper and deeper into the practices of idolatry (cf. 2 Kg [4 Kg]: 3:3), and that the three generations of sons succeeding him continued in the worship of idols. In the very first of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses on Mount Sinai it was stated: "Thou shalt not have foreign gods before me. ... Thou shalt not adore or serve them. I am the Lord thy God, powerful and jealous, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands to those that love me and keep my commandments" (Ex 20:3-6). Now Solomon was a sinner and an idolater (1 Kg [3 Kg] 11: 7-8), but he had a good man for his father and was therefore not punished in his own generation (1 Kg [3 Kg] 11:12). St. Augustine27 points out that the same was true of Jehoram, who had Josaphat for his father, and therefore did not have his name removed from Matthew's genealogy (cf. 2 Chr 21:7).

20. St. John Chrysostom28 adds the further reason that the Lord had ordered the house of Ahab to be extirpated from the face of the earth (2 Kg [4 Kg] 9:8), and the three kings eliminated by Matthew were, as descendants of Athaliah, of the seed of Ahab. Jehu eradicated the worship of Baal from Israel, but he did not forsake the golden calves in Bethel and Dan. Nevertheless, the Lord said to him: "Because you have diligently performed what was right and pleasing in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab in keeping with everything that was in my heart, your children shall sit upon the throne of Israel unto the fourth generation (2 Kg [4 Kg] 10:28-31). So it is interesting to note that while these generations of Jehu were inserted into the royal lineage of Israel, the three generations of Ahab were taken out of the genealogy of Jesus by the judgment of God through the inspired pen of St. Matthew.

21. In concluding his second set of fourteen generations, Matt 1:11: "And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon." This statement seems erroneous. Critics have from the earliest times pointed out that the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Chr 3:15-16) tells a different story: "And the sons of Josiah were, the firstborn Johanan, the second Joakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Sellum. Of Joakim were born Jechoniah, and Zedekiah." So it seems that Matthew 1:11 should read: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers. And Joakim begot Joachin (Jechoniah) just before the deportation to Babylon." The pagan philosopher Porphyry claimed that this confusion of persons proves the existence of historical errors in the Gospels. Two basic solutions to this problem of "confusion of persons" in Jechoniah have been proposed.

22. A) St. Augustine29 takes the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:11 and Mt 1:12 (who begot Salathiel) to be Joachin, the son of Joakim. He thinks that Matthew may have omitted the name of Joakim deliberately in order to show that Joakim ruled, not by divine right, but by the will of Pharao Neco, as well as to arrive at the number of fourteen generations for the second set. This makes fourteen generations for the third set also, if Jechoniah is counted twice: once as the son of Josiah and again as the father of Salathiel; that is, once as concluding the royal descent of the seed of David and again as beginning the generations of private individuals. This solution has some reasonability. Jeremiah's prescription, "Write this man barren, a man that shall not prosper in his days, for there shall not be a man of his seed that shall sit upon the throne of David and have power in Judah any more" (Jer 22:30), referring to this Jechoniah, could have been taken by Matthew as an editorial directive for himself. The royal seed ran out with the capture of Jechoniah by Nebuchadnezzar, but after thirty-seven years of imprisonment the same Jechoniah was given a new lease on life as a private citizen and was able to have children (Jer 52:31-34). Just as Abraham and his nephew Lot are called brothers (Gen 13:11) and just as the sons of Joseph were adopted by Jacob and made brothers of their uncles (Gen 48:5), so could Joachin have been reputed the son of Josiah and the brother of his uncles. Just as Abraham in this genealogy is counted as a generation even though his begetting is not recorded here, so could Jechoniah the captive conceivably be counted as a generation, even though he is already counted in the preceding set: the descent of the seed turns a corner with Jechoniah, and the promise passes to more chastened children of Abraham and of David; as a humble citizen and expatriate, Jechoniah is able to begin the descent of the fourteen final generations to the birth of the Savior.

23. B) St. Jerome30 takes the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:11 to be Joakim and the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:12 to be his son Joachim. Since the names Joakim and Joachin are almost alike, they could have been confused by a copyist or a translator. By linguistic analogy the appellation 'Jekoniah' could be applied to Joakim, or even, according to Cornelius a Lapide, with the spelling 'Jechoniah' by linguistic assimilation. Thus the 'Jechoniahs' in verses 11 and 12 could refer to father and son. St. Ambrose31 says that the connecting link, "Jekoniah begot Jechoniah," was not expressed by Matthew because he wanted to stress the separation produced by the deportation to Babylon. Epiphanius says that Matthew did express it, but a later copyist left it out, and some Greek and Latin codices do have it in. The explanation of Epiphanius would make fifteen generations in the second set, since Joachin was begotten before the deportation to Babylon, whereas that of Ambrose preserves the fourteen generations by positing a tacit link in the chain of generations.32

24. The Messiah came after 3 x 14 qualified generations, a long period of time, to be sure, but God could have delayed for 7 x 14 generations, or even for 70 x 14 generations, and mankind would still be waiting for the Savior. The surface numbers of this verse actually illustrate the mercy of God. And I am inclined to wonder if there is not, in addition to the more hidden allegory of numbers which we have not yet considered, also a cryptic message hidden beneath the plain literal message of Matt 1:17 which may actually tell us the exact year and day of the birth of Our Lord. The Julian calendar was in effect at the time of the Nativity of Jesus, and it is still in effect today (with the Gregorian corrections). In the meanwhile, the Church has come to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord on December 25 of this calendar and his naming and circumcision on January 1. Now, the Julian calendar went into effect on January 1, 46 B.C. Supposing then that the forty-two generations of Matt 1:17 also symbolically represent years from the inception of the Julian calendar, and placing the naming of Jesus in Matt 1:25 as the crucial date for this calculation, this would make January 1, of 4 B.C. the date of the naming of Jesus, and December 25, of 5 B.C., the date of his Nativity. Is Matthew telling us something here?

25. Matt 1:18: “Now the generation of Jesus Christ was in this wise, that is, supernatural and miraculous. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. Mary was away visiting Elizabeth for about three months, and, when she returned, she was found by Joseph to be with child. Brown avers that the evangelists Matthew and Luke here presuppose a biological virginity of Mary as a minor point, but that their main point is “a christological affirmation about Jesus as Son of God and son of David.”34 Actually, the biological virginity of Mary by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit is the main point of this whole chapter. The finis operis of this verse is to record historically the virginal conception of Mary, while the “Christological affirmation” pertains to the finis operantis and to the higher spiritual sense of the allegory of Christ.

26. Matt 1:19. “Whereupon Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing publicly to expose her, was minded to put her away privately. Joseph was a just man, not only because he adhered to the Law of Moses, but also because he was a man of virtue, kind and generous.33

27. Matt. 1:20. “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. An angel of the Lord really appeared to Joseph while his senses were asleep but his mind was awake. This is a frequent situation for angelic appearances.35

28. “for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. This is another direct and primary historical record by Matthew of a divine revelation of a biological miracle given through the voice of an angel.

29. Matt 1:21. “for he will save his people from their sins. The name Jesus means “God saves,” and Jesus, who is both God and man, came to save his people, namely, the people who would adhere to Him. This naming of Jesus is not a meditation of Matthew on the meaning of the name (Daniélou); it is a divine command given at a truly historical event. Brown’s form-critical meditations trace the following genesis of the story about Joseph in Matt 1:18-25. After the proclamation of the Resurrection of Jesus there a Christological proclamation in faith that Jesus was the Son of God begotten through the Holy Spirit. Much later this became the story of a virginal conception. In popular circles there also arose a story, based on Old Testament annunciations of birth, that an angel had announced the birth of Jesus as the Messiah, and the Christological proclamation came to be inserted into this story, which then developed into two versions, one in Matthew and the other in Luke. The version of the story in Matthew was influenced also by another popular narrative regarding Joseph that was derived from reflection on the adventures of the patriarch Joseph and the infant Moses.36 Of course, Brown’s fantasy destroys any historical truth in the episode given by Matthew, and yet Brown goes on to affirm that the miracle of the Virginal Conception really did take place.37 He can say this only as a pluralist, that is, as a person having the framework of Catholic faith on one side of his mind and the contradictory form-critical framework on the other side. And this is a contradiction that Catholic form-critics have never worked out.

30. Matt 1:23. “Behold the virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son. Matthew here quotes from Isa 7:14 a literal prophecy of the Virginal Conception of Jesus. The expression “the virgin” indicates a well-known person,38 as is, in fact, the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church. Brown speaks for himself and for many other modern scholars, of whom a majority are Protestant, where he says that “this conception of prophecy as prediction of the distant future has disappeared from most serious scholarship today.”39 On the contrary, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “’That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit,’ said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancée. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.’” (CCC 497). Thomas Aquinas points out that the Manichaeans falsely held that there is no prophecy of Christ in the Old Testament, to which he opposes Rom 1:1 and 9:5, and that Theodore of Mopsuestia erroneously maintained that there is no literal prophecy about Jesus in the Old Testament, but only expressions adapted to Jesus by Christian writers. St. Thomas taught that to deny that Isa 7:14 embodies a literal and exclusive prophecy of the Virginal Conception of Jesus is heretical.40 The Hebrew ha almâ means “the secluded maiden,” and was correctly translated by the Septua­gint scholars of the first century B.C. and by Matthew as “the virgin,” because secluded maidens were unmarried girls protecting their virginity (Jerome).

31. “and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us.’ The point of this episode with King Ahaz is that God would perform a miracle (“a sign”) according to which a virgin would conceive without the use of male seed, and the implication is that the Messiah, the great “seed” of the House of David, would not be conceived from the male seed of these evil kings of the House of David. And this miraculous conception would embody an even greater miracle and the greatest of all miracles: the combination of the heights above with the depths below in the hypostatic union of the divine Word of God with a human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. So in this surprising way was the promise of God to David fulfilled, where it is written: “The Lord has sworn truth to David, and he will not make it void: of the fruit of thy womb I will set upon thy throne” (Ps 131 [132]:11 [cf. the neo-Vulgate version]). It turned out for this prophesy that David’s womb was Mary’s womb. Again it was prophesied: “I have made a covenant with my elect: I have sworn to David my servant: thy seed will I confirm forever. And I will build up thy throne unto generation and generation” (Ps 88 [89]:4-5). Again it turned out, as Matthew’s inspired text reports, the seed of David confirmed was not the male seed as such passed down from king to king, but the womb of Mary, a female descendant of David. Brown notes without refutation that an ancient Jewish tradition (in opposition to the Gospel of Matthew) identified the child to be born as Hezekiah, the son and successor of King Ahaz41 but, as St. Jerome points out, Hezekiah was already nine years old when Ahaz began to rule.42 Nor was there any known child of the time named Emmanuel. Speaking in the name of “modern scholars,” Brown avers that “The child to be born was not the Messiah, for messianism had not yet developed to the point of expecting a single future king.”43 But this opinion is rationalist in the sense that it assumes without proof that the prophecy was not really given by God, and it is modernist in the sense that it assumes, again without proof, that this biblical prophecy was a mere invention of the human imagination, while the primitive Hebrew community of that time is assumed not to have been capable of imagining a single future savior. This is not good historical reasoning. Furthermore, Matthew alters the original word of Isaiah, “you [House of David)] will call” to “they [Joseph, Mary, and all of the members of the new House of David] will call Him Emmanuel,” because they will recognize and adore Him as the God-man, God with us. Finally, Isa 8:3, And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son, refers to the same well-known person, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was a prophetess, not only by the holiness of her life, but also in her prophecy that “all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48), and so they have. Isaiah simply went forward to her mentally in a spirit of prophecy.

32. Matt 1:25. “And he knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son. Thus read the Vulgate and Douay-Rheims versions. The Neo-Vulgate and many other recent versions drop the word “firstborn.” The preposition “until” does not imply that Mary afterwards had other children. Thus, as St. Thomas points out, the expression in 1 Cor 15:25, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet,” does not imply that Jesus will not continue to reign afterwards. Nor does the word “firstborn” imply that other children came afterwards. The birth of a first son, who was immediately called the firstborn son, had implica­tions in Mosaic law apart from whether or not other children came later (cf. Exod 13:12).


1 Jean Daniélou, The Infancy Narratives, translated by Rosemary Sheed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968) – (original edition: Les Évangiles de l’Enfance (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1967)

2 For a more detailed critique, see my review of Daniélou’s interpretation of Matthew 1 in Living Tradition 130 (July 2007).

3 Cf. R.E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1997), p. 219.

4 R.E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), p. 517.

5 Cf. Brown, The Birth, p. 524.

6 Cf. Brown, The Birth, p. 525.

7 Cf. Brown, The Birth, pp. 527-528.

8 Brown, The Birth, p. 528, note 28.

9 For an analysis of the current approach of Catholic historical critics to biblical inspiration and inerrancy in contrast to the teaching of the Catholic Church, see J.F. McCarthy, “A Neo-Patristic Approach to Biblical Inspiration,” in Living Tradition 129 (May 2007).

10 Brown, The Birth, pp. 93-94.

11 Brown, The Birth, pp. 503-504.

12 Jacques Masson, Jésus, Fils de David dans les Généalogies de Saint Mathieu et de Saint Luc (Paris: Téqui, 1982).

13 Brown, The Birth, p. 89.

14 See the arguments for the Davidic descent of Mary in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987), pp. 3-7.

15 See Cornelius a Lapide (Cornelius van den Steen, 1567-1637), Great Commnetary, at Lk 3:23. Among those who were open at least to the possibility that Luke gives the genealogy of Mary he lists Augustine of Hippo, Denis the Carthusian, Cajetan, Peter Canisius, Melchior Cano, Dominic Soto, Francis Suarez, and others. Urban Holzmeister, “Genealogia S. Lucae” (Verbum Domini 1943 A.D.), pp. 10 and 14, adds the names of six ancient writers (Justin Martyr, Celsus, Origen, Irenaeus, Epiphanius, and John Damascene) and eleven twientieth-century writers up to the year 1943.

16 Joachim and Anne are presented as the parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Protoevangelion of James (second century A.D.).

17 Francis X. Patrizzi, De Evangeliis (Freiburg in Breisgau, 1853), vol. 2, pp. 82-105.

18 See Holzmeister, op.cit., pp. 15-18.

19 St. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew (in Latin), at Matt 1:18, in PL, vol. 26, col. 24.

20 See H. Didon, Jésus Christ (Paris, 1891), p. 416.

21 See Jacques Masson, Jésus, Fils de David dans les Généalogies de Saint Matieu et di Saint Luc (Paris: Téqui, 1982). This is the publication of a doctoral thesis presented at the University of St. Thomas in Rome in 1979. The massive and painstaking research that Masson here presents on the two genealogies of Jesus, carried out according to the methods of modern genealogical inquiry, so expands the data and is so carefully put together that it should be considered essential for any further development of the discussion. Masson’s research concludes that Mary was a descendant of King David. See also J.F. McCarthy, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,” in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987).

22 Patrizzi, op. citl, pp. 99-103.

23 Masson, op. cit., pp. 494 and 498.

24 For a fuller and more detailed treatment of this question, see J.F. McCarthy, “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,” in Living Tradition 11 (May 1987).

25 Brown, The Birth, pp. 74-75.

26 The following discussion from the Fathers of the Church is based principally upon the presentation given by Thomas Aquinas in his linear commentaries: Lectures on the Gospel of St. Matthew and Catena Aurea: Matthew, especially verses 8, 11, and 17 of chapter 1.

27 Augustine of Hippo, De quaestionibus novi et veteris testamenti, question 85.

28 John Chrysostom, Commentary on Matthew, homily 1.

29 Augustine of Hippo, De consensu evangelistarum libri 4, in PL, vol. 34, col. 1076. So also John Chrysostom, Commentary, on Matthew.

30 St. Jerome, Linear Commentary, on Dan 1:1.

31 St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, ch. 2. Another possibility is that the chain of generations is not broken by the exile, but the two generations of Joakim and Joachin have been condensed into one. The generation of Joachin may have been editorially absorbed into that of his father as a means of "writing him barren" (Jeremiah 22:30); linguistic license would enable Matthew to impose the name Jechoniah upon Joakim to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah regarding the latter: "They shall not mourn for him" (Jer 22:18). With an adroit stroke of the pen Matthew could have wiped out the memory of Joakim and the generation of Joachin, while retaining the memory of Joachin and the generation of Joakim and his brothers, with all the infamy that it brings to mind and all the strictures against it that are recorded in the Book of Jeremiah. By this reading Josiah begot Jechoniah (Joakim) and his brothers, and Jechoniah (Joakim) begot Salathiel through Joachin (Jechoniah), whose begetting is not expressed. The name 'Jechoniah' means "the Lord has put right," and Matthew would be saying that the Lord put the royal seed right by bringing on the Babylonian captivity and ending the royal successsion.

32 St. Epiphanius, On the Sect of the Epicureans. Cf. Jacques Masson, op. cit., pp. 49-63, who also holds that a copyist omitted the link "and Joakim begot Jechoniah (Joachin) in the Babylonian Deportation." Masson argues that verse 11 of the genealogy must in the Hebrew originally have read as follows: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers; and Joakim begot Joachin... ." The translator into Greek must have written the verse in this way: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers; and Joakim begot Joakim...." A copyist would then have dropped as redundant the clause "and Joakim begot Joakim," while a later copyist in order to bring the remaining part of the verse into consonance with verse 12, changed it to read: "And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers." While this is a carefully thought out explanation, it has several weaknesses. It supposes a series of errors of transcription with no checking either by the scribes involved or by those around them, and there is no documentary evidence for such a happening. Conceptually, this explanation assumes that there were fifteen generations in the second set, since Joachin (Jechoniah) was born before the Babylonian Transmigration, and that is excluded by verse 17. Finally, it ignores the possibility that Matthew used the name 'Jechoniah' precisely to avoid confusion with the name of his father Joakim.

33 The commentary given here on Matt 1:2-17 is from a fuller and more detailed treatment of the same material in J.F. McCarthy, “The Historical Meaning of the Forty-two Generations in Matthew 1:17, in Living Tradition 13 (Sept. 1987).

34 Brown, The Birth, p. 529.

35 A problem that lurks in this discussion is how a character in a dream can be regarded as a witness to an extraordinary historical event. If Joseph was a “just man” only in the form-critical sense of being a naïve observer of the Mosaic Law, he could easily have allowed his credulity to convince himself that his dream of hearing an angel speak gave the explanation of Mary’s pregnancy. Such hypotheses have often been advanced by the enemies of Christianity. Now, obviously a mere dream is a fictional mode of knowledge, but Matthew’s account of the revelation to Joseph means that, amidst the quiet induced by natural sleep, an angel really spoke to Joseph’s intellect, which was not itself asleep, and addressed his words to Joseph’s understanding in such a manner that their meaning was impressed upon it. The comprehension and acceptance of these words by Joseph embodied an act of Christian faith in this objective historical reality.

36 Brown, The Birth, p. 162.

37 Brown, The Birth, pp. 530-531.

38 Thus Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Isa 7:14.

39 Brown, The Birth, p. 146.

40 Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura (Turin/Rome: Marietti, 1951), nos. 147-148.

41 Brown, The Birth, p. 147.

42 St. Jerome, Linear Commentary (Corpus Christianorum - S. Hieronymi Presbyteri Opera, vol 73 [Turin: Brepols, 1963]) on Isaiah 7:14, p. 105.

43 Brown, The Birth, p. 147.

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