Living Tradition
Editor: Msgr. John F. McCarthy, J.C.D., S.T.D.Distributed several times a year to interested members.
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No. 132 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program November 2007

The Spiritual Sense of Matthew 1:1-16
According to St. Thomas Aquinas

by John F. McCarthy

1. Introduction. The method of the Four Senses distinguishes first of all between the literal sense and the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture, and then considers three aspects of the spiritual sense, namely, the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and the anagogical (final) senses. The neopatristic approach follows the method of the Four Senses according to the schematic division worked out by St. Thomas Aquinas as a development of the earlier work of St. Augustine, and a summary of this elaboration is presented in Living Tradition, no. 38 (November 1991). This method has been neglected for centuries by Catholic exegetes and theologians, although it has always been reflected in the sacred liturgy and in the Scriptures themselves, and it has been newly recommended to interpreters of the Bible by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119). What remains is to redevelop and implement it, and this is the task of the neopatristic movement.

2. The literal sense of Matthew 1 in review. The historical chronology. Matthew, with true historical intent, records several historical events in his first chapter. Beginning with the “book of the generation of Jesus Christ,” which he has taken from a record (probably a piece of papyrus), he notes that the male seed which passed down from Abraham to Joseph through the kings of Judah did not pass from Joseph to Jesus. The principle fact that Matthew presents in this chapter is the historical event of the virginal conception of Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Another event is the taking by Joseph of Mary into his home with his consequent legal adoption of the divine Infant and his naming Him Jesus. Are all of the generations in Matthew’s genealogical list historically accurate? The wording of the chapter allows for historical reservation in the sense that Mathew may be explicitly not taking responsibility for its accuracy, but there is a possibility bordering on likelihood that his genealogy gives the true descent from Abraham to Joseph. These issues are discussed more at length in Living Tradition no. 11 (May 1987) and no. 131 (September 2007). The historical explanation. Historical chron­ology runs from the past towards the present, while historical explanation runs from the present towards the past, the reason being that it is knowledge of the outcome of events that enables historical understanding.

Matt. 1:1 opens the narrative with the words “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” By these words Matthew is setting up a perspective of historical explanation according to which the key to the understanding of David and Abraham is the Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Messiah. And more generally Matthew is implying that the key to the understanding of the Old Testa­ment resides in the New Testament (cf. Matt 26:28). The promises that were made by God to Abraham and to David are to be understood through knowledge of the Virginal Conception and divine Incarnation of Jesus by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, which gives a new and better interpretation to all of the events of the Old Covenant. Above all, the carnal interpretation of the promises made by God to the Chosen People of the Old Testament, namely, the under­standing that they were the elect by the mere fact of being of the material seed of Abraham (through Sarah), whatever response they, as individuals, returned to God, is now replaced by the need freely and individually to accept Jesus and to love God and one’s neighbor. This fact is exemplified by the quotation of Isaiah 7:14, predicting the rejection of the male seed of the evil kings of Judah, and by the conversion of Joseph, as a result of which he accepted Jesus as the virginally conceived Messiah, thus rejecting the carnal interpretation of the promises and becoming a Christian.

3. The spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture. The approach of this interpretation of Matthew 1 is basically a summary and development of the teaching of Thomas Aquinas in his Lectures on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, supplemented by his teaching in the Catena Aurea of the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church, and in other works.1 We consider St. Thomas to be the founder of the neopatristic approach, which he schematizes in part I, question 1, article 10 of his Summa Theologiae (S. Th.). While the literal sense of a text is the meaning that is derived from a mere understanding of the words, the spiritual senses are based on the analogy of faith (cf. Rom 12:6), which may be defined as “that proportion which the doctrines of the Holy Scriptures bear to each other.2 It means reading the Scriptures in a true and informed spirit of faith. The literal sense includes history and metaphor. Thus, it is according to the ordinary force of the words to say that a man laughs, but it is metaphorical to say that a field laughs or to speak of “the arm of God,” because God as God does not have a physical arm. On the other hand, in allegory the subject of discourse is not expressed but is only implied by some likeness. The typical sense, which pertains to the class of allegory and is based, like every spiritual sense, upon the literal sense, occurs “when some being, action, or event which has its own proper mode of being, is taken to signify some future being.”3 Typology is a conventional mode of speech especially characteristic of Sacred Scripture in which a being or event foreshadowing the future is called the type or prototype, and the future reality prefigured is called the antitype or archetype. Thus Adam is a prototype of Jesus Christ. The reason for which the allegorical sense and all of the spiritual senses are important in Sacred Scripture is, as St. Thomas explains, because God, the principal Author of Holy Scripture, has the power not only to use words to express things, but also to use things themselves to express other things.4 In this commentary on the genealogy in Matthew what is particularly in focus is the allegory of names.

4. Need of a proper mental framework. The perception of the spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture requires a mental framework enlightened by faith and refined by a knowledge of the teaching of the Church. Historical criticism does not perceive the spiritual sense for two reasons: a) it is based on naturalistic presuppositions that exclude any real divine authorship of the Scriptures; and b) it is derived from a tradition of liberal Protestantism that does not pursue the spiritual sense. Catholic historical-critics use a philosophy of pluralism to affirm the dogmas of the Catholic Church while employing a critical method that virtually denies them, but Catholic historical critics seldom effectively defend the dogmas of the Church in the face of their otherwise critical thinking; rather they tend to dismiss such defense as being “concordist” or “fundamentalist.” Thus, an important aspect of the neopatristic interpretation of the Gospel of Matthew lies in the refutation of historical-critical interpretations of the same, and so, in the preceding article (Living Tradition 131), I included a brief critique of two historical-critical interpretations of the literal sense of Matthew 1.


5. The allegorical sense of Matthew 1:1. The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham. On the level of Christological allegory in verse 1, the material “book of the generation,” presenting the carnal descent of the seed of Abraham down to Joseph, becomes a figure of the reality underlying the Virginal Conception and Incarnation of Jesus as the God-Man portrayed in the whole Gospel according to St. Matthew. The book of the generation is the sum of the whole dispensation, since the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ is the root of all of the blessings that followed.5 The book of the generation makes an implicit opposition of Matthew’s book to the book of Genesis and a contrast of the New Adam to the Old Adam.6 In the Old Testament, three classes of persons were anointed: priests (Lev 8:12), kings (1 Kg [1 Sam] 10:1; 16:13) and prophets (3 Kg [1 Kg] 19:16). On the literal and historical level, Jesus, as the Christ, the “anointed” Son of David and of Abraham, shares in the three anointed offices that they possessed, for Abraham was a priest (Gen 15:9-10) and a prophet (Gen 20:7), while David was a king (2 Kg [2 Sam] 2:4) and a prophet (Acts 2:30). Jesus was and is a true priest (Ps 109 [110]:4), who offered Himself in sacrifice on the Cross (Heb 10:10-12), a true king (Matt 27:11; Jn 18:36), and a true prophet (Matt 26:64). Again, David and Abraham are singled out in the genealogy because to David was promised the Messiah (Ps 130 [131]:11), while to Abraham were promised the members of the Mystical Body of Christ (Gen 22:18). But on the level of the Christological allegory in this verse, both David and Abraham are seen to be prefigurements, and mere creatures of Jesus (Matt 22:45), who is the Messiah, the supremely anointed one. On the levels of moral and of final allegory, verse 1 suggests the eternal generation of the divine Son of the eternal Father on the one hand, and the temporal generation and development of the grace of Christ in the souls of the sanctified on the other. As Joshua led the Chosen People of the Old Testament into the material promised land, he prefigured Jesus, the Savior, who leads the Chosen People of the New Testament, first into his Mystical Body, the Church, and ultimately into the blessedness of Heaven (Heb 9:24).7

6. Matthew 1:2. Abraham begot Isaac, and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. The allegory of names. The first aspect of the spiritual sense is the allegory of Christ and of his Church. In taking on a human nature in Jesus of Nazareth, the Divine Word of God “humbled himself” (Phil 2:8) but also thus provided a remedy for our sins (Rom 4:25, 8:3). Matthew, in presenting a carnal genealogy descending from Abraham to Joseph, illustrates the self-humiliation of the Messiah, while Luke, in presenting an adoptive genealogy ascending from Jesus to Abraham and to God, illustrates the priestly dignity of the Messiah, through whom mankind was reconciled to God and we were made his adoptive children. St. Thomas takes up the allegory of names in the genealogy of Matthew. The name Abraham means “the father of many peoples,” and it prefigures Jesus, who “brought many children into glory” (Heb 2:10). As Abraham by order of God went out from his native land (Gen 12:4), so did the Divine Word go out (in a certain way) from his heavenly dwelling to become incarnate as Jesus (Jer 12:7). Abraham begot Isaac. When Abraham heard that Sarah would conceive a child, he laughed, saying “I a hundred and Sarah ninety?” (Gen 17:17). And Sarah laughed too, saying “God has made a laughter for me” (Gen 18:10). The name Isaac means “he laughs,” and this name prefigures the conception and birth of Jesus, because Mary rejoiced at her conception of the Savior (Lk 1:47), and the whole world of the elect has rejoiced at the news of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:10), in the rejoicing that is the spiritual expression of worldly laughter. The name Jacob means “wrestler” (“he grabs the heel”), and we are reminded of how a wrestler overthrows his opponent by grabbing his heel. This name pertains to Jesus, because Jesus overthrew the Devil and his minions (Matt 12:28).8

7. The tropology, or moral allegory. St. Thomas undertakes to illustrate how a pattern of moral allegory may underlie the genealogy in Matthew. It is not that moral allegory or any kind of allegory needs to underlie these names, but the search for biblical allegory can be spiritually rewarding. St. Thomas assumes the framework of the theological and moral virtues. He suggests, to begin with, that the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as situated in the genealogy, represent the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Abraham, “the father of many nations,” is “the father of the circumcision” (Rom 4:12) and “the father of those who believe” (Rom 4:11). He is our father in faith. Isaac represents the virtue of hope, which is born of faith (Rom 12:12). Jacob represents the dynamism of Christian charity, as “the wrestler” and as having taken two wives: Leah (“laboring”), represen­ting the active life, and Rachel (“ewe”), representing the contemplative life. The name “Jacob” also implies “supplanter” (Gen 25:23-25; 27:36), and it signifies Christ: “You have cast down beneath Me those who rose against Me” (Ps 18 [19]:43)).9

8. The anagogy, or final sense. St. Thomas does not search for anagogy in the genealogy of Matthew, and there need not be any there. But it seems to me that there are indications of a hallmark, or signature, of the Most Holy Trinity in these first three names as well as in various other places throughout the Bible.10

9. And Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. According to St. Thomas, here begins also the allegory of the moral virtues. Jacob had used a stone for a pillow, thus prefiguring Jesus, who laid his head against the hardness of the Cross (Gen 28:11). Now, the name Judah means “confession,” and it prefigures Jesus who said “I confess to You Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth” (Matt 11:25).11 Tropologically, the name can mean either the confession of sins (James 5:16), or the profession of faith (Rom 10:10). And Judah begot Perez and Zerah from Tamar. The name Perez means “division” or “separation.” From the confession of sins comes separation from vice and from the spirit of this world. Zerah means “rising of light,” and represents the light of spiritual understanding that comes from the separation from vices and entrance into the light of faith. Tamar means “bitterness.” It suggests the bitterness of repentance of one’s sins, and it signifies also that conversion to righteousness which comes only through the sharing of the Cross of Christ.12

10. And Perez begot Hezron. The name Hezron means either “arrow” or “wide entry.” If the first, it represents the sharpness of the preaching of the Kingdom of God, which penetrates into the hearts of those being converted from the idolatry of this world (Ps 44 [45]:6). If the second, it represents the breadth of Christian charity, by which Jesus loved even his enemies (Rom 5:10; Isa 53:12; Lk 23:34), and by which his followers are called upon to do the same. And Hezron begot Ram. The name Ram means “on high,” and it prefigures the name of Jesus, which is above “every name that is named (Eph 1:21).13

11. And Ram begot Amminadab, which means “acting freely,” and signifies the free act of will of Jesus in sacrificing Himself for the good of mankind (Ps 53 [54]:8; Isa 53:7; Jn 6:38).14 And Amminadab begot Nahson, which means either “augury” or “serpentine,” and signifies Jesus’ knowledge of the future (Heb 4:13), or it means the prudence of Jesus (Job 12:16; Matt 10:16), or his self-sacrifice on the Cross (Jn 3:14). Morally it also means the knowledge of the future that comes to the faithful from the reading of Sacred Scripture. And Nahson begot Salmon, which means “sensible,” and prefigures Jesus, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:3). It also signifies the ability to distinguish good from bad that comes from knowledge of the Scriptures. Morally, just as the first five names signify the state of beginners in the order of sanctification, so the next five names signify those advancing towards holiness.15

12. And Salmon begot Boaz from Rahab. The name Boaz means “strong,” while Rahab means “hunger” or “spacious.” And the name Boaz signifies Jesus Christ (Jer 16:19), while Rahab signifies the Church both as “hunger” (Matt 5:6) and as “spacious” (Isa 54:2). Rahab hung a scarlet cord from her window (Jos 2:21). Our window is our mouth, and it is from the word of preaching that the Church has been spread throughout the world. And Boaz begot Obed from Ruth. The name Obed means “servant,” and Ruth means “beauty.” The name Obed signifies Christ, the suffering Servant (Isa 43:24), and Ruth the Moabite signifies the members of the Church con­verted from idolatry, since Moab means “out of the father,” namely, out of the Devil (Jn 8:44). Or Ruth means “seeing” or “hastening,” and signifies the Church, which sees God in purity of heart and hastens to the prize of the heavenly vocation.16 And Obed begot Jesse, which means “sacrifice” or “burning,” and signifies Jesus, who offered Himself to God as a victim in an odor of sweetness (Heb 10:14). Morally it signifies the fire of divine love in the hearts of his followers (Lk 12:49). And Jesse begot King David. David means “strong of hand” or “desirable in appearance,” and the name signifies Jesus (Lk 11:22 or Ps 44 [45]:3).17

13. Tropologically, these last four names represent the fruits of the spiritually perfect. Boaz signifies the virtue of fortitude (Isa 40:3; Prov 31:10). Obed signifies the virtue of humility (Lk 22:26). And Jesse signifies the fervor of the supernatural virtue of charity (Ps 140 [141]:2), while King David signifies arriving into the Kingdom of God on Earth and ultimately into the Kingdom of God in Heaven (1 Pet 2:9; Apoc 5:10).18

14. And David begot Solomon of her who had been (the wife) of Uriah. Solomon means “peaceable, [and signifies Christ (Jn 14:27), as well as his followers, the peacemakers (Matt 5:9)]. From the fortitude of doing good comes peace of conscience ( [Ps 118 [119]:165). Uriah was a good man in his life, but in this allegory he represents the evil one. His name means “my light is God,” and it signifies the Devil (Isa 14:14). The name Bathsheeba means “well of seven,” and signifies the Church of the Gentiles with her sevenfold baptismal grace. And Solomon begot Rehoboam. The name Rehoboam means “force,” and it signifies Jesus Christ, because Christ converted the people by the force of his preaching. Or it means “the breadth of his people,” and thus signifies that many would come to Jesus from the East and from the West (Matt 8:11), and would subsequently be expansive in their zealous outreach to others. And Rehoboam begot Abijah, which means “my father is God,” and signifies Christ (Heb 1:5), as well as the virtues of charity and mercy in the adopted children of God (Matt 5:44-45; Lk 6:36).19

15. And Abijah begot Asa, which means “lifting (oneself) up,” just as responsible Christians must constantly lift themselves up on account of their responsibilities, and the name Asa signifies Jesus (Lk 2:40). And Asa begot Jehoshaphat, which means “judging,” or “the Lord judges,” and this name signifies Christ (Jn 5:22) as well as all spiritual persons (1 Cor 2:15). And Jehoshaphat begot Joram, which means “living on high” or “the Lord exalts,” which signifies Christ (Jn 3:13; Ps 112 [113]:4), as well as all holy persons (Isa 33:15; Phil 3:20. And Joram begot Uzziah, which means “robust of the Lord” and signifies Jesus (Ps 117 [118]:14) as well as all Christians. And Uzziah begot Jotham, which means “advanced” and signifies Christ, through whom the Church advances daily (Ps 83 [84]:8), as well as those members of Christ who make continual spiritual progress (Ps 83 [84]:8). Or it means “completed,” and signifies Christ, who is the fulfillment of the Old Law (Rom 10:4).20 And Jotham begot Ahaz, which means “comprehending,” and this signifies Jesus Christ (Lk 10:22), as well as those members who, by advancing in virtue, come to a deeper knowledge of God (Ps 118 [119]:104; 63 [64]:10). Or it means ‘turning,” and again signifies Jesus: “Return to Me, says the Lord of Hosts, and I will return to you” (Zech 1:3). And Ahaz begot Hezekiah, which means “God is strong” or “strong in the Lord,” and this pertains both to Jesus, who is strong in the battle, as well as to his followers (2 Kg [2 Sam] 22:2). And Hezekiah begot Manasseh, which means “forget­fulness,” and this befits Christ, who forgets the sins of the repentant (Isa 43:25; Ezek 18:21), as well as his followers, who are forgetful of their attachments to this world (Gen 41:51; Ps 44 [45]:11). And Manasseh begot Amos, which means “faithful” or “nourishing,” and this befits Christ, who is faithful in all his words (Ps 144 [145]:13) and nourishes like a parent (Hos 11:3; Matt 23:37; [Jn 6:56]). And Amos begot Josiah, which means “safety of the Lord,” and this befits Christ (Ps 11 [12]:6), or it means “incense,” and this also pertains to Christ (Eph 5:2) and to the prayer of his followers (Ps 140 [141]:2). And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers in the deportation to Babylon, that is, just before the deportation to Babylon. His name was originally “Jehoiachin” which means “the Lord will establish,” or “preparation of the Lord,” but was altered by the prophet Jeremiah to Jechoniah to give it the meaning of “the Lord will put straight.”21

16. And after the deportation to Babylon. At this point the genealogy “turns a corner,” from kings to private persons (Jeremiah 22:30), and this signifies Jesus the cornerstone, who brings together the Church of the Jews and the Church of the Gentiles (Ps 117 [118]:22; Acts 13:46). Jechoniah begot Shealtiel, which means “my petition” [or “I petitioned from God”], and signifies Jesus Christ in his petitions (Jn 17:11), who “was heard for his reverence” (Heb 5:7). And Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel, which means “teacher of Babel,” that is “teacher of confusion,” and this name signifies Christ, who was a teacher of confused people (Matt 9:13; Jn 12:13). And Zerubbabel begot Abiud, which means “he is my father,” and this name signifies Jesus (Ps 88 [89]:27; Matt 16:17) and, tropologically, the fatherhood of the preacher (1 Cor 4:15).22 Morally, in the third set, first comes the class of teachers (four generations). Before prayer comes preparation (Jechoniah) (Sir 18:23), then prayer (Shealtiel) (Eph 6:19), then teaching (Zerubbabel), and finally preaching (Abiud).

17. And Abiud begot Eliakim. The name Eliakim means “resurrection” [or “God will set up”], [and this name pertains to Jesus, [who is “the resurrection and the life” (Jn 11:25)] and to all who rise again in Him (Jn 11:25). Here is designated the order of beginners, as they arise from vices to virtues (Eph 5:14). And Eliakim begot Azor, which means “helped,” and this name befits Jesus, who is our supreme helper (Ps 26 [27]:9), and to his followers, who need his help (Ps 120 [121]:2. And Azor begot Zadok, which means “just,” that is, “holy,” [This name pertains to Jesus Christ, who is the holiest of all (Lk 1:35)], and to those who believe in Him (Rom 1:17) and have the virtue of charity in their hearts (1 Tim 1:5; 1 Jn 4:21). And Zadok begot Achim, which means “my brother,” and this pertains to Christ, who is our brother ([Gal 4:4-5]; Matt 12:50), as we are to consider all other men to be our brothers. And Achim begot Eliud, which means “my God” and this name pertains to Jesus (Ps 30 [31]:15) and to all his followers (Ps 17 [18]:3).23

18. And Eliud begot Eleazar. Here is designated the order of those advancing in virtue. The name Eleazar means “God is my helper,” and the first thing required to advance in grace is divine assistance (Ps 83 [84]:6; 1 Cor 15:10). And Eleazar begot Matthan, which means “gift,” and pertains to Jesus Christ, who is the supreme gift of divine grace (Jn 3:16), and whose grace has been made available to his followers (Eph 4:7-8). And Matthan begot Jacob, which means “wrestler”, and pertains to those who struggle to preserve the grace of Christ within them (1Cor 15:10). And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary. The name Joseph means “increase,” and signifies the increase of grace as the just go forward in holiness (Prov 4:9, 4:18). of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. At his incarnation, the humanity of Jesus was saturated with that invisible oil of gladness which is the Holy Spirit (Ps 44 [45]:8).24


19. According to St. Thomas, the allegorical sense of Sacred Scripture is based on the manner in which the persons and events of the Old Testament prefigure the New Testament realities of Jesus Christ and his Church. In the present discussion, the generations recorded in the genealogy of Matthew can be understood spiritually in the eternal generation of the divine Word of God by God the Father and in the historical generation of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Virgin Mary by the power of the divine Holy Spirit. But to what extent the names in the genealogy, by the intention of the divine Author of this Gospel, are allegories of Jesus Christ and his Church is a matter open to discussion. The commentary of St. Thomas on the Gospel of St. Matthew, over and above the many explicit references, is steeped implicitly in the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church and of other credentialed ecclesiastical writers prior to his time. These writers saw a figurative meaning of these names. From the examples that I have given above, it should be clear that the etymologies of these biblical names are not always easy to determine. Sometimes two or three possible meanings are given by St. Thomas, with a Scriptural reference in every case. How objective is this process? In my opinion there is an objectively real basis for this method of interpretation, even though the results of this early investigation may not be convincing in every case. The problem is that, in spite of the encouragement given to biblical scholars in our day by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119) to pursue this method of research, it has been almost universally abandoned. As a result, the opportunities to develop and solidify this wonderful field of insight into the text of the Bible have been largely missed.

20. While many biblical scholars tend to show a pronounced disdain for the “popular etymologies” enshrined in the Bible and expounded by the Fathers of the Church, it should be kept in mind that allegories have a conventional aspect to them, so that the meaning intended by the divine Author of the Scriptures may often be embodied in the way in which the popular mind would understand them. And, while the technical and historical analysis of words can be and often is helpful for arriving at the original meanings of names, the results of these studies have often been inconclusive. Hence, the field is wide open for a new undertaking in which the seminal thinking of the Fathers and the work of great Catholic commentators of the past like Thomas Aquinas and Cornelius a Lapide would be given a fair and open-minded exam­ination. The neopatristic method offers the tools needed for this enterprise.

21. The spiritual sense of Sacred Scripture is rooted in a literal wording which also possesses this higher meaning. “The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 115). In perceiving the basic allegorical sense, one can see realities and events narrated in the Old Testament in relation to the life and Person of Jesus Christ. This is the allegory of Christ and of his Church. In perceiving the tropological, or moral, sense, one can see how things and events reported in Sacred Scripture teach us how to grow in virtue. This is the allegory of the virtues. And in perceiving the anagogical, or final, sense, one is led upward in mind and heart to the ultimate realities of the three Divine Persons and of the four last things of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. This is the higher allegory of the last things (cf. CCC 116-118). It is in this context also that the Catechism of the Catholic Church invokes the authority of the Second Vatican Council: “It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment” (CCC 119, quoting Dei Verbum 12). The problem is that the vast majority of exegetes are not working according to these rules, for the reason that they consider them to have been replaced by what they call “scientific exegesis.” It is a task of the neopatristic approach to refute the idea that the exclusion of the method of the four senses of Sacred Scripture is a “scientific” procedure.

22. Regarding the allegory of names assumed by St. Thomas and the Fathers of the Church to lie hidden in the genealogy of Matthew, the constant references to places in Sacred Scripture are important, because the allegorical sense is rooted in the literal sense, to the extent that nothing necessary for faith is discernible in the spiritual sense that is not expressed somewhere else in the literal sense. What is gained from the perception of the allegorical sense is not new spiritual doctrine but rather new insight into the relationship of things and events to present spiritual realities, namely, to Christ and his Church militant, to the theological and moral virtues, and to the beatific vision of God by the Church triumphant. Therefore, the interpreter must bring to this study a highly differentiated knowledge of present spiritual realities, that is, a frame of reference that is adequate for the task. St. Thomas had such a highly differentiated frame of reference, and in his writings he offers this framework to contemporary exegetes for them to develop and improve. Allegories, as sustained metaphors, are arranged in patterns and paradigms of thought. St. Thomas assumes for the allegory of Christ and his Church a pattern of relationships of Old Testament figures to the Person and mission of Christ, and he assumes for the tropological sense a definite pattern of supernatural virtues. In the case of allegory in the Matthean genealogy, from the consistent repetition of the word “begot,” he works on the generation and begetting of one virtue from another. The book of his lectures on the Gospel according to St. Matthew was not written as such by him. It consists of notes taken by a student from a rapid and extemporaneous delivery in class of his rich thoughts and observations on the subject. Some of his points may have been missed and others not written down with the clarity and exactness that he spoke them. But the notes are remarkably good. Indeed, the Christological references are not always the best, and the succession of the virtues is not fully worked out, but a great start has been made. It should be the task of contemporary exegetes to study these patterns more precisely and see if a more completely organized under­standing can be obtained.

23. The historical-critical approach has tended to assume that a text of Sacred Scripture can have only one meaning, although this criticism has become somewhat more open-minded in recent times.25 But St. Thomas refuted this idea more than seven centuries ago on the basis of the divine authorship of Sacred Scripture, which classical historical criticism unreasonably refuses to see. Aquinas clearly explains the literal sense and then he divides the spiritual sense as follows: The Old Law is the figure of the New Law; the New Law is the figure of the glory to come, and the deeds of the Head of the Mystical Body are signs also of what its members ought to do.26 Of course, this division implies the light of faith in the interpreter. According to St. Thomas, the allegor­ical, or typical, sense is based on that manner of figuration by which the Old Testament prefigures the New and is understood in relation to Christ and his Church, while the anagogical sense is based on that manner of figuration by which the New and Old Testaments together signify the Church triumphant.27 “There is, indeed, a setting aside of the former commandment, because of the weakness and uselessness thereof, for the Law brought nothing to perfection; but a bringing in of a better hope, by which we draw nigh to God” (Heb 7:18-19).

24. The genealogy of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Gospel according to St. Matthew is not the best place to demonstrate the presence of allegory in the Bible, but this is where the New Testament begins, and this is where a commentary on the Bible should begin. As St. Thomas points out, every passage of the Bible has a literal sense, but not every passage has a spiritual sense. In his explanation, some words or passages have the four senses, some have three, some have two, and some have only one, namely, the literal sense. So St. Thomas and the Fathers of the Church are not working on the presupposition that the names in the genealogy, in addition to their literal sense, need also to have an allegorical meaning. They are rather affirming this from their knowledge of the Bible as a whole and from the analogy of faith which it contains. Sacred Scripture itself delves into etymol­ogies of names and their meanings in relation to the whole providential sweep of the Bible, a feature that mainstream historical critics characteristically deny. What is of particular interest in the present study is the broad spiritual thrust of Sacred Scripture as a whole and how it aims to impact on the consciousness of believers, not as people wedded to religious fantasies, but as realists who are aware that the Bible is a moral miracle, having a divine Author who has created a literary wonder in its meanings, stretching over millennia of time, and in its inerrancy (so poorly defended by most modern Catholic exegetes and theologians). More neopatristic exegetes are urgently needed to bring out the true literal sense of the Bible, and its wonderful depth, perceivable, at least to a notable degree, by the use of the method of the Four Senses.


1 Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei lectura (5th revised edition, Rome: Marietti, 1951, which unfortunately has never been translated from the Latin); republished without paragraph numbers in Roberto Busa, editor, S. Thomae Aquinatis opera omnia (vol. 6: Fromann-Holzboog, 1980) pp. 130-227); Catena aurea (English translation, Albany, New York: Preserving Christian Publications, 1998).

2 A.E. Breen, A General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture ( 2nd revised edition - Rochester, New York, 1908 – reprinted by Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 2286, Fort Collins, Colorado 80522), p. 785.

3 Breen, op. cit., p. 788.

4 Cf. Aquinas, S. Th., I, q. 1, art. 10, corp.

5 John Chrysostom, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, pp. 9-10.

6 Rabanus Maurus, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, p. 10.

7 This paragraph is taken from Aquinas, Lectures on Matthew (Marietti edition), nos. 18-20.

8 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 26-34.

9 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, no. 35.

10 The anagogical sense regards (in my view) the allegorical representation of the Three Divine Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and of the Four Last Things of death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. The name Abraham, as “the father of many nations,” that is, as the father of many births, is likened to God the Father, who begot and eternally begets God the Son, and eternally spirates, with God the Son, the Holy Spirit. Isaac, “he laughs,” represents the infinite joy of God the Father in the begetting of God the Son, and Jacob, who “grabs the heel,” represents the spiration of God the Holy Spirit through the loving dynamism of the first two Persons, either of whom would instantly overthrow the other if the power of each were not infinite and if they were not one God in the love and unity of the Holy Spirit.

11 Pseudo-Chrysostom, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, p. 18.

12 This paragraph is also taken from the Lectures on Matthew, no. 35 and from the Catena Aurea, p. 23.

13 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 36-37. The name Ram could also signify the sublimity of Christian virtue.

14 The name Amminadab could also signify the freedom that comes from detachment from slavery to the spirit of this world.

15 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 43-44. Here St. Thomas leaves his students to fill in for themselves the moral allegory of these last four names: Ram, Amminadab, Nahson, and Salmon.

16 Rabanus Maurus, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, p. 22.

17 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 45-52.

18 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, no. 53.

19 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 59-60, and from the Catena Aurea, pp. 28-29.

20 Catena Aurea, p. 28.

21 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 61-79.

22 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 80-84.

23 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, no. 85.

24 This paragraph is taken from the Lectures on Matthew, nos. 86 and 97.

25 Cf. Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993), p. 78.

26 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 1, art. 10, corp.

27 Aquinas, Quodlb. 7, q. 6, art. 2.

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