LESSON 25: September 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

180. Matt 1:1: “The book of the generation (bíblos geneseōs)…” 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. The Greek word génesis means “origin,” “manner of birth,” “generation,” or “ancestry,” and the whole expression does mean a genealogy, but not just a genealogy, since the word “book” is itself replete with meaning, especially on the level of the spiritual sense.

“of Jesus Christ,” that is, of Jesus of Nazareth, who is “the Christ,” “the Messiah,” “the Anointed One of God.”

“Son of David, Son of Abraham.” Here Matthew indicates that the word “son” is being used in the wider sense of any male descendent in the direct line, and not just immediate sonship. The vision of this verse from the present into the past sets up an historical retrospect and indicates that, in addition to the chronology, which runs from past to present, Matthew will be presenting a historical explanation, which runs from the present back into the past and uses infor­ma­tion gained from knowing how the past turned out.

181. Matt 1:2-15: “Abraham begot Isaac” etc. The Greek word egennēsen comes from gennáō, which means “to beget” in the sense of physical procreation from the male seed. Paraphrases such as “Abraham was the father of Isaac” (Revised Standard Version, Jerusalem Bible, Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah), 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. One can be “the father of” in an adoptive as well as in a procreative sense, but that is not the case here. The Latin Vulgate, the Neo-Vulgate, and the Douay-Rheims English translations are correct on this point.

182. Matt 1:16: “And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” St. Joseph appears as the son of Jacob in the genealogy in Matthew 1 and as the son of Eli in the genealogy in Luke 3, 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).”3 On the contrary, the two genealogies are not necessarily contradictory, nor do they imply that either Matthew or Luke is mistaken. There are at least five possible solutions to the historical problem of the different ancestors of Joseph in the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. The first possible solution is based upon the Law of the Levirate (Deut 25:5-6).4 The second is based upon Marian genealogy.5 The third is based upon legal adoption.6 The fourth is based upon consanguinity.7 The fifth is based upon historical reservation.8 Brown’s affirmation that “the primary import of the virginal conception was theological, and more specifically christological”9 has no meaning for historical science. There is absolutely no evidence that Matthew did not seriously intend to narrate the facts as they really happened.

183. 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. Matthew is not saying that there were only fourteen immediate generations; but 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.10

184. “And from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations." In this set Matthew has omitted the known generations of Ochoziah, Joas, and Amasiah, and, according to St. Jerome and St. John Chrysostom, he probably did so because of their outstanding sinfulness. In concluding his second set of fourteen generations, Matt 1:11 relates: "And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon." This statement seems erroneous. 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." Two basic solutions to this problem of "confusion of persons" in Jechoniah have been proposed by Fathers of the Church. St. Augustine11 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. St. Jerome12 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. Along this same line, St. Ambrose13 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, thus preserving the fourteen generations in each set by positing a tacit link in the chain of generations.14

185. The Julian calendar went into effect throughout the Roman Empire on January 1, 46 B.C. Supposing then that the forty-two generations of Matt 1:17 could 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 cryptically telling us something here?15

186. 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.”16 Actually, the biological virginity of Mary by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit is the main literal point of this whole chapter. The finis operis (purpose of the work) of this verse is to record historically the virginal conception of Mary, while the “Christological affirma­tion” pertains to the finis operantis (purpose of the worker).

187. 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.

188. 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.17

189. “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.

190. 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.

191. 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 person18, 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.”19 On the contrary, “The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 497). Thomas Aquinas points out that the Manicheans 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 are no literal prophecies 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.20 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 (St. Jerome).

192. “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. 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.

193. Matt 1:25. “And he knew her not until she brought forth her firstborn son. Thus read the Vulgate and the Douay-Rheims versions. The preposition “until” does not imply that Mary afterwards had other children. 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. The Neo-Vulgate and many other recent versions drop the word “firstborn.” But, in any case, the word “firstborn” does not imply that other children came afterwards, since 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. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157. Email: jfm@rtforum.org

2. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see J.F. McCarthy, “The Literal Sense of Matthew 1” in Living Tradition 131(September 2007).

3. R.E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 93-94.

4. For a fuller explanation, see Living Tradition 131 (September 2007), paragraph 8.

5. See Living Tradition 131, paragraphs 9-11.

6. See Living Tradition 131, paragraph 12.

7. See Living Tradition 131, paragraphs 13-14.

8. See Living Tradition 131, paragraph 15.

9. Brown, The Birth, p. 517.

10. See Living Tradition 131, paragraph 18.

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

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

13. 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.

14. For a fuller explanation of this paragraph, see Living Tradition 131, paragraphs 19-23.

15. 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). See also OHT Lesson 16.

16. Brown, The Birth, p. 529.

17. 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.

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

19. Brown, The Birth, p. 146.

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