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LESSON 7: THE FOUR SENSES OF MATTHEW 1:1
by John F. McCarthy
(The) book of generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham
40. The literal sense of Matt 1:1. book of generation. The opening two words of verse 1 of St. Matthew's Gospel, biblos geneses, say "book of generation" without the definite articles. Nevertheless, the translation with the definite articles, "the book of the generation," as in the Douay-Rheims and King James versions, is reasonably faithful to the literal meaning. The Greek word biblos, "book," comes originally from byblos, meaning "papyrus," and this indicates that the "book of generation" means here a roll of papyrus on which the genealogy was written and from which the evangelist was copying the names which follow in verses 2-16. This is, therefore, an explicit citation from another document. The Greek word geneses in the literal sense clearly means the act of physical begetting, since the corresponding verbal form (egennsen) is repeated over and over again in the genealogy which follows. Is Matthew affirming the historical truth of the genealogy that he is copying into his Gospel? There are two opinions. The first opinion holds that Matthew is not vouching for its exact historical truth, since the genealogy extends only to Joseph and explicitly does not link up to Jesus at all. In fact, Matthew, in verse 18, tells us that Mary "was found with child of the Holy Spirit," in fulfillment of the prophecy in Isa 7:14 that "a virgin shall be with child" (Matt 1:23). Hence, Jesus had no human father at all, and, therefore, it would appear that none of the fathers listed in the genealogy except David and Abraham is being affirmed by Matthew as a progenitor of Jesus. Thus, verse 18 could be read to mean that "the generation of Christ was in this wise," that is, really was in this wise, in contrast to the way in which it really was not, namely, in the genealogy. And Matthew subsequently records strong opposition to the carnal notion of salvation, according to which descent from Abraham was seen as a salvific value in itself (cf. Matt 3:9). The second opinion, which is favored by the Fathers, holds that Matthew is affirming the historical truth of the genealogy by implying that Joseph adopted Jesus and became his foster-father, thus making Jesus a legal descendant of his kingly line. Or he is himself recording the succession of names inasmuch as the Hebrew word sepher can mean a list as well as a book. 1 The second opinion relies on the fact that all of the objections raised by some biblical scholars against the historical truth of the genealogy have been given a satisfactory solution by other biblical scholars. It is thus very possible that the legal descent of Jesus is given in Matthew's genealogy and the physical descent in chapter 3 of Luke. 2 Nor does the second opinion uphold the carnal notion of salvation, since St. Joseph is seen to have recognized his vocation to be the foster-father of the Savior and not his physical progenitor.
of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the name given to the Savior in his humanity by Joseph (Matt 1:25) and by Mary (Luke 1:30). The Greek word christos means "anointed," and it translates the Hebrew word Messiah. This is the surname given by his followers to indicate that Jesus is the God-man and the long-awaited Messiah. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt 16:16). son of David, son of Abraham. The whole genealogy aside, Matthew certainly does affirm that Joseph is a direct descendent of David, where he soon tells us (verse 20) that an angel addressed Joseph as "son of David." And thus it is also implied that Joseph was really a descendant of Abraham, since David was descended from Abraham. It is also to be noted that Matthew here, not only summarizes the genealogy to follow, but also sets up a perspective of historical understanding, that is, a retrospective gaze by which one can see meaning in the historical antecedents by knowing how they turned out. And he defines the word "son" as meaning here of direct descent, but not necessarily of immediate descent, which is important to keep in mind for the resolving of certain questions pertaining to the genealogy.
41. The notion of biblical allegory. The biblical allegory which we are presenting is not allegory in the fictitious sense commonly understood for literature in general. Closer to the biblical approach is the definition of allegory as "a technique of creating or interpreting works of literature, art, and music so that they will convey more than one level of meaning simultaneously." 3 Or, again, allegory is "the intentional conveying, by means of symbol and image, of a further, deeper meaning than the surface one," so that "allegory may thus be said to be extended metaphor, worked out in many relationships." 4 The allegory appearing under the letter of Sacred Scripture is figurative language in which real persons, objects, and events of the Old Testament have been guided by divine providence symbolically to represent realities of the New Testament and of the order of salvation and in which supernatural realities are mirrored in natural things. As St. Thomas explains this notion: "That meaning whereby things signified by words have themselves also a meaning is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal [sense] and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Heb 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says the New Law itself is a figure of future glory. Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory , there is the anagogical sense." 5 I add that the perception of the allegorical sense requires also the use of the analogy of faith and the comparison of statements of Sacred Scripture with one another, so as to be able to discern where there may be identities of pattern in different contexts. Such interpretation does require a knowledge of what is said elsewhere in Sacred Scripture.
42. The allegorical sense of Matthew 1:1. book of generation. The words biblos geneseōs can also be translated "book of genesis." The Septuagint version, from which Matthew often quotes, titled the First Book of the Pentateuch "Genesis," from Gen 5:1, which in the Greek text reads "This (is) the book of generation [biblos geneseōs] of mankind," and in the Hebrew reads "This (is the) book of generations of Adam"). The Greek word genesis means "origin,""source," "productive cause," and, derivatively, "generation,""race,""carnal descent." As the Book of Genesis presents the creation of mankind in the old Adam, so Matthew presents the regeneration of mankind in the grace of the new Adam. And as Adam was the father of all mortal human life, so Jesus is the father of all immortal human life (cf. Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:47). Thus, John Chrysostom says that Matthew's Gospel, which the Church has placed at the very beginning of the New Testament, is called the book of generation "because this is the sum of the whole dispensation, the root of all its blessings, namely, that God became man, for once this was effected, all the other things followed of course." 6 As Rabanus Maurus points out, Matthew is opposing the new Adam to the old, "for by the one were all things restored which had been corrupted by the other. 7 From this it seems to follow that, in the allegorical sense of Matthew, the "book" of generation that he is beginning extends to at least three different limits: a)it is the roll of the genealogy; b)it is the entire Gospel of Matthew; c)it is the entire Bible, the true meaning of which comes from the Gospel. 8
of Jesus Christ. The name Jesus in Hebrew means "the Lord saves" or simply "savior." Thus, the entire economy of salvation, rooted in Jesus, is implied in his name. Joshua, son of Nun, had the same name as Jesus, and is a figure of Jesus. As Joshua led the chosen people of the Old Testament into the Promised Land, so Jesus came to lead the elect of the New Testament out of sin and into the Kingdom of God. The name Christ indicates that Jesus is the one "anointed" by God for this purpose and is in fact the Son of God. Obviously, by reason of the Incarnation, the divinity of Jesus is set down in his humanity and is discerned from the preaching and historical events surrounding his humanity. son of David, son of Abraham. The allegorical significance of the names David and Abraham is more appropriately examined when they occur again in the genealogy beginning in verse 2. Here we note that the humanity of Jesus was anointed by the fullness of grace of the Holy Spirit from the first moment of his Incarnation, and for this reason he would be called and would really be "the Son of God" (cf. Matt 1:20; Luke 1:35). But, at the time of the Incarnation of the eternal Word in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the angel said: "He shall be great and shall be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God shall give to him the throne of David his father; and he shall reign in the house of Jacob forever" (Luke 1:32). Why does Matthew mention both Abraham and David as ancestors of Jesus? According to John Chrysostom, "because the promise had been given to both that the Christ would be born from their seed." 9 And Jesus was born from their seed in that Mary was of their seed. So the biological fulfillment of this promise is implied here by Matthew. But David and Abraham are mentioned also, continues Chrysostom, because Christ was to have three special dignities: those of a king, a prophet, and a priest. Abraham was a priest and a prophet; David was a prophet and a king. "Thus, He is expressly called the son of both, that the threefold dignity of his forefathers might be recognized by hereditary right in Christ." 10 But this was in the eyes of human society. In the fuller reality, Abraham and David are mere figures of the Christ who was to come, and they receive their eternal dignity from Him (cf. Matt 22:45; John 8:58).
43. The anagogical (or final) sense of Matt 1:1. The anagogical sense relates to the higher allegorical patterns of the Three Divine Persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and of the Four Last Things, namely, death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We can see anagogy in the ultimate purpose of the Incarnation of the Divine Word. Jesus is the "Son of God" (Matt 1:20), not principally because his humanity was conceived without human paternity and by the direct overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, but because his Person is the Person of the eternal Son of the eternal Father. and, just as this new "book of generation" reflects the eternal generation of the Son by the Father, so also David in some way prefigures the eternal Son and Abraham prefigures the eternal Father. The very word "generation" is evocative of the eternal generation of the Son by the Father, who is the origin of all origins. of Jesus Christ. Again, the name "Christ" reflects the anointing of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, the presence of the Holy Spirit. Here, then, as elsewhere one finds the subtle signature of the Most Blessed Trinity upon the inspired text. 11 son of David. The sonship of Jesus points toward Heaven. The "throne of David" that the Lord God gave to Jesus (cf. Luke 1:32) is the throne of the eternal Word of God in Heaven; the "house of Jacob" where He shall reign forever (ibid.) is the Heaven of the blessed. It is of this kingdom that "there shall be no end" (Luke 1:33).
44. The tropological (or moral) sense of Matt 1:1. The tropological sense is the moral application of the objective evangelical truth to the individual believer in Jesus Christ, especially according to an allegorical pattern seen in relation to the mind, the heart, and the virtues of the sanctified soul. book of generation. In this sense, the "book of generation" is the sanctified soul of the follower of Christ, as the container of supernatural virtue. While the inner bark of the papyrus, a tall, aquatic, reedlike plant, was a substance used for writing in ancient times, other portions served in Egypt as a food for the poor. 12 From this fact one can discern that the Gospel of Matthew presents the "good news" of salvation to the poor (cf. Matt. 11:5) and is intended for the spiritual nourishment of those who are "poor in spirit" (cf. Matt 5:3). Hence, those who take up this Gospel with meekness and humility (Matt 11:29) and without preferring their own knowledge to the wisdom of the Gospel (Matt 11:25) will be spiritually fed from its mystical riches (cf. Jer 15:16). of Jesus Christ. The objective source of all sanctity in the souls of the regenerated is Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose teaching and example are set to be reproduced in the minds and hearts of his followers. The prime example of this mystical reproduction of Christ is the soul, the mind, and the heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which thus have a special place in the tropological pattern of the Scriptures. Note, for example, the tropological parallel to Matt 1:1 of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). a)Mary declares "My soul magnifies the Lord," that is, "the Lord is growing within my soul," at the very time in which the Lord Jesus was growing physically within her body; b)"and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior," that is, "in God my Jesus;" c)"and holy is his name;" d)"and his mercy is unto generations and generations to those who fear him;" e)"He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty;" f)"as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever."
1. Cf. Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Matt 1:1.
2. A detailed discussion of the historical questions relating to the genealogies with the presentation of five possible solutions to the seeming conflicts between the two records is given in J.F. McCarthy, "New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus," in Living Tradition, no. 11 (May 1987).
3. A. Fletcher, "Allegory," in The Encyclopedia Americana (1967), 588.
4. J.W. Tibble, "Allegory," in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1966), 641.
5. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 1, art. 10, corp.
6. Cf. John Chrysostom in the Catena aurea at Matt. 1:1. Raymond Brown (Birth of the Messiah, p. 59) considers the reading of verse 1 that would see Jesus as a subjective genitive and biblos geneseōs as "the book of genesis (new creation) brought about by Jesus" to be "fanciful," on the ground that "there immediately follows a genealogy of which Jesus is the object, not the subject." Brown's reasoning presupposes that there is only a literal sense of these words.
7. Rabanus, in the Catena aurea, ibid.
8. The allegorical meaning of these two opening words of Matthew can be derived only from the exactly translated words of the inspired text ("book of generation"), and not from paraphrases that convey only part of the original meaning, such as "the book of the genealogy (Revised Standard Version), "a genealogy" (Jerusalem Bible), "a family record" (New American Bible), "the book of the origin" (Confraternity), "a record of the ancestry from which ... was born" (R.A. Knox), "a family tree" (C,B. Williams), "the birth record" (R.E. Brown). Brown (Birth of the Messiah, p. 59) avers: "To stretch the term [biblos in verse 1] to cover the whole Gospel, which then has to be understood as `the book of the origins of Jesus Christ,' is fanciful." But Brown is not taking into consideration the reality of the allegorical sense. The entire Gospel of Matthew could have been written on one roll of papyrus. And the word "Bible" comes from biblia ("little books"), also derived from biblos.
9. Chrysostom, in the Catena aurea, ibid. Cf. Gen. 22:18; Ps. 131(132):11.
10. Chrysostom, ibid.
11. The idea of the signature of the Blessed Trinity, as well as some other notions in my exegesis may not have been expressed by the Fathers of the Church or in the later Patristic tradition, and, therefore, are personal impressions that look for confirmation by other interpreters. Any new ideas in my expositions are understood to be tentative and subject to revision.
12. Cf. Herodotus, History, no. 92 (in The Great Books of the Western World, vol. 6, p. 67).
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