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LESSON 8: THE FOUR SENSES OF MATTHEW 1:17
by John F. McCarthy
"Therefore, all the generations from Abraham to David (are) fourteen generations,
and from David to the Babylonian transmigration fourteen generations,
and from the Babylonian transmigration to Christ fourteen generations."
45. The literal meaning of the 42 generations in Matt 1:2-16. Are there really three sets of fourteen generations in Matthew's genealogy? According to Catholic historical-critic Raymond Brown, there are "only thirteen generations or begettings" in the first set, there are indeed fourteen generations in the second set, but, says Brown, at the price of omitting four historical generations," which "seems to indicate that the evangelist was not aware of the omissions in his list, or at least that he did not make such omissions himself," and "there are again only thirteen generations" in the third set. 1 These and similar questions raised by Brown and other historical-critics regarding this genealogy were raised long ago by the Fathers of the Church and answered with remarkable insight, although there remains a certain amount of mystery, seemingly left intentionally by the Holy Spirit in order to challenge readers to ponder the text. Since I have treated these questions at length in a former article,2 I shall here make only some summary comments.
a) The Greek word used here by Matthew for "generations" is not génsis ("begetting") but geneá ("descent," "offspring," "span of life"). Matthew does use the verb-form egennsen ("begot") over and over again to emphasize the carnal descent of the male seed from Abraham to Joseph, but the total of 42 "offspring" has a broader meaning. There are 42 names in the genealogy, including Abraham, whose paternity is not mentioned for obvious reasons, Mary, whose paternity is not mentioned, and Jesus, who was not begotten from male seed, and this last is the main point of the whole chapter. Matthew explicitly shows that Joseph was a direct descendent from Abraham and David in the male line and that Joseph became the foster-father of Jesus. But implicitly Matthew is asserting that Jesus was the son of David and of Abraham (verse 1) in that Mary was of the house of David. He cites Isa 7:14, "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son ...," which prophecy was addressed precisely to the house of David: "Hear, therefore, house of David ..." (Isa 7:13). Matthew has subtlely made the point that the prophecies to Abraham and to David that the Messiah would come from their seed were fulfilled in two ways: secondarily, because a direct descendant of theirs became the foster father of Jesus, but, primarily, because a direct descendant of theirs became the mother of Jesus.
b) Brown avers 3 that the spans of time involved in the three sets of names (750, 400, and 600 years respectively) are too great to have contained only "fourteen biological generations" each. This may be so, but he is overlooking the fact that Matthew, by calling Jesus the "son of David" in verse one, has told his readers that he is indeed recording direct descent, but not necessarily immediate descent. Hence, the omission of intermediate generations for a reasonable purpose cannot be called a mistake.
c) Brown wonders how Matthew could logically omit intermediate generations in order to create an artificial pattern and then call the reader's attention to it "as something marvelous and (implicitly) providential." 4 One reason suggested is that the names also represent carriers of the promises of God to Abraham and to David, and some descendants were deemed totally unworthy of this honor. Thus, in the second set, where "Joram begot Uzziah (Oziah)," three intermediate begettings have been omitted, namely, those of Ahaziah (Ochoziah), Joash (Joas), and Amaziah (Amasiah). And St. John Chrysostom points out that these three omitted kings were descendants also of the idolatress Athalia, the wife of Joram and the daughter of Ahab and Jezebel of Sidon, regarding whom the Lord had decreed: "I will destroy all the house of Ahab" (4Kg [2Kg] 9:8). Another reason is that Matthew seems to have enclosed his message in an allegory of numbers which the Fathers of the Church recognized and expounded to some extent, but which still remains to be fully uncovered, partly due to the fact that exegetes for centuries have given little or no attention to the allegorical sense of the Scriptures.
46. A second literal sense of Matt 1:17? There is no proof, it remains elusive and ambiguous, but, in addition to the more obvious allegorical sense of the 42 names in the genealogy of Matthew, there may be a cryptic mathematical message even in the literal sense. The three sets of 14 names suggest the idea of a calendar, based, as was primitively done, on the lunar month, with fourteen days to the full moon (King David), 14 more days to the new moon (the deportation to Babylon), and then 14 days to the second full moon (the Lord Jesus). With regard to David, in Psalm 88 (89) the Lord proclaims: "And I will make his seed to endure forever" (verse 30), "and his throne as the sun before me, and as the moon perfect forever, and a faithful witness in heaven" (verse 38). It is interesting to note that the Julian Calendar,which was put into effect throughout the Roman Empire by Julius Caesar on January first, 45 B.C., sets up a "perpetual calendar" of fourteen months in a cycle of twenty-eight years. This means that the Julian Calendar is made up of 14 different day-of-the-week and date-of-the-month relationships. 5 Hence, the characteristic numbers of this calendar are 14 and 28. Has Matthew possibly given us a subtle mathematical clue to the exact date of the birth of Our Lord? The first chapter of Matthew begins with the "generation of Jesus Christ" (verse 1) and ends with the naming of Jesus (verse 25). Is Matthew leaving a hint that Jesus was named in the forty-second year of the inauguration of the Julian Calendar, or, more precisely, at the very beginning of the forty-second year, which would have been on the first of January of the year 4 B.C.? Then, since the naming of Jewish boys always took place on the eighth day after birth, this would mean that the Nativity of Our Lord took place on the twenty-fifth of December of the year 5 B.C. 6
47. A few allegorical meanings of numbers. Various Fathers of the Church allude to the presence of an allegory of numbers in Matt 1:17, and St. Thomas Aquinas collects many of these statements in his Catena aurea and in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. 7 However, no comprehensive study of the allegory of numbers in the background of Sacred Scripture has (to my knowledge) been done since Petrus Bongus published his Numerorum mysteria at Bergamo in 1599. Hence the need for renewed study of the three spiritual senses, as called for also by the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 115-119), always with the understanding that the results of our research are tentative and subject to correction by legitimate authority and by those who can improve upon them. Let me suggest some possible background meanings for the numbers implied in Matt 1:17. The number 1: unity, origin (it is the origin of the other numbers); eminently, the one true God, and, by appropriation, the Person of God the Father. The number 2: doubling, distinction, intelligence; eminently, the wisdom of God, and, by appropriation, the Person of God the Son. The number 3: basic life, eminently, divine life, and, by appropriation, the Person of the Holy Spirit. The number 4: bodies in general (four points are needed to make a solid), the four points of the compass, the universality of the Gospel. The number 6 (3 times 2 or 4 plus 2): man (life times intelligence or body plus intelligence). The number 7 (3 plus 4): the sanctification of man through the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, plus the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, or through the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit; (6 plus 1) the eternal rest of man with God. The number 10: moral law, the Ten Commandments. The number 11: sin, as a transgression of (going beyond) the moral law. The number 12: a collectivity of human persons, the Chosen People of the Old Testament, the Church of the New Testament.
48. Some comments of the Fathers on the allegory of numbers in Matt 1:17. The number 14. In Hebrew the consecutive letters of the alphabet were used also to express numbers, and from the earliest times it was recognized that the letters d v d in the name David, which is the fourteenth name in Matthew's genealogy, also represent the numbers 4 6 4, which add up to 14. Already some sort of allegory could be implied here. St. Thomas quotes the tenth century commentator Remigius of Auxerre as having noted that 14, as the product of 7 times 2, conveys the idea of the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit conferred upon the body and the soul of man. Remigius also suggests that 14, as the sum of 10 plus 4, implies the decalogue of the Ten Commandments plus the Four Gospels. St. Thomas adds that 4 plus 10 also conveys the linear descent of Christ from Abraham and of the New Law from the Old Law in that the linear digits in the number four (1, 2, 3, 4), added together equal ten. Also, God ordered the Paschal Lamb of the Old Testament to be sacrificed on the fourteenth day of the month of Nisan, under the full moon, wherein the Paschal Lamb prefigured Christ being sacrificed for all the sins of mankind, and the full moon, the fullness of the time of waiting of the Church. 14 times 3. Thus, Matthew, in his list of 3 x 14 names, brings out the carnal descent of the seed of Abraham, while Luke 3:23-38, in its list of 7 x 11 names, brings out the ascent of sacerdotal grace from Christ to Adam. Remigius opines that, while each set of 14 (10 plus 4) shows the agreement of the Law and the Gospel, its multiplication by three denotes that the perfection of the Law and the Gospel consists in faith in the Most Holy Trinity. And the number 42, as the product of 6 times 7, also signifies that man, by laboring in this life to fulfill the Gospel, finally arrives at the Sabbath of eternal peace and happiness in Heaven. 8
49. Matt 1:17 in a neo-Patristic perspective. From a contemporary neo-Patristic point of view, the genealogy in Matthew can be seen to consist of two cycles, the first from Abraham to Joseph and the second from Mary to Jesus. Abraham is counted because he begins the first cycle, and Mary is counted because she begins the second cycle. In Sacred Scripture a fruitful period of waiting is symbolized either by the number 40 or by the number 3. 42 is 40 plus 2. The fruitful period of waiting extends from Abraham to Joseph, while the fulfillment takes place with Mary and Jesus. In the 12 plus 2 generations of the third set of 14, the number 12 represents the people of God. 42 is 3 times 12. Thus, Jesus came to fulfill the long-desired expectations of the people of God. This pertains to the Allegory of Christ and his Church. Along the lines of this principal allegory, the "book of generation of Jesus Christ" in Matt 1:1 can be taken to mean the mystery of Jesus, the God-man. The Jesus of history is the long-awaited Messiah, He is the Bridegroom of the Church, and in Him dwells the fullness of the divinity. In Matt 1:17, the number 14 seems basically to symbolize the God-man, of whom King David is merely a figure. Thus, the number 14, as 7 times 2, signifies the perfect and wholly sanctified human nature of Jesus, united in hypostatic union with the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity. And the three sets of 14 names would represent the Three Divine Persons dwelling in Jesus by their union in the one God. Regarding the mission of Jesus, by divine command the Paschal Lamb of the Old Testament was to be sacrificed on the 14th day of Nisan to prefigure the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The three sets of 14 names were seen to signify that Jesus is a judge, a king, and a priest. since, in the first set, the Chosen People were ruled by judges, in the second set, by kings, and, in the third set, by priests. But this can better be regarded on a higher level as signifying as follows: David prefigures Jesus as the King of the angels and the saints in Heaven; the deportation to Babylon prefigures the general judgment at the end of the world; and the third set ends representing Jesus as the High Priest of the New Testament and the Paschal Lamb who would be sacrificed in time and contemplated in eternity by the blessed in Heaven (cf. Apoc 5:12-13). The waxing and waning and waxing again of the moon, implied in the three sets of 14 names, may signify the rise and decline of the assembly of the Old Testament and the coming of the long-awaited Church of the New Testament. The moon, then, especially in the final set of 12 plus 2 names, signifies the Church, illuminated by Jesus, the Sun of justice and holiness, and constituted as his Mystical Body. 9
50. Matt 1:17 in the framework of the Four Senses. The literal sense of the verse is the true mathematical computation of the number of persons listed in the foregoing genealogy. The allegorical sense of the verse is its allegorical representation of Jesus Christ and his Church. Nothing is implied in this allegory which is not stated literally somewhere else in Sacred Scripture. The allegorical sense does not establish any doctrine or historical truth, but its literary extension over a span of many centuries illustrates the marvelous nature of the Bible and leads to deeper insight into what is affirmed in the literal sense. The tropological (moral) sense of the verse regards the application of the allegorical pattern to the souls of individual members of the Mystical Body of Christ. The number 42 as a product of 6 times 7, represents the sanctification of Christ's members in the grace of the Holy Spirit, beginning with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who belongs to the second cycle of names because of the extraordinary grace accorded by the Holy Spirit in her Immaculate Conception and in her Virginal Conception of Jesus. She is the Queen of Heaven, she is the "woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars" (Apoc 12:1), which represent the rest of the blessed members of the Church. And all Christians can see themselves represented in the long wait of mankind for the coming of the Redeemer, where fourteen generations were already a very long time, but only David came then, instead of the one whom he prefigures. The anagogical sense has to do with the transcendent presence of the Most Holy Trinity in the number 3 of the three sets and with Jesus as eternal King, Judge, and Paschal Lamb in the Kingdom of Heaven.
1. R.E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), p. 82.
2. Cf. J.F. McCarthy, "The Historical Meaning of the Forty-Two Generations in Matthew 1:17," in Living Tradition, No. 13 (Sept. 1987).
3. Brown, The birth ..., p. 74.
4. Brown, The birth ..., p. 75.
5. See "Perpetual Calendar," e.g., in The World Almanac.
6. For a detailed presentation of this possible cryptic message in the literal sense of Matt 1:17, see McCarthy, "The Historical Meaning," pp. 4-8.
7. The English translation of the Catena aurea done under the general editorship of John Henry Newman in the nineteenth century has been republished by Preserving Christian Publications, Inc., P.O. box 6129, Albany, New York 12206, and is available in seven small softbound volumes. Aquinas's brilliant commentary on Matthew has, unfortunately, never been published in an English translation.
8. Cf. Aquinas, Catena aurea, at Matt 1:17.
9. Cf. Bongus, Numerorum mysteria, p. 404.
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