Jesus’ Ancestry and Divine Origins (A Study in the Gospel of Matthew with Ben Witherington)

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Key Observation: While human ancestry matters, what matters more is being born of God.

Without question, the genealogy in Matthew 1 is one of the strangest genealogies you’ll encounter. First, this is Joseph’s genealogy rather than Mary’s. Yet, Joseph had exactly nothing to do with the conception of Jesus—he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. So why do we have Joseph’s genealogy here, and how is it that Jesus is a “son of David”? The answer comes from studying the historical context. In early Judaism, if a Jewish man adopted a child, he was not only entitled to whatever inheritance his father left him in a will, he was entitled to claim his stepfather’s ancestry too!

Second, this is a male genealogy, but there are some women included! This was unusual in an ancient patriarchal culture. These women all had irregularities in their story, to say the least. Tamar, the wife of Judah, was actually a Canaanite. Rahab was a woman who ran a bordello in Jericho and was also not a Hebrew. Ruth, like Rahab, was non-Jewish—she was a Moabitess who became the wife of Boaz. Uriah’s wife (a.k.a. Bathsheba) was only David’s wife through an act of adultery, and she had previously been married to a Hittite. What these women all share in common are irregular unions with Jewish men. Had our writer wanted to emphasize miraculous conceptions, he might have mentioned Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, but he did not. I suspect that our author includes these women in the genealogy to indicate something about the irregular or out-of-the-ordinary ways God fulfills his mission. If God can use even these women and these means to create the lineage of the Jewish Messiah, then the divine irregularity in Mary’s life in regard to the conception of Jesus shouldn’t come as a total shock. What might seem scandalous from a pious human point of view was not scandalous from God’s point of view.

Third, the genealogy is incomplete. In other words, it leaves not only individual names out, as a careful study of Old Testament genealogies would show, but whole generations, especially toward the latter part of the genealogy. As it turns out, this genealogy is not like the kind you might come up with by consulting www.ancestry.com. In fact, especially with royal genealogies, it was not unusual to schematize the whole of it, and leave out some of the less honorable skeletons in the closet. Matthew does not so much do that (otherwise, why mention Rahab?) as he is keen to make clear that Jesus is the seventh son of the seventh son of King David. Seven, in early Jewish ways of thinking, was the number of perfection, and so the whole point of the form of the genealogy was to make clear that Jesus was the perfect king, the perfect heir of King David, the true and genuine Messiah. While this sort of selective and scandalous genealogy might seem odd to us, it would convincingly make the theological points Matthew wants to make with his Jewish Christian audience.

We now shift to Matthew 1:18–25. According to Jewish customs, a couple would become engaged and legally married for a full year before the wedding ceremony and the consummation of the marriage. Thus, we should not be surprised when we hear about Joseph resolving to divorce his fiancée. They had already gone through the first legal portion of the marriage contract. So it was a true shock for Joseph to discover Mary’s pregnancy before the consummation of the marriage. Young Jewish women were absolutely expected to be virgins prior to the consummation of the marriage. To not be a virgin was considered very shameful. Jewish girls were usually engaged just after puberty, so at an age of twelve or thirteen. The men, who came to puberty a bit later, would be a bit older.

Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 in order to indicate that this divine irregularity was part of God’s plan, but we need to understand that early Jews did not read Isaiah 7:14 as a reference to a miraculous conception in a virgin’s womb. The Hebrew simply says, “a young nubile woman of marriageable age will conceive.” The Greek translation of that verse, however, uses the word parthenos (“virgin”), which places special emphasis on the woman’s virginity, something which is only implied by the Hebrew. My point is that it is not that prophecy that led to the making up of a fictitious story about a virginal conception. No, it was the actual shocking event in Mary’s life, the unexpected miracle, that led later Christian writers like Matthew to search the Scriptures to see if such a thing had been foretold.

Matthew 1:25 reports that Joseph did not know her until after she conceived and gave birth to Jesus. This implies that he went on to have normal sexual relationships with Mary thereafter, and thus explains later references to Jesus’ brothers and sisters. Since the miracle occurred at conception and not at Jesus’ birth, we should speak of the virginal conception, not the virgin birth.

Joseph named the child “Jesus,” which means “Yahweh saves.” In that culture, names were meant to connote something about the nature or origins of the person. This raises the expectation of Jesus’ identity as we begin his story.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is odd about the genealogy in Matthew 1, and how do we explain its peculiar features?
  2. Why was it important for Jesus to be born of a virgin?

Did you enjoy this entry? Discover our OneBook: Daily-Weekly Bible studies, of which this entry is a part. In this Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew with Dr. Ben Witherington III, we discover Jesus as Matthew presents him—the incarnate wisdom of God that brings the kingdom of heaven to earth. Following the text through the stories, parables, and noting the special miracles, God’s people are presented with the mission and ministry of Jesus the Messiah who fulfills the Jewish Law. At times he raises the standard, other times he authoritatively reinterprets its meaning, and finally, he fulfills its requirements through his life, death, and resurrection. All of this is to widen and deepen the reach of God’s heavenly kingdom, which we discover extends to all people at the end of the Gospel. Get the Bible Study, plus the DVD or streaming portion, in our store here.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

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