There has been much media attention in the last few years about those who wanted the president of the United States to show his birth certificate. A birth certificate is really not so much about birth––just looking at someone indicates that they were born—but about legitimation, that is, a way to certify or make legitimate someone’s claim, in this case about citizenship.
In other societies with traditions of royalty like England, legitimation also concerns the claim not just of citizenship but also of social rank or privilege because one belongs to royal or other important noble families. Throughout history these claims of legitimacy were coded and preserved in the form of genealogies or tables of ancestors that would, like birth certificates, prove or legitimate one’s claim to royalty. The claims a person makes or those made about them are supported by the legitimation of a birth certificate or genealogy.
How Genealogies Work
By understanding this use of genealogies to legitimate claims of social status, we can gain an insight into the strange opening of Matthew’s gospel. Boring, boring, we usually think as we begin Matthew’s gospel. The first paragraph ought to excite our interest and grab our attention. So why would anyone begin a gospel with a long series of the strange and unpronounceable names of Jesus’ family lineage? Who in the world would start their story of Jesus with 16 verses of “so and so became the father of so and so” (in the older translations these were commonly referred to as the “begats”) listing ancestors who are mostly either bit-players or just names in the Old Testament story of the people of Israel?
Mark’s Jesus: the Peasant
One way to understand what Matthew is doing with the genealogy and why he is doing it is to remember that the foundation for his gospel is taken over directly from Mark even though Matthew has made his own additions and revised the structure to include his new material in order to create his own portrait of Jesus.
Mark portrays Jesus as a lowly peasant who is very much like most of the early Christians and so very easy to identify with. Mark reports nothing about Jesus’ birth—which like most peasant births (then and now) were obscure and unremarkable. He portrays the adult Jesus as a popular teacher and storyteller, a wonder-worker and a community builder who worked mostly in the rural communities of Galilee. Mark has no pretensions about Jesus’ low social status and makes no attempt to elevate him to any special higher social rank.
Mark’s only hint of Jesus being anything more than a peasant comes during his passion when he is identified and mocked by those who want to kill him as “the king of the Judeans” (which resulted from the ease with which his Jewish accusers could make the word “messiah” with its connotation of a hoped for political/religious leader for Israel misrepresent Jesus as a political “king” to the Romans and thus as a threat to their control over the Judeans).
But here in the passion narrative Mark’s portrait of Jesus takes the normal expectations of kingship (political leader) and turns them upside down (like Mark so often does in the rest of his gospel for almost all titles identifying Jesus and their claims about him). Jesus is a strange king indeed—one who suffers a mocking coronation with a purple soldier’s cloak and a crown of thorns and is “elevated” to his royal throne on a cross. If he is a king, then mark underscores that he is the king who suffers a shameful, undignified death at the hands of his enemies to bring salvation for all.
Matthew’s Jesus: the Hidden King Revealed
When Matthew revises Mark’s gospel, he fastens on this hint of a royal status for Jesus and wants to let his readers know that the claim of a royal ancestry for Jesus is not just something that happens only in the Romans ironic mocking, but is really a clue to who Jesus really is. But Jesus needs a birth certificate to substantiate this claim.
So to identify Jesus royal connection and legitimate his claim to be the genuine and not just the ironic suffering “king of the Judeans,” Matthew introduces several elements in his first two chapters to show that Jesus is indeed the legitimate but hidden king of the Judeans, a genuine descendant of the royal line of Israel, who is born in Bethlehem, the royal city of King David, and whose birth when discovered would obviously provoke the savage wrath of paranoid pretender King Herod, the non-Judean whom the Romans appointed to be their King of the Judeans.
Disclosing Jesus’ Identity
Although Matthew based the general structure of his gospel on that of Mark, one of the main ways he changed Mark (as indeed Luke did also) was by adding an account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and thus making his birth especially significant, as befits a king. So by opening his version of the gospel with Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew provided his first-century readers with most of the essential clues for what they needed to know about Jesus identity as “the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1).
By telling us right at the start most of what a curious first-century reader would want to know about Jesus and his real social status (honor), Matthew eliminates the Markan emphasis on the gradual unfolding of Jesus’ hidden identity and his lowly peasant status. Through the genealogy and birth events, Matthew divulges that Jesus is the messianic Son of David, Son of Abraham and Son of God, the promised “Emmanuel...God with us” (1:23). The only mystery is what kind of response he will get when people discover his true identity.
Aiding the Memory
Matthew’s opening with a genealogy serves several purposes. First, a genealogy was a good way to remember things. In a culture that was primarily oral and in which very few people knew how to read or write, people did not use the alphabet to categorize their everyday knowledge as we do for example in our encyclopedias. So one way to remember many facts was to connect them to a family or tribal story “outlined” so to speak by using the main characters. By memorizing a genealogy list like this, one could then recount the whole history of the group, as in this case Matthew’s genealogy could serve as a convenient overview of the whole Old Testament story. His genealogy links Jesus’ story to the Old Testament story of God’s covenant relationship with the Israelite people.
Affirming God’s Plan for Salvation
The way Matthew structures the genealogy not only recalls the Old Testament story but also reminds us that God is organizing the disparate events according to a definite plan. Beginning with Abraham, Matthew patterns the genealogy into three groupings of 14 generations each that are related to the stages of the history of the Israelite people––the tribal beginnings (from Abraham to King David), the kingdom time (David’s royal dynasty to the Babylonian exile) and then from after the exile to the time of Jesus.
We must note here that this stylized list that is limited to 14 generations for each historical period does not strictly cover the actual number of years involved but does serve to identify the legitimate line of ancestry—a bit like what we might do if we had to tell the story of the United States by using a list of the presidents, which for most of us would mean leaving out some who were not so influential or important to our version of the story. Each generation is indicated by the formula identifying the ancestor as “the father of” the child. Furthermore, this precise grouping hints that God’s plan for salvation has been carefully worked out and is now, in Jesus, coming to its fulfillment.
In the ancient understanding of the biology of reproduction, the father through his “seed” was the source of life that was only nurtured in the mother’s womb. Since he alone bestowed life physically upon his children and socially upon his descendants, the family’s historical existence was traced through its lists of male ancestors, fathers and sons, whose lineage transforms the genealogy into a testimony to the family’s honor. Thus to explain a man’s identity one looked to his genealogy, there to trace his affiliations and locate him in relation to his family’s illustrious ancestors.
But as we study Matthew’s genealogy in greater detail, he surprises us by curiously including five women among the male ancestors. What might this be all about? Although scholars differ about exactly why these particular women were included, one basic factor is that each played a special role in God’s providential guidance of the history of the covenant community. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah (David’s wife Bathsheba) from the Old Testament thus foreshadow God’s mysterious choice of Mary of Nazareth to be the mother of Jesus.
Publicizing Jesus’ Honor
The genealogy also reveals Jesus’ high honor status. Honor was a central value in the first-century Mediterranean cultures and represents the public claim to recognition, rank and social status that ought to be acknowledged by others. Like a credit report today that reveals the value of one’s economic assets, a genealogy served somewhat similarly to “open the books” on the family’s deposit of honor that others in the community ought then to respect. The genealogy tells first-century readers what they would really want to know––what family is Jesus from? What is their social status? Matthew’s genealogy indicates that his lineage is royal (Son of David) and even extends back beyond royalty to the most ancient Jewish ancestor Abraham (Son of Abraham). Jesus is indeed a very special Jew.
Revealing Jesus’ Real Father
In Matthew’s eyes, though, Jesus was something more than just a special Jew. We can know who he is only if we know who his real father is. Matthew’s genealogy has been crafted to support the Christian belief that Jesus was God’s own son, not just by adoption (as Mark’s gospel would indicate because there is nothing about Jesus’ birth but only God’s affirmation of Jesus as God’s son at his baptism) but rather through a special birth empowered by the power of God’s Holy Spirit. In other words, God alone was responsible for the existence of this child Jesus in a way that went beyond God’s normal gift of a child through the sexual intercourse of the parents.
In the eyes of the Nazareth community, Jesus was just the son of Joseph and Mary. However through his genealogy, Matthew alerts us to the surprising fact that Joseph was not the natural father of Jesus. When at long last Matthew finally gets to Joseph in the genealogy list, we expect him to follow the usual repetitious formula and say “Jacob became the father of Joseph, Joseph became the father of Jesus.” But instead he says very precisely “Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born” (1:16). Thus Matthew signals the reader that Joseph is not Jesus’ true father but God is. In the story of Jesus’ birth that follows, Matthew spells how fully God was involved.
Jesus’ Genuine Birth Certificate
Thus by his use of the genealogy, Matthew accomplishes several things that would have been important clues for his readers to have in order to understand who Jesus really was and offer legitimation to support these claims. Not only does he situate Jesus’ birth and subsequent life into the context of the panorama of God’s salvation history, but he also alerts his readers to Jesus’ claim to the highest honor status possible. Not only is Jesus a descendent of the Judean royal family, but he is also God’s own son, sent as the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel and of all humanity to realize God’s dream for a kingdom community of justice, love and peace. For his readers, who no doubt clamored for answers to the question of who Jesus was, Matthew supplies the “birth certificate” that legitimates the claim that Jesus was not just a peasant teacher but indeed the descendant of David’s royal line and even more—God’s own unique son.
Steve Mueller, Ph.D., author of The Seeker’s Guide to Reading the Bible: A Catholic View (Loyola Press, 1999) and The Seeker’s Guide to Jesus in the Gospels (Loyola Press: 2001), has taught scripture, theology and philosophy to college students and helped develop and teach in the renowned Denver Catholic Biblical School program for adult laity.
He is currently an editor for All Saints Press and editor of Words of Grace, a quarterly with daily readings from the Catholic tradition. He is also the former editor-in-chief for the monthly periodical Living with Christ and was a managing editor for Morehouse Education Resources.