The man of St Matthew


Chapter 1: OVERVIEW

Introduction to Chapters 1 & 2

Matthew opens his Gospel with two chapters telling of the birth and childhood of Jesus, as does Luke. These are usually known as the infancy narratives. Only in the third of the two gospels does the adult Jesus appear. Matthew's two opening chapters are quite short, about half the length of those of Luke.

Furthermore, we will see that the aim of Matthew's opening chapters is different to that of Luke. Luke uses his first two chapters as an overture to the Gospel; they are a way of introducing themes which will be important as the Gospel story unfolds. For Luke, the two chapters form an integrated story.

We will see that Matthew's purpose instead is to describe the origins and roots of Jesus. Themes which appear later in the Gospel are certainly present especially in chapter 2, but they are not his main focus. The two chapters are quite different so they need to be read separately.

The Origins of Jesus: Matthew 1

We begin by reading through chapter 1. We can note how the first half of the chapter is a genealogy (1,1-17) while the second half (1,18-25) tells of the conception and birth of Jesus.

It is useful to compare 1,1 as found in English Bibles with Mark 1,1 and note the different approach. We will have more to say about the first verse and its English translation shortly.

Then look at the second half of the chapter. Note what is missing there, what Matthew does not say. See 2,1 and also Luke 2,1-7. How will this affect our reading of chapter 1?

That is a question with important conseqences and so needs a response from me before we move on.

Origins: Mt 1,1 and Mt 1,18

Read 1,1 and 1,18 in as many translations are you can find. Every translation as far as I am aware begins verse 18 with "the birth of Jesus Christ took place like this" or similar.
With verse 1 a typical translation would be "An account of the genealogy" (NRSV).

However, in the original Greek both verses use the same word, one which is familiar to us because it is "genesis", the title of the first book of the Bible. The book of Genesis is the book of beginnings. It tells of the origins of creation (Gen 2,4 and 5,1, though it will not be clear in the translations.) and of the people of Israel.

The literal translation of the first half of the two verses is therefore:
For verse 1: A book of the origins of Jesus Christ ....
For verse 18: The origins of Jesus Christ were as follows.

Bearing in mind what we have already discovered about the style of 1,18-25, reflect on the purpose of chapter 1 taking "origins" as the key word in verses 1 and 18.
Then take a look at my response.

Matthew 1,1

It will help our reading to begin here with a close look at the first verse. The opening sentence of any work makes the initial impact and may well be taken as a title. Considering the first verse on its own will therefore give us a good foundation for our reading of the Gospel. We need to read this first sentence as the key to the evangelist's understanding of Jesus. We have already noted how Matthew's opening statment takes a different approach to Mark.

Already we have seen how we are reading the first part of the verse as "The book of the origins...". Most commentators restrict this meaning either to the genealogy or the two chapters of the infancy narrative at most. Could this refer to the whole Gospel with a fulfilment in 28,18-19? Might there be a recalling of the purpose of the first book of Genesis?

It is good to have a look at the book of Genesis (note the similar words), especially Gen 1,1; 2,4; 5,1 - though the translation may not be entirely helpful and you will need my response for a proper explanation.

Translations then vary in using "Christ" or "Messiah" for Jesus. One is Greek, the other Hebrew for "Anointed One". What is the significance of the choice?

For "Son of David" look at 2nd Samuel chapter 7 and how the passage plays on the various meanings of the word "house".

For "Son of Abraham" look at Gen 12,1-4 and then also Gen 15 & 17 for God's covenant with Abraham.

You may well find that your own look at this first verse raises more questions than answers. That is good. Now go to my response for my understanding of this verse.

Having now looked at my response, we now need to take this further by looking at the genealogy as a whole.

Chapter 1 in the Liturgy

The whole of chapter 1 is read at the vigil Mass for Christmas and also on the birthday of our Lady (8th September). The genealogy, Mt 1,1-17 is read also on the 17th December. The relatively frequent use of the genealogy at Mass is a sign of the importance given to it by the Church because it stresses the human descent of Jesus.
The second half of the chapter, Mt 1,18-24, is read on the fourth Sunday of Advent in cycle A. Note that verse 25 is not included (it's still Advent!). Note too the accompanying reading from the prophet Isaiah.