Posted by: mattcolvin | December 21, 2012

Notes on Matthew 1-2

Here are some notes on the first two chapters of Matthew.

1:1 – By “Son of David, son of Abraham”, Matthew harks back to two promises about the Messiah in the OT. That concerning Abraham makes clear that the blessings of the Messiah are to be universal (“all nations””). That concerning David specially emphasizes the duration of the Messiah’s reign:

“When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. “I will be his Father, and he shall be My son. If he commits iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men and with the blows of the sons of men. “But My mercy shall not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. “And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” ’ ” (II Samuel 7:12-16 NKJV)

Jesus is thus the true king (“son of David”) and the true Israel (“son of Abraham”).

1:3 – Many commentators have noted the four women in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, especially the morally “dubious” circumstances of their stories: Rahab, Ruth, Tamar, and Bathsheba. Some further thoughts:

Only one of the four can reasonably be blamed at all. Rahab is righteous. Ruth, likewise (her status as a Moabitess is nothing to the point). Tamar is vindicated and actually declared righteous by Judah. Only to Bathsheba can any moral taint be attached, and it is greatly mitigated by the vast difference in age between her and David, as well as by the fact that she would have grown up in close proximity to the royal court, and likely in awe of the king.

Satan came close to ending the line of promise several times: had Ruth not come forth to preserve the line of Elimelech, that would have been the end of things. Likewise, if Tamar had not taken Levirate matters into her own disguised hands, there might have been no Perez and Zerah, and thus no Boaz, and that also would have been the end of the line. And as for Bathsheba, she is instrumental, not only in bearing Solomon, but also in saving him from the usurping Adonijah. Thus, the women represent close escapes for the line of the Messiah.

1:6 – the NKJV wrongly supplies “her who had been the wife of Uriah”. The Greek has ἡ τοῦ Οὐρια, “the (wife) of Uriah”. Thus it does nothing to mitigate the adultery, or to suggest that she had passed from Uriah’s lordship before David had her.

Bruner makes much theological hay out of the errors in Matthew’s genealogy, especially the substitution of Amos (1:10) for Amon. I am inclined, with Calvin, to see this as simply a mistake.

1:19 – Ἰωσὴφ δὲ ὁ ἀνὴρ αὐτῆς, δίκαιος ὢν – Matthew appends the πορνεια exception to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce. Could that have been influenced by his consciousness of Joseph’s righteousness?

μὴ θέλων αὐτὴν ⸀δειγματίσαι – literally and etymologically, “not wanting to make her something that other people point at”.

ἄγγελος κυρίου κατ’ ὄναρ – another annunciation scene. Very curious that Matthew has ignored and omitted any annunciation to Mary in favor of this one to Joseph – especially since unlike all other annunciations (esp. that of Samson’s mother in Judges 3), this one is (“only”) a dream.

1:21 – καὶ καλέσεις τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦν – This was a very frequent Jewish name. Bruner likes the suggestion that “save me, Lord” (“Jehoshua” –> “Jeshua” = “Jesus”) was a frequent cry of women in the travail of childbirth.

1:21 – αὐτὸς γὰρ σώσει τὸν λαὸν αὐτοῦ – This is a rather emphatic αὐτὸς, which when combined with the meaning of Jesus’ name (“Yahweh saves”), amounts to a huge Christological claim. Who is this “He Himself” who will save?

2:1 – Τοῦ δὲ Ἰησοῦ γεννηθέντος – So Joseph-focused is Matthew’s narrative that it almost passes over the central fact that we expect in a Christmas story: that Mary actually gave birth to Jesus! That she did so appears only in two heavily subordinated clauses: viz. in 1:25’s statement that Joseph “did not know” Mary until after Jesus’ birth, and in 2:1, where it is only a genitive absolute setting the stage, and giving the time, of the action of the main clause, which tells of the arrival of the Magi.

2:1-2 – ἰδοὺ μάγοι ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν παρεγένοντο εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα λέγοντες· Ποῦ ἐστιν ὁ τεχθεὶς βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; – The full import of this passage is seldom preached or felt: these Babylonian seers first show up, not at Herod’s court, nor at Bethlehem, but just vaguely “at Jerusalem”. There they start casting about for a new-born king of whom no one but Mary, Joseph, and Elizabeth is aware. It is understandable that this sort of thing would cause a stir.

Note, please, that pace the Christmas song, the Magi are not said to be kings, and if they were genuine Babylonian magi, could not have been. Also, there is no evidence that there were three of them – the supposition appears to be based wholly on the number of their gifts (gold, incense, myrrh), and indeed, the Eastern Church says that they were 12. Since they came from the East, I’ll defer to the Eastern opinion.

Origen is the origin of the traditional Christological signification of their gifts: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God” (Contra Celsum, I.60).

The Magi are left without astrological guidance just long enough to end up in Jerusalem rather than Bethlehem. On the actorial level, this is because, being Babylonians, they are not familiar with Micah 5:2-3’s prophecy about where the Messiah would be born, and thus, they must be informed of it by Herod’s scribes. On the narratorial level however, their appearance is an opportunity to introduce Herod, the villain and Pharaoh-figure of this new Exodus story; as well as to make a theological point: the magi, being pagans, are not brought directly to Jesus, but are first introduced to Israel’s scriptures (Bruner, 58).

2:7 – ἠκρίβωσεν παρ’ αὐτῶν τὸν χρόνον τοῦ φαινομένου ἀστέρος – Herod inquires of the time for no other reason than that he might know how old his innocent victims ought to be.

2:8 – καὶ πέμψας αὐτοὺς εἰς Βηθλέεμ – Herod does not join the magi. We can think of two reasons: the ostensible reason is that he is a king and cannot be bothered to go in person until he has more information than astrology can provide; he wants a report of eyewitnesses before he will stir from his throne. But the ulterior reason, disguised by his lie to the magi, is that he has no intention of bowing down to the new-born king, but rather, will attempt to remove him.

Birth is a perceived threat to Herod, and he tries to control it. He is thus typical of tyrants in all ages and countries, from Pharaoh in Egypt to the Maoist leaders of modern China in the 1970s.

2:12 – “they went back by another way into their own country” – Bruner suggests a fuller sense: “another Way” – i.e. the Magi are henceforth to live differently, because they have met Jesus.

It is also tempting to try to find a parallel with 1 Kings 13, the story of the man of God who prophesies against Jeroboam and his idolatrous altar. That prophet is commanded: “You shall not eat bread, nor drink water, nor return by the same way you came.” (1 Ki. 13:9) Inasmuch as the magi are here to announce a new king, contrary to Herod, they act a similar role to that prophet.

(Magi from a mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo)


  1. Great stuff here. One suggestion: “Only to Bathsheba can any moral taint be attached”…since the name of Uriah appears, not Bathsheba, it’s certainly possible that Matthew intentionally included four characters who were righteous gentiles, transformed as they joined themselves to Israel and Israel’s God. Of course, there could be other subsidiary reasons for including these characters. But this explanation fits very well w/ the theology of Matt’s Gospel and his belief about the purpose of Israel and her Messiah in the world.

    For this argument in detail try: or the review at RBL:

    • Yes, I’m aware of the “Gentiles included” motif. I think it’s a stretch in Bathsheba’s case, but probably at work in Rahab and Ruth. Not sure about Tamar either; I’m not persuaded that she was necessarily a Gentile by birth.

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