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by Donald Senior

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The Abingdon New Testament Commentaries series provides compact, critical commentaries on the writings of the New Testament. These commentaries are written with special attention to the needs and interests of theological students, but they will also be useful for students in upper-level college or university settings, as well as for pastors and other religious


The Abingdon New Testament Commentaries series provides compact, critical commentaries on the writings of the New Testament. These commentaries are written with special attention to the needs and interests of theological students, but they will also be useful for students in upper-level college or university settings, as well as for pastors and other religious leaders. In addition to providing basic information about the New Testament texts and insights into their meanings, these commentaries are intended to exemplify the tasks and procedures of careful, critical biblical exegesis.

In this volume, Donald Senior unfolds the meaning of Matthew’s Gospel in its original context. The Gospel was written for an early Christian community caught in a moment of profound transition, striving to remain faithful to its Jewish heritage and facing a new and uncertain future in the Gentile world. Building on a lifetime of scholarship on this Gospel, Senior uses an array of methodologies to explore the literary, historical, and theological perspectives of Matthew in context. At the same time, he provides leads for the contemporary reader to note the interplay between Matthew’s Gospel and our own time and place. In the nexus between these two worlds of experiences, the message of the Gospel comes alive and takes on new meaning.

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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries Series
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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew

By Donald Senior

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-05766-5



The Title of the Gospel (1:1)

Matthew begins his narrative with a title that translates literally as "book of the origin of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham." This opening line introduces a series of events that traces the origin of Jesus from his roots in the history of Israel (1:2-17) through the turbulent and mysterious circumstances of his birth (1:18–2:23), into the beginning of his public ministry with the baptism at the Jordan (3:1-13), and the testing by Satan in the desert (4:1-11). Only after these events does the transition passage 4:12-17 describe Jesus himself initiating his ministry in the arena of Galilee. These events introduce the Matthean Jesus to the reader and preview major motifs that dominate the Gospel as a whole. Each scene has a distinct literary form and function within Matthew's narrative, and in each case the evangelist constructs his material from a distinct blend of sources and his own composition.

* * *

Interpreters debate whether the opening line of the Gospel should be understood simply as a statement that leads into the genealogy of 1:2-17 (with possible extension to the conception and naming of Jesus in 1:18-25), as an introduction to the infancy narrative of chapters 1–2, or as an opening for all the events that lead up to the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (4:17). Or is it the title for Matthew's entire narrative (Davies and Allison 1988, 149-54)? The term biblos usually means a "book" or "account." The key term is "genesis," translated by the NRSV as "genealogy" but which, in its root sense, is capable of having a broader range of meanings such as "birth" or "origin" or "existence." In 1:18 the same term is used to refer to the "birth" of Jesus, but even here Matthew describes not just the birth but the whole ensemble of circumstances surrounding the beginning of Jesus' life (see 1:1825). In the Septuagint (Greek) version of Gen 2:4 the identical phrase "book of the origin" (biblos geneseos) is used to summarize the preceding creation account and again in Gen 5:1 to initiate the list of Adam's descendants. Although Matthew may have patterned his opening phrase after these texts, the position it holds as the very first words of his narrative suggests a broader application—namely, a reference not simply to the immediately following passages about his family tree and birth but to the whole history of Jesus that Matthew intends to present to the reader.

This wider scope of the title is confirmed by the remaining contents of the verse: the book of the origin of "Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." The titles for Jesus appear in reverse order from the order of descent in the genealogy—tracking Jesus' origin back through his Davidic ancestry to the inauguration of Israel's saga with Abraham. Each of these designations will prove crucial for Matthew's narrative. Only Matthew contains an explanation of the redemptive significance of the name "Jesus" (1:21). And the messianic identity of Jesus (i.e., as "Christ") is a fundamental assertion of the Gospel as a whole, confirmed for Matthew particularly in Jesus' authoritative teaching and works of healing and exorcism (see 11:4-5, and so on). One of the major purposes of the infancy narrative is to assert the Davidic royal status of Jesus. In accord with this focus the title "Son of David" appears in Matthew more frequently than in any of the other Gospels, particularly to emphasize the distinctive humility and compassionate healing ministry of Jesus (see below, 9:27; 12:23; and so forth). The generic term "Son of Abraham" also has special connotations for Matthew's portrayal of Jesus. In the Hebrew Scriptures and in later Jewish tradition, Abraham was portrayed as "ancestor of a multitude of nations" (Gen 17:5; see also 12:3; 15:5) and the first of the Gentile proselytes. Paul appealed to Abraham as an example of faith prior to the law and therefore as a prefigurement and justification of the Gentile mission (Rom 4:125; Gal 3:6-9). Matthew seems to evoke a similar perspective here. Amazement at the faith of the Gentile centurion at Capernaum prompts the Matthean Jesus to envision the nations coming "from east and west" to eat at table with Abraham and the patriarchs (see 8:5-13).

Thus the opening line of Matthew's narrative signals to the reader the scope and fundamental motifs of the entire narrative. The forthcoming story traces Jesus' origin not only back to the sacred history of Israel, its memories of Abraham and David, and its hopes of a renewed and enduring messianic kingdom of God, but also back to the promises God made to Abraham and the multitude of his descendants among the nations. Through his messianic mission Jesus fulfills the promises entrusted to Israel and remains in essential continuity with that sacred history. But at the same time, the unexpected currents of God's providence also prove that Jesus is Son of Abraham, opening the way of salvation to multitudes beyond the boundaries of Israel. The unfolding of this drama, embracing both continuity and unexpected rupture, dominates the pages of Matthew's story.

The Origins of Jesus and His Mission (1:2–4:11)

The Infancy Narrative 1:2–2:23

Matthew begins his story of Jesus by describing the wondrous and turbulent circumstances of his birth and early childhood. Matthew tracks Jesus' Davidic ancestry (1:2-17), describes the mysterious incidents surrounding his conception and naming (1:18-25), and then in the second half of the infancy narrative he describes the mixture of honor and murderous threats that greet Jesus' arrival (2:1-12), and the tortuous journey of the family as they experience exile, return, and displacement before settling providentially in Nazareth of Galilee (2:13-23). In numerous ways, Matthew affirms the strongly Jewish character of Jesus by wrapping Jesus in the mantle of Moses and David, introducing several "fulfillment quotations" that stress harmony with the promises of Scripture, and having Jesus and his family recapitulate the defining experiences of exile, exodus, and displacement. At the same time, through the arrival of the Magi and the murderous threats of Herod, Matthew also signals some of the unexpected turns the Gospel story will later take and the sharp conflicts that will drive it toward the Passion.

In composing this part of the Gospel, Matthew draws on material that has no direct parallel in Mark or Q. Some fundamental aspects of the story coincide with Luke's version, such as the location of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the identification of Mary and Joseph, the affirmation of a virginal conception, and the dating of the event to the reign of Herod. Yet the two versions differ significantly in their overall tone and structure. Luke builds his account around the parallel annunciation, birth, and circumcision stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. Matthew, on the other hand, focuses solely on the origin of Jesus and the turbulent events that surround his birth. Joseph's initial misunderstanding about the nature of Mary's pregnancy, the murderous hostility of Herod, and the displacement that it causes the family of Jesus give Matthew's account a more sober tone than that of Luke.

Similar to Luke, Matthew's account is a blend of artful storytelling and subtle use of Old Testament reflection and typology, blended with anticipation of events and motifs drawn from the public ministry of Jesus. The common ground with Luke's account, however, suggests that the evangelist also drew on some traditions that already had wide circulation in the early community prior to Matthew.

The Genealogy of Jesus (1:2-17)

Matthew opens the infancy narrative with a genealogical table that traces Jesus' Jewish and Davidic ancestry from its origin in Abraham down through the descendants to Joseph and Mary. Biblical genealogies were not intended simply as archival records but as basic accounts of events and personages in a broader context of history. In composing Jesus' genealogy, Matthew draws in part from the tables in 1 Chr 1:28-42; 3:5-24; and Ruth 4:12-22. However, the names in the last segment from Abiud to Jacob (Matt 1:13-15) are more difficult. Some are cited in the Bible but not found in the genealogical lists Matthew uses as a source (e.g., "Abihu" in Exod 6:23; 1 Chr 6:3; and so forth; "Eliakim" in 2 Kgs 18:18; 2 Chr 36:4; "Azor" in Neh 3:19; Jer 28:1; "Elihu" in 1 Chr 12:20; "Eleazar" in 2 Sam 23:9-10; "Mattan" in 2 Chr 23:17). Matthew clearly shapes the genealogy to serve his purpose of introducing the reader to the story of Jesus, once again affirming continuity with the history and promises of Israel but also signaling discontinuity and change.

* * *

Matthew informs the reader about the structure of the genealogy in verse 17. He intends to trace the ancestry of Jesus through three decisive periods of Israel's history: (1) from its remote origins in Abraham and the patriarchs to its zenith under David (1:2-6a); (2) from the high point in David to the depths of the Babylonian exile (1:6b-11); and (3) from the rupture of exile through to the birth of the Messiah (1:12-16). Matthew calls attention to the symmetry of this condensed history: Each segment contains "fourteen generations." The symbolism intended here has been the subject of much debate (Brown 1977, 74-84). For some the number fourteen is symbolic of the name "David," whose Hebrew characters form the number fourteen. Others consider this to be overly subtle and believe that Matthew was simply pointing to the symmetry of fourteen as a multiple of "seven," which in Semitic gematria (in which Hebrew characters are also numbers) conveyed perfection or completion. The matter is further complicated by Matthew's count. Each of the first two segments of the genealogy do contain fourteen generations, from Abraham to David and again from David to the Exile. However, the last segment contains only thirteen generations. Some interpreters solve the problem by suggesting that "Jesus" and "the Christ" should be counted as two generations in verse 16. If some of the details remain enigmatic, the overall intent of Matthew's genealogy is clear. His distillation of Israel's history brings attention successively to Abraham and patriarchal history, to the image of David the king, to the shattering experience of exile, and to the renewal of hope through the Messiah.

Most of the genealogy is linear, that is, tracking not the various offshoots of Jesus' family tree but only the direct line of successive generations, father to son. One exception to this format occurs in verse 2, which mentions "Judah and his brothers," hinting at the broader expansion of the patriarchal history. But the reassuring rhythm of successive generations—father begets son—is dramatically ruptured by the inclusion of four women in the period from Abraham through David: Tamar (v. 3); Rahab and Ruth (v. 5); and the allusion to Bathsheba (v. 6). Here again the precise significance of these intrusions is debated but some aspects are quite clear. These women are not the great figures that claim attention in biblical history, such as Sarah or Rachel or Rebecca. In each case, the women are either non-Israelites or, in the case of Bathsheba, at least associated with a non-Israelite: Tamar and Rahab are both Canaanites, Ruth is a Moabite, and Bathsheba is the wife of Uriah the Hittite. And in each case their incorporation into the lineage of Israel is through unusual, even startling circumstances: Tamar offsets the injustice of Judah by posing as a prostitute (Gen 38); Rahab, a prostitute of Jericho, shelters the spies who reconnoiter the land prior to the conquest (Josh 2); Ruth, a Moabite servant, wins Boaz with the assistance of Naomi (Ruth); and Bathsheba is the victim not only of David's lust but also of his murderous treachery when he arranges the death of her husband, Uriah (2 Sam 11–12).

Calling attention to the presence of "outsiders" in the messianic lineage of Jesus and to the unusual nature of the circumstances through which they became part of that line has the immediate purpose of preparing the reader for Matthew's account of the conception of Jesus (1:18-25). Here, too, under circumstances that appear discontinuous and even scandalous (to Joseph at first), God's guiding spirit directs the history of Israel and brings it to its fulfillment, not through the patriarchal line of Joseph but solely through Mary. As the story unfolds, the reader learns that Joseph is the legal but not the physical father of Jesus. This is signaled in verse 16 of the genealogy, as Matthew again disrupts the rhythm of the linear genealogy to introduce Joseph as "the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ." At the same time, the circumstances of Jesus' conception also point to historic discontinuities yet to come in the rejection of Jesus by Israel and the unexpected advent of the Gentiles. The focus of Jesus' mission on Israel alone (10:5; 15:24) will, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, give way to a mission to the nations (28:16-20).

* * *

Thus, far from being a lifeless list of names, the genealogy that inaugurates Matthew's story is saturated with his theological perspective. Jesus emerges from a history of Israel that originates in Abraham and unfolds with unexpected turns, finding its most expansive expression in the figure of King David (without forgetting his failure), experiencing the shattered hopes of exile and the renewal of the return, and culminating in the advent of Jesus the Messiah. Through this genealogy, therefore, Matthew alerts the reader to the Gospel's understanding of history, one in which God fulfills the promises given to Israel in often startling and unexpected ways.

The Birth and Naming of Jesus (1:18-25)

To a certain extent, these verses amplify and explain the cryptic reference in verse 16 concerning Joseph and Mary, but they also introduce the reader to fundamental motifs of Matthew's Christology. The focus on Joseph in this segment is characteristic of Matthew's infancy gospel as a whole and is another point of contrast with Luke's account where, to a certain extent, Mary is the lead character. Matthew has Joseph receive the announcement of the birth and name the child. The spotlight falls on the divine origin of Jesus, on his Davidic lineage through Joseph's adoption, and on Jesus' God-given destiny as Savior and Messiah. The first of Matthew's formula quotations anchors the entire event ("all this ...") in scriptural fulfillment.

* * *

Matthew repeats the term "genesis" in verse 18 (see 1:1) but here again it does not mean simply the "birth" of Jesus but the broader set of circumstances surrounding his advent. Matthew's narration has a dual perspective: On the surface human level, Joseph at first confronts scandal and disruption, but from the divine vantage point, shared with the reader and only later with Joseph, things are not what they seem.

The reader learns (v. 18) of crucial information that will be revealed to Joseph in a dream only after some anguish: The child within Mary's womb is "from the Holy Spirit." In ancient Judaism a fairly extended period of formal betrothal preceded the actual marriage. An initial formal agreement between the families would set the terms of the dowry, but the engaged woman remained in her father's house for many months or even years before her spouse would take her to his own family. It is during this interim that Matthew sets the drama of Mary's pregnancy. Before he is illumined in a dream, Joseph assumes that Mary has had relations with another man. Deuteronomy 22:23-25 commanded that if an engaged woman who lived in a town (where neighbors would have heard her cry for help if she had intended to ward off the man) became pregnant, both the man and the woman were to be stoned to death. Although this severe punishment may not have been literally applied in the first century, it does indicate the atmosphere of tension and scandal that Matthew wants to inject into this scene. Joseph is a "just" (dikaios; NRSV: "righteous") man and therefore plans to divorce his fiancée quietly rather than expose her as the law permitted (v. 19). This is the first reference in Matthew to a quality that has capital importance for this Gospel (see below, 3:15). While being "just" presumably means adherence to the law, here it also implies that Joseph is compassionate and does not intend to publicly humiliate Mary. Matthew anticipates here the emphasis on interpreting the law with compassion that will be a hallmark of his Gospel (see, e.g., 9:13 and 12:7-8).


Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Matthew by Donald Senior. Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Meet the Author

Donald Senior, C.P., isPresident Emeritus and Professor of New Testament Studies and President of Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, Illinois.

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