Beginnings are Important
When Matthew sat down to write his Gospel, he had to consider how he would present his message. First impressions are important. I like to look at the beginnings of books because I want to be a faithful to the intentions and understandings of the original writer. So for this article, I am going to pause from the halakhic teachings of Yeshua in order to take a look at the first sentence in the Gospel of Matthew. Let’s try to hear what Matthew wants to tell us.
Matthew 1:1 The book of the genealogy of Yeshua anointed (Gr. christos, Heb. mashiach) son of David, son of Abraham.
Though it is not easy, we must try to approach the book as first-century Jewish readers, without 2000 years of religious and historical presuppositions. The Greek word christos, for instance, is a simple adjective that means someone or something that has been anointed with oil. In Hebrew it is translated mashiach, or messiah, and has the same meaning. The Greek does not at this point clearly say “The Messiah”. We should not assume that Matthew intends it to be Yeshua’s name or title. We have to ask ourselves if this is so, and not assume it.
Likewise, Greek does not use commas, at least not in the ancient manuscripts. The placement of the commas in the translation can change the meaning. If we put a comma after “Yeshua”, then he is described as “Yeshua, anointed son of David”, which is the description of a king of Israel. If we move that comma to put it after “anointed”, then it becomes more of a title of “Yeshua (the/an) Anointed One,” or “Messiah”—and it can mean either that he is a Messiah (anointed man), or The Messiah. Let’s try to let Matthew tell us this in his own way.
How the Four Gospels Begin
In order to help us to understand Matthew, it is good to look at the beginnings of the other Gospels. Each writer opens in his own way. Each writer has his own character, his own style, and his own agenda. If the Apostles had only set out to write a biography of Yeshua, then we would only need one complete Gospel. We have four because four writers were writing at different times and in different places to different audiences.
Mark was a disciple and companion of Peter. Peter ended up in Rome, and died there. Mark was with him. Mark was writing to the Romans to tell the story in their language and context. Mark is believed to be the earliest Gospel to be written. It is the shortest, and it has a youthful, fast-paced, even urgent feel. Mark writes:
RSV Mark 1:1 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of G‑d.
Mark immediately identifies his work as “the gospel”, an announcement of good news. His good news is about Jesus Christ. Romans were probably familiar with the Greek word Christos rather than the Hebrew Mashiach. And the Greek form of his name may have resonated more with them than the Hebrew Yeshua. So I see Mark as announcing the good news of Jesus (who is the) Christ (Anointed One) to the Romans.
The words “son of G‑d” are not in the earlier manuscript, and may not have been written by Mark himself. If he did write them, however, he would be identifying Yeshua to the Romans as an incarnation of the divine, something similar to the way they regarded Caesar. While Matthew used phrases like “son of David” and “son of Abraham” that spoke to the Jews, Mark apparently decided to introduce Jesus as “the son of G‑d”, appealing to a “higher authority” to get the Romans’ attention. This would also have made Yeshua something of a rival to Caesar, and therefore, a threat.
Luke was a doctor, an educated, scientific man, and a companion of the Apostle Paul. Neither Paul nor Luke were eyewitnesses to the words and deeds of Yeshua. So Luke opens with:
Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
Luke calls his work “an orderly account” of the reports he received by interviewing eyewitnesses, in order to confirm to his reader (he seems to have written to only one person) the accuracy and reliability of the message he has been proclaiming. So Luke’s Gospel is probably the closest of the four to a biography, or a history.
John, on the other hand, takes his message to a whole new level. For him, the story begins in heaven before the creation of the world.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G‑d, and the Word was G‑d.
John tells the story of the divine and eternal Logos, the “Word”, or maybe “Torah”, that came to be incarnated in the man Yeshua. John is thought to be the last of the four Gospels to be written. He was also a disciple of Yeshua, the last survivor of the original twelve, so he was personally familiar with the story. Time and his personal experience may have given him a more exalted interpretation of Yeshua’s life than the others.
Matthew 1:1 Word By Word
Now back to Matthew. I want to take apart his first sentence word by word, understand what each word means—what it meant to the original readers—and then put the sentence back together to listen to its meaning as a whole. This process is essential to anyone who is studying key Biblical passages in depth.
Matthew is writing a book (Greek biblos, Hebrew sefer). At that time, books were written on scrolls of parchment—dried animal skin, or papyrus—ancient paper made from processed reeds woven and beaten together and then dried. Scrolls were attached to wooden spindles and rolled up for storage or transport.
The contents of scrolls were usually works of literature of some sort: history, poetry, stories, laws. Scrolls are mentioned many times in the Tenakh, for recording messages from G‑d, genealogies, chronicles of the histories of kings, and of course, the Torah, which Moses was told to write on a scroll and keep it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant (Deuteronomy 31:24‑26). In Deuteronomy 17:18‑19 the king is commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself, to keep it by his throne, and to read it regularly.
Throughout ancient times, there were professional scribes who knew how to write court records, and there were libraries where collections of scrolls were stored and used.
By calling his work a book, Matthew indicates his intention that it be kept as a record of the life, deeds and teachings of Yeshua. By contrast, Mark’s evangellion (good news) may have been more of a proclamation that was meant to be circulated and read by heralds or posted in public places.
By calling his work a “genealogy”, Matthew is not only meaning to list the ancestry of Yeshua. That is certainly important, and it does indeed occupy much of the first chapter. The Greek word genesis means “birth” or “origin”, and also “genealogy”. However, this word became the title of the first book of the Bible, because it can also mean, both there and here, “a record of the life or deeds” of someone important. Genealogies are part of the story, to be sure, but they are only the beginning.
The Greek word is a translation of the Biblical Hebrew word toldot, which has pretty much the same meaning. Toldot is used throughout the book of Genesis to introduce both the genealogies and the stories of the Patriarchs. Indeed, after the initial creation stories, the main part of the Book of Genesis (5:1) opens with the words, “This is the book of the generations (Heb. sefer toldot, Gr. biblos geneseos) of Adam (or, of man)”. Matthew uses the same phrase to introduce his book No doubt he intends for his readers to understand that the story he is about to tell is comparable in importance to the ones in Genesis.
The famed historian Josephus, roughly a contemporary of the writers of the Gospels, calls his own work a “history”. Perhaps this is not such a bad translation of toldot. Josephus opens his monumental work, The Antiquities of the Jews, with the following explanation:
Antiquities of the Jews 1:1 Those who undertake to write histories, do not, I perceive, take that trouble on one and the same account, but for many reasons, and those such as are very different one from another; 2 for some of them apply themselves to this part of learning to show their skill in composition, and that they may therein acquire a reputation for speaking finely; others of them there are, who write histories in order to gratify those who happen to be concerned in them, and on that account have spared no pains, but rather gone beyond their own abilities in the performance; 3 but others there are, who, of necessity and by force, are driven to write history, because they are concerned in the facts, and so cannot excuse themselves from committing them to writing, for the advantage of posterity: nay, there are not a few who are induced to draw their historical facts out of darkness into light, and to produce them for the benefit of the public, on account of the great importance of the facts themselves with which they have been concerned.
He goes on to explain that the reasons in the third sentence are what motivated him to write his work, to make important facts known to the public, because he was a participant in the Jewish war with Rome, and because the story of Israel and the Jewish people was being distorted by others.
Josephus’ opening statement is closer to Luke’s than to the other Gospel authors. Luke’s introduction to his Gospel expresses similar reasons for the writing. And Matthew, a disciple of Yeshua and a participant in the events about which he writes, is also interested in presenting his story of Yeshua, to the Jewish public, and also to anyone who is interested to learn about him.
Just as we find in Tenakh the “generations of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, and the “generations of Moses and Aaron”, so in the work before us Matthew is presenting to us the “generations of Yeshua”. His book is going to be about the birth, life, deeds, teachings, and death of Yeshua. Yeshua is the subject of the book.
There is a Hebrew work from the Middle Ages called Toldot Yeshu, which is actually an argument against the Gospel and Yeshua. It is probably not an accident that the writer used the same words to form his title. The book is not just about “the birth of Yeshua”, but “the life of Yeshua”.
The Greek work christos (Christ) means “anointed”, and as I said, can refer to any person or thing that has oil poured on it. Of course it has a special technical meaning in the Hebrew Scriptures. A person or thing that was anointed with oil was being designated for holy service. Priests and Levites were anointed, as well as vessels used in the Tabernacle (for example, see Exodus 28:41, 30:26ff) and Temple. Later on, Israelite Kings and prophets were also anointed with oil (see 1 Kings 19:15-16, where Elijah is sent to anoint a king over Syria and one over Israel, and a prophet to replace himself).
We know from Luke 5:27 that Matthew was also known as Levi. Could this mean he was a Levite? If so, the concept of “anointing” would have special Levitical meaning to him. Upon further checking, however, I found the name Levi twice in the genealogy of Yeshua in Luke (3:24, 29). They, like Yeshua, were descended from Judah. So the name Levi does not necessarily mean Matthew was a Levite. (I include my thought process here to show the value of checking details to see whether or not they contribute to the meaning of the text.)
In any case, the concept of The Mashiach as the eschatological King and Savior of Israel and the world is not developed in the Tenakh. The Prophet Daniel uses the word mashiach in his prophecy of the 70 weeks (9:25-26). He speaks of “an anointed prince” who will come, and then “an anointed one” who will be cut off. The prophecy could be a messianic one, but if so, we would like it to say “the anointed prince”, and it does not.
The word Mashiach that we are familiar with is an intertestamental idea that grew out of the longing for an ultimate king/priest/prophet who would redeem Israel and bring peace and righteousness to the world. In the days of Yeshua, the concept of The Mashiach was widely known in Israel, and his coming anticipated in the near future. The Mishnah and Talmud speak of The Mashiach as a fully developed idea. They do not feel the need to explain. They mention him freely in discussions about what the world will be like before and after he comes. We can safely assume that Matthew and his Jewish readers also knew the concept of The Messiah and were also awaiting his coming. In 1:17, Matthew does refer to Yeshua as The Messiah, so that is probably what he means in 1:1. Matthew is going to introduce us to Yeshua as the man who fulfills, or will fulfill, this role.
Son of David
As Matthew’s genealogy of Yeshua goes on to state, Yeshua is indeed a Jew and a descendant of the royal line of King David. Had this not been the case, then any claim to be Messiah would be immediately false. G‑d’s promise to David was that a son of his would sit on David’s throne as King of Israel forever (2 Samuel 7). So Messiah had to be a son of David, and Matthew includes this essential fact in his opening statement, that Yeshua is a descendant of King David.
When Yeshua came on the scene and began gathering large crowds of followers, the Herodian King of Israel was not a Jew, but a half-Jew, and he was not descended from David, but puppet of Rome. Herod was insanely jealous of anyone who might be a threat to his rule. And neither he nor the chief priests wanted anyone to upset the delicate balance of power under the oppressive rule of the Romans. The term “anointed” probably annoyed the King as well as the priests, who were all anointed to their offices. And no doubt the title “son of David” especially disturbed the King.
Son of Abraham
Since G‑d’s original promise to Abraham was that he would make him into a great nation that will become blessing to all the nations of the world (Gen. 12:2‑3), the phrase “son of Abraham” has come to mean “a member of the tribe of Abraham’s descendants, the heirs to that promise”. Yeshua is, therefore, introduced to us as a Jew, a member of the royal line, and the one who has been chosen to be the Messiah who will rule the people G‑d has chosen to be a blessing to the world. This title indicates that Yeshua comes for the nations, and not only for Israel.
It is interesting to note that G‑d’s promises to Abraham and David have the force of oaths, and G‑d later appeals to those oaths that he swore to our fathers, that He will fulfill his promises to Israel (Ezekiel 20:42). This suggests that the message of Yeshua is rooted in G‑d’s sovereign faithfulness; it is not conditional upon Israel’s fulfillment of Torah. Both are essential. Make no mistake about that. But the emphasis here is on those promises.
By contrast, in Pirkei Avot 1:1, “the Chapters of the Fathers”—a sort of introduction to the Mishnah and Oral Torah—the opening statement reads, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua …” The Mishnah, which was in process of formation and transmission at the same time as the Gospels, places itself in the arena of Torah, both written and oral. Now for the Rabbis G‑d’s promises went together with the Torah, and were just as important. But their emphasis is on the Torah. I do not see Torah and Gospel as competing against one another, but rather as two sides of the same coin. The Rabbis, sages and scribes were teaching Torah, and Yeshua, his disciples and followers were heralding the good news of Messiah—and teaching Torah. They go together.
Putting It Back Together
We can now take a last look at the whole sentence, keeping in mind the meanings and contexts of the words, listening to Matthew as he begins his story.
“An official record of the sacred history of Yeshua the Anointed One, royal son of King David, heir to the promises of G‑d to Abraham (who is destined to bring blessing to the people of Israel and the nations of the earth).”
By writing “Book of the generations of Yeshua”, Matthew is echoing the beginning of the whole story of man, “book of the generations of Adam” in Genesis. The string of titles he uses to introduce Yeshua speaks directly to the Jewish people—“Messiah” (anointed king, priest and prophet), “son of David” (King of Israel, likely meaning the last, or ultimate one), and “son of Abraham” (bearing the promises of G‑d to Israel and the whole world).
When reading Matthew’s Gospel, we must endeavor to be aware of how each story, each piece of the book, contributes to the purpose stated in his opening sentence. And may we thus come to know the One of whom the Scriptures speak.