The Roots of the Messiah

December 17th marks the beginning of the “O Antiphons” in Evening Prayer, which focus on various biblical titles of our Lord and Messiah. Today’s “O Antiphon” theme is Wisdom: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, You govern all creation with Your strong yet tender care. Come and show you people the way to salvation.”

December 17th represents a turning point in the Advent season. We are now unmistakably in the home stretch. As we heard at Mass last Sunday, “the Lord is near”–Christmas is just around the corner.

Also on December 17th, the Gospel readings at Mass undergo a significant shift. Instead of hearing about John the Baptist, we are now unpacking the infancy narratives from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Today we start at the beginning, with the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham, found in the opening verses of St. Matthew’s Gospel. [more]

There is much more to this genealogy than meets the eye. For further study, I recommend Ted Sri’s Mystery of the Kingdom and the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible for the Gospel of Matthew.

One common question involves apparent discrepancies between Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus and the genealogy found in Luke. Here is what the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible says about this in its comments on Matthew 1:2-17:

“The Abrahamic and Davidic ancestry of Jesus establishes His credentials to be the royal Messiah of Israel (1:1, 16). God long ago promised that ‘kings’ would stem from Abraham’s line (Gen. 17:6) and later swore a covenant oath that David would always have a dynastic heir (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4). Note that Matthew’s genealogy reaches back to Abraham, the forefather of Israel, whereas Luke’s genealogy of Jesus stretches back to Adam, the father of all nations (Lk. 3:23-38). The difference is heightened by numerous discrepancies between the two genealogies, especially in the generations spanning from David to Jesus. More than a dozen solutions have been proposed to harmonize them. At the very least, it should be recognized that gaps are a common feature in genealogical registries from antiquity. There are also many examples in Scripture of one person having more than one name–a fact that must be considered when attempting to identify the ancestors of Jesus (e.g., Solomon/Jedidiah, 2 Sam. 12:24-25). As one early Christian writer (Julius Africanus) reminds us, neither Matthew nor Luke is in error, for both record Jesus’ genealogy intricately and yet accurately.”

For more information on the reliability in general of the Infancy Narratives (i.e., Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2), I highly recommend the tract entitled “The Historicity of the Gospel Accounts of the Nativity.” To view and/or download this tract, click here.

I think that given these two themes for the day–wisdom and genealogy–we might benefit from taking some time today to look back on our own lives, praising God for His wise timing and providence, and thanking Him for the many people who have helped us in our own journeys of faith.

3 Responses to “The Roots of the Messiah”

  1. petebrown says:

    Hi Leon

    Isn”t harmonization of the two genealogies the wrong approach in a way? After all, the Holy Spirit inspired two different ones as part of the fourfold gospel tradition. He doesn”t seem to have been especially bothered by the differences, so why should we be? Maybe we should actuallly embrace the differences and explain them with reference to Matthew”s and Luke”s distinctive theological and literary purposes. That seems to me to be an eminently more sensible way of proceeding than trying to explain the discrepancies away.

    Besides, purely at the level of history, the fact that Matt and Luke tell such different infancy stories actually strengthens the claims of historicity on points in which they agree!

  2. leon says:

    I suppose one can go overboard on the subject, but several Church Fathers went to significant lengths to understand and explain how the two fit together, and those who turn to the Bible with "fresh eyes" do tend to notice the apparent discrepancies and ask about them. Getting to the "bottom" of this biblical puzzle does call for literal-historical criticism undertaken with the mind of the Church.

    And besides, my genealogy doesn”t change depending on my audience! If I”m making up different genealogies, then why should anybody take me seriously? However, as you note, there may be other considerations, sources, etc. based on the author and audience that could account for the different presentations, and surely those can and should be developed in a way that edifies the faithful. Merry Christmas, Pete!

  3. petebrown says:

    Well…I”m not sure we should conflate what certain Church fathers did or tried to do with the mind of the Church. The Church Fathers generally assumed that the gospels were reducible to historical fact. Not in every case did they do this…we see eg Chrysostom arguing that the differences between them actually strengthened their historicity when they agreed and Origen arguing that the gospels could not be harmonized according to the letter. Even Augustine in his influential but largely unsuccessful "Harmony of the Gospels" acknowledges at several points that one would have to make a distinction between the "things" the gospel words pointed to and the words themselves. All of these in their own way pointed to a more refined and sophisticated approach today.

    The Church herself in Dei Verbum 19 draws a distinction between 1) the historical events themselves 2) the telling of the events in the early Church and 3) the writing of the gospels. There”s distance in other words between the Christ event and the gospels..not only a temporal "distance" but metaphysical "distance" as well since the evangelists clearly take some license in shaping the material they had into gospel narratives. How far this license extends is a thorny problem, admittedly. But the license makes it impossible for us ever to unscramble the egg. The evangelists have scrambled it without any expectation that we”d try to go in and unscramble them later. In fact I think they”d be astounded if they saw us trying!! And I think the Church, which now emphasizes the inspired Biblical writers as true authors who write in a distinct genre called "gospels" is now telling us to just appreciate the different flavored omelets for themselves and not only for the ingredients which go back to the historical event.

    When I teach NT –as I will again in a few weeks–I generally devote nearly a whole class period to getting harmonizing the gospel accounts out of the students” systems. Ditto with the naive view that the historical event was simply a composite of stitched together gospel accounts. I generally don”t use the omelet egg analogy but sometimes I do draw a distinction between photographs and portraits. We don”t try to harmonize Peal”s and Stuart”s versions of George Washington–even though we are curious about what the dude actually looked like–according to modern standards of imaging. We just like each portrait for what its artist intended it to be. And naturally the Church is very careful to connect its belief in inerrancy to what the authors actually intended. If they intended their genealogies to serve a more literary/theological purpose (and this is an if!), we should not expect them to meet some idealized standard of precision. Nor should we evaluate them by that standard–as people that insist on coming up with dubious and farfetched ways to harmonize them implicitly do.

    So–I don”t mean to be a pest by pressing my objection–but this is an issue I care about. I really think harmonization runs very much against the tenor of recent Church documents. But worse still..I think it is dangerous. I run across ex-believers in Biblical studies all the time….they never learned nuance..never learned that there was distance between the event and the gospels and thus gave up believing when they couldn”t "solve" the panoply of discrepancies between the gospel accounts–as their teachers insisted could be done or held out hope that one day would eventually be done. So show me an ex=beleiver and I”ll show you an ex-fundamentalist at least 75% of the time!!!

    So I do think it is important that new believers looking at genealogies or enything with "fresh eyes" learn a little about the relationship of the gospels to history.

    Merry Christmas, Leon.

Leave a reply