1.COMMON TRANSLATION AND INTERPRETATION
There is a great difference between what Matthew wanted to transmit with the first verse of his Gospel and what is mostly perceived today. In the NIV, dated 2011, which is our translation of reference, it is translated as follows: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham”. With the term ‘Genealogy’ which is used in reference to the following verses 2-17, indicating the genetic origin of Jesus. While in this translation and others, in their latest edition, such as the NLT, we find ‘Jesus the Messiah’, in other translations, such as the ESV and the KJV, we find ‘Jesus Christ’ as it is in all the Italian translations. However, we want to signal the contradiction of this edition of the NIV, and also of the NLT, that translate the same word in two different ways, showing inconsistency, because in John 1:17, and in other parts of the New Testament, we find the words “Jesus Christ”, though they have translated it with ‘Messiah’ in other parts. While ‘Christ’ is perceived as a sort of surname by most people, since it follows the name of Jesus, ‘Messiah’ is a better indication of who Jesus is, and is not considered to be his surname, because of all the history behind it. Lastly, it is usually rightly pointed out that the progenitors David and Abraham are highlighted as the most important, with David occupying the first place, because Jesus could be recognized as the awaited Messiah as he was a descendant of David.
2.‘GENEALOGY’ OR ‘GENEALOGICAL BOOK’?
In his Note on ‘Genealogy of Jesus Christ’, MacArthur writes: “Some see in this phrase the title assigned by Matthew to the entire Gospel. The Greek expression translated as ‘book of the genealogy’ is precisely the same as that used in Genesis 5:1 in the LXX (the Septuagint translation)”. The confirmation that Matthew began with “BOOK of the genealogy” comes from the highly esteemed translations of the ESV and the KJV, both attentive to the original text. Many others, including the NIV, however, delete the word ‘book’, and the explanation of why they do it seems obvious in this case: they do not understand the meaning of this word. In fact, it seems clear that for them the genealogy concerns only the first verses of Matthew, not the entire Gospel.
At the beginning of our Summary of the OT there is a paragraph entitled Valorising the Septuagint translation, where we emphasize the need to keep in mind the Greek version of the Old Testament, when we want to grasp its links with the New Testament. This is because, in most synagogues of the apostolic time, the Old Testament was read in the Greek version. So, when Matthew used the same Greek words as those in Genesis 5:1, he was encouraging his readers to establish a parallelism.
It is therefore important to see the meaning of the original expression “Book of the genealogy of Adam” in Genesis 5:1, which is translated similarly in the ESV (“This is the book of the generations of Adam”) and, a little differently but with the same meaning, in the NIV (“This is the written account of Adam’s family line”): let us first begin with the immediate context, in order to then make other observations. After those words, which have the function of a title, we find the origin of Adam (vv. 1b-2), the synthesis of his life (vv. 3-5) and finally his descendants up to Noah (vv. 6-32), after which (6:1) the story of Noah and of the Flood begins. There are two essential aspects for us: on the one hand, the “Book of the genealogy of Adam” includes his origin, his life and his descendants; on the other, the genealogy is needed to introduce the story of Noah, in order to connect him with the main protagonist of the previous story, that is, with Adam.
A turning point in our understanding of the Bible came with the summarizing of 1 Chronicles, realizing that the pattern used for Noah is also projected into the following parts of the Bible. In the Summary of the OT we have dedicated the entire chapter 13 to this topic, entitled The Biblical history in seven phases and seven forefathers: we will now make an essential synthesis of it. The story told by the Bible is substantially a ‘genealogical story’, which starts from a universal ancestor created by God (Adam) and then continues with successive stages characterized by the emergence of a new ancestor, linked to the previous one but who will reorganize the future in a new way. Thus, we go from Adam to Noah, to Abraham, to David, and to Jesus, whose story starts with his genealogy. Therefore, the genealogy of Jesus that Matthew places at the beginning for those who have understood the Old Testament, indicates in itself that Jesus is the new ancestor who will redirect the next part of history.
It is useful to specify that the word ‘genealogy’ clearly wants to recall the Hebrew word toledoth, which runs through the entire book of Genesis. Alfredo Terino has reflected on this term for a long time, expressing himself in this way: “The term toledoth places the general emphasis on history, even though it is sometimes a question of genealogy. It might seem that these two aspects of the meaning are at odds with each other, but this is not the case, because when thinking about the developments we have to go back to the origins: to think about the developments of Adam’s progeny, for example, we have to think about the origin of man (cf. Gen 5:1ff, A.N.). However, the formulas of toledoth introduce the developments of history (Gen 11:27, for example)” (Who wrote the ‘five books of Moses’? Firenze Atheneum, 2003, p.118).
It then becomes clear that Matthew intends to write a book of toledoth, which must necessarily start from the ancestors, to then dwell on their descendants. But since Jesus has risen and is alive (“And surely I am with you always”, Mat 28:20), he does not need a blood descendant to collect his inheritance. In the Gospel, it is the disciples who take the place of his descendants, but to understand it better we must consider the development of the concept of ‘disciple’ that we find in the New Testament: a development that deserves deeper study, but on which we cannot dwell now.
In summary, those who, at the beginning of the Gospel, are referred to as ‘disciples of a Master’, gradually become ‘a part of the family’ of the Master, to the point of being, in some way, the Master. A first sign is when Jesus says these words: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Mat 12:50). For Paul, Jesus’ believers are the body of the Messiah (1Cor 6:15; 12:27), with a final goal where every disciple will be like Jesus (Rom 8:29; 1John 3:2). But what interests us most here is the parallelism that Paul makes between every man’s bond with Adam and the bond of the believer with Jesus (Rom 5:12-19), equating the relationship of faith with the relationship of sonship (on this cf also Rom 8:15-17; 1Cor 4:15; Gal 3:7, 4:19; 1Tim 1:2; Titus 1:4; 3John 4). The New Testament goes as far as the astonishing revelation that the believers will be in harmony and within the relationship between Jesus and the Father! (John 17:20-24).
The absence of the first word of the Gospel of Matthew, in short, hinders the understanding of the overall meaning that the author wants to give to the book as a whole: a meaning that can be derived from the rest of the Gospel and the New Testament.
3.‘JESUS’ OR ‘JOSHUA’?
The angel told Joseph that he had to give the son of Mary the name ‘Jesus’ (Mat 1:21), a name that is perceived as unique and therefore makes Jesus unique. However, here too, a better translation would help to understand more fully. In the introduction to the book of Joshua, the Bible Commentary edited by D. Guthrie and J.A. Motyer, states that “the name of Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation” and […] Joshua is the Hebrew form of the name Jesus” (Edizioni Voce della Bibbia, 1973, vol. 1, p.285). Those who read the Old Testament in Greek, as most of the Jews of the apostolic time did, thus would have realized that the name commanded by the angel was comparable to ‘Joshua’: that is, to the man who completed the work of Moses. The name ‘Joshua’, in short, immediately puts him in connection to Moses, but since Jesus is usually imagined to be in opposition to Moses we therefore want to hide the fact that Jesus and Joshua are essentially the same name. So then, to highlight it, we propose to sometimes use the name Joshua instead of Jesus.
However, it is not only a matter of translation, but of well-rooted attitude in Christianity, which deliberately expanded the divinity of Jesus, to the point of reaching a substantial denial of his humanity. So, we then want to make sure that the name ‘Jesus’ is unique, even if we find two other people with the same name in the New Testament (Acts 13:6; Col 4:11), which was among the most widespread names at that time.
Some, to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus, replace Jesus Christ with Yeshua Hamashiach, Ha Mashiach, Ha-mashiach, haMashiach, ha’Mashiach, or Mashiach: I do not know which is the most correct Jewish form, nor how it should be pronounced. But I found a solution in Acts 2:6, where it is written that the first proclamation of the Gospel made by Peter was translated by God into each of the languages of the listeners. It is then clear that those who begin to do the opposite, that is, to set aside the English to return to the Hebrew, perform a work opposed to the work of God. What we need to do is to complete an English translation which, in some cases, has remained incomplete, and not to go back.
4.‘CHRIST’, ‘MESSIAH’ OR ‘ANOINTED’?
Since a translation must of course translate, why are certain words transliterated rather than translated? And why is one word sometimes translated and sometimes not? Here, it is not a matter of being more or less competent, nor of making the translation more comprehensible, but of being fair… which I am NOT when I preach. In order to be honest, in fact, I should use ‘Joshua Anointed’, but then who would understand that I am referring to ‘Jesus Christ’? We Christians have plunged into a profound degeneration and everyone of us has been tainted by it, but everyone should make their own contribution to stop the descent and attempt the ascent. The Greek ‘Christ’ and the English ‘Anointed’ are the translation of the Hebrew ‘Messiah’ (Mashiach). In an honest translation, we should always find ‘Anointed’. Instead, in the English version of the New Testament the Greek word ‘Christ’ is mostly used when referring to Jesus but it is totally avoided in the Old Testament, where the word ‘mashiach/anointed’ abounds instead. All this, evidently, hinders the full understanding of the many links between Jesus and the Old Testament.
A great deal of technical knowledge is of little use if we then do not have the courage or if we do not have the conditions to apply it with coherence. Therefore, to put the truth into practice, it is sometimes easier for a fisherman of Galilee like Peter, rather than the great scholar Gamaliel, who only began to sense something about Jesus when Peter had already understood almost everything (Acts 5:34-40).
We have said that ‘Christ’ is often perceived as ‘the surname of Jesus’; the most educated know that it means ‘the Anointed (one)’, but ‘anointed’ means that something has been passed over with a bit of oil, which, in itself, does not mean anything; however, in the context of the Gospel it has an enormous meaning. For example, in Italy lawyers abound, but when one talks about ‘the Lawyer’ they are clearly referring to Gianni Agnelli, who was the president of FIAT. We also have an infinity of hills, but when one alludes to ‘the Hill’ they are undoubtedly referring to the Quirinale, where the President of the Republic resides.
When a Christian reads ‘Christ’ they should know the meaning the Old Testament gave to this word; since it was related to David, the misunderstanding could then be down to where the comma is placed…
5.‘CHRIST, SON OF DAVID’ OR ‘ANOINTED SON OF DAVID’?
It is known that in the original texts there is no punctuation; it was introduced later to improve the comprehensibility. Saying ‘Anointed’ means little, while it is of great importance if it refers to the announced ‘son of David’. The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew should be translated “Book of the genealogy of Joshua, anointed son of David”: that is, putting a comma before ‘anointed’ and therefore binding it to David.
The first glorious ‘Anointed son of David’ was Solomon, who having been adopted as ‘son of God’ (1Chro 28:6), transmitted this qualification to his descendant in general and, in particular, to that even more glorious descendant who was yet to come (the Messiah, indeed).
The passages of the Old Testament concerning this Anointed One are found in certain Psalms (called ‘messianic’) and in the prophets: we will report only some expressions.
Psalm 2:6-8. “ ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’ […] He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession.”
Psalm 72. “Endow the king with your justice, O God […]. May he judge your people in righteousness […]” (vv. 1-2) “May he rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. […] May all kings bow down to him […] May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long. […] May his name endure for ever; may it continues as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (vv. 8-17).
Psalm 89:30-37. “If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statues […] I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but […] I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered. Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness – and I will not lie to David – that his line will continue for ever and his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established for ever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky”.
See also: Psalms 18:43-50; 20:6-9; 28:7-8; 45:1-7; 61:5-7; 110:1-7; 132:1-18. For a brief comment on the messianic verses of the Psalms, see Summary of the OT, chap. 24/8.
Among the prophets, Isaiah is the one who dwells the most on the future emergence of a Saviour, with a wide, complex revelation that sometimes seems contradictory: for an examination of it we can only refer to chap. 33-36 of Summary of the OT, limiting ourselves here to some expressions. “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse [father of David, A.N.]. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him […] with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. […] The wolf will live with the lamb […] They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD […] In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting-place will be glorious” (11:1-10). “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (49:6).
The prophet Daniel is of extraordinary importance: he announced the emergence of four empires, after which there would be the advent of the kingdom of the saints, led by a king “son of man”, to whom will be given “authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan 7:13-18). It was implicit that to be king this ‘Son of man’ had to be a ‘Son of David’: on Jesus, the Gospel leaves no doubt, defining him in both ways (Mat 21:9; 24:27-30).
It is often said that the Jews expected a Messiah with certain material and political characteristics which would then be refuted by Jesus, not taking into account how the Old Testament announced the Messiah. The expectations of the Jews were imprecise, yes, but not exaggerated as the interpreters generally suppose, accusing the Jews to avoid accusing the prophets directly, thus not recognizing their own disorientation. The Gospel of Matthew, if well understood, corrects the expectations of the Jews but does not reduce them, even if there is a development of the story in which ‘updates’ are introduced: however, we will have the opportunity to dwell on these aspects as we go forward.
6.‘SON OF DAVID, SON OF ABRAHAM’
Today ‘son of’ has a limited meaning, because each chooses to make his own life regardless of what his parents were. In the biblical sense the discourse changes, especially when you are descendants of someone who has been called by God to perform a work that will cross the centuries: in this case, the son has the moral duty to carry on the work of the progenitors. God said to Abraham: “To your offspring I will give this land” (Gen 12:7), which he did about 500 years later! What would a modern man say about a promise that would take that long to reach his descendants? Yet, Abraham felt satisfied with it! Jesus, to be a worthy son of Abraham, could not ignore the promises made to the progenitor of whom he was the heir! Yet, many Christians dare to think that Jesus came into the world not only to end the national history of Abraham and David, but also their history of faith; thinking in fact that Jesus did not care about the possession of the Promised Land and that he closed the history of Judaism by founding a new religion!
Before making the orderly list of the progenitors of Jesus, Matthew highlights the two main references; giving the first place to David, considered therefore as the most important, and then citing Abraham, seen as the beginning. It is known that Luke, however, goes further back in the genealogy up to Adam and God (Luke 3:38): this too is a sign that Luke writes for the world, while Matthew writes to the Hebrews, of whom Abraham is the founder.
On Abraham, we limit ourselves to recalling the three principal promises he received from God: that of the possession of the land of Canaan (Promised Land); that of a national blessing as a people; and that of being a source of blessing for all the families of the Earth (Gen 12:1-3; 15:2-4; 17:1-8). The fact that, after the coming of Jesus, the third promise developed, does not mean that he no longer cares about the other two.
On David, the discourse is complex and difficult to make, because he is usually considered one of the many characters of the Old Testament who, without realizing it, is the protagonist of a great revolution. Being aware of this, we can see that so many novelties attributed to Jesus were actually introduced by David and the Psalms, composed or promoted by him. Here again we refer to Summary of the OT (chap. 7 and 24), limiting ourselves for now to a few essential points.
Through Moses God invited his people to listen (“Hear, O Israel…”), while the Psalms teach us to speak to God (“Hear, Lord…”). Moses exhorted the people to be guided by the law; to this David added an intimacy with God that led him to ask for his specific guidance in particular circumstances (e.g. 2 Sam 5:17-25). While in the time of Moses and of the judges the scheme ‘we/they’ prevailed in the people of God, with Ruth, the Temple and with the Psalms the people of Israel open up to the world.
David lived in a special way after the Holy Spirit had come upon him (1Sam 16:13). God then wanted him to go from being a ‘hero’ to becoming a ‘model’: in fact, David recounted his experience of faith in those Psalms that were sung by the people, in the Temple and outside. Christians do not notice a great contradiction that they continually live: on the one hand they make of the Psalms the most read book in which they see their life of faith reflected, while on the other hand they continue to consider the Old Testament (therefore also the Psalms) as a time in which the people’s relationship with God was still ‘immature’. When a Christian reads the much-loved Psalm 23 of David (“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing…”), they spontaneously apply it to themselves, often without realizing that they are doing what individual Jews had begun to do a thousand years before Jesus!
The first characteristic of Jesus that Matthew highlights is his being ‘son of David’, because Jesus aims precisely to relaunch and develop the work of David. Putting a page of separation between Matthew and the earlier Scriptures is an obstacle to understanding not only the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew (and the New Testament), but all that follows.
Mark completely skips the genealogy present in Matthew and therefore we too can skip it… if we do not want to deepen Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament. Moreover, Cornelius found salvation (Acts 10:43-44) essentially through just one verse of the Gospel: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mat 20:28; Mark 10:45). But if we stop at that essential message, we remain “infants in the Messiah” (1Cor 3:1) who, when they do not grow mentally, are convinced that they have already understood everything!
A common characteristic of the wise, in fact, is that they are aware of how little they know. A famous statement of the great Greek philosopher Socrates is: “I know that I know nothing”. While Isaac Newton, considered in his time the greatest scientist until then, replied to those who admired him: “In the ocean of knowledge, I have just put my feet into the bath”. On similar tones is a phrase of Paul: “Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (1 Cor 8:2). The true wise feel the need to learn more, while those who are foolish and proud are convinced that they do not need to increase their knowledge. Having taken care of the essentials does not mean we have to stop there.
Our comprehension of Jesus will remain superficial, if we do not comprehend the links with the Old Testament.
Further insight n. 1
Still on the names of Jesus and some of our preferences
We have dwelt on some aspects and we will find other names Jesus has been called, but now it is useful to add some further considerations.
The name means ‘Yahweh saves’ and can be rendered ‘Saviour’. As in many other cases, the meaning is not translated, but a ‘transliteration’ is performed, with which the foreign word is transcribed into more or less corresponding English letters, obtaining a pronunciation that resembles the original, but losing its meaning. So, when an English person says ‘Jesus’, he usually does not know that he is pronouncing (awkwardly) ‘Saviour’ in Hebrew. We understand the choice of the translators to keep the traditional names, since the original meanings sometimes seem inappropriate; for example, the meaning of ‘Rachel’ is ‘Sheep’ and of ‘Rebekah’ is ‘Captivates with her graces’. It is therefore understandable that ‘Jesus’ is translated, but what is unacceptable is that the same name is rendered in different ways, thus hiding the links.
To point out that it is the same name, then, sometimes we will prefer to use ‘Jesus son of Nun’ to refer to Joshua, but continuing to call the book placed after Deuteronomy ‘book of Joshua’. Just as we will sometimes use ‘Joshua of Nazareth’ or ‘Joshua Messiah’ instead of Jesus Messiah.
- Jesus/Joshua from Nazareth (Nazarene).
It was the official name (the one in the identity card, one would say today) and it is no coincidence that Matthew immediately pointed it out (2:23). In fact, it was the one written above the cross (John 19:19-20), the one used in preference by Peter in his preaching (Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 10:38) and with which Jesus presented himself to Paul on the way to Damascus (Acts 22:8). We will limit ourselves to just quoting the many other cases in which he is so called (Mat 2:23; 21:11; Mark 1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:16; Luke 4:34; 18:37; 24:19; John 1:45; 18:5,7; Acts 6:14; 26:9). In the Gospel we find other people who are identified with their place of origin: for example, Mary of Magdala (or Magdalene) and Joseph of Arimathea (Mat 27:56; John 19:38). Two later Italian examples are Leonardo Da Vinci and Francis of Assisi. To support the fact that, at the beginning, the surname ‘Nazarene’ prevailed for Jesus, in Acts 24:5 we find that Christians are referred to as those of the ‘Nazarene sect’. It is also significant that even today Muslims refer to Christians as ‘Nazarenes’ (‘nasri’). The name ‘Jesus/Joshua of Nazareth’, being in any case very normal, emphasizes his humanity.
We reiterate that using three ways of translating the same original is unacceptable to us. We will prevalently use ‘Messiah’, because it has become part of the English language and because it recalls its biblical-Hebrew meaning. We think it would be more correct to translate it as ‘Anointed’ and we will use it sometimes, but some readers may have more difficulty understanding it. In sermons and private dialogues, it will be necessary to continue to use ‘Christ’, but in this study we will try to avoid it. To indicate Jesus as ‘Christ’ means recognizing him as the prophesied ‘Son of David’ and that is why it prevails in the Letters of the apostles.
- From carpenter to ‘he who will return’: a developing perception.
Sometimes we forget that the Gospel is a story, so you read it as if it presented Jesus in the same way from beginning to end. Some paintings are an illustration of it, where the new-born Jesus is already seated and blesses, with the inevitable halo on his head, while Mary is in an adoring attitude, despite having just given birth.
Until the age of 30, however, the fellow citizens of Nazareth certainly did not see a halo on his head and for everyone he was “the carpenter’s son” (Mat 13:55). Indeed “the carpenter” (Mark 6:3), because back then sons continued their father’s profession and because Joseph seems to have already died (since he does not appear later in the Gospels); in this case, it was the eldest son, Jesus, who had to take on the role of head of the family, taking responsibility for his brothers and his mother (Mat 13:55-56; John 19:26-27). In different houses of Nazareth, we presume, there was wooden furniture made by the hands of Jesus!
The public mission of Jesus began after he underwent the baptism of John, and two of John’s disciples were the first to enrol in the school of Master Jesus, who immediately welcomed them into his house and “they spent that day with him” (John 1:39). It was a pleasure to be with Jesus, who immediately established a family atmosphere with his disciples. To Nathaniel he was presented as “Joshua of Nazareth”, giving the same impression that ‘Rob from Margate’ would give us, prompting us to ask ourselves: “Can anything relevant come from a peripheral place like Margate?” (cf. John 1:45-46).
Soon the disciples realized that Jesus was not only an appreciable ‘teacher of Jewish life’, but ‘he who was to come’, with the task of producing a great renewal and about whom the prophecies said extraordinary things, but not all of the prophecies were easy to understand and probably they involved more than one person. In this set of prophecies, partly shrouded in mist, the sharpest figure that emerged was the Messiah, descendant of David, who would restore the kingdom of Israel, making it greatly glorious. Here then, in addition to being seen as Master, Jesus was also welcomed as Lord (in the sense of king).
To avoid dwelling on matters that will emerge gradually, we will conclude this part with this: after the resurrection and the ascension, Jesus became ‘the one who is to come back’ to fully realize his reign on the public scene, that is, ‘the coming one’, invoked by his waiting disciples: “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20).