If your family regularly attends the evening Christmas vigil mass, on more than one occasion you may have dreaded the proclamation of the Gospel for this particularly liturgy: “Abijah the father of Asaph. Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram. Joram the father of Uzziah….” The list of names goes on and on, and sometimes it feels like it will never end. Why does the Church subject her faithful to enduring this genealogy when we could be hearing another, more interesting, more lively Christmas story?
The beauty and importance of Matthew’s opening chapter has been known for ages, but a great way for today’s Catholics to get something great out of it is by reading about it in Pope Emeritus Benedict’s book on Jesus’ infancy. While I don’t wish to rehash the Holy Father’s entire concise and lucid explanation, with the help of Benedict I wish to shed some insight into the true purpose of Matthew’s genealogy as well as those we find in Luke and John.
Who is Jesus? Where is he from? The Holy Father tells us that the four Gospels aim precisely to provide an answer to these questions. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the evangelists concerned themselves with writing genealogies to trace Jesus’ lineage, i.e. his family history. One thing that is peculiar, however, is that the genealogies do not readily line up with one another.
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For one thing, Matthew and Luke strategically place their genealogies in different places within their respective texts. Matthew’s version comes at the very beginning of his work. As Benedict lucidly explains, Matthew wished to show his readers that Jesus Christ is “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). He is indeed the New David, the true King of Israel come to fulfill God’s promise of an everlasting worldwide dominion which the old David had failed to establish. Matthew also makes it clear that Jesus descended from the line of Abraham, the patriarch through whom God had promised that all the nations of the earth would bless themselves (Gen 18:18). In this way, Matthew ties the beginning of his Gospel to its end, wherein the risen Jesus commissions his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). As the pope says, “The universality of Jesus’ mission is already contained within his origin.”
In contrast with Matthew, Luke chose to place his genealogy not at the beginning of the book but at the outset of narrating Jesus’ public ministry. However, this difference in placement is not much of an obstacle when it comes to reconciling the evangelists’ respective genealogies. Neither is it particularly problematic that Matthew’s genealogy runs from the past to the present, while Luke’s traces back from the present to the past. It is more thought-provoking to observe that Luke’s genealogy is much broader (but by no means proportionately longer) than Matthew’s, tracing Jesus’ lineage not merely to Abraham but to “Adam, the son of God”–that is to say, the very first human being. Here once again, this is explicable by the fact that the two evangelists had different goals in penning these genealogies. There is no reason Matthew should have been compelled to go all the way back to Adam if it did not help him convey his primary message. Luke’s concern, however, is precisely to illumine Jesus’ role as the New Adam. Like Adam, Jesus is the son of God, and in him all of humanity starts anew. In Pope Benedict’s words, “the underlying intention” of Luke is to show us that “Jesus takes upon himself the whole of humanity, the whole history of man, and he gives it a decisive re-orientation toward a new manner of human existence.”
A more thorny difficulty noted by Benedict is the likelihood that Matthew and Luke based their genealogies on distinct preexistent sources, and thus “agree on only a handful of names; not even the name of Joseph’s father is common to the two.” Thus far, we have seen some fascinating differences in emphasis between the two Gospel genealogies, but how can it be that the Gospels seem to get it wrong on the basic historical question of who belongs to Jesus’ family lineage? Does this mean that the Gospels contradict one another and that one or more of them is in error?
To address this challenge, we need to recall a principle Benedict lays out early in his book: the Gospels do record “real history that had actually happened,” but they are also “interpreted history.” In other words, contrary to what we might expect and wish for as modern men and women, Matthew and Luke are not trying to give us a video report of Jesus’ family life or a precise transcript of his family history. Those were simply not the concerns of Jews and Christians living in Jesus’ day, and to hold them to our standards of historiography is anachronistic.
This modern mindset misses out on what is really most important in the Gospel genealogies. Each has a unique emphasis that reveals its “essential purpose,” to use the words of the emeritus pontiff. This phrase is a technical expression occurring throughout Benedict’s corpus. Put in Thomistic language, it means identifying what we are to take as the substance of a biblical text versus its accidental features. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, everything asserted by the inspired authors of Scripture is asserted by the Holy Spirit. The Bible in its entirety is inspired and inerrant, but we have to carefully discern the precise nature (the substance) of what is being formally asserted or taught if we wish to avoid falling into the fundamentalist position of thinking that every last word on the sacred page constitutes a categorical truth claim. With this principle in mind, Benedict draws the following conclusion regarding the purpose of these genealogies:
Neither evangelist is concerned so much with the individual names as with the symbolic structure within which Jesus’ place in history is set before us: the intricacy with which he is woven into the historical strands of the promise, as well as the new beginning which paradoxically characterizes his origin side by side with the continuity of God’s action in history.
In Benedict’s view, it therefore should not be an obstacle to our belief if the Gospel genealogies stand to some degree in tension with one another. Their real concern lies in the “symbolic structure,” that is to say, the typological theology conveyed through the literary artistry of the evangelists’ “interpreted” histories. It is important to keep this precise concept of historiography present before us when we consider Benedict’s use of the word symbolic, for by no means he is saying that the Gospel accounts are mere symbols devoid of historical content.
Finally, Benedict finishes his treatment of the Gospel genealogies with a discussion of John’s prologue. Benedict observes that, though John does not present us with a genealogy in the strict sense of the word, he repeatedly raises the question of Jesus’ provenance in his own way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1). For John, the “genealogy” of Jesus is to be traced not merely back to Abraham or even to Adam, but to God himself. Jesus’ origin lies within God; he is “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father” (Jn 1:18). Not only that, John further writes that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12). John’s astounding purpose here is to reveal that those who believe in Jesus share in his own divine sonship, becoming “sons in the Son” as the Church Fathers put it.
Benedict’s conclusion is that “John has recapitulated the deepest meaning of the genealogies.” Admittedly, this meaning is not the meaning we would find if the evangelists had been able to capture Jesus’ family history back to Adam on a video camera. This meaning is realist to the utmost degree. Like an icon that attains to the central truth of Christian mysteries by adopting a broader perspective than the mere literal, it is real precisely by making an astounding theological point: “Those who believe in Jesus enter through faith into Jesus’ unique new origin, and they receive this origin as their own—so it can now be said of us that our true ‘genealogy’ is faith in Jesus.” The Gospel genealogies thus present both Jesus’ family history as well as our own family history as adopted sons of God. If we think of the Christmas vigil genealogy reading in this way, we might just learn to look forward to hearing it proclaimed year after year.