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The Book of Books Book Club weekly blog

Matthew 1-3

The New Testament, here we go! And we are immediately drawn into the complications of ancient writing. Matthew opens his gospel with Jesus' family tree, which he traces from Abraham. Luke has a genealogy as well (3:23-28), which begins with Adam and therefore is significantly longer. Two unsettling complications: first, from David to Joseph, the two genealogies have almost no names in common - so who are these people? Second, Matthew is bent on a neat numerical scheme, setting up 14 generations each from Abraham to David, from David to the Babylonian Exile, and from the exile to Jesus - except that there are only 13 generations in the last group, so what does he mean? There's no solution to either of these problems. In any case, why should we care? Because establishing a "royal lineage" is seen by both writers as highly important to supporting their essential claim, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. So take a fast look - don't worry about all the unknown names, but note the stories we read last year that are contained in the women Matthew includes in this list: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba. Cool. Then walk around the church looking at our windows under the balconies, and see the whole thing - known as a "Jesse tree" as the family tree of Jesse, father of David - with the names as they were spelled in the King James Bible. Cool!

Next we get Matthew's "birth narrative," the term used for the stories he and Luke tell about Jesus' birth. It's worth looking at Luke's version, in his first two chapters, at this point. We'll come back to it, of course, and explore it in detail then - for now, just note which elements of the "Christmas story" as we think of it are in which gospel. Note too the contradictory explanations about why/how Jesus is born in Bethlehem but grows up in Nazareth. And hark back to Isaiah 60 to see why Matthew is so excited about the "wise men," and why they become "kings" in the popular conception: "Nations shall come to your light,/ and kings to the brightness of your dawning;" (60:3) and, "They shall bring gold and frankincense,/ and proclaim the praise of the Lord." (60:6) Fulfilling prophecies is very much on Matthew's mind.

Finally, the baptism of Jesus in chapter three. This is the beginning of Jesus' "public ministry," and serves as the actual beginning event in the gospels of Mark and John. Note the quotation Matthew uses about John the Baptist - again from Isaiah, this time 40:3. Comparing Matthew's to the original, we can see that the punctuation has been changed, so that instead of the road being in the wilderness (Isaiah), the voice is in the wilderness (Matthew). Remember, then, that ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts had no punctuation at all, and enjoy the handiwork of the evangelist as interpreted by generations of readers!