The Importance of Greek in the Matthean Genealogies

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We have all been there. We set out to read through the Scriptures and we come to the beginning of the New Testament. We get excited because within the next several books is the account of our Savior and the atonement he provided. Then our excitement is dashed upon the rocks as we encounter Matthew chapter one where 42 generations stare at us as if the whole book of Numbers was recounted at the beginning of the New Testament. Some of us labor through these first 16 verses as though they were a great pack upon our back on our Pilgrim journey, and others simply skip these verses with the notion that it is irrelevant. Yet it is in those verses that Matthew proclaims right out of the gate what it is he is going to preach – that this man Jesus the Christ is the foretold Messiah and heir to the Davidic throne. You may ask, “How do you pull that from 42 genealogies?”

I postulate that the reason for our lack of understanding the significance of these genealogies is two-fold. 1) We are so far removed from the 1st Century that we forget why genealogies are important (especially to Jews) and 2) many of our modern translations of this passage incorrectly translate the Greek. Below is a comparison of the Greek and two popular translations of Scripture for Matthew 1:15-16 (the NASB and ESV respectively).

Ἐλιοὺδ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἐλεάζαρ, Ἐλεάζαρ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ματθάν, Ματθὰν δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰακώβ, Ἰακὼβ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τὸν Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἄνδρα Μαρίας, ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη Ἰησοῦς ὁ λεγόμενος χριστός.

and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mar, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. (ESV)

Eliud was the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob. Jacob was the father of Jospeh the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. (NASB)

I have taken the liberty to underline the specific Greek word I am about to address and underline the phrase that the English translations have put in its place. This word is the key to the genealogies and really brings the genealogy of Christ to significant meaning rather than a simple recitation of Christ’s lineage back to David.

The word that you see underlined in the Greek comes from the root γεννάω which is used for “beget, bring forth, generations.” The whole genealogy of this chapter is replete with this single word. Translated it would create the phrase “so and so begot so and so, etc,” rather than “the father of”. Why is this important? Because men do the begetting and women do the bearing in the procreation process. Hence, when it comes to Mary in verse 16, it states literally, “…the husband of Mary, out of whom Jesus, who is called Christ, was begotten.” The passive there, ‘was begotten,’ is pointing to something quite significant. Here Matthew is not just merely reciting the lineage of Christ, rather he is screaming to his Jewish audience that Jesus was not begotten by Joseph, rather Jesus was begotten by the Holy Spirit as he goes on to state in verse 18.

You don’t see that in the English translation because in an effort to make the reading more comfortable or natural for an American audience the translators have done away with the significance of what is said by Matthew. What is absolutely lost in many of our translations these days is the importance of how something is said and not merely what is said. This is why a study of the original languages is absolutely crucial to sound exegesis of Scripture. When Scripture is read as it was written, the significance of phrasing and word usages is highlighted, thus when we communicate Scripture we are able to articulately bring out what the author originally intended to communicate.

As future Bible Scholars, this is the challenge for my generation. We must not take the easy way out and simply think that knowledge of the English text is enough. The Gospel is so precious and supremely necessary that diligent work must be done to adequately understand Scripture as it is communicated in the original language in order that we can articulately communicate the truth.

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