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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Cornelius Van Til and Belief in God

Cornelius Van Til

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Cornelius van Til was a Christian Philosopher, Presuppositional Apologist and Reformed Theologian born in Grootegast, The Netherlands, in 1895. If you are not familiar with him, I highly suggest reading his works such as The Defense of the Faith, A Christian Theory of Knowledge  or even his biography Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman. Further, Presuppositional Apologetics (also referred to as Reformed Apologetics) may seem very foreign to you, but it is the apologetic school that believes that Faith in God is the only basis for rational thought. This approach emphasizes the presentation of Christianity as revealed – based on the authoritative revelation of God in Scripture and in Jesus Christ. Its most common forms find absolute and certain proof of Christianity in the absolute and certain character of the knowledge that God has and that He has revealed to humanity. (For further reading about apologetic systems read Ken Boa and Robert Bowman’s Faith Has Its Reasons)

I recently read his pamphlet Why I Believe in God and was greatly encouraged by his sound defense of his believe in the existence of God. In his speech he not only accurate states the position of the non-believer, but also hints that Christians themselves have not done the best job preaching Christ. Here is what he says:

We were so anxious not to offend you that we offended our own God. But we dare no longer present our God to you as smaller or less exacting than He really is. He wants to be presented as the All-Conditioner, as the emplacement on which even those who deny Him must stand.

And again he says:

The fact that so many people are placed before a full exposition of the evidence for God’s existence and yet do not believe in Him has greatly discouraged us. We have therefore adopted measures of despair. Anxious to win your good will, we have again compromised our God. Noting the fact that men do not see, we have conceded that what they ought to see is hard to see. In our great concern to win men we have allowed that the evidence for God’s existence is only probably compelling. And from that fatal confession we have gone on step further down to the point where we have admitted or virtually admitted that it is not really compelling at all. And so we fall back upon our testimony instead of argument. After all, we say, God is not found at the end of an argument; He is found in our hearts. So we simply testify to men that once we were dead, and now we are alive, that once we were blind and that now we see, and give up all intellectual argument.

I highly encourage you to take some time to read through his argument Why I Believe in God and to evaluate your current efforts in ‘apologetics’. May we not be so conscious of not offending man that we lose sight of offending God. Do not be discouraged brothers and sisters. It is through the Bible that God speaks to those he has called. We are mere vessels for His use. May we seek to honor God and His word by setting forth to study it and speaking it in a logical manner in order that we may be ready to give an answer for the hope that lies within us. (1 Peter 3:15)

Are the Qur’an and Scripture ‘Near-Perfect Matches’?

In his response to the “Voices of Faith” question, “What’s the best religious book you’ve read other than your faiths”, found in the Saturday, July 23, 2011, edition of the Kansas City Star, Syed E. Hasan, Ph.D., stated that while comparing the accounts of Joseph (son of Jacob) and the Virgin Mary, “I was struck with the near-perfect match between the stories.” Further he stated that, “Overall, I found that both books carry the same messages of compassion, peace and justice toward humanity, along with beliefs in accountability, Day of Judgment and life in the hereafter.” With this explanation it would seem that the two books are almost identical thus bringing to question why the Christians and Muslims have a dispute after all. But are the Qur’an and the Bible really ‘near-perfect matches’?

At the beginning of his answer, Hasan states that “I have studied the Bible” in order to establish credibility with his intended audience but as I studied the accounts he referenced in his article in both the Qur’an and the Bible, I really began to question the legitimacy of his claim to have studied Scripture. A simple reading of the accounts in both books quickly shows that neither account is anywhere near a ‘near-perfect match’. Indeed the accounts differ quite dramatically.

In the following response to his answer, I will only analyze the account of the Virgin Mary in the interest of the length of this post. If I were to respond to both here and now, this article would be longer than is proper for a blog post. In coming days I will post a response to the Joseph account.

The Account of the Virgin Mary

The account of the Virgin Mary can be found in Luke 1 in the Bible and in chapter 19 and 3.33-51 in the Qur’an. For his demonstration of the similarity between the Qur’an and the Bible, Syed Hasan relies on the general knowledge of his audience of the Biblical Account of the Virgin Mary (that she was a virgin) and quotes Mary from the Qur’an saying: “Mary asked: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste? The angel replied: So it will be. Thy Lord says this is easy for Me. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.” Undoubtedly the general knowledge of the Biblical account in the minds of the reader will be evoked by this quotation and the readings will seem to be similar. Hence the reader will walk away from Syed Hasan’s answer and conclude that the accounts really are similar.

However, Syed Hasan has not been honest with his audience and has failed to show just how strikingly different the two accounts are. It is beneficial for a quotation of the two accounts be produced here in order that you may be able to discern their differences at face value, followed by an explanation of the more intricate details.

The Qur’an, Chapter 19.16-35:

Mention in the Scripture the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place east and secluded herself away; We sent Out Spirit to appear before her in the form of a normal human. She said, ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’ but he said, ‘I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’ She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste,’ and he said, ‘This is what your Lord said: “It is easy for Me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.”‘ And so it was ordained: she conceived him. She withdrew to a distant place and, when the pains of childbirth drover her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, ‘I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!’ but a voice cried to her from below, ‘Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the pal tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, so eat, drink, be glad, and say to anyone you may see: “I have vowed to the Lord of Mercy to abstain from conversation, and I will not talk to anyone today.”‘ She went back to her people carrying the child, and they said, ‘Mary! You have done something terrible! Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man; your mother was not unchaste!’ She pointed at him. They said, ‘How can we converse with an infant?’ [But] he said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ Such was Jesus, son of Mary. [This is] a statement of Truth about which they are in doubt: it would not befit God to have a child. He is far about that: when He decrees something, He says only, ‘Be,’ and it is.

The Bible, Luke 1:26-38: (For the birth account of Christ and Circumcision/Presentation, read Luke 2)

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and giver birth to a son, and you will call His name JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His Father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?” The angel replied to her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth – even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” The the angel left her.

Do those accounts seem ‘near-perfect’? In fact, they differ quite a bit.

Particular Differences

At this point I wish to highlight three significant differences in the two narratives. Once this has been accomplished I will evaluate the Christological impact of the differences.

  • Absence of Joseph in the Qur’an account
You may notice that there is no mention of Joseph in the account of the Qur’an. This difference may seem rather minor but it is through the lineage of Joseph that Christ has his right to rule on the throne of David (Matthew 1:1-17).  Without the line of Joseph, Christ is disconnected from the Davidic line and right to the throne, thus for the Muslim the account of the Qur’an aids in portraying Christ as nothing more than a prophet appointed by Allah.

This is a significant difference because in the account of Luke 1, one of the expressed purposes of Christ’s incarnation is that “the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David,” and that “His kingdom will have no end.” By leaving this out of the Qur’an, the Mohammedan has seemingly contradicted the very predictions of a future Messiah found in the Torah, which they claim to hold to.

  • Portrayal of Mary

Further, you may notice a significant difference between the portrayals of Mary. First, in the Qur’an Mary is chosen by Allah and made pure, whereas in the Bible Mary is chosen by God because she has found favor with the Lord (granted, not out of her human righteousness) and is called as such. Second, Mary’s reaction to the news of being chosen is drastically different in the two accounts. In the Bible, Mary breaks out into a hymn of praise (Luke 1:46-55) saying, “because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and His name is holy.” However, in the account of the Qur’an, Mary clings to a tree ‘when the pains of childbirth drove her’ and says, “I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this.”

Finally, the largest difference in the two accounts is the beginning of Christ’s existence. In the Bible, Mary is told that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) However, in the Qur’an, Mary is told, “It is easy for me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from us,” (Qur’an 19.21) and “This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, ‘Be,’ and it is. He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel.” (Qur’an 3.47-48)

The words of Allah in 3.47-48 heavily imply that Christ would be ‘created’ not necessarily born of the virgin. Further, it is highlighted that it was by no means a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit within Mary infusing her womb with the Incarnate Christ. There is not only the messenger’s words to Mary but later in the Qur’an, 3.59 to be specific, this is what is said: “In God’s eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created him from dust, said to him, ‘Be,’ and he was.” With this view of Christ, Ergun Mehmet Caner states this, “Since the work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary is rejected, the virgin conception of this dust-made child was by divine spoken fiat.”

  • Narrative Focus

The final particular difference I wish to highlight at this time concerns the Narrative focus of each account. Obviously, the highlight of the Biblical account is that of the Incarnation of Christ for the deliverance of His people and His rule on the throne of David. However, the main focus of the Qur’an account is that of Allah’s decrees and the beginning of Christ for the purpose of being a messenger (prophet) to Allah’s people. Accordingly, Jesus is merely a human prophet and not the Son of God to the Muslim. This comparison ultimately boils down to the Deity of Jesus Christ.

Christological Impact

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the Qur’an account of Christ is found in 19.30-33 where Christ speaks to a group of people as an infant. In the account, Christ as an infant, denies his Deity and states that he is merely a prophet. How interesting that the first words out of Christ’s mouth are a direct repudiation of the Christian doctrine of His deity. I sense an underlying motive in this account. Further, as it has been stated earlier in this article, Christ is attested to being like Adam in that he was created from dust in the Qur’an.

This is by far the most critical area of difference to understand between the Mohammedan and the Christian. When they are conversing, it is vital to know the difference in their view of Christ because when they use the term Christ, they are speaking of a different idea entirely. To the Mohammedan, the term Christ is not really a stumbling block as one might suspect because in their defining of the term, ‘Christ’ is taken as ‘Anointed One’ rather than a specific title for Jesus. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Mohammedan might agree to calling Jesus ‘Christ’. It is the definition of the term that makes the world of difference.

With the Mohammedan view then, Jesus Christ is not the Savior and if he is not the Savior, then the Law has not been fulfilled and if the Law has not been fulfilled, God still expects an appeasement of His wrath incurred by sin. To the Mohammedan, their expectancy of the afterlife is based upon their living up to God’s expected standard and hoping that your good works outweigh your evil deeds when judgment comes. Therefore, when you enter into eternity, your good works must in someway appease God’s wrath for sin.

“For no flesh will be justified in His sight by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from the Law, God’s righteousness has been revealed – attested by the Law and the Prophets – that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified apart from works of law.” (Romans 3:21-28)

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Qur’an and the Bible really are not as similar as Syed Hasan would have you believe. It is only when the definitions are changed and the major differences ignored that one can say that they are similar. This also comes into play when you evaluate Syed Hasan’s comment that “both books carry the same messages”. However, the fact that they use the same words does not mean that they are teaching the same thing.  Our beliefs about Christ being the major example.

The unfortunate fact about Syed Hasan’s answer is that most of his audience will take him at face value and do little to no homework on their own, thus buying into the egregious belief that the Qur’an and the Bible really aren’t that different while failing to see the Grace of God in Jesus Christ for the redemption of sin revealed in Scripture and the damnation of man secured by Satan in the Qur’an.