Matthew 1:1-17 … Decolonising a Genealogy

It was the conversations of some FaceBook friends that finally provoked me to do what I kept intending to do, to write about the Bible instead of around it all the time. To get back to the oldest task of the theologian, implicit in the name: to discern the Word(s) of God. I must admit, it has been several years even where I have failed to, or rather, chosen not to read and study the book(s) that give life in a unique and central way to the People of the Book(s), us who call ourselves either Christians or Jesus followers. I have been wanting to come back to that Biblical world which we call home and from where we get our particular home truths, that world which is at once so foreign, especially to me now after years away and apart from its wisdom and wonder. The task of starting with the rather uninspiring “Genealogy” that begins Matthew’s gospel is kind of appropriate: I am after all, returning to look at the traditions of my own ancestors, my own spiritual genealogy and lineage, the beliefs and practices from whom I have inherited so much of my own self.

The first FaceBook conversation frustrated me. The second inspired me. But the fact that there were two seemed synchronous and a sign to jump back into the strange texture of the texts we call the Bible. The brilliant New Testament scholar, Michael Bird, was responsible for the first.

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[Image: Screenshot of Facebook Status, dated August 13, saying “White Christians should remember that they worship a brown-skinned Aramaic-speaking Palestinian man seated at the right hand of the Father.” 250+ likes. 36 shares. 30+ comments]

The Australian scholar’s post came in the wake of the violence that went viral from the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia and joined a fair outcry from thousands around the world at the disgusting images of White Nationalism, and for Christians the misuse of Christian imagery and rhetoric that continues to accompany White Supremacist movements in the West.

The second post was from Don Matthews, a professor of Religious Studies who focuses on Black/African Religion as it relates to the roots of Christianity. His post was a response to H. Talat Halman, another professor of Religion whose focus is on Islamic Studies. It reads:

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[Image: Screenshot of Facebook Status, dated August 20, saying “Great question. It is important on several levels. It has to do with the direct Black Egyptian/African Lineage of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pharoah’s Daughter is named as one of the women from whom Jesus was descended. So, this confirms that the Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was of royal Black African ancestry. I emphasize Black African ancestry since Solomon ruled Israel when the native Black Egyptian African, not the Hyskos, Pharoahs were in power. Some early sources believe that the Queen of Sheba is a reference to Pharoah’s daughter and believe that she was the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. Many thanks for bringing this to my attention, my scholastic colleague and Islamic Brother! If only there were more scholars like yourself who were willing to acknowledge the historical (Josephus) Biblical and Quaranic references to the Black heritage of Jesus. Asalaam Alaikim. You have blessed my soul.”]

The first post — Bird’s — caused quite a stir, liked and unliked by many colleagues and commenters and Christians in his circle. The second was largely taken for granted. The New Testament scholar was talking to a white majority audience, predominantly Evangelical, who —  according to the majority of the replies — either protested the description of “Palestinian” by saying the obvious, the Jesus was Jewish, or by asking what the point of Jesus’s ethnicity is for his mission as God With Us.

Not so with Matthew’s post, one of a series on the deconstruction of the White Jesus. I suppose it is only White folk who don’t take for granted that Jesus and history generally are Blacker than the Western renderings that Whitewash him. And largely among White folks that a kind of colour blindness is required in all things but especially in spiritual matters. It reminds me of a quote that went something like this: White Christians follow Christ, POC Christians follow Jesus. Western theology spiritualises, deifies, and makes abstract ; Majority-World theology has its feet firmly on the ground. Christ is Other. Jesus is one of us. Whatever one highlights about the ethnicity of Jesus — Jewish, Black, Palestinian, Brown, etc. — the gospels of Matthew and of Luke saw fit to include his genealogy, albeit two contradictory versions for reason we can only make educated guesses on.

Theologians, New Testament scholars, historians, and those in literary and cultural studies fields have come up with plenty of meanings attached to the recorded lineage of Jesus of Nazareth, meanings and interpretations that diverge sharply from one another depending on the assumptions of the reader. While some have sort to prove or disprove these testimonies, others have wondered what the literature might be meaning to communicate back then and even to us today. I’m interested in the latter questions, particularly from the horizon of postcolonial, feminist, literary, empire studies, and other politically engaged reading, hence why I was provoked by Michael Bird’s and Donald Matthew’s Facebook statuses.

My first stop was, of course, the archives on this site: Bible Studies: New Testament: and scroll down to Matthew. Among the resources collected their, three stand out as relevant:

  1. Carter, Warren (New Zealand & USA): “The Gospel of Matthew” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, eds. Fernando F. Segovia and R.S. Sugirtharajah. 2009: T&T Clark
  2. Duarte, Alejandro Alberto (Ceuta, Spain & Argentina): “Matthew” in Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte, José Severino Croatto, Teresa Okure. 2004: Abingdon
  3. Ezeogu, Ernest M. (Nigeria & Canada): “The African Origin of Jesus: An Afrocentric Reading of Matthew’s Infancy Narrative (Matthew 1–2)” in Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Scholarship, eds. Musa W. Dube, Andrew M. Mbuvi, and Dora Mbuwayesango. 2012: Society of Biblical Literature

Let’s see what they have to say about that family tree in Matthew 1:1-17. But first, why not open up the word itself.


The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah[b] the son of David, the son of Abraham:

Abraham was the father of Isaac,

Isaac the father of Jacob,

Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,

Perez the father of Hezron,

Hezron the father of Ram,

Ram the father of Amminadab,

Amminadab the father of Nahshon,

Nahshon the father of Salmon,

Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,

Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,

Obed the father of Jesse,

and Jesse the father of King David.

David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,

Solomon the father of Rehoboam,

Rehoboam the father of Abijah,

Abijah the father of Asa,

Asa the father of Jehoshaphat,

Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram,

Jehoram the father of Uzziah,

Uzziah the father of Jotham,

Jotham the father of Ahaz,

Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,

10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh,

Manasseh the father of Amon,

Amon the father of Josiah,

11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.

12 After the exile to Babylon:

Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,

Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,

13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud,

Abihud the father of Eliakim,

Eliakim the father of Azor,

14 Azor the father of Zadok,

Zadok the father of Akim,

Akim the father of Elihud,

15 Elihud the father of Eleazar,

Eleazar the father of Matthan,

Matthan the father of Jacob,

16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.

17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.


I’m sure I’m not the only one who grew up knowing this genealogy while paying it no attention, finding it of no interest, and rather wishing it wasn’t there to start the otherwise compelling narrative of Jesus ‘who is called the Messiah.’ Plus, I’ve only even heard half of those names, and only a ten or so have any meaning at all for me. Some seem completely obscure, and other seem to fade into the long and usually unread histories of the divided Israelite kingdom from the Books of 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles. There’s not much that jumps out as interesting at first glance. So I wonder what the three commentaries selected above (Carter, Duarte and Ezeogu) make of it, coming from their different angles. Let’s see what they reveal about the way politically-minded interpreters today are looking at these well worn but alien texts with fresh eyes today.

Let’s start with you, Warren Carter of New Zealand and the United States, specialist in Matthew studies. Carter’s view of the genealogy of Jesus sits within his guiding framework, where Matthew’s gospel is written around 80 AD in the Roman Imperial context of Antioch, in Syria. The genealogy is not busy trying to prove the Jewishness of Jesus to Jews, as was previously taken for granted in studies of Matthew that focused on the inter-religious dispute between those who thought and did not think Jesus was the promised Messiah. The genealogy’s interest is in placing Jesus’ role in God’s history firmly in Jewish ground against the ideas, at once utilised by the gospel writer, that Rome and Caesar were God’s plan. In the Carter chapter I selected above, he can only go into this in brief, saying:

The Gospel contextualizes the significance of Matthew’s Jesus in the opening genealogy not in conventional imperial terms of wealth, power and elite status, but in relation to God’s just purposes (1.1-17). These purposes, evoked by the genealogy, were previously manifested and enacted not in the mighty Roman Empire but in the small and often subjugated (see 1.11-16) nation of Israel. As God’s anointed (Messiah, 1.1, 16-17), Jesus continues God’s promise to Abraham (not to Rome) to bless all the nations of the earth with life (Gen. 12.1-3), not just the powerful, wealthy elite and allies of Rome. (p. 79)

And he wants to say that these accounts, that situate Jesus as a Jewish and not a Roman-style Messiah, are the prelim to the also subversive account of Mary’s unconsummated birth. The whole lineage of Jesus up to conception and his first new-born cries are counter-culturally awkward and imperially skewed. Carter has space to say more on it in his Matthew and Empire, written eight years prior:

“The opening seventeen verses of the Gospel display God’s sovereign purposes at work in human history. The genealogy embraces a sweep of Israel’s history from Abraham to King David (l:2-6a), to Babylonian exile (1:11-12), to the birth of the Christ (1:17). It views this history in a Christological perspective in that the coming of Jesus is the decisive event in a history that involves a whole host of characters beginning with Abraham. The genealogy demonstrates, among other things, that God supervises human history, that God’s purposes especially run through Israel (not Rome), that God’s purposes are not always faithfully embodied by humans but they are not thereby hindered (kings, exile), and that all sorts of humans (wicked and faithful, famous and obscure, firstborn and insignificant, male and female, Jew and Gentile) are caught up in those purposes.” (p. 60)

That’ll preach! A list comes to life here and isn’t so boring after all. I wonder what the Spanish / Argentino Alejandro Alberto Duarte will reveal, coming from the context of “an Argentinean who experienced the murder of eleven close friends at the hands of the military dictatorship of the late 1970s and early 1980s of his country” (as said by Sharon Betsworth in her contribution to an edited volume from which we’ll take two more genealogical readings after).

 

 

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