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No. 13 Roman Theological Forum | Article Index | Study Program September 1987
The Historical Meaning of the Forty-two Generations in Matthew 1:17

by John F. McCarthy

        For those who study deeply into the Gospel text, Matthew's prologue, contained in his first two chapters, is one of the most masterful pieces of writing ever presented to human eyes. The genealogy with which this prologue begins displays its full share of wondrous artistry, but so subtle is its turn that many commentators have failed to grasp the logic that it implies.

        Raymond Brown, in The Birth of the Messiah (p. 68), observes that, from the opening verse of his Gospel, "Matthew" (not the apostle) 1 presents Jesus to both the Jewish and the Gentile Christians of the community that he is addressing: "Jesus is heir to the promises made to David and kept alive in Judaism; he is also heir to the wider promise of blessings to the Gentiles made through Abraham." Matthew thus stresses by his genealogy "Jesus' insertion into a history and a people" (p. 69).

        The genealogy of Matthew, Brown points out, is intended to show "that the coming of the Messiah marks the end of God's carefully delineated plan" (p. 81). How does Matthew show this? Brown explains: "Matthew drew upon two genealogical lists already in existence in Greek," one covering the period from Abraham to David, and the other (a popular genealogy containing errors and omissions) covering the monarchical and early post-monarchical period. Matthew noted that there were fourteen names in the first list, and then he noticed that in the second (accidentally abbreviated) list there were fourteen more names down to the Babylonian Exile, and, by adding himself the names of Joseph and Jesus, a third set of fourteen emerged. "Giving rein to a predilection for numerical patterns, Matthew thought that he had discovered the key to God's plan of salvation, a 3 x 14 pattern" (p. 70). And thus was devised the message of Mt 1:17:

Therefore all the generations from Abraham to David (are) fourteen generations, and from David to the Babylonian Transmigration fourteen generations, and from the Babylonian Transmigration to Christ fourteen generations.

        Actually, Brown avers, there are only thirteen generations in the first set, but Matthew may have intended the unmentioned generation of Abraham as the fourteenth. In the second set four known historical generations have been left out, and in the third set there are only thirteen generations. Brown thinks that four generations in the second set had been accidentally omitted earlier by a copyist of Matthew's source, and Matthew did not realize this in making his count (p. 75). The third set, according to Brown, is plainly one of thirteen generations, but Matthew may have implicitly intended the omitted generation of Jechoniah (and Joakim begot Joachin [Jechoniah]) at the end of the second set.

        Could Matthew count? Raymond Brown, reading Matthew's genealogy from the viewpoint of a modern reader, does not plainly see fourteen generations in each of the three sets of names, but by using ingenuity he can "salvage Matthew's reputation as a mathematician." He cautions, for one thing, that we should not expect too much logic in Matthew's reasoning, since omissions are frequently made in tribal genealogies "for reasons that do not seem logical to the Western scientific mind" (pp. 82-84). 2

        Brown's reasoning leaves a big problem. In the light of the deficiencies that he sees in Matthew's counting, how can one seriously believe that Matthew really shows by his 3 x 14 pattern that "God planned from the beginning and with precision the Messiah's origins" (p. 80)? What kind of precision is this? And what could the number fourteen seriously mean in the message of Matthew? Brown believes that for Matthew fourteen was, indeed, "the magic number" (p. 74), but he cannot surmise what that number was supposed to mean. He knows of no special symbolism attached to the number fourteen, and, therefore, he cannot grasp at all the point that Matthew is trying to make. So, rather than "salvage" Matthew's reputation as a theologian, Brown leaves Matthew's theology of 3 x 14 generations in a very precarious state.

        Now, in order to appreciate what the numbers of Mt 1:17 are saying, it is necessary first to realize that the text is saying something on a literal and historical level and something additional on a symbolic level. The literal level has itself a plain meaning and, probably, a more subtle meaning as well that requires study in order to be perceived. The purpose of the plain literal meaning is to provide a general, although somewhat imprecise, idea of the data in which the spiritual message resides. The purpose of the more subtle literal meaning is to provide an implicit but precise historical statement of the facts in conformity with the spiritual message of the text. In this article I am addressing the literal meaning of Mt 1:17 on its plain and subtle levels, leaving the allegorical meaning for a subsequent writing.

        Let us look at the plain message of the text of Mt 1:17. Matthew states that from Abraham to King David there were fourteen generations. Commentators contend that there were more than fourteen generations. Thus, Raymond Brown (op. cit., p. 74) maintains that "even God did not arrange things so nicely that exactly fourteen biological generations separated such crucial moments in salvation history as the call of Abraham, the accession of David, the Babylonian Exile, and the coming of the Messiah." The spans of time, he continues, "are too great to have contained only fourteen generations each, since some 750 years separated Abraham from David, some 400 years separated David from the Babylonian Exile, and some 600 years separated the Babylonian Exile from Jesus' birth." But, we would respond, Matthew is not plainly saying that there were fourteen immediate biological generations in each period. In fact, when in his opening verse Matthew speaks of Jesus as "Son of David, son of Abraham," he is setting up a definition of terms which enlarges the notion of a generation. Just as Matthew can use the word 'son' to mean any descendant in the direct line, so can he use the word 'begot' to mean any ancestor in the direct line. Therefore, he does not err in saying in the second set of names that "Joram begot Oziah" (Mt 1:8), even though there were three immediate biological generations in between. Matthew is saying that there were fourteen undisqualified generations in each period of time, and his point has force as long as there is a discernible reason for omitting some of the immediate generations in keeping with the purpose of his writing.

        But how is there any cogency in first omitting three immediate generations between Joram and Oziah (also called Azariah) and then saying that all of the generations were fourteen? I think that the answer lies in the special meaning of a generation in the plain purpose of Matthew's writing. A generation signifies the passing on of the seed of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, and of David, together with the promises that were given to this seed. There is a fulfillment aspect and a polemic aspect in Matthew's purpose regarding this seed. There was a feeling abroad among the Jews that the Messiah to come would save and vindicate all of the descendants of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, for the one and only reason that they were the descendants of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, because God had promised so. Matthew intends to show that God fulfilled his promises, but not in the way that many were expecting. To show this, Matthew (1:23) recalls with slight variation the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 ("Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bring forth a son, and you will name him Emmanuel") with the historical setting that it implies.

        Basically, the prophecy was delivered by Isaiah to Achaz, son of Joatham and grandson of Oziah, mentioned above. The burden of the prophecy is this: You kings of Judah, you kingly descendants of David, have caused a lot of annoyance to people who matter. You presume that you can do anything you please, because God promised to Abraham and to David that in you, in the seed of Abraham and of David, will all the nations be blessed. But I want to tell you something, King Achaz. In the seed of Abraham and of David will all the nations be blessed. But it won't be your seed, passed down from David to you, and from you to your descendants that will produce the Savior. Rather, a virgin will conceive and bear a child without the concourse of any male seed, and you, the House of David, will name the child and will call Him, "God with us."

        The principal purpose of Matthew's first chapter is to show that this prophecy was completely fulfilled in the actual historical event of the coming of the Savior. The male seed was passed down from Abraham to David, from David to the last king, Jechoniah, and from Jechoniah to Joseph, in whom the prophecy was fulfilled. Joseph discovered ("behold") that the Virgin was with child, and he learned from God through an angel that this had happened by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, son of David, representing the House of David, accepted the Savior, accepted his Virgin Mother, and adored Jesus as "God with us." And Joseph named the Child, as Isaiah had prophesied he would do. Matthew's account of the generation of Jesus ends with the naming of Jesus by Joseph (Mt 1:25). Many commentators have missed the importance of this conclusion and the relationship that it has to Isa 7:14.

        How does Matthew stress by his genealogy "Jesus' insertion into a history and a people"? He does so basically in two different ways, first by the way in which he traces the descent of the seed of Abraham to David and then to Joseph, and secondly by his use of the number fourteen. These two devices are employed to show that God is the Lord of history, that the Messiah came at the time appointed by God, and that the promises of God to Abraham and to David were kept exactly.

        It is Matthew's use of the number fourteen that concerns us here. From the earliest times commentators have remarked that some immediate generations were omitted by Matthew, and the reason that they ascribe has to do with wickedness. Thus, the wickedness of Her and Onan (Gen 38) led to the elimination by God of one generation in the descent of the seed of Abraham to Joseph. Otherwise, the first set would have had fifteen names.

        Regarding the second set of "fourteen" generations, we read that "Joram begot Oziah" (Mt 1:18). But we know that Joram was actually the great-great-grandfather of Oziah, because Oziah is another name for Azariah (cf. 2 Chr 26:1; 2 Kg [4 Kg] 14:21), and in 1 Chr 3:11-12 we read: "and Joram begot Ochoziah, from whom sprang Joas, and his son Amasiah begot Azariah." Hence, Matthew omits the generations of Ochoziah, Joas, and Amasiah from his list, and the judgments given in the Old Testament upon these people may tell us why.

        St. Jerome 3 sees a reason in the fact that Joram married Athalia, the daughter of Jezebel of Sidon, who drew him deeper and deeper into the practices of idolatry, and that the three generations of sons succeeding him continued in the worship of idols. In the very first of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses on Mount Sinai it was stated: "Thou shalt not have foreign gods before me. ... Thou shalt not adore or serve them. I am the Lord thy God, powerful and jealous, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon their children unto the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, and showing mercy unto thousands to those that love me and keep my commandments" (Ex 20:3-6). Now Solomon was a sinner and an idolater (1 Kg f3 Kg] 11: 7-8), but he had a good man for his father and was therefore not punished in his own generation (1 Kg [3 Kg] 11:12).

        St. Augustine 4 points out that the same was true of Joram, who had Josaphat for his father, and therefore did not have his name removed from Matthew's genealogy (cf. 2 Chr 21:7).

        St. John Chrysostom 5 adds the further reason that the Lord had ordered the house of Ahab to be extirpated from the face of the earth (2 Kg [4 Kg] 9:8), and the three kings eliminated by Matthew were, as descendants of Athalia, of the seed of Ahab. Jehu eradicated the worship of Baal from Israel, but he did not forsake the golden calves in Bethel and Dan. Nevertheless, the Lord said to him: "Because you have diligently performed what was right and pleasing in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab in keeping with everything that was in my heart, your children shall sit upon the throne of Israel unto the fourth generation (2 Kg [4 Kg] 10:28-31). So it is interesting to note that while these generations of Jehu were inserted into the royal lineage of Israel, the three generations of Ahab were taken out of the genealogy of Jesus by the judgment of God through the inspired pen of St. Matthew.

        In concluding his second set of fourteen generations, Matthew says (Mt 1:11): "And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the deportation to Babylon." This statement seems erroneous. Critics have from the earliest times pointed out that the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Chr 3:15-16) tells a different story: "And the sons of Josiah were, the firstborn Johanan, the second Joakim, the third Sedekiah, the fourth Sellum. Of Joakim were born Jechoniah, and Sedekiah." So Matthew 1:11 should read: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers. And Joakim begot Joachin (Jechoniah) just before the deportation to Babylon." The pagan philosopher Porphyry claimed that this confusion of persons proves the existence of historical errors in the Gospels.

        Two basic solutions to this problem of "confusion of persons" in Jechoniah have been proposed.

        A) St. Augustine 6 takes the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:11 and Mt 1:12 (who begot Salathiel) to be Joachin, the son of Joakim. He thinks that Matthew may have omitted the name of Joakim deliberately in order to show that Joakim ruled, not by divine right, but by the will of Pharao Nechao, as well as to arrive at the number of fourteen generations for the second set. This makes fourteen generations for the third set also, if Jechoniah is counted twice: once as the son of Josiah and again as the father of Salathiel; that is, once as concluding the royal descent of the seed of David and again as beginning the generations of private individuals.

        This solution has some reasonability. Jeremiah's prescription, "Write this man barren, a man that shall not prosper in his days, for there shall not be a man of his seed that shall sit upon the throne of David and have power in Judah any more" (Jer 22:30), referring to this Jechoniah, could have been taken by Matthew as an editorial directive for himself. The royal seed ran out with the capture of Jechoniah by Nebuchadnezzar, but after thirty-seven years of imprisonment the same Jechoniah was given a new lease on life as a private citizen and was able to have children (Jer 52:31-34). Just as Abraham and his nephew Lot are called brothers (Gen 13:11) and just as the sons of Joseph were adopted by Jacob and made brothers of their uncles (Gen 48:5), so could Joachin have been reputed the son of Josiah and the brother of his uncles. Just as Abraham in this genealogy is counted as a generation even though his begetting is not recorded here, so could Jechoniah the captive conceivably be counted as a generation, even though he is already counted in the preceding set: the descent of the seed turns a corner with Jechoniah, and the promise passes to more chastened children of Abraham and of David; as a humble citizen and expatriate, Jechoniah is able to begin the descent of the fourteen final generations to the birth of the Savior.

        B) St. Jerome 7 takes the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:11 to be Joakim and the 'Jechoniah' of Mt 1:12 to be his son Joachim. Since the names Joakim and Joachin are almost alike, they could have been confused by a copyist or a translator. 8 By linguistic analogy the appellation 'Jekoniah' could be applied to Joakim, or even, according to Cornelius a Lapide, with the spelling 'Jechoniah' by linguistic assimilation. Thus the 'Jechoniahs' in verses 11 and 12 could refer to father and son.

        St. Ambrose 9 says that the connecting link, "Jekoniah begot Jechoniah," was not expressed by Matthew because he wanted to stress the separation produced by the deportation to Babylon. Epiphanius 10 says that Matthew did express it, but a later copyist left it out, and some Greek and Latin codices do have it in. The explanation of Epiphanius would make fifteen generations in the second set, since Joachin was begotten before the deportation to Babylon, whereas that of Ambrose preserves the fourteen generations by positing a tacit link in the chain of generations.

        We thus begin to see a point that Matthew is making with his three sets of fourteen generations. The Messiah came, and the promise was fulfilled in the forty-second generation from Abraham. Some generations had not been qualified to be included in the count because of absolute wickedness: Her and Onan, Ochoziah, Joas, Amasiah, and Joakim/Joachin (one or the other, since both had been extremely wicked). Perhaps other generations have been omitted as well for the same reason. But God was merciful. Many other persons in the chain of generations were admitted into the count, even though they were involved in evil themselves. Thus, Judah begot Phares as an intended act of adultery and with no thought of the passing on of the seed of Abraham (Gen 38); David sinned grievously in taking to wife Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon (2 Sam [2 Kg] 11); Solomon fell into idolatry (1 Kg [3 Kg] 11:1-4); Roboam was a cruel and idolatrous king (1 Kg [3 Kg] 12 and 14); Abia "walked in all the sins of his father" (1 Kg [3 Kg] 15:3); Joram was an evil king (2 Chron 21); Achaz (to whose face Isaiah foretold the Virginal Conception of Jesus) cast statues to Baal and "sacrificed to pagan gods in the high places and on the hills and under every green tree" (2 Kg [4 Kg] 16). Yet God allowed these generations to be included in the count. The resulting generations are 3 x 14, a long period of time, to be sure, but God could have waited for 7 x 14 generations, or even for 70 x 14 generations, and mankind would still not have received more punishment than it deserved. The lesson that Matthew is teaching actually illustrates the mercy of God.

        Is there a subtle historical message contained in the seemingly rude mathematics of Matthew's genealogy? If there is such a meaning, it will necessarily remain elusive and ambiguous, but it will also correspond in a rewarding manner to penetrating scientific inquiry, even though it may not teach or express scientific truth in a plain and pedagogical manner. Let us look again at Matthew's number pattern.

        To begin with, Matthew's three sets of fourteen generations appear to be divided according to the notion of a primitive 28-day month. From the new moon of Abraham Jewish history waxes to the full moon of David; then it wanes to the blackout of the Babylonian Deportation; and finally it waxes again to the full moon of the coming of the Messiah. Such an image would convey a messianic meaning as well as illustrate the unfolding of the Providence of God, and I think that this lunar image is suggested to some extent by the 14 x 3 generations, 11 but the full historical meaning seems much more refined than that. Looking at the lunar image, we find that David was in some sense the greatest king of the Jews: Jewish history waxed from Abraham to David. The Babylonian Captivity was perhaps the greatest catastrophe of the Jews before the time of Christ: Jewish history waned from David to the Captivity. And the coming of the Messiah was the culmination of the ancestral expectations: Jewish history waxed from the Captivity to Jesus. In this sense the lunar image fits the text of Mt 1:17.

        In biblical imagery the moon often represents the beauty and stability of nature. Thus the Spouse of Christ is described in Cant 6:9: "Who is she that comes forth as the morning rising, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army set in battle array?" But the moon in Sacred Scripture is also a witness to the fickleness of human endeavors and the futility of human events transpiring in an atmosphere of moral iniquity. Thus, the paschal lamb was sacrificed under the full noon of the first Hebrew month, in the evening of the fourteenth day (Ex 12:6), because this act symbolized the merciful intervention of God, but also because this day symbolized the plenitude of the iniquity of men. Christ, the true Paschal Lamb, died under the full moon of the same first month of the Hebrew year, not only as the supreme act of divine mercy, but also because iniquity was seen to have reached its height at that moment (cf. Lk 22:53).

        The phases of Hebrew history can therefore be read in an opposite sense. David, a prototype of Jesus Christ, was given to the Hebrew people in the fourteenth generation from Abraham as an act of divine mercy, but the true Savior did not come at that time because of the evilness of the people. In fact, it was out of inordinate desire for worldly glory and power that the Hebrew people clamored to have a king, and they were given kings, not unto their happiness and prosperity, but rather unto their punishment and oppression (1 Sam [1 Kg] 8:ll-20). Again, the Savior could have come in the fourteenth generation of the second set, but because the people were evil, and their kings were exceedingly evil, they received instead the Deportation to Babylon. But the Savior was born in the fourteenth generation of the third set (although mankind did not yet deserve Him), because the fullness of time had come according to God's Providence, and a truly good man, St. Joseph, had arisen from the seed of David, able to appreciate the Virginal Conception and to adore the Divine Child as his God. This Sitz-im-Leben (life situation) of good and evil seems to be implied in Matthew's Infancy Narrative and in the Old Testament imagery which forms its background.

        We can see in Psalm 88 (89) a possible backdrop to the lunar imagery of Matthew's genealogy. "I have made a covenant with my elect; I have sworn to David my servant: thy seed I will set up forever. And I will build up thy throne unto generation and generation. The heavens shall confess thy wonders, 0 Lord, and thy truth in the church of the saints. ... Once have I sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David: his seed shall endure forever. And his throne as the sun before me, and as the moon perfect forever, and a faithful witness in heaven" (Ps 88:4-6; 36-38; cf. Ps 71 [72]: 1-7).

        But even more directly does the message of Matthew 1:17 reflect the Book of Isaiah, which opens with sombre words about the moon and the wicked royal descendants of David, and which concludes in the joyful vision of the months and festivals of the Jews and Gentiles converted to the blessed seed of David, Jesus Christ: "The vision of Isaiah the son of Amos, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Oziah, Joathan, Achaz, and Ezechiah, kings of Judah. ... Woe to the sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a wicked seed, delinquent children: they have forsaken the Lord, they have blasphemed the Holy One of Israel, they are gone away backwards. ... Offer sacrifice no more in vain; incense is an abomination to me. The new moons, and the sabbaths, and other festivals I will not abide; your assemblies are wicked. My soul hates your new moons and your solemnities; they are troublesome to me, I am weary of bearing them" (Isa 1:1, 4, 13-14). This opening of Isaiah contrasts with its conclusion: "For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make stand before me, says the Lord, so shall your seed stand, and your name. And there shall be month after month, and sabbath after sabbath, (and) all flesh shall come to adore before my face, says the Lord" (Isa 66:22-23).

        Let us now take a closer look at Matthew's calendar. A month of 28 days (4 seven-day weeks) is not as primitive as it sounds. In fact, a year of 13 28-day months (which equal 364 days) plus one more day at the end of each year and an additional day in the same leap years as on the Gregorian Calendar would be as accurate a calendar as is the Gregorian. In ancient times, of course, men did not have the means of computing the exact length of the solar year except by observation. But the length of the thirteen 28-day-month calendar described above could have been accurately determined by observing the heliacal rising of a bright star like Sirius 12 and adjusting the new year accordingly. Two advantages of such a calendar are that dates of a month always fall on the same day of the week, and each month has an even four weeks.

        Yet, the moon has tended to impose itself conspicuously upon the measurement of time, and months related to the phases of the moon have become units of almost every calendar. It was early recognized, however, that the lunar month is longer than twenty-eight days, and it was also discovered that the cycles of the moon vary in length; what is more, these cycles do not coincide with the solar year. The average length of a lunar ('synodic') month, during which the moon goes through all of its phases, is 29.53059 days, that is, slightly more than 29.5days; it actually varies in irregular succession from 29.26 days to 29.80 days. A further perennial problem of lunar calendars is that the solar year is not evenly divisible into lunar months. In fact, the solar ('tropical') year is 365.2422 days in Length, while twelve lunar months are only 354.3670 days in length. Therefore, the year of twelve lunar months is about eleven days (10.8752 days) shorter than the solar year. This shortfall has to be corrected by the 'intercalation' (insertion) of an extra lunar month in a cycle of years. For instance, in a cycle of eight years, three years would have thirteen months and the other five years would have twelve. The resulting eight-year cycle would be just 1.5906 days longer than eight exact solar years.

        As late as the seventh century A.D. the Moslem Arabs adopted a calendar of twelve lunar months with no intercalary corrections; it is still in use today. Since this calendar is about eleven days (10.8752 days) shorter than the true solar year, it slips gradually through the seasons and around the solar year until it comes back to its original position about once every 33.6 years.

        A look at the article 'Calendar' in any standard encyclopedia will show how complex and complicated has been the effort to produce accurate calendars composed of lunar months. 13 In Babylonia, three centuries of careful lunar observations enabled the framing of a calendar set up on a fixed l9-year cycle containing 235 lunar months, divided in such a way that twelve of the nineteen years had twelve months and the other interspersed seven years had thirteen months. This calendar deviated from true solar time by only about two hours in nineteen years, or less than one day in two centuries. It was in use in Babylonia by 367 B.C., and it has been in continuous use in some parts of the world ever since. The year began originally, as in the Hebrew calendar, with the new moon following the vernal equinox, but after 312 B.C., in the Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Syria, the new year was set to begin with the new moon following the autumnal equinox. This 19-year cycle was adopted by the Hebrews for their religious calendar and is still basically in use by them; it is also used by Christians for determining the date of Easter. 14

        In Egypt the primitive lunar calendar was replaced by a solar calendar as early as 2773 B.C. This solar calendar consisted of twelve 30-day months followed by an intercalary period of five days to make a year of 365 days; it began in coincidence with the heliacal rising of Sirius (Sothis), i.e., if I am not mistaken, on July 19 of the Gregorian Calendar. But since this 'Sothic year' was about a fourth of a day shorter than the true solar year (exactly 0.242199 days) it ran ahead of true solar time at a rate of about one day every four years, and this deviation was not corrected, so that each respective day and season of the calendar slipped all around the solar year in a period of 1507 true solar years, at the end of which time the first day of the year once again coincided with the heliacal rising of Sirius. The inconvenience and confusion of such slippage can easily be imagined, as well as the complexity of determining the true season and date of a happening in the past.

        Some of these efforts to construct an accurate chronological system seem to be implicit in the background of Matthew's numbering of the generations. But even more so is the crucial intervention made by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., when he proclaimed the Julian Calendar and made it official for the Roman Empire. Caesar intervened to abolish the lunar calendar then in use in Rome, with its intercalary month, and based the civil year entirely on the sun.

        Those who say that Matthew miscounted his third set of generations, calling fourteen what are only thirteen, may be missing the fact that Matthew has actually set up two cycles of generations, one of forty generations from Abraham to Joseph, and a second of two generations, those of Mary and Jesus. Matthew's counting would be correct, for, according to his system, the first person in a cycle counts as a generation. Just as Abraham is the first generation of the first cycle, so Mary is the first generation of the second cycle. The two cycles are simultaneous rather than successive: a) the seed of Abraham does not pass from Joseph to Jesus; b) the second cycle could have occurred biologically at any point in the forty-generation cycle.

        Let us compare Matthew's mathematics with the Julian Calendar. An interesting thing about the Julian Calendar is that it sets up a "perpetual calendar" of fourteen months in a cycle of twenty-eight years. 15 The characteristic numbers of this cycle are, therefore, fourteen, and twenty-eight. Another curious thing about this calendar is that it does have a month of twenty-eight days, February, which becomes twenty-nine days in the final year of each 4-year cycle. These facts could be mathematical clues to a subtle chronological message that Matthew is giving to us: the exact date of the Birth of the Messiah.

        The Julian Reform of the old Roman Calendar went into effect early in the year 46 B.C. (of the Gregorian Calendar) with regard to the filling in of the ninety days or so that the old Roman Calendar was by that time running ahead of the true solar year. Then the new Julian Calendar went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C. This was Julian Year l. In ancient times it was the priests who traditionally determined when the new month and when the new year began. So it was among the Jews, and so it was among the Romans. In fact, it was as pontifex maximus, or high priest, that Julius Caesar proclaimed his reform of the Roman Calendar. Now, pagan Roman priests had been responsible for the great deviation of the old Roman Calendar, and pagan Roman priests proceeded to cause errors in the new Julian Calendar. In fact, Caesar's plan called for a 29th day in February (doubling the 24th day) in every fourth year, but the priests mistakenly provided the extra day in every third year, beginning with Julian Year 3. Thus, by Julian Year 36, there had been twelve leap years instead of nine, with the result that the Julian Calendar had slipped about three days behind solar time. Augustus Caesar then intervened to proclaim a period of twelve years with no leap years included in order to bring the Julian Calendar back to solar time. 16 Thus there was no leap year (officially) in or near the year of the Birth of the Savior. We are left with the curious historical fact that, at the time of the Birth of the Savior, the erroneous Julian Calendar, as implemented by the pagan priests, was running about two days behind the correct solar time, but the true Julian Calendar, as projected by Julius Caesar, had not by that date deviated as much as a single day from the correct solar time. 17

        The background material on ancient calendars is challenging; it invites the further investigation of those who are able to look into the question with an open mind and in an orderly manner. The seeming mathematical inaccuracy in the inspired text of Mt 1:17 may actually be a subtle invitation to ponder the verse for deeper meaning. We know that the Church has traditionally celebrated the anniversary of the naming of Jesus on January first. Could this be an implicit adherence to history that is based in part on the same tradition that is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew?

        While such a correlation is conjectural and by no means an established fact or a plain reading of the text of Matthew, I do propose it for the further study of competent scholars, because it is not only coherent with Christian faith but also potentially satisfying to the scientific mind. That Jesus Christ would have come in the forty-second year after Julius Caesar subjected the 'whole world' to his new framework of time - a framework which became the chronological instrument of Western civilization and of the Christian Church down to the present day - is not out of keeping with the biblical approach, which emphasizes the contrast between the interventions of the powers of this world and the subtle unfolding of the Providence of God.

        Isaiah 7:14 predicted that the House of David would adore and name the Infant Savior, virginally conceived. St. Joseph, the 40th generation of the seed of Abraham, adored and named the Infant Jesus, conceived of the Virgin Mary, whose generation became the 41st by reason of her espousal to Joseph. The naming of the Savior is important in the prophecy of Isaiah, and it is doubly important in Matthew's description of Jesus' birth, which ends precisely with the naming of Jesus by Joseph (Mt 1:25). Jesus was thus probably named on the first day of the 42nd Julian year, January 1, 4 B.C., haying been born seven days earlier, on December 25, 5 B.C.

        It might seem more symmetrical according to Matthew's numbers for the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 to have taken place at the end of the 42nd Julian year rather than at the beginning. But the biblical period of waiting for a fruitful result lies especially in the number 40, and this number was fulfilled in the generation of Joseph. Then began the supernatural cycle, with the Annunciation to Mary occurring in the 41st Julian year. The symbolism of the number 42 could, of course, rest in the completion of 42 years from the decree of Julius Caesar early in 46 B.C., inaugurating the Julian Reform, but it seems more in keeping with the tenor of Matthew's mathematics to locate the climactic moment at the exact beginning of the 42nd year of the new Julian Calendar.

        While the number 14 has special symbolic reference to the allegorical sense of Mt 1:17, we might consider some historical implications of Matthew's implicit "month" of twenty-eight generations. Julian Year 28, by Julius Caesar's projection, should have been a leap year; that is, February should have had 29 days. By human historical error, February of Julian Year 28 had only 28 days. Comparing this fact with Mt 1:17, we find that, by modern historical accuracy, Matthew's 28th generation should have been doubled (Joakim / Joachin), but Matthew fuses the two generations into one. Is there subtle irony in this fusion?

        Furthermore, in the plan of Julius Caesar, the extra day in a leap year was to be inserted immediately after February 24. Looking at Matthew's genealogy we find that the 24th generation from Abraham was Ezekiah, son of Achaz, which son had just been born when Isaiah delivered the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 to Achaz. The subtle message in Matthew 1:17 could be that the Messiah was not born to Ezekiah but to a virgin; that is, the divine intervention did not come upon the 24th generation, but rather it came entirely apart from the whole biological succession of male seed and at the time decreed by the Providence of God, namely, at the time of the fortieth generation (since the number forty symbolizes the end of a fruitful period of waiting) and as the forty-second generation (40 + 2), which is the second generation of the supernatural cycle.

        The proposal of a deep mathematical meaning beneath the simple numbers of Matthew's 3 x 14 generations does not change in any way the plain reading of the text, but it does aim to provide a deeper understanding of the historicity of this verse and of the exactness of Matthew's mathematics.


1. Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), p. 45: "Most scholars today maintain that the [Matthean] Gospel was written in Syria by an unknown Greek-speaking Jewish Christian, living in the 80s in a mixed community with converts of both Jewish and Gentile descent. ... There would be nearly unanimous agreement in scientific circles today that the evangelist is unknown, although we continue the custom of referring to him as 'Matthew.'"
     It is true that many scholars have been saying that the Gospel of Matthew was not written by the Apostle Matthew, but it is an exaggeration to call their thinking scientific.

2. Cf. M. D. Johnson, The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies with Special Reference to the Setting of the Genealogies of Jesus, in New Testament Studies Monograph Series, No. 8 (Cambridge University, 1969), p. 166.

3. The following discussion from the Fathers of the Church is based principally upon the presentation given by Thomas Aquinas in his linear commentaries: Readings on the Gospel of St. Matthew and Catena Aurea: Matthew, especially verses 8, 11, and 17 of Matthew's chapter 1.

4. Augustine of Hippo, De quaestionibus novi et veteris testamenti, question 85.

5. John Chrysostom, Commentary on Matthew, homily 1.

6. Augustine of Hippo, De consensu evangelistarum libri 4, in PL, vol. 34, col. 1076. So also John Chrysostom, Commentary, on Matthew.

7. St. Jerome, Linear Commentary, on Dan 1:1.

8. The opinion that a copyist of Matthew's text inadvertently omitted three names in the second set because of the resemblance of Ochoziah and Oziah was later defended by Gaspar Sanchez (1553-1628) in his commentary on 2 Kg [4 Kg] 14:18. Again, Sanchez held that the copyist had also accidentally skipped "Jeconiah begot Jechoniah" because of the similarity of names.

9. St. Ambrose, Commentary on Luke, ch. 2. Another possibility is that the chain of generations is not broken by the exile, but the two generations of Joakim and Joachin have been condensed into one. The generation of Joachin may have been editorially absorbed into that of his father as a means of "writing him barren" (Jeremiah 22:30); linguistic license would enable Matthew to impose the name Jechoniah upon Joakim to fulfill the prophecy of Jeremiah regarding the latter: "They shall not mourn for him" (Jer 22:18). With an adroit stroke of the pen Matthew could have wiped out the memory of Joakim and the generation of Joachin, while retaining the memory of Joachin and the generation of Joakim and his brothers, with all the infamy that it brings to mind and all the strictures against it that are recorded in the Book of Jeremiah. By this reading Josiah begot Jechoniah (Joakim) and his brothers, and Jechoniah (Joakim) begot Salathiel through Joachin (Jechoniah), whose begetting is not expressed. The name 'Jechoniah' means "the Lord has put right," and Matthew would be saying that the Lord put the royal seed right by bringing on the Babylonian captivity and ending the royal successsion.

10. St. Epiphanius, On the Sect of the Epicureans. Cf. Jacques Masson, Jésus, Fils de David dans les Généalogies de Saint Matthieu et de Saint Luc (Paris: Téqui, 1982), pp. 49-63, who also holds that a copyist omitted the link "and Joakim begot Jechoniah (Joachin) in the Babylonian Transmigration."
     Raymond Brown's idea that 'Matthew' unwittingly used a Greek genealogy damaged by the errors of an earlier translator from the Hebrew seems untenable in the light of all the data, taking into consideration especially the reasons that Matthew had for omitting some of the names. But the possibility that Matthew wittingly took a defective genealogical record with four names missing and used it to contrast with the true story that he had to tell (Mt 1:l8-25) cannot be entirely excluded in view of the principle of historical reservation (see Living Tradition No. 11, p. 8).
     The theory of Epiphanius, taken up in our day by Jacques Masson and others, is that a translator from Hebrew to Greek of Matthew's genealogy inadvertently confused the generations of Joakim and Joachin. Masson argues that verse 11 of the genealogy must in the Hebrew originally have read as follows: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers; and Joakim begot Joachin... ." The translator into Greek must have written the verse in this way: "And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers; and Joakim begot Joakim...." A copyist would then have dropped as redundant the clause "and Joakim begot Joakim," while a later copyist in order to bring the remaining part of the verse into consonance with verse 12, changed it to read: "And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers."
     While this is a carefully thought out explanation, it has several weaknesses. It supposes a series of errors of transcription with no checking either by the scribes involved or by those around them, and there is no documentary evidence for such a happening. Conceptually, this explanation assumes that there were fifteen generations in the second set, since Joachin (Jechoniah) was born before the Babylonian Transmigration, and that is excluded by verse 17. Finally, it ignores the possibility that Matthew used the name 'Jechoniah' precisely to avoid confusion with the name of his father Joakim.

11. "The two Hebrew words for month are yéráh and hodésh, whose primitive meaning, 'moon,' 'new moon,' points to the dependence of the Jewish month on the phases of the moon. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew months have always been lunar, and extended from one new moon to another." Francis E. Gigot, "Calendar, Jewish," in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1908 edition).

12. As a bright star moves away from vicinity to the sun in the annual revolution of the heavens, it pops back into sight with an unaided visual regularity accurate to within a few hours.

13. Cf., for example, the articles "Calendar" ("Calendario") in the Encyclopedia Americana, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Enciclopedia Cattolica, and the Enciclopedia Italiana.

14. Cf. "Calendar," in the Encyclopedia Americana (vol. 19 - 1967 - 191; Herbert Thurston, "Calendar," in the Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 3 - l908 - 158-160).

15. See "Perpetual Calendar" in The World Almanac or in any comparable source. The term is taken, not in the sense of a calendar of 13 fixed 28-day months, but in the sense of the pattern of 14 different day-of-the-week and date-of-the-month relationships set up by the Julian Calendar.

16. See the Encyclopedia Italiana, art. "Calendario," vol. VIII, pp. 399-400.

17. It is true that, because the 28-year cycle of the Julian Calendar ran slightly slower than the true solar year (taking about 11 minutes and 14 seconds longer than the solar year), it fell behind true solar time by about one day in l28 years. This error was corrected by the Gregorian Reform in 1582, which eliminated three leap years at the turn of every four centuries, thus reducing the excess to 26 seconds a year, or one day in 3,323 years. But the fact is that, at the time of Jesus' birth and naming, the true Julian Calendar (as projected by Julius Caesar) had not deviated from true solar time by as much as a single day.

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