LESSON 17: OCTOBER 2006 (revised February 2007)


by John F. McCarthy

112. The 42 generations to Jesus in Matthew 1. Matthew 1:17 states as follows: “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.” This cal­culation immediately follows the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew. Father Raymond Brown avers that actually there are only thirteen generations in the first set, unless the unmentioned generation of Abraham is to be included at the beginning of the list; that, in the second set, four known generations have been omitted from the genealogy; and that, in the third set, there are by count only thirteen generations. Father Brown, as a modern Scripture scholar and well-known historical critic, conjectures how this portentous but mistaken number fourteen came to appear in Matthew's Gospel. The final editor of this Gospel (not actually St. Matthew, he says), in drawing from two genealogical lists that already existed in Greek, happened to notice that there were fourteen names in an official list from Abraham to David, and that in a second list, which was a popular genealogy containing errors and omissions, he noted that again there were fourteen names from David to the Babylonian Deporta­tion. By adding himself the names of Joseph and Jesus to the end of this second list of popular provenance he thought he counted fourteen more names, although, Fr. Brown points out, there are clearly only thirteen, as anyone can see simply by counting them. And so editor “Matthew” arrived at this 3 × 14 pattern, which showed for him in some mysterious way that the coming of the Messiah was the key to God's plan of salvation. “Matthew” plainly could not count, but, says Father Brown, by using some “ingenuity” he could “salvage Matthew's reputation as a math­ema­tician,” although he does not in fact undertake to do so. 3

113. The problem of Father Brown's interpretation. If the Gospels are to be taken seriously, it is clear that St. Matthew could not actually show God's plan of salvation on the basis of false numbers. If Matthew's lists are mistaken, and if his counting is mistaken, he has no true message to give in verse 17. Father Brown is not interested in using some “ingenuity” to “salvage Matthew's reputation,” because his method of form-criticism depends upon finding mistakes in the text of the Gospels. When another mistake is detected, the method advances; when a mistake fails to appear, the method hits a snag. Father Brown knows that the seeming errors he mentions here were recognized from early times and adroitly answered by the Fathers of the Church. But he rejects their kind of “ingenuity” as an obsolete method of interpretation.

114. How many generations in the first two sets? (Suggestion: Read the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-16). Father Brown avers that the time spans were too great to allow only fourteen biological generations in each of the three sets of the genealogy, since some 750 years intervened between Abraham and David, another 400 years separated David from the Babylonian Deportation, and another 600 years separated the Babylonian Deportation from the time of Jesus' birth. But Matthew is not necessarily always talking here about immediate generations. In the opening verse of the chapter, Matthew calls Jesus the “son of David, son of Abraham,” so obviously he is also using the word “son” in the extended sense of “descendant in the direct line,” and he may just as well correctly use the word “begot” in the sense of any ancestor in the direct line. For Matthew the word “generation” signifies the passing on of the seed of Abraham and of David. Some immediate generations were omitted by Matthew because of the wickedness of the bearers of the seed. Thus the supreme wickedness of the brothers Her and Onan (Gen 38) led to the elimination of one potential generation from the first set of names (cf. Matt 1:3). And the emergence of Abraham without naming his father is correspondingly included as the founder of the line. In the second set we read that “Joram begot Uzziah” (Matt 1:8), whereas, according to the Old Testament, Joram begot Ahaziah, and Ahaziah begot Joash, and Joash begot Amaziah, and Amaziah begot Azariah, who was also known as Uzziah (1 Chr 3:11-12). So here three immediate generations have been skipped, and St. John Chrysostom gives for a reason that these three omitted kings were evil descendants of the idolatress Athalia, daughter of Jezebel of Sidon, and the Lord had ordered this wicked house to be extirpated from the face of the earth (2 Kg [4 Kg] 9:8). Thus there result fourteen generations in each of the first two sets.

115. How many generations in the third set? Father Brown counts only thirteen generations in the third and final set of names, although he admits that Matthew may have implicitly intended the omitted generation of Jechoniah (“and Joakim begot Joachin [Jechoniah]”) at the beginning of this set. Matt 1:11 reads: “And Josiah begot Jechoniah and his brothers in the deportation to Babylon,” whereas, according to the Old Testament (cf. 1 Chr 3:15-16), Matt 1:11 should read: “And Josiah begot Joakim and his brothers. And Joakim begot Joachin (Jechoniah) in the deportation to Babylon.” How does one answer this “confusion of persons”? St. Augustine4 thinks that Matthew may have omitted the name of Joakim because he ruled, not by divine right, but by the will of Pharao Nechao and that Jechoniah counts twice, at the end of the second set and at the beginning of the third set, because Jechoniah ended the royal descent of the seed and began the generations of private individuals (cf. Jer 22:30). Just as a block on the corner of a stone building is counted twice, so the descent of the seed of Abraham and of David “turned a corner” in the person of Jechoniah. And just as Abraham and his nephew Lot are called brothers in Gen 13:11, so could Jechoniah have been called the “brother” of his uncles (cf. also the sons of Joseph in Gen 48:5). St. Jerome, using a principle of linguistic analogy, expresses the opinion that the “Jechoniah” of the second set is Joakim and the “Jechoniah” of the third set is Joakim's son.5 Others have said that a generation was omitted here through a copyist's error, namely, “and Jechoniah (Joakim) begot Jechoniah.”6

Thus, by adding the generation, “and Jechoniah (Joakim) begot Jechoniah,” at the beginning of the third set of names, the third group of fourteen names would be completed. But the generation “Josiah begot Joakim” may have been omitted deliberately, and so another solution is also possible, namely, that the thirteenth name in the third set is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This would also divide the third set of names implicitly into twelve names in the natural order, coming down to Joseph, and two names in the hypostatic order, those of Mary and Jesus.

116. A qualifying feature underlying Matthew's mathematics. From these considerations one can gather that Matthew was reporting true history, but according to a method that also included some deep spiritual meanings. The Messiah came, and the prophecies to Abraham and to David were fulfilled, with the conception of Jesus in the forty-second generation, but some of the links were not considered worthy to be mentioned in the chain of descent. Some other persons were retained in the count, even though they too had been involved in evil. Thus Judah begot Phares (Perez) as an intended act of adultery and with no thought of passing on the seed of Abraham. David sinned grievously in committing murder in order to take to wife Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon, and Solomon himself fell into idolatry. Rehoboam was a cruel and idolatrous king. Abijah “walked in all the sins of his father.” Joram was an evil king, and Ahaz, to whose face Isaiah foretold the Virginal Conception of Jesus, cast statues of Baal and “sacrificed to pagan gods in the high places and on the hills and under every green tree.” Yet the Holy Spirit allowed these men to be included in the count. So there seems to be a message of divine mercy in this calculation. If all who had done notable evil had been omitted from the list, the coming of Jesus might have been much later. And the time of salvation could have been set, not at 3 × 14 generations, but at 7 × 14 generations, or even at 70 × 14 generations.

117. The allegory of numbers. The deliberate omission of certain names, and the adding of certain others (Abraham and Mary ) in the genealogy of Mathew to reach the number 14 × 3 = 42, seems to indicate a special message that the Holy Spirit through Matthew wished to communicate, having to do with the allegory of names and of numbers. Prescinding from the allegory of names in this genealogy, which is treated extensively by St. Thomas Aquinas and other ecclesiastical writers, the allegory of numbers in Sacred Scripture is much more speculative, and there is no official teaching of the Church. My personal opinion in this regard is as follows. In the context of Matt 1:17, I see the number 1 as standing for God or for God the Father, the number two for the Divine Word, the number three for the Most Holy Trinity or for the Holy Spirit, the number six for man in general or for the humanity of Jesus, and the number seven for sanctity in general or for the sanctified humanity of Jesus, Hence, in the genealogy of Matthew, the number 14, as composed of 2 × 7, I speculate stands for the Incarnate Word. Similarly, I speculate that the number 42, as composed of 3 × 14, stands for the Mystical Body of Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And that is a deeper reason for which Matthew seems to be saying that there were 42 generations leading up to the conception of Jesus. Incidentally the Bible was not divided into chapters and verses until many centuries after the Gospels were written, but it is curious to note that the prediction of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, which is cited in Matthew 1:23, is taken from what is now designated as Isaiah 7:14.

118. A hidden date included as well? Could there be a subtle historical message hidden beneath the seemingly crude mathematics of the forty-two generations by which Matthew is telling us the exact date of the birth of Jesus? If there is, it would necessarily remain elusive and ambiguous, but its discovery could be rewarding. If the Holy Spirit, through Matthew, were to give us the date of the birth of Jesus, which calendar would He have used?

a. The Hebrew Lunar Calendar. A simple lunar calendar consists of a 28-day month, from the new moon to the full moon and back to the new moon again. From the new moon of Abraham to the full moon of David, who is a figure of Christ (14 gener­ations) to the new moon of the Babylonian Deportation (28 generations) and onward to the full moon of the coming of Christ there are 42 generations. The ancient Hebrews used a lunar calendar, and the Paschal Lamb was sacrificed in the evening of the 14th day under the full moon of the first Hebrew month (cf. Ex 12:6).

b. The Babylonian Calendar. The lunar calendar used in Babylonia from about 367 B.C. had a 19-year cycle in which 12 of the 19 years had twelve months and the other interspersed 7 years had 13 months. This calendar deviated from true solar time by a little less than one day every two centuries. It was more than a day off in the time of Jesus.

c. The Egyptian Calendar. The solar calendar used in Egypt from about 2773 B.C. was about a fourth of a day short of the true solar year, and this deviation was not corrected, so that each respective day and season slipped all around the true solar year every 1507 true solar years. It was off of true solar time when Jesus was born.

d. The Julian Calendar. Julius Caesar abolished the lunar calendar of Rome, which by that time was running 90 days ahead, and set up the Julian calendar, which went into effect on January 1, 45 B.C. At the time of the birth of the Savior, the Julian calendar, as mistakenly interpreted by the high priests of Rome, was running about two days behind true solar time, but the true Julian Calendar, as projected by Julius Caesar, was correct to the day. The Julian Calendar was the official calendar of the Roman Empire at that time and has remained (with the Gregorian adjustments) the official calendar of Western civilization down to the present time. What I am suggesting is purely conjectural and in no way established, but I think that the Julian Calendar could have been used to hide the exact date of the birth of Jesus. So here is the calculation. Matthew's Infancy Narrative ends with the naming of Jesus by his foster father Joseph at the end of chapter two. This event would have taken place a week after the birth of Jesus. If, then, the naming of Jesus occurred exactly on the 42nd anniversary of the beginning of the Julian Calendar, that is, on January 1, 3 B.C., then Jesus would have been born on the 25th of December, 4 B.C. This is not an established fact or a teaching on my part; it's just something to think about.

119. Questions.

a. Would a miscount by Matthew in the number of generations in his genealogy diminish his reputa­tion as an accurate historian (no. 113)?

b. How was a potential generation skipped in the case of Her and Onan (no. 114).

c. How could the third set of generations be understood to be fourteen in number (no. 115)?

d. In spite of the Jewish custom of usually giving only male names in genealogies, were there special reasons for including the name of Blessed Mary in Matthew's genealogy (no. 115)?

e. If St. Joseph did not really beget Jesus, why is the genealogy of St. Joseph in Matthew presented as the genealogy of Jesus (no. 117d.)? (See also the previous lesson).


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157.

2 For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see the article “The Historical Meaning of the Forty-two Generations in Matthew 1:17,” in Living Tradition, number 13 (September 1987).

3 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977) especially pp. 68-70, 75, and 81.

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

5 Jerome, Linear Commentary, on Dan 1:1.

6 Gaspar Sanchez (1553-1628), in his biblical commentary, held that a copyist skipped the generation “Jechoniah begot Jechoniah” because of the similarity of names.