LESSON 27: November 2007


By Msgr. John F. McCarthy

203. Introduction. The meanings perceived in the spiritual sense of Matthew 1 and throughout the Four Gospels are based upon realities that are conveyed in the literal sense elsewhere in Sacred Scripture. The purpose of the spiritual sense is to unveil meaningful relationships according to the analogy of faith, which may be defined as “that proportion which the doctrines of the Holy Scriptures bear to each other.”3 In the allegorical sense, the underlying spiritual reality is implied by some likeness to what is being expressed in the literal sense. For instance, in typology some being or event is seen to be a foreshadowing of a future reality or event. Thus Adam and some other Old Testament personages are seen to be prototypes of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is in these cases the archetype. The following considerations are taken mostly from the teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas in his Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, supplemented by his teaching in the Catena Aurea of the commentaries of the Fathers of the Church.4 What is particularly in focus in his commentary on the genealogy of Our Lord in Matthew 1 is the allegory of names.

204. The spiritual sense of Matthew 1:1. “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham. On the level of Christological allegory in verse 1, the material “book of the generation,” presenting the carnal descent of the seed of Abraham down to Joseph, becomes a figure of the reality of the Virginal Conception and Incarnation of Jesus, the God-Man, portrayed in the whole Gospel according to St. Matthew. The book of the generation is the sum of the whole dispensation, since the fact that God became man in Jesus Christ is the root of all of the blessings that followed.5 In the literal sense, Jesus is the “Son of David, son of Abraham,” but on the level of the Christological allegory in this verse, both David and Abraham are seen to be prefigurements, and mere creatures of Jesus, who is the Messiah, the supremely anointed one, and on the levels of the moral and of the final allegory, Matt 1:1 suggests the eternal generation of the divine Son of the divine Father on the one hand, and the temporal generation and development of the grace of Christ in the Church and in the souls of the sanctified on the other. As Joshua led the Chosen People of the Old Testament into the material Promised Land, he prefigured Jesus, the Savior, who leads the Chosen People of the New Testament, first into his Mystical Body, the Church, and ultimately into the blessedness of Heaven.6 Of course, the superiority of Jesus to David and to Abraham is a spiritual reality reported elsewhere in the literal sense: “If David, then, calls Him Lord, how is He his son” (Matt 22:45). And entry into the realities of the Church and of Heaven is also reported elsewhere in the literal sense. “For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, an antitype of the true one, but into Heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us" (Heb 9:24). “For the Law, having but a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of these things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually every year, make perfect those who draw near” (Heb 10:1).

205. The allegorical sense of Matt 1:2. “Abraham begot Isaac, and Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.” The allegory of names. In the division of the spiritual sense into the allegorical, the tropological (or moral), and the anagogical (or final), the first of this order is the Christological sense, that is, the allegory of Christ and of his Church. Matthew, in presenting a carnal genealogy descending from Abraham to Joseph, illustrates the self-humiliation of the Messiah, while Luke, in presenting an adoptive genealogy ascending from Jesus to Abraham and to God, illustrates the priestly dignity of the Messiah, through whom mankind was reconciled to God and we were made his adoptive children. St. Thomas takes up the allegory of names in the genealogy of Matthew. Abraham begot Isaac. The name Abraham means “the father of many peoples,” and it prefigures Jesus, who “brought many children into glory” (Heb 2:10). As Abraham by order of God went out from his native land (Gen 12:4), so did the Divine Word go out (in a certain way) from his heavenly dwelling to become incarnate as Jesus. “I have forsaken my house, I have left my inheritance, I have given the beloved of my soul into the hand of her enemies” (Jer 12:7). When Abraham heard that Sarah would conceive a child, he laughed, saying “I a hundred and Sarah ninety?” (Gen 17:17). And Sarah laughed too, saying “God has made a laughter for me” (Gen 18:10). The name Isaac means “he laughs,” and this name prefigures the conception and birth of Jesus, because Mary rejoiced at her conception of the Savior (Lk 1:47), and the whole world of the elect has rejoiced at the news of the birth of Jesus (Lk 2:10), in the rejoicing that is the spiritual expression of worldly laughter. And Isaac begot Jacob. The name Jacob means “wrestler” (“he grabs the heel”), and we are reminded of how a wrestler overthrows his opponent by grabbing his heel. This name pertains to Jesus, because Jesus overthrew the Devil and his minions (Matt 12:28). "But if I by the Spirit of God cast out devils, then is the Kingdom of God come upon you” (Matt 12:28). And Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. The name Judah means “con­fession” or “profession,” and it pertains allegorically to Jesus, who said: “I confess to You Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth” (Matt 11:25).7

206. The tropological (moral) sense of Matt 1:2. St. Thomas undertakes to illustrate how a pattern of moral allegory may underlie the genealogy in Matthew. It is not that moral allegory or any kind of allegory needs to underlie these names, but the search for biblical allegory can be spiritually rewarding. St. Thomas assumes the framework of the theological and moral virtues. He suggests, to begin with, that the names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as situated in the genealogy, represent the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Abraham, “the father of many nations,” is “the father of the circumcision” (Rom 4:12) and “the father of those who believe” (Rom 4:11). He is our father in faith. Isaac represents the virtue of hope, which is born of faith (Rom 12:12). Jacob represents the dynamism of Christian charity, as “the wrestler” and as having taken two wives: Leah (“laboring”), represen­ting the active life, and Rachel (“ewe”), representing the contemplative life. The name “Jacob” also implies “supplanter” (Gen 25:23-25; 27:36), and it signifies Christ: “You have cast down beneath Me those who rose against Me” (Ps 18 [19]:43)).

207. The tropological sense of Matt 1:3. “And Judah begot Perez and Zerah from Tamar.” The name Perez means “division” or “separation.” From the confession of sins comes separation from vice and from the spirit of this world. Zerah means “rising of light,” and represents the light of spiritual understanding that comes from the separation from vices and entrance into the light of faith. Tamar means “bitterness.” It suggests the bitterness of repentance of one’s sins, and it signifies also that conversion to righteousness which comes only through the sharing of the Cross of Christ. “And Perez begot Hezron.” The name Hezron means either “arrow” or “wide entry.” If the first, it represents the sharpness of the preaching of the Kingdom of God, which penetrates into the hearts of those being converted from the idolatry of this world (Ps 44 [45]:6). If the second, it represents the breadth of Christian charity, by which Jesus loved even his enemies (Rom 5:10; Isa 53:12; Lk 23:34), and by which his followers are called upon to do the same. “And Hezron begot Ram.” The name Ram means “on high,” and it prefigures the name of Jesus, which is above “every name that is named, not only in this world but also in the one that is to come” (Eph 1:21), as well as all holy persons: “He who walks justly and speaks the truth … shall dwell on high, (and) the rocky fastnesses shall be his stronghold” (Isaiah 33:15-16). “But our citizenship is in Heaven” (Phil 3:20).

208. “And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” St. Thomas goes on to offer Christological and/or tropological meanings for all of the forty-two names in the genealogy, but we shall skip here to the last three.8 And Jacob begot Joseph, the husband of Mary. The name Joseph means “increase,” and signifies the increase of grace as the just go forward in holiness. “But the path of the just, like a shining light, goes forward and increases unto perfect day” (Prov 4:18). The name Mary means “exalted of the Lord,” and of this she, next to Jesus her Son, is the best example, because she is “full of grace” (Lk 1:28). of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. The name Jesus means “the Lord saves,” and it pertains preeminently to Jesus, who is the Savior of mankind. The name Christ means “anointed.” and it pertains above all to Jesus, who, at his incarnation, was saturated with that invisible “oil of gladness” which is the Holy Spirit (Ps 44 [45]:8).

209. The allegory of numbers in Matt 1:17. “Therefore all the generations from Abraham to David (are) fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to Christ fourteen generations.” 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. St. Thomas treats very briefly the suggested allegory of numbers in this verse. The existence of an allegory of numbers in Matt 1:17 is, in fact, highly speculative, but, in the opinion of some Fathers and Doctors of the Church, a challenging allegory of numbers is hidden therein. There is reason to suppose that, in biblical allegory, the number 1 stands 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 Matt 1:17, the number 14, as composed of 2 × 7, may stand for Jesus, the God-Man. Similarly, the number 42, as composed of 14 x 3 and 6 x 7, either of which may stand for the Mystical Body of Christ, sanctified by the Holy Spirit. In these ways Matthew may be illustrating the reasons for which there were 42 generations coming down to the conception of Jesus.

210. Another pattern of the allegory of numbers may be related to the phases of the moon. Supposing a con­ven­tional month of 28 days, the succession of 14 generations from Abraham to David would represent the waxing of the moon to the glorious reign of David; the next set of 14 generations, the waning of the moon to the Deportation to Babylon; and the final set of 14 generations, the waxing of the moon to the birth of Jesus. Jesus died for us on the 14th day of the month of Nisan under the full moon (cf. Ex 12:18).9 Still another allegory may be hidden here. Hebrew numbers were expressed by letters of the alphabet. The three Hebrew letters in the name David could also be read as 464, and adding these three numbers together (4 + 6 + 4) one arrives at the number 14. Thus the number 14 would represent allegorically as well as literally both David, as a prototype of Jesus, and Jesus Himself, as the archetype.

211. Concluding remarks. Why pursue the idea of the three spiritual senses of the Sacred Scriptures? “The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church” (CCC 115). One need not suppose that Matt 1:1-17 necessarily contains hidden allegories. St. Thomas teaches that many passages have only a literal sense, while some have two senses, some have three senses, and some have four. The real problem is that the insights of the Fathers in this regard are being almost totally disregarded by Catholic exegetes and theologians. The work of St. Thomas and other great commentators on the spiritual senses of Sacred Scripture is not definitive; it is a great beginning and a challenge to continue. What is needed at this time is an exegetical method with an updated mental frame­work that is open to spiritual meanings that may be there, but the form-critical method so widely practiced today is not open to these, especially where divine inspiration would be involved, creating an interrelated pattern of prototypes and allegories extending from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Many biblical scholars today even tend to show disdain for the “popular etymologies” enshrined in the Bible and expounded by the Fathers of the Church, but it should be kept in mind that allegories have a conventional aspect to them, so that the meaning intended by the divine Author of the Scriptures may often be accommodated to the way in which the popular mind would understand them. And while the technical and historical analysis of words can be very helpful for arriving at the original meanings of names, the results of these studies have often been inconclusive. Hence, the field is wide open for a new undertaking in which the seminal thinking of the Fathers and the work of the great Catholic commentators of the past, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas and Cornelius a Lapide, would be given a fair and open-minded exam­ination and development. The neo-Patristic method offers the tools needed for this enterprise.


1. Oblates of Wisdom Study Center, P.O. Box 13230, St. Louis, Missouri 63157. Email: jfm@rtforum.org

2. For a more detailed exposition of the material in this lesson, see J.F. McCarthy, “The Spiritual Sense of Matthew 1:1-16 ” in Living Tradition 132 (November 2007).

3. A.E. Breen, A General Introduction to the Study of Holy Scripture ( 2nd revised edition - Rochester, New York, 1908 – reprinted by Roman Catholic Books, P.O. Box 2286, Fort Collins, Colorado 80522), p. 785.

4. Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei lectura (5th revised edition, Rome: Marietti, 1951, which unfortunately has never been translated from the Latin); republished without paragraph numbers in Roberto Busa, editor, S. Thomae Aquinatis opera omnia (vol. 6: Fromann-Holzboog, 1980) pp. 130-227); Catena aurea (English translation, Albany, New York: Preserving Christian Publications, 1998).

5. St. John Chrysostom, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, pp. 9-10.

6. Cf. Aquinas, Commentary on Matthew (Latin Marietti edition), nos. 18-20.

7. Pseudo-Chrysostom, as quoted in the Catena Aurea, p. 18.

8. For allegorical indications on the other names, see Living Tradition 132 (November 2007).

9. Cf. Cornelius a Lapide, Great Commentary, at Matt 1:17.