Mistaken Matthew?

Audio Version

When I read to children, I sometimes mis-read and mis-represent things. I stumble clumsily over what is plainly put in print. Sometimes I omit words. Sometimes I insert words that are not there. Sometimes I deliberately mispronounce words. But my mis-reading is all a big farce. I am merely pretending to make mistakes. At some point I make it obvious that my mistakes are not actual absent-minded blunders. My “mistakes” are not sloppy, stupid mistakes, but intentional alterations. Eventually, I let the kids know that I am purposely misreading what is there. It is all just a pedagogical ploy of mine. I did not want to drone on in monotone, and thus bore all of them and myself. I wanted to keep them all interested, attentive, and engaged. So I made some editorial changes, here and there. And it works well. If you have never done it yourself, I would recommend it. Kids almost always enjoy correcting an adult’s feigned mistakes. Misleading misreading makes for a lively, interactive learning activity.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew does something very similar. He makes some editorial adjustments to the historical record. Right from the get-go, on the very first page, Matthew makes several factual alterations. His alterations are not mistakes, though. They are deliberate editorial decisions. They are intentional.They are theologically instructive. Matthew is using his alterations to make some important points.

Someone out there may wonder what I am even talking about. The genealogy — that’s what. I am talking about Matthew’s introductory genealogy. Most readers skim it or skip it. It is just a list of mostly unmemorable names, after all. But if someone decides to get studious and starts cross-referencing those names, it all quickly changes. If Joe or Joann Reader bothers to delve into the Old Testament record to learn more about those names in Matthew’s genealogy, Joe or Joann will soon realize that either Matthew himself or a scribe after him must have made some alterations. As we have it, the text of Matthew’s genealogy has obvious omissions, curious misspellings, and even faulty math. The E word has even be invoked in discussions of this genealogy. Some have said that Matthew’s introductory genealogy has errors.  

Danger!

Red Alert! Red Alert! Red Alert! The Bible is not supposed to have any errors! A lot of Bible-believing Christians will reflexively and immediately recoil at any suggestion of error in the Bible. Understandably so, I would add. I, too, get nervous, wary, and even defensive when I hear reputed scholars talk about errors in the Bible. After all, the Bible is the written Word of God. It is our primary, authoritative written witness to Christ and the Faith. Any assertion of error carries the implication that the Bible cannot and should not be considered reliable and trustworthy; right? Well actually, it depends. It depends on whether those claimed errors are human mistakes or deliberately crafted theological pointers. Moreover and more crucially, it depends on whether God actively inspired the inclusion and transmission of those pointers.

Please know and be very aware that I am talking about intentional, deliberate (and divinely inspired) authorial decisions on Matthew’s part, not unintentional mistakes, nor dubious and deceitful claims. What I am about to describe might be called error by some (because the information recorded is demonstrably not historically accurate). But that information is meant to be caught and noticed as just such, as intentional inaccuracy. These inaccuracies cannot be excused away, because they are not slight, but significant. These inaccuracies are even so glaringly wrong that it becomes increasingly evident Matthew deliberately introduced them to impress something more than mere genealogy  — something deeper, more profound, and true. These errors are thus theological pointers. Careful readers are meant to catch his inaccuracies and also catch the theological intention behind his redirecting inaccuracies.    

Now, for the evidence: In the eighth verse of chapter one, Matthew says Joram fathered (or begot) Uzziah. In so doing, he simply skips over three (and-a-half) generations of monarchs in the line of David (King Ahaziah, Queen Mother Athaliah, King Joash, and King Amaziah: see 2 Chronicles chapters 21-25). Why skip these three generations, though? The skipped-over period of Judaean history was crucially important, since the royal family, the dynasty of David, was nearly annihilated — not once but twice. So, is Matthew’s strange three-generation genealogical omission a mistake or a deliberate decision? Gospel readers well acquainted with the Old Testament accounts would have noticed Matthew’s obvious omission. Inquiring readers would be quick to ask why. Usually there are three possible explanations in cases like this: 1.) The author himself made a seemingly-sloppy mistake. 2.) An early scribe missed a verse or two when copying the manuscript, resulting in the loss of three generations. And lastly, 3.) The author may have made a deliberate omission. In this case, the second possible explanation does not work. It cannot be a simple scribal mistake, because the author carefully (and yet inaccurately!) counts up the number of generations for his readers.     

Keep Count.

Someone might point out that Matthew did not actually err in verse eight, since Joram did technically beget Uzziah, yet with several unmentioned intervening generations. Granted, that is true. Although he did not father Uzziah, Joram did beget Uzziah. But the real problem comes in verse seventeen. Matthew there carefully counts up fourteen generations between David and the Deportation to Babylon. He arrives at fourteen generations quite curiously. He does so by excluding the three generations between Joram and Uzziah. Matthew’s generational count is simply not historically accurate. If he had counted the three omitted generations, he would have arrived at 17 generations, not 14. Be not disturbed, though, for Matthew is not trying to be historically accurate here. He is instead striving to arrive at the number fourteen, and for a theological reason. Matthew has pre-determined his genealogy to arrive at a particular mathematical equation — that is, 14 x 3. And, I would add, Matthew made that pre-determination under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Authoritative & Reliable

You may ask: Why fourteen times three? Well, there are two theological reasons why.

First of all, fourteen is the number of David. Just as the number of the Beast in Revelation 13:18 is 666, the number of David in Hebrew is 14. In many languages, letters double as numbers. You may be already familiar with this by virtue of the continued contemporary use of Roman numerals. It is exactly the same in Greek and in Hebrew. In Hebrew, the letters of David’s name add up to 14. By insisting that there are three sets of 14 generations between Abraham and Jesus, Matthew implicitly three-peats “David, David, David,” which can and should be biblically deciphered to mean that God was faithful through the generations to keep his promise to David and sustain his family line. Therefore, for theological reasons, Matthew intentionally and deliberately mis-represented the number of generations in Jesus’ genealogy in order to arrive at fourteen times three. Matthew was not confused, nor was he being deceitful. Instead, Matthew meant for his inaccuracy to be caught, and for the deeper truth to be taught.

As for the second theological reason, I admittedly indulge in conjecture. But I think it works. Mathematically, 14 x 3 = 6 x 7, which is significant because 7 is the number of the Sabbath and thus of completion in the Bible. Matthew is inferring a new climatic redemptive era has arrived with Jesus. There were six eras (or days) before the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus’ arrival marks the beginning of a final seventh era (or day). When Jesus began to preach his message was “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” This Kingdom of God is the seventh redemptive era or day. In saying this, I do not mean that we should look for six clearly delineated previous eras. I just mean that Matthew seems to imply a seventh seven has arrived with Jesus. Jesus brings redemptive history to its completion, to its final Sabbath.

One last (possible) Matthean inaccuracy for today: In his final set of generations, Matthew counts poorly. At least, it could be read that way. In verses 12 through 16, Matthew only lists thirteen generations prior to Jesus’ birth, not fourteen. Here they are, in Matthew’s order: 1.) Jechoniah, 2.) Sheatial, 3.) Zerubbablel, 4.) Abiud, 5.) Eliakim, 6.) Azor, 7.) Zadok, 8.) Achim, 9.) Eliud, 10.) Eleazar, 11.) Matthan, 12.) Jacob, and 13.) Joseph + Mary. Listed thusly, Jesus might be understood to be the last one in a set of fourteen, and not the expected first one in a new set. This mathematical difficulty might be explained as Jesus being both the last and first — the last generation in the third set, and the first generation in a fourth and final set. I find that explanation quite intriguing. The difficulty might also be explained as a very subtle way of indicating that God the Father Himself is an unmentioned 14th progenitor, since God begat Jesus, not Joseph. Both explanations are very interesting; but neither are original to me. I simply came across each explanation in a commentary. Do you find either explanation compelling?

In conclusion, Matthew’s Gospel opens with several factual inaccuracies (two of which are conspicuous spelling errors that I have not covered here). I contended that Matthew’s inaccuracies should not be seen as mistakes, nor should they be called misleading. Instead, his inaccuracies are actually intentional and Spirit-inspired. They should be understood as purposeful alterations, which are meant to be caught by careful readers, in order that theological truths may be taught.   

4 thoughts on “Mistaken Matthew?

  1. Great insights, and wonderfully written! I appreciate your artistic word play, engaging opener, and compelling reasonings. (I chuckled at the “Red alert!” section and your use of “three-peat”)
    I believe that the use of intentional errors in Scripture is unnecessarily avoided in biblical study, and I think you did a great job unpacking why it is meaningful to explore the possibility in certain areas like Matthew’s genealogy.

    Liked by 1 person

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