Did Matthew Misspell?

Audio Version

Won very affective weigh to draw attention too a word or even a hole sentence is two misspell on porpoise. Else-wise, them might-could use grammar bad and non-standard-ish-ly. Either way, a writer will likely confuse or at least annoy the reader or listener; would you not agree? Such deviations from the norm usually do get noticed, though; and that’s the whole point.    

In case you’re listening to this and not reading it, I want to point out that I kind-of misspelled some words in my opening sentence. I say “kind-of misspelled” because what I actually did was replace four words with homophones and one word with a near-homophone. In one instance and as an example, I wrote w-o-n instead of o-n-e, because won and one sound exactly the same. They are homophones. The near homophone I used was porpoise instead of purpose. If you are a native English speaker, these alterations are easy to spot in written form. But if you are not a native English speaker, they may be more difficult to spot. Abnormal alterations to a piece of writing, such as those in my two introductory sentences, might even so confuse non-native English speakers as to make those sentences incomprehensible. Whatever the language, a writer’s deliberate stylistic alterations can be an affective effective barrier to some readers’ comprehension. But why would any writer want to obscure things for his or her readers? Sometimes a writer does indeed want that, though. Sometimes a writer wants to partially obscure his or her writing. Insiders will find it comprehensible, outsiders probably will not. Sometimes writers want to speak to insiders, and yet exclude outsiders.

In the opening to his biography of Jesus, Matthew does something very similar — not in English of course, but in a first century iteration of ancient Greek known as Koiné Greek. Matthew makes noticeable alterations to his genealogy of Jesus’ lineage. To arrive at a predetermined, theologically-meaningful mathematical equation (that is, 14 x 3), Matthew deliberately omits at least three consecutive generations from David’s royal lineage. He also seemingly miscounts his third and final grouping of names: Where there ought to be fourteen names, there are only thirteen. How come? For an explanation of these conspicuous and curious Matthean alterations (which I argue are intentional and instructional) please see my previous blog post, entitled Mistaken Matthew?. But wait, there’s one more alteration in Matthew’s genealogy I should explain…

Matthew also misspells two names: Asa and Amon, which he renders as Asaph and Amos. Perhaps I should qualify that statement, though. Perhaps I ought to say that he may have misspelled two names. Some of the ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s Gospel put it one way; some put it the other way. So which of the ancient manuscripts have it right? Did Matthew himself write Asaph and Amos, or Asa and Amon? If Matthew’s objective was historical accuracy, he would necessarily have spelled their names as Asa and Amon, because that is how their names are supposed to be spelled (or rather, as they ought to be transliterated from the original Hebrew into Koiné Greek). But if Matthew was instead taking an opportunity to make a subtle theological statement, he might have deliberately misspelled their names.   

Parenthetically, if you have already opened your Bible to the first chapter of Matthew to review the genealogy, you might not see Asaph and Amos there, but Asa and Amon. That’s because the translators of the version you hold made the decision to be true to the Old Testament spelling of their names. Their decision is totally understandable. Yet it does not mean that the translators of your Bible got it right. Alternatively, if you happen to have a New American Bible, Revised Edition, you will see that its translators made the opposite decision: It has the names Asaph and Amos listed in the genealogy. The decision is not an easy one for translators. They have to either side with historical accuracy (on the one hand), or with the manuscripts that are probably more reliable to Matthew’s original writing (on the other).     

Since he most likely intentionally skipped three generations in Jesus’ genealogy in order to make a theological point, I would not put it past Matthew to deliberately misspell Asa and Amon’s names as Asaph and Amos. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Matthew might have piled one type of genealogical error upon another type of genealogical error in order to make it increasingly obvious to his readers that his apparent errors are not actually errors or mistakes, but part of a deliberate premeditated design. These are deliberate editorial decisions of his. Through his organization and presentation of Jesus’ genealogy, Matthew meant for his own historical inaccuracies and lingual adjustments to be noticed and caught (by insiders), because he wanted something deeper to be taught (to insiders).  

But more than merely assert my position, I ought to offer some substantiating evidence. And to do that, I must talk about the oldest known copies of Matthew’s gospel, which are otherwise known as manuscripts. 

If you wanted to actually see examples of the real deal — the oldest known, hand-transcribed copies of Matthew’s gospel — you would need to pay a visit to a library, or a museum, or a private collector’s display. From what I have read, the most highly regarded manuscript copy of all is known as the Codex Vaticanus. As its name implies, it belongs to the Vatican; and thus you would need to travel to Rome to see it — if they would let you anywhere near it (which they won’t). To be honest, you might be better off just looking for the photographs of it on their website: There’s no time limit that way. Here’s a link: digi.vatlib.it ; and search specifically for Manuscript – Vat.gr.1209.

Screen Grab of Matthew’s First Page from the Codex Vaticanus

The Codex Vaticanus contains more than just Matthew’s Gospel, though. It contains the Old Testament (in Koiné Greek, a version known as the Septuagint) and most of the New Testament. The fact that it is nearly the entire Bible is a very big deal, given that it is dated to the 300s AD. As a rule, New Testament manuscript experts consider the Codex Vaticanus to be the gold standard of all early New Testament manuscripts. They judge the reliability of other New Testament manuscripts against it. And, as it so happens, in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ lineage, the Codex Vaticanus renders the two names in question as Asaph and Amos, not Asa and Amon. And thus the conundrum: What does a translator do? Do you go with the spelling that the Old Testament requires? Or do you follow the New Testament gold standard, and translate the misspellings?

So if Matthew did deliberately misspell Asa and Amon and render them instead as Asaph and Amos, why might he have done so? Of course, Matthew himself does not tell us why, so we have to theorize a bit. One thing I notice historically about both the three generations that Matthew skips and about the Kings Asa and Amon is the common denominator of unfaithfulness, to the point of idolatry. These are all kings who were either godless throughout their entire reign, or who started out obedient to God but then turned to idolatry. Perhaps here Matthew is practicing a kind of damnatio memoriae, that is, the condemnation of the memory of these unfaithful kings. By not mentioning them by name or by calling them by alternate names, Matthew collars the memory of each of them with a permanent cone of shame. Let these serve as a somber warning to you: These be the unspeakable, utter failures. 

At the same time, by deliberately fudging the historical record, Matthew paradoxically calls attention to these kings. That serves Matthew’s purposes, too. When a student of scripture takes the time to study these kings, he or she comes away with a stronger sense of God’s sovereignty and unrelenting faithfulness, even in the bleakest and most hopeless times. When David’s royal lineage is most at risk, God somehow unexpectedly comes through. Even when David’s own descendants made themselves active enemies of God, God remained faithful to the promise he made to David. Jesus did eventually arrive, in spite of all the efforts of the Evil One to the contrary.           

Finally, Matthew may have substituted the names of godly Asaph and Amos for ungodly Asa and Amon as a means of comparison and contrast. Faithless Asa and Amon should have been like faithful Asaph and Amos. Imagine if these two kings had taken the right path instead of the wrong path. 

Considering his curious omissions, his miscount of generations, and his likely misspellings, I do believe Matthew deliberately introduced inaccuracies into his genealogy of Jesus. In general, it does not matter to most people, because they just skim or skip the genealogy anyway. But for those who do study it through, Matthew’s alterations can prove to be theologically instructive. And that’s exactly what Matthew and the Holy Spirit intended, I believe.   

2 thoughts on “Did Matthew Misspell?

  1. I learned a few things from your post. Also, really appreciated your point about “God’s relentless faithfulness”, even through the unfaithfulness of some in the lineage of Christ. A good reminder, that God remains sovereign, despite what we can see with our eyes and our limited understanding. 2020 is a good time for us to remember this.

    Liked by 1 person

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