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?

Which rendering of this disputable name shall a translator choose?

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.   

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.