Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Matthew 1: Jesus and the Birthers

As we dive head-first into the New Testament, let’s start at the very beginning—because as Maria Von Trapp reminds us, the beginning is a very good place to start. But check that: with this story, we can actually start before the beginning. Not just with Jesus’s birth, but with his genealogy. (Suck it, Maria.)

And if Michael Bay has taught us anything, beginnings should bang, and this one does, because I start the New Testament part of my blog with scandal. Scandal, I say! For we needn’t get any more than a few chapters in to discover that Jesus, like President Obama, has a bit of a birther problem.

However, if the uncertainty surrounding our president’s origins is an invention of the conservative fringe, the mystery hovering over Jesus’s forebears is very real. For there is legitimate confusion about the Savior’s stock, and remarkably, the Bible gives Jesus not one, but two distinct genealogies.

The first opens the first gospel, Matthew; its author begins, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1). We can glean much from just this opening line: the Matthew author argues that Jesus is related to two of the three most important figures in Hebrew lore (the other being Moses).

We’ll return to this point momentarily, but for now, let’s get straight to the discrepancies. From Matthew, we get the following list of Jesus’s dads and grand-dads: Jesus’s father is Joseph (kind of); Joseph’s father is Jacob; Jacob’s father is Matthan; Matthan’s father is Eleazar; and Eleazar’s father is Eliud. Those are just the first five generations, but the list goes on to fill the entire chapter.

However, Matthew’s is not the only family tree sprouting in the gospels; a second comes in the third chapter of Luke, and the list it provides is completely different. For Luke, Jesus was the son “of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi” (3:23-24). Not even close! Basically, unless the gospel writers don’t want to tell us that Joseph is part of an extremely progressive, My-Two-Dads-style household, we’ve got conflicting stories here—at a very crucial part of the tale. (And the judge lives in the building! Just kidding--that joke dates me, doesn't it?)

Obviously, such huge disagreements can be unsettling to some believers. In The Age of Reason, founding father Thomas Paine cites Jesus’s two genealogies as evidence that the Bible cannot be not divinely inspired. After all, how could authors writing with God’s hand mess up such basic information as the lineage of the most important man ever born? Further, it’s also very difficult to believe that the Bible communicates one “literal” truth when these two passages deliver, um, two truths.

Now, I don’t wish to downplay the importance of such concerns. Anyone who believes that the Bible delivers actionable verities wrung straight from the mouth of God must wrestle long and hard with such passages. But for serious Biblical scholars, these different lists don’t tell us that the Bible is bunk; instead, they tell us some important things about the interests of the authors who created them.

As mentioned above, the Matthew author traces Jesus’s ancestry through David and Abraham, two giants of the Jewish faith. This makes sense, especially given the fact that he is very interested in establishing Jesus’s pedigree as the Jewish Messiah. Indeed, no other gospel author is so devoted to proving that Jesus fulfills Hebrew Biblical prophecy.

The author of Luke, on the other hand, goes even further back, and though he also includes David and Abraham, he identifies Jesus’s oldest forefather as the first man: Adam. Which suggests that he wants to characterize Jesus as not only (or not primarily) the Jewish Messiah; instead, Christ is humanity’s savior. According to Biblical myth, we too have Adam as a great-great-great-great grandfather, and thus Jesus is both everyone’s relative and a universal deliverer.

I’d also point out that while the author of Matthew starts old (with Abraham) and moves ahead in time to Jesus, the Luke author starts with Jesus and moves all the way back to Adam. This narrative difference is as fascinating as the factual inconsistencies, because it tells us about these two men as writers. To me, it indicates that perhaps the Luke author has a better sense of dramatic tension than his fellow evangelist—for him, Jesus’s earliest ancestor is (drumroll please, wait for it, feel the suspense growing) … Adam! Tada! And the crowd goes wild. And why shouldn’t they? For with a little thing like a family tree, the Luke author confirms that the Jesus story really begins in Genesis, at the creation of the world. Cool, huh?

But not cool enough to hide Jesus’s birther scandal, right?! So whip up your forged birth certificates, and start dialing up your favorite right-wing radio jockey. I’ll call Lou Dobbs.

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