Have Yourself a Canon-Conscious Christmas!


If we held a general election between Matthew and Luke’s Christmas story, it’s fairly certain that Luke would win the popular vote by a landslide. It’s easy to see why. Luke’s account lays out “the first Noel” with dramatic verve as we wind our way through backstories, imperial decrees, angelic exaltations, pastoral adventures, and a full cast for the nativity scene of great joy.

There’s a reason Linus uses Luke to remind Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. Matthew, on the other hand, starts with a long list of names and then flies right by the birth of the savior almost as an aside (“until she had given birth to a son,” Matt 1:25). Even Linus might struggle to deck the halls with Matthew 1 when it’s time to tell the Christmas story.

So, if you were to find yourself outside of the Four Gospels Total Landscaping Company to make a case for Matthew 1 as a suitable text for your next telling of the Christmas Story™, what would this look like?

Where Does Matthew’s Christmas Story Start?

A good first step would actually be to ask, Where does the Gospel of Matthew actually begin? This might seem like a silly question, but hear me out. In Matt 1:18, Matthew recounts, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” At this point, Matthew begins the story of how Mary and Joseph discover her pregnancy, how Joseph plans to divorce Mary quietly, the angel of the Lord’s message to him, and the eventual birth and naming of Jesus (Matt 1:18–24). 

This account of Jesus’s birth is followed by Matthew’s lengthy account of Jesus’s ministry following his baptism by John. The opening of the actual story, though, does not begin until after an opening section that influences how we understand these opening scenes and the story of the Gospels as a whole.

There is no narrative action in the first seventeen verses of Matthew. The narrative proper does not begin until Matt 1:18. In fact, every single word of Matt 1:1–17 represents an allusive non-narrative element. What, then, is the purpose of this opening section in Matt 1:1–17? Why do we have to wait so long for the actual narrative action to begin? Why is this relatively lengthy and technical opening section here?

The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matt 1:1)

The first words of the Gospel—“book of the genealogies of Jesus Christ”—signal that Matthew is about to provide an account of Jesus’s lineage. This comment prepares the reader for the genealogy that comes in the following verses as well as the brief birth narrative that follows this genealogy. These words also allude to the first genealogy of Genesis 5, which opens with these words: “This is the book of the generations of Adam” (Gen 5:1). 

One of the functions of the genealogies in Genesis is to focus our attention on the seed of the woman who would one day crush the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). As the story of redemptive history continues throughout the Prophets and the Writings, this hope in a coming descendant becomes more prominent and connects to an entire profile of promises about God’s future work on behalf of his people.

By characterizing this Gospel narrative as a “book of genealogy,” Matthew signals that he is telling a story that has its roots in a garden and a long trajectory of growth from the soil of the Hebrew Scriptures. By calling Jesus the Christ, Matthew also directly associates Jesus with the expectations concerning the Messiah. In other words, Matthew’s Gospel will be a “book” like many others, but also a book like no one has ever seen before. 

Each component looks forward and backward. The book of the genealogy anticipates Matthew’s forthcoming narrative and echoes the genesis of the biblical storyline. The birth of “Jesus” will be described in the next section of Matthew’s narrative; the “Christ” has been described throughout Matthew’s Scriptures.

The Son of David, the Son of Abraham

After mentioning Jesus as “the Christ,” Matthew expands upon this notion by identifying Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). These references are not simply historical observations, but textual and theological ones as well. The reason Matthew mentions the son of David and son of Abraham is because he is referring to the Davidic and Abrahamic covenants. The allusion to the Genesis 5 genealogy already emphasizes a coming descendant, and now Matthew connects two other prominent Old Testament promises that relate to this coming descendant. These references are also out of chronological order, mostly likely because the Davidic covenant helps explain the meaning of the title, “Christ.”

The covenantal overtones of these few phrases in the opening sentence of the New Testament are explosive and majestic. The first words encountered by readers of the New Testament point to its narratives whose main focus is the “seed of the woman,” the “seed of Abraham,” and the “seed of David.” These phrases call up entire narrative storylines that narrate and interpret the covenant promises God makes with Abraham and David. Telling the story of Jesus thus requires telling the story of the covenants.

Abraham to David to the Exile to the Christ (Matt 1:2–17)

After this orienting first line, Matthew provides a brief, structured genealogy in 1:2–17. This genealogy moves first from Abraham to David (1:2–6), then from David to the exile (1:7–11), and finally from the exile to Jesus (1:12–16).

The way this genealogy is structured emphasizes both David and the exile. After the mention of “son of David” in 1:1, the kingship of David is stressed at his first mention in the list: “Jesse the father of David the king” (1:6). Jeconiah and his brothers are also mentioned as those who were present “at the time of the deportation to Babylon” (1:11). Accordingly, the next sequence begins with the comment, “And after the deportation to Babylon” (1:12). After Matthew’s genealogy ends with “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (1:16), he provides a statement that summarizes the generations listed and underlines David and the exile (1:17).

This genealogy at the beginning of Matthew functions as a structural echo of the opening of Chronicles. The book of Chronicles is the only other biblical work where a genealogy features so prominently at its beginning. This structural parallel to Chronicles introduces the notions of exile, return from exile, and the hope of a coming “son of David” into the beginning of Matthew’s narrative. By using the phrase, “book of the genealogies,” in Matt 1:1, Matthew alludes to the first book of the Hebrew Bible. By including a wide-ranging genealogy that emphasizes the role of David and the exile as an opening section, Matthew alludes to one of the last books of the Hebrew Bible. 

This genealogy, then, not only references Israel’s historical past, but also communicates a network of textual and theological connections with the story of the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings.

A Canon-Conscious Christmas Story

By beginning his gospel in this intentionally intertextual fashion, Matthew implies that the proper context within which to read his message about Jesus is the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Taking seriously the possibility that Matt 1:1 (“book of the genealogies”) and 1:2–17 (genealogy and exile) refer not only to historical realities but also textual entities, we can say that Matthew gives his readers a canon-conscious summary of the entire Hebrew Bible. If asked how much of the Hebrew Bible is necessary to understand the story of Jesus, Matthew here responds, “All of it!”

Matthew not only urges his readers to remember biblical history, but also to read biblical texts.

The hope of redemptive history and the promises of the covenant story are wrapped up in the one who is called by these names and is from this line of descent. This story of redemptive history is a story of both despair and hope. By bringing up the history of Israel, the specter of exile thus looms large over the opening of the Gospel of Matthew. In many ways, this is a dark and somber way to begin a story of “good news.” Matthew provides a structured reminder of the long and winding road from the generations of Adam to the story of Abraham, from the life of David to the disaster of exile, from the return from Babylon to the lingering failure of the Mosaic covenant to deal with the heart problem of the people. Israel’s greatest enemy is still undefeated as the curtain rises on story of the New Testament.

With the darkness of this past, we are able to see the brightness of the angel of the Lord’s words: “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:20–21). The presence of this son of David will mean the presence of God himself (i.e., Immanuel, “God with us,” 1:23). The forgiveness of sins is a characteristic feature of the blessings of the new covenant (Matt 26:28; Jer 31:31–34). After this reminder of the exile and the failure of the old covenant, the announcement of the arrival of the forgiveness of sins with the coming of Jesus is good news indeed.

Later in the narrative, John the Baptist sends word to Jesus from prison asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). The Chronicler had put each successive heir to the Davidic throne before the eyes of the reader and essentially asked, “Are you the one or should we look for another?” The book of Chronicles answers this query for the reader: No, they were not the ones, and you should look for another (“let him go up!” 2 Chr 36:23).

By beginning in the way that he does, Matthew takes up the Chronicler’s question and answers firmly, “Look no further, the son of David we have been looking for walks among us.”

Matthew’s Intertextual Advent

One way to sum up the narrative function of Matthew’s opening section is to see that Matthew is practicing an intertextual and literary Advent.

He forces us as readers to wait for the coming of the Son in the features of the text as we remember the coming of the Son in the fullness of time. As those who live between the advents, this practice of close reading and biblical theology trains us to hear both promise and fulfillment in the Christmas story until he comes.

A recent late-night family drive around our neighborhood reminded me of the striking visual a carefully arranged display of Christmas decorations can have even from far away distances. Look! I think there are more over there! Let’s go see it!

Look over here, in this corner of the NT, a family tree, a string of Christmas lights powered by intertextual electricity, ornaments of exile and return adorning the branches, songs of promise and echoes of expectations filling the space, all illuminating the present of his presence among us.

December 17, 2020


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