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The Women in Matthew’s Genealogy: Answer to a Reader

Yesterday I received this question in response to a post:

QUESTION:

I have also heard that hints of the possibility of Jesus’ illegitimacy can be found in Matthew’s hereditary narratives. It is a bit of a stretch but Matthew names 4 women in them and all 4 are somewhat” loose” women, giving the hint that illegitimacy can still produce remarkable people. Any thoughts on this?

RESPONSE:

Ah, great question.  Here is what I say about it in my textbook on the New Testament:

There is one other interesting and frequently-noted feature of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (actually, not of Jesus, but of Joseph). That is the fact that it makes explicit reference to women among Jesus’ ancestors. That is highly unusual. Women scarcely ever appear in most ancient Israelite and Jewish genealogies;, which invariably trace a person’s lineage from father to son (or vice versa) all the way back through the family line; see, as I pointed out earlier 1 Chronicles 1-9. Where are the women? For ancient genealogists, as a rule, they were not important enough to mention.

But Matthew not only ends his genealogy by mentioning Mary, Jesus’ mother, but he also includes reference to four other women: Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), and the “wife of Uriah” that is, Bathsheba (v. 6). Stories about all four of these women are found in the Jewish Scriptures (Tamar: Genesis 38; Rahab: Joshua2, 6; Ruth; Ruth 1-4; and Bathsheba: 2 Samuel 11-12).

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Jesus in Mark: Who Knew?
Jesus’ Mother and Brothers in Mark

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  November 21, 2017

    It’s probably also important that two of them — Ruth and Bathsheba — have direct connections to David, while the other two — Rachab and Tamar — had smaller but still significant connections to David (Tamar was, technically speaking, the Matriarch of the House of Judah). And the Messiah was supposed to be from the line of David — indeed, possibly even a second David. So maybe the causation is in the reverse. That is, maybe it’s not Matthew focused on fallen women in Jesus’ genealogy, but that in connecting Jesus’ genealogy to David’s genealogy, he just so happened to expose how many loose women there happens to be in David’s family!

  2. Avatar
    Silver  November 21, 2017

    I recently enjoyed Prof Magness’ Great Courses series of lectures – Jesus and his Jewish Influences.
    If I understood (or at least interpreted) what she said correctly it appears that because of the pronouncements of Ezra (I do not recall the reference text) regarding pure descent, the presence of women in a genealogy would cast doubt on the legitimacy of that lineage. Is this your understanding and in consequence does this add another difficulty for including the genealogies in the Nativity story?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      I think this is simply a point that Ezra and Matthew disagree on.

    • Avatar
      llamensdor  December 24, 2017

      How could the presence of a woman in a genealogy cast doubt on its authenticity? The only sure way (in those days) was via the mother,as in the sarcastic saying, “It’s a wise child who knows its own father.” They didn’t do a lot of DNA testing in that era.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  November 21, 2017

    Bathsheba had to be included, to emphasize Jesus’ coming from the line of David and Solomon–whether this makes sense or not from the standpoint that Matthew was saying Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ biological father.

    Question–is is possible that Matthew somehow did believe Joseph was Jesus’ earthly father? While still believing Mary had become pregnant through the intercession of the Holy Spirit? Humans are quite capable of believing two contradictory things at once. And as the saying goes, with God all things are possible. God could make use of Joseph’s bloodline in the process of incarnating Jesus as a man. And Matthew might well have believed, as Paul did, that Jesus was in heaven as a divine spirit from the dawn of creation, waiting his appointed time–his physical body still has to come from somewhere. Why not from Joseph?

    If earlier Christians could have believed Jesus was God’s true son by adoption, I suppose.it could work the other way. Joseph, by accepting Jesus as his son, made him part of the Davidic line. However, this isn’t typically how it works with royal lineage.

    It would be nice if the gospel authors had included a few explanatory footnotes.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      (How Matthew came to believe Joseph was of the Davidic line is another matter, but my mother used to tell me the Irish were all descended from kings and princes, so I shouldn’t throw stones.)

  4. Avatar
    Hon Wai  November 21, 2017

    In Ruth 3:14, “So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before one person could recognize another; for he said, …was the author using “feet” as euphemism, or literally here?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      It’s a euphemism for genitals.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 22, 2017

      The Hebrew word used throughout Ruth 3 (vv. 4, 7-8, 14) is regel, which can refer to both a foot and a leg. The expression, therefore, means uncovering someone’s lower half, which, by extension, means uncovering their naughty bits as well. If you say, “She tore off my pants,” the fact that she exposed your legs isn’t the important part. The important part is that she exposed your junk as well.

      • Bart
        Bart  November 24, 2017

        Yup. See Isaiah 6: the cherubim use two of their wings to cover their “feet” — almost certainly genitals, not to be exposed.

  5. Avatar
    mwbaugh  November 21, 2017

    The place of women in the Gospels is fascinating. In the empty tomb story the first witnesses are women in all four gospels, even though women were not considered reliable witnesses in the cultures of the time. Is this part of the social inversion that Jesus taught? People like women, foreigners, and “sinners” who had low status were raised to great importance in the kingdom he proclaimed.

    I had a question about Jesus’ parents. I’ve seen several popular authors claim that, not only was Jesus illegitimate but that his father was a Roman soldier who may have raped Mary. I have the impression this may be rooted in one of the many non-canonic gospels but I don’t know which one, nor the specifics. Is there any reason to give any credence to this story?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      Yes, women were indeed attracted to his message, possibly for this reason. The story of “Panthera,” the Roman soldier who was allegedly Jesus’ father, is a later legend, possibly but not certainly arising within (non-Christian) Jewish circles.

    • Avatar
      godspell  November 22, 2017

      My impression is that the original story about Pantera/Panthera was a deliberate slander, meant to inflame and belittle Christians.

      And it still is.

      Mary might have been raped by a soldier. Or by a man in her own village. Or she might have had premarital intercourse with Joseph, while they were betrothed, which would be a social embarrassment, a minor scandal, that could have been misunderstood later on.

      We can safely assume she had intercourse with a man before she got pregnant. Anybody who claims to know more than that about her private life is just being sensationalistic. (Technically, even those who believe in the Virgin Birth are saying she was impregnated by God).

  6. Avatar
    Rpkruger  November 21, 2017

    The (Jewish) tradition I’m familiar with concerning Rahab is that she married Joshua after becoming a proselyte, not that she was the mother-in-law of Ruth. (Since Naomi was Ruth’s mother-in-law, are you referring to the second mother-in-law she acquired when she married Boaz?)

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      Yes, it is Matthew 1:5 that indicates she was married to Salmon (not Joshua) and was the mother of Boaz.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  November 21, 2017

    Do you give any credence to the idea of Pantera as Jesus’ father?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      Nope!

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  December 24, 2017

        I’m personally convinced that Miriam (Mary) was raped. Cruelly, that would have made her spoiled merchandise, even though she hadn’t consented to the intercourse.

  8. Telling
    Telling  November 21, 2017

    I’ve heard that the term “virgin” was mistranslated from a Hebrew word and means “young woman”. Can you offer some illumination?

  9. Avatar
    Candlestickone  November 22, 2017

    U speak of gods plan as if u beleave , or are trying somewhat to make excuses for g-d ? Is u is or is u ain’t ?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      Sorry — I don’t know what you’re referring to. I’m an agnostic/atheist.

      • Avatar
        Candlestickone  November 24, 2017

        In nature a female plant can self pollinate , cannabis for one can, is it then thinkable ,possible for it to happen in humans?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 26, 2017

          I’m afraid not! (Think of an analogy: since birds can fly by flapping their wings, is it unthinkable that humans can fly by flapping their arms?)

          • Avatar
            Candlestickone  November 26, 2017

            Is there anything in the super natural you would deem thinkable? Have you ever experienced a psychedelic ? Please and thank you,

          • Bart
            Bart  November 27, 2017

            It’s not that I think anything in the supernatural realm is unthinkable; it’s that I don’t think there is a supernatural realm. And yes, when I was a Christian I often thought I had transcendent experiences.

  10. Avatar
    Silver  November 22, 2017

    Re my earlier question: The passage I am thinking of is where Ezra expels the non-Jewish wives of Jewish men residing in Israel with the admonition that it be done “according to the Torah” – Ezra 10:2-3. Does Ezra here mean to exclude those women gentiles, such as Ruth, from playing any part in Jewish lineage making it futile to include her in Jesus’ genealogy?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 22, 2017

      Yes, Ezra would not have at all liked the idea Matthew puts forth that the messiah was partly from gentile stock.

  11. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  November 22, 2017

    Interesting. Thanks

    I strongly recommend your textbook on the New Testament.

  12. Avatar
    jhague  November 22, 2017

    1. Is Rahab actually a prostitute and innkeeper or just an innkeeper?

    2. Why was the word “Feet” used as an euphemism in the Hebrew Bible for “genitals?”
    I have read this before and most Bible readers today would not ever know this and many would not believe it.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2017

      In Joshua 2:1 she is called a prostitute. “Feet” — well, we have all sorts of euphemisms for “private parts” ourselves. But when you look at how “feet” is used in some passages (not just Ruth, where feet with does doesn’t make much sense, but also, say, Isaiah 6), it’s pretty clear that’s hwat it means. I learned this already as a fundamentalist at Moody Bible Institute!

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  November 25, 2017

        In 1 Sam. 24 Saul is said to go into a cave to “cover his feet.” I’ve always understood that to mean he was defecating. Would that refer to the act of squatting above his real feet?

      • Avatar
        jhague  February 15, 2019

        Why didn’t the new translations such as the NRSV change feet to genitals? I noticed in the 1 Sam 24 Saul example, the KJV says feet but the NRSV says relieve himself. Why not change it in all the verses?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 17, 2019

          Probably because they thought “genitals” was too vulgar. Does the NRSV ever use “genitals”?

          • Avatar
            jhague  February 18, 2019

            Right. Let me reword. Since using the word “feet” is misleading for most uninformed Bible readers, and the NIV & NRSV both changed the word to “relieve himself” in the Saul example, my question is, why did the NIV & NRSV not clarify all uses of “feet” using appropriate biblical non-vulgar language so that it is clear to the reader what the verse is referring to?

          • Bart
            Bart  February 19, 2019

            They wanted to keep the metaphor in these other places. And others. Notice the Seraphim in Isaiah 6, who with two wings cover their “feet”!

  13. Avatar
    Pattylt  November 22, 2017

    Thank you so much for answering my question! It makes me feel kinda smart and special (grin) Do you have any partiality to either theory or just find it interesting?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 24, 2017

      So far I find it interesting. I would have to look into it a bit.

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