What kind of work is the Gospel according to Matthew?
Some have recently suggested that an answer may be found in the opening line:
“the book of the genesis/genealogy [genesis] of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1).
A growing number of scholars are suggesting that, contrary to what some have thought, the term “the book of the genesis/genealogy” describes not only the material in the first chapter of Matthew, but is meant to describe the entire Gospel. In other words, Matthew is not simply a “Gospel” but “the book of the genesis of Jesus Christ.”
For example, in his important new book, Chris Keith writes,
One can rather easily dismiss the idea that Matt 1:1 clearly introduces only the genealogy of Matt 1:2-17. Genesis 5:1 LXX indicates that biblos geneseōs can refer to the listing of lineage, but Gen 2:4 LXX shows equally that it does not necessarily have to, since it here refers to an account of origins that does not include a family lineage. Furthermore, although one can read Matt 1:18—“The beginning (genesis) of Jesus Christ was thus”—as a closing to the preceding sense unit or as a seamless transition between the genealogy and subsequent narrative, it was often taken as an introduction to the following sense unit, in which case the genesis of Jesus includes what occurs subsequently in the narrative. Fourth-century Sinaiticus (א) and fifth century Vaticanus (B) both present this reading by placing Matt 1:18 in a sense unit with Matt 1:19, separated from the close of the genealogy of Matt 1:17. Whatever Matthew means by Jesus’s genesis, it is not clear that scholars should restrict it to Jesus’ lineage.Chris Keith, The Gospel as Manuscript: The Early History of the Jesus Tradition as Material Artifact (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 116.
Keith goes on to make a case that in Matthew referred to his whole Gospel as a “book” or biblos. (I hope to write more about Keith’s book soon. Until then, see the publisher’s website.)
Likewise, in his new book on Matthew, Patrick Schreiner suggests that biblos describes the whole of the Gospel of Matthew as well.
Many argue that the beginnings of Matthew and Mark are actually their titles. Thus Mark’s title would be “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the son of God.” Matthew’s would be “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (biblos geneseōs Iēsou Christou huiou Abraam, Matt 1:1). The Greek word that Matthew begins with is biblos, which can also be translated as “scroll” or “record.”Patrick Schreiner, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe: The First Gospel and Its Portrait of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019), 11.
Schreiner goes on to show that the notion of a biblos, a scroll, was especially linked to the role of a scribe, which, as I explained in a previous post, he ties to Matthew’s connections to wisdom traditions.
I said scholars are “recently” making the case that Matthew 1:1 should be applied to the entire book.
Actually, the idea is not a new one.
It is worth mentioning, for example, that in his commentary on Matthew, Thomas Aquinas writes that, in the first verse of the Gospel, Mathew:
prefaces a title as it were of the whole book, when he says, “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ. . .”Thomas Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura 1.1.11. Quoted from St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 2 vols. (Lander: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2013), 1:5.
Aquinas, who believes the Gospel is authored by Matthew the apostle, explains:
Now the title prefaced is this: “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ.” It seems to be an imperfect sentence, since a nominative is set down there without a verb, but it is not. For Matthew wrote his Gospel for the Hebrews, and so in his writing he followed the custom of the Jews. Now it is customary among the Hebrews to speak this way; for example, when it is said; “the vision of Isaiah the son of Amos” (Isa 1:1), the phrase “this is” is understood, and does not need to be added. So here when it says, “the book of the generation,” “this is” is understood.Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura 1.1.12; cited from Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 1:5.
He further explains later:
It is also asked, why did he title his book this way, when a very small portion of this book is about the generation of Christ? And one should say that Matthew, who wrote to the Hebrews, followed the style of the Hebrews in his writing. Now, the Hebrews customarily title books from their beginnings, as Genesis is called Genesis because it treats of generations; hence we find, “this is the book of the generation of Adam” (Gen 5:1). And so also the book of Exodus, which in the first part treats of the exodus of the children of Israel out of Egypt.Aquinas, Super Evangelium S. Matthaei Lectura 1.1.13; cited from Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, 1:6.
To be sure, Aquinas does not apply this insight in the same ways Schreiner and Keith do. They both have some very interesting contributions to make. But it is notable how an “old” idea, can produce fresh readings.