Teaching Matthew’s Genealogy (Matt. 1)

by Eric D. Huntsman

The late Father Raymond Brown once wryly noted that it was not very often that the genealogy  of Matt 1:1-17 is rarely the subject of a Christmas homily, or we would say of a sacrament meeting talk or Family Home Evening lesson.  But there is a LOT to learn from it, even if it is not strictly historical.

Perhaps you will find this excerpt from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 20-28, a bit useful.

The Story of Jesus’ Genealogy

Jesus’ family background is a natural place for an author to begin his account of Jesus’ birth, but Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1–17) is nonetheless not one of the Christmas stories that tends to attract the most attention at Christmastime.  Rarely is it the subject of a sacrament meeting talk in the LDS Church, the topic of a Christmas sermon in other denominations, or the focus of holiday scripture study in our homes.  This is no doubt partly because the succession of often unknown figures begetting generation after generation is, in many ways, reminiscent of the long genealogies known from Genesis, Numbers, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, and even the Book of Ether.  When reading such genealogies, we understand that they are somehow important, but because this type of narrative is not as exciting and interesting as other kinds of writing—particularly when compared with the other appealing stories in the Infancy Narratives—we are sometimes tempted to skip or merely skim over the genealogy given in Matthew 1 when studying the Christmas story.[i]

Old Testament genealogies, however, served an important function in establishing kinship, confirming a family’s position in the House of Israel, and validating claims to important royal or priestly positions.[ii]  In that regard, the genealogy that Matthew uses as the beginning of both his Infancy Narrative, and indeed as the beginning of his Gospel, provides an important bridge between the Old and New Testaments. Some questions about this genealogy still remain unanswered,  such as where Matthew got his information and how accurate it was in some of its lesser-known details.  For instance, did he have access to official archives, family traditions, or popularly circulating genealogies, and were these complete and always correct?

His organization of the material he had, however, reveals that Matthew had some clear objectives that influenced how he selected and structured the information contained in the genealogy he records.  Thus, the most important thing about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ background is not necessarily found in its comprehensiveness or its absolute accuracy.  Rather, it is how it establishes important facts about who the baby Jesus was and what he would do. Furthermore, both the familiar and the less-well-known characters in it teach us valuable lessons, and Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogical material reveals important stories in itself: stories about the promises made to Abraham, the covenant the Lord made with David, and God’s interaction with people throughout the history of the Old Testament.  Each of these stories had significance for Matthew’s original readers and for us, his modern audience.[iii] Continue reading

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: part 4 of 4, Bethlehem and Beyond

            Matthew’s Gospel guides us into the events that follow Joseph’s and Mary’s visit to the Jerusalem temple. During the six weeks between Jesus’ birth and Mary’s sacrifice in the temple, Joseph seems to have secured needed housing for his young family, perhaps through family members. For Matthew writes of “the house” (Matthew 2:11). From this point, it seems that Mary and Joseph settle into a rhythm in Bethlehem. Joseph likely plies his considerable skills as an “artisan” who works with wood, stone, and metal in the ongoing temple renovations. This is the proper understanding of the Greek term tektōn which is translated “carpenter” in Matthew 13:55.

How long this little family stays in Bethlehem, we cannot say. The only definite time marker that we possess is the notice “from two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). Hence, it appears that Jesus is at least a year old, perhaps a few months older, when Herod receives the “wise men from the east” (Matthew 2:1). We know almost nothing about these men, of whom Luke says nothing, and how long they have been traveling. Legend has tried to fill in the picture, with little success. We do know that they bear gifts at home in Arabia, “gold, and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11). But these items are available in most sizeable Near Eastern markets of the day. The wise men likely find King Herod in his huge palace whose ruins currently lie south and east of Bethlehem. From there, they need only travel three miles or fewer to where Joseph and Mary reside.

The arrival of the wise men causes panic in the royal house. Herod hastily assembles “the chief priests and scribes” from Jerusalem, a good eight miles away, and demands to know “where Christ should be born” (Matthew 2:4). When the wise men do not return to the palace with news of the child, and the King judges that they have avoided him, he then issues the infamous order that his soldiers slay “all the children that were in Bethlehem” (Matthew 2:16). Even though some scholars plead that Herod would not turn on these children, his act fits menacingly with his irascible personality. After all, he had his favorite wife and several sons executed. And a lot of others whom he suspected of treachery in one form or another.

When does the slaughter of the children happen? Contemporary ancient accounts tell us that Herod dies in the spring of 4 B.C., before Passover that year. During the last months of life, he suffers terribly from a lingering, debilitating disease that Josephus describes in detail. Presumably, it is in these months that Herod issues his directive against the children, hoping to catch The Child in his deadly net. After all, he is already on edge because of rebellious acts and public insolence as news of his disease spreads among the populace whom he has ruled so ruthlessly.

God’s eyes, of course, have been on the little boy Jesus and his parents. To protect him and them, God sends an angel who appears “in a dream” to Joseph, “saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt.” Immediately, Joseph “arose, [and] he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt.” Joseph knows not to delay, for part of the angel’s message is that “Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13–14). The most direct route takes a traveler through the desert of the northern Sinai and into the fertile Egyptian delta.

The Flight into Egypt. From the Bible Video series. Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The Flight into Egypt. From the Bible Video series. Courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The tradition of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt holds that the “Holy Family,” consisting of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, remains in Egypt for just over three and a half years, moving from place to place, beginning in the delta and western desert, and traveling and stopping all the way to Upper Egypt in the south of the country. Whether the family moves as often as tradition says is impossible to determine. But for Egyptian Christians, Jesus’ presence on their soil makes their land “holy.” The notion that Joseph and his little family stay in Egypt for an extended period receives support from Matthew’s account. He writes that when “an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,” he brings news that “they are dead which sought the young child’s life” (Matthew 2:19–20). The plural “they” in the angel’s words points to a conspiracy against the child Jesus that is broader than the King himself. To be sure, he is the instigator. But he is not the only one who will be threatened by the rise of a new ruler. If the danger to Jesus comes only from Herod, God can have sent his angel a few months after their arrival in Egypt, following Herod’s death. Instead, God waits until all of the conspirators are dead before sending Joseph and his family back.

Upon their return, another dream warns Joseph to take his family to Galilee, settling in Nazareth (Matthew 2:22–23). Here Joseph can use his skills in the rebuilding of the prominent city of Sepphoris, just three miles over the hill north of Nazareth. The people of this city rebelled when Herod died and paid a huge price when a Roman army from Damascus arrived and crushed the rebellion, burning the city. It is likely that Joseph goes to work here, taking the youthful Jesus with him as soon as he is old enough to engage in hard manual labor. The later conversation between Jesus and Pilate illustrates the probability that Jesus accompanies his father. How so? Because in no account is an interpreter said to stand between Pilate, an educated Roman who speaks Greek, and Jesus the man from Nazareth. Most of the foremen who are supervising the rebuilding work in Sepphoris during Jesus’ youth are Greek speakers. Jesus will quickly pick up the language so that he can communicate with them. The effect is to make Jesus quadri-lingual in his youth. He speaks Aramaic in his home, he learns spoken Egyptian playing with other children during the years in Egypt, he learns Hebrew from scripture studies, and he picks up Greek while working alongside his father.



—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series (see byuntc.com).

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 3 of 4, Joseph and Mary

S. Kent Brown           

            As with Mary’s trip to Elisabeth’s home months before, for safety Mary and Joseph travel in the company of others. It is a necessity. They likely go southward through the Jordan Valley to Jericho, then make the long westward climb toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The alternate route runs through the Samaritan hill country, a winding road with a lot of ups and downs. Because the season is evidently early spring, others are arriving in Jerusalem and its environs for Passover. This is a reasonable explanation for the filled inn that Luke writes about (Luke 1:7). In reality, the term translated “inn” can point to a caravanserai-like structure with open stalls that look out into a large, open area where a cooking fire is kept burning. It can also be translated “guestchamber” as it is in Luke 22:11, meaning a guest room on top of a home. Because relatives probably still reside in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph may well have gone to their homes for a place to rest and sleep, and found the guest rooms full with other visitors or family members. This sense may well lie behind the Joseph Smith Translation’s “inns” in this passage. In any event, they find a private place for Jesus’ birth among someone’s animals, whether a cave or the bottom section of a house.

A much later, unreliable account puts a midwife at Mary’s side when she gives birth to the infant Jesus. We simply do not know whether a midwife is present to help. Joseph knows the birth process from observing it among animals in Nazareth; he may even have helped an animal’s birth on occasion. He is fully able to assist Mary if needed. Whatever the case, all the verbs in verse seven describe Mary’s actions, pointing to her physical strength: “she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:7). What Mary and Joseph seem not to know, of course, is that a celebration is taking place not far from Bethlehem where “the angel of the Lord” has come to “shepherds abiding in the field” (Luke 2:8–9). Alone with the new child, Joseph and Mary settle down after Mary’s labor and delivery when, with the barest of instructions about what to look for, the shepherds arrive. It is then that the new parents learn, from others, that God is truly watching over them and their son.

Forty days later, Mary and Joseph go to the temple to make two offerings. One has to do with redeeming Mary’s firstborn child who, according to the Mosaic Law, belongs to God and must be redeemed by a sacrifice (Exodus 13:2). This obligation is taken care of by paying a five shekel tax at the temple. To be sure, Jesus is already dedicated to God, as the angel’s words indicate (Luke 1:31–33). But out of reverence for the Law, Mary and Joseph carry out their duty to redeem him. The other offering cleanses Mary from her state of ritual uncleanness that results from childbirth. In a word, she is in need of atonement (Leviticus 12:6–8). In this connection, the verb translated “openeth” in Luke 2:23, “Every male that openeth the womb” (Greek dianoigō), appears in the Septuagint tied not only to the first, sacred manifestation of life from a female, whether human or animal, underscoring its link to holiness (LXX Exodus 13:2, 12–13, 15, 34:19; etc.), but also to the opening of celestial understanding (LXX Genesis 3:6, 8; also LXX Hosea 2:15). It is with this latter meaning that the verb appears later in Luke’s narrative, highlighting the Resurrected Jesus as the one who opens the understanding and holds the keys to opening the scriptures (Luke 24:31, 32, 45).

Like other new parents, when the priests offer the two birds for Mary’s purification, an offering for the poor (Leviticus 12:8), she and Joseph stand in the Court of Women, probably at the top of the steps that lead through the Nicanor Gate. There they can see the great altar of sacrifice and the priests carrying out her offering. Beyond the altar rises the porch of the sanctuary and the tall doors that lead through the sanctuary’s facade, all decorated in white and gold. Only a few months before, the priest Zacharias walked through those doors where he met the angel whose message inaugurated the events of salvation. Now Mary and Joseph bring to that place the infant whose future mortal ministry will bring about that salvation.

Following Mary’s sacrifice, Luke’s narrative keeps his readers inside the temple grounds where Jesus’ parents are met by Simeon and Anna. The fact that they find the infant Jesus and his parents in this huge complex—it is a quarter mile from the north to the south end—bespeaks divine guidance for both of these elderly people, even though Luke writes only about Simeon’s coming, “he came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). Simeon’s prophetic words about the baby may not have surprised Joseph and Mary at this juncture, calling him “[God’s] salvation” and “A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:30, 32). But when he turns to Mary, he projects a rocky future for the child and for her: “this child is set . . . for a sign which shall be spoken against.” Then come words that reinforce Mary’s sense from the angel’s visit, that her world both now and in the future have changed dramatically: “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:34–35). Anna’s arrival “in that instant” brings a lighter feeling as she “gave thanks likewise unto the Lord.” Moreover, “she spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). She and Simeon thus become witnesses that God’s power is returning to His people.

—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 2 of 4, Mary

by S. Kent Brown

 The earliest recorded prophecy that points to Mary and her son arises in Isaiah’s book. As he reports, he is commanded to meet Ahaz, the King of Judah, while the King and his party are inspecting “the conduit of the upper pool” on the north side of Jerusalem because this pool and its channel supply water to the temple and the city (Isaiah 7:3). The year is 734 B.C. and the city is surrounded by two hostile armies, one from Syria and one from the northern kingdom Israel. The King and his associates are at risk while outside the city’s walls. And so are Isaiah and his son when they go to meet them. After Isaiah assures the King that the siege will soon be lifted, the prophet invites Ahaz to ask for “a sign of the Lord” to prove that the Lord will move events to this end. The King declines in an act of feigned humility that draws Isaiah’s ire (Isaiah 7:12–13). Thereupon, the prophet declares that “the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” This prophecy is fulfilled, at least in its distant future meaning, in Jesus’ birth to Mary (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:22–23).

Centuries later, in Nazareth, the angel’s appearance to Mary changes everything for her. Notably, the angel’s mention of Elisabeth’s pregnancy offers a way for Mary to get away from the small town of Nazareth where everyone knows everyone else and where her promised pregnancy will soon become apparent. According to Galilean Jewish custom, pregnancy during the period of betrothal causes a scandal and can invalidate the planned marriage. Going to Elisabeth puts Mary in the arms of the one person who knows both the challenges of silent and open criticism by one’s relatives and acquaintances as well as how to keep her head up in the face of disapproval. Mary must have gone to the home of Zacharias and Elisabeth with the approval of her parents and perhaps in the company of an older family member. Surely, she will have gone in a traveling group for safety, a necessary circumstance that Jesus’ parents enjoy years later when they travel to Jerusalem with their youthful son Jesus in a group of fellow travelers (Luke 2:44). After all, roads are dangerous for the solitary traveler (compare Luke 10:30), and the more so for a young woman.

Mary visits Elisabeth. From the Bible Videos series. Courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Mary visits Elisabeth. From the Bible Videos series. Courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It is in her cousin’s home that young Mary’s spiritual character becomes even more visible. For after Elisabeth speaks “with a loud voice” when welcoming her youthful cousin (Luke 1:42), Mary begins to sing. The written inspiration for Mary’s words has long been known, the prayer of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10), an indicator that Mary already knows much of the Old Testament. But Mary’s song, called the Magnificat from the first word in the Latin translation, goes beyond that of Hannah who mainly celebrates God’s exaltation of the low people of the earth, an idea that includes herself and her young son Samuel. In contrast, Mary’s song is chiefly one of redemption, both for her (“[God] that is mighty hath done to me great things”—Luke 1:49) and for others (“his mercy is on them that fear him”—Luke 1:50). The theme of redemption appears even in tiny details. For instance, Mary repeats the words “from henceforth” (Luke 1:48). These become a characteristic expression of Luke that, in most cases, points to Jesus’ redemptive act (Luke 12:52; 22:18, 69; Acts 18:6). Further, in the Septuagint the term “great things” (Luke 1:49), megala in Greek, often refers to God’s actions during the Exodus on behalf of the children of Israel, thus carrying the sense of redemption (LXX Deuteronomy 10:21; 11:7; Judges 2:7).

The trip back to Nazareth must have been emotionally taxing for Mary. After all, we have no indication that she shares the news about the angel with her family before she visits Elisabeth. On the basis of Matthew’s note, “she was found with child” (Matthew 1:18), it appears that only when she becomes visibly pregnant does she confide in Joseph. His reaction? Obviously, he does not believe her story about the angel which she must have told him to explain her condition. His parents’ reaction? We do not know. Nor do we learn the response of Mary’s parents. Joseph’s family, naturally, has every right to demand that the betrothal be undone. This is the direction Joseph goes. Fortunately, as an honorable person, he is “not willing to make her a publick example” (Matthew 1:19).  He steers Mary away from severe punishment. Then God reaches out to this good young man through His angel (Matthew 1:20–21). What the next few months are like, we are not informed. We can imagine that Joseph and Mary are happy to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. By then, their engagement, which effectively marries them, is over and, by custom, she has been escorted to his home as many ancient manuscripts affirm by reading simply “Mary his wife” in Luke 2:5. In a word, they are married.

—Based on The Testimony of Luke by S. Kent Brown, an e-volume in the BYU New Testament Commentary Series.

What on Earth are Swaddling Clothes?

by John W. Welch

            As is well known from the often told Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke, Mary wrapped her newborn son “in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:7). What on earth were swaddling clothes, and why would Luke have bothered to include this detail in his account of the birth of Jesus?

While we may not know for sure exactly what kinds of clothes were used or how they may have looked in Jesus’ case, it seems highly likely that all infants in the ancient Mediterranean world were tightly wrapped in long bands of cloth. So these bands were not “clothes,” like a shirt or pants or pajamas, and they were not just a diaper, but long strips of cloth wrapped all around the baby.

Indeed, the early English translators of the New Testament probably used “clothes” as the plural of “cloth,” both here in Luke 2:7 and also in the passages describing the linen cloths used to wrap the body of Christ for his burial in Luke 24:12 and John 19:40; 20:5, 6, 7. In mentioning the burial cloths, the plural noun othonia (linen cloths) is used. But in Luke 2:7, no noun is used, but instead only a single Greek verb appears; translated by the King James translators as “wrapped in swaddling clothes,” esparganōsen is a past tense form of the word sparganoō, “to wrap.” The clear meaning of this word, in any text dealing with a baby, is to swath or bundle an infant.[1] Continue reading

The Chronicles of Mary and Joseph: Part 1 of 4, An Angel Comes to Galilee

S. Kent Brown             

One of the puzzling dimensions of Luke’s story of Mary and Joseph has to do with the presence of families from the south of the country, specifically from Bethlehem, that have located in the north, specifically in the small town of Nazareth. To ask the question another way, What brings the families of Mary and Joseph together more than a hundred miles from their original ancestral lands? When the tax enrollment is enjoined on residents of the country, Joseph travels to Bethlehem, “his own city . . . because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:1–4). Presumably, he still has family and property there, the elements that draw him back. The same situation apparently faces Mary. First, she is a descendant of David, as we learn from the Apostle Paul. That is his meaning when he writes that Jesus “was made of the seed of David according to the flesh [through His mother]” (Romans 1:3; compare Luke 18:38–39; 20:41; Acts 2:30). And David’s family is rooted in Bethlehem. Second, the verb “to be taxed” governs the phrase “with Mary,” indicating that she also has to travel to Bethlehem for the tax enrollment because her family still has ties there (Luke 2:5). Not unlike other women known to reside in Judea a century later, she may well be a joint-owner and joint-inheritor of property in Bethlehem. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part Three of Three

The Birth of John

Luke’s Gospel does not spell out how long Zacharias and Elisabeth wait for the birth of their son following the angel’s announcement. But hints exist that offer an approximate time of when he is born. The first hint is that Jesus is born in the late winter or early spring of the year. This observation arises from Luke’s note that “shepherds [were] abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8). The key lies in the phrase “by night” which is a clear pointer to the lambing season when the adults spend nights with the expectant ewes in their flock to assist with the births of new lambs. At other times of the year, the youthful children in the family are assigned to be with the sheep, as young David is (1 Samuel 16:11). A second indicator has to do with the relative ages of Jesus and his older cousin John. When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Elisabeth is about five and a half months pregnant. That is the meaning of “the sixth month” (Luke 1:36). In this light, John’s birth occurs the prior October or perhaps late September. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part Two of Three


            We don’t know how Zacharias communicates his news to Elisabeth. If she is present in the temple grounds that day for his big moment, which is likely, she will soon learn what has happened to him. If she is home, then the possibilities become more complex. As the angel warns him, he loses his ability to talk (Luke 1:20, 22). In addition, as we learn later in the story, he loses his ability to hear (Luke 1:62). Presuming that Elisabeth is as most other women in her society, she is illiterate. Zacharias may make signs to her, even touching her stomach. Or he may go to a relative or close friend who is literate and to whom he can write a message. Of course, by the time John is born, she knows. Continue reading

The Chronicles of Zacharias and Elisabeth: Part One of Three

The Angel Comes to the Priest Zacharias

            When Zacharias goes into the temple to offer incense, he is entering the Sanctuary, which is distinct from the larger temple grounds, as indicated by the Greek term naos (in Luke 1:9), which usually points to the Sanctuary (compare Luke 23:45; Revelation 11:2). According to the Mishnah, which is a compilation of Jewish laws dating from the era before A.D. 200, a priest is allowed only once during his lifetime to light the incense. This lighting takes place twice a day at the temple, once in the morning and once about three o’clock in the afternoon in connection with the offering of the morning and evening sacrifices and the times of prayer (1 Chronicles 16:40; Acts 3:1). Because of the large number of priests, a person is selected by the casting of lots. Hence, this occasion is the most important in Zacharias’s long years of service at the temple.

The King James text says that “there appeared unto [Zacharias] an angel” (Luke 1:11). The

Temple of Solomon, model, in Jerusalem

Temple of Solomon, model, in Jerusalem

verb is in the passive and means “an angel was seen [by Zacharias].” There is no sense of vision or dream or divinely imposed distance between the angel and the priest. Zacharias sees the angel in a firsthand, sensory way. Luke writes that the angel stands “on the right side of the altar of incense.” Here he writes from the angel’s point of view. It is the altar’s right side. Exactly in front of the temple’s veil stands the incense altar; to Zacharias’s right, or on the north, as he approaches the altar, stands the table of the shewbread, where the twelve loaves of bread sit; to Zacharias’s left rests the large candelabrum or Menorah. The angel stands between the altar and the Menorah, between the cloud of smoke and the light, symbols of the Lord’s covenant with Abraham and of His presence among the Hebrews during the Exodus (Genesis 15:10–11, 17–18; Exodus 13:21–22). Moreover, the angel stands on the south or right side of the altar, the side of promise and blessing. This position characterizes his message to Zacharias. Because of the Israelites’ orientation toward the east—the doors of the sanctuary were on its east side, for instance—the right hand is on the south. If the angel had appeared on the north side of the altar, it would have signaled bad news for Zacharias. Continue reading

Bible Videos at lds.org

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has produced many Bible videos. The newly released seven-minute video “Lazurus Is Raised from the Dead” beautifully portrays the events recorded in John chapter 11. The video “He Is the Gift” reminds us of the true reason to celebrate Christmas. Many other videos portray other scenes of the New Testament. We hope you enjoy and are inspired by these videos.