Editor’s Note: As Christianity has taken on a more militaristic cast, it is important to understand not only how these war-like tendencies run counter to Jesus’s known teachings but also how the New Testament reflected specific political needs in the early decades of the church.

In this guest essay, retired Baptist minister Howard Bess examines why the Matthew and Luke gospels presented conflicting genealogies for Jesus:

The Luke gospel account of the arrival of the messiah does not start with a genealogy, but adds a genealogy before completing the story. Why the genealogies?

If we are trying to explain someone’s identity, a list of ancestors becomes important. …

Yet, in our modern celebration of the birth of Jesus, his genealogy is almost completely ignored. Readers quickly skip the genealogies and so miss a significant part of the story.

The Matthew and Luke genealogies are quite different and cannot be reconciled. It is obvious that the two authors worked from two different lists and had two different purposes in mind.

Matthew begins with “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” The first ancestor named is David, and this is significant.

The Matthew author wrote two generations after the death of Jesus. During the time of the teaching ministry of Jesus, the Roman rulers and the leaders of the Jewish population worked under an uneasy truce.

King Herod, a puppet ruler representing the Roman Emperor, renovated and rebuilt the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, not as an act of devotion, but a political accommodation to the restless Jewish population. The Herod Temple was the temple that Jesus knew.

After the death of Jesus, when puppet rulers could no longer deal with defiant Jews, Rome stepped in with military power. The armies of Titus destroyed the Herod Temple in 70 CE, and Jerusalem ceased to be the world capital for the practice of Judaism.
The Matthew writer wrote for a Jewish/Christian audience. In this context, the Matthew birth narrative, beginning with the genealogy, can be seen as a statement of defiance, but not just defiance.

Its ultimate purpose is to stake a sacred claim for Jerusalem ... David, the great hero of Judaism, was the king who founded Jerusalem as the Holy City of God. It was the capital city of Israel from which the mighty King David ruled the entire region east of the Great Sea.

Matthew’s purpose was to establish Jesus and Christians as the rightful heirs to the throne of David and the power to rule from Jerusalem. The primacy of David in the genealogy of Jesus is a key to understanding the entire Matthew birth narrative.

Written some 20 to 30 years later, the Luke version of the birth of Jesus builds on the Matthew account. But the Luke writer wrote under the influence of a growing movement among Christians to make Jesus fully divine.

Luke did not simply trace Jesus to David or even Abraham. Luke traces the lineage of Jesus all the way back to God. Luke writes “the son of Adam, the son of God.”

The Luke gospel expands the story of Jesus’s beginnings and adds an explanation of why Jesus was born in Bethlehem – because it was the city of David.

Taking our cue from the genealogies of Matthew and Luke and following the birth narratives themselves, we are confronted with the roots of what is today called Christian triumphalism.

Simply stated, a large number (possibly a majority) of Christians believe that Jesus Christ and his followers are destined to rule the world, and that the City of Jerusalem will be the location of the seat of power.

A troubling part of this scenario is that David is portrayed as the ideal out of which Jesus and Christians are to reign. But David was the greatest warrior in the history of Israel, whose armies are reported as killing people by the tens of thousands.

A ruthless tyrant, David ruled with an iron hand, by the power of the sword.

It is no surprise that purveyors of modern Christian triumphalism are lovers of the sword.

The great irony of all of this is that the parables and sayings of Jesus run counter to the David tradition. At the heart of the teachings of Jesus was the idea that the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth was to be through service, not the sword. 

Jesus’s words ring in my ears: “If any among you would be great, let that person be a servant of all.” 

Jesus taught us that we were to love our enemies, not kill them.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is hdbss@mtaonline.net.  

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