Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Alpha & Omega

The formulation of what follows is not original to myself at all, but rather is taken and rearranged from various sources among Peter Leithart's works, but most especially his scholarly article, Jesus as Israel: The Typological Structure of Matthew's Gospel.

Matthew begins his gospel with these words (in English): "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." In Greek, the phrase is "[The] biblos geneseos of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham." The phrase biblos geneseos literally means "book of beginnings," even though by the time Matthew was writing his gospel, the word geneseos had evolved into a reference to genealogy and not so much a literal "beginning."

More important than the fact that words can evolve in their meaning over time, is the recognition that these opening words are an overt quotation from the common bible used by Jews in the first century: the Greek Septuagint. The Septuagint was a translation of the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures into more common, but nevertheless reverently styled, Greek text. This means that Matthew began his gospel with words that biblically literate Jews would recognize immediately. In the Septuagint (commonly abbreviated among scholars as the LXX), the book of Genesis records the biblos geneseos of heaven and earth (Gen. 2:4) and of the first man, Adam (Gen. 5:1).

Genesis 2:4 (ESV) reads:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

Genesis 5:1 (ESV) reads:
This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.

The Septuagint (LXX) translation of both these passages includes the phrase biblos geneseos, making the point that when God created the heavens and the earth, He recorded it as a "book of beginnings" of the heavens and the earth. Likewise, with the LXX translation of Gen. 5:1, the "book of beginnings" of Adam and his descendants are recorded for us. And so, when Matthew begins his gospel, he wants to make clear to his audience that there is a new beginning at hand, beginning with the biblos geneseos of Jesus the Christ, the anointed one.

But Matthew not only begins his gospel with a very clear echo from the Old Testament; he also ends his gospel with similar literary indicators familiar to Jews in the first century. It is unfortunate that our modern bibles end the section of the "Old Testament" with the book of Malachi. In the first century, that was not the only option available. It is true that the LXX did end with Malachi, which is what modern english bibles use for the order of the canon. But in the first century, Palestinian Jews also had a Hebrew canon, which ended with the book of II Chronicles and the "great commission" of Cyrus, the Persian monarch, to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and YHWH's temple (Ezra 6:3-9; II Chron. 36:22-23). And so, it was common knowledge among 1st century Jews that, technically, the last words of II Chronicles were the last words of the "Old Testament" scriptures.

The last words of the Old Testament, in II Chronicles 36:22-23 (ESV), say this:
Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, 'The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the Lord his God be with him. Let him go up!'"
The last words of Matthew's gospel, in 28:18-20 (ESV), say this:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Leithart makes some important observations regarding this unique ending to the Hebrew canon and Matthew's gospel. He points out that there are three common elements between those two endings:

  1. There is a statement by YHWY's "anointed one" regarding universal authority (see II Chron 44:28; 45:1)
  2. There is a statement regarding the source of his authority
  3. There is a commission to "Go!" and build God's House/Make disciples of all nations
I would like to add a fourth element in common among the two passages: the promised presence of the Lord to be with his people.

All of this typology is important because it connects the beginning of Matthew's gospel with the book of beginnings in Genesis and the final "Great Commission" of Jesus the Christ (the "anointed one") with the "great commission" of the Lord's "anointed" in the end of Malachi, the last book of the Bible. 

Certainly this structure of Matthew's gospel was no accident.

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