Tuesday, May 09, 2023

Augustine, Harmony of the Evangelists.2.3-4: Genealogies


Image: Saint Augustine Basilica overlooking the ruins of Hippo Regius.

This is a series of readings from and notes and commentary upon Augustine of Hippo’s Harmony of the Evangelists.

In this episode we are looking at Book 2, chapter 3-4 where Augustine addresses both supposed conflicts between and among the genealogies of Matthew 1 and Luke 3.

2.3: A statement of the reason why Matthew enumerates one succession of ancestors for Christ, and Luke another.

Augustine begins by noting in particular a difference between Matthew and Luke in the line between David and Joseph in the two genealogies. They follow different directions with Matthew offering a series “beginning with David and traveling downwards to Joseph,” and Luke, on the other hand, having “a different succession, ”tracing it from Joseph upwards….” The main source of the difference, however, is in the order between Joseph and David and the fact that Joseph is listed as having two different fathers. Augustine explains that one of these was Joseph’s natural father by whom he was physically begotten (Jacob, in Matthew), and the other was his adopted father (Heli, in Luke). Both of these lines led to David.

Augustine further notes that adoption was an ancient custom. Though terms like “to beget” generally indicate natural fatherhood, Augustine notes that natural terms can also be used metaphorically, so Christians can speak of being begotten by God (e.g., cf. John 1:12-13: “to them he gave power to become the sons of God”). Augustine thus concludes, “It would be no departure from the truth, therefore, even had Luke said that Joseph was begotten by the person by whom he was really adopted.” Nevertheless, he sees significance in the fact that Matthew says “Jacob begat Joseph” (Matthew 1:16; indicating he was the natural father) and Luke says, “Joseph, which was the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23; indicating he was the adopted father of Joseph). Those unwilling to seek harmonizing explanations of such texts “prefer contention to consideration.”

2.4: Of the reason why forty generations (not including Christ Himself) are found in Matthew, although he divides them into three successions of fourteen each.

Augustine begins by noting that consideration of this matter requires a reader “of the greatest attention and carefulness.” Matthew who stresses the kingly character of Christ lists forty names in his genealogy. The number forty is of obvious spiritual significance in the Bible. Moses and Elijah each fasted for forty days, as did Christ himself in his temptation. After his resurrection, Christ also appeared to his disciples for forty days. He sees numerological significance in the fact that forty is four time ten. There are four directions (North, South, East, and West) and ten is the sum of the first four numbers.

Matthew intentionally desires to list forty generations, but he also suggests three successive eras (Abraham to David; David to Babylonian exile; Babylonian exile to Christ). This would be fourteen generations each for a total of forty-two, but Matthew, Augustine suggests, offers a double enumeration of Jechonias, making it “a kind of corner” and excluding it from the overall count, resulting then in the more spiritually significant number forty.

Augustine suggests that Matthew’s genealogy stresses Christ taking our sins upon himself, while Luke, who focuses on Christ as a Priest, stresses “the abolition of our sins.” He sees significance in Matthew’s line from David through Solomon by Bathsheba, acknowledging David’s sin, while Luke’s line flows from David through Nathan, whom Augustine erroneously ties to the prophet Nathan, by whose confrontation with David, God took away sin.

He also sees numerological significance in the fact that Luke’s genealogy includes seventy-seven persons (counting Christ and God himself). He sees the number seventy-seven as referring to “the purging of all sin.” Eleven breaks the perfect number ten, and it was the number of curtains of haircloth in the temple (Exodus 26:7). Seven is the number of days in the week. Seventy-seven is the product of eleven times seven, and so it is “the sign of sin in its totality.”


The harmonization of the genealogies has been a perennial issue in Gospel studies from the earliest days of Christianity (see Eusebius’ citation of Africanus in his EH). Augustine maintains the continuity and unity of both Gospel genealogies while also noting the uniqueness of each individual Gospel account. In both genealogies Augustine offers pre-critical insight into the intentional use of spiritually significant numbers (forty in Matthew; seventy-seven in Luke) to heighten what he sees as the theological perspectives and intentions of the Evangelists.



Here's a chart showing Augustine's breakdown of the genealogy in Matt 1:1-17 which yields 40 names according to his calculation. He excludes in his scheme Jechonias as "a kind of corner" and Jesus Christ as "the kingly president" over the whole.

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