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An English reader might miss the full significance of Matthew 1:16, which reads as follows: And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.

In English, the relative pronoun “who/whom” can refer to either a man or a woman, and to either a single individual or a group of people. But in Greek, the relative pronoun is spelled differently depending on whether it is referring to a man or a woman, and whether to a single person or a group. There are several places in the New Testament where this feature of the Greek language is useful for clarifying statements that are potentially ambiguous in an English translation. One of these places is Matthew 1:16.

A Christian English reader might assume on theological grounds that the word “whom” in Matthew 1:16 refers to Mary, but it could also be interpreted as referring to Joseph, or to both Joseph and Mary. However, in Greek, the ambiguity is removed. The word “whom” is a feminine singular pronoun. Because Joseph is masculine, and “Joseph and Mary” would be masculine plural, the feminine singular pronoun can only refer to Mary. Thus, Matthew 1:16 states that Jesus was born of Mary, but not Joseph. Matthew carefully worded this verse to protect the doctrine of Jesus’ virgin conception and birth. Beyond the use of the feminine singular relative pronoun, Matthew also uses the passive verb was born, rather than the active begat/bore, to avoid the implication that Mary was Jesus’ biological mother. Matthew thus carefully avoids saying either that Mary was the biological mother of Jesus or that Joseph was His biological father, but only that Mary gave birth to Jesus and that Joseph was her husband.

The next verse in Matthew’s Christmas narrative may seem a little puzzling to the modern reader: So all the generations from Abraham unto David are fourteen generations; and from David unto the carrying away to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon unto the Christ fourteen generations. – Matthew 1:17

Have you ever wondered why Matthew makes a big deal out of the fact that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile until Christ? Matthew does this to show that Jesus came at the exact time when the next Davidic king was scheduled to appear. The generations from Abraham to David were the first period when Israel was without a Davidic king; the generations from David to the exile represent the time when Israel had a Davidic king; the generations from the exile to Christ were when Israel was again without a Davidic king. Thus, fourteen generations had gone by and it was again time for Israel to have a Davidic king. But while Matthew says there are fourteen generations from the exile until Christ, he only lists thirteen between Jechoniah and Jesus; therefore from the birth of Jesus until the beginning of John’s ministry another generation would have passed, and the time would be right for the next Davidic king to appear.

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