by Doug Ward

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew the apostle demonstrates that Jesus of Nazareth possessed the proper pedigree to be the promised Messiah. Specifically, Matthew presents evidence that Joseph, Jesus' father from a legal standpoint, came from the royal line of King David of Israel.


Matthew introduces his summary of Joseph's ancestry with these words: "The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt 1:1). This verse is reminiscent of some passages from the book of Genesis---in particular, Gen 5:1, which says, "This is the book of the generations of Adam." Indeed, the Greek phrase for "book of the genealogy" in Matt 1:1, biblos geneseos, is also used in the Greek Septuagint translation for "book of the generations" in Gen 5:1.1 By making a verbal link to Gen 5:1, Matthew hints that Jesus is a "second Adam" and the coming of Jesus constitutes a major new chapter in the continuing story of redemption begun in the book of Genesis.


The Structure of Genesis

The Hebrew word for "generations" in Gen 5:1, toledot, is also significant. It appears elsewhere in the book of Genesis in 2:4; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1, 9; 37:2. These verses are "seams" in the narrative fabric of Genesis, signaling transitions from one part of the story to the next.


The "toledot verses" may provide some clues about the process by which the book of Genesis came to be written. According to one theory, these verses are titles for a series of written records composed and passed down by the patriarchs and later compiled and edited into a single narrative by Moses.


The most elaborate version of this theory was put forward by P.J. Wiseman (1888-1948) in his book New Discoveries in Babylonia about Genesis (Marshall, Morgan & Scott, Ltd., London, 1936). The discoveries to which Wiseman refers are archaeological finds from the civilizations of ancient Mesopotamia, going all the way back to Sumeria over 5000 years ago. These finds include over a quarter of a million clay tablets containing correspondence, history, and records of commercial transactions. The tablets demonstrate that writing was prevalent in Mesopotamia centuries before the time of Abraham.


Since Gen 5:1 speaks of a written record and writing was widely used in ancient Mesopotamia, Wiseman proposed that the information collected in Genesis was originally recorded on clay tablets. Wiseman observed that ancient documents often begin rather abruptly, without much of an introduction, but end with a title or a statement summarizing their contents. (The biblical books of Leviticus and Numbers have these characteristics, as does the Babylonian legal code of Hammurabi.) Moreover, a document written on a clay tablet would often end with a colophon, an inscription added to give information about the scribe or owner, contents, and date or purpose of the tablet.


Based on this information, and the fact that the word toledot often denotes the history or origins of something, Wiseman asserted that the toledot verses in Genesis came at the ends of the tablets on which they appeared and referred to the material immediately preceding them.2 Thus, for example, Gen 2:4 summarizes Gen 1:1-2:3 as a tablet concerning the origins "of the heavens and the earth when they were created." Similarly, Gen 6:9 gives a good description of Gen 5:2-6:8 as a section on Noah's origins and the circumstances leading to his special calling, while Gen 11:10-26 relates the origins of Terah (11:27). Wiseman suggested that Gen 37:2 ("These are the generations of Jacob") served as a colophon closing the series of tablets containing Gen 25:19-37:1.


In Wiseman's model, the person named at the end of a tablet or series of tablets may have been the owner and/or writer of the material in those tablets. Wiseman proposed that Jacob may have brought the collection of tablets for Gen 1-36 to Egypt, where the material for Gen 37-50 was added. Eventually Moses served as an editor for the entire book.


Wiseman makes a solid case for his proposal, but the details have been the subject of much debate. Most notably, there is still no consensus on whether the toledot verses refer to the material preceding them or the material following them. Some of these verses---particularly Gen 25:12 and 36:1---have a closer connection to subsequent rather than previous sections. With a number of these verses, either possibility seems plausible. For instance, Gen 2:4-4:26 and Gen 5:2-6:8 both give historical information that begins with Adam, so Gen 5:1 could presumably refer to either one. In any case, there is general agreement that the toledot verses are important structural markers for the book of Genesis, dividing the book into twelve clear sections.


Matthew 1:1 as a Toledot Verse

In light of our discussion of the structure of Genesis, it is worthwhile to consider again the significance of Matt 1:1. Matthew seems to have intended this verse as an introduction to the genealogy in Matt 1:2-17, as well as an introduction to his Gospel. Later, in addition, Matt 1:1 became the first verse in the entire New Testament, so it occupies a pivotal place in the Christian canon of Scripture. If God inspired the formation of that canon, as Christians believe, what messages might God be conveying by situating Matt 1:1 in such a prominent position?


The toledot verses suggest an answer to this question.3 Like Gen 5:1, Matt 1:1 connects with both preceding and subsequent material. We can think of Matt 1:1 as a colophon for the Hebrew Scriptures, identifying Jesus the Messiah as the divine author and a major subject of these Scriptures.  On the other hand, we can also think of Matt 1:1 as the beginning of the New Testament, a book focused on Jesus, his teachings, and his disciples. Perhaps God intended Matt 1:1 as another toledot verse to emphasize the centrality of Jesus in his revelation and plan.  This interpretation of Matt 1:1 implies that the Bible is truly "all about Jesus."


1The Septuagint was the favorite translation of the Old Testament for Greek-speaking early Christians.


2New Discoveries, chapter 5.


3I am grateful to Rob Wilson for introducing to me the idea of viewing Matt 1:1 as a toledot verse.

Issue 30


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 10 Sep 2015, 22:53.