From Philology to Theology By Charles L. Quarles Study of the Greek text of the New Testament sometimes reveals rich theology not easily discovered in English translations. The great Greek scholar A. T. Robertson was fond of quoting A. M. Fairbairn’s statement: “No man can be a theologian who is not a philologian. He who is no grammarian is no divine.” To illustrate the insightfulness of that statement, one need look no further than the first four words of the New Testament. Matthew’s Gospel begins with the words: βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. The English Versions have little variation here. Most translate the phrase: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” (ESV; LEB; HCSB marg.) or something very similar to that. The translation assumes that these four words merely serve as the title for the genealogy of Jesus and its accompanying explanation (Matt. 1:1-17).
However, the term “book” most often refers to a lengthy work that filled an entire papyrus roll, rather than a brief document or small portion of a longer piece of literature. This suggests that Matthew’s introductory phrase serves as the title for the entire Gospel.
More importantly, γενέσις is not used (in the singular) in the Greek Bible to refer to a “genealogy.” The word means “origin,” not “genealogy.” The phrase βίβλος γενέσεως appears only twice in the LXX. In both instances, the phrase introduces a creation account, first an account of the creation of the heaven and earth (Gen. 2:4) and then an account of the creation of humanity (Gen. 5:1). If Matthew’s use of this phrase is influenced by the LXX, the phrase likely refers to a creation account here as well. Furthermore, the word γένεσις was used by Matthew’s contemporaries as a title for the first book of the Bible in Greek, “Genesis” (PhiloPost. 127; Abr. 1; Aet. 19). This title also appears in some of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Greek Bible (e.g. Vaticanus and Alexandrinus). Thus the phrase βίβλος γενέσεως would probably cause Matthew’s readers to recall the book of Genesis and to recognize that Matthew’s Gospel bore a title similar to that of the first book of the Greek Bible.
The genitive Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ apparently identifies Jesus as the Creator who brings about this origin, the author of this “genesis.” Matthew will state that more explicitly in 19:28 by describing the reign of the Son of Man as a παλιγγενεσία, a “regeneration,” a “beginning again,” or a “new genesis.” Strikingly, Matthew’s Gospel begins with a reference to a new genesis performed by Jesus and ends with a reference to the “end of the age” (Matt. 28:20), the time that marks the transition from the old era to the new.
Paul, of course, will sing this same refrain. He frequently spoke of the miracle of “new creation” performed by Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10; Titus 3:5). And this theological theme stretches from the first words of the New Testament to its final chapters. For in Revelation 21, John saw a new heaven, new earth, and new Jerusalem, and the One seated on the throne shouts, “Behold, I make all things new!” No more sin. No more corruption. No more sorrow. No more death. No more tears. And so Matthew begins his Gospel, and in fact, the New Testament with the stunning title “The Book of Genesis wrought by Jesus Christ.” Matthew likelywrote those words smiling beneath tears of gratitude, for he remembered well how Jesus had taken an old sinful publican and made him new. ___________________
Charles L. Quarles is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of several B&H volumes including The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (with Andreas Köstenberger and Scott Kellum); The Sermon on the Mount: Restoring Christ’s Message to the Modern Church; The Lion and the Lamb: New Testament Essentials from the Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown; as well as The Illustrated Life of Paul (to appear in summer 2014).
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