Why “Fourteen Generations” in the Genealogy of Matthew 1?

The genealogy in Matthew 1 consists of seventeen carefully crafted verses. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • (1) Matthew 1:1 is the headline that introduces the genealogy.
  • (2) Matthew 1:2-16 is the genealogy proper, falling into three sections (1:2-6a, 6b-11, 12-16).
  • (3) Matthew 1:17 an exercise in counting, where Matthew points to each section and says, “This one is fourteen generations, and this one, and this one too.”

Fourteen may seem like an unexpected number, given the prevalence of others in the Bible like seven or twelve or three. So why fourteen?

The most commonly argued suggestions among scholars are these:

  • (1) Since fourteen is seven doubled, to have three fourteens is to have six sevens. And since the sixth seven (or third fourteen) ends with Jesus, perhaps he launches the seventh seven, or time of perfect fulfillment. Hagner likes this option, and even France prefers it over the next possibility.
  • (2) The fourteen is an example of gematria, a practice that assigns numbers to Hebrew letters. The Hebrew letters for David’s name add up to fourteen, so perhaps that explains Matthew’s interest in the number. Osborne and Nolland favor this view, as do Davies and Allison.

The second view seems more likely for the following reasons:

  • (1) Jewish readers would be aware of the practice of gematria, so although Matthew’s words were written in Greek, it would not have prevented access to awareness they had about David’s name and the sum of his letters. The strange use of fourteen might in fact invite deeper reflection that would put gematria on the table as an interpretive option.
  • (2) The genealogy has an unmistakable Davidic emphasis. David heads the middle section of the genealogy, he is mentioned in the genealogy’s headline (Matt 1:1), and he is the only king given the title “the king” in the genealogy. The first section ends with the arrival of David (1:2-6a), the second section ends with the end of the Davidic throne by exile (1:6b-11), and the third section ends with the arrival of the Son of David, the true king who establishes an eternal rule (1:12-16).
  • (3) Matthew uses 1 Chronicles 2–3 as a source for names, and the first section of the genealogy (Matt 1:2-6a) imitates the descent found in 1 Chronicles without omitting a generation from Abraham to David. The count is fourteen names of descent, including both Abraham and David. The number fourteen, then, is not only the count from Abraham to David but is also the sum of David’s name in Hebrew. The other two sections of Matthew’s genealogy are then conformed to a fourteen pattern. Matthew 1:6b-11 and 1:12-16 are incomplete lists not because Matthew is ignorant but because he sees a theological purpose in using a pattern of fourteen. The fourteen maintains the Davidic emphasis he wants to display.
  • (4) If Matthew wanted to draw attention to sevens instead of fourteens (as Hagner and France deem likely), then he could have done so by using the number seven explicitly. But Matthew didn’t. He drew attention to three fourteens, and I think we may unintentionally downplay the Davidic emphasis (or at least not fully appreciate Matthew’s design) by halving the three fourteens into six sevens simply because the number seven is used symbolically elsewhere. If Matthew mentioned “fourteen” three times (Matt 1:17), then we should ponder that number. And if we do, then we should see how (through his dependence on 1 Chron 2 and the use of gematria), Matthew is highlighting David. Why is David so important in this scheme of things? Because in 2 Samuel 7, God made a covenant with David, and Jesus is the Son of David who has come to bring fulfillment to those promises.
  • (5) If the fourteens should be understood as six sevens that leave the reader longing for fulfillment that only Jesus can bring, then it is important to observe that Jesus’ name doesn’t actually begin a seventh seven, and I think this fact is a weakness of Option 1. Jesus’ name ends the third section of fourteen generations, and thus the seventh seven is not begun by a name Matthew lists. So though it’s commonly asserted that Jesus’ name suggests fulfillment in the genealogy because of a seventh seven Matthew sets up, I’d find the argument more compelling if Jesus’ name actually began a seventh seven. Again, though, his name is the last of the sixth seven. If the third section ended with Joseph’s name, and if Jesus’ name began a seventh seven, I think Option 1 would have more to commend it.

Do you find this argument convincing for why Matthew used “fourteen” to divide his genealogy into three sections? Or is there another view that seems more compelling? Maybe the two common views aren’t mutually exclusive?

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15 thoughts on “Why “Fourteen Generations” in the Genealogy of Matthew 1?

  1. If one of these options must be chosen, I would be inclined to the first, just because I’ve become convinced that the Bible often uses “7” (and multiples of 7) in a symbolic way (I recently posted about this on my blog).

    Are there other, more clear-cut examples of the Bible using gematria that could provide the basis for our supposing that it is utilized in this less clear example?

    On the other hand: these options don’t seem mutually exclusive. If use of gematria seems convincing, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Matthew is NOT emphasizing a 7-based connection, does it?

    • Andrew, a quick response (though I’ll respond more at length later): I don’t think the options have to be mutually exclusive. (I should’ve said that in the post.) And I do think it’s interesting that six sevens can be deduced from the three fourteens (in fact, it’s a very intriguing!), but the fact remains that Matthew draws attention to the number fourteen and not seven.

      The second option, to me, still gets primary emphasis. It would incredible that Matthew’s “fourteen” just happens to be the sum of David’s name as well as the count of generations from Abraham to David in 1 Chron 2. Also, just because seven is symbolically used elsewhere doesn’t mean it’s mainly in view here, right? When Matthew crafted the second and third sections of his genealogy (1:6b-11, 1:12-17), he omitted names to conform the lists to fourteen (not seven). And the overall Davidic emphasis of the genealogy seems to favor the use of the number for a Davidic emphasis.

      One more thing. If the use of the “seven” inside the three fourteens is likely, then it’s odd to me that Jesus’ name finishes the sixth seven. In other words, it’s commonly asserted that Jesus’ name means perfect in the genealogy, but I’d find that argument more compelling if Jesus’ name actually began a seventh seven. His name, though, is the last of the sixth seven. Now maybe the idea is, “Jesus brings us to the time when fulfillment is around the corner.” But I’d find the argument stronger if there were three sections of fourteen generations that went to Joseph’s name, and then Jesus’ name began a seventh seven.

      Wow, this didn’t seem like a quick response now that I’m reading over it. :)

  2. Charles Quarles in his book “A Theology of Matthew” P&R 2013 makes the point that the modern reader who misses the point or weight of the use of gematria is akin to a grandpa or grandma not understanding the code in their grand kids text messages, e.g., “LOL”, “OMG”, or “XOXO”. Option # 2 has made the most sense for me since it clicked that gematria had a richness which communicates coded concepts that expand about Jesus being the new Abraham, the new David and the new Moses. But then I do agree that it is intriguing and fun to entertain the “what if also” of the seven, sevens. I personally am fascinated by the theme of Jesus being the new King and he sits down on a mountain and explains what it is going to be like to be a subject in his Kingdom as he expailns their new identity in the beatitudes. And grasping what is going on in the genealogy is a great foundation for the kingship theme.

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  4. Gematria definitely. My thoughts here: Jesus’ genealogy.

    What is important to the gematria view is the connection between son of David and Messiah. Matthew introduces Jesus as the Messiah in the first verse. The Jews strongly associated this with descendant of David (Matt 22:42). Using the gematria of David in showing Jesus’ descent from David reinforces the association (even if it is just an aide memoir).

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  7. I agree with the both reasons, which serve to encode a heightened significance to Matthew’s Jewish audience; however, there are only 13 names in the final set of 14. This discrepency with the immediately following claim of three sets of 14 is disconcerting. We have an example of forcing an argument at the expense of Biblical inerrancy. It seems that it excuses the literal error in favor of Matthew presenting propaganda. Giving a plausible rationale for error still defies inerrancy. If this were the case, what other forms of puffery appear in the Gospel texts? Bert Ehrman in his Teaching Company course on the early church adds to this calling into question the number of people in the upper room at pentecost as being less than the Luke’s account of 120 in Acts 1:15.
    Once embarking on this logic, there is no end to calling inerrancy into question.
    When I raised this question in a Bible exposition class, I proposed that perhaps the missing 14th generation in the third set was the Church, which precedes Christ’s second coming or alternatively since Jesus comes x2, that he could be counted twice. I admit this is also forced and beyond the simple literal claim of the text of Matthew 1:17.
    I would prefer supporting inerrancy to sufficiency of Scripture, so appreciate your reply defending inerrancy.

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