Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Isaiah and Jeremiah and radice Jesse

A Jesse Tree traces the genealogy or family tree of Joseph, the legal, earthly father of Jesus, from Jesse, the father of King David, as described in Matthew 1.  Hebrew society expected that the Messiah would be descended from King David.

Sometimes some of the ancestors mentioned in Luke 3 are included.  The genealogies of Matthew and Luke are quite different. To reconcile the difference, Luke 3 is often thought of as the ancestry of Mary, mother of Jesus[1]

Once the canonicity of the gospels of Matthew and Luke was established, the early church fathers had to reconcile the differences between the two gospels.  Modern scholarship dismisses the issue by considering the genealogies in Matthew and Luke as inventions conforming to Jewish tradition and having a liturgical and propaganda purpose for the Christians who had to combat skepticism about Jesus.

But the early church fathers were not so willing to dismiss the issue.  They were well aware that the listing of ancestors in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 were quite different. Not only were the names different but different numbers of generations were given for roughly the same time period.  Various explanations arose such as the fact that the persons named were the same but remembered by different names.  But this can only go so far.  In Matthew, Joseph is the descendant of King Solomon, but in Luke, Joseph is the descendant of Solomon’s brother Nathan.  Levirate marriages were proposed and given as explanations at a couple of points in the genealogies. (For an interesting contemporary discussion about this problem see this blog from Paul Davidson, "What's the deal with Matthew's genealogy?" <https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2014/07/19/whats-the-deal-with-matthews-genealogy/>)

Then the issue of Mary’s Davidic ancestry had to be answered.  Mary’s marriage to Joseph who was from the line of David seemed inadequate.  Augustine took up the challenge in Contra Faustum Manichaeum.   Augustine made three explanations: 1. Jesus placed no emphasis upon his genealogy and urged his disciples to call no man “father” (Matthew 23.9).  2. Jesus was the son of the Father and of his earthly mother Mary who could also be a descendant of David.  3. Joseph, Mary’s husband, was the son of Jacob and adopted son of Heli.  Many centuries later, Thomas Aquinas repeated another explanation: “Others … suppose that Matthew gave the forefathers according to the flesh: whereas Luke gave these according to the spirit, that is, righteous men, who are called (Christ's) forefathers by likeness of virtue.”  

The easiest way to solve the problem was to separate the genealogies.  Assign to Joseph the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1.  Assign the genealogy in Luke 3 to Mary.  This meant that the significant differences between the two as written did not have to be reconciled.

Medieval clerics and monks would have known the genealogy recorded in Matthew 1.1-17.  The long list of names was read or chanted at the celebration of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary on September 8th.  Therefore, the monks would have been familiar with the names.  Today one almost never hears the genealogies in Matthew and Luke read.  Neither are appointed readings in the Revised Common Lectionary though the Matthew 1 genealogy is still used (as an optional reading) for the feast for the birth of St. Mary on September 8th in the Roman Catholic Church.

Genealogy was of great interest to the nobility and aristocracy of the Middle ages and the Jesse Tree was form of family tree.  In addition to the genealogy of Jesus, the Jesse Tree incorporated passages from the Old Testament thought to foretell the coming of a Messiah.  The prophesy that forms the basis of a Jesse Tree is the given by the Prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 11.1: “A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The verse in Latin (Clementine Vulgate) is “et egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet.” [2]

The other passage cited is Jeremiah 12.5: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth."  In Latin: "ecce dies veniunt ait Dominus et suscitabo David germen iiustum et regnabit rex et sapiens erit et faciet iudicium et iustitiam in terra," 

Given the hereditary requirement for many position in Hebrew society, the ancestry of Jesus was important.  This interest in genealogy continued with the nobility and aristocracy of the Middle Ages.

The Shaftsbury Psalter.  British Library.  Lansdowne 383 f.15r.  First quarter of the 12th century. Origin England

The Shaftesbury Psalter has one of the earliest English Jesse Trees produced after the Norman Conquest of 1066.  The barefoot Jesse is asleep with a Jesse Tree growing from in groin.  Above him is a generic king, presumably King David, the the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, topped with the dove of the Holy Spirit.  Christ is holding his right hand in blessing and a book in his left hand. The half body portrayal of Jesus resembles the much older Christ Pantocrater of the Byzantine world. 

On Mary's left is Moses, identified by a name in the margin and a paraphrase of Acts 3.22: prophetam vobis suscitabit Dominus Deus vester de fratribus vestris ...The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet from your brethren as he raised me up... RSV)  On Mary's right is Abraham identified by his name in the margin and a verse, Genesis 22.18: benedicentur in semine tuo omnes gentes terrae (by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves ...RSV).

Shaftesbury Abbey predated the Normam Conquest by almost 200 years.  Found in 888 by King Alfred, it was a Benedictine nunnery that acquired great wealth.  About a hundred years after the founding, the Saxon King Edward the Martyr, later St. Edward, was buried at Shaftesbury, making the abbey a popular pilgrimage site.  The well-endowed abbey was a prize for King Henry VIII with the Dissolution of the abbey in 1539. 

[1] The genealogy of Jesus in Luke goes back to Adam and not Abraham as it does in Matthew.  Also the names and order of names are different and there is considerable variation among the oldest manuscripts. Both genealogies emphasize the Davidic ancestry of Jesus.  
[2] The Latin Bible used here is Biblia Sacra juxta Vulgatam Clementinam or Clementine Vulgate.  There are differences from the Clementine Vulgate edition and the Nova Vulgata that is available at the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/archive/bible/nova_vulgata/documents/nova-vulgata_index_lt.html.

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