Bible Review 20:6, December 2004

Before Mary: The Ancestresses of Jesus

This article is based on the writings of Jane Schaberg and appears here with her approval.

The opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew trace the ancestry of Jesus back to the patriarch Abraham. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ genealogy is an illustrious one, including Jacob, Judah, David, Solomon and Hezekiah. Somewhat unusually, however, the list (reprinted) includes four women from the Hebrew Bible. In Matthew’s Jewish world, genealogies typically mentioned only men.1 Even more surprisingly, the four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and “the wife of Uriah” (that is, Bathsheba)—have somewhat spotty reputations. What prompted Matthew to include a prostitute (Rahab), a woman who pretended to be a prostitute (Tamar), a sexually forward widow (Ruth), and a woman taken in adultery (Bathsheba) in his “account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1)?

Scholars generally agree that Matthew viewed these four women as precursors to Jesus’ mother, Mary, the fifth and final woman in the genealogy. But how? What did all four women have in common with Mary? Before we can answer this question, we must first identify the women and determine what Matthew may have known about them based on the biblical and extrabiblical texts current in his day.2

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