The Gospels Begin with Sex

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The Four Gospels in the canonical arrangement begin with Matthew. And Matthew’s Gospel begins with sex.

It’s not a “genealogy.” All those fumbling sermons notwithstanding by pastors trying to find something to say about, “A was the father of B, and B was the father of C, and C was the father of D” and so on and so forth. Those strange Semitic names are hard to pronounce, but “show the fallen race we come from and our need to be redeemed.” Or, “just look at the adulterers and prostitutes in his family!” Or, “how gracious that some women were included!” All of these efforts, however well-intentioned, are based on poor translations and our own impoverished ideas about sex.

The truth, as I see it, is that the Gospels begin with sex. This should be enticing, not tedious, and even something one would want to be a little discrete about.

Let’s begin with translations. The Greek does not say “Abraham was the father of Isaac.” If I may be literal, it says “Abraham generated Isaac.” Yes, as a result of his generating Isaac, he was the father of Isaac. Even: in generating Isaac, Abraham became the father of Isaac. But he still is the father of Isaac today, right? If we insisted on speaking of his fatherhood, which is the effect, why put the effect, which remains, in the past tense anyway?

Fatherhood is an office, a position, an enduring relationship. Generation is an act. Fatherhood is something one discovers. Generation is something one does. Fatherhood persists; generation takes place and then is completed.

Writers are told to avoid the passive voice, because it is more remote than the active voice from the action. Every passive fact depends upon and is the result of something active, something taking place and more vivid. They may be simultaneous, but the activity is prior, nonetheless. “This man is beloved of the gods” (as Plato pointed out in the Euthyphro) is true only because “The gods love this man.” But the reverse is not the case. It’s not the case that “The gods love this man” because “This man is beloved of the gods.”

Abraham is (not “was”) the father of Isaac because he generated Isaac; not, Abraham generated Isaac because he was the father of Isaac.

*

Now, I’ll tell you a secret: Abraham did not generate Isaac except by going into Sarah, one particular evening, at some definite time, and lying with Sarah. And if it had not been that evening, and that time, it would not have been Isaac whom he generated. So, to say “Abraham generated Isaac,” is to say that Abraham embraced Sarah at just that time when Isaac and not someone else would have been generated.

To say that “Abraham generated Isaac, and Isaac generated Jacob,” and so on, is to give a causal sequence, not a list of familial relationships. The difference between this fact, which Matthew relays, and the dead translation of the NAB, is like the difference between a man who sets up a row of dominoes, knocks the first one down, and exclaims, “Now watch them all fall!” (effectively, what Matthew writes), and someone who long after the fact comes around and makes a list of which domino was to the left of which (what the NAB conveys).

The one thing we can be grateful for is that, mercifully, we don’t yet have “Abraham was the parent of Isaac.”

Nor does “beget” really get at it. “Beget” does not (to use the word literally) be-get the proper meaning. Beget means to get or to acquire, with effort. It’s one of those strange English words beginning with the prefix “be-”, like “bemuse,” “befriend,” “belittle.”

“Behave” belongs in this group also? It means to comport oneself, as if by habit – thus “have,” intensified to mean “to have so thoroughly as if by habitude.” That’s why it’s nonsense for psychologists to think they’ve removed reference to the soul by describing their discipline, in pseudo-scientific language, as “the study of human behavior.” It certainly is not the study of movement, of a mass changing its location in space. That special kind of thing which we call behavior ineluctably implies a soul.

Yes, it’s true that since its first occurrences in the 13th century, “begat” was customarily used for a father’s “getting for himself” with care and commitment a child, not the mother’s role in assisting this. In that sense, it’s a good match for the Greek word, which tends to be used for the father’s active role in generation, whereas the mother is passive (“And Boaz generated Obed, from Ruth,” v. 5)

And yet “begat” does not convey the fullness of what the Greek does. To generate is to cause to come into existence a being with the full likeness or close to the full likeness of the generator. To read Matthew’s causal sequence with this meaning in mind is to “see” the likeness of Abraham being conveyed through those other “generations.”

When you survey the causal sequence, bring in also the principle, commonly taken for granted, that the first member of a causal sequence exerts an influence throughout that sequence and even to a greater degree than subsequent members. When Matthew summarizes the sequence at verse 17, placing Abraham and David at the head of causal chains of generating, he is claiming that Jesus is in their likeness and, as man, “governed” by their acts of procreation.

“But the generation of Jesus was in the following manner.” (Mt. 18) Now: not by a man, a human father who generates. No one came into Mary’s chamber and “knew” her: “And he did not know her through time up to which she bore a son.” (Mt. 25)

The gospels begin with sex. And also, significantly, with the absence of sex – He was the first of those born “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1:14, Douay-Rheims)

 

*Image: Abraham and Three Angels by Marc Chagall,1966 [Musée Marc Chagall, Nice, France]

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Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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