A phrase I have heard frequently when I talk to pastors who have been to seminary is how they have all forgotten everything they ever learned about Greek. I find this greatly disturbing. That course nearly killed me and I don’t want it to go for nothing so I will occasionally write about stuff that I find interesting in the hopes that it will keep it fresh. In keeping with the season I want to write a bit about the virgin birth but first I need to say a tiny bit about grammar. Please bear with me. It will be worth it.
Active is when you have Subject > Action > Object
- e.g. Bill(Subject) hit(action) Tom (object) )
Passive is when (in English) you reverse the word order and use the ‘to be’ verb.
- e.g. Tom (object) was hit(passive action) by Bill (Subject)
In English we don’t have an active form of the verb for bearing children. In English I would say, ‘Julie bore Devin’ but we don’t often talk about women having children like that. We usually use either a euphemism or some figure of speech to work around the problem:
- Devin ‘was born to’ Julie
- Julie ‘had’ Devin
- Julie ‘gave birth to’ Devin
In Greek there is an active word for ‘born’ which, in the King James gets translated ‘begot’. In Matthew chapter 1 you have this long list of ‘begot’s: Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, … all the way down to verse 15 where in the NIV it reads:
Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.
Now it is important to note that Greek writers don’t feel any need to break up the monotony of a repetitive list. Matthew just rattled off forty-two names with barely a break. Trust me, he felt no need to spice it up with some variety at the end, but here at the end, Matthew breaks the pattern and throws in a strange construction. Instead of saying, “Jacob begot Joseph begot Jesus,” he pauses and throws in Jesus’ mother and the passive form ‘by whom’.
The ‘why’ is what is interesting. The active verb for ‘begot’ is third person with no gender. It reads Azok (he/she/it) begot Zadok. The verb makes no statements about gender but the passive form (because of the ‘to be’ verb) does. It is feminine singular. Matthew is saying that Jesus is born through Mary, only. In this long list of generations there is a remarkable anomaly. Jesus is not born of Joseph but instead is born by Mary to Joseph. Matthew deliberately and emphatically states that this step in the family tree is unique, unlike any step before it. Jesus is born in a totally different way than any other child is born.
Behold a virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son and they shall call his name ‘Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’