Record of Genealogies
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.
Some translations like the KJV, ESV, and even the early NASB word this phrase (in Greek, “biblos genesis”) as “the book of generations.” It sounds a lot like today’s description of the first book of the canonized Bible, Genesis. We often refer to it as “the book of beginnings.”
This has caused a bit of trouble with some people today, at least from what I have found. These troubles would have some warrant as long as the readers never take a closer look at it – even to compare with other translations like the NIV and the later released version of the NASB. These translations phrase it like “the record of genealogies” or in some similar way.
So, if you were one who does not investigate these matters, you would expect Matthew’s gospel to be about such genealogy from beginning to end. But that is not so. Matthew only notes the genealogy in the first 17 verses of the first chapter. His writing is clearly not a book of genealogies. So I understand why some get hung on this phrase especially in light of passages like Mark 12:26, Luke 3:4, Acts 1:20, and others where the phrase “the book of” is used to refer to an entire book. But if they were to exercise just a little investigation, they would not be so confused.
First, a quick look at the word biblos (translated record if you are following me in the more recent NASB). In those times (especially in the Jewish culture), the inner bark of the papyrus plant was used to make sheets of paper that were pasted together until it was the length required. Then it was rolled up into a scroll. These sheets of paper were called the biblos, which is actually term to describe the inner bark from where the paper is made. Still, it is implied to mean, “the sheet of paper.”
So, it is evident that Matthew was not really talking about the entire gospel that he was writing, rather about a small portion of it, which may have been written safely on one sheet of papyrus. But in a more figurative sense, he is likely referring to a portion of his writing and not the paper itself. Thus, it would suffice to translate it “record, catalog, table” or something to that nature.
If so, it would not be an exceptional thing to do. In fact, the exact same phrase is used in the Septuagint. Genesis 5:1 reads, “This is the book of generations.” According to the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary of Matthew, this expression is purely Jewish. Nevertheless, it was a common expression.
Second, it would serve us to also look a little at the word genesis. It is common knowledge today, even among those not of the faith, that this word means “the beginning” or is in reference to some kind of origin. But figuratively, it can refer to natural generation or put more plainly “genealogy.” James used it twice in his letter. In James 1:23, he wrote, “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror” (emphasis added). Later in 3:6 he wrote, “And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell” (emphasis added). So the word figuratively refers to the order of nature.
If then, both biblos and genesis were to be taken as figurative language, the passage may be translated like our version of study, the more recent NASB translation, “the record of genealogies.” What Matthew is meaning to say is that the following portion of his writing is a record of the lineage “of Jesus Christ.”