Ephrem’s Typological Genealogy of Mary

In two recent posts, I noted the possibility that Justin Martyr and Celsus understood one of the two genealogies of Jesus given in the gospels as Mary’s genealogy. While such a view is at best implied by these early writers, Ephrem is remarkably explicit in his apparent attribution of the Matthean genealogy to Mary:

“Matthew wrote down the genealogy of Mary from whom our Lord was born and, because of this, he began from David and from Abraham, according to the promise revealed, ‘Not to you and to your descendants as though unto many, but to you and to your descendant, which descendant is Christ’ (Gal 3:16).”1

While Justin and Irenaeus imply that it is the Lukan genealogy that belongs to Mary, Ephrem somewhat surprisingly designates Matthew’s royal genealogy “the genealogy of Mary.”

Now there are some puzzling aspects about this passage in the Syriac Commentary on the Diatessaron. For one, Ephrem is citing the evangelist Matthew in a Diatessaron commentary. This is odd. Since Tatian had combined the four gospels into one, it is remarkable that Ephrem calls out one of the four evangelists by name.

But perhaps this is because of a second puzzle: the Diatessaron purportedly contained no genealogy of Jesus.2 It is remarkable that Ephrem senses a need to comment on a passage that was apparently excluded from the work upon which he is commenting. Indeed, Ephrem’s explicit reference to Matthew (and later to Luke) appears to support the notion that the Diatessaron lacked the genealogies.

But the third puzzle is Ephrem’s surprising attribution of the Matthean genealogy to Mary.

This attribution is all the more surprising because just two paragraphs earlier Ephrem asserts that Mary’s family line is nowhere to be found in the scriptures and, moreover, he implies that it is inappropriate to look for it:

“Scripture is silent [about Mary] since it numbers and counts the generations of men. If Scripture were accustomed to represent the family through the women, it would be appropriate to inquire after the family of Mary.”3

But apparently, in Ephrem’s view, it is not appropriate. Otherwise, why bring the matter up? But if not, why does Ephrem later apparently contradict himself by explicitly ascribing the Matthean genealogy to Mary?

If this is in fact a contradiction, it will not have been the first incongruity to have been discovered in the Syriac Commentary. Similar incongruities of thought have led to the conclusion that the commentary preserves multiple layers of tradition, ultimately compiled by a “school” of Ephrem in the latter fourth century.4

But perhaps this is not an incongruity.

Matthew: A Typological Genealogy?

In the same context, Ephrem refers to the genealogy of David as a “type” of the true genealogy of Mary’s child:

“The family of David continued as far as Joseph who had married her, and her child was through the type of the men, for the sake of the family of David.”5

Is Ephrem spiritualizing the Matthean genealogy?

According to Ephrem, the genealogies of the men establish a pattern of the true genealogy, which is Mary’s genealogy, because she is the one who gave birth to Christ, the seed promised to Abraham and David, as Ephrem reminds us:

“He is the son of Mary, however, and not the son of Joseph.”6

Ephrem says that because “Matthew wrote down the genealogy of Mary,” therefore “he began from David and Abraham.” So according to Ephrem, Matthew’s intent was to set forth the spiritual promise to Abraham and to his seed, Christ, and not to record a literal genealogy.7

Yet even to Ephrem, Matthew’s genealogy is not totally spiritualized. It contains three crucial names in the physical lineage of Jesus: Abraham, David, and Mary, “of whom Jesus was born.”8 If we follow this spiritual path, the genealogy becomes Mary’s genealogy, because, after all, the child is hers. And the seed is literally from David because, as Ephrem insists, Mary was from David:

“take note that [the evangelist] has said [elsewhere], concerning Joseph and Mary, that They were both of the house of David.”9

Here again Ephrem reaches outside of the Diatessaron, referring to Luke 2:4, which in the Old Syriac asserts that both Mary and Joseph were of the house of David.10

Whose Names?

So according to Ephrem, whose names are in the Matthean genealogy, Mary’s or Joseph’s?

Apparently, neither, at least after David. We know that Ephrem does not consider the Matthean names to belong to Joseph, because he later assigns the Lukan genealogy explicitly to Joseph:

“Luke however [was concerned] only with Joseph, husband of Mary, and [went back] as far as Adam who is from God.”11

So Ephrem chooses not to interpret the Matthean genealogy in a literal sense. Rather he interprets it typologically, as a figure of the true but unknown genealogy of Mary.

Is this Ephrem’s own solution to the discrepancies between the two genealogies of Matthew and Luke? It is difficult to say. But Ephrem is certainly not the first — nor the last — early Christian writer to spiritualize a difficult passage. Typological interpretations became one defense against the literalistic readings of certain heretics, such as Marcion, Ephrem’s arch-heresiological foe.12 From Ephrem’s perspective, Marcion’s literalistic interpretation ended up pitting one testament against the other and ultimately splitting the godhead into demiurge and stranger. Considered from this perspective, Ephrem’s pious spiritualization of the Matthean genealogy does not seem terribly shocking.