Over at the Koinonia blog, Bill Mounce posted about the word γένεσις in Matthew 1:1: Βίβλος γενέσεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυὶδ υἱοῦ Ἀβραάμ. How should the word be translated? After surveying the options, Mounce concludes,
Context strongly favors the second option, "Record of the Origins" (so Blomberg). Greek gives us the range of possibilities; context makes the determination.
That is a fine translation, but many interpreters hear more in Matthew's opening verse than an introduction to Jesus' genealogy or Matthew's prologue. It is important to note that a form of "genesis" also appears in Matthew 19:28, where Jesus promises that in the “new genesis” (παλιγγενεσίᾳ), the twelve disciples will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. Here, the word seems to mean something like "new creation" and calls to mind the first book of the Old Testament.
Does Matthew intend for his readers to think of Genesis as they read the first verse of his Gospel? There are many connections between the First Gospel and the first book of the Bible. Jonathan Pennington concisely summarizes a number of them:
There are the obvious quotations [of Genesis] in Matthew 19:4-5 and 22:24. Additionally, the work of the Holy Spirit in 1:18-20 and 3:16 harkens back to the Spirit’s activity at creation. Reference to the beloved son in 3:17 recalls Isaac, the son Abraham loves in Gen 22. References to Abraham also appear several times in Matthew (1:1-2; 3:9; 8:11; 22:32) as do Sodom (10:15) and the “days of Noah” (24:37). Also significant is the three-fold allusion to the Cain and Abel story (Gen 4:1-16) in Matthew (5:21-25; 18:21-22; 23:34-36). The uncommon word παλιγγενεσία in 19:28 connects with Genesis and affirms a new creation eschatological outlook. One may also see a probable allusion to the pre-creation darkness of Gen 1:2 in Matthew 27:54, where the whole earth/land is covered with darkness at Jesus’ death. There is also a strong link in 28:18-19, completing the mention of Abraham in 1:1. (Pennington, Heaven and Earth, 213-214)
In light of these connections, some prefer to read Matthew 1:1 with an eye to the broader theological perspective of the Gospel (e.g., Warren Carter, Ulrich Luz, Davies and Allison, Pennington). This makes the translator's task very difficult, if not impossible. Mounce's suggested translation is fine, but hardly any translation is able to carry over the functional ambiguity and multivalent nature of γένεσις in Matthew 1:1. One can't help but wonder whether Matthew might have intended to communicate that with the advent of Jesus, the story of God's people was being rewritten. Perhaps he thought of his Gospel as a new Genesis.
References: Dale Allison, Jr., "Matthew's First Two Words" in Studies in Matthew (Baker Academic, 2005), 157-162; Jonathan T. Pennington Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Baker Academic, 2009) 211-216; Ulrich Luz, “A New Story of Jesus or a Rewritten One,” in Studies in Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) 18-36; Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles: Individual Conversion and/or Systemic Transformation,” JSNT 26.3 (2004)