Matthew Comes First
My friend Mike Bird
recently posted on the order of the canon, arguing that John should be the first book of the NT. Let me open my blogging account with a defense of Matthew as the first book--not for the sake of argument (especially with someone capable of going toe-to-toe with Stan Porter and Al Qaeda), but because we learn a great deal about Matthew and the Scriptures through the canonical placement of Matthew.
Even if we set aside the witness of the early church, placing Matthew at the head of the canon still makes a great deal of sense. Matthew's opening verse and genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17) tell the "Story of Israel" and the Old Testament. This story is referenced in a number of ways.
1) Matthew opens with "biblos genesews," which is usually translated "book/record of the generations/genealogy." But Dale C. Allison, Jr. has argued ["Matthew's First Two Words (Matt. 1:1)," Studies in Matthew: Interpretation Past and Present
, (Baker Academic, 2005), 157-162, with Luz backing him up] that this should be translated so as to bring out the "Genesis" aspect of that phrase. "Biblos genesews" surely alludes to the title of (the book of) Genesis in Matthew's day. It also mirrors the LXX of Genesis 2:4 and 5:1.
There's no doubt Matthew hopes to call the readers' attention to the beginning of his Bible. More blogging on this to come, but for now we note that he begins at the beginning. Note that some, such as Hubert Frankemolle, have noted the way Matthew may allude to 2 Chr 36:22-23 in his conclusion, Mt 28:16-20. This may reflect an interest in the "shape" of Matthew's canon...perhaps more on that later as well.
2) Matthew then proceeds to draw the readers attention to the narrative of Israel's history. It' s a Story beginning with Abraham, the Story of God's repair of the chaos of Gen 3-11 and the solution of the problem of sin (first for Israel, 1:21, then for all). Israel is God's chosen vehicle through which the world will be blessed.
3) The genealogy is loaded with heroes--broken heroes, sinner-saints, 'aints (Ruth), and strangers (Rahab). Matthew references Uriah, contrasting (not for the last time) the righteousness exhibited by a Gentile with the failure of David, God's "anointed." We find prophets (Amoz=Amos, 1:10), priests (Asa=Asaph, 1:7), the tragedy of the Exile, and allusions to Israel as a nation leadership role promised, partially fulfilled, and lost by Judah-David and sons-Jeconiah ("and his brothers"..."king"..."and his brothers"). This points to the need for The Hero, David's Son, who would reign over his people and the world in righteousness. The inclusion of outsiders (besides four named Gentiles, see also Ram=Aram in 1:3-4) also points up Israel's vocation as a light to the nations (Isaiah; Matt 5.13-16), and her failure to fulfill said vocation.
4) The genealogy is structured around promises. Abraham and David were promised sons who would bless all nations and reign forever in righteousness (even over the nations, Amos 9 etc), and YHWH promised a solution to Exile. Here, at the very beginning of the NT, Matthew points to the fulfillment of these promises: Jesus, the Messiah, Son of David, Son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). Jesus, then, is the telos of the Story, or at least one turning point in the I have avoided speculating at this point on the 3x14/6x7/40+1 (Augustine) schema. Plenty of time for that later.
Granted John has a Genesis of sorts, he does not reflect on the Story of the Old Testament, but merely articulates of Jesus' identity; Matthew does both. Luke has plenty of strong allusions in his opening (see Joel B. Green, "The Problem of a Beginning: Israel's Scriptures in Luke 1-2," Bulletin for Biblical Research 4 : 61-86), but these are less obvious and less sweeping than Matthew's opening. Only Matthew provides such an excellent bridge from OT to NT. (I do agree, however, that John would make a great second choice. Mike's decision to move Philemon back to Colossians is a great move--it's not just to an "individual," as the first verses make clear. But I would want James earlier somehow...and Luke should go next to Acts.)
For more on the Story of the OT and Matthew 1:1-17, see N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God
, 384-390; Mervyn Eloff, "Exile, Restoration and Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus ho Christos," Neotestamentica
38,1(2004), 75-87; and the comments by Craig Keener in his commentary on Matthew.