In pondering what to cover for part two of this series, it occurred to me that Christmas is just around the corner! So what better time to cover the Genealogy of Jesus Christ than just before we celebrate his birth? It won’t take long reading through the Gospels to find two detailed lists of the genealogy of Jesus; One in Matthew 1, the other in Luke 3. And it will take even less time to notice some major differences between the two.
So what gives? Why can’t Matthew and Luke get their story straight? Neither start at the same place, one goes backwards, Luke has 41 generations after King David while Matthew has 26, Matthew has 41 total generations while Luke has 76, they each cite different men as Joseph’s father… how can we possibly straighten all this out? Right about now I’m wishing Ancestry.com were in existence a couple thousand years ago. But we’re here to dismantle these objections, so let’s get to it.
Why so Different?
Our key texts are Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. On the surface it might appear we have a potential contradiction on our hands. Both Matthew and Luke are talking about the same thing; the lineage of Jesus. What we’ll need to determine however is whether they’re talking about it in the same way. There are a couple different scholarly theories as to why there is such a difference between Luke and Matthew. They are…
- Both writers are giving the lineage through Joseph, but one is including Leverite marriages and the other is the blood lineage. A “Leverite marriage” was a Jewish custom that said that if a man died without bearing any sons, his brother could then marry his widow, and their sons would carry on the dead man’s name. On this theory Heli (or Eli depending on your translation) would be the legal father of Joseph, while Jacob would be the biological father through a Leverite marriage. Matthew continues on tracing the biological lineage, while Luke traces the legal lineage. So there exists no contradiction since each writer is tracing the lineage differently.
- Perhaps the most widely adopted position in this matter is that Matthew is recording Joseph’s lineage while Luke is recording Mary’s lineage. There are a couple of good reasons to believe this to be true. One is that Matthew’s gospel strives to prove the messianic qualities of Jesus and is aimed primarily at Jews. It was commonplace for Jews to trace their ancestry and through their father rather than their mother. The nature of Luke’s Gospel on the other hand seems aim to add a Greek mind and therefore would not be as concerned with tracing a lineage maternally. Another reason supporting this comes from an unlikely, historical source. The Jerusalem Talmud indicates that Mary was actually the daughter of Heli (Chagigah, Book 77, 4). So it seems pretty reasonable to assume everything in Luke is from Mary’s lineage.
I personally lean to the latter explanation because I think it makes the most sense of the language that both Luke and Matthew use, as well as matching with external historical evidence. But by itself, it doesn’t answer a central question; Who is Joseph’s father?
Who is Joseph’s Father?
In the above two explanations, the first says that Joseph could’ve had a legal father by name who died, and a biological father through a Leverite marriage. This makes good sense of both gospel accounts. Matthew says “Jacob was the father of Joseph” (v. 16) and Luke says Joseph was “the son of Heli”. So if we go with some stronger evidence and say that Luke is giving the lineage of Mary, how do we reconcile that with Luke’s description of Joseph as the son of Heli? The simple answer is in the use of the word ‘son’.
Many times the English language pales in comparison to details and nuances within some ancient languages. Take the word ‘love’. We have just the one word to describe all different types of love (familial, intimate, friendly, etc.). The Greeks had at least three words to delineate between these different types of love. The opposite is true with the Hebrew word for ‘son’. The Jews did not use it in a limited sense as we do today. Where we might specify son-in-law, adopted son, biological son, etc., the Jews had just the one word to describe all of those relationships. For example, when Mt. 1:1 says Jesus was the “son of David, the son of Abraham”, a Jew would understand that Matthew did not mean Abraham was Jesus’ grandfather. In the Jewish mind, ‘son’ could simply mean a descendant of someone. It could also be used to describe kinship without sonship. Although Zerubbabel was the nephew of Shealtiel (1st Chronicles 3:1719), he was called the son of Shealtiel (Ezra 3:2, Nehemiah 12:1, Haggai 1:12). Jair is another example of this principle. He was a distant son-in-law of Manasseh (1 Chronicles 2:2123 and 7:1415). Yet, he was called the “son of Manasseh” (Numbers 32:41, Deuteronomy 3:14, 1st Kings 4:13).
With that background, think again on Luke’s genealogy of Jesus. If Mary is the daughter of Heli, we would call Joseph the son-in-law of Heli. The Jews however would rightly still refer to him as the “son of Heli”, as Luke does. This is internally consistent with biblical descriptions of ancestry. It not only clears up the question of who Joseph’s father was, but also explains the vast differences for all the names prior to Joseph all the way back to David. Matthew links Jesus to Joseph’s legal and royal lineage so as to establish a legal right to the throne of David. Luke links Jesus to Mary’s biological lineage, while still rightly referring to Joseph as Heli’s son, so as to establish a biological right to the throne of David.
What About All Those Generations?
I mentioned earlier how Luke records 41 generations after David while Matthew only records 26. There is approximately 900 years between the two. To me, that seems like too large of a difference. Luke’s timeline gives 22 years between generations, Matthew’s gives 35. I want to stress that although this seems unlikely, it is not at all a contradictions. It’s entirely possible for Joseph’s lineage to contain far more ancestors than Matthew’s. Each of those average years between generations is within reason. But, a more complete assessment of the difference requires us to understand the Jewish practice of genealogical abridgment.
I’ve already described the loose Jewish use of the word ‘son’. Genealogical abridgment is just that understanding played out in a genealogical list. And really, Matthew has already made it clear he’s doing this. In the first verse he skips all the generations between Abraham and David, then between David and Jesus to quickly summarize Jesus as the “son of David, the son of Abraham”. So Matthew is using the word ‘son’ loosely to aid in memorization and to make his greater points that Jesus is a descendant of David. But does he do the same with his more detailed list?
We know for sure that he does. In fact a large portion of Matthew’s list (Mt. 1:2-12) can be checked against Old Testament lists (1 Chron. 1:34; 2:1-15; 3:5, 10-19). When comparing the two we can conclude that Matthew clearly omits at least for genealogical links. That’s four in a period of time when these writings were known and on hand. It’s entirely possible that he omitted much more from the more obscure period between the Old and New Testaments. Further evidence that this was done is Matthew’s own statement to conclude his list, “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Mt. 1:17). Very curious isn’t it, how there just happens to be exactly 14 generations between each of those key periods in Jewish history? Isn’t it far more likely that Matthew was using the common practice of genealogical abridgment to simplify the genealogy to aid in memorization? I think so.
I hope what I’ve covered here addresses any primary concerns you have regarding the alleged discrepancies in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. If you’re interested in diving even further into this study, here are some suggested online sources.