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The genealogies of Jesus

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Published: 25 December 2012 (GMT+10)

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Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies have differences that are apparent at even a cursory glance. Even some Bible scholars have given up on a satisfactory solution. For instance, Nolland says in his Matthew commentary:

Adoptive relationships were just as real and legally binding as biological relationships, and inheritance was one important reason why someone might be adopted as an heir.

Various attempts have been made at harmonisation, none of which is better than speculative. Given the contradictions in OT and other ancient genealogies and the varied functions of genealogies, it is probably best to let each genealogy make its own contribution to an understanding of the significance of Jesus.1

The implication is that it doesn’t matter whether Jesus is actually descended from who he is said to be descended from, because we are primarily meant to draw theological significance from it. But because Scripture presents a God who acts in history, the historical and the theological are inseparably connected—if these aren’t Jesus’ real genealogies, then they don’t really tell us anything about Him. Worse, the Bible would be lying.

Fortunately, we don’t have to give up on a solution. While any harmonization will involve some ‘guesswork’ on our part (because we don’t have all the data still available to us today), we can come up with a biblically consistent scenario that gives a reasonable explanation for some of the apparent differences in the genealogies.

Two genealogies?

Illustration by Caleb Salisbury

Genealogy

Click for larger picture.

The first question would be “How can someone have two genealogies?” Matthew’s genealogy traces the line through Joseph back to David through his son Solomon; Luke’s genealogy goes back through David’s son Nathan all the way back to Adam. But between David and Joseph, the lines only converge at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, only to promptly split again! How do we explain this?

First, it’s important to note that genealogies traced all sorts of adoptive relationships, as well as biological ones. And these adoptive relationships were just as real and legally binding as biological relationships, and inheritance was one important reason why someone might be adopted as an heir. The descendants of the house of David would have a particular important inherited title to ensure a succession for—the kingship.

Grammatically, the Greek is clear—both genealogies are genealogies of Joseph. The Greek of Matthew 1:16 reads: Ἰακὼβ δὲ ἐγέννησεν τόν Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἄνδρα Μαρίας, ἐξ ἧς ἐγεννήθη Ἰησοῦς ὁ λεγόμενος Χριστός (Iacōb de egennēsen ton Iōsēph ton andra Marias, ex hēs egennēthē Iēsous ho legomenos Christos). Translated, it reads, “And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom2 was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” So Jacob is Joseph’s father—it’s his genealogy. Luke 3:23 reads: Καὶ αὐτος ἦν Ἰησοῦς ἀρχόμενος ὡσεὶ ἐτῶν τριάκοντα, ὢν υἱος, ὡς ἐνομίζετο, Ἰωσἠφ τοῦ Ἡλὶ (Kai autos hēn Iēsous archomenos hōsei etōn triakonta, ōn huios, hōs enomizeto, Iōsēph tou Hēli). Translated, it reads, “And Jesus was around thirty years old when he began [his ministry], being the son, as was supposed, of Joseph, [son] of Heli. Luke is very careful here to note that Jesus was thought to be the son of Joseph (of course, the reader who has just gone through Luke’s birth narrative would know that Jesus had no human father), but when it comes to Joseph’s parentage, it is very straightforward: “Joseph son of Heli”, and then the lineage is traced back through Heli’s ancestors.

There are good reasons to assume that both are valid genealogies. In the first century, it may have still been a matter of public record, because for access to the Temple to worship, a Jew had to be able to prove his ancestry. But why are Matthew and Luke using different genealogies? Because they are writing with different goals in mind. Matthew is trying to convince his Jewish audience that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah they’ve been waiting for. Therefore a legal ancestry showing the line of descent (even though it has since been lost) would have carried a lot of weight when it was first written. Luke on the other hand is a Gentile writing to Gentiles—so showing Jesus’ common ancestry from Adam would be an important part of emphasizing that He is the Savior for all humanity.

Thus Heli would be Jesus’ maternal grandfather—meaning that Luke really traces Jesus’ genetic ancestry back to Adam.

But wait—how can Luke prove Jesus’ humanity by tracing Joseph’s lineage back to Adam? Because although grammatically, it is Joseph’s genealogy, it is probably also Mary’s genealogy as well. If Heli had only daughters, Joseph could have become Heli’s heir (the ‘son of Heli’) by adoption, especially if Joseph became his son-in-law.

Thus Heli would be Jesus’ maternal grandfather—meaning that Luke really traces Jesus’ genetic ancestry back to Adam. This is very important for the biblical teaching that Jesus is our Kinsman-Redeemer (Isaiah 59:20), who died for fellow humans (Hebrews 2:14), who share his common ancestry from one man (as Luke would later record from Paul in Acts 17:26).

While this solution is speculative (as any solution would be, since the Bible doesn’t tell us specifically), I think this does justice to Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ common humanity with us going back to Adam.

Incidentally, Luke 1:32 seems to give independent support for Mary being a descendant of David. That’s because the angel Gabriel announced that her Son would be a descendant of David. But Mary asked only how she, a virgin, could have a child, not how he would come from David, meaning that the latter part was presupposed because she is from that line.

Why is Matthew’s genealogy ‘too short’?

A cursory comparison of the genealogies from David to Joseph show that Matthew has far fewer names than Luke in the genealogy. Particularly descending from Zerubbabel, there are not nearly enough names in Matthew for the 500-year period that is represented between Zerubbabel and Jesus. But Matthew is not interested in giving a full genealogy here (unlike the chronogenealogies in Genesis)—he is only interested in establishing Jesus’ claim to the throne, and he gives enough of the genealogy to do so.

Shealtiel and Zerubbabel

The other ‘problem’ in the genealogies is that Shealtiel and Zerubbabel are present in both, but with different ancestors and descendants. Matthew says Shealtiel is the son of Jeconiah, but Luke says that he is the son of Neri. There are two solutions which are equally possible. The first is that these are different people. It wouldn’t be unheard of for the same sequence of names to pop up, especially if they weren’t uncommon names during that time period.

But there is another solution which is also attractive, which also has to do with an adoptive relationship. In 2 Kings 20, Hezekiah showed the Babylonian envoys all the treasure of Israel, and Isaiah tells Hezekiah that all the treasure will one day be taken away to Babylon. In addition, some of Hezekiah’s descendants will also be taken and made into eunuchs (1 Kings 20:16–19). It is likely that this happened to Jeconiah when he was taken away to Babylon. If this is the case, he may have adopted Shealtiel son of Neri in order to pass on the right to the throne. And in this scenario, both Mary and Joseph would be descended from Zerubbabel.

What about 1 Chronicles 3?

1 Chronicles 3 gives the family tree of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, and none of their descendants have the names that are in either Luke’s or Matthew’s genealogies. The simplest explanation is to say that the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, while accurate, are not exhaustive, and didn’t include the descendants named in the Matthew and Luke genealogies.

Matthew’s genealogy gives weight to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of David, and the son of Abraham. Luke’s genealogy shows how He can be ‘the Last Adam’.

Why is this important?

A lot of people find genealogies the most boring part of the Bible and even wonder why God would inspire the addition of long lists of names! This is a fairly recent attitude though, and even today, the genealogies are very important to some cultures (read, for instance, about how the Binumarien people realized that Jesus was a real person only when they heard His genealogy). As Christians, we believe that God acts within history to reveal Himself to us, and that He became incarnate in history to save us by His perfect life and sacrificial death and resurrection. Matthew’s genealogy gives weight to Jesus’ claim to be the Son of David, and the son of Abraham—the basis of Paul’s teaching that Jesus is Abraham’s unique Seed (Galatians 3:16). Luke’s genealogy shows how He can be “the Last Adam” because he comes from “the first man, Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45)—thus the Savior of all humanity, both Jew and Gentile. But they can only do this if they are true genealogies.

Related Articles

Further Reading

References

  1. Nolland, J. The Gospel of Matthew: A commentary on the Greek text, p. 70, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2005. Return to text.
  2. The Greek word here is feminine, so a ‘dynamic equivalence’ translation might say, “ … Joseph the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus who is called the Christ”, or some other construction which makes the feminine in the Greek plain. Return to text.

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Readers’ comments
Bob C., Australia, 25 December 2012

Hi Lita. Thanks for a very helpful article.

One comment. As I see it one of the reasons for the ‘boring genealogies’ is that they help set every event—the good, the bad and the ugly—of Scripture in its historic place and that helps us understand that God, who is love, is with us through all the events of our own life.

Jeremiah, who certainly saw the bad and the ugly, in Jeremiah 31:3 says:

The LORD has appeared of old to me, saying: “Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you,”

and so we can too.

Kind regards to you and all the team.

Bob Collard

Erik O., Sweden, 25 December 2012

Dear Lita

I highly appreciate your comments both concerning the two genealogies of Jesus but also other subjects. I just want to give some additional thoughts about genealogies in the Bible.

I find it very satisfactory that we get help from the Bible itself to explain passages.

Jesus is the son of David. Already from this expression alone we understand that ‘son’ can mean descendant as well as direct son. Also the other way round father can mean ancestor as well as direct father in other passages.

So Jesus being the son, as was supposed, of Joseph, (but he is son) of Heli, (he is son) of Mattat, … …, (he is son) of David. And of course this then has to be the genealogy of Mary. From the expressisons in Matthew we understand the genealogy there is that of Joseph. Abraham begat……Joseph.

1 Chronicles 1:14–16 and 1 Chronicles 7:30–40 are examples of more than one generation included in the concept of ‘father-son’.

Also sometimes all individuals in a genealogy are not mentioned, but those that are of most importance in the context. An example is 1 Chronicles 1:28,32.

Just want to add that the ministry of yours and CMI is of uttermost importance and value.

Erik

Azad K., Lebanon, 25 December 2012

Dear friends,

I just have a quick question. How can we know that the prophecies in Isaiah regarding Christ's virginal conception and crucifixion were written before the time Christ was born?

Thank you for your attention

Blessings

Jonathan Sarfati responds

A quick answer: Who wrote Isaiah? is all about the authorship and date of the book of Isaiah. I have seen myself the scroll of Isaiah from the Dead Sea, and this comes from a century or two before Christ.

Blessings to you too.

Azad K., Lebanon, 25 December 2012

Dear Dr Sarfati,

I would like to thank you very much for the quick answer you gave me about you seeing the Dead Sea Scrolls and that they were written a century or two before the birth of Christ! Based on this evidence, doesn’t this prove that the Bible is true in everything it says specifically the creation of the universe and man in 6 literal days, the Fall ,etc. ? If Isaiah was written before the time of Christ and and no one disputes the crucifixion of christ being literal at least in the Christian community and again by knowing that the DSS book of Isaiah mentions the Lord’s righteous servant being bruised for our transgressions and pierced for our iniquities, then this proves it all. Can we be absolutely sure because of these evidences the big bang and molecules to man evolution is a lie?

Jonathan Sarfati responds

Dear Azad

You are very welcome. Actually your reasoning makes a lot of sense. This is indeed a way of breaking a common skeptical charge—see Using the Bible to prove the Bible? Are biblical creationists guilty of circular reasoning? and Should we trust the Bible?

Chris M., United Kingdom, 25 December 2012

Hello Lita

I find it encouraging that you're always returning to Scripture in your stand against evolution at CMI and showing the reliability of the Biblical record. There is a dilemma I find, particularly with myself; I would spend my whole time (eyes permitting) on the CMI web-site digging deeper and deeper, bearing in mind at my age (65), trying to grasp the whole range of life sciences from a God honouring perspective; it is an enjoyable pursuit i must confess, but perhaps, neglecting my Bible. I hope I enjoy searching both, but of course, ". . . faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God."

Lita Cosner responds

I’m so glad that you enjoy our website, but I think all of us at CMI would urge you to not neglect your Bible in your enthusiasm for our articles! After all, our articles aren’t inspired like Scripture, which was “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In addition, our ministry focuses on creation/evolution, which is only part of the “whole counsel of God”; so if you neglect Scripture, you won’t be learning about those other areas which are outside our ministry mandate. So please, continue to enjoy our web articles, but don’t neglect Scripture!

Dave C., United States, 25 December 2012

I recall when the time for the reveal concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls was drawing near. Biblical skeptics were confident that the information uncovered from the scrolls was going to totally shed new light on the Bible and possibly undo everything that both Christians and Jews had held true for centuries. Before any investigation into what the scrolls said, they were dated along with the containers they were in and some were found to have been written many centuries before Christ was born. When it was discovered that the scrolls contained another version of the Old Testament word for word sans the book of Esther, the skeptics and mainstream media suddenly fell silent. I had an acquaintance at the time who was an agnostic and had been talking up what he believed the scrolls would reveal. Of course, he thought what most other Biblical critics were thinking at the time. But, when the reveal time came and went, it was very hard to get anything out of him concerning what the scrolls said or if he had heard anything about them at all. Personally, I hadn’t heard a thing because, as I can remember, the media wasn’t really pursuing the story with much fervor. It wasn't until years later that I actually learned about what the Dead Sea Scrolls were about and possibly why the mainstream media played down the importance of what they said.

It was of no surprise to me when I discovered the reason for the silence. Imagine the shock when those unbelieving investigators and skeptical scientist realized that what they had done was show the world that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah to Israel had indeed been fulfilled by Jesus Christ, and it was their fervor to try and disprove the Bible that did it by having the opposite effect.

Robin B., New Zealand, 27 December 2012

Julius Africanus, a Christian from the end of the second century was the first to notice this contradiction in the genealogies and from his investigations claimed it to be a case of Heli and Jacob being half brothers, and that one of them died, and the other fathered a child in honour of the half brother with the childless widow as seen in the custom of the Old Testament. Africanus was probably around at a time when he could have verified this situation, and claims to have done so, hence the different genealogies.

The other thing I think if useful in having two distinct genealogies when witnessing, is that it proves there was no collusion between the writers of the gospels, and therefore gives greater credence to authenticity,

Lita Cosner responds

I think it is unlikely that Julius Africanus, over 100 years after Luke and Matthew were originally penned, would be the first to notice that their genealogies were substantially different (surely the observational skills of the ancients were more acute than that!), though he may be the first one whose writings about it we have extant. That being said however, he did live over a century after the official genealogical information in Jerusalem would have been destroyed when the Temple fell. Julius Africanus was probably no more able to cross-check the genealogies with an outside source than we are today. But his theory is interesting.

Joseph L., United States, 27 December 2012

It is also unthinkable that Jesus would have a Canaanite in His ancestry. The cases of Rahab the harlot and Rechab the ancestor of Jesus come to mind. They were two different people as shown in this article: [Ed. note: URL removed as per our feedback rules.]

Lita Cosner responds

Matthew includes the names of women in several places, each time because his Jewish readers would link her name to a story in the Bible. If Rahab in Matthew’s genealogy is not Rahab the harlot, why would Matthew include a woman's name who no one would know? I think the context demands that we view her as the same woman as Rahab in Joshua. And Jesus having a Canaanite in His ancestry is no more ‘unthinkable’ than His having a Moabite (Ruth) in His ancestry.

H. S., Australia, 27 December 2012

Vey interesting and eye opening, however I have another question about genealogy contractions, not so much related to Jesus.

Taken from Luke 3: 35,36

35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Eber, the son of SHELAH, 36 the son of CAINAN, the son of ARPHAXAD, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech.

While in Genesis 11: 12

12 When Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah.

Why does Cainan appear in Luke but not in Genesis?

Thanks.

Lita Cosner responds

See our article on Cainan for what I think is the most likely explanation.

Peeter K., Australia, 28 December 2012

Re question of Isaiah authorship: Jesus himself (ie the WORD God) also afirms it was Isaiah that wrote the whole of the book of Isaiah by naming Isaiah when quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 in Matt 13:14 and in Luke 4:17 He took the "scroll of Isaiah" to quote Isaiah 61:1-2 without correction to the name of the author of the scroll. This affirms that there were not 2 Isaiahs by quoting and naming Isaiah from each of the supposed two divisions. I think Jesus knew who He was talking about being the Living Word (John Chpt 1)

Harry D., Australia, 28 December 2012

It’s important to note that Nathan, David's oldest son, was the legal heir to the throne but it was promised to Solomon. Jesus therefore, as a descendant of both lines is both the legal and promised heir

C. M., Australia, 28 December 2012

My Christology lecturer makes the comment that Luke's genealogy is actually that of Mary. He says the greatest theological problem for the Rabbis of Jesus’ day was the fact that David's line through Solomon had been cursed and no Messiah would come through that line. Jeremiah 22:24–30. That is one reason for the virgin birth. Joseph was of David’s line through Solomon. Mary however was of David's line through his son Nathan. To get around that little problem God merely had Mary give birth to the Messiah before she had relations with her husband. After the birth Joseph would adopt Jesus and he then becomes the legitimate heir to David's throne.

Alan D., Australia, 28 December 2012

Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, a renowned Jewish scholar, teaches that the genealogy in Matthew is there to show the Jews that Jesus could not be messiah from Joseph's line, because Joseph was a descendant of Jeconiah, whom the Lord said would not inherit the Davidic promises due to his sin. The Luke genealogy proves that Jesus lineage was from the rightful inheritor of David's kingdom.

Lita Cosner responds

Yes, and if you'll note from the article, I argue that neither Mary or Joseph is the biological descendant of Jeconiah (because Matthew's genealogy has a number of relationships that are adoptive by nature). My view gets to the same place as Dr. Fruchtenbaum's (that Matthew traces Joseph's lineage and Luke traces Mary's), but by a slightly different road.

Jeannette P., United Kingdom, 28 December 2012

Thank you for an informative article.

Some time ago I read another possible explanation (it might be from Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum but I have been unable to find it) for the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke.

The explanation, if I remember, was something like this:

The genealogy in Matthew's Gospel is Joseph's genealogy; but that in Luke (through Solomon's brother, Nathan), is actually Mary's, even though written as Joseph's, because a wife's ancestry was by convention named as her husband's rather than her own. (This is somewhat similar to your suggestion that maybe Joseph became Heli's adopted son).

Is this a likely explanation? It makes theological sense in a way that Mary, and therefore Jesus, was not actually descended from Solomon, because of his idolatry in later life. It is interesting that there are priestly connections as well as with the kingly line of David, as Mary's relative Elizabeth was married to a priest and (according to the Law) should herself have been of priestly descent.

What do you think?

Lita Cosner responds

I've given my thoughts about Dr. Fruchtenbaum's view in response to some of the other published comments; as you noticed, I don't differ that much from his conclusions.

By the way, Elizabeth could have married a priest without being part of the tribe of Levi; see the requirements for the women that a priest could marry in Leviticus 21.

J. C., United States, 28 December 2012

I thank God to have been edified by the insights and information shared in your article about the genealogy of Jesus.

I am reminded that we are to love God with all of our mind -- and that "it is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings" (Proverbs 25:2 NIV).

May He richly bless your further studies and sharing!

Lynda C., Australia, 28 December 2012

Fruchtenbaum, is his book "Messianic Prophecies", has a great article on this and it makes a lot of sense. Particularly when you link the curse on one of the Kings in David's line (in Jeremiah) - that none of his physical descendants will be the ultimate saviour - with the genealogies. One of the genealogies MUST be Joseph's, then.

elaine L., Australia, 29 December 2012

I thank the team for tackling some of the difficult Bible passages and concepts. Thank you especially for this article on The Genealogies of Jesus. I have recently been studying about David's line and the kings of Judah + the account in Ezra. The two differing genealogies in Matthew and Luke stuck me as odd. So, it is good to read this article and gain some added insight on how to read the genealogy lists. Many thanks!!

Sam D., United States, 29 December 2012

Thank You for this presentation.

Myself I have no doubt prior to this article about Christ and I have no doubt now either.

There are times I don't understand everything but I know if I keep my mind and heart open, I will know what I need to know what I need to satisfy whom Jesus is to me. Also, this is the reason I believe that He wants us to explore together to strengthen our Faith. Thank you. Sam

eryk G., United States, 29 December 2012

The way I see it, Luke did not know Jesus and may had taken the info from other places, maybe from Paul. Mind you this is only speculation on my part, Luke and and Paul (Saul) where very close friends and came in the after Jesus was dead for many years. If I remember correctly they where born 7 years AD. mean while Matthew was there all the time with Jesus. I think he that live and talk and share and saw our lord in the cross, has a bit more knowledge, that said I stand corrected.

thank you Eryk

Lita Cosner responds

We don't know precisely when Luke was born; Paul may have been not much younger than Jesus. We know that he was an old man in the 60's AD.

Luke was not an eyewitness of Jesus' ministry, but we have every reason to believe that he used reliable sources and interviewed eyewitnesses. There would have been enough eyewitnesses alive when Luke/Acts was written that eyewitnesses would have been able to set the record straight if Luke had recorded things that weren't true.

Both Luke and Matthew wrote entirely reliable accounts of Jesus' life and ministry.

Kevin G., United States, 29 December 2012

I am not sure why it is important to trace geneology back to Adam. If we trust the bible, wouldn't all of humanity be traced back to Adam?

Lita Cosner responds

Yes, all of humanity is descended from Adam. But it is especially important that Jesus, the Kinsman-Redeemer of all humanity, is descended from Adam. So Luke makes the extra effort to show us how Jesus is descended from Adam.

L. P., Canada, 30 December 2012

Don't forget that the geneologies are very important to be stated in the New Testament account of Christ, because it is prophesied that he would be of be of the line of David.

Karen L., United States, 4 January 2013

It may also be said that Mark 1:1 lists Christ's genealogy through God: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Ian D., United Kingdom, 29 January 2013

Dear Lita,

Thanks for your most helpful article. To add to your comment about 1 Chronicles 3:

Zerubbabel is among the ancestors of the Messiah in both Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogy. He is frequently called the son of Shealtiel. But in 1 Chronicles 3:19 he is the son of Pediah who was Shealtiel’s brother. Therefore Zerubbabel was probably a levirate son, raised up by Pediah as Shealtiel’s own son. If so then Shealtiel was a kinsman-redeemer. The Lord Jesus Christ is our kinsman-redeemer.

Hence in Luke 3:23 we read that Jesus, as was supposed, the son of Joseph. In the same way Zerubbabel (as was supposed) was the son of Shealtiel. He is described as the son of Shealtiel and also the Lord’s servant in Haggai 2:23.

This is a principle of prophecy. Zerubbabel’s name means the seed of, or from, Babylon. He is the root (shoot) that arises out of Babylon. God brings back His people like a root of new life out of Babylon. See also Isaiah 53:2 and Revelation 5:1-5 which speaks of the Lion of Judah, the root (shoot) of David – the Messiah, the Saviour, the full fulfilment of all OT prophecy.

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