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Genealogy of (Jesus) Christ

See also Jesus Christ


Of the house and lineage of David.

The genealogy in Matthew.

Certain distinctive features stand out in Matthew’s genealogy. Two high points in OT revelation figure prominently in the list—David and Abraham, both men being partners to God’s covenants with Israel. Matthew intended that the pedigree of Jesus stand out sharply at the very beginning of his gospel, and it holds the first place of honor. His genealogy is structured in three sets of fourteen generations each. He arrived at this scheme through selection and omission in accord with OT practice. The device served to aid the memory, and indicated the main line of descent without sacrificing accuracy. Matthew may have chosen the number fourteen because it matches the numerical value of David’s name in Heb. letters, but this is no more than a theory. Another peculiar feature of Matthew’s list is the inclusion, almost incidentally of four women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Rahab was a Canaanite from Jericho, Ruth was a Moabitess, and Tamar and Bathsheba were famous chiefly for their participation in public scandal. Quite apart from the character and nationality of these women, the very occurrence of their names in an official Jewish genealogy is a distinct feature. Undoubtedly, Jesus was known by His enemies as the son of an illegitimate union. He was known as the son of Mary, not Joseph (Mark 6:3), which in a male society was a dishonorable title. Later Jewish tradition developed the malicious rumor. Therefore, Matthew, desiring to offset the gossip, inserted with some relish the names of some OT characters whose reputations were not beyond reproach, but who were instrumental in the Messianic line. In Jesus’ case, however, the rumors arose to counteract the miraculous character of His birth by a virgin. Jesus is presented in Matthew’s genealogy as a legal male descendant of David through adoption by Joseph, and heir to the Davidic throne.

The genealogy in Luke.

The Lukan genealogy is less official and legal in form. It is not placed at the beginning of the gospel, but is tucked away in the third ch., after the baptism of Jesus. The order is inverted, proceeding backward in time from Joseph to Adam, and includes almost twice as many entries. The most startling feature of the list is its total dissimilarity to Matthew’s in the period between Joseph and David, with only two names common to both (other than Joseph and David), namely, Shealtiel and Zerubbabel. Luke traced his line through Nathan, son of David, and named Heli as grandfather of Jesus, whereas Matthew traced his line through Solomon, the royal son of David, and named Jacob as grandfather.

Two solutions to the discrepancy.

Attempts have been made from earliest times to resolve the apparent contradiction. Assuming no colossal mistake in either gospel, two valid explanations are possible. Either both lists are properly those of Joseph but reckoned in a different way, or one is the family tree of Mary, not Joseph. Annius of Viterbo (c. 1490) proposed a theory that whereas Matthew gives the legal descent through Joseph, Luke presents the physical descent through Mary; a method that can be traced back to the 5th cent. a.d. Certainly, Mary is the chief figure in the birth narrative of the third gospel, and belongs herself very prob. to the house of David (1:27; 2:4). The article that is universally used in the list for each entry is noticeably absent from the name of Joseph (3:23), which leads to the interpretation that the list proper begins with Heli, not Joseph. Joseph’s name is introduced into the list only to fill in the gap between Jesus and His grandfather Heli. The text would read the: “Jesus, being the son (as it was supposed, of Joseph) of Heli, etc.” Luke’s list would be the register of Mary’s family, beginning with Heli her father. This theory is attractive, but suffers from the suppression of Mary’s name in the list. It is, however, clearly possible, and would provide a simple solution to the problem of the double genealogy. The fact that Mary was related to Elizabeth, a daughter of Aaron, is not an insuperable difficulty if we suppose this relationship came through the mother rather than the father. The main weakness is in the failure of Luke to make this point explicit if that was his intention. The theory could be strengthened by supposing that Mary had no brothers, and that Joseph became the son and heir of Heli by virtue of his marriage to Mary.


Adapted from A Guide to the Gospels (London 1948) by W. Graham Scroggie

The second possible explanation considers the Lukan genealogy to be the family tree of Joseph, as Matthew’s is. Both gospels stress that Joseph was of the house of David (Matt 1:16; Luke 1:27; 2:4). It is natural to suppose that both writers intended to provide Joseph’s ancestry. Matthew’s purpose was to trace the line of official succession to the Davidic throne, whereas Luke’s informal aim was to enumerate the actual physical ancestors of Joseph back to David. This solution was originally proposed by Julius Africanus (c. a.d. 220) in a letter to Aristides, as reported by Eusebius (Euseb. Hist. 1:7). Julius believed that the law of levirite marriage could be invoked to remove the tension between the two lists—that Joseph was really the son of Heli, with Heli and Jacob as uterine brothers, born of the same mother but of different fathers. If either one had married the widow of the other, Joseph could be reckoned in that sense a son of either. A neat twist can be put on the theory by identifying the two grandfathers of Joseph (Matthan in Matthew, and Matthat in Luke). In that case, Heli might have married the widow of a childless Jacob, and begotten Joseph, in which case Joseph would be the actual son of Heli, but the legal heir to Jacob. In both lists then, the ancestry of Jesus is traced through Joseph, his legal father. Because Matthew wished to present the successive heirs to David’s throne, he began with David’s ancestry and worked forward to Jesus. Because Luke wished to record the actual line of physical descent, he began with Joseph and worked backward through his actual ancestors. The chief weakness of the second explanation is the series of happy coincidences required to make it function.

A final solution to so intricate a question may never be found. Enough is known, however, to show that the apparent discrepancy between the two genealogies is not insoluble.


A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (1922), 259-262; J. G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930), 203-209; E. Stauffer, Jesus and His Story (1960), 22-25.

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