The Genealogy of Jesus
Written by Al Maxey
Focusing on His Family Tree from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
A dear sister in Christ once told me that she saw “no earthly benefit” to the genealogies of the Bible, and that she skipped over them every time she came upon “those lists of begets, begats and begots.” I would guess she is not alone in that sentiment. Genealogy lists do seem to “drag on” endlessly, and, at least on the surface, seem to convey very little information except someone lived, died, and fathered a child.
Some have even appealed to the teaching of the apostle Paul in order to suggest that the study of these genealogies is not really profitable. To the evangelist Titus he wrote, “Shun foolish controversies and genealogies and strife and disputes about the Law; for they are unprofitable and worthless” (Titus 3:9), and to Timothy, his child in the faith, he wrote, “Instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation” (1 Tim. 1:3-4). There you have it! Scriptural proof that we should avoid these lists. Well, not quite. Actually, Paul’s point is that we should avoid becoming obsessed with such; avoid the strife and controversy that such disputes over such matters too frequently generate. Thus, these various genealogies themselves are not unprofitable; instead, it is our varied interpretive approaches to them, and how we ultimately choose to employ them, that may indeed prove to be unprofitable to ourselves, to others, and to the cause of Christ Jesus.
If genealogical lists were truly evil entities themselves, they would not be included in the inspired documents of both old and new covenants. Yet, a great many of them are found in God’s inspired Word. Thus, they are clearly there for a purpose, even if that purpose may not be immediately evident to our own modern minds. In the study of biblical genealogies it is important not to get too bogged down in the minutiae of the list, but rather to understand that these various genealogical records had specific purposes for being. Too frequently, by focusing on the former, one entirely misses the significance of the latter.
Within the pages of the Old Covenant writings one will find approximately 26 different genealogical lists. Some are rather brief, others fairly extensive. The first is of the descendants of Cain, with the list extending through seven generations (Gen. 4:17-22). The descendants of such biblical notables as Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Jacob, Levi, Judah, Joseph, and many others are given. For a full and detailed listing of all these OT genealogies, I would refer those interested readers to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (vol. 2, p. 426-427). In the New Covenant writings there are really only two genealogical lists that have any genuine significance — both being of Jesus the Messiah. They are found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. These two very important lists, however, each providing the ancestors of Jesus, have been the occasion of tremendous confusion and debate for a great many centuries. “Perhaps few questions have occasioned more trouble and perplexity to the learned than that which concerns the genealogy of our blessed Lord as it is given by the evangelists St. Matthew and St. Luke” (Adam Clarke, Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 5, p. 385).
Matthew’s genealogy is very much different from Luke’s genealogy. “Problematic to most commentators is the striking conflict between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke” (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 75). Adam Clarke correctly notes that over the centuries “much learned labor has been used to reconcile” the two genealogies (Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 5, p. 383). Some of these efforts at reconciliation are really quite ingenious, others are less so, and a few are simply bizarre. Matthew lists four women in the genealogy, Luke lists none. In Matthew’s account, Joseph is said to have been born unto a man named Jacob, whereas in Luke’s account the implication seems to be conveyed that he was the son of Eli. Then there are the problems of missing names and skipped generations. Thrown into this whole evaluation are questions regarding Levirate marriage laws, genealogical abridgment, and the rabbinic usage of gematria. More about these later.
First, we must point out that the maintaining of genealogies was an important Jewish custom. Ancestry and bloodlines served several important functions among these people. Status within the larger community, inheritance rights, allotment of land, the stability of the throne in earlier times, the right to serve as a priest before God, various marriage laws, were all contingent upon an individual being able to prove his or her place in the proper lineage. It was also critical for Jesus, as the promised Messiah, to be able to demonstrate that He was indeed descended from both Abraham and David, otherwise His claim to be the long awaited Messiah would be regarded by the Jews as invalid. Thus, Matthew begins his gospel record with this statement, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Jesus is called the “Christ” … the anointed. His claim to be the Messiah is declared in the very first statement of the NT canon, and the basis of that assertion is immediately declared: He is descended from both David and Abraham, the two men to whom the promise was made by God.
Unto Abraham it was promised, “And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). The apostle Paul explains — “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ” (Gal. 3:16). As for David, the apostle Peter, in his sermon in Jerusalem on Pentecost, said, “God had sworn to him with an oath to seat one of his descendants upon his throne” (Acts 2:31). Peter then explains that this descendant of David was Jesus. “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). The Jews knew only too well that the promised Messiah would descend from both Abraham and David. Any person claiming to be that Messiah would have to demonstrate legitimate descent from both men. Thus, the NT record begins with just such affirmation. It is important to note that although the opponents of Jesus challenged Him on many of His teachings, there is absolutely no record that He was ever challenged on His genealogical claims! With such records being readily available, and one can be certain His opponents would have checked, this is one of the strongest historical confirmations of the legitimacy of the genealogy of Jesus as recorded in both Matthew and Luke. He was indeed “the son of David, the son of Abraham,” a powerful statement that “resonates with biblical nuances” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 61).
“Matthew writes for Jewish Christians in order to establish them in their faith that Jesus is the Christ promised in the Old Testament. … It is absolutely vital, then, that we should know that Jesus Christ is the direct and true descendant of Abraham through David. For if He were not, He could not possibly be the Messiah” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 25). “The designation ‘Jesus Christ, David’s son, Abraham’s son,’ marks Jesus as the one in whom the Messianic promises made to David and to Abraham were fulfilled” (ibid, p. 27). After his initial statement of genealogical purpose, Matthew then provides what is known as a descending linear list — beginning with Abraham (Matt. 1:2), he traces the ancestral descent down to “Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matt. 1:16). Luke, on the other hand, writing more for Gentiles than Jews, uses what is known as an ascending linear list — beginning with Jesus (Luke 3:23), he traces the human ancestry of Jesus upward, culminating in the assertion that Jesus was “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God” (Luke 3:38).
The purposes of the two writers, therefore, as well as the primary focus of their individual lists, were very much different from one another, a fact which will go a long way toward reconciling some of the alleged discrepancies. “The two lists likely serve different functions and should not be interpreted as contradictory” (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 490). It is the view of many biblical scholars, and I happen to concur with this view, that Matthew was following the legal & royal line of descent to Joseph, whereas Luke was following the natural & blood line of descent to Mary. “Thus, Matthew’s genealogy presents Joseph as the legal father of Jesus, which makes Jesus legally the heir of David and of Abraham. If Jesus had been born without a legal father, of Mary without a legal husband, His legal right to the inheritance from Abraham and David by virtue of the divine promise would have been void” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 34). Although Joseph was clearly not the natural father of Jesus (having been conceived by the Holy Spirit of God), he nevertheless was considered the legal father, which would have sufficed legally to assure Jesus of His place in the lineage of Joseph. However, to remove all possible doubt, Luke traces the lineage of our Lord Jesus back to David and Abraham through Mary, thus establishing the physical and blood right of Jesus to be counted a descendant of these two men to whom the promises were given. Therefore, both genealogies were actually needed to make the case for Jesus, as His origin was unique among men!
Luke, in contrast to Matthew, traces the ancestry of Jesus to Adam. “The significance of the genealogy in Luke probably lies in the emphasis on Jesus as a member of the human race, a son of Adam” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 861). This would be a natural emphasis for one writing primarily for a Gentile audience. It relates the Messiah to all men, whereas the emphasis of Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, was far more concerned to show Jesus as the rightful, legal heir of David’s throne, and the fulfillment of promise to both David and Abraham. Matthew starts his genealogy with Abraham, the father of the Jews; Luke ends his with God, the Father of all mankind. Thus, Jesus was not only “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1), he was also “the Son of God” (Luke 3:38). Thus, we see both humanity and deity, the physical line and the royal line, emphasized in these two genealogies.
One of the most controversial areas of debate over the centuries involves whether Luke is tracing the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph or Mary. The battle has been waged with great vigor over these two views, with many arguments both for and against each view being proposed by reputable scholars. Although we may never know for sure, it is nevertheless my own conviction, based on my study, that Matthew’s genealogy is through Joseph and Luke’s genealogy is through Mary. Volumes have been written about this matter, and I don’t intend to add to that body of literature here!! However, it seems only logical that since Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, that a biological connection to Abraham and David would be of great value to validating the claim of Jesus to be the Messiah. That seems to be satisfied by Luke’s list. It would also adequately explain many of the differences between the two lists, as they were the ancestral records of two different people, rather than of one man (assuming both lists were of Joseph).
Luke 3:23-24 states that Jesus “was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Eli (Heli), the son of Matthat.” Matthew writes, “and Matthan begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus” (Matt. 1:15-16). Obviously, the names don’t match! Was the father of Joseph named Jacob, or was his father named Eli (Heli)? Which was it? The father of Jacob is said to be Matthan, but the father of Eli (Heli) is declared to be Matthat. Obviously, the names Matthan and Matthat are similar, but Jacob and Eli are not. If both genealogies are of Joseph, then we have a problem. This is where the Law of Levirate Marriage comes in. Some appeal to this custom among the Jews as the explanation for these differing names, although there is not even a hint in either genealogy that such was occurring.
One should study the following OT passages to learn more about this rather unusual marital law — Deut. 25:5-10; Num. 27:1-11. Essentially, the conditions of this particular law were (and they largely had to do with inheritance rights and the continuation of the family name): If a child lost his father, the father’s brother (if he had one) could take that child as his own (at times even marrying the brother’s widow), and thus the child would be reckoned as the legal son of that living brother. Under this theory, it is assumed that Eli (who was Joseph’s biological father) may have died, and that Jacob (who may have been his brother, or half-brother) took Joseph and his mother in as his own family. Thus, it could be said that Joseph was the son of both Eli (Heli) and Jacob, under this theory of the “Law of Levirate Marriage.” Some have assumed this is also the explanation for a few of the other name discrepancies in the two genealogical lists. “The levirate marriage assumption has been a popular option since ancient times — proposed by Julius Africanus (died 240 A.D.), in the third century, as cited in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History 1:7” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 861).
Although this has long been a popular theory, it is largely renounced today as a theory that must assume way too much to make itself valid. There is nothing in either list that would suggest a levirate marriage. It is purely speculation. Far more reasonable is to assume that the two gospel writers are tracing the ancestry of Jesus through both parents — Joseph and Mary. This is not only logical, but, to some degree, even necessary, given the special circumstance of the birth of Jesus, as was previously noted. Also, there is some solid rabbinic evidence that the father of Mary was indeed named Eli (Heli). For example, the Jerusalem Talmud informs us that Mary was the daughter of this man (Haggigah, book 77, 4). Therefore, Luke’s genealogy would have been traced through Mary, and Joseph would be the son-in-law of Eli (Heli).
Dr. Charles Ellicott writes, regarding Luke’s genealogy, “the more probable view is that we have here the genealogy not of Joseph, but of Mary” (Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 262). After all, the apostle Paul stated that Jesus “was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh” (Rom. 1:3). That could only have been Mary, because Jesus had no connection with Joseph “according to the flesh.” Thus, Mary would need to be shown also to be a descendant of David, and this is done in Luke’s genealogy. Luke declares Mary to have come from David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:31), whereas Matthew shows Joseph to have come from David’s son Solomon (Matt. 1:6). The fact that these two genealogical records trace through two different sons of David also seem to attest to them being of different persons (Joseph and Mary), rather than of one person (both being of Joseph).
One should also not overlook the overall context of Luke’s first three chapters. The focus is largely on Mary throughout. Thus, it would not be unusual for the genealogy here to be of her as well. Bro. H. Leo Boles wrote, “If Heli was Mary’s father, it is clear that Joseph was his son-in-law; the assumption that this relationship is here designated agrees with the facts of the case, or at least is not contradicted by them” (A Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke, p. 88). The Pulpit Commentary points out that the questions pertaining to the differences between the two lists “can only be answered by showing that Luke’s list is a list not of Joseph’s ancestors, but of Mary’s, who was in very truth the mother of Jesus” (vol. 16). This was also the view of the great reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546), and the bulk of scholars since that time.
There are a great many other questions related to these two lists that trouble scholars. Shealtiel and Zerubbabel appear next to one another in both lists (Luke 3:27; Matt. 1:12), however the names around them in the two lists are different. Therefore, are Matthew and Luke thinking of the same two people (Zerubbabel and Shealtiel), or is it purely a coincidence that two such names appear together in these two lists? If they are the same men, why are the names around them different in the two lists? Again, we could go into lengthy discussion and debate over the many theories that have been brought forth over the centuries, but I leave this to those readers who may be interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. The same is true with regard to the problem some have raised with respect to the curse against Jehoiakim, king of Judah (Jer. 22:30; 36:30) — none of his descendants would sit on the throne of David. Yet, we know from the genealogy that Jesus is descended from this king. Some feel this curse would adversely affect the promise that Jesus would be heir to the throne of David. Again, there are some ingenious theories as to how to reconcile this curse with the fulfillment of promise in the person of Jesus, but, for the sake of time, I leave this to the reader to explore further.
One could also spend a good deal of time, and very profitably, examining each name that appears and learning something of the personal history of each from the biblical record. There are some fascinating stories associated with some of these persons, some well-known to us, some less so. There are also five women mentioned by Matthew (but not mentioned by Luke) — Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. This is notable because it was not customary for Jews to list the names of women in their genealogical records, although there were some exceptions. It is also notable in that some of these women were less that reputable. Who can forget the sordid story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38? Rahab was a harlot. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and later became pregnant by David while her husband was away; a man later murdered by David so he could take Bathsheba as his own wife. Ruth was a foreigner from the land of Moab, and yet was the mother of Obed, the grandfather of King David. Through such persons the Messiah was to descend.
As one can imagine, this raises some questions as to why such persons would be numbered among the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah! I believe Adam Clarke has given a very good response to this: “Jesus, the author and principle of the new creation, and the repairer of the world, disdains not to be reckoned among ordinary creatures, and among the children of sinful Adam. He designed hereby to secure us from having the least doubt of His human nature; and to assure us that we have a victim, a saviour, and a high priest, capable of compassionating our infirmities and miseries, and making atonement for our sins; and thus reconciling us to God. Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift!” (Clarke’s Commentary, vol. 5, p. 394). Lenski notes, “God condescended to use such ancestors for His Son” (The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 28). He characterizes it as a “bloodline stained with grave blemishes” (ibid), and states that some genuinely believe God’s “purpose was to humble Jewish pride” (ibid). Others strongly suggest “that their names prepare readers for the scandal of the virgin birth in Matt. 1:18-25 or counter slanders of Mary’s infidelity; as God vindicated these women of old, He would also vindicate Mary” (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 79). Still others theorize Matthew is “probably reminding his readers that three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon were Gentiles. … Matthew thus declares that the Gentiles were never an after-thought in God’s plan, but had been part of His work in history from the beginning. One who traces Matthew’s treatment of Gentiles through the Gospel, from the Magi who sought Jesus in chapter 2 through the concluding commission to disciple the nations in 28:19, will understand Matthew’s point in emphasizing this” (ibid, p. 80).
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia sums up the mention of these four women (apart from Mary, the mother of Jesus) this way: “The most curious feature of the Matthaean genealogy is the mention of the four women, a rare feature in Jewish genealogies. This is especially striking since Tamar and Rahab were harlots, Bathsheba was an adulteress, Ruth was a Moabitess, and all four were probably considered Gentiles in the Jewish tradition contemporary with Matthew. Many ancient and some modern scholars have considered this the result of Matthew’s desire to anticipate Jesus’ concern for sinners and Gentiles (a motif stronger in Luke). Others find their function to be a demonstration that God can use even the humble and despised to accomplish His purpose. Still others find the four women to be ‘types of Mary,’ or more explicitly, a refutation of Jewish calumnies on the nature of Jesus’ birth” (vol. 2, p. 429). Some declare that Matthew included women’s names simply to show that in God’s sight women were just as important as men in His plan to bring about the Savior of mankind; that God broke down barriers between men and women, and between Jew and Gentile.
The final aspect of the genealogy of Jesus that I want to explore briefly is the obvious symmetry exhibited by Matthew’s genealogical record. He lists 14 names during the first group (Abraham to David), 14 names in the second group (David to the time of the deportation to Babylon), and 14 names from the deportation to Babylon to Jesus Christ. This is a forced symmetry, however, as Matthew had to purge several names from his lists in order to make the number come out to 14 in each (and also do some double counting of names to make the lists symmetrical). This has bothered some people that Matthew would omit names in his genealogy for the purpose of a forced symmetry. However, it should be pointed out that such Genealogical Abridgement is very common in Jewish record keeping. In Ezra 7:3 (when compared with the longer list in 1 Chron. 6:7-10), for example, we see six generations deliberately skipped. The purpose of many such lists was to establish descent, and this could be done just as easily by listing only the major figures in a genealogy. Not every person had to be listed, according to the Jewish way of thinking. We see a sample of that in Matt. 1:1– “The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Obviously, a great many generations were skipped in this statement, but the purpose of this short list was to establish that Jesus was descended from these two men. It was not necessary to list all the others to declare this fact. It should also be noted that the phrase “son of” does not necessarily always signify one is the actual physical child of another. It may mean grandson, or relative, or just simply descendant.
“These genealogies were not necessarily complete (i.e., listing all individuals in a direct line, one after another), since their purpose was to establish descent and thereby legitimacy from a particular ancestor or ancestors” (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 490). “Matthew does not write Jesus’ genealogy the way modern Westerners would try to write their family trees today. … skipping some generations was common enough in ancient genealogies” (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 75). The real question here is not that Matthew skipped several generations; that was a common enough practice (even in the OT). The real question is: Why?! What was the purpose of Matthew’s forced symmetry? Why three groups of 14 names? What message did he hope to communicate by this? “It is clear that Matthew takes some liberties with his genealogy and expects his readers to notice that he has done so” (ibid, p. 76). As one might imagine, there are countless theories as to why Matthew did this.
One theory is that “it was customary among Jewish writers to arrange genealogies according to some convenient scheme, possibly for mnemonic reasons” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 68). In other words, it may simply have been a device employed by Matthew to aid in the memorization of the Lord’s genealogy. Several scholars believe this to have been his intent. Others, however, feel that is too simple an explanation. “Why did he want the three groups to be equal? The answer is that he wanted us to understand that all three groups had equal weight and importance as far as the Messiah is concerned. The second group contained the names of kings, but it was no more important than the third” (R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Matthew, p. 36-37). Still others suggest it was simply to help people remember three very distinct periods of Jewish history. “Matthew’s genealogy unifies the defining periods of Israel’s history and points them to Jesus” (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 78). A few believe Matthew was simply following the Talmudic custom of “editing lists to fourteen elements” (ibid, p. 74). Some “wits” simply suggest that since Matthew was a tax collector, and spent his career tallying up lists, he just wanted his three lists “to balance!”
The view that a great many scholars favor, however, is that Matthew is utilizing a device known as Gematria. This is the practice of giving each letter in the alphabet a numeric value, and then seeking to determine the symbolic meaning of the numbers of some name or event or place. Many have sought to do just this with the number “666” in the book of Revelation, attempting to show how the letters of various people’s names add up to this “number of the beast.” The name “David” in Hebrew adds up to the number 14. With the emphasis on Jesus being a “son of David,” and of the royal lineage, there just might be something to this particular theory which draws attention to the name of David, “thus triply emphasizing the Davidic descent of Jesus” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 2, p. 428). “The simplest explanation — the one that best fits the context — observes that the numerical value of ‘David’ in Hebrew is fourteen. By this symbolism Matthew points out that the promised ‘son of David,’ the Messiah, has come” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 8, p. 69).
Yes, genealogical studies can be, and many times are, dull and boring. And I may well have simply proved the point in this article. However, they do serve a purpose, and in the case of our Lord Jesus Christ, the two records provided in the NT documents are extremely important to the validation of fulfilled prophecy. “Jesus was not an after-thought to Judaism, a distinct and unexpected addition to God’s plan in the Old Testament. Jesus was the goal to which Israel’s lovingly remembered history pointed” (Craig Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, p. 77). “By evoking the great heroes of the past,” these two gospel writers direct their “readers to the ultimate hero to whom all those other stories pointed” (ibid). Not just the gospel record of Matthew, nor of Luke, but the entire inspired writings of Scripture are “the historical record of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1, Holman Christian Standard Bible) … “the Son of God” (Luke 3:38).