Gospel Genealogies

Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38

Twenty-first century Westerners care very little about genealogies. Typically, when folks grow old and gray, they begin to research their lineage. Genealogical research almost seems cultish and something reserved for the elderly. Yet, to ancient Easterners, they were very important. 

For our forefathers did not only appoint the best of these priests, and those that attended upon the divine worship, for that design from the beginning, but made provision that the stock of the priests should continue unmixed and pure; for he who is partaker of the priesthood must propagate of a wife of the same nation, without having any regard to money, or any other dignities; but he is to make a scrutiny, and take his wife’s genealogy from the ancient tables, and procure many witnesses to it; and this is our practice not only in Judea, but wheresoever any body of men of our nation do live; and even there, an exact catalogue of our priests’ marriages is kept; I mean at Egypt and at Babylon, or in any other place of the rest of the habitable earth, whithersoever our priests are scattered; for they sent to Jerusalem the ancient names of their parents in writing, as well as those of their remoter ancestors, and signify who are the witnesses also … those priests that survive [war and invasion] compose new tables of genealogy out of the old records, and examine the circumstances of the women that remain. (Josephus, Contra Apion 1.7)

Understanding how and why genealogies were made help account for the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. Aaron Demsky of Bar Ilan University proposes that two types of genealogies existed—linear and segmented. Linear genealogies often list descendants up to ten generations as a matter of biblical family law (cf. Deut. 23:3–4) or as a literary device to abbreviate a story. Shorter linear genealogies often introduce biblical figures such as Saul, Ezra, and Mordechai. Segmented genealogies divide a person’s heritage into brother branches or children of different wives, showing the kinship between tribes or clans. These maternal and filial branches reflect the tribal areas for the purposes of redemption (Num. 26:52–56; Jer. 32:7). Furthermore, in instances of polygamy and concubinage, the primary wive’s offspring are distinguished as first heirs from the other wives or consorts. 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the geneaology while Luke includes it later on. Matthew traces Jesus’ heritage through David to Abraham to demonstrate his Jewishness while Luke goes all the way back to Adam to show that Christ was not only a son of God but was also representative of the human race. Luke’s later placement has been suggested as rebirth since the genealogy appears after Jesus’ baptism. 

Matthew’s numbering is three groups of fourteen which total forty-two while Luke uses eleven groups of seven totaling seventy-seven. The numerology would have been significant to the Jews from Matthew’s Gospel while also to the Gentiles from Luke’s Gospel in the Pythagorean system. Because the numbering mattered, Matthew’s isn’t a complete genealogy. Five kings were omitted. The consonants corresponding to 14 in Hebrew are dalet-vav-dalet—David. The last of Matthew’s listings have only 13 names which has led to the suggestion that the church would have been number 14. 

One of the most popular interpretations to account for the differences between the two genealogies is that Matthew traces Joseph’s lineage while Luke traces Mary’s. One difficulty with this view is that Joseph’s name is listed for both, while Mary’s name doesn’t appear. Given the nature of patriarchal society, Joseph may have been listed instead. Luke’s genealogy begins by listing Jesus’ age of thirty. Counting from this age until his death, three Passovers are observed throughout the gospels which are how we arrive at a death age of thirty-three. Thirty implies maturity—David began reigning at thirty and Joseph entered Pharaoh’s service at thirty. Luke almost gives the caveat by stating, “As was supposed” (3:23). Luke also uses “son of” while Matthew, “begot.” Matthew and Luke state that Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, so the latter may note that he was the legal son of Joseph, grandson of Heli—Mary’s father, perhaps. A couple of other points of divergence between the two are that Luke traces from Jacob to Heli while Matthew traces from Jacob to Joseph. Also, Luke diverges from David to Nathan (cf. Zech. 12:12), while Matthew has from David to Solomon.  

Matthew’s genealogy begins by citing that it is a geneseos of Jesus—a connection to creation. It was also unusual because it cited women, non-Jews, and morally questionable events. Tamar conceived by presenting herself as a prostitute and lying with her father-in-law. Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth a Moabite, and Bathsheba was wed to a Hittite and an adulteress with King David. Abraham is often recognized as the first convert, and these women may have suggested a connection between Jew and Gentile. Moreover, Jewish tradition praises these women rather than focusing on their sins as we’d tend to do. 

Some commentators suggest that Matthew gives the royal line of descent while Luke gives the priestly line since Jesus is both King and Priest. Were I to trace my lineages, I could trace to a Chief of the Choctaw and a Scottish Laird, and these are just on my paternal side. To make Jesus’ genealogy a matter of doubting the historicity or inspiration of the two accounts is not necessary when we examine how we might trace our own. Joseph didn’t have two fathers, but one may have been his father and the other his grandfather. In Scripture, grandchildren are often referred to as “sons of” whomever is listed (cf. Matt. 1:1, 20). 

Author: Steven

Preaching Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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