Genealogies of Jesus – do they add up?

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Questions:

  • Why were genealogies kept?
  • Why the difference between Matthew and Luke?
  • Who was Joseph’s father?
  • The curse of Jehoiakim.
  • The Virgin Birth and the genealogies.
  • Why are there more names in Luke than Matthew?
  • The problem of Zerubbabel.

The Genealogies of Jesus.

There are several genealogies in the Bible.  Genesis 5, 10, 11.10-32, 36, 46.8-27,Numbers 1-4, 1 Chronicles 1-9, Ezra 7.  In New Testament Matthew 1.1-17, Luke 3.23-38.

Accurate records kept for two reasons.
  1. Property rights in Israel were linked to family heritage.   
  2. Messiah / seed of woman was promised through a specific line of descent. Adam(Gen 3. 15), Abraham / Isaac (Gen 22.18), Judah (Shiloh in Gen 49.10), Jesse / David(2 Samuel 7.12-13, 1 Chronicles 17.11-14, Isaiah 7.13-14, 9.7, 11.1, 11.10, Jeremiah23.5-6).  Note that in many of the prophecies concerning David there is an implicationof the one spoken of being a divine person.  To show descent from David is an importantpart of the claim to be Messiah.  As genealogical records are no longer availableno one can do this today.  
Relationship of genealogy to Gospel.

Matthew gives an account of the birth of Messiah from Joseph’s point of view.  Genealogyin Matthew goes back to Abraham, father of people of Israel.  Matthew is most concernedwith Jesus as Jewish Messiah and has most references to Messianic prophecy.  HisGospel was written mainly for Jewish people. Jesus is referred to as ‘Son of David’(Messianic title) in Matthew 1.1, 9.27, 12.23, 15.22, 20.30, 21.9, 21.15-16.

Luke gives an account of the birth from Mary’s point of view.  He goes back to Godvia Adam, father of human race. He is most interested in Jesus as Son of Man.  Hehas the most references to Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles. His Gospel was written mainlyfor Gentiles.  His genealogy was given immediately after the baptism of Jesus whenGod says, ‘You are my beloved Son.’

John begins with Jesus as the Word (God) made flesh.  John has most references todivinity of the Lord.

Compare Matthew and Luke. Why the difference?

Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph, Luke’s through Miriam (Mary).  Both showedthat Joseph was a legal parent, but not a genetic parent to Jesus. Jesus was miraculouslyconceived in Mary, through the Holy Spirit. For more information on this go to ourarticle ‘Can we believe in the Virgin Birth?’  By virtue of being Mary’s husband,Joseph was considered the father of Jesus. Since Jesus was the first born into Joseph’sfamily, he was a legal heir. Through Joseph, Jesus obtained a rightful claim to thethrone of David. Although Jesus was a legal descendant to Joseph, he was not a physicaldescendant. Clearly, people had assumed that Joseph was the biological father ofJesus, when in fact he was not (Matthew 13:55). Both genealogies are ‘aware’ of thevirgin birth: Luke adds the phrase “He was the son, as was supposed, of Joseph” (3:23)and Matthew switches verbs from “X begat Y” to “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom(feminine pronoun) was born Jesus”.

Who was Joseph’s Father?

At first glance, Matthew and Luke appear to be in disagreement as to who Joseph’sfather was. Matthew states he was the son of Jacob, while Luke states he was theson of Heli.   The Jerusalem Talmud indicates that Miriam (Mary) was the daughterof Heli (Haggigah 2.4, Sanhedrin 23.3, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 44.2).  In Englishwe do not put the word ‘the’ in front of a person’s name (the John, the Jane).  Butit is possible to do this in Greek.  In the Greek text of Luke every name in thislist has ‘the’ in front of it except Joseph’s name.  A reader would understand fromthis that this is not really Joseph’s line.  In keeping with Jewish law it was thehusband’s name that was used.   Joseph was the son-in-law of Heli. Luke could rightfullycall Joseph the “son of Heli” because this was in compliance with use of the word”son” at that time.   Thus, Joseph was the son of Jacob, and the son-in-law of Heli.

The Curse of Jehoiakim.

The curse in Jeremiah 36:1-32 gives insight into the virginbirth of Jesus.  Jehoiakim was a king of Israel. He angered God by burning a scrollthat Jeremiah the prophet wrote. God cursed Jehoiakim by indicating that none ofhis children would sit on the throne of David (Jeremiah 36:29-31). And although Jehoiakimhad children, scripture shows that none of them ever reigned on David’s throne.

The Problem.  

Joseph, the father of Jesus, was one of Jehoiakim’s descendants (throughJeconiah). Joseph’s offspring could not claim David’s throne because of the curse.The New Testament asserts Jesus claim to the throne of David (Luke 1:32, Acts 2:30).Jesus reigns now as Lord of those who are saved and will reign literally as Kingover all the earth from David’s throne at His second coming (Isaiah 2.1-4, Zechariah14.9). For more information on this go to our article ‘Why the Second Coming?’  IfJesus had been born of Joseph, the curse would have been contradicted.

God had promised David that one of his physical descendants would reign on the throneof his kingdom forever (2 Samuel 7:12-13). As explained above, Joseph was excludedfrom being the genetic father of the future king of Israel.   It was impossible tofulfil the requirements of both curse and promise by natural means. One man had tobe both heir to and offspring of David, without being the genetic descendant of Jehoiakim.This problem required a divine solution.

The Solution.

 God created a solution through the miracle of the virgin birth. AlthoughJoseph was one of Jehoiakim’s offspring (through Solomon), Mary was not. She wasa descendant of Nathan, one of David’s other sons (Luke 3:31). God’s promise to Davidwas fulfilled because Mary was the biological parent of Jesus.   The virgin birthalso addressed the curse God had pronounced upon Jehoiakim. Kingship was an inheritedright. By Joseph, Jesus inherited a legal claim to the throne of David. However,he was exempt from the curse of Jehoiakim because Joseph was not his genetic father.

So the miracle of the virgin birth accomplished God’s will in two ways. First, itgranted Jesus a legal claim to the throne of David. And second, it maintained theintegrity of the curse God had pronounced upon Jehoiakim. Indeed, Jesus was not oneof Jehoiakim’s offspring.

Objection.  Where did Luke get his information from?

Many of the names in Matthew’s list are familiar from the Old Testament.  Those inLuke’s are not.  Where did he get his information from?  The most likely source isMary herself.  It is possible that Mary preserved a record of the events about thebirth of Jesus and made them available to Luke.  The genealogical records could alsohave been made available.

“There is nothing strange in it that the genealogical table of Jesus existed at thattime. Under the guiding hand of God the Jews preserved their genealogical tableswith remarkable accuracy through all the centuries before the birth of Jesus andalso during the first century after His birth (cf. the numerous genealogical tablesin the Old Testament). Ever since the earliest times the lineage lists were compiledand preserved as accurately as possible. After their return from the Babylonian exilethe Jews again thoroughly fixed their genealogical tables by committing them to writingand bringing them up to date, and this was continued until the time of Josephus.Especially would persons like Joseph and the family of Mary, who were of Davidicdescent, preserve their genealogical tables with special care because the Old Testamentprophesied that the Messiah would be born of the house of David. Apart from the publicregisters, numbers of Jewish families kept private family trees in their homes andhanded them down from generation to generation.   Thus Luke, probably through theinstrumentality of Mary herself, or of persons intimately connected with her, obtainedpossession of the genealogical table of Mary’s father Heli and committed it to writingin his Gospel.” [Geldenhuys, Luke]

A related objection is that Matthew disagrees with 1 Chronicles in the descendantsof Zerubabbel.  It is likely that Matthew used extra biblical sources for the genealogyfrom Zerubabbel to Joseph.  Josephus assures us that such records were availableas does the church historian Eusebius.  Today all such records have been lost.

Objection.  Why are there more names in Luke than in Matthew?

Matthew gives an abridged genealogy.  He divides the names into three groups of 14.Note David in Hebrew has a numerical value of 14.  There are clearly names leftout as happens in some of the genealogies in the Old Testament. Compare Ezra 7:3with 1st Chronicles 6:7-10, and you can see how Ezra deliberately skipped six generationsfrom Meriaoth to Azariah (son of Johanan).  The Jews did not use the word son ina limited sense, as we do today.   Matthew 1:1 states Jesus was the “son of David,the son of Abraham.” This appears to indicate that David was the father of Jesus,and Abraham was his grandfather. A Jew would have understood that Matthew did notmean there was only one generation between these men; but that Jesus was a descendantof David, who was a descendant of Abraham. This fact is born out in the verses thatfollow (Matthew 1:2-17).   In the Jewish mind, the word son could be applied to onewho was not a literal, first generation son, as is commonly understood today. Itcould mean a descendant; which could be a grandson, great grandson, or son of a moredistant generation.   The custom of skipping generations can be called “genealogicalabridgement.”  Matthew used this kind of abridgement while Luke copied the wholelist (given him by Mary).

Objection.  Why do the names of Zerubbabel and Shealtiel appear in both lists?

Most likely explanation is that they are different people. Zerubbabel was a commonname from the early Persian period (it means one sown in Babylon) (539-331 BC), asshown by cuneiform inscriptions from Babylonia.  The genealogies themselves havenumerous names that repeat within the genealogy (e.g. Joseph, Mattathias, Judah)without being the same individuals.  One can think of families today which have thesame names for cousins etc.  Their chronological placements on a time line coulddiffer by as much as a century (depending on how the omissions in Matthew are accountedfor, and on what the average age of child-bearing was.)  For more information onthis go to http://www.christianthinktank.com/fabprof4.html

Closing Remarks.

 “Remain in Ephesus that you may charge some that they teach no other doctrine, norgive heed to fables and endless genealogies which cause disputes rather than godlyedification which is in the truth.’  Paul’s advice to Timothy (1 Timothy 1:3-4).The differences in the genealogies raise many questions. Admittedly, much of thedocumentation that would enable us to draw absolute conclusions is not available.What is important is to be built up in the truth of the Gospel message.  Many firstcentury Jewish people were literate, vocal opponents of this message. Unlike modernscholars, they had access to the original genealogical records. Had the genealogiesbeen inaccurate, it would have been easy for a first century Jew to prove that theywere.  One might conclude that their silence is testimony to the accuracy of thegospel writers.

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