Jesus’s two genealogies.

by K.W. Leslie, 02 November

Which happens to be a big fat bible discrepancy many Christians skim over.

Matthew 1.1-17 • Luke 3.23-38.

Most Christians are aware Jesus has two genealogies.

These aren’t genealogies the way we do ’em. We do family trees: We include ancestors from all sides of the family, fathers and mothers both. Often we include aunts, uncles, and cousins; if we’re not particular about blood relations we’ll even include step-parents. Our family trees can get big and complicated.

Hebrew genealogies don’t. They turn into trees downward, when they’re listing one person’s descendants, as you can see from the first chapters of 1 Chronicles. But when they’re listing ancestors, they’re straight lines: You, your father, your father’s father, that grandfather’s father, that great-grandfather’s father, and so on back.

Thing is, Jesus has two of these lists. In Matthew 1, it’s a list of ancestors from Abraham to Joseph. And in Luke 4, it’s a list of male ancestors backwards, from Joseph to Adam to God. And they don’t match.

Parts do. But a whole lot of it doesn’t. I’ll let you read it. My translation. In Matthew I dropped the repetitive, superfluous instances of “begat”; in Luke all the “son of” (Aramaic bar) statements. You know their relationships.

Matthew 1.1-17
1 The book of the genesis of Messiah Jesus,
bar David, bar Abraham.
2 Abraham, Isaac, Jacob.
Jacob: Judah and his brothers.
3 Judah: Pérech and Zérakh by Tamar.
Pérech, Hechrón, 4 Ram,
Amminadáv, Nakhshón, Salmón.
5 Salmón: Boaz by Rahab.
Boaz: Obed by Ruth.
Obed, 6 Jesse, King David.
David: Solomon through Uriah’s woman.
7 Solomon, Rekhavám, Aviyáh,
8 Asáf, Yehošafát, Yorám,
9 Uzíyahu, Yotám, Akház,
10 Hezekiah, Manashéh, Amón, Josiah.
11 Josiah: Yekhonyáhu and his brothers during the Babylonian exile.
12 After the Babylonian exile: Yekhonyáhu.
Yekhonyáhu, Shaltiél, 13 Zerubbabel,
Avihúd, Elyakím, 14 Azúr,
Chadók, Yakhín, 15 Elikhúd,
Eleázar, Matdan, Jacob.
16 Jacob: Joseph, Mary’s man.
From her was born Jesus, who’s called Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David: 14 generations.
From David to the Babylonian exile: 14 generations.
From the Babylonian exile to Messiah: 14 generations.
Luke 3.23-38 KWL
23 Jesus himself was starting round his 30th year.
He was presumed the son of Joseph bar Ili—
24 bar Maddát, Leví, Malkhí, Yannaí, Joseph,
25 Mattityáhu, Amos, Nahum, Heslí, Naggaí,
26 Mákhat, Mattityáhu, Shimí, Yoshí, Yodáh,
27 Yochanán, Reishá, Zerubbabel, Shaltiél, Nerí,
28 Malkhí, Adí, Kosám, Elmadán, Er,
29 Yeshúa, Eleázar, Yorím, Mattát, Leví,
30 Shimón, Judah, Joseph, Jonám, Elyakím,
31 Maláh, Manáh, Mattatáh, Nathan, David,
32 Jesse, Obed, Boaz, Sheláh, Nakhshón,
33 Amminadáv, Admín, Arní, Hechrón, Pérech, Judah,
34 Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Térakh, Nakhór,
35 Serúg, Reú, Péleg, Éver, Sheláh,
36 Keïnán, Arfakhšád, Shem, Noah, Lémekh,
37 Metušelákh, Enoch, Yéred, Mahalalél, Keïnán,
38 Enósh, Šet, Adam, God.

Pretty wide discrepancy.

Ignoring the fact Luke went backwards and Matthew forwards, you might notice this list of ancestors diverges twice.

  1. Jesus’s adoptive dad Joseph has two different fathers: Jacob in Matthew, Ili (KJV “Heli”) in Luke. From there, the lines go their separate ways till they recombine with Zerubabel ben Shaltiél, the governor of Jerusalem who rebuilt the temple.
  2. Then Shaltiél likewise has different fathers: Yekhonyáhu (KJV “Jechonias”) in Matthew, Nerí in Luke, and so on till the lines wend back to King David.

The lines before David have a few discrepancies too, but that’s much easier to explain. The author of Matthew obviously skipped ancestors in order to get his genealogy to have that clever 14/14/14 pattern. Abraham to David, David to the exile, and exile to Messiah. Whereas Luke wasn’t writing poetry; he just went in a straight line back to Adam.

Regardless, this is one of the largest, most obvious discrepancies in the bible. It’s one most Christians discover pretty quickly, ’cause when we first read the bible, the first book of the New Testament is Matthew, and there’s Jesus’s genealogy—it’s not buried in the middle of the gospel; it’s up front. So we actually read it, as opposed to some of those really long genealogies in Numbers and 1 Chronicles. But later, as we’re reading Luke, we find it again, notice it goes in reverse order (which isn’t a discrepancy), notice it goes all the way back to Adam and God (again, not a discrepancy)… and notice there’re a whole bunch of different guys in there (which totally is).

In Matthew Jesus has all those Hebrew kings in his line. In Luke he’s descended from King David’s son Nathan, whoever he is. Likely Solomon’s older brother, 2Sa 5.14 but isn’t Solomon supposed to be in there, as heir to the Davidic line? Where’s he? Where’s Josiah?—I remember some sermon about Josiah where the preacher made a big, big deal about Josiah being an ancestor of Jesus. Well in Luke, he’s not. What’s up with that?

Inevitably Christians read both genealogies and think, “Waitaminnit. They can’t both be right. One of ’em must be wrong. Which one’s wrong?”

This is particularly distressing when they’ve been raised to believe the bible has no errors in it. Of any kind. “Search the bible for errors; you’ll never find any,” claim many confident inerrantists. Well, now these poor Christians don’t know what to think. For that’s the simplest explanation of what’s going on: One of the gospels, either Matthew or Luke, just plain got it wrong.

Now, inerrantists gave themselves a really helpful loophole: They claim the original drafts of the bible have no errors. The copies, however—namely the copies we have—might have some scribal errors here and there. Some incautious bible-copyist dropped a line, or mixed up the number of Israelis in a battle. Some overzealous copyist added a word or verse from memory, instead of double-checking the original. So this provides ’em a simple explanation to this problem: Some copyist clearly made a giant error, and put a lot of wrong names into one of these genealogies. Maybe even both.

But in fact inerrantists don’t teach this. Y’see, deep down inerrantists covet an error-free bible. So they’ll do their darnedest to argue our bible, no matter what problematic things we find in it, is as error-free as they can imagine. Inerrancy is all about the comfort and assurance that our bible is an absolute truth, a fixed point in the universe… and ultimately, that they’re right about everything they claim for the bible. Even if they have to bend that absolute truth an awful lot.

“One’s of Mary; one’s of Joseph.”

The most popular explanation for the two genealogies is that Luke gave Jesus’s ancestors on his mom’s side of the family, and Matthew gave ’em on his dad’s. So Ili is Mary’s father, not Joseph’s. Although some folks, like D.L. Moody, flipped this over and claimed Matthew has Mary’s lineage and Luke Joseph’s.

There are lots of explanations given for why one line or the other is Mary’s. Some folks are impressed by all the Hebrew kings in Matthew’s list—now that’s the bloodline of a Messiah. Or they note how Matthew includes women, which Old Testament genealogies rarely did, so maybe that’s a hint we’re talking Mary’s ancestors. Others point out Luke tells Jesus’s birth from Mary’s point of view, and Matthew Joseph’s, so more than likely they tapped Jesus’s family for information, and the Mary-centered Luke is more likely to have Mary’s genealogy.

The obvious trouble with this theory: Neither genealogy claims to be Mary’s. Both list the ancestors of Joseph. As they would: Joseph was Jesus’s legal father.

In our culture we’re interested in bloodlines and DNA. No such concern in ancient times. Adoption made you family, period, and by virtue of adoption Joseph was family. Matthew states Jacob begot Joseph, not Jacob begot Joseph’s wife. Luke states Joseph is literally “of Ili,” a term which isn’t as vague as some of us would like to imagine: It implies yiós/“son,” not gambrós/“son-in-law.”

If you’re truly an inerrantist, you can’t accept the one’s-Mary’s-one’s-Joseph’s theory. The text doesn’t permit you. Yet I gotta say: It’s the most common explanation inerrantists pitch. Regardless of what the text, which is supposed to be inerrant, literally has. Which is a serious compromise of their doctrine; I know they downplay it, and pretend it’s not, but I know from experience it eats at them. ’Cause it’s usually the first biblical discrepancy new Christians encounter, so it comes up a lot. And every time they shrug and say, “One’s Mary’s, one’s Joseph’s,” their hearts get just a little harder.

Levirate marriage?

I found this alternate explanation really easily. It’s in Eusebius Pamphili’s Church History, 1.7.1-10. I don’t know why more inerrantists don’t teach it, though I suspect it’s ’cause Eusebius is “too Catholic” for their tastes. Too bad; their prejudices are keeping them ignorant of a clever theory. It was pitched way back in the early 200s by Sextus Julius Africanus, who claimed he got it from some of Jesus’s living family members—our Lord’s great-grandnephews or something.

In ancient Israel, if a married man died before he could father an heir, his brother, or another near relative, was obligated to marry the wife and produce a legal heir for him. Dt 25.5-6 Biologically, they were the living brother’s children. Legally, they were the dead brother’s children. It’s called levirate marriage. (From the Latin levir/“brother-in-law”—not, as many assume, from Leviticus.)

We see an example of it in Ruth. Ruth’s husband Makhlon died, and her husband’s next-of-kin was obligated to marry her. He didn’t bother, which is why Ruth had to resort to gleaning grain from Boaz instead of being provided for. But Makhlon’s next-next-of-kin, Boaz, stepped up. And Ruth and Boaz’s child Obed was biologically Boaz’s son—but for the purpose of inheritance, he was considered Makhlon’s legal son. True, you’re not gonna find any genealogies in the bible which list Obed as Makhlon’s son; Boaz was still his father. It’s just an inheritance thing.

Well, said Sextus, this what we see in Jesus’s genealogies. One of ’em is an actual genealogy. The other’s a legal-inheritance chart. Joseph’s variant fathers, Jacob and Ili, were brothers. Ili died childless. So Jacob took Ili’s widow and put Joseph in her. Jacob was the biological father, but Ili was the legal father.

Figuring this, Luke listed the legal ancestors of Jesus—as is indicated by the line, “[Jesus] was presumed the son of Joseph bar Ili.” Lk 3.23 KWL Biologically Jesus wasn’t Joseph’s son, but legally he was. And biologically Joseph wasn’t Ili’s son, but legally he was. And so on back.

So why does Joseph have variant grandfathers? Seems Jacob and Ili had the same mother, but different fathers. Matdan bar Eleázar married the woman, begot Jacob, then died. Then she remarried: Maddát bar Leví fathered Ili. Both men, Sextus explained, were descendants of King David, and that’s why the two genealogies eventually reconnect. Sextus never did explain their reconnection through Zerubbabel ben Shaltiél, but I betcha he’d have played the levirate marriage card again.

Do I buy Sextus’s explanation? I’m on the fence.

On the one hand, it’s much smarter than the one’s-Mary’s-one’s-Joseph’s theory. You don’t have to distort the text in order to squeeze Mary into the bloodline. It uses the bible and historical custom to explain the bible, so that part appeals to me. And I admit I have a bias: Like the inerrantists, I prefer an explanation which undoes discrepancies. I’d rather have a consistent bible than an inconsistent one.

On the other hand, remember that example I used of Boaz being Obed’s biological father, and Makhlon being his legal father? Well, Makhlon isn’t listed in either chart. Boaz is, in both. So if Matthew is meant to be a legal genealogy, it’d appear someone dropped the ball at one point. Possibly multiple points.

Does it matter?

The simplest explanation is there’s a mistake. One of the authors of the gospels gave Jesus the wrong ancestors. Don’t know which. God does; Jesus does; we don’t. Flip a coin.

If I had to make an educated guess, I’d figure Matthew was more likely to have the error. The author was trying for poetry, symmetry, Hebrew history—look at all those kings he threw in there. It made the family line a little too neat. (Illicit marital relationships, like Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, or David and “Uriah’s woman,” notwithstanding.) Life is messy, and if history comes in a nice little 14/14/14 package, it doesn’t look like real life. It looks fake.

But to be fair, it can just as easily be the Luke genealogy that’s incorrect. We honestly don’t know. Till Jesus spells it out for us personally, we’re not gonna know.

Really, do we need to know? Does this make any difference?

Some. Messiah was prophesied to be a descendant of David and Abraham. It’s why Jesus was called “bar David, bar Abraham” at the beginning of Matthew, a gospel big on the fulfillment of prophecy. In both genealogies, he is that: Through his adoptive father, Jesus is a legal descendant of King David and Father Abraham.

Through his mother… well, we likely don’t have her genealogy. In the first century she’d have been considered legally irrelevant. In Mary’s culture, her stuff was her father’s stuff. Then she married and it became her husband’s stuff. Then her husband died and it became her son’s stuff. Mary was from Nazareth, a town founded by people of the tribe of Judah, so we can assume she was a Judahite… but then again she had a Levite relative. Lk 1.5, 36 And since Levites lived just about everywhere, for all we know Mary was Levite. Seriously.

But back then, DNA didn’t matter. What mattered was Jesus’s legal descent, and through Joseph, that made him a legitimate claimant to be Messiah. It’s only our culture, heavily influenced by medieval European culture, which gets hung up on blood relations. Took a lot of legislation and time before adoption became taken seriously. Sometimes it still isn’t.

DNA matters nowadays. Sometimes we gotta trace back hereditary ailments. Sometimes we gotta figure out who’s paying child support. Sometimes we’re snobs or racists, and care so much about pedigree you’d think we were breeding dogs. In the first-century Roman Empire, ancestry couldn’t be proven like that, to everyone’s satisfaction. So people didn’t bother: Only adoption mattered. If your father claimed you—even if he knew you were sired by a different father—you were his. And Joseph, genealogical chart or not, claimed Jesus as his son by naming him. Mt 1.24-25 It made Jesus his legal descendant, his heir; and through Joseph an heir of David and Abraham. That’s the only thing which matters. We don’t need charts to spell out the details.

Bible difficulties.