29 October 2021

Africanus and Eusebius on Jesus’s two genealogies.

Eusebius Pamphili was the bishop of Caesarea, Judea, from 314 to 339. He wrote the first full-length Christian history of the church, Historia Ecclesiae/Church History, sometimes called Ecclesiastical History, in part to defend the church as well as give its background.

Today’s excerpt is from Church History 1.7, in which he explains why Jesus has two genealogies. Popularly, Christians claim one belongs to his mom, and the other to his adoptive dad. Sometimes they vary about which belongs to whom; frequently Matthew is considered Mary’s, because it appears to have the more legitimate royal claim. (Though I remind you God can anoint anyone king he pleases, as he did Saul, David, Jeroboam, and Jehu; Jesus’s only ancestral “requirement” was he be David’s descendant, and he is in both genealogies.)

To help, Eusebius borrows a big long excerpt from fellow Christian historian Sextus Julius Africanus, from his letter to Aristides of Athens, now lost. (Some Christians have tried to piece it back together from the various ancient Christians who quoted it, but it’s just a bunch of big fragments; not the whole letter.) Sextus Julius’s nickname Africanus/“the African,” refers to his birthplace in Libya, though he considered himself from Jerusalem, and lived in Nicopolis (formerly Emmaeus; different Emmaeus than the one in the bible), in Palestine. We don’t know his dates. The usual guess is the early 200s, but Aristides died in 134, so either the guess is wrong or the letter to Aristides is bogus.

He did correspond with Origen of Alexandria, and wrote two other works—the the Chronographiai, his five-volume history of the world (in which he figured creation happened in 5500BC); and Kestoi, a scientific encyclopedia.

As far as we know, Africanus was the first guy to try to explain this particular bible difficulty in writing. No doubt plenty of Christians tried to explain it away with best guesses. Africanus’s explanation became the standard explanation of ancient Christians, but as you might notice, not many people today seem to know of it.

I’m not 100 percent sold on this explanation, myself. But regardless, here it is.

1.7. On Jesus’s two genealogies.

1 Matthew and Luke, in their gospels, have given us the genealogy of Christ differently, Mt 1.1-17, Lk 3.23-38 and many suppose that they are at variance with one another. Since as a consequence every believer, in ignorance of the truth, has been zealous to invent some explanation which shall harmonize the two passages, permit us to subjoin the account of the matter which has come down to us, and which is given by Africanus, who was mentioned by us just above, in his epistle to Aristides, where he discusses the harmony of the gospel genealogies. After refuting the opinions of others as forced and deceptive, he give the account which he had received from tradition1 in these words:

2 For whereas the names of the generations were reckoned in Israel either according to nature or according to Law (according to nature by the succession of legitimate offspring, and according to Law whenever another raised up a child to the name of a brother dying childless; Dt 25.5-6 for because a clear hope of resurrection was not yet given they had a representation of the future promise by a kind of mortal resurrection, in order that the name of the one deceased might be perpetuated); 3 whereas then some of those who are inserted in this genealogical table succeeded by natural descent, the son to the father; while others, though born of one father, were ascribed by name to another, mention was made of both of those who were progenitors in fact and of those who were so only in name.

4 Thus neither of the gospels is in error. For one reckons by nature, the other by Law. For the line of descent from Solomon, and that from Nathan,2 were so involved the one with the other, by the raising up of children to the childless and by second marriages, that the same persons are justly considered to belong at one time to one, at another time to another. That is, at one time to the reputed fathers, at another to the actual fathers. So that both these accounts are strictly true and come down to Joseph with considerable intricacy indeed—yet quite accurately. 5 But in order that what I have said may be made clear, I shall explain the interchange of the generations.

If we reckon the generations from David through Solomon, the third from the end is found to be Matthan, who begat Jacob the father of Joseph. Mt 1.15 But if, with Luke, we reckon them from Nathan the son of David, in like manner the third from the end is Melchi, whose son Eli was the father of Joseph. Lk 3.23-24 For Joseph was the son of Eli, the son of Melchi.3 6 Joseph therefore being the object proposed to us, it must be shown how it is that each is recorded to be his father—both Jacob, who derived his descent from Solomon, and Eli, who derived his from Nathan.

First how it is that these two, Jacob and Eli, were brothers, and then how it is that their fathers, Matthan and Melchi, although of different families, are declared to be grandfathers of Joseph. 7 Matthan and Melchi having married in succession the same woman, begat children who were uterine brothers—for the Law did not prohibit a widow, whether such by divorce or by the death of her husband, from marrying another. 8 By Estha then—for this was the woman’s name, according to tradition—Matthan, a descendant of Solomon, first begat Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who traced his descent back to Nathan, being of the same tribe but of another family,4 married her as before said, and begat a son Eli.

9 Thus we shall find the two, Jacob and Eli, although belonging to different families, yet brethren by the same mother. Of these the one, Jacob, when his brother Eli had died childless, took the latter’s wife and begat by her a son5 Joseph, his own son by nature and in accordance with reason. Wherefore also it is written, “Jacob begat Joseph.” Mt 1.16 But according to Law he was the son of Eli, for Jacob, being the brother of the latter, raised up seed to him.

10 Hence the genealogy traced through him will not be rendered void, which the evangelist Matthew in his enumeration gives thus: “Jacob begat Joseph.” But Luke, on the other hand, says, “Who was the son, as was supposed” (for this he also adds) “of Joseph, the son of Eli, the son of Melchi”; Lk 3.24 for he could not more clearly express the generation according to Law. And the expression “he begat” he has omitted in his genealogical table up to the end, tracing the genealogy back to Adam the son of God. This interpretation is neither incapable of proof nor is it an idle conjecture.

11 For the relatives of our Lord according to the flesh, whether with the desire of boasting or simply wishing to state the fact, in either case truly, have handed down the following account:6 “Some Idumean robbers, having attacked Ascalon, a city of Palestine, carried away from a temple of Apollo which stood near the walls, in addition to other booty, Antipater, son of a certain temple slave named Herod. And since the priest was not able to pay the ransom for his son, Antipater was brought up in the customs of the Idumeans, and afterward was befriended by Hyrcanus, the high priest of the Jews. 12 And having, been sent by Hyrcanus on an embassy to Pompey, and having restored to him the kingdom which had been invaded by his brother Aristobulus, he had the good fortune to be named procurator of Palestine. [47BC] But Antipater having been slain by those who were envious of his great good fortune was succeeded by his son Herod, [42BC] who was afterward, by a decree of the senate, made King of the Jews under Antony and Augustus. [40BC] His sons were Herod and the other tetrarchs.” These accounts agree also with those of the Greeks.

13 But as there had been kept in the archives up to that time the genealogies of the Hebrews as well as of those who traced their lineage back to proselytes, such as Achior the Ammonite7 and Ruth the Moabitess, and to those who were mingled with the Israelites and came out of Egypt with them, Herod, inasmuch as the lineage of the Israelites contributed nothing to his advantage, and since he was goaded with the consciousness of his own ignoble extraction, burned all the genealogical records, thinking that he might appear of noble origin if no one else were able, from the public registers, to trace back his lineage to the patriarchs or proselytes and to those mingled with them, who were called Georae.8 14 A few of the careful however, having obtained private records of their own, either by remembering the names or by getting them in some other way from the registers, pride themselves on preserving the memory of their noble extraction. Among these are those already mentioned, called Desposyni,9 on account of their connection with the family of the Savior. Coming from Nazara and Cochaba, villages of Judea,10 into other parts of the world, they drew the aforesaid genealogy from memory and from the book of daily records as faithfully as possible.

15 Whether then the case stand thus or not no one could find a clearer explanation, according to my own opinion and that of every candid person. And let this suffice us, for although we can urge no testimony in its support, we have nothing better or truer to offer. In any case the gospel states the truth.

16 And at the end of the same epistle he adds these words:

Matthan, who was descended from Solomon, begat Jacob. And when Matthan was dead, Melchi, who was descended from Nathan begat Eli by the same woman. Eli and Jacob were thus uterine brothers. Eli having died childless, Jacob raised up seed to him, begetting Joseph, his own son by nature, but by Law the son of Eli. Thus Joseph was the son of both.

17 Thus far Africanus. And the lineage of Joseph being thus traced, Mary also is virtually shown to be of the same tribe with him, since, according to the Law of Moses, intermarriages between different tribes were not permitted. Nu 36.6-7 For the command is to marry one of the same family and lineage, so that the inheritance may not pass from tribe to tribe. This may suffice here.


  1. Not tradition. Africanus got this explanation from Jesus’s relatives. Note section 16.
  2. Nathan’s the third son of David and Bathsheba (KJV “Bathshua”). Solomon’s the youngest. 1Ch 3.5
  3. Luke actually has “the son of Joseph, which was [the son] of Heli, which was [the son] of Matthat, which was [the son] of Levi, which was [the son] of Melchi.” Lk 3.23-24 KJV Skipped a few generations there. So either Africanus had a defective copy of Luke, or quoted from a defective memory.
  4. Same tribe, another family; this is how the translator rendered φυλή/fylí, “family,” and γένος/yénos, “family.”
  5. Literally τρίτος/trítos, “third.” Which makes no sense, but the Latin translation has “son,” so that’s what the translator went with.
  6. Literally “handed down also.”
  7. From the apocryphal book of Judith. Pharisee tradition claimed Achior, an Ammonite general, later become a proselyte.
  8. The word γειώρας/geióras is found in the Septuagint, and used to translate “sojourner.” Ex 12.19, Is 14.1
  9. The word δεσπόσυνος/despósynos means “belonging to [the] Master.”
  10. Nazara is in the Galilee and Cochaba is in the Decapolis, but Africanus used “Judea” to mean Israel in general.