The Genealogies of Jesus

The New Testament includes two genealogies of Jesus of Nazareth—one in Matthew 1:1–17 and another in Luke 3:23–38. Although many modern readers may find these names less than scintillating, they are, in fact, supremely important to the argument of the New Testament concerning the person and claims of Jesus as Messiah.

The Genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew
Its Purpose. Matthew penned his Gospel to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. To the Jewish mind of that day, the first and most fundamental question demanding an answer was this one: “Is this Jesus a descendant of the house of David?” Thus Matthew began his narrative of Jesus’ life with the bold affirmation: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (1:1).

Even today, this is where any claim to Messianic identity must begin. One thousand years before the birth of Jesus, Yahweh had cut a covenant in which He had promised King David, “thine house and thy kingdom shall be established forever before thee; thy throne shall be established forever” (2 Sam. 7:16). For generations, Israel had rejoiced in the hope that God had promised to “build up thy [David’s] throne to all generations” (Ps. 89:4). Indeed, the Israelites had been taught that as they ascended toward the Temple to worship, they should remember that very promise and sing with the psalmist: “The LORD hath sworn in truth unto David; He will not turn from it: Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne” (Ps. 132:11).

The hope of Messiah animated the ancient Jewish soul. But that Messiah had to be the “son of David” and, as such, “the son of Abraham.” The issue of descent from these two great fountains of Jewish identity and hope is paramount.

Its Distinctives. Though in many ways a standard Hebrew genealogy, this section is peculiar on at least two counts. First, it is arranged symmetrically: three groups of fourteen generations each. According to A. T. Robertson in his Harmony of the Gospels (Harper & Row), this rather artificial structure is intended as “an easy help to the memory.”1 But in order to achieve this symmetry, Matthew counted one name twice (Jehoiachin) and omitted others— most specifically, the three generations of kings after J[eh]oram: Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah (1:8–9). (Compare with 1 Chronicles 3:10–12.) Perhaps Matthew omitted these because they were the most immediate descendants of the northern tribes’ wicked rulers, Ahab and Jezebel!

At any rate, the omission does not compromise the integrity of the genealogy. The list was intended to demonstrate descent, not to be an exhaustive register of names. Furthermore, the verb translated “begot” more literally means “was the ancestor of.” Matthew easily demonstrated that Jesus fulfilled the first test of a Messianic claimant (descent from David), and he did so in a way that could be easily memorized.

Second, Matthew’s genealogy is unusual in that it refers to four Old Testament women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bath-sheba (though not by name). Matthew seemed to regard them as anticipating Mary on two counts: (1) According to Raymond E. Brown in his work The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday), each of these women “showed initiative . . . and so came to be considered the instrument of God’s providence” in bringing forth the Messiah;2 and (2) there was something unusual about each woman’s relationship to her husband—a narrative element that was irregular, even scandalous, but necessary to perpetuate the Messianic line. Thus did these women foreshadow Mary, who responded in humble but anxious faith to the angel’s announcement of her miraculous but unusual pregnancy, and who possibly endured malicious rumors concerning the birth of her first son.

The Genealogy in the Gospel of Luke
Its Purpose. Luke penned his Gospel for a Greek (Gentile) audience. His goal was to demonstrate the genuine humanity of Jesus—to establish for his readers the truth of Jesus’ claim to be the “Son of man.” Therefore, his genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage not only to David (3:31) and Abraham (3:34), but all the way back to Adam, “the son of God” (3:38). By this means, Luke proved that Jesus is truly man and, thus, “the Messiah belongs not to Israel alone, but to the whole world of sinners.”3

Its Distinctives. Luke’s genealogy is almost startling in that Luke inverted the standard order: He began with Jesus and worked backwards to Adam. Official registers always list persons as they are born, thus moving from earlier to later generations. This anomaly clearly indicates that Luke’s genealogy was his own work, drawn from public documents but crafted to emphasize the individual at the beginning of the list, namely, Jesus. Again, Luke placed his genealogy at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, rather than at the beginning of the Gospel. Not until the Messiah had been anointed by the Spirit (3:22) did the drama of Messiah’s ministry commence; and this ministry was Luke’s focus. (Compare Moses’ pedigree, recorded not in connection with his birth, but at the beginning of his public ministry [Ex. 6:14–27].)

A word needs to be said in defense of the historical veracity of the genealogies of both Matthew and Luke. The fourth-century historian Eusebius stated that in the time of Herod, the genealogies of distinguished Jews were burned in order to hide Herod’s own “base origins.”4 Consequently, some have argued that there were no records in the days of Jesus. But Josephus, a late contemporary of Jesus, said nothing of such destruction; and he published his own genealogy.

Furthermore, the decree “that all the world should be registered” (Lk. 2:1) would have been useless without public records. If the genealogies had been inaccurate or unverifiable, they certainly would have been attacked by first-century unbelievers who knew that if they could disprove Jesus’ claim to Davidic and/or Abrahamic ancestry, they could discredit him as a false messiah. But there is no evidence that anyone ever disputed the accuracy of the genealogies. This fact is powerful testimony to the veracity of these documents.

Reconciling the Two Genealogies
Reconciling the genealogies is especially difficult at one point: They are very much distinct from David to Christ; yet they both seem to trace the line of Jesus’ adopted father, Joseph. (Compare Matthew 1:16, “And Jacob begot Joseph,” with Luke 3:23, “Joseph, who was the son of Heli.”) Bible believers have suggested two basic approaches to this dilemma. The first is to posit that both genealogies do, in fact, trace Joseph’s line, but that one follows his physical ancestry while the other records his legal lineage. The earliest proponent of this approach was Eusebius who observed that even in the fourth century, there were many uninformed opinions as to how to deal with this apparent conflict. He argued that Joseph’s mother had been widowed without children, had married a brother of her deceased husband (levirate marriage, Dt. 25:5–6), and then bore Joseph by that second husband. Thus Joseph was the legal son of Heli (the first husband) but the natural son of Jacob (his mother’s second husband). This explanation is possible; but it rests on the hypothesis of a levirate marriage, and it leaves some important questions unanswered.

A much stronger case can be made acknowledging Matthew’s genealogy as that of Joseph, but Luke’s as the genealogy of Jesus’ mother, Mary. Three points are key in defending this approach. First, the name Joseph in Luke 3:23 is the only name in the list without the definite article. (Each name in Matthew’s genealogy also has the article.) This is compelling evidence that this name should not be read as part of Luke’s genealogical list; rather, it is part of the parenthetical statement inserted in that verse. Thus the verse should read, “Jesus himself . . . being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Heli.”5 It was not Joseph who was “the son of Heli,” but Jesus. Heli (or Eli) is best identified as the father of Mary.

Luke was dealing resourcefully with a dilemma that arose from the fact of Jesus’ virgin birth. Descent was not to be traced through a man’s mother, but through his father. Because of Jesus’ supernatural conception in the womb of a virgin, He had no physical father. Thus His physical genealogy had to be traced through his nearest male relative, His maternal grandfather. The name of that man was evidently Heli, as recorded in Luke 3:23.

Second, Luke had already given significant attention to Mary in the first two chapters of his Gospel (1:26-56; 2:19, 51) in contrast to Matthew’s nativity narrative, which mentions Mary only as the wife of Joseph. Given Luke’s focus on Mary in his telling of the nativity, it is plausible that the genealogy he inserted after that narrative is, in fact, that of Mary.

Finally, there are two remarkably important ramifications to this understanding of the genealogies. The first relates to Jesus’ twofold qualification to sit on the throne of David. On the one hand, Solomon was the son of David to whom the throne had been promised (2 Sam. 12:24–25; 1 Chr. 22:9–10); thus the legal authority to the throne must descend through him. Because Jesus’ adopted father, Joseph, traced his lineage to David through Solomon, Jesus inherited that prerogative (Mt. 1:17). On the other hand, God had promised in the Davidic Covenant that only David’s seed—his physical descendant— would ever sit on that throne (Ps. 89:4). Luke twice intimated Mary’s descent from David: first in recording the angel’s words to Mary (“and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David” [1:32]) and again in recording that Mary went to register in the city of David (2:5). But if Luke’s genealogy is not that of Mary, there is no explicit biblical affirmation that Jesus is a physical descendant of David. Given the importance of the Davidic Covenant, however, it is certainly reasonable to expect just such an affirmation—indeed, to find it in the genealogy recorded by Luke.

The second ramification relates to Jeconiah, a king whom Matthew identified as an ancestor of Joseph (1:11–12). Jeremiah pronounced a curse upon Jeconiah, proclaiming that “no man of his [Jeconiah’s] seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah” (Jer. 22:30). Because of that curse, the line of David from which Joseph descended was disqualified to sit on the throne. Had Jesus been the physical son of Joseph, He would have inherited that curse. However, He was not. He was the physical son of David through Mary. (Compare with the Greek relative pronoun “of whom” in Matthew 1:16, which is feminine singular.)

Thus, as S. Lewis Johnson has stated in his article “The Genesis of Jesus,” “Jesus, genuinely a son of David through Mary according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 1:3), by reason of the virgin birth and nonparticipation in the seed of Joseph, qualifies to receive the title without coming under the curse.”6

Though they may seem dull and irrelevant at first, these genealogies are extremely important to the claims of Christ. And when properly understood, they become a marvelous manifestation of “the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Rom. 11:33).

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