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Matthew 1:1-17 & Luke 3:23-38


Genealogy time!  Woohoo!  Matthew (as a Jew) and Luke (as a historian) are both interested in Jesus’ family line.  However, their distinct backgrounds and purposes result in slightly different genealogies, which has been the fodder for much criticism of the Christian claim that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

Matthew is making the case that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.  As such, he’s concerned with demonstrating His legal claim to David’s throne.  Matt traces the line back to Abraham in order to place Jesus explicitly within the context of God’s promises about the Jewish homeland and the multitude of descendants.

Luke, on the other hand, is more concerned with the biological ancestry for historical purposes.  He traces Jesus’ line back through David all the way to Adam.  This way he emphasizes that  Jesus is the fruition of the hopes of all the world and that He is the counterpoint to Adam’s fall.  Remember, Luke is using Paul as his main source, so this juxtaposition between Jesus and Adam is consistent with what Paul had previously preached to the Romans.

These different purposes (legal vs. biological) lead to different genealogies.  Specifically, between David and Jesus, the lines seem to separate and come back together only at Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. 

The divergence of the lines is easy to explain.  Matthew follows the legal line of succession from David, whereas Luke follows the descendants of one of David’s non-inheriting sons, Nathan.* 

There are two equally plausible explanations for how the lines converge again.  Overall, remember that in ancient times among a relatively close and ethnically homogenous people, that it’s not unfathomable that marriage between cousins or other distant relations would cause the family tree to branch and rejoin a few times.** 

But specifically and aside from this general disclaimer, one suggestion is that Joesph’s mother remarried after the death of his father, Heli, bringing Joseph into the legal descendancy of her second husband, Jacob.  (This is all just speculation, remember). 

The other, more widely accepted (at least by my wife) theory is that Heli is really Mary’s father and that, having no sons of his own, he adopted his son-in-law.  This would satisfy Luke’s biological motive because Jesus is biologically descendant of Mary (and therefore, in this case, Heli) but not of Joseph.  The line between Jesus and David would therefore represent Mary’s ancestry, not Joseph’s.


* Woot!

** Jeff Foxworthy: ‘If your family tree does not branch, you know you’re a redneck.’

From → [canon], [constant]

  1. Sharon Eberhardt permalink

    How do you explain the distinct differences in intent, style, composition, etc.? of the gospel accounts that are included in the Bible? Is it just coincidental? Are there other perspectives you wish were recorded that might shed yet even more light on Jesus’ life? If so, by whom? What would they be?

    • The stylistic and thematic differences are attributable to the fact that these books, as are all of the New Testament (at least) books, are written by individuals with specific talents and insights and in specific circumstances. My understanding is that the reason people waited so long (20 – 70 years) to write down their recollections of Jesus’ life is that they thought He was coming back during their lifetime. It was only as they started to get old and/or face the prospect of their deaths that they realized they’d better commit this stuff to paper so that the story would last beyond the generation that experienced it.

      But they’re still divinely inspired. The way I understand scripture is that a normal dude gets an idea to write about God, and the idea is from the Holy Spirit). Then a bunch of other dudes get together and decide which pieces of writings about God should form the Bible, and the Holy Spirit guides their decision-making process to include those that are divinely endorsed and exclude those that aren’t. That’s how you end up with debates in church history about whether books like James or Esther should be included. That’s how you end up with conclusions (at least in the Protestant tradition) that other books like Maccabees and the gospel of Thomas are not authoritative (in the sense that they were not authored ultimately by God the way those in the canon were). That back and forth and the final consensus are the work of the Spirit. This doesn’t mean that those books that are excluded are necessarily wrong or heretical. Some are. Others, though, are just considered non-canon aids to understanding and interpreting the canonical works.

      So it would be great to have a comprehensive, objective, day-by-day account of Jesus’ life and ministry that falls within modern definition of credible history. But that’s not how these books were written. We won’t have access to that absolute truth at a minute level this side of eternity. It’s another instance, I think, of God revealing elements of Himself to us that suit His purpose. In this case, that’s the miracles and teachings of Jesus that were recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and the commentaries on those mircales by Paul, Peter, James, John, etc.

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