Understanding Differences in the New Testament Genealogies

by Feb 10, 2022The Bible

This past Sunday we looked the genealogy of Jesus as presented in Luke’s gospel. But Luke wasn’t the only writer to list out Jesus’ genealogy. Matthew did so as well in his gospel. And when we compare those two lists of names, there are differences between them.

Some of the differences between Luke and Matthew’s genealogies are simply a matter of style. For example, Luke’s genealogy moves backwards in time, while Matthew’s moves forward. And Matthew takes Jesus back to Abraham, while Luke goes all the way back to Adam.

But some differences feel significant, even problematic. Matthew says that Joseph’s father was Jacob, while Luke says it was Heli (Matthew 1:16; Luke 3:23). In fact, the genealogies are almost completely different between Joseph and David.

What gives? Did one (or both) of these gospel writers make a mistake? And if not, how do we reconcile these differences?

Think of a place that you drive to regularly. Maybe it’s your workplace, church, or a friend’s house. Perhaps there’s a main path you take when you drive there. But depending on other factors (traffic, errands), there may be times when you take alternative routes to get there. In the same way, genealogies in the Bible sometimes take different routes between two points based on what the author is trying to accomplish.

What people seem to agree on is that Matthew and Luke took different routes to get from David to Jesus. What people can’t agree on is the route that each writer took. Some possibilities include:

  • Matthew traced Joseph’s line back to David while Luke traced Mary’s line to David. Some think that Heli is actually Mary’s father, and thus Joseph’s father-in-law. Opponents of this view answer that it would be unusual for any genealogy to pass through the mother’s line instead of the father’s. After all, Luke doesn’t mention Mary here. But someone could reply that a genealogy for a guy with no biological father is going to be somewhat out of the norm!
  • Joseph has two fathers. The custom of “levirate marriages” comes into play here (see Deuteronomy 25:5-10). The idea behind levirate marriages is that a widow could marry the unmarried brother of her deceased husband to produce children. These children would be the legal heirs of the deceased husband and would continue his name. As a result, genealogies could trace those children through their legal (deceased) father or their biological father.
  • One theory put forth in the third century was that Heli died childless, and that Jacob (his half-brother) married his widow and fathered Joseph. Leon Morris writes: “On this view Matthew gives us Joseph’s genealogy through Jacob, his actual father, while Luke gives it through Heli, his legal father.”
  • As for Matthew mentioning David’s son Solomon while Luke mentions his son Nathan (Matthew 1:6; Luke 3:31), some believe Matthew’s genealogy is highlighting David’s “royal” line through Solomon (showing Jesus’ relation to the kings of old) while Luke is focused more on his biological connection to David. That is, perhaps Joseph (or Mary) is descended from David’s son Nathan, not Solomon. Either way, that Luke and Matthew spotlight different sons of David alone accounts for the many differences between Joseph and David in the two genealogies. However one gets there, the important thing for Luke and Matthew is to show that Jesus is a descendant of David.

Each of the above options is a possible explanation, and some people combine elements from each. At the end of the day, we simply can’t say with certainty which of the above explanations is the right one.

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