Since we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, it’s intriguing to look into His genealogies at this time. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke each contain genealogical records for Jesus.
Matthew traces the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to Joseph, the husband of Mary by whom Jesus was born (Matthew 1:1-16).
Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus from Adam to Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38).
The two genealogies listing the ancestors of Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph are not the same! They are very different from King David to Joseph.
Matthew traces the line of descent through King David’s son Solomon, whereas Luke traces it through David’s son Nathan. Matthew says Joseph’s father was Jacob. Luke says Joseph was the son of Eli (Heli in KJV).
Is this an error in the Bible? How can Mary’s husband Joseph have two distinct fathers, Jacob and Eli?
The usual explanation is that Matthew records Joseph’s genealogy and Luke records Mary’s. The claim is that Joseph’s father Eli in Luke’s genealogy is actually the father of Mary, so he is Joseph’s father-in-law.
Usual Explanation Is Not Satisfactory
I do not find this a satisfactory explanation. The obvious interpretation of Luke’s words is that Joseph is the son of Eli. There is no indication in the passage that Joseph is not the son of Eli, but rather is married to the daughter of Eli. If Joseph was only the son-in-law of Eli, why didn’t Luke say “Jesus the son of Mary, the daughter of Eli, the son of Matthat, …”?
Moreover, none of the church fathers proposed this solution. Even though today it is almost universally believed that Luke’s genealogy is that of Mary, the history of this idea does not go back to the early centuries of the church. It was first proposed by archaeologist, historian, and scholar Annius of Viterbo (1432-1502) and only began to gain adherents in the sixteenth century.
The Jews were fanatical record keepers, especially with respect to genealogy. Jesus’ disciple Matthew the tax collector would have been a meticulous record keeper. Luke was a physician and a careful historian, as his Book of Acts shows. Moreover, Luke says he “investigated everything carefully from the beginning” so that his readers would “know the exact truth” about the things of Jesus (Luke 1:3-4). Both Matthew and Luke would have recognized and respected accurate records. Both men would have made sure the genealogical records they placed in their gospels were correct.
Thus I believe that both Matthew and Luke recorded accurate genealogies of Jesus through his adoptive father Joseph.
But how can this be when Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph has two different fathers in the two genealogies, and those two different fathers themselves have very different lineages?
Is Jacob the father of Joseph or is Eli his father? Or are Jacob and Eli the same person?
Jacob and Eli are not the same person, because they have different fathers, different grandfathers, different great-grandfathers, etc. Jacob’s father was Matthan, son of Eleazar. Eli’s father was Matthat son of Levi.
So how can Joseph have two different fathers and two different lines of genealogical descent?
Background of the Solution
The essence of the explanation I will describe here comes from Eusebius (AD 260/265 – 339/340), the Greek Bishop of Caesarea in Roman Palestine. He was a Biblical scholar and is recognized as the Father of Church History. He chronicled the first three centuries of the church from Christ to Constantine in Ecclesiastical History.
Eusebius explains the seeming conflict between Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies in Book 1 of Ecclesiastical History in Chapter 7, titled “The Alleged Discrepancy in the Gospels in Regard to the Genealogy of Christ.”
Eusebius cites as his source a letter from Julius Africanus to Aristides which says this genealogical history came from the Desposyni, descendants of the brothers of Jesus. Julius Africanus is sometimes honored as the father of Christian chronography. Little of his work survives except for extensive quotations by Eusebius. Aristides was a 2nd-century Athenian Christian who wrote a defense of the Christian faith that Eusebius mentions.
The key to the solution is the Jewish law of levirate marriage given in Deuteronomy 25:5-6:
When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. It shall be that the firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
Levirate marriage is thus a marriage in which the brother of a man who dies without a son must marry his brother’s widow in order to beget a son for his brother who will be deemed the son of his brother.
The account in Genesis 38:6-11 of Judah’s son Onan whose older brother Er had died is an example of this custom that is codified in the law of Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.” Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. (Genesis 38:8-9 NASB)
Onan refused to have a child with his brother’s widow, because he knew the child would be recognized as his brother’s son, not his own son. The “legal” genealogy for this child would be through Er and not through Onan, even though the biological genealogy would be through Onan. Thus this child would have had two legitimate genealogies. This example illustrates what could have happened with Joseph, the husband of Mary.
This is how the Matthew genealogy
and the Luke genealogy
can be resolved based on the Hebrew practice of levirate marriage according to Eusebius’ report which was based on historical records available to him:
- Matthan, a descendant of King David’s son Solomon, married a woman that tradition names as Estha. Matthan begot Jacob by Estha. Matthan is the grandfather of Joseph, Mary’s husband, per Matthew.
- Matthan died.
- Matthat, a descendant of King David’s son Nathan, married Estha the widow and begot Eli. Matthat is the grandfather of Joseph, Mary’s husband, per Luke.
- Thus Jacob and Eli were half-brothers with the same mother (Estha) but different fathers (Matthan and Matthat, respectively).
- Eli married but died without a son.
- Eli’s half-brother Jacob married Eli’s widow according to the levirate law of Deuteronomy 25:5-6 to raise up a son for his half-brother Eli. Jacob begot Joseph.
- Legally Joseph was the son of the dead brother Eli according to the levirate law. (Luke’s genealogy)
- But Joseph was also the natural born son of Jacob. (Matthew’s genealogy)
Matthew gives the biological genealogy through Joseph’s natural father Jacob. Luke gives the legal genealogy through Joseph’s legal father Eli. Both genealogies are correct.
In the time frame of Jesus’ day, the levirate law of marriage and descent that may seem so complicated today would be a daily familiarity. Many people would have this kind of dual family tree. In New Testament times, a person encountering two genealogies for Jesus would understand their harmony as natural and ordinary. The explanation would not seem intricate and difficult as it may to a reader today.
What is the significance of the genealogies? The significance is that the genealogies root Jesus of Nazareth in space and time. The genealogies are evidence that Jesus, son of Mary and adopted son of Joseph the carpenter, was a real man who lived and died on this earth 2,000 years ago in the land of Israel.
Who today can trace their genealogy back for 4,000 years over 75 generations? Who else can trace their genealogy back to Adam, the father of the human race?
Nobody makes up one genealogy, much less two of them, for a mythical being. Myths do not have such extensive genealogies in such well-evidenced historical documents. Only real people have and record detailed genealogies. These ancient lists of names include famous personages who are acknowledged as historical like King David of Israel and Abraham the father of the Jewish people. The genealogies confirm Jesus of Nazareth as a real person! This is why the genealogies of Jesus are so important.
Questions to Ponder
- Do you know anyone who has two sets of paternal grandparents (via a father and a step-father)? Do you think this now-common phenomenon might seem peculiar in Jesus’ day?
- What benefit is it to a follower of Christ to ponder difficult Scripture passages?
Share your thoughts on these questions in the comments below. It could encourage or help another reader.
May all my readers enjoy a blessed Christmas season this year as we celebrate the birth of our Creator who came to rescue us from eternal death and save us from our sins.
Here’s a 2-minute YouTube Christmas video from Living Waters on the meaning and reason for Christmas:
Soli Deo Gloria.
Read previous blog articles on the genealogy of Jesus:
16. Age of the Earth—Luke’s Testimony
17. Age of the Earth—Luke & Cainan Puzzle
18. Age of the Earth—Luke & Cainan Explanation
The Curse of Jeconiah
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©William T. Pelletier, Ph.D.
“contending earnestly for the faith”
“destroying speculations against the knowledge of God”
“for the defense of the gospel”
(Jude 1:3; 2 Cor 10:5; Phil 1:16)
Wednesday December 21, 2016 A.D.
The unfolding of Thy words gives light. It gives understanding to the simple.
The sum of Thy word is truth, and every one of Thy righteous ordinances is everlasting.
(Psalm 119:130,160 NASB)