What About the Genealogies? (RJS)


I posted last week on a comment suggesting that I view Genesis 1-11 as “just collected stories.” The statement surprised me because I do not view Genesis as “just” collected stories – they are arranged and edited for a purpose and we need to study them carefully for that purpose and meaning. We are not looking for truth amidst error.

The first comment on the post came back and refined the question a bit – in a fashion we would do well to consider. I am shortening the comment a bit here, but you can see the entire comment on the earlier post (link here).

Yes, it is possible that the author of Genesis was writing in a way that is not meant to be read as literal history (the genre argument). The problem is that the rest of scripture treats Genesis as historical (which is not to dismiss difficulties in understanding certain details).

In the entire book of Genesis, I would say that a central theme is history, where did the Jewish people (and all of mankind) come from? … Likewise, to me, Adam is important not as a “scientific” detail, but as an historical reality. He is mentioned in genealogies alongside Abraham and David. Is this history or a “later interpretation” to be discarded?

The genealogies and the use of Adam by Paul and Christ himself disallow treating Genesis as less than historical if indeed we are letting the text speak for itself rather than looking for some more “authentic” interpretation. And seeing Adam as less than historical changes the story of who we are, why we are here, why there is evil in our world, etc.

This comment brings up two separate reasons for preferring a view of Genesis as historical.  I would like to pose these as questions and discuss them today.

Do the genealogies, especially those in the NT, support or require a view of Genesis as history?

Does the use of Adam by Paul require a view of Genesis as history?

I leave off Christ – because Jesus never refers to Adam by name and only alludes to him to support God ordained marriage (Mt 19 and Mk 10). I don’t see this as a reference to Adam specifically as an individual – the allusion only requires that the point of the story in Genesis 2 be true. On the other hand we could pose the question slightly differently.

Does the use of Noah by Jesus require a view of Genesis as history? (Mt 24 and Lk 17)

I find the biblical genealogies unconvincing as a line of argument in support of the literal historicity of Genesis 1-11 and of Adam in particular. The most significant reason for this conclusion is the differences in the two genealogies we have for Jesus – Matthew 1 and Luke 3. They are more or less completely different from David to Joseph with no real correspondence, from the chosen son of David (Nathan or Solomon) to the identity of Joseph’s father. We can find attempts at harmonization all over the place – in the early church fathers up to the present. The most common popular harmonization I’ve heard is that found here:

…they split with David’s sons: Nathan (Mary’s side) and Solomon (Joseph’s side).

There is no discrepancy because one genealogy is for Mary and the other is for Joseph. It was customary to mention the genealogy through the father even though it was clearly known that it was through Mary.

As I said this is a common view, often given quite matter of factly in  evangelical circles, although it doesn’t seem to stand up to scholarly scrutiny. Even here, though, we have to admit that this interpretation is read into Luke only because Luke disagrees with Matthew. A plain literal reading of Luke alone will not lead to this conclusion on any level.

(We can find a discussion of these genealogies in many places on the internet (here is one and another on wikipedia) and in books. I found this document quite interesting: New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus,)

Personally I think that because both texts claim to be the lineage of Jesus through Joseph they are fulfilling a function in placing Jesus in History, but they are not, and were not ever intended to be, precise historical records. The three sets of fourteen generation in Matthew also provides another clue to a function other than historical record. The genealogies are true in that they truthfully fulfill the function for which they were intended.

I don’t find this discussion challenging to faith or to my trust in scripture as a faithful witness. It does does not call into question on any level the apostolic witness to the life, death, or resurrection of Jesus; or to his identification as Messiah of God. In fact, one of the key functions of both genealogies is to affirm that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah of God descended from David.

When we look at scripture as the inspired word of God we need to rest in this and let the data – scripture itself – tell us what this entails. Our understanding of Scripture must be shaped by the text we have before us. Our theory has to fit the data – we shouldn’t massage (or harmonize) the data to make it fit our theory.

Discrepancies in scripture are not problems to be solved (data to be massaged), but data that helps us understand the nature and function of scripture in its various forms as the word of God.

So what about Adam? In Luke the link from Abraham to Adam simply repeats the OT witness. The link from David to Abraham does the same. Jesus is of the lineage of David, descended from the Israelite patriarchs. He is therefore connected to Genesis 1-11 in the way that all Jews were. I don’t see this as a specific claim for the existence of a unique and individual Adam, nor does it require such to be true. I have not considered the OT genealogies specifically here – but there is no real reason to think that they were intended to be literal historical records in the modern sense. They make important connections (to the truth revealed in Gen 1-11 among other things) and serve a function.

Noah and Adam as referenced by Jesus and Paul. The reference by Jesus to Noah is a little more complicated – although I think he was referring to the common knowledge of his audience to make a point rather than attesting to the literal truth of Genesis 6. Paul’s use of Adam we have discussed at length on other posts and will again in the future I am quite sure. Rather than go over thoughts I have had, I would like to stop here and open this for conversation.

What do you think?

How do you view the biblical genealogies – especially the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke?

Does the inclusion of Adam and Noah in the genealogy recorded by Luke and the reference by Jesus to Noah and by Paul to Adam require a literal historicity for these individuals and for a global flood?

If you wish you may contact me directly at rjs4mail[at]att.net

  • RD

    I don’t think the presence of genealogies means that they are necessarily historically accurate. Yes, Paul refers to Adam and it’s clear that he thinks of him as having been an actual human being (the first, in fact). That does not mean that Paul is right. We speak of Moses as if he were an actual historical figure, yet there is absolutely no archaeological evidence that Moses ever actually existed. Some scholars believe he is a fiction created by early Hebrews to explain their story as a people/nation (similar to the way many indian tribes create stories and characters to explain their “histories”). We speak of Moses and think of him in the same way that we think of, say, George Washington (an actual historical human being) because we read of Moses in the Hebrew bible and believe what we read. Paul did likewise. So, it’s not surprising that Paul or any other writer in the biblical canon should view Adam as an actual person.
    As to the genealogical differences in Matthew and Luke, I feel it is a matter of one revising the other. Matthew, I believe, was written first. I believe that Luke, writing his gospel a decade or so later, actually had a copy of Matthew’s birth narrative. In Matthew there is a problem with the lineage in that Jesus is a direct decendant of King Jechonia. But in Jeremiah, God makes a proclomation that none of Jechonia’s offspring shall ever rule the house of David again (Jechonia didnt follow God and was actually taken into captivity by the Babylonians). So, if God declared that none of Jechonia’s offspring would ever sit on the throne over Israel, and Jesus was a direct decendant of Jechonia, this posed a problem. I think Luke “corrected” the problem by changing the lineage, bringing Jesus down from David by way of Nathan (thus bypassing Jechonia).
    If this is true (no way to prove it, of course) then it shows us that the genealogies have a different meaning and importance in scripture besides simply being the historically accurate accounts of one generation following another.

  • JoeyS

    The comment you quoted misunderstands the nature and use of myth, particularly in eastern cultures. It assumes that because somebody used the person, Adam, to make a point that that somebody also believed him to be real. The use of myth is never for historicity but always for teaching. You can find this in every single surrounding culture so why not within the Jews themselves?
    Here is why: because we don’t read the literature from the surrounding culture and so when we do read the one resource we have from near-eastern, pre-enlightenment culture we assume they must have spoke, written, and taught in a way that we can listen, read, and understand without jumping through cultural hoops. It just isn’t true though.

  • J.L. Schafer

    Putting aside Paul and thinking about Jesus, it seems to me that the questions are really about Christology. When Jesus walked on the earth in the flesh, his teaching came from the Father through the inspiration and power of the Holy Spirit. His words are the words of God, and he claimed as much. But when he spoke, did he do so from a standpoint of divine omniscience? Or did he put his omniscience aside and allow the Spirit of God to speak through him in his limited human faculties? Jesus repeatedly said that the words he spoke were not simply his own. He is the eternal second person of the Trinity. But he really did become a man in a particular place and time, adopting the common human language, culture and thought-patterns of his time. I doubt that the people of his time were wrestling with the question of whether the genealogies and flood referred to historical space-time events; most likely, they simply assumed that the accounts were historical and then proceeded to think about the spiritual meaning of those accounts. Did Jesus do the same? And if Jesus did the same, are we required to do the same? Does being in an obedient relationship with Christ require us to adopt the same cultural assumptions and thought-patterns that he adopted when he came to the earth in space-time? I honestly do not know.

  • Dan

    I do not have time to fully engage in this discussion, but since I’ve been vocal before I do feel I need to offer this one response to a few specific points.
    RJS wrote: “I leave off Christ – because Jesus never refers to Adam by name and only alludes to him…” I disagree with that “interpretation”. Matt 19:4,5 read: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? Jesus is making an argument that has no weight if there were not two human beings “in the beginning”. If Adam and Eve were not living persons created for marital union, then his argument is a bit like building an argument for marriage on the story of Sleeping Beauty. It’s a nice story, but I’m not sure it gets to the REALITY of who we are and why we were created and why we are “male and female”. The whole thrust of Jesus’ argument (“for this reason”) is that men and women were truly, in space/time reality created for unity in marriage. If he is speaking metaphorically, his argument is built on a false premise and the weight of his conclusion rests not on the strength of the premise but the force of his assertion, which would make the premise irrelevant and a waste of words. He could have said instead “I am God incarnate, so trust me” rather than building a case from the Genesis account.
    You state regarding the genealogies: “…but they are not, and were not ever intended to be, precise historical records.” Agree, but how shall we define “precise”? Most acknowledge that biblical genealogies have gaps, and reason (from the text) that the intent of the author was to list only the names critical to Israel’s history. But in what way does this lead to a conclusion that the author did not intend for the names that are in fact mentioned to be understood as historical? What is the textual, exegetical evidence that intent of the author was to view Adam as less than historical while thinking of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David as historical? To deny the intent of historicity for all the names is reading into the text based on a predetermined conclusion, is it not?
    You state: “The genealogies are true in that they truthfully fulfill the function for which they were intended.” And what is that function? To “place Jesus in history?” you suggest. What is the exegetical evidence that the intent of the author was to place Jesus in history on one hand and not to place Adam in history on the other? How does adding a non-historical figure to the genealogy of Christ accomplish the purpose of placing Jesus in history? That makes no sense at all. Doesn’t building a case for Jesus in history fail if the persons in the genealogy are not historical? (Someone will probably assert here that I am reading a modernist view of history into the first century mindset. I don’t think first century Jews, however, equated historical figures and mythical figures as equivalent. What surrounding cultures did or did not do should not lead us to conclude the Hebrews thought exactly the same way.)
    You could say, and have, that the NT authors were only reflecting the limited knowledge they had, that God was accommodating the “inspiration” of the text to their limited early knowledge. But that completely fails in my mind. If we allow for this view that the authors’ knowledge was limited with respect to Adam, then logically, we MUST also allow for the argument that their knowledge was limited regarding marriage, slavery, the virgin birth and the resurrection. You may disagree with those who would go there, but you have no real logical basis for doing so. You can say you believe the “apostolic testimony” of the New Testament, but why? If Paul was culturally misinformed about A, why is he not misinformed about B? I think it fair to say most who make this connection either abandon the faith or slide to a very libertine form of Christianity that questions the virgin birth, the resurrection, and becomes sympathetic to morality based in sociology rather than scripture or church tradition. Such an approach better withstands “scholarly scrutiny” I suppose. I would have to be an agnostic if I became convinced the NT authors were merely speaking from their cultural context.
    You say “…we shouldn’t massage (or harmonize) the data to make it fit our theory.” But I think that is exactly what you are doing. You have offered a number of possible “interpretations” that are not built on the vocabulary, grammar, syntax and context of the text (exegesis) but built from the already arrived at conclusion that Adam cannot be historical – which then leads to theoretical attempts to reconcile the genealogies to that conclusion. You have attributed an “intent” to the authors that is simply not warranted by the text itself, nor in my mind is it warranted from the cultural context of a people who meticulously copied texts, quoted texts, memorized them vebatim and valued their cultural history as children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob above all accommodation to surrounding cultures. Show me evidence that first century thinkers viewed Genesis 1-11 as less than historical and you’ll have made a valid point. But the arguments you put forward here are not convincing to me logically, nor do they in any way lead me to a more rational “faith”.

  • TDS

    We have 66 “books” in the canon of Christian scripture–27 of those books are contained in what we usually refer to as the New Testament while 39 are contained in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures. For the Christian, all 66 books are considered “scripture”.
    For me, to answer questions regarding accuracy in our Scriptures-albeit, historical, geographical, scientific, or theological–I first begin with an understanding of the purpose of Scripture. From 2 Tim 3:15-17, I understand Scripture has two purposes 1) to lead us to salvation, and 2) to equip us for good work. The first purpose is experienced through faith in Christ Jesus. The second purpose is by “teaching,rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”.
    The Scriptures may teach history, geography, or science; but it doesn’t claim authority in those areas. The area where the Scriptures claims authority is the area of theology: specifically, our relation to our Creator and our relation to our neighbor.

  • Bob

    My friend loves The Lord of the Rings, and he’s always referring to it to explain or illustrate things. It’s very confusing, because he’ll say “Just like Frodo did when they were at the Inn in Bree,” and I find myself unable to comprehend how my friend could believe that Frodo is a historical figure. I mean – he must believe that to reference him in that way, right?

  • RJS

    I put this discussion up because I am sure that many people have similar questions and views – so it is worth opening a conversation on.
    I have a real problem with your first point about Jesus and Adam – Jesus quotes scripture to make a point about marriage. There is no direct mention of Adam outside of the quotation from scripture. The passage in Genesis 2 quoted is specifically about marriage – and the fact that God ordained marriage. I do not see how Jesus use of it does anything more than point out the conclusion about marriage.
    I don’t think that Genesis is in error – I don’t think we sift truth from falsehood. The teaching of Genesis 2 is true, Jesus refers to the true teaching quoting scripture. I don’t see that this points to Adam as necessarily a unique historical person.

  • AHH

    Perhaps another example to make the point would be Jesus’ use of the story of Jonah.
    Does that require the book of Jonah to be a historical account of an actual individual? I think most OT scholars, even Evangelical ones, will say that Jonah is more like a parable. So if Jesus could make use of a character in a non-historical (which does not mean non-inspired!) story to make a point, it seems like we must at least allow the possibility that the same is true for the other cases RJS mentions.

  • http://mindinmymind.wordpress.com Bob Porter

    RJS – Thanks for yet another thoughtful post!
    Bob@6 – I really appreciated your humor!
    I am deeply troubled as I reflect on all of the essays, posts and comments being made today along the lines of if anything within the covers of the Bible that I am holding is not what I always believed it was, I might as well go eat worms!
    We are so prone to bring preconceived notions to our reading of scripture it is a miracle of grace that we ever understand anything God is trying to teach us. Perhaps one of our biggest problems is supposing that everyone has always reasoned in the same ways that many of us do today. The false dichotomies that we set up are characteristic of a flawed approach.
    As I remember it, one of the main points in Scot’s Blue Parakeet was that each writer wrote what was true and appropriate for the immediate intended audience. When we look over the shoulders of the intended audience, we must keep that in mind.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    #4 Dan, you disagree by saying “Jesus is making an argument that has no weight if there were not two human beings “in the beginning”.” I must disagree. He says explictly, “Haven’t you read.” That does not mean it is history, it just means, “isn’t it written”. I could easily make the case that the phrase “haven’t you read” implies that it is a myth, a writing, and not history. If he really meant to imply, it is history, then would he have not said something much different?
    I read a book about the beginning of history. I wish I could remember what it was so I could go back to it, but the point being made was that for most people until very recently there was no concept of wanting to record history for the sake of history. That is a silly idea. What people wanted to record was the impression and ideas of their times.
    Jesus is enforcing their wisdom that is written, not their history.
    The writings are good for learning, no where does it say they are good for history.
    I could say, just as superman had his weakness in krytonite from his home planet, a prophet is diminished by people from his own village. Wouldn’t that be plainly acceptable? Is it historical?
    Dan, couldn’t you try and just assume that it is not historical for a minute and read it again and see if it makes sense? Does it diminish the meaning? I don’t think so. Our most powerful thruths are not typically conveyed by individuals (in reality), but by the truth in a story that is widely regarded as true (from a lesson standpoint).
    You say “If Paul was culturally misinformed about A, why is he not misinformed about B?” The answer is because I don’t think he is. Let’s assume that you are right about the historicity of Adam. And that I am wrong, and that some others here are wrong. Does that make it that you can no longer trust anything that I say? Does my belief in Adam being a myth make it so anything I say is suspect?

  • Gloworm

    “Does the use of Adam by Paul require a view of Genesis as history?”
    Paul was a man. He was not divine. He was a product of his time with all the beliefs that entails…. he probably believed that the sun rotates around the earth, for example. Paul was a theologian and we listen to him there, but his belief in a literal Adam and Eve is kind of a “so what?” moment for me.
    There has been a lot of evil done in this world based on the words of Paul, and I suspect if he were to come back and find that we were placing his words on the same level as the Words of Christ he would be horrified.

  • Travis Greene

    J.L. Schafer @ 3 gets to the crux of the matter. Did Jesus know everything, and by extension, did Paul and the apostles? I go with no. He became truly human. It doesn’t matter whether Jesus thought Adam was historical. He likely also thought the world was flat. What does that have to do with the kingdom?

  • http://mindinmymind.wordpress.com Bob Porter

    Travis @ 12 – I am with you.
    I would like to pick up on your point: “I go with no.”
    I would suggest that if part of Jesus’ mission was to make sure that the intellectuals in the 21st century did not @get all tangled up in their underwear@ then he did know, but isn’t that the point? God gave him the words that were needed to do the Fathers will.

  • http://awaitingawhiterobe.blogspot.com MikeB

    How do you view the biblical genealogies – especially the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke?
    But how do we know if they are historically accurate or just teaching devices?
    If the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew/Luke “are not, and were not ever intended to be, precise historical records” but rather just making a point then did the author use a non-historical literary device to prove Jesus was truly/historically in the line of David and the Messiah?
    Wouldn’t a less than historically accurate genealogy cause a reader to doubt the rest of the account? Or at least challenge other passages as non-historically accurate (virgin birth, miracles, etc) since they also occur in the gospels with the genealogies?

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    To mike, immediately above, perhaps there is another way. Perhaps the audience and the author had heard it exactly like the author is saying. Perhaps there are two traditions and to establish credibiblity with the audience the author must recount the tradition in the way that the people understood it. Then, the author would be demonstrating the that they knew it. That they “learnt it good” (as my memory of Mad Max beyond thunderdome would allow me to recount).

  • http://awaitingawhiterobe.blogspot.com MikeB

    If the author is recounting what he heard and it is wrong that says two things (well maybe more)…
    1) other things he recounts may be wrong too so the point I was trying to make still stands.
    2) that certainly does not say a lot of inspiration…

  • JHM

    Travis (#12)
    “What does that have to do with the kingdom?” Well, I do think we maybe need to be a bit careful here (I won’t bring up the SS word). I find it frankly pretty difficult to imagine devoting my life to a book and a person in whom I can have no confidence that what it/he says actually true. If it is just up to me to sift out truth from error I think I’d just give up now as I don’t see the point.
    Gloworm (#11)
    It seems to me an odd view of inspiration that I should treat the words of Paul in Romans any differently than the “red letter” ones in the Gospels. It seems that Jesus gives a more comprehensive revelation of God but I don’t think it is qualitatively any different from other portions of the Bible.

  • Justin Topp

    I’m not sure if this is helpful for anyone but me, but I’m going to try to think my way through some options as we consider how we read the Bible. I preface this by saying I am in no way a Biblical scholar or theologian and those with training should feel free to put me in my place. This list of options is not exhaustive and I’m likely changing the wrong variables, but these options came to mind in light of the current discussion.
    Option 1. Everything was dictated by God and should be taken as literal.
    Option 2. Everything was dictated by God and should be read (to the best of our abilities) as it was to be understood in that culture.
    Option 3. Humans wrote the Bible as a running diary and intended it to be a historical document about their culture and their people’s interaction with God.
    Option 4. Humans wrote the Bible as a running diary and intended it to be a document about their culture and their people’s interaction with God.
    Option 5. Humans wrote the Bible while looking back (sometimes way back) into their history and intended it to be a historical document about their culture and their people’s interaction with God.
    Option 6. Humans wrote the Bible while looking back (sometimes way back) into their history and intended it to be a document about their culture and their people’s interaction with God.
    Looking at the readers of this blog as a whole, it’s possible if not likely that all of the above options are held. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out which option I would fall under, but I’m leaning towards option 6. I’m not hear to convince others to be in that option or saying that it is the best. Rather, I think that it is essential that in discussions like this we at least remember that we are all potentially coming at the text from a different option. Without appreciating that, I’m not sure it’s possible for real conversation to occur.
    Now, having written all of this, I’m with Travis (12). Let’s go out and love the Lord, serve our neighbors, and make disciples.
    p.s. RJS you have been knocking it out of the park lately. Is Scot going to have a blog when he gets back or will this become the Jesus Creed, as presented by RJS?… :-)

  • http://www.faithfulreason.com JHM

    I can tell you’ve been hanging out around Option 6 there, I can’t really distinguish to any significant degree between Options 3 though 6 but I think maybe you compressed the other end just a tad. In Norman Geisler’s “A General Introduction to the Bible” there is a nice table of views on the inspiration of the Bible that I found helpful. His options are:
    1) Mechanical Dictation – revelation in words (individually).
    2) Verbal Dictation – revelation in words (individually). This view allows for errors in copies
    3) Verbal Inspiration – revelation in words (holistically). Infallible & inerrant
    4) Conceptual Inspiration – revelation in concepts (not words). Infallible but not inerrant.
    5) Instrumental Revelation – revelation through words (not in words). Authoritative but not inerrant.
    6) Personal Revelation – revelation in acts and events (not words). Usually reliable but not inerrant.
    7) Illuminationism – no revelation, only illumination. Often reliable but not inerrant.
    8) Intuitionalism – no revelation. Sometimes reliable but not inerrant.
    In terms of the topic, I think options 4-8 would be compatible with genealogies that weren’t inaccurate. I think options 1-3 would be compatible with genealogies that were accurate but not complete.

  • JHM

    hmm, that should be “I think options 4-8 would be compatible with genealogies that were inaccurate”

  • Justin Topp

    Definitely compressed, you’re right, but I wasn’t sure how to give more concrete options. That’s what happens when someone without seminary training compiles a list like that. Not that it isn’t valuable for someone like me to do it, but the list is likely to look different and not be as complete.
    I’ll be honest, I don’t really understand all of Geisler’s categories, and it to further confuse me it appears that they are not mutually exclusive. What ideas would you have for teasing out 1 and 2 more?

  • Justin Topp

    I forgot to address this… distinguishing between 3 through 6 is the presence of two variables. First, do we think that the words were remembered and then recorded very closely to when they happened (3, 4) or later on (5, 6), with later on being in itself variable, since we know that the New Testament was written fairly shortly after Christ’s life, while the Torah and other books of the OT probably had longer gaps. Distinguishing the odds from the evens in 3-6 is whether we believe the writers to be first and foremost concerned with history in their writing or the “gist” of their interaction with God. I’m not sure that these are mutually exclusive as different genres of writing can have different perspectives.

  • JHM

    Sorry about 1 & 2. There are a lot more columns in Geisler’s table but I didn’t want to make the list unwieldy. The difference between 1 & 2 is that in 1 God literally writes the Bible and there are no mistakes in the copies. Geisler terms 1 as “hyper-fundamentalism” and I don’t think it’s probably very common these days. Option 2 is the more common view that God told the writer’s what to write but didn’t directly write it and there can be/are errors in copies.

  • Bill

    I have some more basic questions.
    What did readers at the time Matthew and Luke wrote think about genealogies? Did everyone (or anyone) have them going back more than a few generations? Did Mary’s family or Joseph’s have one? Or could, say, all descendents of David trace the line? (Which would, practically speaking, be quite a few people.) If so, when did Jews stop keeping such genealogies? Did any family members of Jesus think it unusual when they first saw it?
    Yet neither Matthew or Luke thought it would raise questions. It’s puzzling to me more than anything.