Reply to Atheist JMS Pearce: “Contradictory” Genealogies?

Reply to Atheist JMS Pearce: “Contradictory” Genealogies? July 27, 2017


King David (ancestor of Jesus), by Rembrandt (1606-1669) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


This is my third installment of replies to atheist Jonathan MS Pearce skeptical series, Debunking the Nativity. I have previously responded to his claims about the alleged mistranslation of “virgin” (Isaiah 7:14), and supposed irreconcilable differences regarding the death of Herod the Great and biblical chronology. Presently, I am responding to two of his papers (both posted on 12-12-16): “Contradictory Genealogies” and “Conflicting Genealogies of Jesus and the Thesis of a Matrilineal Bloodline Refuted.” His words will be in blue.


First of all, I’d like to emphasize that Christians have no problem freely admitting that there are “difficulties” to be resolved as regards the two genealogies. Our view is not to pretend that there are no “problems” to be resolved with Bible scholarship, learning more and more about ancient Near Eastern culture, and further study of various sorts. We welcome that; we love to learn more and more about all the relevant data.

That’s different, however, from the positive (or should I say, “negative”?) assertion of the definite presence of demonstrable “contradiction” in the two genealogies. Christians have offered many possible solutions to the various issues raised and considered. Of course, atheists will then say (fair and charitable as they always are to Christians): “see how many explanations there are?! Christians can’t agree! Therefore, we conclude that this evident chaos suggests no explanation, and rather, mere special pleading and rationalization.”

Atheists very often don’t even consistently follow their own inclinations when it is virtually any other subject matter. Take, for example, theories on the origin of life or of the universe. Scientists don’t have any definite solutions to those things (within the “orthodox” materialistic perspective). But they have many proposed explanations. Atheists think that that means the scientific explanation will one day be nailed down. They don’t assume that a diversity of theories proves “chaos” or special pleading. They don’t ditch scientific method or question its usefulness simply because science doesn’t provide every answer to every “anomaly” in nature.

We might also mention the absence of the vaunted “Grand Unified Theory” in particle physics. Scientists thus far have been unable to synthesize what they believe they know into one unified theory. Wikipedia states that “Several such theories have been proposed, but none is currently universally accepted. . . . There is currently no hard evidence that nature is described by a Grand Unified Theory.” It doesn’t follow, however, that such a theory is either unthinkable, inconceivable, or unattainable.

But when it comes to the Bible and Christian theology, atheists think that any multiple theories suggest no resolution (because of prior hostility). Multiple theories are just as likely indications that one of them (or a combination) are true, rather than that all of them are false. Physicists used to suggest multiple theories of the origin of the universe, such as “steady state theory” and “Big Bang” (formulated by Catholic priest-scientist, Georges Lemaître, by the way). It turned out that the latter became accepted by the vast majority of scientists. Scientists never thought that there was no possible solution merely because there were multiple theories.

If Christians didn’t have any theories about the genealogies, atheists would surely be on our backs for total ignorance, and reiterate that they believe that Christians don’t “think” or speculate about issues: that we are against reason itself. If we have many, this also proves that we must be wrong: it indicates rationalizing and incoherence and implausible solutions. In other words, we can never “win” no matter what we do. But (contrary to some jaundiced, triumphant atheist claims) we have no difficulty admitting that there are exegetical difficulties to resolve:

Christian apologist Glenn Miller includes in his extensive treatment these words:

The difficulties in the genealogies are numerous, but the only thing that ‘outnumbers’ them are the possible ‘solutions’! . . . every potential problem has many, many proposed solutions–some smooth, some weird, some tortured. But we really do not have enough data to really ‘catch these guys’ at historical error. . . . [my italics substituting for his all caps, as throughout] [1]

Likewise, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1909) starts out its article on the topic by stating:

It is granted on all sides that the Biblical genealogy of Christ implies a number of exegetical difficulties; but rationalists have no solid reason for refusing to admit any of the attempted solutions, nor can we agree with those recent writers who have given up all hope of harmonizing the genealogies of Christ found in the First and Third Gospels. [2]

Jonathan’s inclination (what a shock!) is to think that the genealogies were “created” or “contrived” out of whole cloth. And so he writes:

In reality, the Gospel writers, in all probability, had no great desire to fulfil historical accuracy; they had an agenda. These genealogies, like much of the infancy narratives, involved using mechanisms to derive symbolic truth claims. And when such mechanisms are shown to be problematic, so too, then, are those theological truth claims.

As usual with atheist “exegesis” he starts out assuming that the Bible writers are trying to pull a fast one on us, trying to hoodwink readers with mere propaganda. And, of course, if any passage suggests otherwise from atheist preconceived notions, they can always wave the omnipotent magic wand of “oh; that passage was clearly added later.” For the atheist every Bible difficulty (real or imagined) has a quick, easy answer. It’s sort of like eight-year-olds in the school playground: everyone knows everything, when in fact, few of them know much at all. Atheists (when doing their butchery of the Bible) are like the most confident, obnoxious 8-year-old kid, who thinks he knows everything. I know firsthand what I’m talking about (believe me). I’ve interacted with atheists on these topics many times, for many years now.

Jonathan has, of course, his laundry list of biblical difficulties (oh, how atheists love those!). Here’s one:

There is a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 which overlaps Matthew’s and it seems like he has omitted three names (Joash, Amaziah, and Azoriah) which undermines one of the two lists. This is probably Matthew’s doing—it could well be an opportunity to lose a few names for numerical reasons, and these kings were particularly wicked, coming to infamous ends by God’s will.  Also, two Jeconiahs seem to have been melded into one. The fact that the genealogies differ from the Old Testament list is telling, though.

Glenn Miller [1] responds:

Matt[hew]’s has a rhetorical/pedagogical structure to it. In other words, it was designed for memory-retention (common practice in his day — cf. Keener, Bible Background Commentary–NT loc. cit.). The omissions are simply to make the list easier to learn and/or memorize. . . .

His word choice for ‘begat’ simply means ‘progenitor’ and allows considerable gaps to exist without it being an inaccuracy. (E.g. my great-great-great-grandfather ‘begat’ me, in Matt’s word-choice.)

What this means is that ‘omissions’ in Matthew are not ‘problems’ at all.

The Catholic Encyclopedia explains how omissions were not at all uncommon or regarded as “dishonest” in Hebrew genealogies:

Before the introduction of writing, two devices were employed to aid the memory; either history was versified, or the facts were reduced to certain standard numbers. This second form was in use among the Scriptural nations. There were ten antediluvian Patriarchs, ten postdiluvian; seventy descendants of Jacob are named on the occasion of Israel’s going into Egypt, though some of them were dead at that time, others had not yet been born; the ethnographical list of Genesis enumerates seventy nations, though it gives some names of little importance and omits others of great importance; 1 Chronicles 2:3-55, gives seventy descendants of Juda; 1 Chronicles 8:1-28, seventy descendants of Benjamin. This device guarded against arbitrary insertion or omission of any name, though it did not fully exclude the substitution of one name for another. . . .

It cannot be denied that some of the genealogical links are omitted in the Biblical lists; even St. Matthew had to employ this device in order to arrange the ancestors of Christ in three series of fourteen each. At first sight such omissions may seem to be at variance with Biblical inerrancy, because the single members of the genealogical lists are connected by the noun son or the verb beget. But neither of these links creates a real difficulty:

The wide meaning of the noun son in the genealogies is shown in Matthew 1:1: “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. This phrase prepares the reader for the view that the noun son may connect a person with any one of his ancestors, however remote.

As to the verb beget, some writers maintain that the Hiphil form of its Hebrew equivalent refers to the immediate offspring, while its Qal form may denote a more remote generation. But this contention does not rest on any solid foundation. It is true that the Hiphil form occurs in Genesis 5 and 11; it is also true that the successive links of the genealogies in these two chapters appear to exclude any intermediate generation. But this is only apparent. Unless it be certain from other sources that the Hebrew in question signifies the begetting of an immediate offspring, Genesis 5:15, for instance, may just as well mean that Malaleel at the age of sixty- five begot the grandfather of Jared as that he begot Jared immediately. The same holds true of the other Patriarchs mentioned in the above two chapters. Nor can it be urged that such an interpretation would destroy the chronology of the Patriarchs; for the inspired writer did not intend to transmit a chronology. [3]

Matthew used three sets of 14 in his genealogy for a specific reason:

In Hebrew gematria (a type of numerology very popular in ancient Judaism) the value of David’s name, obtained by summing the value of its three consonants, is fourteen (dalet=4, vav=6; thus D+V+D = 4+6+4). [10]

In a long, fascinating article devoted to such alleged “gaps” or “omissions” (filled with many biblical proofs of this casually accepted practice in ancient Hebrew culture), Presbyterian theologian William Henry Green observed:

It can scarcely be necessary to adduce proof to one who has even a superficial acquaintance with the genealogies of the Bible, that they are frequently abbreviated by the omission of unimportant names. In fact, abridgment is the general rule, induced by the indisposition of the sacred writers to encumber their pages with more names than were necessary for their immediate purpose. This is so constantly the case, and the reason for it so obvious, that the occurrence of it need create no surprise anywhere, and we are at liberty to suppose it whenever anything in the circumstances of the case favors that belief. . . .

The result of our investigations thus far is sufficient to show that it is precarious to assume that any biblical genealogy is designed to be strictly continuous, unless it can be subjected to some external tests which prove it to be so. [4]

Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin adds similar information:

Ancient Jewish genealogies often skipped generations, in part because there were no terms for “grandson” and “grandfather.” Any male one was descended from was one’s “father,” regardless of how many generations back he was. Similarly, any male descended from you was your “son,” no matter how many generations down the line he was. This is why the Hebrews were called “the sons of Israel” hundreds of years after the original Israel (Jacob) died. [6]

Here is also a specific reply to the charge that Matthew “shouldn’t” have omitted the three names that Jonathan refers to:

It is objected that Matthew omits three kings, viz. Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah (comp. 1 Chronicles 3, and 2 Kings 8), from his second series. In reference to this objection, it might suffice to say that Matthew, finding fourteen generations from Abraham to David inclusively, contracted, most likely in order to assist memory and give uniformity, the second, and possibly the last series. If we compare Ezr 7:1-5 with 1Ch 6:3-15, it will be seen that Ezra, in detailing, with apparent particularity, his own lineal descent from Aaron, calls Azariah, who was high-priest at the dedication of the first Temple, the son, not of Johbaan his father, but of Meraioth, his ancestor at the distance of six generations. Doubtless the desire of abridgment led him to omit those names with which there were connected no very remarkable associations. Some of the early fathers, however, give a different solution of this difficulty. Hilary (in Mattum, cap. 1) says: “Three generations are designedly passed over by Matthew, for Jaras is said to have begotten Ozias, when, in fact, he was the fourth from him, i.e., Jaras begat Ochazias from the Gentile family of Ahab, whose wife was Jezebel.” That the omission of the three kings was a punishment inflicted upon the house of guilty Joram to the fourth generation is the view yet were pointedly put forth by St. Jerome also, and by many of our own best commentators. [9]

One problematic Messianic obstacle for Matthew’s genealogy is the curse of Jeconiah. Reported in Jeremiah 22:24-30, this is where God cursed Jeconiah and all his descendents (“Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah”). This rather puts paid to Messianic claims derived through Matthew’s claimed lineage since Jesus is clearly of the offspring of Jeconiah. Some apologists claim that the curse was limited to Jeconiah’s lifetime whilst others claim that Jesus is disqualified as an ancestor with Messianic properties.

Jeremiah 22:30 (RSV) Thus says the LORD: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.”

Glenn Miller provides a pretty definitive solution to this pseudo-problem:

The context of the passage seems to limit the scope to just his immediate descendants:

    1. The phrase ‘in his lifetime’ (lit. “in his days”- yom) focuses the passage on the immediate future;
    2. the “for” word connects the ‘no man of his descendants’ with the ‘in his lifetime’–the strong casual relationship between not-prospering-now and his descendants is strong evidence for an immediate future context;
    3. the ‘again’ word (‘od) is not the “big” forever word: ad-olam or le-olam.
    4. Immediately after this passage, Jeremiah relays a promise by Yahweh to raise up ‘a righteous branch to David’ [Jer 23:5-6] –a promise of the continuing line of David! Could Jeremiah have been so blind as to not notice such a contradiction (if the preceding passage referred to the ‘end of the Davidic line’?!) It looks much more likely that this is a deposing of Jeconiah, and a promise of a better king from the stock of David (maybe even from non-immediate/non-physical descendants of Jeconiah?). . . .

But many commentators understand the curse to have been rescinded by God in Haggai anyway:

“Jehoiachin’s name appears in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus Christ (1:11, 12), and some contend this contradicts Jeremiah’s oracle of judgment against the king’s descendants (Jer 22:30). Yet it is possible to understand Haggai’s blessing of Zerubabbel (2:20–24) as the rescission of Jeremiah’s curse and the reinstatement of Jehoiachin’s line on the Davidic (and ultimately Messianic) throne (cf. Is 56:3–5).” [Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.].

Rabbinic tradition generally agrees with this as well:

“for no man of his seed shall prosper -In this, too, no man of his seed shall prosper, namely that no one will occupy the throne of David nor rule in Judah. Although we find that Zerubbabel, his great grandson, did rule over Judah upon the return of the exiles, the Rabbis (Pesikta /’Rav Kahana p. 163a) state that this : ‘was because Jehoiachin repented  in prison. They state further: Repentance is great, for it nullifies a person’s sentence, as it is stated: inscribe this man childless.’ But since he repented, his sentence was revoked and turned to the good, and  he said to him, “I will take you, Zerubbabel, and I will make you a signet” (Haggai 2:23). . . . [Judaica Books of the Prophets, in loc]

[Notice how this parallels the known case of Manasseh, the evil Davidic king who was exiled by Assyria to its southern province in Babylon, and who then repented and was restored to rulership in Judah–2 Chron 33.10-13.]

This highly-probable understanding completely removes any problem with Jeconiah in anyone’s geneaology. [1]

Conditional prophecies are very common in the Bible (i.e., “if you obey and do A, then you will prosper, but if you rebel and do B I will cast you out . . .”). See my related paper: God’s “Punishing” of Descendants: Is it Unjust and Unfair? (Exodus 20:5: “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation”).

These two genealogies disagree with these lineages. But more damning is that they also disagree on who Joseph’s father was! Even Augustine recognised a problem here. There are some Christian harmonisations such that he could have two fathers (legal and natural). These are weak and unsubstantiated.

There is a possible explanation involving the Jewish levirate law (which Augustine later adopted himself, after reading the historian Julius Africanus):

In Luke he [Heli] is said to be the father of Joseph, while in Matthew 1:16, Jacob was Joseph’s father. The most probable explanation of this seeming contradiction is afforded by having recourse to the levirate law among the Jews, which prescribes that when a man dies childless his widow “shall not marry to another; but his brother shall take her, and raise up seed for his brother” (Deuteronomy 25:5). The child, therefore, of the second marriage is legally the child of the first (Deuteronomy 25:6). Heli having died childless, his widow became the wife of his brother Jacob, and Joseph was the offspring of the marriage, by nature the son of Jacob, but legally the son of Heli. It is likely that Matt. gives the natural, and Luke the legal descent. [5]

This is not merely “desperate” speculation, for any possible solution. Jimmy Akin provides historical background, as to why this is the most accepted theory regarding Joseph’s father:

Julius Africanus [c. 180-c, 250] . . . records information given by Christ’s remaining family in his day. According to their family genealogy, Joseph’s grandfather Matthan (mentioned in Matthew) married a woman named Estha, who bore him a son named Jacob. After Matthan died, Estha married his close relative Melchi (mentioned in Luke) and bore him a son named Heli. Jacob and Heli were thus half-brothers.

Unfortunately, Heli died childless, and so Jacob married his widow and fathered Joseph, who was biologically the son of Jacob but legally the son of Heli (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1:6:7). [6]

Africanus was an important enough historian to make it into Encyclopaedia Britannica, which states: “His work raised the prestige of early Christianity by placing it within a historical context. He also wrote a critical work on genealogies of Christ as found in Matthew and Luke.” The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia also praises him:

Byzantine chronographer, noted for his surprisingly lucid interpretations of some Biblical questions; . . . These relations with the Orient explain his knowledge of Syriac, . . . His works in Biblical criticism indicate that he knew Hebrew also. . . . All the works of Africanus, which are of course especially important for Christianity, are also highly interesting for Judaism.

Jonathan’s second, follow-up article mostly argues against the hypothesis of Luke’s genealogy being maternal (i.e., the ancestral lineage through Mary). He even favorably cites the historian Africanus and quotes his own words. I haven’t followed that theory in my replies (in effect agreeing with Jonathan), so I need not refute it, except to document some corresponding disagreement over against that view, among sources I have found and/or utilized (along with a little bit of respectable agreement):

[A]ccording to Patrizi [Jesuit exegete: 1797-1881] the view that St. Luke gives the genealogy of Mary began to be advocated only towards the end of the fifteenth century [c. 1490] by Annius of Viterbo, and acquired adherents in the sixteenth. St. Hilary mentions the opinion as adopted by many, but he himself rejects it (Mai, “Nov. Bibl, Patr.”, t. I, 477). . . . Both St. Matthew and St. Luke give the genealogy of St. Joseph, the one through the lineage of Solomon, the other through that of Nathan. [2]

The Catholic Encyclopedia, in its entry on him, is very critical of historian / archaeologist Annius of Viterbo:

He is best known, however, by his “Antiquitatum Variarumö, 17 vols. (Venice, 1499, et sæp). In this work he published alleged writings and fragments of several pre-Christian Greek and Latin profane authors, destined to throw an entirely new light on ancient history. He claimed to have discovered them at Mantua. This work met at once both with believers in the genuineness of his sources, and with severe critics who accused him of willful interpolation, or even fabrication. The spurious character of these “historiansö of Annius, which he published both with and without commentaries, has long been admitted. It would appear that he was too credulous, and really believed the texts to be authentic.

The presentation of facts in the above citation, however (about Patrizzi), are a bit too sweeping and sloppy, according to the analysis of Catholic biblical and patristic scholar, John F. McCarthy:

Francis Xavier Patrizzi, in an elaborate treatise on the genealogies of Matthew and Luke published in 1853, claims that Annius of Viterbo was the first writer who attempted to show that Eli of Lk 3:23 was the biological father of the Virgin Mary and the biological grandfather of Jesus. Subsequently, many Catholic and Protestant exegetes adopted the theory, including Cornelius a Lapide, as stated above. In his treatise, Patrizzi severely criticizes this hypothesis, not for seeing the ancestry of Mary within Luke’s genealogy, which Patrizzi himself upholds along with many before him beginning in ancient times, but solely and simply as understanding Eli to be the Father of the Virgin Mary. Patrizzi claims that this is an unacceptable reading of the text. . . . [cites five of Patrizzi’s arguments]

Patrizzi’s arguments batter the idea of a Marian link to Eli, but they do not utterly destroy it. [the he provides five possible counter-arguments] [8]

McCarthy’s take is an exceptionally subtle, thorough, and interesting one. He doesn’t cavalierly dismiss the “Mary” theory of genealogy altogether, and entertains five different theories of interpretation: maintaining that all five have many elements in which they converge. He refuses to rule out the fact that Mary’s lineage may be included somehow within Joseph’s:

The Marian reading of Luke’s genealogy is weak in the plain reading of the text, but it converges with the levirate and the adoption theories after two or three generations, because of the factor of consanguinity. Therefore, there is a deeper Marian meaning beneath the genealogy of Luke and possibly also of Matthew. . . . What comes forth from a consideration of all of the theories is the split-level meaning of the genealogies, even in their literal sense. The fact that the genealogies are of Joseph does not mean that they are not also of Mary.  [8]

Jimmy Akin flatly rejects the theorized matrilineal descent:

[B]oth genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage back to David, but through different sons. Matthew has Christ descending from David through Solomon, while Luke has him descending from David through a different son, Nathan. [Felix Just (source #10) concurs]

This is not itself a puzzlement since David had more than one son, and a later individual can be descended from more than one of them. The question arises when the two lines meet up again. . . .

Some have tried to deal with the issue [Joseph’s father] by saying that Luke’s genealogy really doesn’t give Jesus’ lineage through Joseph at all, but through Mary. It is true that Mary was a descendant of David (cf. Rom. 1:3), but neither of the lines given in the gospels is her line. The text does not support that idea. Luke states that Joseph was the son of Heli, not that Mary was the daughter of Heli, . . . [6]

Evangelical scholar R. P. Nettelhorst suggests a “two variations of Joseph’s lineage” theory, as follows:

Both genealogies are clearly through Joseph. I propose that one traces the lineage back through Joseph’s father, and that the other traces back through Joseph’s mother. The maternal genealogy, however, drops the name of Joseph’s mother and instead skips back to her father. Which is which? I believe that the genealogy in Luke is through Joseph’s father and that the one in Matthew is through Joseph’s maternal grandfather.

That Matthew should skip Joseph’s mother in the genealogical listing is not peculiar since it is readily apparent that Matthew skips a number of people in his genealogy . . . Matthew left names out in order to arrive at the structural symmetry he desired . . . [7]


Conclusion: thus far, I see no absolutely irrefutable “contradiction” in the accounts. There are several other “problems” brought up, too. If Jonathan makes those arguments, I’ll give replies to them, too. I agree with apologist Glenn Miller:

I do not want to give anyone the impression that there are no difficulties in these genealogies. They are full of issues, ‘surprises’, perplexing items. But, at the same time, we have so many proposed explanations for each of these, that we are simply not in a position to criticize (much less decide against!) the historicity of these accounts. Indeed, we have solid answers for the more difficult and perplexing ones, which gives us a qualified optimism about those that are still somewhat obscure. [1]


[1] “Problems in the Genealogies of Jesus” (Glenn Miller, A Christian Thinktank) .

[2] Catholic Encyclopedia“Genealogy of Christ”.

[3] Catholic Encyclopedia: “Genealogy (in the Bible)”.

[4] “Are There Gaps in the Biblical Genealogies?” (William Henry Green, “Primeval Chronology” Bibliotheca Sacra [April, 1890], 285-303).

[5] Catholic Encyclopedia: “Heli”.

[6] “The Genealogies of Christ” (Jimmy Akin).

[7] “The Genealogy of Jesus” (R. P. Nettelhorst, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society: June 1988).

[8] “New Light on the Genealogies of Jesus” (John F. McCarthy, Living Tradition, May 1987).

[9] “Genealogy of Jesus Christ” (McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia, 1880).

[10]  “The Genealogies of Jesus” (Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.).

See also (not cited): “Genealogy of Jesus Christ “(International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939).

Books (available complete online):

The Genealogies of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ (Arthur Charles Hervey [Anglican], Cambridge: Macmillan, 1853) [rejects Heli as Mary’s father theory]

The Genealogy of Our Lord, as Recorded by St. Matthew and St. Luke, Harmonized & Vindicated Against Objections (Johannes Wiplech [former rabbi], Sheffield: Loxlety Brothers, 1862) [accepts Heli as Mary’s father]

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