With Jesus’ birth, why does the Bible list two different family trees?

With Jesus’ birth, why does the Bible list two different family trees? December 14, 2016


In the accounts of Jesus’ Nativity in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, why are the genealogies so different?


Because there are no Christmas-y questions from readers awaiting answers, The Guy raises this Yuletide classic himself. When Matthew and Luke recount the birth of Jesus they present different genealogies with fascinating intricacies. The following can only sketch a few basics from the immense literature on this.

The Bible provides no roadmap, leaving us to ponder who was included, who was omitted, how the passages were structured, and what all this might mean. Reader comprehension is difficult due to multiple names given the same person, the lack of specific Hebrew and Greek words so that a “son-in-law” was called a “son,” legal adoption, and “levirate marriage” where a widow wed her late husband’s brother to maintain the family line.

Family trees were of keen importance for the Hebrews and carefully preserved. The central purpose in both Gospels was to establish Jesus within King David’s family line, a key qualification for recognition as the promised Messiah.

Matthew starts right off with the genealogy in the first 17 verses of chapter 1. Beginning from the patriarch Abraham, it extends through three sections of 14 generations each, down to the conclusion with “Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” The passage then immediately specifies that Joseph was not the biological father because Jesus was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit (1:18-21).

In Luke, which also depicts this “virgin birth,” the genealogy appears later on (3:23-38) after Jesus in baptized by John and a heavenly voice proclaims him the Son of God. Here the chronology is reversed, starting from Jesus “the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, and son of Heli,” moving backward through 77 generations, beyond David and Abraham all the way to Adam.

Experts tell us Matthew built the scenario on Abraham, the founder of the Israelites, because the Jewish writer(s) compiled this Gospel largely for fellow Jews. Luke was framed especially for Gentile converts, so the genealogy traces to Adam to announce Jesus as the savior of all humanity, though also a Jewish descendant of Abraham and David.

Despite the Jewish audience, Matthew hinted at the same universality when the Gentile Magi appear to worship in chapter 2, and explicitly at the end of the final chapter when Jesus issues his commission to reach “all nations.” Exegetes see an echo of the Bible’s creation story because Matthew 1:1 can be translated “book of the genesis.” Also compare the first words of the Book of Genesis with Luke 1:2 (“from the beginning”), Mark 1:1 (“the beginning”) and John 1:1 (“in the beginning”).

The general consensus on the differences is that Matthew depicted Jesus’ legal descent from David, on the assumption Joseph adopted him. If Mary had no brothers, by common custom Joseph would have been his father-in-law’s legal “son” and heir through the marriage. Luke defined Jesus through Mary as a blood descendant of David. Some Luke texts insert a “Jacob” between Joseph and Heli, but these are late manuscripts judged unreliable.

Matthew’s listing is selective rather than naming each and every generation, since there are royal omissions a Jew would have noticed. Perhaps these unnamed personalities were scorned. Omissions were nothing usual in family trees since, for example, the succession in 1 Chronicles 3:10-14 omitted monarchs we know about from the Bible’s historical narratives.

Matthew’s first set of 14 covered patriarchs, the second listed only royalty, and the third named private citizens. The stylized structure of three 14’s was either because that’s double the sacred number of seven, or because in gematria (Jewish number symbolism) the name David adds up to 14 and his is the 14th name, doubly listed. Or all the above.

Since ancient family trees traced through males, it’s striking that Matthew made a point of including four women in addition to Mary. Moreover, three (Rahab, Ruth, Tamar) were Gentiles and possibly also the fourth (Bathsheba). Equally surprising is that alongside evil kings we find Rahab who was a prostitute, the incestuous seducer Tamar, and “the wife of Uriah” (the adulterous Bathsheba didn’t even deserve mention by name!).

Interpreters see here a forthright message: Jesus is the savior of both men and women, of Jews and of Gentiles, and even of notorious sinners.

Luke’s different structure consisted of eleven groups each naming the sacred number of seven, for a total of 77 generations. As in Matthew there are evident omissions (we’ll sidestep humanity’s chronology after Adam as seen by strict literalists and “creationists”).

The two listings are identical between Abraham and David, but from David to Jesus the lines diverge. Luke traced the family tree through David’s son Nathan, while Matthew followed the ruling line of David’s son Solomon. The traditional explanation is that Joseph and Mary descended from King David but by these two different paths.

Unlike Matthew, Luke omitted Jehoiachin, the three-month king of the Exile in Babylon, possibly to shun memory of that horror. Scholars say this king ended Judah’s royal line so a curse in Jeremiah 22:30 said he should be recorded “as if childless” (NIV) although the Bible says in fact he sired seven offspring.

Only two names between David and Jesus appear in both genealogies, Shealtiel and his son Zerubbabel (also transliterated as Salathiel and Zorababel), who helped restore the Jerusalem Temple after the Exile (see Ezra 3). If the Religion Guy presented even a summary of the discussion on that, this article would be twice as long.

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