There are two genealogies (list of ancestors) for Jesus. One in Matthew 1:1-17, the other in Luke 3:23-38. But they are different between David and Joseph. How can that be?
The most commonly accepted suggestion to account for the difference is that Matthew is giving Jesus’ legal credentials to be Messiah while Luke is giving his physical credentials to be human. Support for this idea is the following;
- Matthew was writing his gospel to a Jewish audience, while Luke was writing his gospel to a chiefly Gentile audience, who wouldn’t necessarily understand the concept of a Messiah.
- Matthew’s genealogy terminates with Abraham, who received the covenant that “through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed,” (Gen. 22:18), while Luke’s genealogy terminates in Adam, who was the first man and father of the whole human race.
- Matthew’s genealogy moves from David to Solomon (Mt. 1:6; 2 Sa. 12:24), the legal heir to the throne of Israel, while Luke’s genealogy moves from David to Nathan, a little known son of David (Luke 3:31; 2 Sa. 5:14) tracing the biological descent of Jesus.
This explanation however, leaves us with a new problem. It means Joseph had two fathers. How can that be? The explanation is that Joseph is the legal son of Jacob (Matthew 1:16) but the physical son of Heli (Luke 3:23).
As we live in a time where there are more mixed families than ever, this should be more understandable today than at any other time in history. Still, it can be difficult to get your head around families that are different to your own, let alone one from thousands of years ago. To understand what was going on we need a little background.
In Bible times, the social security and retirement plan for women was their children, who would look after them when they grew old. Because these were dangerous times, some husbands would die before they could give their wives children. This left them with a big problem. The Old Testament provided for these childless women with a rule called the levirate marriage. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfil the duty of a brother-in-law to her. 6 The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.
This solution finds precedent in Genesis 38:8 and is the legal background to the climax of the story of Ruth (see Ruth 4:4-6).
What this means is that Heli and Jacob were brothers. Interestingly, Matthew’s genealogy uses the Greek word egennesen, which denotes being “begotten”, while Luke’s genealogy does not, translating descendants as “the son of.” It’s not possible for two men to beget the same child, but it is possible for the same child to be “the son of” two men. Thus there is no contradiction in the genealogies here. Joseph is the legal son of Jacob and the natural son of Heli.
However, this solution only knocks the problem back one step, because Heli and Jacob have different linages. Here the Roman historian Eusebius (c. 263–339 A.D.) provides a solution,Matthan, whose descent is traced to Solomon, begot Jacob, Matthan dying, Matthat, whose lineage is from Nathan, by marrying the widow of the former, had Heli. Hence, Heli and Jacob were brothers by the same mother.
In other words, Heli and Jacob were step-brothers. We have language for this today that the ancient writers did not. Jacob was the son of the first marriage, and Heli the son of the second. Jacob’s mother Estha was widowed, and when she remarried had another son by her second marriage, Heli. Her first husband’s name was Matthan, who was the descendent of Solomon and heir to the throne of Israel, and her second husband’s name was Matthat, who was the descendent of Nathan.
This solution is handed down to us in Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (c. 325). He received it from Sextus Julius Africanus’ (c. 160–c. 240) in the Epistle to Aristides, who was himself drawing on earlier tradition.
Accordingly, there is no contradiction between the genealogies of Matthew and Luke. They describe different lines because the authors had different purposes for writing their gospels, and different audiences. It means that Jesus’ family history is far more interesting than the dull, flat line of decedents it appears to be.
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Bk. 1: Ch. 7.
- Africanus gives the name of Jacob and Matthan’s mother, “By Estha, then—for such is her name according to tradition—Matthan first, the descendant of Solomon, begets Jacob; and on Matthan’s death, Melchi, who traces his descent back to Nathan, being of the same tribe but of another family, having married her, as has been already said, had a son Heli” [italics mine]. See The Extant Writings of Julius Africanus: The Epistle to Aristides, ch. 3.
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