Discrepancies in the genealogies of Jesus


  • Question 158, from Tim, United Kingdom Tim wrote a very long question regarding the discrepancies between the genealogies listed for Jesus in both Matthew and Luke. Here’s a summary of his questions:

    Why do the genealogies between David and Jesus differ so much? Why are there only 12 (or 13 if you count Jesus) generations after the exile in Matthew’s account, when the writer claims there are 14 in each era? How can the claim that one genealogy reflects Mary’s ancestry be supported? Are we told anywhere in the Bible that Mary is descended from David? Does this discrepancy cast doubt on the Bible as ‘the infallible Word of God’?

    There are some preliminary points to make about the use of genealogies by the gospel writers. Firstly, they were a common way of starting a ‘biography’ in the culture of the time. Secondly, within Jewish circles genealogies were important as they proved whether you were a genuine member of the chosen people or not.

    At this point it’s also worth noting that the tradition of the ‘virgin birth’ would not effect Jesus’ genealogy, as there was a concept of ‘legal parentage’ in the Levitical tradition that saw the child’s mother’s first husband to be regarded as the father. Against this background the gospel writers wanted to establish Jesus’ credentials and make statements about him. However, the existence of two differing genealogies that contradict each other does seem to be problematic.

    Construction problems

    Some of the problems can be linked to source material. It has been noted that Luke’s account partly follows the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was in common use among Greek-speaking Jews from about the first century BCE, while the names in Matthew seem to parallel the names in the Masoretic Hebrew text 1.

    Names change in translation, so this may account for some of the discrepancies. There is also an interpolation in Luke’s account, where he calls “Joanan” “the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel” (chapter 3 verse 27). In fact, Rhesa is the Aramaic word for ‘prince’. ‘Joanan’ is a Greek variant of Hananiah and in 1 Chronicles chapter 3, verse 19, Zerubbabel’s son is called Hananiah. Zerubbabel was considered a ‘prince’ among the Jews who returned from exile, so it would appear this title was mistakenly included in the genealogy that the gospel writer constructed.

    Attempts at reconciliation

    There have been other attempts to reconcile these differences. One way is to note that ‘son of’ can also mean ‘descendent of’. It was common for contemporary Jews to identify themselves as ‘children of Abraham’, that is descendants of Abraham. Also, it has been suggested that Matthew listed the heirs to the throne of David rather than the actual people involved, as an attempt to underline Jesus’ royal descent. This would explain why the two genealogies diverge at this point, with Matthew listing Solomon after David, while Luke lists Nathan.

    Another attempt at reconciling the two is to suggest that one of the genealogies is actually Mary’s; the first known version of this ‘solution’ was by Annius of Viterbo in about AD 1490. There is a long-standing tradition that Luke gathered his unique material for his gospel in ‘interviews’ with Mary after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Also Luke’s account focuses more on Mary while Matthew’s focuses on Joseph.

    If this unverified tradition were true, then that would add weight to the idea that his different genealogy could have been Mary’s rather than Joseph’s.Unfortunately for this theory, both genealogies claim to represent Joseph’s family tree. Neither gospel refers to Mary as having Davidic descent. In Luke Joseph has to go to the ‘town of David’ and takes Mary with him because she is betrothed to him. In Matthew, Joseph is called ‘Son of David’ when visited by an angel (Matthew chapter 1, verse 20). The account of Mary’s angelic visitation also includes a reference to Joseph’s ancestry (Luke chapter 1, verse 27).

    A different purpose?

    It would appear then, that at least one of these accounts cannot be accurate, and it could be asked whether they were ever meant to be considered as accurate records. The genealogies in both gospels serve a particular theological purpose.

    In Matthew the gospel writer breaks the genealogy down into three sections of fourteen names, each marking a section of time. The three sections are from the covenant with Abraham until the crowning of King David, from David until the exile in Babylon, and then from the return from exile until the birth of Jesus. Matthew appears to count the exile as a ‘generation’, as only 13 names are listed after it (although this might be a textual flaw).

    Fourteen was a significant number in first century Jewish thought. The Hebrew letters that spell ‘David’ add up to 14 if used as numbers. In addition, what Matthew is outlining are six ‘weeks’. The arrival of Jesus is highly symbolic then, as it marks the beginning of a seventh ‘week’ in God’s plan. Matthew may be implying that Jesus’ arrival marks the culmination of God’s salvation work and the beginning of a ‘Messianic Sabbath’.

    Including women

    In addition, Matthew takes the highly unusual, and even potentially scandalous, step of including women in his genealogy. These aren’t just any women – he lists Tamar who was made pregnant by her father-in-law, Judah; Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who aided the spies in Jericho; Ruth who was a Moabite; and Bathsheba the adulteress and mother of Solomon. Matthew’s purpose in including all four ‘fallen women’ could be a deliberate attempt to counter accusations related to Jesus’ own conception and ‘legitimacy’.

    Although Matthew claims that a ‘virgin birth’ took place, doubts were cast about who Jesus’ father was during his ministry 2. Matthew includes these four women to make the point that many of the great Jewish heroes had dubious parentage.

    Similarities

    There are some similarities between the genealogies. Both are set up to show Jesus’ descent from King David. As Rob Bell notes ‘Son of David’ was a “volatile term… Just to say the name was to drag up all of the pain of exile and oppression and failure, and at the same time all of the hope and longing and suspended promises that hung in the first-century air.3

    Similarly both emphasise Jesus’ humanity. This is particularly the case in Luke, where the genealogy follows the proclamation that Jesus is the ‘Son of God’ in chapter 3, verse 24. In the wider pagan culture that title could have been interpreted as Jesus being a ‘demigod’ like some of the Greek heroes. It was also a title applied to Roman Emperors whose divinity was to be worshipped throughout the Empire.

    Evidence of Emperor worship in first century Palestine has been found, so like ‘Son of David’, ‘Son of God’ was also a loaded term. Luke’s insistence on the humanness of Jesus allows him to apply a ‘pagan’ title to Jesus without offending Jewish sensibilities. Luke also traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the first ‘son of God’, to demonstrate this is an ‘acceptable’ term for Jewish believers to use.

    Conclusion

    These differences underline the twin aims of the gospel writers in constructing these genealogies. They wanted to reinforce their claims about Jesus Christ and to make specific religious claims about him. Perhaps the genealogies are best read like that, with the claims they make about Jesus being the Messiah, seen as the main point for their inclusion in the gospels.

    Notes 1 G.B. Caird, Saint Luke (Pelican New Testament Commentary 1963), p.19 2 In a confrontation with the Pharisees in John chapter 8, they effectively call Jesus an illegitimate child (verse 41). This probably represents a genuine criticism of Jesus by the religious elite during his ministry. 3 Rob Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Zondervan, 2008) p.79

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  • 2 comments

    1. Aramaic Scholar Jan 1

      These genealogies have been extensively commented on in Aramaic Primacy circles, and the Aramaic Peshitta demonstrates its superiority to the Greek New Testament in several ways. Conflicts in the genealogies are really only problems in the Greek.

    2. Jon the freelance theologian Apr 20

      The Aramaic Peshitta is actually a translation of the Old Testament into Aramaic (or Syriac). The Diatessaron (‘Gospel Harmony’) is an Aramaic harmonization of the gospels written by Tatian in AD160. Given that it deliberately set out to harmonize the (pre-existing) gospel accounts (you can’t harmonize things before they exist), the case for Aramaic Primacy is very unlikely.

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