A hopeless Bible contradiction? Why do Matthew and Luke give us two different genealogies for Jesus?
Early in their respective Gospels, Matthew and Luke both present to us Jesus’ genealogy. But there’s a rather glaring problem between the two records. They are irreconcilably different. Popular skeptical blogger Bob Seidensticker calls this one of the most damning Bible contradictions, a discrepancy that strikes at the foundation of Christian claims. To help me state the objection in more detail, I’ll let Bob do the talking:
“The Messiah had to be of the line of David (Jeremiah 33:15–17; Isaiah 9:7), so two gospels provide genealogies of Jesus to validate this requirement. The problem is that we only need to go back one generation, to Joseph’s father, to find a problem. Jacob [was] the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah (Matthew 1:16). Jesus . . . was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli (Luke 3:23). There is just one unique male biological line that would terminate in Joseph, so at least one of these genealogies is wrong. And it’s hard to imagine that an ordinary Joe like Joseph would have a reliable record of his genealogy going back generations. Worse, Joseph wasn’t the biological father of Jesus, so his genealogy is irrelevant. If being in the line of David is a requirement, then having a god for a father makes you ineligible. The most common rebuttal is to say that the Luke genealogy is for Mary, but the text makes clear that it’s for Joseph. Anyway, why would you provide the genealogy of the parent from whom descent from David wouldn’t count? We’re seeing the incompatible clash of two ideas: Jesus inherits David’s throne and Jesus was the son of God.”
A CASE OF CONFLATION
So is Bob right? Are these two passages hopelessly irreconcilable? I’d hate to disappoint Mr. Seidensticker by making the common rebuttal, but I think it’s the right answer. Critics have conflated these two accounts. The assumption is that these are meant to be the same genealogy is false. The genealogy in Luke goes through Mary, not through Joseph. He’s conflating two genealogies.
Bob says that the text makes it clear that both authors are going through Joseph. But is that so? Let’s look at Luke 3:23 again. “Jesus . . . was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph, the son of Heli…” (Luke 3:23) Luke seems to be rather careful to make the point that it was only thought that Jesus was the son of Joseph.
Bob suggests that it’s absurd to provide a genealogy of the parent whom the descent from David wouldn’t count. But why assume that Mary is not also a descendant of David? Luke also says that Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist was also a descendant of Aaron along with her husband Zechariah. (Luke 1:5) There’s nothing mysterious going on here.
See also Luke 1:30–34: And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?
Note that Mary does not say “How will this be, since I am a virgin AND not descended from David?” Moreover, in terms of inheritance, the Law teaches that if a man dies and leaves no sons but only daughters, the inheritance is passed on through the daughters and their husbands, as long as they marry within their tribe. (See Numbers 27:1–11, 36:1–11). In Mary’s case, we read about her having only a single sister and no brothers. (John 19:25) So the inheritance does apply to Mary.
JESUS: SON OF DAVID, SON OF GOD.
Bob says that there’s an incompatible clash of ideas going on here: Jesus inherits David’s throne and that Jesus in the Son of God. But isn’t that the point of the Incarnation, that Jesus is both fully God and fully man? The apostle Paul certainly didn’t think these two claims were incompatible: “who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 1:3–4)
Bob (ironically) cites Isaiah 9:7 as a proof text that the Messiah must be a descendant of David, but he unwittingly leaves out a powerful prophecy that points to the Incarnation found in the previous verse. The heir of David is also “Mighty God”. Let’s look at the two passages in context:
“For to us a child is born, to us, a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isaiah 9:6–7)
Furthermore, Daniel 7:13–14 teaches that the Messiah will be a heavenly figure who will be served and worshiped by all peoples and nations, enthroned in the heavens. We also get the same indication of a pre-existent Messianic figure in Psalm 110.
MANY FIRST-CENTURY JEWS KNEW THEIR FAMILY TREE
Bob also says that it’s hard to envision that Joseph would have a reliable record of his genealogy going back generations. How could they possibly have traced their ancestry back so far? I think this is his strongest argument, but it is also unaware of the cultural context of first-century Judaism.
To know the tribe from which one was descended was a matter of great significance to the Jews. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, shows his own lineage and then writes: “So have I set down the genealogy of our family as I have found it described in the public records, to put an end to any would‐be detractors.” Josephus, Autobiography 1.1 (#6) And if you think about it, how else could they choose priests if they did not know that their lineage came from Aaron?
ANOTHER POSSIBLE SKEPTICAL COMPLAINT
Now Bob could add one more skeptical reply and note that Matthew only traces 28 generations, while Luke lists 41. And it’s true. Matthew does skip over some generations. But it’s no requirement that either genealogy has to give us each and every link from father to son. You see a similar practice in 1 Chronicles 6:3–14 and Ezra 7:1–5. 1 Chronicles lists 22 generations that trace the high priestly line, while Ezra includes only 16. Matthew’s purpose is to authenticate Jesus’ legal descent, not to give every single step.
Notice how Matthew begins his genealogy: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) It was through the Abraham that God promised to bring blessing to all nations (Genesis 12:1–3) By linking Jesus to Abraham, Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is that long-awaited seed of Abraham. The reason for Matthew’s counting isn’t to specify the exact number of father‐to‐son generations but rather to break the list into 3 parts, putting 14 names in each. But what is up with that? Why 14?
Within the written Hebrew language, letters can also be used as their numbers; every letter is assigned a numerical value. The name of David in Hebrew is “דוד,” and from here we can do the simple math. The numerical value of the first and third letter “ד” (Hebrew: dalet) is 4. The middle letter “ו” (waw) has a numerical value of 6. Add the 3 numbers: 4+6+4=14, the numerical value of the name of “David.”
Skipping generations to create symbolic numbers in genealogies is a common Hebrew literary practice, dating back to the genealogies of Genesis (see the 10 generations in Genesis 5 or the 70 descendants in Genesis 11).
JESUS’ GENEALOGIES ARE NOT IN CONFLICT
So in the end, I don’t think this is a damning contradiction. Bob fails to understand some basic nuances of Christian doctrine (the Incarnation). He questionably doesn’t cite fully that the Incarnation is part of the prophecy in Isaiah 9.
Bob also seems to be uninformed about the cultural context, which cared greatly for lineages and kept detailed records of them, as we saw from Josephus. And then he also too hastily disallows that both Mary and Joseph could be descendants of David, and dismisses that the gospel writers could have interest in both of their genealogies.
It’s odd to think that the two primary historians of the New Testament preserved two hopelessly contradictory genealogies and that copyists and editors carefully preserved and passed on amending these contradictory accounts, and not one early church father ever thought of changing them. It’s because they didn’t view them that way.
It’s because these two genealogies are not in conflict. They both show us that Jesus is the one who brought the blessing of Abraham to the world. Jesus is the one the prophets and psalmists wrote about — the Davidic king of Israel who blesses all nations.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on June 25, 2019.