The Genealogies of Jesus

Jesus’ Conception & His Genealogies:
A Summary of Major Viewpoints on the Heritage & Birth of Jesus Christ

Peter J. Walker, 2008


It is easy to take for granted the universal acknowledgement of the virgin conception by the early church, based on the story’s prevalence in modern church teaching. However, objectively supported by scripture alone, it’s somewhat surprising that the writers of Matthew and Luke were so unquestionably convinced of Jesus’ virgin conception, given that there is no other reference to it in all of the New Testament. Mark and John seem uninterested in this point in their gospel accounts, and Paul did not find it necessary in developing or supporting his own apologetics.

Moreover, the prominent differences and conflicts between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies create all sorts of problems that are not resolved in scripture. The complexity of these writers’ seemingly self-imposed predicament is even more puzzling as they each simultaneously attest to the Davidic Kingship of Jesus with little or no explanation as to how both could be true.

“Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph…”[1] So it was thought seems to have been good enough for both Matthew and Luke, but what about modern readers? Was Joseph able to adopt Jesus into the Davidic line? Why do both genealogies build through Joseph, as Jesus’ father? Was Mary’s virginity constructed to emphasize Jesus’ divinity? And why are the two genealogies so vastly different? In this paper I will explore some of the major assumptions and arguments concerning the two genealogies, and how they may impact teachings on the conception, birth, and parentage of Jesus Christ. The length and scope of this paper will not allow for deep development of each perspective, nor for their defense or refutation. This will merely serve as a topical overview.
First, as mentioned above, the two genealogies are strikingly divergent. While Matthew’s genealogy descends from Abraham to Jesus, Luke’s list ascends from Jesus through Abraham, and then continues all the way to Adam and subsequently to God. In doing this, Luke includes the pre-Abrahamic period, itself anomalous in Semitic genealogies. Matthew includes four women in addition to Mary, the mother of Jesus – this is rare but not unheard of in such writings. Luke’s genealogy provides 77 names, and Matthew’s utilizes forty-one. Even within those periods where the two lineages overlap, Luke’s is still longer with 56 names, compared to Matthew’s 41 names. During the 400 year “monarchical period”[2] from the start of King David’s reign to the Babylonian Exile, the lists agree only on David.

To avoid inferring modern sensibilities into the text, it is important to begin by identifying the nature of these genealogies themselves in ancient Jewish culture.

Genealogies serve different purposes and… an individual can be accorded two or more different genealogies according to the purpose for which they were drawn up. Only rather rarely and to a limited depth do ancient Semitic genealogies afford us a list of strictly biological ancestry – a factor that does not necessarily make them inaccurate since the intention of those who preserved them was not strictly biological.[3]


If the genealogies were not intended to establish concrete historicity, what was their purpose? “Our authors were not concerned to present detailed or exhaustive lists of Jesus’ actual ancestors, but only to highlight some aspects of his heritage which would best illuminate for their respective audiences Jesus’ significance and nature.”[4] Raymond Brown contends that “both of them may be accurate in terms of the function they serve, e.g., Matthew’s intention to show that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, and Luke’s intention to show that Jesus is the Son of God.”[5] Given each of those endeavors, was it necessary for Matthew and Luke to assert a virgin conception?

In fact, in 2 Sam. 7:12-14, God promises David of his ‘offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body… I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me’. In other words, God will be the ‘father’ of David’s biological son! From a scriptural viewpoint, the establishment of Jesus the Messiah as ‘Son of God’ did not necessitate his being born of a virgin. The same is true within the early church. The writer of Mark, for example, uses the term ‘Son of God’ repetitively, without any need for a virgin birth to explain the concept. To him, we might assume that the idea of a Royal Messiah being God’s adopted son seems quite natural.”[6]

While there is biblical precedent for men to be adopted by God, a Hebrew concept of adoption by a human, with all of the lineal accoutrements of Jewish parentage, is more of a stretch. Jesus likely could not have been considered both the Son of God and the legal son of David in strictly Jewish culture, contrary to inferences by many theologians. However, Yigal Levin suggests that Roman precedent could have provided a societal atmosphere in which Joseph could “adopt” Jesus, not only into his household, but into his family line, and in which Matthew, Luke, and their contemporary readers could agree on the nature of that dualistic relationship.

The answer must be found in the primary legal system that was current in the Mediterranean world during the first century CE and that the authors and audiences of Matthew and Luke would have been most familiar with – that of the early Roman Empire… in stark contrast to Jewish law and, in fact, to that of most other ancient societies, the Roman paterfamilias of the late Republic and of the early Empire had almost unlimited power to define his own familial ties and loyalties.[7]

Rejecting any suggestion of supernatural adoption of Jesus, by God, the “traditional genealogical view” is that Matthew’s account traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph as a “legal genealogy,” and that Luke traces it through Mary as a “natural genealogy,”[8] both affirming virgin conception to help validate Christ’s godhood.

According to Matthew, Joseph’s father was named Jacob. So who was Heli? The most obvious solution is that he was Mary’s father… The reason Mary is not named is that Luke abides by convention and includes only males in his list. Since Luke acknowledges a biological father for Jesus he begins with Joseph as a ‘stand-in’ but qualifies things with the phrase ‘as it was supposed’… If Mary’s parents were indeed named Joachim and Anna, as early Christian tradition holds, it is possible that Heli is short for Eliakim, which in turn is a form of the traditional name Joachim.[9]


With such a “legal” nature to his genealogy, Matthew may have been trying to show Jesus as a true Israelite, particularly one of Davidic descent, while Luke attempts to show a truly human Jesus. “Matthew shows a particular interest in the title ‘son of David’ for Jesus. John never uses it, and Mark and Luke use it only four times; but Matthew uses it a total of ten times. In fact it is not uncommon to find the affirmation that for Matthew ‘son of David’ is the most important title applied to the Jesus of the ministry…”[10]

But even Matthew records Jesus’ admonition:

While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?"

"The son of David," they replied.

He said to them, "How is it then that David, speaking by the Spirit, calls him 'Lord'? For he says, 'The Lord said to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.’ If then David calls him 'Lord,' how can he be his son?"[11]


Regarding Luke’s Gospel, there is some suggestion that the genealogy was added after the initial writing:

If we are right in thinking that the Gospel existed at one time without the infancy narrative and that 3:1 was its real beginning, the genealogy could have been part of that earlier form of the Gospel. In such a case, it is not unlikely that Luke added hos enomizeto, “in the minds of the people” (3:23), to bring the genealogy into line with the affirmation of the virginal conception of Jesus in the newly added infancy narrative. On the other hand, it is not impossible that the genealogy was also added at the stage of the composition of the Gospel that is represented by the infancy narrative.[12]


Luke furthers the tension yet again in verse 2:48, where Mary admonishes Jesus, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.” Joseph Fitzmyer’s hypothesis above may help reconcile the conflict between Mary’s virginity and Joseph’s parentage, but asserting Joseph’s biological fatherhood is an unacceptable conclusion for many Christian scholars and theologians.

Another common reading of the genealogical differences suggests that Matthew presents a royal or legal genealogy, while Luke presents David’s actual physical descendants. “Luke does not intend that Jesus should be recognized as God’s son merely in the adoptive sense in which a king on David’s throne could be called his son; his explicit relation of the title to the conception of Jesus connotes much more.”[13]

But Luke may have been far more pragmatic in his approach to tracing Jesus’ lineage. His choice could reveal an attempt to avoid God’s curse on Jechoniah’s line, found in Jeremiah.[14]

Joseph’s branch of David’s family, even though it had supplied all the ancient kings of Judah, had been put under a ban or curse by the prophet Jeremiah. In those last days just before the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Jeremiah had made a shocking declaration about Jechoniah, the final reigning king of David’s line: ‘Write this man down as stripped… for none of his seed shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling in Judah again. Joseph was a direct descendant of the ill-reputed Jechoniah (Matthew 1:11-12).[15]


Matthew may have been unaware of the curse, but it is also possible that Matthew saw Jesus as the redemption of all curses on humankind, much in the way Luke envisions Christ as a second Adam. Jesus as a new beginning.

Based on a literal reading of scripture, and faith in the testimonies of Matthew and Luke, the traditional view of Christ’s conception affirms Mary’s virginity. “Luke does not call Mary pais, ‘girl,’ paidiske, ‘little girl, maid,’ or korasion, ‘maiden,’ but rather parthenos, the normal understanding of which is ‘virgin.’”[16]

It has been proposed that Mary’s virginity and the literal fatherhood of God were both intuited by early Christians based on the title, “Son of God.” This is a stretch, as the figurative title had extensive historical precedence, not the literal. Egyptian pharaohs were called sons of God. It was used in the Roman world for rulers. In the Hellenistic world it was a name given to famous historical and mythological heroes.[17] In Genesis, Nephilim were referred to as sons of God.[18] None of these meanings implied the kind of virgin conception agreed upon by both Matthew and Luke. There is no precedent in the ancient pagan world for this story; only stories of gods in human form, having intercourse with women.[19]

[This is] not the story of some sort of sacred marriage or a divine being descending to earth and, in the guise of a man, mating with a human woman, but rather the story of a miraculous conception without aid of any man, divine or otherwise. The Gospel story is rather about how Mary conceived without any form of intercourse through the agency of the Holy Spirit. As such this story is without precedent either in Jewish or pagan literature, even including the OT.[20]


Arguments are still made for the recurring human myth of supernatural impregnation. Though unique to the cultural context into which Jesus was born, the idea of virgin conception is not entirely unique. John A. Saliba, of the University of Detroit, refers to the work of British social anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, who argued against the literal reading of Jesus’ conception.

Leach ignited the debate with a paper he delivered at the annual meeting of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland in 1966. He began the discussion on the Virgin Birth in the context of the belabored ethnographic reports on the Australian aborigines, who were believed, and still are believed, by some to have been ignorant of physical paternity.”[21]

Leach, who did not believe such accounts, became famous for listing other such alleged phenomenon in other parts of the world.

Many believe Matthew attempted to justify the “unusualness” (or potential scandal) of Mary’s pregnancy through comparison with the other four women in his genealogy. Others read it as an effort to identify Jesus with sinners.[22]

The most frequent characteristics noted for Matthew’s four women are (1) that they were regarded as sinners or (2) foreigners; (3) that their relationships to the fathers of their children are ‘extraordinary or irregular’; and (4) that their initiative led to the furtherance of God’s plan and revealed the work of the Holy Spirit.”[23]


There are other theories as to how the genealogical differences can be justified. One of them posits that both the Matthean and Lukan genealogies are through Joseph – one through Joseph’s father, the other through Joseph’s maternal grandfather.

Taking a cue from the reading that Matthew was subversively pointing to God’s divine providence through sinful women, many scholars suggest outright that Jesus was not born through a virgin conception.

Each of these four women was a foreigner who had a scandalous sexual reputation in the Old Testament. The first, Tamar, a widow desperate for a child, purposefully got pregnant by dressing up as a roadside prostitute and enticing her own father-in-law. Rahab was a tavern keeper or ‘prostitute.’ Ruth was a Moabite woman, which was bad enough since Israelites were forbidden to have anything to do with Moabites because of their reputation as sexual temptress. But Ruth crawled into the bed of Boaz, her future husband, after getting him drunk one night, in order to get him to marry her. Uriah’s wife – her name is not even given here for the disgrace of it all -was the infamous Bathsheba. She had an adulterous affair with King David and ended up pregnant, blending his fame with shame ever after… It is clear that Matthew is trying to put Jesus’ own potentially scandalous birth into the context of his forefathers – and foremothers![24]


However, a proposal first popularized by St. Jerome contended for the virgin birth because of a defense utilizing Matthew’s scandalized women.

The four OT women were regarded as sinners; and their inclusion foreshadowed for Matthew’s readers the role of Jesus as the Savior of sinful men. Some would even see in Matthew’s usage a cryptic apologetic against Jewish claim that Mary was an adulteress who conceived Jesus as the fruit of a sinful relationship – Matthew would be rebutting this by pointing to irregularities on the part of women in the acknowledged genealogy of the Messiah.[25]


But many such arguments assume the biblical and prophetic necessity of Jesus’ virgin conception. The writers of Matthew and Luke obviously presupposed it. Mark and John either didn’t care, weren’t aware, or already assumed an understanding by their readers. However, many of the prophetic materials attributed by modern Christians to messianic Christ prophecy may not have carried the long-term expectancy often inferred. The virgin birth itself may be a distraction from who Jesus was and is.

[The] conception of prophesy as prediction of the distant future has disappeared from most serious scholarship today, and it is widely recognized that the NT ‘fulfillment’ of the OT involved much that the OT writers did not foresee at all. The OT prophets were primarily concerned with addressing God’s challenge to their own times… while they sometimes preached a ‘messianic’ deliverance, there is not evidence that they foresaw with precision even a single detail in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.[26]

This does not mean that prophesies are contingent upon the full understanding of the receiving-oracle; only that contemporaries of Old Testament prophets often understood more immediate fulfillment.

During Isaiah’s time, Messianism was not well-developed to a point where his prophesies would look toward a single, future, universally-redeeming king, as with Jesus. Instead, ancient Jewish interpretation identified the child Isaiah spoke of as Hezekiah. Further, in the Masoretic Text “the word ‘alma, used to describe the woman, normally describes a young girl who has reached the age of puberty and is thus marriageable. It puts no stress on her virginity…”[27]
If Isaiah’s language does not demand virginity of its “young woman,” some scholars may be validated in suggesting that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph. They find difficulty in establishing a Jewish precedent for Jesus’ “adoption” into Joseph’s Davidic heritage. “There is nothing in Jewish law, in either the Hebrew Bible or in later Halakhah, which can be seen as the model by which Jesus, Son of God, could have been considered the legal, but not genetic, heir to the Davidic throne.”[28] A singularly literal reading of the genealogies alone would lead any reader to the same conclusion.

[Edmund] Leach makes a number of important statements on the Virgin Conception. First, he asserts that this Christian belief cannot be taken literally. He refers to Matthew and Luke as giving a genealogy ‘which places Jesus in the direct line of patrilineal descent from David though Joseph.’ This he interprets to mean that these two Synoptic Gospels are affirming that, after all, Jesus was born like every other human being.[29]


While revealing his distaste for it, Brown explains another argument for the biological fatherhood of Joseph, based on one particular translation. The translation, though a syntactical stretch from existing biblical texts, reorganizes the genealogy into a more consistent, internally cohesive structure.

A reading with even less textual support may be translated thus: “Jacob was the father of Joseph; and Joseph, to whom the virgin Mary was betrothed, was the father of Jesus, called the Christ.” Although… this reading avoids calling Joseph the husband of Mary and specifically designates her a virgin, it is the only one of the three readings to preserve in part the formula-pattern of the [Matthean] genealogy.[30]



In terms of Joseph’s parentage, the title Son of Man has been surrounded by debate regarding what it does or does not imply. “Along with the other evangelists Luke preserves the tradition of the early church in putting the title ho huios tou anthropou on the lips of Jesus himself. In classical Greek that phrase would mean ‘the man’s son,’ i.e. ‘the son of the man (human being).’”[31] Attempts have been made to connect this language to similar references in both Daniel and Revelation, which more clearly articulate: “like a son of man”[32] but there has been no conclusive determination.

Finally, in a sort of prophetic one-upsmanship, Fitzmyer suggests that because John the Baptist’s conception involved a miracle, “the step-parallelism requires an even greater one in Jesus’ conception. Hence the conception by a virgin.”[33] But W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann warn against making assumptions about underlying or overt motives by Matthew and Luke:

That there is formal inconsistency here is not to be doubted: both evangelists claiming Davidic descent through Joseph, while at the same time giving us a tradition of virginal conception and birth. To make charges of dishonesty or to impugn the motives of the writers is – at this remove of time – perilous. Allowing for the very tenacious traditions with respect to ancestry among Jews at the time of Jesus, we are certainly entitled to say that both evangelists were faithfully recording the traditions which they had received, whatever the inconsistencies.[34]

Perhaps this is the sort of tension believers are called to take on faith, trusting God to reveal whatever it is we need. On the other hand, throwing hands up in frustration and avoiding intelligent criticism is an undesirable outcome. There are strong arguments for why the Christian church’s tradition of virgin conception may not be a biblical or prophetic certainty. There are good explanations for potential motives the authors of Matthew and Luke may have had in deliberately choosing to record the genealogies as they did. Conversely, it is hard to understand why the two writers would have purposefully caused as many textual challenges as they did, unless they were both entirely convinced of the dualistic truth of Jesus’ sonship.
Whatever the specific truth in these circumstances, the nature of both gospels is consistent with these broader truths of the Old and New Testaments: that there is truth in paradox. In tension and clarity, in mystery and revelation, and in faith and reason, we find deeper understanding of ourselves and of God.

References:

[1] Luke 3:23 (NIV)
[2] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York:
Doubleday, 1993), 85.
[3] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 65.
[4] Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 66.
[5] Ibid 85.
[6] Yigal Levin, “Jesus, 'Son of God' and 'Son of David': The 'Adoption' of Jesus into the Davidic Line,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament vol. 28, no. 4 (June, 2006), 419.
[7] Ibid 425.
[8] Joel B. Green, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 65.
[9] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 52.
[10] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 134.
[11] Matthew 22:41-46 (NIV)
[12] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 489.
[13] Ibid 207.
[14] Jeremiah 22:30 (NIV)
[15] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 51.
[16] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 343.
[17] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 205.
[18] Genesis 6:2-4 (NIV)
[19] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 342.
[20] Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 70.
[21] John A. Saliba, “The Virgin-Birth Debate in Anthropological Literature: A Critical Assessment,” Theological Studies vol. 36, no. 3 (September, 1975), 430.
[22] Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 65-66.
[23] Irene Nowell, “Jesus' Great-Grandmothers: Matthew's Four and More,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly vol. 70, no. 1 (January, 2008), 10.
[24] James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 50.
[25] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 71-72.
[26] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 146.
[27] Ibid 147.
[28] Yigal Levin, “Jesus, 'Son of God' and 'Son of David': The 'Adoption' of Jesus into the Davidic Line,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament vol. 28, no. 4 (June, 2006), 425.
[29] John A. Saliba, “The Virgin-Birth Debate in Anthropological Literature: A Critical Assessment,” Theological Studies vol. 36, no. 3 (September, 1975), 431.
[30] Raymond Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary of the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 62.
[31] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 208.
[32] Daniel 7:13, Revelation 1:13 (NIV)
[33] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 337.
[34] W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann, Matthew: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1971), 6.

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