In yesterday’s blog I referred to Bathsheba as an “ancestor” of Jesus, as Matthew records in his genealogy. A kind reader replied, “Actually Jesus was a descendant of David but not Bathsheba. Luke records Jesus’ descent though his mother Mary who was descended from Nathan who was the son of another of David’s wives.” The reader correctly observes that Luke’s genealogy is significantly different from the one we find in Matthew. How could Jesus be descended from both Solomon/Bathsheba (Matthew’s version) and from Nathan (Luke’s version)?
This question has been debated by New Testament scholars for centuries. I’ll try to summarize a very detailed subject as briefly as I can. Let’s begin with the problem: from David to Jesus, we find only three names in common: Shealtiel, Zerubbabel and Joseph. Matthew lists 28 names, while Luke gives us 42.
So we have an issue. What solutions have been proposed?
One: Jacob was the biological father, Heli the legal father. To understand this approach, we need to know something about a Jewish legal arrangement called “levirate marriage.” If a man died childless, his brother was obligated to marry his widow. Their offspring would then be known as the children of the deceased first husband (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). They would be the biological children of their physical father, but the legal children of their deceased uncle.
Now let’s turn to the gospels. Both Matthew and Luke were written when Jesus’ brothers and sisters were probably still alive; in fact, early tradition claims that Luke’s infancy narratives were based on Mary’s records and remembrances. So we can assume that both writers would have been able to determine the name of Joseph’s father, Jesus’ grandfather. Yet Matthew lists Jacob while Luke lists Heli. From this point to David, the lists have virtually no names in common.
Let’s suppose that Jacob and Heli were brothers, and that Heli died before his wife produced children. Jacob then married his widow, and became the father of Joseph. According to Jewish tradition, Joseph would be the legal “son” of Heli, and a genealogy traced through his uncle’s ancestors would be completely proper (Luke’s approach). At the same time, Joseph would be Jacob’s biological son, so that a genealogy traced through his father’s ancestors would also be accurate (Matthew’s account). In this way, both genealogies are correct. Julius Africanus (died A.D. 240) was the first to suggest this solution, though many scholars since his time have supported it.
Two: Heli was the biological father, Jacob the legal father. This solution argues exactly the reverse: Matthew gave the legal descent of Joseph through Jacob, and Luke the physical through Heli.
The key to this approach is Jeconiah, listed in Matthew’s genealogy as the 14th descendant from David. He plays a critical role as the king of the exile to Babylon (Matthew 1:11-12). The Lord prophesied about him: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah” (Jeremiah 22:30). If Jeconiah had no offspring, his family line would be traced through one of his brothers (Matthew 1:11 mentions “Jeconiah and his brothers”).
The fact that Matthew used Jeconiah’s line for Jesus’ ancestors showed that he was willing to build his genealogy on legal (levirate) marriage. This fact would make him the more likely author to cite the legal father of Joseph. And so Jacob would be Joseph’s legal (levirate) father (his uncle in our culture), while Heli would be his biological father (traced by Luke). The early 20th-century scholar J. Gresham Machen was the best-known proponent of this solution.
Three: Luke gives Mary’s genealogy. In this view, suggested by the reader of yesterday’s blog, Luke gave us Jesus’ family tree through Mary, and Matthew through Joseph. Why, then, would Luke include Joseph in his genealogy? If Heli was Mary’s father, and he had with no sons, Mary would become his heiress (Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-12). When she married Joseph, he would become Heli’s legal heir and thus be included in his genealogy.
Of the three approaches, the last option is the most appealing to me. I’m not so concerned with reconciling the two records, since there are several ways to do so. My question is this: why did the Holy Spirit inspire two different genealogies? It seems to me that each serves its own function in telling the story of Jesus.
Matthew needed his Jewish audience to know that Jesus is the Son of David, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And so he traced Jesus’ chronology through Joseph to the royal line of David. His genealogy stood up to scrutiny from the earliest opponents of the Christian faith, fulfilling its purpose.
Luke, on the other hand, wrote his gospel to show God’s love for all humanity, not just the Jewish people. So he traced Jesus’ descendants through Mary all the way to Adam, the father of all humanity. In this way he showed that Jesus is the universal Savior of all who will trust in him.
Together, the two records show us why we should trust in Jesus, and that we can. They show us that the most important issue regarding Jesus’ genealogy is not his ancestors but his descendants: are you among them? Are you in his faith family today?