The Genealogy of Jesus Christ: A Tale of Two Trees

Compare key differences in the two accounts

Genealogy of Jesus Christ From the Book of Kells.

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There are two records of the genealogy of Jesus Christ in the Bible. One is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 1; the other is in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 3 (Both are listed below). Matthew's account traces the line of descent from Abraham to Jesus, while Luke's account follows the ancestry from Adam to Jesus. Quite a few differences exist between the two records. Most startling is that from King David to Jesus, the lineages are entirely different.

Genealogy of Jesus: Compare Key Differences

  • Matthew's account traces the lineage from Abraham to Jesus (41 generations), while Luke records the ancestry from Adam to Jesus (76 generations).
  • Matthew's genealogy is condensed and divided into three groups of 14, representing a movement through three time periods. The first group lists the patriarchs, the second names the kings, and the third contains private citizens. The intent was not to give a strict record, but rather, present the historical progression. It begins by highlighting the family origin, then the rise to power through the Davidic throne, and eventually the decline from royalty to the humble birth of the promised Messiah.
  • Luke's account is unusual in that it begins with Jesus and progresses backward through history, rather than following the order of chronological succession. Some suggest that Luke's purpose in presenting a "regression" was to magnify attention on Jesus.
  • Though nearly identical from Abraham to David, the two accounts are entirely different from David to Jesus. After David, only the names of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel appear on both lists.
  • Matthew's genealogy traced Jesus' royal pedigree because the Gospel's central purpose was to prove that Jesus was the promised Messiah.
  • Luke's genealogy traced Jesus' relationship to all of humankind because the Gospel's central purpose was to prove that Jesus was the Savior of the world.

Theories for the Differing Accounts

Throughout the ages, scholars have pondered and argued the reasons for the conflicting genealogies of Matthew and Luke, particularly since Jewish scribes were known for their precise and detailed record keeping. Skeptics are usually quick to attribute these differences to biblical errors.

According to one of the oldest theories, some scholars assign the differences to the "Levirate marriage" tradition. This custom said that if a man died without bearing any sons, his brother could then marry his widow, and their sons would carry on the dead man's name. For this theory to hold up, it would mean that Joseph, the father of Jesus, had both a legal father (Heli) and a biological father (Jacob), through a Levirate marriage. The theory suggests that Joseph's grandfathers (Matthan according to Matthew; Matthat according to Luke) were brothers, both married to the same woman, one after the other. This would make Matthan's son (Jacob) Joseph's biological father, and Matthat's son (Heli) Joseph's legal father. Matthew's account would trace Jesus' primary (biological) lineage, and Luke's record would follow Jesus' legal lineage.

An alternative theory with very little acceptance among theologians and historians alike proposes that Jacob and Heli are actually one and the same.

One of the most widely held theories suggests that Matthew's account follows the lineage of Joseph, while Luke's genealogy is that of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This interpretation would mean that Jacob was Joseph's biological father, and Heli (Mary's biological father) became Joseph's surrogate father, thus making Joseph Heli's heir through his marriage to Mary. If Heli had no sons, this would have been the normal custom. Also, if Mary and Joseph lived under the same roof with Heli, his "son-in-law" would have been called "son" and considered a descendant. Although it would have been unusual to trace a genealogy from the maternal side, there was nothing usual about the virgin birth. Additionally, if Mary (Jesus' blood relative) were indeed a direct descendant of David, this would make her son "the seed of David" in keeping with Messianic prophecies.

Two Jesse Tree Genealogies of Jesus
(Left) Patrilineage in Matthew illustrated by a Tree of Jesse and (Right) Tree of Jesse illustration based on the Hortus deliciarum of Herrad of Landsberg (12th century).

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Many scholars have argued that the two genealogies serve a theological purpose rather than a historical one. Other more complicated theories exist, and with each, there seems to remain an unresolvable problem. However, in both genealogies we do see that Jesus is a descendant of King David, qualifying him, according to Messianic prophecies, as the Messiah.

One interesting commentary points out that by beginning with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, Matthew's genealogy shows the relationship of Jesus to all Jews—he is their Messiah. This coincides with the overarching theme and purpose of the Gospel of Matthew—to prove that Jesus is the Messiah.

On the other hand, the overriding purpose of the book of Luke is to give a precise record of the life of Christ as the perfect human Savior. Therefore, the genealogy of Luke traces all the way back to Adam, demonstrating the relationship of Jesus to all of humankind—he is the Savior of the world.

Women in the Genealogy of Jesus

Five noteworthy women appear in Matthew's genealogy of Jesus: Tamar (verse 3), Rahab and Ruth (verse 5), Bathsheba (verse 6), and Mary (verse 16). Their inclusion has been a source of continuous debate.

It was highly unusual to mention women in Jewish genealogy, especially since some of these women were either Gentiles or married to a Gentile. Matthew may have listed them to show the inclusive and universal nature of the gospel.

Some scholars see these humble and marginalized women as types of Mary. Jerome suggested that they were mentioned because they were sinners, foreshadowing Jesus as the Savior of sinful humans. Martin Luther thought they were included because they were Gentiles, showing that the Messiah extended his blessings beyond Israel.

Another theory suggests the women are listed in order to counter Jewish criticism regarding the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth. Irregular unions did not disqualify the Messiah’s legal ancestry.

Their unique, controversial, and unexpected stories could explain another possibility for their inclusion.
Each of these women demonstrated the kind of courage and resolute faith required to follow Jesus Christ. By introducing the first four, Matthew prepared readers for the fifth woman in the genealogy—Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Matthew's Genealogy of Jesus

Matthew 1:1-17: From Abraham to Jesus

  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Judah
  • Perez (whose mother was Tamar)
  • Hezron
  • Ram
  • Amminadab
  • Nahshon
  • Salmon
  • Boaz (whose mother was Rahab)
  • Obed (whose mother was Ruth)
  • Jesse
  • David
  • Solomon (whose mother was Bathsheba)
  • Rehoboam
  • Abijah
  • Asa
  • Jehoshaphat
  • Johoram
  • Uzziah
  • Jotham
  • Ahaz
  • Hezekiah
  • Manasseh
  • Amon
  • Josiah
  • Jeconiah
  • Shealtiel
  • Zerubbabel
  • Abiud
  • Eliakim
  • Azor
  • Zadok
  • Achim
  • Eliud
  • Eleazer
  • Matthan
  • Jacob
  • Joseph (the husband of Mary)
  • Jesus

Luke's Genealogy of Jesus

Luke 3:23-37: From Adam to Jesus*

*Although listed here in chronological succession, the actual account appears in reverse order.
**Some manuscripts differ here, omitting Ram, listing Amminadab as the son of Admin, the son of Arni.

  • Adam
  • Seth
  • Enosh
  • Kenan
  • Mahalaleel
  • Jared
  • Enoch
  • Methuselah
  • Lamech
  • Noah
  • Shem
  • Arphaxad
  • Cainan
  • Shelah
  • Eber
  • Peleg
  • Reu
  • Serug
  • Nahor
  • Terah
  • Abraham
  • Isaac
  • Jacob
  • Judah
  • Perez
  • Hezron
  • Ram**
  • Amminadab
  • Nahshon
  • Salmon
  • Boaz
  • Obed
  • Jesse
  • David
  • Nathan
  • Mattatha
  • Menna
  • Melea
  • Eliakim
  • Jonam
  • Joseph
  • Judah
  • Simeon
  • Levi
  • Matthat
  • Jorim
  • Eliezer
  • Joshua
  • Er
  • Elmadam
  • Cosam
  • Addi
  • Melki
  • Neri
  • Shealtiel
  • Zerubbabel
  • Rhesa
  • Joanan
  • Joda
  • Josech
  • Semein
  • Mattathias
  • Maath
  • Naggai
  • Esli
  • Nahum
  • Amos
  • Mattathias
  • Joseph
  • Jannai
  • Melki
  • Levi
  • Matthat
  • Heli
  • Joseph
  • Jesus

Sources

  • The Two Genealogies of Jesus Christ in Matthew and Luke. In Holman Christian Standard Bible: Harmony of the Gospels (p. 283).
  • Matthew: a commentary for Bible students (p. 53).