Question: How can we account for the differences in the genealogies of Jesus recorded in Matthew 1 and Luke 3? In particular, both genealogies include Zerubbabel as the son of Shealtiel, but Luke lists Shealtiel's father as Neri rather than Jeconiah.

Answer: Both Matthew and Luke present genealogies of Joseph, the husband of Jesus' mother Mary. Although Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38), he was Jesus' legal father, making his genealogy that of Jesus as well.


The two genealogies essentially coincide from the patriarch Abraham through King David of Israel. After that, they follow two different paths. Matthew traces Joseph's ancestry through King Solomon and lists Joseph's father as Jacob, while Luke gives a line through Nathan and says Joseph is the son of Heli.


One theory for reconciling the two genealogies, first proposed in the late fifteenth century, says that the genealogy in Luke 3 is actually that of Mary rather than Joseph. According to this theory Heli was Mary's father, but Luke doesn't mention Mary in his (all-male) list because of her gender. Although Mary could very well have been a descendant of David--indeed, there are Christian traditions to that effect--there are no hints in Luke 3 that her genealogy is being presented there. As D.A. Carson [1, p. 64] comments, "Few would guess simply by reading Luke that he is giving Mary's genealogy. The theory stems, not from the text of Luke, but from the need to harmonize the two genealogies."


The traditional explanation for the differing genealogies of Joseph is that Jacob and Heli were close relatives, perhaps half brothers, one of them being Joseph's biological father and the other his legal father. In one variation of this model, the one who was Joseph's biological father died, and the other one then adopted Joseph as his son. In another variation, one of the two died childless, but the other then married his widow and fathered Joseph in order to continue the dead relative's line.1 This explanation, in one form or another, seems more likely than the "genealogy of Mary" model.


Number Patterns

Another thing one notices in comparing the two genealogies is a substantial difference in the number of names listed. After David there are forty-two names in Luke's genealogy but only twenty-seven names in Matthew's. Here it is helpful to keep in mind the fact that biblical genealogies often do not give-and do not intend to give-exhaustive accounts that include every single generation. Instead, abridged lists that hit the "highlights" of a longer genealogy are often presented. As we see in Matthew 1:1, where Jesus is described as "the son of David, the son of Abraham," Matthew's phrase "son of" has the broader meaning "descendant of." The same thing is true in several other biblical genealogies.2


Matthew chose which generations to include in his list partly for the purpose of creating a numerical pattern with three groups of fourteen generations each (Matt. 1: 17). Luke does not explicitly mention any such arrangement, but his list includes seventy-seven names that fall neatly into groups of multiples of seven, an indication that he also intended to create this sort of pattern.


Famous Names

Finally, what about the differences in the ancestry of Shealtiel and Zerubbabel in Matthew 1 and Luke 3? In this case it is possible that we are dealing with two different Shealtiels and Zerubbabels. Matthew's Shealtiel is the son of King Jeconiah of Judah listed in I Chron 3:17, and his Zerubbabel is the son of Shealtiel who returned from the Babylonian exile and supervised the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 3:2; 5:2; Neh. 12:1; Haggai 1:1; 2:2, 23).3 Since these were well known figures in Israel's history, it is quite possible that Luke's Shealtiel and Zerubbabel-whose ancestry is traced through Nathan rather than Solomon-were named after them.


In summary, there are multiple ways to harmonize the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew 1 and Luke 3. We cannot say for certain which harmonization is correct because of a lack of available data. Unfortunately, some of the records used by Matthew and Luke are no longer extant. In particular, the portion of Matthew's list between Zerubbabel and Joseph and the the portion of Luke's list between Nathan and Joseph are not available to us from any other sources. As a result, we have no way to definitively answer a number of our questions about these sections of the lists. But the fact that no effort was made in the first century to harmonize the two genealogies is an indication that both evangelists were using real sources and not just fabricating a story. (One would expect a group that was inventing a story to make sure different versions of that story were as close to identical as possible.) Members of the family of Joseph and Mary knew how everything fit together, and no further explanation was needed for the original audience of the gospels.


1.  Donald A. Carson, Matthew, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 8, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1984.

2.  Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., "Why Don't Biblical Genealogies Always Match Up?" pp. 48-50 in Hard Sayings of the Bible, InterVarsity Press, Downer's Grove, Illinois, 1996.


1This "levirate marriage" version goes back to Julius Africanus (c. 225 A.D.) and is recorded in Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 7.

2For further discussion of this point, see [2] as well as the article "To Add or Not to Add? A Closer Look at Biblical Genealogies" in Issue 1 of Grace and Knowledge.

3I Chron. 3:19 lists Zerubbabel as the son of Shealtiel's brother Pedaiah. This may be another case where the biological and legal fathers were different.

Issue 21


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