Genealogy of Jesus: Exploring the “Son of David’s” Lineage


Written by Joshua Schachterle, Ph.D

Author |  Professor | BE Contributor

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Date written: January 25th, 2024

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

There are two places in the New Testament where there are genealogies of Jesus: the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Interestingly, their genealogies differ significantly. Why is this? Why was the genealogy of Jesus so important to these two Gospel writers? And why is Jesus called “Son of David” in the Bible, something both Matthew and Luke agree on? In this article, I’ll answer these questions.

Genealogy of Jesus - Exploring the “Son of David’s” Lineage

How are Luke and Matthew’s Genealogies Similar and Different?

In order to see the similarities and differences between the two genealogies, take a look at the chart below split into sections. The orange section is the one in which Luke’s tracing of Jesus’ bloodline all the way back to Adam. This section has no parallel in Matthew. The green sections are where both Gospels share the same names, and the white sections are where the two genealogies diverge completely.

By the way, Matthew’s version begins with Abraham and moves forward in time while Luke’s begins with Jesus and works backward. The chart has to invert Luke’s timeline in order to compare it easily to Matthew’s.

Luke

Matthew

1. God,

2. Adam,
3. Seth,

4. Enos,
5. Cainan,

6. Mahalalel,
7. Jared,

8. Enoch,
9. Methuselah,

10. Lamech,
11. Noah,

12. Shem,
13. Arphaxad,

14. Cainan,
15. Shelah,

16. Eber,

17. Peleg,

18. Reu,

19. Serug,

20. Nahor,

21. Terah,


22. Abraham,

23. Isaac,
24. Jacob,

25. Juda,
26. Perez,

27. Hezron,
28. Arni,

29. Amminadab,
30. Nahshon,

31. Salmon,
32. Boaz,

33. Obed,
34. Jesse,

35. David

22. Abraham,

23. Isaac,
24. Jacob,

25. Juda,
26. Perez,

27. Hezron,
28. Arni,

29. Amminadab,
30. Nahshon,

31. Salmon,
32. Boaz,

33. Obed,
34. Jesse,

35. David

36. Nathan,

37. Mattatha,
38. Menna,

39. Melea,
40. Eliakim,

41. Jonam,
42. Joseph,

43. Judah,
44. Simeon,

45. Levi,
46. Maththat,

47. Jorim,
48. Eliezer,

49. Jesus,
50. Er,

51. Elmodam,
52. Cosam,

53. Addi,
54. Melchi,

55. Neri

36. Solomon,
37. Rehoboam,
38. Abijam,
39. Asa,
40. Jehoshaphat,
41. Joram,
42. Uzziah,
43. Jotham,
44. Ahaz,
45. Hezekiah,
46. Manasseh,
47. Amon,
48. Josiah,
49. Jeconiah

56. Shealtiel,

57. Zerubbabel

50. Shealtiel,

51. Zerubbabel

58. Rhesa,

59. Joannan,
60. Joda,

61. Josech,
62. Semein,

63. Mattathias,
64. Maath,

65. Nagge,
66. Esli,

67. Naum,
68. Amos,

69. Mattathias,
70. Joseph,

71. Jannai,
72. Melchi,

73. Levi
74. Matthat,

75. Heli

52. Abiud,
53. Eliakim,
54. Azor,
55. Zadok,
56. Achim,
57. Eliud,
58. Eleazar,
59. Matthan
60. Jacob

76. Joseph,

77. Jesus

76. Joseph,

77. Jesus

Bart Ehrman notes several interesting points in comparing Luke and Matthew’s versions of Jesus’ lineage. First, while both claim to be genealogies of Jesus, take a closer look: they are both genealogies of Joseph. This is fascinating, given that both Matthew and Luke emphasize that Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father.

Both authors probably felt they needed to do it this way because in antiquity, Jewish family lines were traced through the fathers. However, it’s an odd contradiction to the virgin birth narratives in both Gospels.

Second, you’ll notice that Matthew’s genealogy goes back only to Abraham while Luke’s goes all the way to Adam (well, to God, technically). Why is this?

I noted in another article that Matthew is generally considered the most Jewish of the canonical Gospels. As such, Matthew wanted to emphasize Jesus’ Jewishness. He therefore traces Jesus back to Abraham, the father of the Jews. Luke, of course, knows that Jesus was Jewish, but that is not his primary emphasis.

Third, in many places, the genealogies are strikingly dissimilar. Whole sections of the chart above are entirely different, not even sharing a single name.

Even more surprisingly, they disagree on who the father of Joseph was. Matthew says it was Jacob while Luke says it was Heli. How can we understand these vast differences?

How Did Ancient Christians Explain the Differences?

The differences and contradictions between Luke and Matthew’s genealogies of Jesus must have tied Christian authors in knots. How could their sacred book contradict itself? They therefore came up with several explanations, attempting to erase any doubts.

Eusebius, a 4th-century bishop and Church historian, does some impressive explanatory gymnastics to argue that there is actually no contradiction between the two versions.

Eusebius says that some genealogies in ancient Judaism were written according to nature, that is, tracing only biological offspring, and others according to Law, which could include adopted children, for example. He thought that one of the genealogies was written according to nature and the other according to Law, although he didn’t know which was which. Unfortunately, since both Matthew and Luke write genealogies of Joseph, who was said to be Jesus’ adoptive father, most scholars think this explanation doesn’t entirely hold water.

John of Damascus, a monk and priest in the 7th century, took a different tack, specifically in reference to the different names of Joseph’s father. He maintains that Heli, claimed by Luke as Joseph’s father, actually died childless, and that Jacob, claimed as Joseph’s father by Matthew, married Heli’s wife who gave birth to Joseph.

Again, it’s an almost tortured twisting of what the genealogies actually say and doesn’t give a satisfactory explanation.

NOW AVAILABLE!  THE UNKNOWN GOSPELS

A closer look at the Gospels from a scholarly perspective. How do we know when the Gospels were written? Why do scholars think Matthew and Luke copied Mark? And much more...

What Do Modern Scholars Say About the Differences?

Most scholars, like Raymond Brown in his gigantic book on the birth narratives of Jesus, believe that the genealogies of Jesus are mostly invented for theological purposes, and John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg say much the same thing. If this is the case, Matthew and Luke’s genealogical differences are only differences of theological emphasis, not history.

For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, a new lawgiver and Torah teacher, as well as the Messiah. This is why his genealogy starts with Abraham, but also why it includes so many kings of Israel, including David. As Ehrman says, Matthew’s genealogy is “meant to emphasize Jesus’ ‘credentials’ precisely as the Messiah. And so it indicates that Jesus was ‘the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (‘son of’ in this context obviously means: “descendant from’).”

Remember that Abraham was the father of the Jews and David was its greatest ruler. Matthew’s genealogy is supposed to show that Jesus comes from a long and auspicious Jewish family tree, and that he is therefore worthy of being called the Messiah.

Luke, however, will position Jesus as the Messiah for all people, which is why he is concerned with showing that God’s salvation through Jesus is for Jews and Gentiles alike. As such, his genealogy doesn’t need to focus on Jewish royalty like Matthew’s (except King David, of course!).

Instead, he takes his genealogy back to the first human, Adam. If Adam was, as the Hebrew Bible says, the first human being, then all people’s ancestry goes back to him. Therefore, Jesus is connected to both Jews and Gentiles (and so are we, of course!).

Why Does Luke’s Genealogy OF JESUS Occur So Late?

Another interesting point about Luke’s genealogy of Jesus is its placement in the story. While Matthew’s Gospel starts with a genealogy, which seems logical before a birth narrative, Luke doesn’t give his genealogy until chapter 3, long after his birth narrative. Why did he do this?

One clue is found in what comes directly before his genealogy: Jesus’ baptism. You might remember that it is a significant event, both for Jesus and for Christianity. Luke puts it this way:

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Some scholars believe that Luke purposely placed his genealogy after Jesus’ baptism precisely because this is where God declares Jesus to be his son. The genealogy then goes on to show the direct line back to Adam and ultimately to God.

The general scholarly consensus, however, says something different: Luke 3 may have originally been the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Look at how it begins:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Doesn’t this sound like a beginning? We are given the time and place and the beginnings of John the Baptist’s ministry. s. The infancy narratives in Luke 1 and 2 were added later.

If this is true, it certainly explains why the genealogy would appear to occur late in the story. Also, Mark and John both begin with John’s ministry and Jesus’ baptism, so the idea of Luke doing the same certainly seems plausible.

How Did Matthew and Luke Know About Jesus’ Genealogy?

It seems clear to most scholars that the genealogies in both Matthew and Luke are theologically rather than historically motivated. But wait! Did all Jews in the first century know their genealogies as Luke and Matthew seem to know that of Jesus. 

Scholar Marshall Johnson says that family pedigrees would not usually have been available for non-priestly families. Priestly families, on the other hand, needed to know and prove their bloodline in order to qualify for their roles as priests.

In addition, Johnson says that the contradictions between Luke and Matthew show that they were likely not based on actual genealogical records at the time.

This, again, lends weight to the argument that both genealogies were largely inventions, either of the authors of Luke and Matthew themselves or, more likely, of sources they used to write their Gospels.

why is Jesus called the Son of David

Why Is Jesus Called ‘Son of David’?

As Bart Ehrman mentioned, “son of” in ancient writings often meant “descended from.” Why was it important that Jesus be descended from King David?

While there were many beliefs in 1st-century Judaism about the requirements for being the Messiah, one of the more prevalent beliefs was that he would come from the bloodline of David. This was based on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, such as this verse from 2 Samuel 7:12-14 in which God makes a promise to King David:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

God promises that the Messiah, one who will rule forever, will be one of David’s descendants. As such, those who believed Jesus to be the Messiah might have felt pressure to prove it by showing that he was descended from David. This explains the references to David in Matthew and Luke’s genealogies but could also explain why Jesus is called Son of David in all the Synoptic Gospels.

Conclusion

Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke contain their own genealogy of Jesus. While they share many similarities, they diverge significantly in some ways.

The similarities include a whole line of names going from Abraham, the father of the Jews, to David, the greatest Jewish king. This makes sense; both authors wanted to prove that Jesus was the Messiah partially by virtue of his impressive family tree. It is for this reason that all the Synoptic Gospels call Jesus ‘Son of David’ at least once.

Strangely, both authors seem to be writing not the bloodline of Jesus but that of Joseph who both authors claim is not Jesus’ biological father. This may seem an odd contradiction, but really just shows that ancient Jewish genealogies were traced through fathers rather than mothers.

However, the genealogies differ on many names, including the father of Joseph. While not all the differences can be explained, the scholarly consensus is that the genealogies were more theological than historical. We can be reasonably sure that Jesus’ parents were named Joseph and Mary, but beyond that we have no idea about his other descendants.

Luke’s genealogy comes relatively late in his Gospel in chapter 3 while Matthew’s comes at the very beginning. The late placement of Luke’s genealogy can probably be explained by the possibility that Luke 3 was originally the beginning of the Gospel, the infancy narratives being added later.  

NOW AVAILABLE!  THE UNKNOWN GOSPELS

A closer look at the Gospels from a scholarly perspective. How do we know when the Gospels were written? Why do scholars think Matthew and Luke copied Mark? And much more...

Josh Schachterle

About the author

After a long career teaching high school English, Joshua Schachterle completed his PhD in New Testament and Early Christianity in 2019. He is the author of "John Cassian and the Creation of Monastic Subjectivity." When not researching, Joshua enjoys reading, composing/playing music, and spending time with his wife and two college-aged children.

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