The Gospels provide us with valuable teachings, history, and inspiration. However, they also contain parts that can be confusing, with apparent contradictions. One such challenge involves the family history of Jesus in Matthew and Luke. It seems like these genealogies don’t match up much at all, which can be puzzling. As noted biblical critic Bart Ehrman points out: “The real problem they pose, however, is that the two genealogies are actually quite different” (Jesus Interrupted, p. 37).
But if we dig deeper and consider the historical context, we can find the real story behind this supposed contradiction.
Matthew 1:16—“…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.”
Luke 3:23—”Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli…”
Matthew says Joseph’s father was Jacob, while Luke claims it was Heli. The family trees they give also differ a lot, going back a thousand years to King David. The common idea is that both show Joseph’s family history, who was Jesus’ adoptive dad.
How could two different family trees belong to Joseph?
But here’s the thing: it’s not likely to be true. Many scholars have suggested that Luke’s family tree is for Mary, not Joseph. There are some hints in the text back this up:
- The Greek in Luke 3 does not say “the son of Heli,” but rather simply “of Heli”; the word “son” is not repeated after the first usage.
- The location of the qualifying phrase—“who was the son, as it was supposed, of Joseph”—and the omission of the possessive definite article before Joseph’s name make it plain that Joseph is not part of the lineal descent being given.
NT scholar Peter J. Williams has another idea about the genealogies of Jesus and points out there are some interesting markers of truth in them. Here’s a summary of his observations:
For starters, when it comes to the different accounts of Joseph’s father, it’s not too hard to understand that, even today or in the past, someone might have a legal father who is not their biological one. Especially if Joseph’s biological father rejected him because of Mary’s unusual pregnancy. But there are a couple of interesting things to notice about the family tree records.
First, even though they list different grandfathers for Jesus, his great-grandfather’s name in both accounts is quite similar: Matthan in Matthew and Matthat in Luke. The only difference is in the last part of the name, and this can be explained easily. These names are based on two Hebrew words, “mattan” and “mattat,” both meaning “gift.”
Secondly, if we pay attention to this name, we’ll see that several names in Luke’s family tree have a common root. The name Matthat and five other names in the genealogy after David come from the Hebrew word NTN, which means “give.” Sometimes the Ns turn into Ts in these names. These names include Mattathias, Mattathias, Matthat, Mattatha, and Nathan. This makes sense because this is the family tree through David’s son Nathan. It’s common in families to use names from the same root, and that’s why you see some repeated names like three Josephs, two Levis, two Melchis, and the name Er, which is only found in the tribe of Judah in the Bible.
Thirdly, in both Matthew and Mark, we’re told the names of Jesus’s brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas in Matthew or James, Joses, Judas, and Simon in Mark. The only differences are in the order of the last two names and how Joseph’s name is adapted with a Greek ending in Mark. However, these names also connect with the family tree in Matthew. It was common to name boys after their grandfathers (called “papponymy”) or sometimes after their father (called “patronymy”). If Jesus’s name was indeed given by the angel as mentioned in Matthew 1:21, then neither his father’s nor his grandfather’s name would be an option. However, we see both these names used in the family. James is thought to be the first son born to Joseph and Mary after Jesus’s birth. He was named James, or more accurately “Jakobos,” which is his grandfather’s name, Jacob, with a Greek ending “-os.” Over time, “Jakobos” evolved into “James” in English through language changes. The next son after Jakobos was named after his father, Joseph.
So, when we examine the names of Jesus’s brothers, we discover a minor coincidence that bolsters Matthew’s family tree. However, the key point to consider for our purposes here is that one genealogy traces back to Joseph’s biological father, while the other is linked to his legal father.
Here’s another possible way to explain why both Luke and Matthew trace the genealogy through Joseph: Luke wanted to highlight Mary’s role in the story and show her connection to King David. The early church thought this was really important. When the angel talked to Mary, he mentioned that Jesus would inherit King David’s throne (Luke 1:32).
Now, Luke might have known Mary’s family tree, but he couldn’t verify it while writing for Theophilus. He might not have been close to Mary and Jesus’ family at that time. Usually, family trees go through the fathers, so Luke might have assumed it was Joseph’s family tree. This could be a possible spot where a mistake happened. But remember, we’re just saying there could be an error, not that there definitely is one. Even if there was an honest mistake, it wouldn’t change the fact that Luke’s story is otherwise highly reliable.
Overall, this objection assumes there’s only one way to track family ancestry. But one scholar says that’s not a safe assumption.
Obviously, in a small and close-knit community, there is every probability that someone could trace their descent from the same source by two or more different routes. The Maori themselves can give several different genealogies for themselves, depending on which ancestor they want to highlight and how much intermarrying has taken place. Different tribal sub-units can trace their descent in different ways for different purposes, resulting in criss-crossing links of all sorts.
This is so even in modern Western society. After my own parents married, they discovered that they were distant cousins with one remove of generation. Think of the little country of Israel in the period between David and Jesus; similar things could easily have happened. Many could have traced their descent to the same ancestors by at least two routes.N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (WJK 2004), 39-40
How many generations?
But hold on, there’s another issue. Some people say that Luke has more names than Matthew in the part where they’re supposed to match up. This makes them wonder why these differences are there and if they mean there’s a problem. The well-known atheist Richard Dawkins talks about this:
“Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don’t they notice those glaring contradictions? Shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations?”– Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Mariner Books, 2008), p. 120
In response, yes, Matthew does leave out some generations, but he’s not trying to give a complete list of every family member. He’s more focused on showing that Jesus has a legal right to his ancestry. The way Matthew starts his family tree with “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” really highlights the legal connection.
A Bible scholar, Walter Kaiser, points out something similar with the high priestly line of Aaron in the Bible. In 1 Chronicles 6:3–14 and Ezra 7:1–15, the list of names is different. Chronicles has twenty-two names, but Ezra only has sixteen. When you put these lists together, you can see that Ezra chose to skip some names, making his list shorter. This was a valid way of doing things according to the traditions.
But there’s another gripe. Some critics note that Matthew counts the generations and comes up with three groups of fourteen, which leads to questions about why he would skip generations if he is explicitly counting them.
In response, the purpose of Matthew’s counting is not to specify the number of father-to-son generations but rather to break the list into three parts, with 14 names in each. This structure may have been designed for easier memorization. Additionally, in Hebrew, the numerical value of the name “David” (דוד) is 4 + 6 + 4 = 14, suggesting a symbolic significance to this arrangement. Such a practice is commonplace among Jewish writers.
Ehrman has a skeptical rejoinder:
“The problem is that the fourteen-fourteen-fourteen schema doesn’t actually work…In the third set of fourteen there are in fact only thirteen generations. Moreover…It turns out that Matthew left out some names…”Jesus Interrupted, p 38
Yes, his list is a bit choosy, but that’s okay. As I’ve already noted, it’s not meant to be a strict family tree. Again, it’s more of a Jewish mathematical exercise called gematria. Regarding the supposed number difference, here’s one possible explanation from a biblical scholar:
”In this statement [v11] the genealogist needs to evoke the end of the David kingship, with the collapse of the nation and exile…How can all this be evoked? We recall that in Septuagintal usage the grandson of Josiah is called either ‘Jechoniah’ or ‘Jehoiakim,’ in the latter sense using the same name as for the father…In the statement, ‘Jechoniah’ is first and foremost himself, but secondarily a cipher for the father with whom he shares a name….The third fourteen takes us from Jechoniah to Jesus, and are achieved by counting both Jechoniah and Jesus. The genealogist probably does not consider this to be double counting because in counting Jechoniah in the second fourteen, he really had in mind Jehoiakim; this leaves Jechoniah actually to be counted in his own right in the third fourteen,”John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2006), 84-86.
In summary, the genealogist employs the name “Jechoniah” as both a symbol for the end of the Davidic kingship and the collapse of the nation. He counts “Jechoniah” twice, viewing it as a representation for his father, leading to three sets of fourteen generations in the genealogy.
Here’s another possible explanation that I think is a bit more simple: In Matthew’s family history of Jesus, he doesn’t explicitly say there are 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. Instead, he divides this history into three parts, each with 14 generations. One reason David’s name appears twice in verse 17 is because he’s counted in both the first and second groups of 14, adding up to 42 generations in total.
How did they know how far back their ancestry went?
But wait! There’s another complaint. Critics often ask how individuals in the first century could possibly have known their ancestry back so far.
In response, to know one’s tribal ancestry was of great importance to the Jews in the first century. This cultural context is supported by Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, who recorded his own ancestry and stated, “So have I set down the genealogy of our family as I have found it described in the public records, to put an end to any would-be detractors” (The Life of Flavius Josephus 1.1 #6). This commitment to recording and preserving genealogies was not unique to Josephus but was part of the broader Jewish culture.
Does the virgin birth disqualify Jesus from being the Messiah?
Some people object to Jesus being the Messiah because they believe he doesn’t have a perfect family lineage tracing back to King David. The argument goes like this: The Messiah must be a descendant of David, but if Jesus was born of a virgin, Joseph wouldn’t be his father, and he wouldn’t be David’s descendant. Even if you say that Luke’s genealogy is through Mary, it doesn’t work because it follows David’s son Nathan, not Solomon. So, according to this reasoning, Jesus can’t be the Messiah.
But let’s think about this for a second. If Matthew and Luke were just making up stories about Jesus, why would they create a backstory that seems to weaken his claim to being David’s rightful heir? Why go with the idea of a virgin birth if it doesn’t help his case?
A simple explanation could be that Matthew and Luke were trying to be truthful and not invent things. They might have had to work with the real facts about Jesus, even if it seemed to create some conflicts in their religious beliefs.
It might have been easier for them to make up a story that made Jesus an obvious descendant of David. In fact, it would have been convenient to make him a Levite as well. But they chose to stick with the actual facts about Jesus, and this shows their commitment to telling an accurate account of his life.
Remember earlier that I said Luke believes that Mary, Jesus’s mother, is also a descendant of David. When an angel spoke to her, they mentioned that her Son would inherit the throne of David. (Luke 1:32)
According to the Law, if a man passes away without sons but has daughters, the family inheritance goes through the daughters and their husbands, as long as they marry within the same tribe (see Num. 27:1–11; 36:1–12). This means that a daughter’s inheritance is connected to her husband’s. While this doesn’t directly relate to genealogy, it does touch on the passing of family inheritance through a daughter, which is related.
The objection about the Messiah needing to be a descendant of Solomon is easily answered. In 2 Samuel 7:12-16 and 1 Chronicles 17:11–14, God promised that Solomon’s kingdom and throne would last forever, but only if Solomon obeyed God’s commands. Sadly, Solomon didn’t follow these commands; he married foreign women and worshiped other gods. Consequently, God grew angry and declared that He would take the kingdom away from Solomon’s descendants. However, for David’s sake, one tribe would remain under his son’s rule (1 Kings 11:1–13).
Finally, are critics really suggesting that Jesus can’t be the Messiah simply because God is his Father? The virgin birth is what makes Jesus uniquely qualified to be the Messiah, as he’s both a descendant of David and considered greater than David. (See Matthew 22:41-46, Psalm 110:1, Isaiah 9:6)
The alleged contradiction in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke can be resolved by understanding the cultural and literary context of the time. Both genealogies serve different purposes, and the differences between them do not necessarily indicate a contradiction. By looking deeper into the text and the historical backdrop, we find that there is no major problem here.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.