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Why are the genealogies of Matthew and Luke so different?

February 3rd, 2013

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m sure you will know the feeling. You are reading the Bible, trying to squeeze all you can out of God’s word and hear his voice clearly, then all of our sudden your style of reading changes. Whereas moments before you were reading and re-reading verses in deep concentration, now you are skimming over whole pages, and if you have a more traditional translation, trying to remember what ‘begat’ means. Thats right! You’ve hit a genealogy.

Now some people are very fond of family trees, and so it seems are several of the Bible’s authors, not just in the Old Testament either. Two of the four gospel writers decide to devote good space to Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38.

Now, while these passages don’t make for the most rivetting reading, they are incredibly important. They ground the biblical events in history. When a biblical author includes a genealogy, what they’re saying is: ‘This really happened! These are real people who exist in the flow of history, not in the land of fables and fairy tales!’ And regarding the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth (‘begat’ by Joseph and Mary), that is a noble and vital goal.

Except of course, if you get the genealogy wrong!

And that is the accusation that has been put to Matthew and/or Luke by many critics. Their evidence seems pretty conclusive. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies do not square up with each other. Okay, from Abraham to David, they’re consistent, a couple of alternative spellings here and there, but nothing overly problematic, but then they veer away from each other wildly. Matthew begats (I have no idea if I’m using this word correctly anymore, but its a great word!) Jesus from the line of David’s son, Solomon. Luke, from David’s son, Nathan.

This inconsistency has been picked up by a number of the new atheists of the last few years and their concern is a serious one: If the gospels can’t even agree on Jesus’ family tree, how can you really trust them on anything?

It’s a very good question.

However, it does have an answer.

In fact, it has several answers, given by Christian scholars since the early church. Granted some are more plausible than others, and I am not going to give a complete overview. I will however leave you with 3 that I have found helpful in thinking through this difficult issue:

1) Genealogies are not what they seem!

The first is less an answer, more an observation. It would be true to say that nobody really understands the genre of genealogy in the ancient world. Reading lists like those in Matthew and Luke 2000 years later, It looks very simple, like they are writing the ancient equivalent of a modern family tree. Unfortunately, its not quite that straightforward. In ancient genealogies, it was accepted both in and out of the Bible to skip whole generations in genealogies (‘son of’ could mean ‘grandson of’ or even ‘great great grandson of’), and even more confusingly, there are precedents in ancient literature for authors to throw people into these lists who weren’t actually blood relations (with no apparent damage done to their scholarly credentials). As John Nolland sums it up:

‘Ancient genealogies were used for a complex variety of purposes, not all of which can be reconstructed successfully by historical inquiry from such a distance… A complex history of societal function is here reflected, a function largely determined by ancestry but also affected by factors to which we no longer have more than speculative access.’ (Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 35a, Luke).

So there!

While this is helpful to keep in mind, if taken too far, it does seem to drain the genealogies of any of their historical significance. But what can be said is that we must make sure we approach all Biblical genealogies with humility, understanding that there may be elements of these lists that are beyond us, but still confident that they are, at least, largely historical in nature. So, with that in mind, what of our two genealogies?

2) Luke casts doubt on his own genealogy himself!

In Luke 3:23 says:

‘Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, so it was thought, of Joseph the son of Heli… etc, etc’

Now, this could be taken to mean that Jesus was only supposed to be the son of Joseph, but this supposition was false. As Luke has already been at pains to reveal, Jesus’ true father is God. However, it would also be very possible to read it in the original Greek, as ‘the rest of this list is a little suspect, but these were the best sources I could find, so they’ll have to do!’

This would preserve Luke’s integrity as a historian as he is revealing a potentially shaky source. It also preserves the infallibility of Scripture as it was indeed supposed that Joseph’s father was Heli. However, this supposition was incorrect, it was in fact Jacob (Mt 1:16)

While this is possible, it does seem again to make the inclusion of the list a little pointless! Therefore, I would like to suggest the alternative that I go with…

3) Matthew’s genealogy is the genealogy of Joseph, Luke’s genealogy is the genealogy is the genealogy of Mary!

This is, of course, a very neat solution to the problem. Joseph’s dad was Jacob, who was a descendant of Solomon. Mary’s dad was Heli, who was a descendant of Nathan. Job done!

The only problem is that Luke 3 does not seem to leave that option open to us. Or does it? There was a tradition laid down in the Old Testament, by which if a woman had no brothers, upon her marriage, her father could adopt her husband, so that he could have a male heir in his family, and therefore continue his family line through the husband of his daughter (see Numbers 27:3-8, Ezra 2:61, 1 Chr 2:34-35) . Therefore, if Mary had no brothers, her father Heli would have been likely to adopt Joseph according to this biblical  tradition when they got married. If this happened, Joseph would have had two family lines- one by birth, which is what Matthew uses and one by adoption- which Luke uses.

Of course, this may leave you scratching your head, wondering why God made it so complicated. But complexity and apparent misunderstanding were always going to be on the agenda the minute that God ordained that he would speak through human authors, living in specific cultures. This is why it is so important that we become students of God’s word, and appreciate it as both a cultural artefact and a divine revelation. If we miss either of these, we miss the Bible!

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