Thursday, 12 January 2017

Alleged Contradictions in the Genealogy of Jesus

It would be helpful to start by defining our terms:
  • Alleged

: said, without proof, to have taken place or to have a specified illegal or undesirable quality.
  •    “Contradiction”

:  the act of saying something that is opposite or very different in meaning to something else

: a difference or disagreement between two things which means that both cannot be true

Source: Merriam-Webster's Learner's Dictionary

In philosophy, contradictory statements are those that cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive.

If we take this definition of contradiction, then there are no contradictions at all in the Bible, specifically the New Testament. That is why I used the word ‘alleged’, because there are only apparent difficulties that need to be resolved.

T'oros Roslin - Ancestors of Christ



The Genealogies of Christ

It is a known fact that Matthew and Luke present two different genealogies of Jesus. However, again, considering the definitions of ‘contradiction’, these are not two contradictory accounts of Jesus’ family tree.

In fact, to even claim that these genealogies are contradictions is to say that for 2000 years, Christians have not noticed these glaring discrepancies in the Bible! Actually, this argument actually backfires on those who claim that Christians have been freely tampering with their scriptures. If that was the case, we will not have these contradictions in the Bible, would we? Someone would have ‘fixed’ them by now. So the very presence of these lists is evidence of the preservation of the New Testament.

On the contrary, we have evidence that from the early centuries of Christianity, scholarly attempts to explain the differences between the two genealogies. Consider Julius Africanus (as quoted by Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1.7) who proposed the theory that Matthew presents the natural lineage of David, while Luke presents his royal lineage.

Today, the most common theories to explain the two different genealogies are as follows:

1.     Royal and Natural Genealogy

What this means is that Matthew presents David’s ‘royal’ lineage through Solomon, while Luke presents David’s natural descent through his son Nathan. This is the complete opposite of what Africanus proposed in the 3rd century. The theory has widespread support and does have some weight. There is also evidence to suggest that a person could have a double line, and thereby, two genealogies[1].

However, this doesn’t explain why Joseph has two different fathers (Jacob and Heli) and grandfathers (Mattan and Mattat)? For that, we have to examine the other two solutions.

2.     Joseph’s and Mary’s Genealogy

On this view, Matthew records Joseph’s lineage whereas Luke records Mary’s. But then why doesn’t Luke list Mary? It is suggested that this is due to Hebrew tradition of listing descent only through males.

Putting aside the fact that I am yet to find any historical evidence to establish this practice, why would Luke, being Greek, conform to a Jewish practice?

Nevertheless, there are good reasons to suppose that it is not Joseph’s but Mary’s genealogy:

·         The fact that while Joseph is the focus of Matthew’s first 2 chapters, Mary is the focus of the first 3 chapters of Luke. In the former, the angel always comes to Joseph, while in the latter, the angel comes to Mary.

·         Luke doesn’t say that Joseph is the father of Christ, but that this is only “supposed” (ἐνομίζετο – enomizeto)

·         All names in the genealogy are preceded by the definite article (τοῦ- tou), except for that of Joseph.

·         One call also read this genealogy as “…being son of (as was supposed of Joseph), and of Heli, and of Mattat….” and so on. Hence, this means that Joseph is not the son of Heli, but Jesus is the son of both, of Joseph because he wed Mary and of Heli because he is the father of Mary. In fact, the word “son” (υἱοῦ - huiou) has also been used for descendants in these genealogies (Matt 1:1). Hence, the genealogy goes all the way back to establish that Jesus is ‘the son of Adam, and the son of God’ (Luke 3:38), which is what we hear at Jesus’ baptism as few verses earlier (v 22)

·         If Heli is the father-in-law of Joseph, then Joseph can be called the “son” of Heli. We have Biblical precedence for this (Ruth 1:11-12).

Finally, it has been claimed that the Jerusalem Talmud calls Mary the “daughter of Heli” (Hagigah 2:4). If this is indeed the correct translation of the passage in question, then we have historical evidence for this theory.

3.     Levirate Marriage

Finally, we have the theory of the levirate marriage. According to the Law of Moses, if a man died without having children, then his brother will marry the widow. The children born from this marriage will have the name of the deceased brother (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Hence, it is argued that Jacob and Heli were brothers. When Jacob died, Heli married his widow and had Joseph, who will technically be the son of both Jacob (legally) and Heli (biologically).

However, this assumes that Mattan (Matthew 1:15) and Mattat (Luke 3:24) refer to the same person, which they are not. But even if they were one person, one would still ask as to why would Luke name both Jacob and Heli? The law clearly stated that the children will be named after the deceased brother.

I personally find the 2nd theory of Jacob’s and Mary’s genealogy most convincing. In any case, we have to consider the fact any genealogy involving a virgin birth is a “unique case”[2], and has to be treated as such.

In the ultimate analysis, Matthew and Luke did not record the genealogies of Christ for historical purposes only. Their main aim was telling the Good News to their readers. However, this no way suggests that the writers of the New Testament were forging evidence to support their theological motives. They were careful as to what they wrote (Luke 1:1-4).

It is also worth noting that Greco-Roman biographies were not written as scientifically as they are today, and the writers were not concerned about impartial objectivity. It was perfectly alright for ancient histories and biographies to be written to promote a particular viewpoint, and the material to be arranged not only chronologically, but thematically as well[3]. Several biographies of that period that used this approach of writing history are considered trustworthy by historians, so why the same shouldn’t be said of the New Testament?

So the reason we have 2 different genealogies of Christ is that both Matthew and Luke are presenting different aspects of God’s salvific activity in the incarnation of Christ. In the Old Testament, in Genesis 12:3, where God says that all nations in the world will be blessed through Abraham. As time goes on, these prophecies become more specific, and we know that the Promised One will come from:

  • Isaac (Gen 17:18-19)
  • Tribe of Judah (Gen 49:10)
  • Line of David (2 Samuel 7:14)
  • Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)

When we open the New Testament, the very first words are:

"This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham"

And when we open Matthew 2: the first verse is:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea,...., 
….thus fulfilling the identity of the Promised One. And Matthew’s Gospel ends with the blessings to nations (Matthew 28:19).
But there is another prophecy in the Old Testament, in fact it is the first prophecy in the Bible about a promised Redeemer:

"And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)

Of course, this refers to the ongoing tussle of good and evil, the battle between the forces of darkness and light as long as the world continues. But we also find a reference to someone who is about to come, someone who will crush the head of satan for good. This son of humanity, the universal savior, is who we find in the genealogy that Luke records, which goes not back to the Hebrew patriarchs, but to Adam himself.

We can argue the technicalities of both genealogies for hours on end, but if we fail to understand their message, then it will just be an exercise in futility. The content of the gospels is meant to inspire faith (John 20:30-31), and genealogies are no exceptions.





[1]Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 8 (Grand Rapid, Michigan: Zondervan, 1984), 64.

[2]Ibid, 862.
[3] Craig Blomberg’s chapter on The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, 216 in Reasonable Faith
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