Jesus’ Conflicting Genealogies

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. I: The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, from the Apostle’s Creed to Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1983) 119.

[The Protoevangelium of James,] most probably, was a product of the middle of the second century, and certainly was in existence at the end of this century…In it the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, appear for the first time.

Matthew 1 and Luke 3:23-38 contain different genealogies of Jesus. The way many conservative Christians handle this is by saying that Matthew 1 is Jesus’ genealogy through Joseph, whereas Luke 1 is his genealogy through Mary. Perky Chris on Adventures in Odyssey made this claim. And a professor I had at DePauw stated that this is the traditional Christian interpretation, though he went on to say that the genealogies are more theological than factual.

What is the rationale for seeing Luke 3:23-38 as Mary’s genealogy? One book I read pointed out that Luke focuses on Mary in his story of Jesus’ birth, whereas Matthew looks more at Joseph. And, while this is true in terms of their respective narratives, both of their genealogies appear to be through Joseph. Matthew 1:16 has “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah” (NRSV). And Luke 3:23 says that Jesus “was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli…”

But many conservatives have a way to get around this: they say that Heli was actually the father of Mary, but that he was reckoned as the father of Joseph. For them, maybe this is because “son” could be a fluid term in the Jewish culture of the day, meaning it could apply to a son-in-law. Conservatives point to Ezra 2:61 and Nehemiah 7:63, in which a man names himself after his father-in-law, Barzillai, the implication being (I think) that Joseph called himself the son of his father-in-law, Heli.

But, according to Quasten, the earliest Christian tradition about the name of Mary’s father calls him Joachim, not Heli. While people could have two names in ancient Israel (Solomon’s name was also Jedidiah; II Samuel 12:24-25), why would the Protoevangelium call Mary’s father “Joachim” rather than “Heli”? Wouldn’t it want to reconcile Matthew and Luke’s genealogies by calling Mary’s dad “Heli”?

Here, I’m doing what I’ve criticized others for doing: an argument from silence. “If the ancient author knew that Mary’s father was named Heli, he would have mentioned it. But he doesn’t mention it, so he must not have believed that Heli was Mary’s father.” To arguments of this sort (albeit with different topics), I’ve often responded, “Who says?” Just because an ancient writer doesn’t act according to our expectations, that doesn’t mean he was unaware of a tradition. Against what I said above, one could ask, “Why should we assume that the Protoevangelium had the agenda of reconciling Matthew and Luke’s genealogies? Maybe Joachim and Heli were the same person, and the author chose to call Mary’s father Joachim, even though he knew the guy had both names.”

Fair enough. It’s just odd to me that the earliest story about Mary’s father calls him “Joachim,” when many conservatives are so dogmatic about her father being Heli, in their attempt to reconcile two contradictory genealogies in the Bible.

How did ancient Christian thinkers address the different genealogies in Matthew and Luke? Here, I want to look at the views of Eusebius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) and Augustine (fourth-fifth centuries C.E.).

1. Eusebius seeks to harmonize the two genealogies in his Ecclesiastical History, Book I, Chapter 7. He refers to Africanus (third century C.E.), who offered a solution (see here). Africanus rejects the “solution” that one genealogy contains Jesus’ priestly lineage, whereas the other has his royal lineage, for he notes that both trace Jesus’ genealogy through King David.

Africanus’ proposal is this: Joseph had two fathers, Jacob and Heli, who were half-brothers. Jacob was his biological father, whereas Heli was his dead legal father, as I’ll explain later.

Jacob was the son of Matthan, who had him with a woman named Estha. When Matthan died, Estha married a man from another family, by the name of Melchi. Melchi and Estha bore Heli. And so we have two half brothers, Jacob and Heli, who had the same mother but different fathers, from different families.

Heli married a woman and died childless. According to Deuteronomy 25:5-10, when a man dies childless, his brother is supposed to marry the man’s widow and raise up seed for him. This is called Levirate marriage. And this is what Heli’s half-brother Jacob did: he married Heli’s widow and had a son by her, named Joseph. Legally, Joseph was the son of Heli, since Jacob and Heli’s widow had Joseph to perpetuate Heli’s line. Biologically, however, Joseph was the son of Jacob.

According to the wikipedia article on “The Genealogy of Jesus,” however, Mishnah Yebamoth 1.1 says that Levirate marriage doesn’t apply to two half-brothers who share the same mother, but not the same father. Right now, I don’t understand what the Mishnah passage is getting that, and I already racked my brain trying to comprehend Eusebius and Africanus, so (for now) I’ll leave this question to anyone who wants to tackle it.

2. In On Eighty-Three Varied Questions 61, Augustine states the following about the two genealogies (the translation is from the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture):

But just as Matthew, presenting Christ the king as if descending for the assumption of our sins, thus descends from David through Solomon, because Solomon was born of her with whom David sinned, so Luke, presenting Christ the priest as if ascending after the destroying of sins, ascends through Nathan to David, because Nathan the prophet had been sent, and by his reproof the penitent David obtained the annulling of his sin.

The genealogies in Matthew and Luke start to diverge with the son of David. Matthew says Jesus was the descendant of David’s son, Solomon, whereas Luke traces Jesus’ lineage back to David’s son, Nathan. The Hebrew Bible mentions a son of David by the name of Nathan (II Samuel 5:14; I Chronicles 3:5), and I Chronicles 3:5 even states that Nathan (like Solomon) was David’s son by Bath-sheba.

But Augustine here doesn’t appear to think that the Nathan in Luke’s genealogy was the son of David, but rather the prophet Nathan (unless he holds that Nathan the prophet was David’s son). For Augustine, Luke’s genealogy mentions Nathan the prophet to make a theological point: Luke presents Jesus as a priest who takes away sin, and so his genealogy has Nathan the prophet, who influenced David to repent and receive forgiveness, which resulted in God’s removal of David’s sin. Augustine seems to explain the genealogies as my professor at DePauw did: in reference to theology rather than lineage.

What’s my view on this? I think the Levirate marriage description makes some sense. In this scenario, Luke presents Jesus’ legal line, which is sensible. Matthew, however, has a clear reason for using Jesus’ (or, actually, Joseph’s) biological line: it has Solomon, who is the son of David through whom the royal line flows (II Samuel 7). But, here, we run into a problem. Jesus is not technically descended from Solomon because of the virgin birth, and many conservative Christians respond that Jesus was legally descended from Solomon through Joseph, through Joseph’s adoption of him. But Matthew 1 isn’t Joseph’s legal line, but rather his biological line. So how can Jesus legally be descended from Solomon, if Solomon isn’t a part of his father’s legal line? Or could the biological line have some legal status?

I can sympathize with Augustine’s agenda. While I like the message about forgiveness that he derives from the genealogies, however, I ultimately disagree with him, since the Nathan in Luke’s genealogy was the son of David, not the prophet. I doubt that Nathan the prophet was David’s son by Bath-sheba, as Nathan the son of David was, for Nathan the prophet was an adult right when David first met and slept with Bath-sheba.

But the genealogies are making theological points. Matthew 1 mentions women in Jesus’ genealogy who had sordid reputations, yet their acts led to the Son of God. This could have justified Christianity’s outreach to sinners, while also defending the virgin birth. Against those who claimed that Jesus was born through fornication (John 8:41), Matthew makes two arguments: (1.) Jesus was born of a virgin, not through fornication, and (2.) God doesn’t always use conventional means to accomplish his work, for, in the Hebrew Bible, he used women who had bad reputations.

Luke’s genealogy culminates in Adam being the Son of God, which may serve to emphasize that Jesus is Son of God. So perhaps we can go with the genealogies’ theological points, even if they’re contradictory and lack a solid historical ground. Yet, I can understand why people would disagree with this point, since Jesus’ Messianic status rests on him being the son of David. But was he the son of David, if he were born of the virgin Mary, whose genealogy we don’t have (as far as I know)? And what about the biblical passages in which Jesus appears to deny being the son of David (Mark 12:35-37)?

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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