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A Problem in the Family Tree... or Trees: Why are Jesus' Genealogies Different? (Bonus Section)

SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.

The Jewish Messiah was expected to be a descendant of both Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people, and the famous King David. To show that Jesus fulfills this requirement, both Gospel writers Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of Jesus’ lineage (Matthew 1:1–17; Luke 3:23–38), but there appears to be some inconsistencies between them.

Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham. Luke traces it past Abraham, all the way back to Adam, the first man God created. Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies match up to King David, but then they differ as they move forward until they hit Joseph, Jesus’ adopted father. This appears to be a big problem. So, how do we rectify this?


First, we have to understand that the Gospel writers focused on different things. Take a moment to think back to your high school English lessons. All writing has an audience, and any writer worth anything writes with that audience in mind.

Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. When read carefully, one sees Matthew is concerned (especially in the first few chapters) with showing his fellow Jews that Jesus is, in fact, the long awaited Messiah predicted in the Jewish scripture.

Luke, on the other hand, was a non-Jew—a gentile—and his Gospel’s target audience appears to be all people, not just Jews. When considering the different primary audiences of each Gospel, it makes sense why Luke goes all the way back to Adam, the first human, and Matthew only goes back to Abraham, the first Jew.

Further, when we consider writing styles and other genealogies from that time and culture, it becomes clear that Matthew’s shorter list is not a straightforward genealogy like we find in Luke. In fact, other biblical genealogies are known to be "selective" [1]. Matthew lists his genealogy in three sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ. Using creative license in arranging genealogies, such as in an easy-to-memorize structure or to emphasize certain individuals, was common practice. Matthew regularly organizes things both thematically and topically throughout his Gospel.

Moreover, might there also be some “deliberate symbolism” in Matthew’s more creative genealogy? [2] Certainly! Fourteen represents seven multiplied by two. Seven is the number of completion and perfection in Jewish culture since God created all things in six days and “rested” on the seventh (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Seven is also the numerical value of the name “David” in Hebrew.

So, Matthew isn’t giving an exhaustive list of Jesus’ lineage. In other words, Matthew’s is an edited genealogy, where Luke (known for his historical accuracy) is a straightforward list.


But this still doesn’t explain why both genealogies match only up to King David and not after. After David, Matthew lists the renowned King Solomon, but Luke names Nathan, Solomon’s considerably less famous brother. If Solomon is Beyoncé, Nathan is one of those other ladies in Destiny’s Child (or, if you prefer, if Solomon is Eddie Van Halen, Nathan is that guy playing bass.)

To make sense of this, first, note that genealogies were a big deal among the Jews. Genealogies were recorded for safekeeping of legal rights (including land rights) and kept secure and accessible. Matthew or Luke have no good excuse for getting things wrong, and if they did, someone would’ve called them on it. So, this is a clue that these differences may be purposeful.

Secondly, genealogies from that part of the world at that time “could serve widely diverse functions: economic, tribal, political, domestic (to show family or geographical relationships), and others” [3]. We already saw that Matthew and Luke had different primary goals and audiences in mind.

So, one possible explanation for the differences is that Matthew follows Jesus’ lineage through King David’s famous son Solomon to trace his legal heritage. Matthew’s birth narrative focuses on Joseph, who is not a blood relative of Jesus since Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit. Yet, Joseph has the legal right to the throne going back to David through Solomon and that, in turn, is passed on to his adopted son.

On the other hand, Luke may follow Jesus’ lineage through David’s lesser known son Nathan to trace his physical heritage, his bloodline. Luke’s birth narrative focuses on Mary, who, unlike Joseph, is related to Jesus through blood. Note that Luke deliberately points out in his Gospel that Jesus was the son of Joseph “so it was thought” (Luke 3:23 NIV)

So, with two Gospels giving two genealogies, the question of whether Jesus has the correct lineage to be the Messiah gets a double-answer. Jesus is the Messiah through both law and blood—through both his physical mother and his adopted father!

Though there’s no way to be 100% certain that this is the solution to the differences in the genealogies, it’s a plausible explanation. Other solutions have been proposed. As one scholar notes, “To all this it must be added that we possess not a poverty but a plethora of possibilities. Therefore the lack of certainty due to incomplete information need not imply error in either genealogy” [4].

[1] The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament by R.T. France. P.29.

[2] The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament by R.T. France. P.31.

[3] The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol.8, Matthew by D. A. Carson. P.62.

[4] The Expositor's Bible Commentary Vol.8, Luke by Walter L. Liefeld. P.861–862.


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