Why Are Jesus’ Genealogies in Matthew and Luke Different?

ZA Blog on December 14th, 2016. Tagged under ,,,,.

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Why are Jesus' genealogies in Matthew and Luke different?

The birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke help answer the question, “Who is Jesus and where did he come from?” One of the ways each book does this is by recounting Jesus’ genealogy.

The problem is: the genealogies are different.

The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would come from the line of David. Both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of Jesus that confirm he was a descendent of David—therefore, a legitimate Messiah. He was a legitimate claimant to the throne of Israel.

But they differ in an important way: Matthew follows the line of David’s son Solomon, while Luke follows the line of Nathan, another Son of David. The end result is two distinct genealogies.

How do we account for this?

Some argue that either Matthew or Luke got it wrong. They created or borrowed a genealogy in order to provide Jesus with a legitimate ancestry. Or they accuse later Christians for artificially creating a genealogy to provide Jesus with a Davidic lineage after the fact.

Yet there are three other possible explanations for the two different genealogies. Let’s explore these below.

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1. One of the genealogies is actually Mary’s.

The simplest solution is that we have genealogies of both parents of Jesus—Joseph and Mary.

In this case, Luke gives us Mary’s genealogy, while Matthew gives us Joseph’s genealogy.

This makes good sense, since Luke’s birth narrative focuses on Mary. Luke tells the story from her perspective.

This proposal is sometimes linked to the judgment pronounced against the line of Solomon by Jeremiah, who prophesied that no descendant of Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 36:30) or his son Jechoniah (Jeremiah 22:24–30) would sit on the throne of David. Jesus avoided this judgment because he was the legal descendant—i.e. through Mary—rather than the physical descendant of David—through Joseph.

Matthew, on the other hand, follows Joseph’s side of the story. Matthew’s narrative moves through the dreams Joseph has.

One problem with this suggestion is that throughout Luke’s birth narrative, he stresses that Joseph is a descendent of David. He never mentions Mary’s Davidic descent. So, despite Luke’s emphasis on Mary in his birth narrative, it would be surprising if his genealogy is Mary’s.

2. One genealogy is a royal or legal genealogy, and the other is a physical genealogy.

Another possible explanation for the two different genealogies is that Matthew presents a royal or legal genealogy, while Luke gives a physical, or actual, genealogy.

In other words, Matthew lists the official line of Davidic kings, not Jesus’ actual ancestors. His point is to show that Joseph is related to that line.

In this view, Luke would be giving us the actual, physical descendants—in other words, a genealogy in the way we’re accustomed to thinking about it.

This may help provide a theological point, but it doesn’t solve the larger problem created by having two genealogies: Joseph can’t have two fathers.

3. Joseph had two fathers.

How can someone have two fathers? That’s a fair question—it’s not physically possible.

However, there are two reasons the text can actually be read this way.

First, some suggest that Mary had no brothers to carry on her father’s name at her marriage, so Heli (Joseph’s father according to Luke) adopted Joseph as his own son. This would then give Joseph two genealogies—his own genealogy and Mary’s genealogy.

Second, it’s also possible to read Joseph’s genealogy in the context of the Old Testament law of levirate marriage.

Levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5: “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her.”

In other words, this law states that a brother of a man who died should marry his brother’s widow to produce heirs for him.

In this case, Heli—Joseph’s father according to Luke’s genealogy—and Jacob—Joseph’s father according to Luke’s genealogy—were either brothers or half-brothers. When one died, the other married his widow, producing Joseph and his offspring. This would leave Joseph with two fathers—both Heli and Jacob—one a natural father, and the other a legal father. From the text, we can’t tell which one is his natural father and which one is his legal father.

The important point is that this could explain why Joseph might have two fathers and therefore two distinct genealogies.

Learn more

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  • Who the magi were and where they came from
  • The evidence that Matthew and Luke are writing from historical traditions, and not just creating stories to fit a theological agenda
  • Why the “inn” Mary and Joseph were turned away from isn’t what you think it is
  • The background and historical context of Jesus birth—the Roman census, Herod’s attempt to kill the infants of Bethlehem, John the Baptist, and more

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This post is adapted from the Four Portraits, One Jesus: Jesus’ Birth, Childhood, and Early Ministry, a free online course taught by Dr. Mark Strauss.

  • Abraham Joseph 2 years ago

    The article needs a correction. In the sentence, “In this case, Heli—Joseph’s father according to Luke’s genealogy—and Jacob—Joseph’s father according to Luke’s genealogy—were either brothers or half-brothers,” it should be noted that Jacob is Joseph’s father according to Matthew’s genealogy, not Luke’s. Luke has been inadvertently repeated. Good article. Thank you.

  • Jon Loewen 2 years ago

    I suggest you rethink the “two fathers” scenario. If the two fathers were brothers as you suggest, they would have identical genealogies making the explanation nonsense. If the two fathers were half brothers, then the grandfathers would have to be unrelated to have different genealogies. This is the Eusebius theory. It is an extremely weak theory because it breaks Jewish law in that the widow (grandmother) didn’t marry her deceased husband’s brother ie. grandfathers couldn’t be brothers.

  • Arthur Massey 2 years ago

    I have been trying to en-role on the Mark l. Strawss. 4 Portraits of…A FREE “Taster” course of 1 unit.
    I find that I cannot work out the user name & no caps/no gaps, create a new account. Nor any promo code. I am told I have something in a basket, but cannot continue my enrollment. I note that I have until 25th Dec., ANY help please, thanks, Arthur Massey.

  • Philip Brown 2 years ago

    The “problem” raised with the first option is not a function of what the text says, but rather of what the writer expects the text to say. I.e., “surprise” is a function of a plausibility structure and not a function of the data as it stands, because we have only one Lukan genealogy and therefore do not have sufficient data to generate a “normal” against which this genealogy could be said to deviate surprisingly.

    The text ὢν υἱός ὡς ἐνομίζετο Ἰωσὴφ τοῦ Ἠλὶ, naturally makes Joseph a parenthetical element rather than a mainline element of the genealogy.

    While options 2 and 3 are possible, they require additional unverifiable assumptions, and thus should have a lower probability or likelihood.

  • Rick Johnson 2 years ago

    I have a question with respect to levirate marriage. Since David’s grandfather Obed was a descendent of Elimelech by way of a levirate type marriage (though not technically the same), why would Boaz, the physical father of Obed, appear in the royal genealogy in Matthew 1 and not Elimelech — if the royal line is determined legally rather than physically? It would seem more likely to me that the genealogy in Luke, based on this, would be the levirate genealogy.

  • Lynn Bush 2 years ago

    Thank you for offering this. I’ve had questions about his birth and little known facts surrounding it.

  • Valery 2 years ago

    It is all plausible. But where did Luke take the records for his genealogy?

  • David Halford 1 year ago

    You can never learn enough about GOD.

  • Dr Julia Archer 1 year ago

    “not Jesus’ actual descendants”. You mean not his actual ancestors. How has this error not been picked up and corrected?

  • Anne White 1 year ago

    Want more background on the Christmas events

  • Anstey Jeremiah 1 year ago

    I have look, studied to some extent, and come to the conclusion that one is Joseph’s and one is Mary’s. Joseph’s shows Jesus’s legal right and Mary his blood rights to the throne. For this to make sense we must consider that women were not mentioned in the genealogy and what I’ve perceived is that when a woman is the “Davidic carrier”, her father takes the next place in the genealogy. This would explain why (possibly) no descendant of Jehoiachin would ascend or be in consideration to ascend to the throne. Added to that there seems to be a levirate marriage between Pedaiah (Shieltiel’s Brother) and the widow of Shieltiel since 1 Chr 3:17 list Pedaiah as the father of Zerrubbabel. And if that is the case it will explain why the father of Shieltiel is not Jehoiachin in the Luke Genealogy. What I really had problem with the genealogies is what was considered a ‘generation’ since Luke genealogy had much more people. I perceived though as bloodlines go; a woman is a mother at about 13 years, a grandmother at 26 and great grandmother at 40. This helped somewhat. On the legal side I know that kings did not usually install their firstborns as heir to the throne, there was an upset also when Ataliah killed all the heirs and Josh was installed in his early years. I have noted too that since Rehoboam and his wife were ‘royals’ the genealogy could have also been traced through Absalom since Maacah, Rehoboam’s wife, was Absalom’s grand-daughter. I hope you can enlighten me further on this.

  • Gospel Synopsis: The Genealogies « The Jesus Memoirs 1 year ago

    […] Mark Strauss, “Why are Jesus’ Genealogies in Matthew and Luke Different“ […]

  • Henry Platsky 1 year ago

    As for the three hypothetical explanations for the two different genealogies:

    1) The two clearly start and end with Joseph, not Mary.
    2) Matthew 1-1 reads: “The Book o the genealogy of Jesus Christ…” What could be clearer?
    3)There is no Scriptural justification for this.

    There is another explanation which is completely Scriptural and, in one way, very simple but in another way quite difficult. That explanation is: two genealogies=two different people. There is a great deal of Scriptural justification for this which I will review but the difficulty is that it overthrows “orthodox” tradition.

    But going to the Scriptures: Isaiah 7-14 reads (KJV): “…the Lord will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son…” Note this is a sign from God, it does not say this child is the actual Messiah. Then in Isaiah 11 starting with 1 we read: “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse…The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding…” obviously referring to the Messiah. How could be same child be born of the virgin and be of the root of Jesse (of course meaning also the root of David)?

    More: in Luke 3-23 in King James we read: “Now Jesus Himself began his ministry at about thirty years of age being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph…” and then into the genealogy of Luke.
    As was supposed! NIV solves this problem by omitting the phrase in parentheses but then you’re still stuck with two different genealogies.

    Also note Paul in his letter to the Romans. He writes in verse three: “Concerning His son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of the David according to the flesh.”(KJV) Paul was, of course initiated into the circle of Christians by the apostles themselves and his knowledge of Jesus stems directly from them so he clearly knows the true origins of Jesus. Note nowhere in any of the letters is there any discussion of the virgin birth! If it is so important how is it no one thinks to mention it though the crucifixtion and resurrection are repeatedly discussed.

    It is not unlike God to throw a little mystery our way but, blessed be He, He gives us plenty of clues to work with. Christians wrestling with this mystery ultimately will have to choose between the Scriptures and tradition. Let the word of God prevail over the word of men.

    (Thank you Rudolph Steiner for the above insights).

  • Linda Ford 12 months ago

    Interested in this. Never fully understood.

  • Why Are Jesus’ Genealogies in Matthew and Luke Different? | A disciple's study 12 months ago
  • Anah Maxwell 12 months ago

    Interesting expose`.
    Need to learn more though it would not affect my belief in Christ. Interpretation might have been a problem!

  • Michael Janapin 12 months ago

    It looks like everyone who have commented to this article thus far is treating both accounts as if they are strict historical records, which is a common assumption among Christian readers.

    Since we are dealing with an ancient text, may we also employ other ‘non-historical’ way of understanding it? Say, could Matthew and Luke be employing different literary techniques in order to deliver a theological point, i.e., the person being traced here is from God (Luke) and is a descendant of David and Abraham (Matthew)?

    Just my two cents.

  • Maria 12 months ago

    The Levirate marriage could not be the case since she said she had never known a man.

  • Gwen Bain 10 months ago

    I would like to know more about the genealogies of JESUS

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    […] Check out one writer’s simple perspective on three varying explanations about the differences in Matthew and Luke’s genealogies here […]

  • Anita 9 months ago

    Numbers 23:19 New King James Version (NKJV)

    “19 “God is not a man, that He should lie,
    Nor a son of man, that He should repent.
    Has He said, and will He not do?
    Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?”

    There is a ANOTHER possibility. In God’s system, the fathers are the head of the household. Joseph’s lineage as that head may have been considered to be so important that it was the ONLY lineage used. These two genealogies may be both Joseph’s genealogy – one from his mother’s side and one from his father’s side. God doesn’t lie.

  • Pastor Anita Hiltz 8 months ago

    You forgot one other possibility. God does not lie. The genealogies could be BOTH Joseph’s – one from his father’s side and one from his mother’s side. His mother’s side would fall back to her father’s side Heli. Every person has two genealogies paternal and maternal.

  • Thomas Zogah 5 months ago

    This is my first time of doing my biblical research here but, it seems am liking it. Thanks.

  • Priscilla Palacio 5 months ago

    Thank you for this explanation. I’ve been studying about Islam and they pointed out these discrepancies. After living in Middle East for some time, I’ve learned that even if one is adopted, they do not change their name or carry on their adoptive fathers geneology. Do you think this was the case in Mary and Joseph’s days?

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    […] Find other plausible explanations to the genealogy question here. […]

  • anonymous 2 months ago

    The authors are anonymous and written decades later and mostly copies of each other, so I wouldn’t put much credence into these books, or anything from the bible anyway. Everything in the bible (Jesus included) only is aware of things that Bronze Age people knew / thought they knew. Jesus didn’t know about washing his hands before eating and that epilepsy was demons. Old testament mentions 4 corners of the Earth as if it were flat.
    Please look up actual people that lived during 0-50 AD and you’ll find that not only is there nearly no reference to the character Jesus, but if it were true, you’d expect many to write about him. Not saying Jesus didn’t exist (although, there’s no evidence that he did), just realize that in the same way people think they’ve seen Aliens today, it’s easy to reason that people at the time got confused and though a regular man was more than that.

  • kenn 3 weeks ago

    ~~ God said in Genesis 3:15 —
    And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. 
    P’r’aps the 2nd [?] genealogy reflects Jesus fulfilling the prophecy as Mary’s “seed”….
    as always: hth, ymmv, fwiw, and imho !

  • Nellie Redmond 1 week ago

    Has anyone taken into consideration that the two lineages could possibly be Joseph’s father and mother’s genealogy. That makes more sense to me. Yet even if that’s the case. Jesus was not the actual son of Joseph. The Holy Spirit was Jesus’ father. So then in that case Mary’s genealogy would be the most accurate and important.