Literalists need not worry: reconciling Jesus genealogies in Matthew and Luke


But there are many unsophisticated Christians out there who think it absolutely is necessarily so — who take the Bible very seriously indeed as a literal and accurate record of history and hence as evidence supporting their religious beliefs. Do these people never open the book that they believe is the literal truth? Why don’t they notice those glaring contradictions? Shouldn’t a literalist worry about the fact that Matthew traces Joseph’s descent from King David via twenty-eight intermediate generations, while Luke has forty-one generations? Worse, there is almost no overlap in the names on the two lists! In any case, if Jesus really was born of a virgin, Joseph’s ancestry is irrelevant and cannot be used to fulfil, on Jesus’ behalf, the Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah should be descended from David (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. Boston and New York: First Mariner Books, 2008, page 120).

In a more recent post, I’ve said that Richard Dawkins believes the records of Matthew and Luke with regard to Jesus’ birth and Nazareth are seemingly contradictory. They aren’t, but the goal of Dawkins’ statements is to get you to consider they are at face value. Without taking you to the factors or details mentioned in the text, Dawkins’ goal is to get believers to doubt their faith on the basis of his claim about the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I’ve already shown that his analyses are one interpretation, though I believe his is flawed, but again, Dawkins is an atheist. He’s approaching the discussion of the Gospels from a different perspective: instead of believing the words of Scripture, he’s approaching it as though it is like tabloid news (written for the purposes of thrill or entertainment, rather than truth).

The quote above continues Dawkins’s attacks on Matthew and Luke. He’s attacked whether or not Joseph and Mary were in Nazareth before traveling to Bethlehem or moved to Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth. Now, he’s back in this quote to attack the Jesus genealogies, the accounts of Jesus’ bloodline. What Dawkins doesn’t understand or accept, rather, is that Matthew and Luke’s Jesus genealogies can be seen in a different light than his own. He claims that one can’t be a literalist and yet, accept both genealogical accounts in Matthew and Luke. Since Matthew has 28 intermediate generations from King to Joseph while Luke has 41 generations of descent. How can one reconcile Matthew and Luke’s Jesus genealogies?

First, we’ll examine Matthew and Luke’s Jesus genealogies on their own, then reconcile them and respond to Richard Dawkins.

Genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew

In Matthew 1:1, Matthew describes Jesus as “the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” These words refer to Jesus’ Jewish descent from Abraham and David. In other words, Matthew’s goal is to focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Luke has a different agenda entirely.

Matthew 1:2 goes into the names of earlier ancestors in the genealogy of Jesus: “Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers.” Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s sons are those in the line through whom the promised Messiah comes. Of course, Jesus is the promised Messiah.

Now, when we get to Matthew 1:16, we see that Joseph’s line is mentioned here, and Joseph is described as “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ.” Keep in mind that Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, but Mary, who is of the lineage of David, is Jesus’ biological mother. Why would Matthew write Matthew 1 this way, then? Because of the Jewish cultural, which was patriarchal in these days. We do see women mentioned, such as Rahab (v.5), Ruth (v.5), and Bathsheba is not referred to by name but by description: she is “her who had been the wife of Uriah” (v.6). Joseph and Mary were both devout Jews. Joseph is the “earthly” father of Jesus who helps rear Him to manhood, but Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. If he had been, he wouldn’t have wanted to end the engagement upon seeing that Mary was pregnant (see Matthew 1:18-25).


The Genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3

Investigating the Gospel of Luke. Image Credit: MFHBC

Luke 3 brings a different focus on the genealogy of Jesus Christ, with the genealogy starting in verse 23 and going through verse 38. Whereas Matthew starts his genealogy of Jesus with Abraham, Luke starts his with Joseph, “as was supposed” (v.23) to be the father of Jesus. Throughout Luke 3, we see names such as “Judah” (v.30), “Joseph” (v.30), “David” (v.31), “Jesse” (v.32), “Obed” (v.32), “Boaz” (v.32), followed by Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham. The genealogy even stretches back to Shem (v.36), Noah (v.36), Lamech (v.36), Methuselah (v.37), Enoch (v.37), Seth (v.38), Adam (v.38), and God (v.38).

What we see here is that Matthew starts with Abraham and works his way up to Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ earthly parents, while Luke starts with Joseph (doesn’t mention Mary in his genealogy) and works his way back to God. Matthew portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, while Luke is concerned with showing that Jesus is both human (he is the son of Adam) and divine (Son of God).

Luke does highlight that Jesus is the promised Messiah to Israel when he places Jesus as an 8-day-old boy in the Jewish temple in the arms of the prophet Simeon (see Luke 2:25-35), but that’s not his primary goal with regard to Jesus’ genealogy. He’s writing to Theophilus to give a careful record of all that was true about Jesus (see Luke 1:1-3), so Luke wants to be thorough rather than show Jesus’ Jewishness (though the circumcision and promised Messiah themes are present in Luke’s Gospel).

Reconciling Jewishness and human/divine natures

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Image Credit: Be The Light

How does one reconcile the themes “Jewishness of Jesus, fulfillment of OT prophecy” and “Jesus is Son of Man and Son of God” from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke? Dawkins points to the fact that these two Gospels have two different sets of names, but that’s not entirely true. Notice Dawkins says in his quote above that there is “almost no overlap,” not that there isn’t overlap. Both genealogies mention David, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, among others, so the genealogy of Matthew and that of Luke have some matching names by which we can identify the persons mentioned.

The differences are likely found in that Luke has done more careful, detailed research into the life of Jesus as opposed to Matthew, whose only goal is to show that Jesus came down from the line of Abraham — that He is the seed of Abraham that was prophesied by God Himself to “crush the head of the serpent” (Genesis 3:15), the one through whom all the families of the earth would be blessed.

Matthew’s genealogy is partial, designed to cover certain generations he felt were important to his overall emphases. Have you noticed that, in his genealogy of Jesus, Matthew writes phrases such as “they were carried away to Babylon” (Matthew 1:11)? This phrase makes reference to the Babylonian Captivity, an event of prime importance to Jews in their history. Matthew’s mention shows his aim.

So, with that said, it’s easy to see why Luke has 41 generations and Matthew has 28: Matthew’s goal is to show Jesus’ Jewishness (with the most important persons mentioned), while Luke’s job is to show that Jesus’ genealogy stretches back to God and the first human (Adam).

In the end, both of these can be reconciled: Jesus is Jewish and has two natures (humanity and divinity), so these are not conflicting themes but rather, cooperative themes. Jesus is Jewish, born of the virgin Mary, and He, being divine, took on flesh and dwelt among us (as John says in his Prologue). Therefore, Jesus is Jewish, human, and divine, and these themes make sense because of Scripture.

Luke also mentions Jesus’ Jewishness in some detail. Luke goes into discussion of Jesus as being given “the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32), mentions the Jewish lineage of Joseph (“because he was of the house and lineage of David, 2:4), and refers to Bethlehem in Jewish terms (“the city of David,” Luke 2:11). Luke mentions the eight days necessary before the child could be circumcised (2:21), the days of purification and the sacrifice demanded (Luke 2:21-24), and refers to Jesus as “the Consolation of Israel” with regard to Simeon taking baby Jesus in his arms (2:25).

In Luke 2:39, Luke says that the family returns to Nazareth “when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord.” There would’ve been little need to write about them performing all the requirements of the Mosaic Law if Luke was writing to Gentiles. And in verses 41-42, Luke explains that going to Jerusalem for the Passover was a common event (“custom of the feast,” etc.) Again, Luke’s emphasis was to explain things to Gentiles, whereas Matthew’s aim is for the Jews, to show that Jesus was Jewish, to appeal to Jews.


Richard Dawkins quote from The God Delusion. Image Credit: AZ Quotes

In the final analysis, 41 generations vs. 28 generations, and the small overlap with different names isn’t a problem. It would be the same as if someone wrote a biography on you and focused on your mother’s side of the family, while someone else wrote a biography and focused on your father’s side of the family. Let’s say that someone was concerned with writing a book about the women in your life and traced your mom, grandmother, aunts, uncles, female cousins, sisters, etc.

In writing about your mother, then grandmother, then sisters, female cousins, etc., information about your brothers, father, uncles, grandfathers, and male cousins would go missing. Does that mean that the record is “inaccurate” or “contradictory”? No it doesn’t: your mother and father’s families will have two different sets of names, but those names aren’t contradictory but rather, one part of your family tree. The same can be said for Jesus. When you put the genealogies of your mother’s biological family with that of your father’s biological family, you arrive at your entire family tree. Each genealogy (mother and father) could be broken into separate parts to suit the purpose of the biography or the agenda of the writer. Richard Dawkins does not consider authorial intent.

Richard Dawkins’s goal with his claims about Matthew and Luke is designed to get you to deem the accounts “contradictory” or inconsistent at first glance without considering the details, without looking at the goal of the writers and how their different genealogies meet their goals/themes/emphases in their respective Gospels.

Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke can be reconciled with regard to Jesus’ genealogies, believers and the Bible take this round.