Two distinct genealogies of Jesus are given in the Gospels. Matthew 1.1-17 provides a family tree of Jesus that shows his human heritage from Abraham to Joseph over 42 generations (counting Jesus, himself). Luke 3.23-38 provides another genealogy tracing the heritage of Jesus back through the ages, from Joseph to Adam, and ultimately to God. What are the purposes of these ancestral listings (in Hebrew, toledot)? And how can the differences between the lists of Matthew and Luke be explained and reconciled?
A satisfactory answer to the second question is allusive. The differences between the lists is profound. Most obviously, the orientation of the lists is different, as described in my opening paragraph. As glaring as the difference in orientation are the names of the ancestors themselves. Matthew provides the names of 26 ancestors of Jesus from David to Joseph, whereas Luke lists 42 names in the same time frame, and only four names from this time period appear on both Matthew’s and Luke’s lists (David, Zerubbabel, Shealtiel or Salathiel, and Joseph).
How can these significant variances be explained? A common explanation, argued since at least the time of Ambrose in the 4th Century, is that Matthew provides us with the lineage of Jesus through Joseph, whereas Luke provides the heritage of Mary. Three objections counter this argument: Luke does not name Mary in the family tree that he provides, only Joseph; of the time period of Luke’s writing it would go against every known convention to delineate a heritage through one’s mother (although, it is recognized that Mary is no ordinary mother); and, perhaps most convincing to me, is that Luke seems to emphasize that Mary is of the tribe of Levi and not of Judah. The reference to Elizabeth being a Levite of the house of Aaron is not a passing comment (Luke 1.5; cf. 1.36).
Another explanation for the differences between Matthew and Luke is intriguing and would fit with the larger theme found in Luke’s Gospel of Jesus being a champion for the disenfranchised of society. This explanation theorizes that Matthew lists the royal lineage of David, using kingly names, whereas Luke either gives the familial names of these ancestors, or traces a lineage of Jesus through ordinary men (and not kings) while making the vital connection that Jesus was a descendant of David and Zerubbabel (in whom the kingly line of David was preserved following the Babylonian exile). Thus, in this thinking, the differences in names are not discrepancies but representations of the different purposes held by Matthew and Luke as they outline the heritage of Jesus. (To add detail to this argument: Luke preserves the true heritage of Jesus, mostly through ordinary men who were descendants of David but not necessarily kings in their own right, while Matthew is merely providing the line of Davidic kings and chief heirs down to Joseph, and then Jesus, while in actuality the ancestry of Jesus may have bypassed many of the men listed by Matthew.)
As I said before, a satisfactory way to reconcile the divergent lists of Matthew and Luke is allusive to us, but I think the purposes for the lists are clear.
One, Matthew presents his list with an intriguing symmetry of three divisions of 14 generations, giving 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus. In Jewish thinking, numbers were often meaningful. Three fourteens (or six sevens) “bring” Jesus to the head of a seventh seven, which can be understood as the church.
Two, Matthew includes five women in his ancestry of Jesus, including Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba), and Mary. Each woman presents a certain amount of scandal and intrigue to the heritage of Jesus and highlights the providential nature of the coming of Jesus into the world and serves to connect Jesus’ awkward heritage with our own strange family histories (and even stranger relatives!).
Three, as I stated before, Luke is emphasizing the commonness of Jesus’ heritage, while maintaining his royal (Davidic) bloodline. There are a lot of “no names” in Luke’s listing of Jesus’ ancestors.
Four, both Luke and Matthew name Joseph as being the father of Jesus. And as the reader of the Gospel accounts, we also know that Jesus was born of Mary through a conception that was of God. Joseph was not involved in the conception of Jesus, but Matthew and Luke both name him as the human father. Perhaps I overstep by saying this: if we were able to do genetic testing on Jesus, I believe that he would have the DNA of Mary and Joseph. I think that Luke and Matthew clearly assert this in their ancestries of Jesus. And that is one of the wonders of Incarnation: by the power of God, Jesus was the son of Joseph, the son of David, the son of Abraham, the son of Adam . . . (and, yes, the son of Joda, and of many other forgotten men) . . . And, yes, especially, he was the Son of God!
Do you see other purposes in the ancestral lists of Matthew and Luke? Share them with me.