Those willing to admit it might tell us that they hasten through certain parts of the Bible because they are “boring.” The genealogies of the Bible often receive that label.[i] They are full of hard to pronounce names that go on and on. But these genealogies are included for a reason. God made a promise, beginning in Genesis 3:15, about a descendant of Eve (Abraham, Judah, David, and so on). The Bible focuses on this descendant. So, by tracing a part of the human family from Adam and Eve forward, the Bible funnels us down to the one descendant who fulfills the prophecies about that one.
The New Testament provides two accounts of the lineage of Jesus – one in Matthew 1:1-17 and the other in Luke 3:23-38.[ii] Matthew starts with Abraham. Luke begins (chronologically) with Adam.[iii] The lists are identical between Abraham and David,[iv] but differ from that point moving to Jesus. Matthew traces the lineage through David’s son Solomon (Matthew 1:6-7), while Luke traces the lineage through David’s son Nathan (Luke 3:31).
Are these errors in the Bible and the genealogy of Jesus? Those who reject the inspiration and preservation of the biblical record are quick to say so,[v] but the differences are easily explained.[vi] Matthew records Jesus’s legal line, through Joseph (though not his biological father, Joseph was recognized as Jesus’s legal father). This line descends from David through his son Solomon. Luke records Jesus’s biological (or blood) line through his mother Mary. This line descends from David through his son Nathan. Both legally and biologically, Jesus is a son of David. Luke called Joseph the “son of Heli” due to his marriage to Mary, who was Heli’s daughter.[vii] Tracing a genealogy through the mother is unusual. I do not know of any other biblical instance of it. But the circumstance of Jesus’s birth – born of a virgin – was unique. There is none other like it! We are clued to the difference in this genealogy through Luke’s explanation is that Jesus being “(as was supposed)” the son of Joseph, (Luke 3:23).
This will not satisfy those who reject the authority of the Bible, but simple Christians have no problem with this explanation.
[i] The genealogies of the Bible fall into two styles, ascending and descending. Descending genealogies begin in the present and trace backward to some person (as in Luke 3; Cf. Ezra 7:1-5). Ascending genealogies start with a particular person in the past and move forward to the present (as in Matthew 1; Cf. Genesis 5:1-32; Ruth 4:18-22). Biblical ascending genealogies are more likely to include extra information, while descending genealogies tend to be linked lists of names.
[ii] The gospels of Mark and John begin with Jesus as an adult, while Matthew and Luke begin with his birth. It is logical those two would recite the lineage and the other two would not.
[iii] Since Luke starts at the present and works backward, he technically ends with Adam.
[iv] The male ancestors are identical; Matthew includes some details not in Luke.
[v] Even if one rejects Holy Spirit inspiration and providential preservation, it is strange to believe that both those who wrote and those who compiled the books of the New Testament overlooked what would have been such a blatant contradiction in the genealogies – suggesting they understood the differences. Thomas Paine, in The Age of Reason, claimed Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies “contradict each other in every particular” (they do not) and that this “proves falsehood absolutely.” Yet, if the disciples of Jesus fabricated a genealogy of Jesus to prove the point of his being David’s son, it is inexplicable that they would have deliberately included two contradictory accounts!
[vi] The church historian Eusebius, referring to Julius Africanus in his epistle to Aristides, gives a different harmony of the genealogies – according to nature and according to the law. Evidently he believed that Matthew was tracing the biological line and that Luke was taking into account what we call “levirate marriage”. In The Virgin Birth of Christ, J. Gresham Machen argues that Joseph is the legal heir of is Jacob, who died without issue, and that Joseph is the son of Jacob’s brother Heli. So, according to Machen, Matthew gives the legal descent and Luke the physical one. “…the Lucan genealogy traces the actual physical ancestors of Joseph back to David, while the Matthæan genealogy enumerates the successive heirs to the Davidic throne.” (p. 207) Under this explanation, Matthan and Matthat would be different spellings for the same person – Joseph’s grandfather.
[vii] I have been taught that there was no Greek word for “son-in-law,” but have made no personal investigation of the subject. God’s promise was made to David. Jesus was a legal heir of Joseph (a descendant of David), but was not the son of Joseph. Therefore, it is important to show that his mother Mary was also a descendant of David.