Luke’s Different Genealogy

by Eric D. Huntsman, from Good Tidings of Great Joy, 26–27

The Gospel of Luke provides a genealogy for Jesus that is substantially different from that which Matthew records.  Whereas Matthew uses his genealogy to begin his Infancy Narrative, Luke delays listing Jesus’ ancestors until Luke 3:23–38, placing it between Jesus’ baptism and the account of his being tempted in the wilderness.  Luke’s genealogy is structurally different, ascending from Jesus “being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph” up to Adam, “which was the son of God,” rather than descending from Abraham through David down to Joseph as Matthew’s does.  Going all the way back to Adam reflects the wider outlook of Luke, whose Gospel focuses more on the inclusion of the Gentiles in Christ than does Matthew’s.  Furthermore, whereas Matthew’s genealogy stresses that Jesus was the Son of David, the closing statement in Luke’s account emphasizes Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, a point that had just been emphasized in Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus where God pronounced “Thou art my beloved Son” (Luke 3:22).

However, the most obvious and difficult-to-explain discrepancy between the genealogies is found in the substantially different names that occur in the two lists.  Matthew traces Davidic descent through the recognized royal line from David to Solomon and then through the different kings of Judah.  Luke, on the other hand, charts the descent through David’s son Nathan, perhaps reflecting the prophecy that no descendant of Jehoiakim, one of the last successors of David through Solomon, would sit on the throne of David (see Jeremiah 36:30).  The lists briefly converge again with the figures of “Salathiel” (Shealtiel) and “Zorobabel” (Zerubbabel), descendants of David who returned from the Babylonian exile, but they then again diverge, continuing with different names all the way to Joseph’s father, whom Luke names “Heli” (Eli) rather than Jacob.

Various attempts have been made to reconcile some or all of the differences between the two lists.  As early as the Church Father Julius Africanus (c. A.D. 160–240), the difference in the name of Joseph’s father was explained by appealing to the practice of Levirate marriage, whereby the widow of a man who had died childless was married to the deceased husband’s brother, with any offspring from the second marriage being attributed to the first husband.  By this argument, the Jacob mentioned by Matthew died childless and his wife then married Jacob’s half-brother (who hence had a different father) named Heli, who actually fathered Joseph.  Taking another approach, Annius of Viterbo proposed in A.D. 1490 that Heli was actually Joseph’s father-in-law rather than his father.  While this option ignores the construction of Luke 3:23, which clarifies that Joseph was the son and not the son-in-law of Heli, the possibility that Luke’s genealogy is actually that of Mary remains attractive to many because this would demonstrate that Jesus was the literal as well as legal descendant of David.[1]  Another explanation posits that Matthew’s account represents Joseph’s, and hence Jesus’, legal genealogy in terms of royal succession, while Luke’s account attempts to record his actual or biological lineage.  This too, is an attractive explanation, but it would require that the entire line from Solomon to Jehoiakim died out, at which point it passed to that of Nathan somehow through Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, and then this branch also lapsed.[2]

Many scholars propose that Matthew and Luke simply used different, competing genealogical lists of descendants of David that were circulating at the time in order to illustrate different ideas, in particular that Jesus was the Son of David and heir to the promises of Abraham (Matthew) and that he was the Son of God and belonged to the entire human family (Luke).[3]  While the details of the lists are different and often remain difficult to reconcile, the points where they do agree represent the most important theological truths: namely that Jesus, through both Joseph and Mary, was heir to the covenants and promises that God made with Abraham and David.

 [1] Bruce R. McConkie, Mortal Messiah (Deseret Book, 1979), 1:316; Alonzo Gaskill, Nativity (Deseret Book, 2006), 24–25.

[2] Holzapfel, Huntsman, and Wayment, Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament (Deseret Book 2006), 112–13.

[3] Raymond E. Brown, Birth of the Messiah (Yale, 1999), 84–94; Vermes, Nativity (Doubleday, 2007), 28–38; Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas (HarperOne, 2009), 82–87.