by Ed Gallagher
I have no interest in getting my DNA tested to find out where my ancestors came from.1 It is not an issue that intrigues me at all. I have always thought of my ancestry as Irish, but I don’t really care if that is fiction and I’ve actually inherited more DNA from the Germans or the Native Americans or Asians or Africans or whatever. Nor do I watch the television shows featuring celebrities who get their DNA tested to discover such revelations. But I guess my lack of interest is not universal because, well … those television programs are still on the air, and I continue to see advertisements for websites that are supposed to help you find out about your ancestors. And I’ve got a family member, my Aunt Jo, who has done a lot of genealogical research on our family and traced our ancestors back, I don’t know, a few centuries, I guess. Some people are interested in that sort of thing.
Ancient Jews were interested in that sort of thing. The Bible likes genealogies. It has a bunch of them. There’s one book of the Bible, Chronicles, that starts with nine chapters of genealogies. Some people think Leviticus is the toughest book of the Bible to make it through when you’re trying to read through the Bible in a year or something, but to me that award goes to Chronicles simply because of all those names.
What’s the problem with all those names? Well, it’s sort of like when a missionary comes to church to give a report on what he’s been doing in darkest Peru or wherever, and he runs through 75 pictures of people we’ve never heard of and will never see again. Such a brief encounter with a person without really knowing anything about them makes little impact on us. But—to go a different direction—each year my family gets out the Christmas decorations, which include photos of our past visits to the mall’s Santa Claus. We love looking at these pictures because they call to mind what our kids looked like back then, and the kind of people they were and have become. We like looking at pictures of our kids because we know them. We don’t know these people in the missionary’s presentation.
So also a list of names: each one represents a person, a story, a life, but that doesn’t mean much to you if you don’t know anything about that person’s life. If you know the person, or the story, the name itself holds immense interest for you and evokes all kinds of images of that person’s story. Back in my college days I had to learn the names of the Roman emperors during the first and second centuries. When I first did that exercise, it was just a list of names, but the more I’ve learned about the first and second centuries, the more I have fleshed out that list of names in my own mind with other information about those emperors, so that Tiberius or Caligula or Hadrian is not just a name to me now but evokes stories and data about that person. I’ve been to the Vietnam Wall with my grandma, years ago, when I was young, and I remember the columns and columns of names, and my grandma going up to the wall to find particular names—which were, to her, not just names.
I suspect that ancient Jews (at least, some of the time) thought that way about their genealogies. They had studied their history; they had heard stories about these ancestors; the names were more than just names (as Fred Craddock reminds us in his wonderful sermon on Romans 16.)
Another way of looking at the significance of genealogies—probably even more important (at least, for ancient Jews) than knowing stories associated with the names—is locating yourself within the history of a people, as part of a community. The Old Testament highlights the tribal structure of ancient Israel, so that identity within a tribe, or even within a clan within a tribe, was an important element of society. So, you sort of have to know your ancestry to know which tribe you belong to. Josephus attests that in the first century, this kind of thing was still important, at least as it pertained to Jewish priests, who kept records of their genealogies in the temple. (Josephus talks about this, for instance, in his work called Against Apion 1.29–36.) This sort of thing is much less prominent in twenty-first-century American society, but we still have analogies. Pretty much the entire plot of the first few seasons of Downton Abbey was based on genealogy, as the estate of the Earl of Grantham was entailed to the unknown relative Matthew Crawley just because he had the right ancestry. And, closer to home, there are groups like Daughters of the American Revolution (“a lineage-based membership service organization”) and Sons of Confederate Veterans that you can’t get into unless you have the right ancestry.
For many people, genealogy is important. For Jesus, genealogy is important.
The Two Genealogies
Probably the first thing that will occur to you as you look at the genealogy of Jesus in Luke (3:23–38) is that this is not the only genealogy of Jesus we have in Scripture. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy, which is probably much more familiar to Christians since it begins the New Testament. And the other thing that will occur to you is that there are a bunch of differences between the two genealogies. These differences have been talked about for a long time, and there are various solutions proposed to explain the differences, but all the solutions are really only guesses.
Let’s notice some of the obvious differences, and let’s use a chart.
|Matthew 1:1–17||Luke 3:23–38|
|moves forward historically (with Jesus at the end)||moves backward historically (with Jesus at the beginning)|
|earliest name is Abraham||earliest name is Adam (or even God)|
|Joseph’s father: Jacob (v. 16)||Joseph’s father: Heli (v. 23)|
|David’s son: Solomon (v. 6)||David’s son: Nathan (v. 31)|
|mentions a few women (vv. 3, 5, 6)||only men|
|explicitly organized into three sections of 14 generations (v. 17)||no obvious organization|
The structural differences between the two genealogies are not that big of a deal, but the different names that appear in the list do cause some problems. (For a full comparison, see here.) It’s not just that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph has a father called Heli in Luke and a father called Jacob in Matthew. If that were the only difference, maybe we could offer some sort of explanation, like the one I’ve often heard, that Luke gives us the genealogy of Mary and Matthew gives us the genealogy of Joseph. If we assumed that solution, then Heli would actually be Mary’s father, and Jacob would be Joseph’s father. But that explanation doesn’t solve all the difficulties. Notice that both genealogies more-or-less agree from Abraham to David (Matt 1:2–6; Luke 3:31–34), and the genealogies diverge with the son of David: Matthew traces the genealogy through Solomon, but Luke traces it through a different son of David named Nathan (not the prophet; cf. 2 Sam 5:14; 1 Chron 3:5; 14:4). But then the genealogies come back together with the two names Shealtiel and Zerubbabel (Matt 1:12; Luke 3:27),2 only to diverge again. That’s what can’t really be explained by the idea that one genealogy presents Mary’s ancestors and the other presents Joseph’s ancestors; if that were the case, why would they come together and diverge, come together and diverge? Even if we could explain how Joseph has two fathers (Jacob and Heli), how can we explain that Shealtiel has two fathers (Jeconiah, Matt 1:12; Neri, Luke 3:27)?
These are the sorts of issues that have exercised Christian scholars throughout the past couple millennia. We are certainly not the first generation to have noticed these differences. Already in the third century AD, Julius Africanus wrote a letter to a certain Aristides in which he attempted to harmonize the two genealogies by hypothesizing levirate marriage (Deut 25:5–10) at work a few times in Jesus’ ancestry. (This letter was quoted by the fourth-century Christian author Eusebius in his Ecclesiastical History, book 1, chapter 7, which can be read here.)
In his commentary on Luke, Howard Marshall (1978, pp. 158–59) discusses three basic methods for harmonizing the two lists.
- First is the idea that I’ve heard most often in churches, that Matthew gives Joseph’s ancestors and Luke gives Mary’s. Apparently the first person to propose this interpretation was Annius of Viterbo in the fifteenth century (and Wikipedia briefly mentions this fact). Marshall considers this idea “not at all plausible, and the theory does not fit in with 1:27 where the Davidic descent of Joseph is stressed.” By the way, one time I encountered in church the reverse view, that Matthew gives the ancestry of Mary and Luke gives the ancestry of Joseph, but I have never run across that view in a publication.
- The view of Julius Africanus mentioned above goes like this, in the summary given by Marshall: “Matthan (Mt. 1:15) married a certain Estha, by whom he had a son, Jacob; when Matthan died, his widow married Malchi (Lk. 3:24) and had a son Eli (Lk. 3:23; note that Africanus did not apparently know of Levi and Matthat who come between Malchi and Eli in Luke’s list). The second of these two half-brothers, Eli, married but died without issue; his half-brother Jacob took his wife in levirate marriage, so that his physical son, Joseph, was regarded as the legal son of Eli. Africanus admits that this theory is uncorroborated, but worthy of belief.” Marshall concludes that this idea is pretty improbable, and I must say I agree with that assessment.
- I am most partial to the third idea listed by Marshall, and it seems that Marshall is, too. I think I came upon this idea independently, without reading about it in any other source—which I say not to toot my own horn but in order to suggest that it has a certain plausibility to it. The idea is that Luke presents the actual biological ancestry of Jesus, and Matthew does not, nor does he even try to do so. Matthew instead presents the “royal line,” and that’s why he traces the genealogy through Solomon and all those kings. Matthew’s point is that Jesus stands in the line of the rulers of Israel. Luke’s point is different, that Joseph, the ostensible father of Jesus, is biologically descended from David. For this idea to work, you’d have to assume that Shealtiel and Zerubbabel were actually in the biological line leading to Jesus from David’s son Nathan, but that they were also rulers (not kings) in post-exilic Judah, which they were, as the first few chapters of Ezra attest. That would mean that when Matthew says that Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, he was the “father” only in a manner of speaking, because they were both rulers over God’s people, though Shealtiel was not actually physically descended from Jeconiah.3 That doesn’t solve all the problems, like: who are all these supposed rulers (on the theory) mentioned by Matthew between Zerubbabel and Joseph? As Marshall says, “There are undoubted difficulties with this theory, but they may not be altogether incapable of solution. But solution depends upon conjecture, and there is no way of knowing whether the conjectures correspond to reality.” In other words, we really don’t know what the solution is, but this one may be it.
The Genealogy in Luke
It had never occurred to me to count the names. I feel foolish saying that, because we only have two genealogies for Jesus, and one of them makes it explicit that you’re supposed to count the names. So why in the case of the other one had it never occurred to me that the number of names in the list might be significant? If I had counted, I would have seen that Jesus is number 77 in the genealogy presented by Luke. Given the importance of the number seven in the Bible, this simple interpretive procedure of counting the names yields surprising and significant results. (Already in the late second century, Irenaeus [Haer. 3.22.3] realized that the number of names in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus was important, though he arrived somehow at only 72 names, comparing that number to the Table of Nations in Genesis 10, which has 72 nations in the LXX.)
Matthew’s presentation of the genealogy of Jesus is the one that makes it clear that the number of names is important. He tells his readers that there are three sections of 14 generations (Matt 1:17). He doesn’t tell us why that’s important, but it clearly is; otherwise he wouldn’t have pointed it out. My guess is that the number fourteen is important because it is symbolically associated (through gematria) with the name “David.” Davies and Allison discuss this interpretation and conclude in its favor.
We suspect gematria because David’s name has the value fourteen and because in Mt 1.2–16 there are 3 x 14 generations. But there is an additional observation to be made. David’s name is fourteenth on the list. This is telling. In a genealogy of 3 x 14 generations, the one name with three consonants [remember: in Hebrew writing there are only consonants] and a value of fourteen is also placed in the fourteenth spot. When one adds that this name is mentioned immediately before the genealogy (1.1) and twice at its conclusion (1.17), and that it is honoured by the title, king, coincidence becomes effectively ruled out. The name, David, is the key to the pattern of Matthew’s genealogy.Davies and Allison, Matthew, vol. 1 (1988), p. 165
Luke’s genealogy is obviously structured much differently, but the comparison with Matthew’s genealogy should lead us to consider whether we should count the names in Luke as well. Yes, we should.
Jesus is the 77th name in Luke’s genealogy. As Richard Bauckham (p. 318) notes, “If seven indicates fullness, seventy-seven implies ultimacy, a fullness beyond measure.” As a point of comparison, note the words of Lamech.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.Genesis 4:24
And the words of Jesus, in response to Peter’s question about whether he should forgive someone seven times.
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”Matthew 18:22
I know that last verse has traditionally been translated “seventy times seven,” but take a look at some modern translations (NIV, ESV, NRSV, CEB) and you’ll see that people these days are agreed that the best translation is “seventy-seven times.” Those are just some examples to show that 77 is viewed in the Bible as something like “completeness squared.” Since “Jesus” is name number 77, he is “completeness squared.”
But there may be even more going on with these names. Remember that Matthew divided his genealogy into 3 x 14. Well, in this list of 77 names in Luke we might divide it into 7 x 11, sort of like eleven weeks of generations. (For a similar idea, where “weeks” = weeks of years, see Daniel 9:24–27.)
The idea that you might count time in terms of “weeks of generations” is unusual but not unheard of in ancient Jewish literature. For one thing, the patriarch Enoch had a high status not only because “he walked with God, and he was not, for God took him” (Gen 5:24) but also because it was well-known that he was the “seventh from Adam,” i.e., he was at the end of the first week of generations in world history, a fact mentioned by Jude in his epistle (Jude 14).4 The ancient Jewish work known as 1 Enoch actually represents the patriarch Enoch as saying this: “I was born the seventh in the first week” (93:3).5
So if we count these names in Luke’s genealogy as a collection of “weeks of generations,” the first and last name in each week are as follows.
- Adam to Enoch
- Methuselah to Shelah
- Eber to Abraham
- Isaac to Admin
- Amminadab to David
- Nathan to Joseph
- Judah to Joshua
- Er to Shealtiel
- Zerubbabel to Mattathias
- Maath to Joseph
- Jannai to Jesus
It seems hardly accidental that the first and last names of each “week of generations” are such significant names. Note, for instance, that besides Jesus’ supposed father, the name “Joseph” appears twice in this genealogy, both times at the end of a “week of generations,” the sixth week (i.e., name #42, v. 30) and the tenth week (i.e., name #70, v. 24). The name Joshua appears once in this genealogy, at the end of the seventh week of generations (i.e., name #49, v. 29). You probably know that the name “Joshua” is the same as the name “Jesus” in Greek and Hebrew (the Greek words are the exact same in our manuscripts of Luke). It seems significant, then, that “Jesus” is both the 77th name on this list and the 49th name (= 7 x 7).
What is the meaning of all this? Well, on one level I think it’s just cool to see all these connections. But there might also be a deeper message, and that message might be that Jesus is the turning point in history. Here’s how that would work.
There was an idea in ancient Judaism that at one point in the distant past angels had cohabited with human women, a sin for which they suffered the punishment of being chained in darkness. (Some Jews interpreted Genesis 6:1–4 in light of this idea.) In the book of 1 Enoch again, the text represents God as commanding the angels to be bound for seventy generations until they are judged on the Day of Judgment (1 Enoch 10:12–14).6 Assuming that the angels were bound in the generation after Enoch (i.e., the seventh generation of world history),7 that would mean that the Day of Judgment would happen at the seventy-seventh generation. In the passage, quoted below, Michael is the archangel commissioned by God to bind the rebel angels, and Semyaza is one of the leaders of the rebel angels.
And the Lord said to Michael, ‘Go, inform Semyaza and the others with him who have associated with the women to corrupt themselves with them in all their uncleanness. 12When all their sons kill each other, and when they see the destruction of their beloved ones, bind them for seventy generations under the hills of the earth until the day of judgment and of their consummation, until the judgment which is for all eternity is accomplished. 13And in those days they will lead them to the abyss of fire; in torment and in prison they will be shut up for all eternity. 14And then he [Semyaza] will be burnt and from then on destroyed with them; together they will be bound until the end of all generations.1 Enoch 10:11–14; trans. Outside the Bible (2013), 2.1373
So the idea here in 1 Enoch is basically that world history will last 77 generations. Well, that’s pretty interesting, since in Luke’s genealogy Jesus is the 77th generation. Now I am not saying that Luke buys into the idea that the generation of Jesus represents the end of the world. How could he think that, since he’s probably writing a generation or more after the time of Jesus? But what I do think is plausible is that this genealogy has exactly 77 names because it is playing with this ancient Jewish idea that we see in 1 Enoch, and what the Lukan genealogy means is that Jesus is (not the end but) the culmination of world history, the turning point of world history, and in a sense the incarnation of Jesus represents the “Day of the Lord” or even a form of the “Day of Judgment.” Jesus is the pivot of history, and his is the decisive generation.
Beyond that, it is also significant that Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus through David’s son Nathan rather than through Solomon. Solomon’s progeny, of course, were the kings of Judah, who ended with Jeconiah (= Jehoiachin or sometimes Coniah), who was taken into exile by Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 24:8–17). Jeremiah did not have nice things to say about Jeconiah.8
As I live, says the LORD, even if King Coniah son of Jehoiakim of Judah were the signet ring on my right hand, even from there I would tear you off 25 and give you into the hands of those who seek your life, into the hands of those of whom you are afraid, even into the hands of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon and into the hands of the Chaldeans. 26 I will hurl you and the mother who bore you into another country, where you were not born, and there you shall die. 27 But they shall not return to the land to which they long to return. 28 Is this man Coniah a despised broken pot, a vessel no one wants? Why are he and his offspring hurled out and cast away in a land that they do not know? 29 O land, land, land, hear the word of the LORD! 30 Thus says the LORD: Record this man as childless,a man who shall not succeed in his days; for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David, and ruling again in Judah.Jeremiah 22:24–30
There it is. According to Jeremiah, no descendant of Jeconiah will ever reign as king (Jer 22:30). About Jeconiah’s father Jehoiakim, Jeremiah says the same thing (Jer 36:30). The line of kings descended from David had come to a dead end, and we needed to start over. That’s probably part of the point of Isaiah’s prophecy: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isa 11:1). Isaiah prophesies a king who will represent a new shoot from the stump of Jesse, meaning apparently not descended from the current line of kings, but rather representing new growth—not just a son of David, but a new David.
And so Luke presents Jesus as a descendant of David not through the line of wicked kings, but precisely in conformity with Isaiah’s prophecy as descended through a new line, the line of Nathan.9 While Nathan was a very obscure son of David in the Bible, he is mentioned in one later prophecy (Zech 12:12), and his very obscurity seems to be part of his appeal; he could not be associated with the line of failed kings.
Christians often think about the genealogy of Jesus in Luke only in terms of its problems, its differences from the genealogy as presented in Matthew. Those problems are real and the solution to them is not obvious. But Luke does not offer us a genealogy of Jesus in order to cause his readers problems but in order to explain some things about Jesus. Most basically, he uses the genealogy to connect Jesus to David through a non-kingly son (Nathan). Additionally, simply counting the names in the genealogy seems to be the key its deeper mysteries pointing toward the culmination of world history in Jesus.
Why do you think Luke spends sixteen verses (Luke 3:23–38) giving the genealogy of Jesus? What is the point?
What similarities do you see between the genealogy presented by Luke and the one presented by Matthew (Matthew 1:1–17)?
What are some of the differences between the two genealogies?
Which of David’s sons does Luke trace Jesus’ ancestry through? Which of David’s sons stands in the genealogy according to Matthew?
Do you have any explanation for the differences? Have you heard any explanations?
(1) Beyond my lack of interest, there is also apparently a negative side to the whole genealogy industry; see the Washington Post column by Honor Sachs, “The Dark Side of Our Genealogy Craze” (Dec 13, 2019).
(2) It is also hard to reconcile these genealogies with 1 Chron 3:16–19, where Zerubbabel is the nephew of Shealtiel. For Zerubbabel as the son of Shealtiel, see Ezra 3:2, 8; 5:2; Neh 12:1; Hag 1:1, 12, 14; 2:2, 23.
(3) There may be a similar thing going on in the book of Daniel, where Belshazzar, king of Babylon, is presented as the son of Nebuchadnezzar (cf. Dan 5:2, 11, etc.), even though we know through other sources that Belshazzar’s actual father was Nabonidus, and Nabonidus was not physically descended from Nebuchadnezzar at all. Perhaps Belshazzar was the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar in the sense that they were both kings of Babylon? See our lesson on Daniel 5, under the heading, “The King.”
(4) For other references to Enoch as the “seventh from Adam” in ancient Jewish literature, see the book known as 1 Enoch at 60:8; 93:3; or also the book known as Jubilees 7:39; and the rabbinic work known as Leviticus Rabbah 29.11.
(5) This is from the part of 1 Enoch called “The Apocalypse of Weeks” and dating to the early second century BC.
(6) This passage in the the part of 1 Enoch called “The Book of Watchers” and dating to the third century BC.
(7) For an argument to this effect, see Richard Bauckham, “The Lukan Genealogy of Jesus,” in Jude and the Relatives of Jesus in the Early Church (London: T&T Clark, 1990), 315–73, at 320. Bauckham’s analysis of Luke’s genealogy has been very influential in my presentation.
(8) Irenaeus already recognized that Jeremiah 22:24–30 was significant for the ancestry of Jesus (Haer. 3.21.9). He takes it as an indication that Jesus was born of a virgin and therefore not actually descended from Jeconiah.
(9) Nevertheless, there does not seem to be much of a pre-Christian Jewish tradition tracing the Messiah’s descent from David’s son Nathan; see Bauckham, “Lukan Genealogy,” 347–54, for some suggestions.