In an earlier article, I examined the genealogy that the Gospel of Matthew gives for Jesus and drew some conclusions about its sources and purpose. To summarize, Matthew’s genealogy is built on an artificial numerical scheme that divides Israel’s past from Abraham to Jesus into three periods spanning fourteen generations each. For the most part, it is based on the genealogies found in 1 Chronicles, and many contradictions with the Hebrew Old Testament can be explained by Matthew’s use of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) — particularly, a manuscript with variant readings that resemble Codex Alexandrinus. This genealogy makes Jesus out to be an individual of both royal and priestly descent, and it associates Jesus with some interesting women along the way.
The genealogy in the Gospel of Luke goes all the way back to Adam and is almost twice as long as Matthew’s, listing 77 generations. Luke’s view of Jesus, purpose for writing, and access to manuscripts were quite different, and the result is a pedigree that cannot be reconciled with Matthew’s ancestral list, despite many creative attempts at harmonization by theologians both ancient and modern. What can we deduce from a close look at Luke’s genealogy?
Luke’s Genealogy by the Numbers
Like Matthew, Luke appears to have used a numerological formula to build his list. It features about 77 generations (depending on how you count them and which manuscript you use), and multiples of seven seem to have some significance. For example, if we make Adam #1, we get:
Primeval period: Adam to Abraham (21 generations)
Pre-monarchy: Isaac to David (14 generations)
Monarchy: Nathan to Salathiel (21 generations)
Post-monarchy: Zerubbabel to Jesus (21 generations)
It has also been noticed that Enoch is the 7th generation, and 70 generations come after him, bringing to mind the prophecy of 1 Enoch 10:12 that there would be 70 generations from Enoch’s day until the judgment:
…bind them for seventy generations in the valleys of the earth, until the day of their judgment and consummation, until the everlasting judgment is consummated.
There is also a parallel in 2 Esdras (4 Ezra), which speaks of the age being divided into twelve parts:
For the age is divided into twelve parts, and nine of its parts have already passed, as well as half of the tenth part; so two of its parts remain, besides half of the tenth part. (2 Esdras 14:11–12)
If we take seven generations to be one “part”, then the final part would begin with Jesus in Luke’s genealogy.
Although it is hard to imagine these correspondences being entirely coincidental, there are numerous textual difficulties. Various ancient manuscripts and sources leave out some names, making it difficult to be sure we know what the original said.¹
A Comparison between Matthew and Luke
The contradictions between the two Gospel genealogies are as follows:
- Luke has Jesus descended from David through his son Nathan; Matthew’s genealogy goes through Solomon.
- The genealogies converge again at Salathiel, but give him different fathers: Jechoniah according to Matthew, but the otherwise-unattested Neri according to Luke.
- The genealogies once again diverge after Zerubbabel, with no names in common until Joseph. (It’s particularly problematic that Joseph’s immediate ancestors — father, paternal grandfather, etc. — differ from those in Matthew’s genealogy.)
- Luke puts significantly more generations between David and Salathiel and between Zerubbabel and Joseph. Chronologically, his genealogy is somewhat more plausible than Matthew’s.
- Luke has two unknown names, Admin and Arni, where Matthew has Aram.
- Luke has Sala as Nahshon’s son where Matthew has Salmon.
|Luke 3||Matthew 1|
|(18 names)||(9 names)|
|(20 names)||(13 names)|
Luke’s Biblical Sources
It appears that Luke, unlike Matthew, was not familiar with Chronicles. This would explain why he does not know of Zerubbabel’s supposed Solomonic ancestry (which appears only in 1 Chronicles in the Old Testament) and has to create a pedigree of his own. It also explains why he doesn’t know who the sons of Zerubbabel were as listed by the Chronicler.
On the other hand, it is apparent that he used the Greek Septuagint of Genesis (and not the Hebrew Genesis or Chronicles) to construct his genealogy from Adam to Abraham. The surest sign of this is the inclusion of “Cainan” at #65, who is found in the LXX of Genesis 10 and 11 but not the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT):
Luke 3:35–36: …Sala, son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad…
Gen. 10:24 (MT): Arpachshad became the father of Shelah…
Gen. 11:12 (MT): When Arpachshad had lived thirty-five years, he became the father of Shelah.
Gen. 10:24 (LXX): Arphaxad became the father of Cainan…
Gen. 11:12 (LXX): Arphaxad lived one hundred thirty-five years and became the father of Cainan.
What inspired Luke to make David’s son Nathan the forerunner of Jesus? Although some have suggested an allusion to the prophet Nathan, the reason I find most compelling is that Luke used LXX Zechariah 12 — a prophecy about a siege against Jerusalem and the city’s salvation — as a source. Verses 12–13 in the LXX read:
And the land shall mourn, tribes by tribes, the tribe of the house of David by itself and their wives by themselves, the tribe of the house of Nathan by itself and their wives by themselves, the tribe of the house of Levi by itself and their wives by them- selves, the tribe of Simeon by itself and their wives by themselves.
And what do we find in Luke’s genealogy, but the following names: David (#42), Nathan (#41), Simeon (#34), and Levi (#33). The same two pairs of names, separated by seven generations. It is not surprising that Luke would have been drawn to this passage, for it seems very likely that the preceding verse 10 was understood by early Christians as an allusion to Christ:
And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.
An additional factor that prevents the reader from interpreting Luke’s genealogy as “genuine” (or at least genuinely old) is the appearance of personal names based on the tribal patriarchs. In addition to the aforementioned Levi and Simeon, the names “Judah” and “Joseph” also appear during the monarchic period between David and Salathiel. However, these names were not applied to individuals in pre-exilic Israel. Those who have read my article on the Twelve (or so) Tribes may recall that eponymous ancestors were typically invented to explain tribal or ethnic relations and political situations. Judah, Levi, and many of the other tribal names were not originally personal names; only much later, once stories establishing the fictive tribal founders had been first invented and then widely popularized, did people begin adopting those names for their children. Levi, Simeon, Judah and Joseph cannot be dated as personal names to any time earlier than the Hellenistic period. Like the deliberate allusion to Zechariah 12, this shows that Luke’s genealogy is a literary invention.²
Repetition and other Oddities
Various scholars have noticed repeating sequences of similar names in Luke’s list. For example:
|29. Eliezer||1. Joseph|
|30. Jorim||2. Eli (Heli)|
|31. Maththat||3. Matthat|
|32. Levi||4. Levi|
This too is evidence of the genealogy’s artificial nature.
Six men have nearly the same name: Matthat, Mattathias (twice), Maath, Maththat, and Mattatha. These names are apparently associated with the Hasmonean dynasty that ruled Judaea prior to Herod the Great.³ Mattathias, of course, was a Levite priest who helped launch the Maccabean revolt, and he plays a prominent role in 1 Maccabees.
A great many of the names in the monarchical and post-monarchical sections are absent from the Bible and are rare or unattested in other Jewish texts: Melchi, Esli, Naggai, Rhesa, Addi, Cosam, Elmadam, Jorim, Jonam, Melea, Menna, etc.
Zerubbabel the Prince?
Several scholars have noted that “Rhesa” might be a transliteration of rēšā, Aramaic for “prince”. This leads to speculation that a Greek source behind Luke’s genealogy (or part of it) might have been based on an Aramaic list that read “Zerubbabel the Prince” followed by his son Hananiah (1 Chr. 3:19). As the idea goes, the Greek copyist turned “prince” into the name Rhesa, and “Hananiah” got corrupted to “Joanan”. Not impossible, but it seems like a bit of a stretch.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to know what to make of most of the names in Luke’s genealogy. Catholic scholar Raymond E. Brown, in his famous book The Birth of the Messiah, concludes:
What one may say with surety of Luke’s list is that, in part, it is artificially arranged in numerical patterns of seven and that it contains enough inaccuracies and confusions to suggest a popular provenance (rather than an archival provenance) among Greek-speaking Jews. (p. 93)
…This means that, while the two NT genealogies tell us how to evaluate Jesus, they tell us nothing certain about his grandparents or his great-grandparents. The message about Jesus, son of Joseph, is not that factually he is also (grand) son of either Jacob (Matthew) or of Eli (Luke) but that theologically he is “son of David, son of Abraham” (Matthew), and “Son of God” (Luke). (p. 94)
Genealogies in Greek and Jewish Literature
There is nothing unusual about the use of invented genealogies in Greek and Jewish works of that period. The historian Flavius Josephus, for example, provides a genealogy for himself that is clearly full of exaggeration and inconsistencies — if not outright falsification — in an attempt to demonstrate royal Maccabean blood.⁴
Even having multiple contradictory genealogies was nothing unusual in the Greek world. Contrary accounts of Agamemnon’s parentage were given by numerous authors — and in one case, by the same author. (Apollodorus gives his parents as Atreus and Aerope in Epitome III.12, but as Pleisthenes and Aerope in Library III.2.) The father of King Theseus of Athens was said to be Aigeus in The Iliad but the god Poseidon in The Odyssey.⁵
An interesting case from Jewish literature can be found in the deuterocanonical book of Tobit. When the archangel Raphael is introduced to Tobias’s father, he is forced to invent a suitable human genealogy for himself in order to be accepted! (Tobit 5:11–13) The absurdity of an angel claiming biological ancestry makes the encounter a humorous one, but is the supernaturally conceived Jesus not in the same boat?
- In fact, the genealogy is missing entirely from two manuscripts and was not part of the early version of Luke used by the early second-century Marcionites. See Jason BeDuhn, The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, p. 129.
- Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, p. 295.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, p. 92 n. 75.
- Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament, 2nd Edition, p. 38.
- These examples are from Gerard Mussies, “Parallels to Matthew’s Version of the Pedigree of Jesus”, Novum Testamentum 28/1 (1986), pp. 43–44.