Consensus of the Early Church


The royal pedigree of Jesus is affirmed throughout the New Testament. The Gospels furnish two genealogies of Jesus, one in Matthew (Matt. 1:1-17) and one in Luke (Luke 3:23-38), and both trace His ancestry to David. Throughout His ministry, Jesus allowed others to call Him the son of David (Mark 10:47 et al.). Paul said that Jesus sprang from David's line (Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8). In the Book of Acts, which chronicles the early expansion of the church, the first reference to Jesus as the son of David occurs in an excerpt from one of Paul's sermons during his first missionary journey (Acts 13:23). The kingly descent of Jesus must therefore have been a teaching of the church from the very beginning.


Extrabiblical Evidence


According to the critics, the two genealogies of Jesus are merely fabrications to satisfy early believers that Jesus was a son of David in keeping with prophecy. Yet, the critics can hold this view only by ignoring the evidence that the Jews knew their lineages.

The historian Josephus, member of a priestly family, said that he obtained his own genealogy from public records (1). He said also that catalogs of priestly marriages were kept in Jerusalem and other principal cities (2). If the ancestry of priestly families was so fully documented, perhaps genealogical tables existed for other Jewish families as well. Without such tables, the Jews would have had nothing to sustain their keen, even fanatical, interest in genealogies (1 Tim. 1:4; Tit. 3:9). Because of its importance to the nation, the nonpriestly family most likely to possess records of descent was the family of David. The Gospel writers surely would not have falsely represented Jesus as David's descendant if opponents of the church had ready access to records proving otherwise.

Even the Babylonian Talmud acknowledges that Jesus belonged to the family of David. The Talmud, an ancient source preserving the oral traditions of the Pharisees, is unfriendly to Christianity. Yet on the authority of Ulla, a rabbi from the late third century, the Talmud says that the Sanhedrin took pains to give Jesus a fair trial because He was "near to the kingship" (3, 4).

The standard Jewish edition offers a looser translation: "connected with the government [or royalty, i.e., influential]" (5). But this translation and its bracketed interpretation are outrageously inaccurate and biased, as well as being impossible both historically and contextually. The Talmud elsewhere is wholly sympathetic to the Sanhedrin. Here, it is hardly suggesting that the Sanhedrin was pliable to undue political pressure. Moreover, the Sanhedrin in Jesus' day was not under any king but Caesar. The immediately superior authority was Pilate, a Roman governor. The only king in the area was Herod of Galilee, who was no friend of Jesus (Luke 13:31-32). When Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, Herod mocked Him and returned Him to Pilate for execution (Luke 23:7-12).

Just before citing Ulla, the Talmud says that for forty days a herald went out and cried: "'Any one who can say anything in his [Jesus'] favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of Passover" (6). If Jesus had powerful allies in the government, why was it so difficult to find anyone to testify on His behalf? It is evident that Jesus was near to the kingship not in the sense of having friends in high places, but in the sense of having a legitimate claim to the throne.


Reconciliation of the Two Genealogies


Nevertheless, critics counter with two arguments that the two genealogies of Jesus cannot be genuine.


First argument: Although the two genealogies agree that Jesus descended from David, they differ otherwise.

Reply: The explanation for the difference between them recognizes that prophecy lays out two requirements for the lineage of Christ. The promise of perpetual endurance applies to both David's "seed" and David's "throne" (Psa. 89:36). Therefore, He must be both a physical descendant of David and a legitimate successor to David. Jesus fulfilled the two requirements. That is, He was not only in the blood line of David; He was actually the rightful king. His proper claim upon the throne of Israel explains why He was so readily applauded at His Triumphal Entry, why the people hailed Him as "the son of David" (Matt. 21:9), why the authorities felt so threatened by Him, why Pilate questioned Him so closely as to whether He was the king of the Jews (John 18:33), and why the inscription on the cross read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews" (John 19:19).

To show that Jesus fulfilled both requirements of prophecy concerning the lineage of Christ, Matthew gives Jesus' place in the royal succession, and Luke gives His physical ancestry (7). Jesus' only parent was Mary, since He was miraculously conceived in His mother when she was still a virgin betrothed to Joseph. Joseph was His legal father only (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38). Therefore, the genealogy in Luke traces His ancestry through Mary's side of the family.

Our interpretation of Matthew's genealogy—that it presents the royal succession culminating in Jesus—squares with two important considerations.

  1. His genealogy follows the line of actual Jewish kings.
  2. The Gospel of Matthew is distinctively the Gospel of the Kingdom. In reporting Jesus' ministry, he emphasizes Jesus' intention to set up a kingdom in fulfillment of Jewish hopes (Matt. 4:17; 5:17-19 et al.). He presents the Transfiguration as Jesus "coming in his kingdom" (Matt. 16:28). His purpose throughout is to spotlight Jesus in His kingly role. Therefore, the genealogy he provides shows Jesus as the king.

Matthew links names in his genealogy with the term "begat." This seems to exclude any shifts in the blood line, such as we would expect in a line of kings. But the Greek term is gennao, whose meaning is not limited to biological conception (8). It can mean "bring forth" or "produce" (9).

Our interpretation of Luke's genealogy—that it presents Jesus' blood line through Mary—has three important considerations in its favor.

  1. Luke elsewhere intimates that Mary herself was of Davidic descent. In the genealogy, he speaks of Joseph as Jesus' "supposed," or "nominal," father (Luke 3:23). But in his account of the angel's announcement to Mary that she had conceived a child without the aid of a man, Luke remembers the angel saying, "The Lord God shall give unto him [Jesus] the throne of his father David" (Luke 1:32). The implication is that whereas Joseph was His supposed father, David was His real father—that is, His real grandfather on His mother's side.
  2. Some have argued that Luke gives Joseph's genealogy to illustrate the claim, twice stated, that Joseph belonged to the house of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4). But the genealogy Luke provides is elaborate and lengthy. All the detail seems pointless if it is the genealogy of a man who was merely Jesus' supposed father.
  3. Luke carries the ancestry of Christ far beyond David all the way to Adam, father of the human race (Luke 3:38). Evidently, he wishes to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of God's promise to Adam and Eve in the Protevangelium—the promise that their posterity would produce a conqueror of Satan. Luke's genealogy succeeds in identifying Jesus as an offspring of Adam and Eve only if it gives His biological descent. In other words, the genealogy must be the blood line of Mary.

The probable source of the birth narrative in each Gospel is another circumstance supporting our interpretation of the two genealogies. Matthew's account, stressing Joseph's part in the events attending the birth of Jesus, must come from Joseph or his side of the family. The motherly perspective that informs Luke's account (Luke 2:19, 51) indicates that the source is Mary.

Yet, our assertion that Luke gives Mary's blood line stumbles on a serious difficulty. The parent of Jesus that he explicitly places in the line of descent is not Mary, but Joseph (Luke 3:23). Neither custom nor any other constraint prohibited Luke from including Mary in the genealogy. Matthew mentions Mary as well as several other female ancestors of Jesus (Matt. 1:3, 5, 5, 6, 16). Moreover, a reader coming to the genealogy in Luke without any preconception that it was Mary's would naturally take it to be Joseph's. The plain sense of the words is that Jesus was the supposed son of Joseph, who was the actual son of Heli, and so on. In the list of ancestors during the postexilic period, we find further evidence they belong to Joseph's line. It was the custom to name a male child after one of his forefathers (10). For example, in this same postexilic list we find "Mattathias" twice (vv. 25-26). Also, we find two Josephs preceding the Joseph who was the legal father of Jesus (vv. 24, 26). Thus, the third Joseph seems a proper member of the genealogy.

How can we reconcile the conflicting evidence? Is the genealogy in Luke that of Joseph or Mary? A possible answer, which we offer with full recognition that our present state of knowledge does not permit a certain resolution of the problem, is that the genealogy is substantially that of both. Although the law forbade marriage to a sister, niece, or aunt, a man could marry a near or distant cousin (Lev. 18). We infer that one of the names early in the listing represents Mary's grandfather as well as Joseph's.

Since the genealogies in Matthew and Luke differ radically from each other, we conclude that most of Joseph's ancestors did not fall in the royal succession. The succession passed into his line at the time of Salathiel and Zorobabel (compare Luke 3:27 with Matt. 1:12), but passed out again for several centuries. If Matthan in Matthew's list (v. 15) is the same as Matthat in Luke's (v. 24), the succession apparently returned to Joseph's blood line only a generation or two before he was born.


Second argument: The two genealogies of Jesus seem to contradict each other.

Reply: The following are the three most serious discrepancies.

  1. The two lines converge in the names Salathiel and Zorobabel, but diverge in the name of Salathiel's predecessor (Matt. 1:12-13; Luke 3:27). Matthew calls him Jechonias (Jeconiah). Luke calls him Neri. The Old Testament states that Salathiel (that is, Shealtiel) was the son of Jeconiah.

    15 And the sons of Josiah were Johanan the first-born, and the second was Jehoiakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Shallum.

    16 And the sons of Jehoiakim were Jeconiah his son, Zedekiah his son.

    17 And the sons of Jeconiah, the prisoner, were Shealtiel his son,

    18 and Malchiram, Pedaiah, Shenazar, Jekamiah, Hoshama, and Nedabiah.

    19 And the sons of Pedaiah were Zerubbabel and Shimei. And the sons of Zerubbabel were Meshullam and Hananiah, and Shelomith was their sister;

    20 And Hashubah, Ohel, Berechiah, Hasadiah, and Jushab-hesed, five.

    1 Chronicles 3:15-20 (11)

    Shealtiel's place at the head of Jeconiah's sons clearly indicates that he was the principal heir—indeed, that he was the legitimate successor to the throne (v. 17). The expression "his son" after Shealtiel's name does not necessarily signify physical descent, however. The double occurrence of Zedekiah's name (vv. 15-16) shows that the expression can designate merely an appointed heir. Although Zedekiah is called Jehoiakim's son (v. 16), he was not the natural son of Jehoiakim. He was actually Jehoiakim's brother (v. 15; 2 Kings 24:17). Thus, the meaning of the record is that Jehoiakim had two successors with the legal status of sons. The first was his natural son Jeconiah. The second was Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar placed on the throne in Jeconiah's place. In conformity with the official genealogy stated here, the chronicler elsewhere identifies Zedekiah as Jeconiah's brother (2 Chron. 36:10). After listing the sons of Jehoiakim, the record goes on to indicate that after Zedekiah was removed from the throne, the throne rights reverted to Jeconiah, who was still alive, a prisoner in Babylon (v. 17). The right of succession then passed to Shealtiel, who, like Zedekiah, need not have been Jeconiah's natural son. Indeed, he was the son of Neri (Luke 3:27).

    The circumstances leading Jeconiah or his Babylonian overlords to bestow kingly honors on Shealtiel cannot now be imagined. Yet a break in the royal succession had been predicted by Jeremiah.

    28 Is this man Coniah [Jeconiah] a despised broken idol? is he a vessel wherein is no pleasure? wherefore are they cast out, he and his seed, and are cast into a land which they know not?

    29 O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord.

    30 Thus saith the Lord, Write ye this man childless, a man that shall not prosper in his days: for no man of his seed shall prosper, sitting upon the throne of David, and ruling any more in Judah.

    Jeremiah 22:28-30

    Jeremiah had declared that no physical descendant of Jeconiah would ever sit on the throne of David. If his prophecy was true, and if Jesus was the Christ who would sit on the throne of David forever, Jeconiah obviously could not have been an ancestor of Jesus. We have already shown why the inclusion of Jeconiah's name in Matthew's genealogy (Matt. 1:12-13) offers no great difficulty. Matthew gives a roster of kings and legitimate pretenders, not a roster of ancestors. Salathiel, the next person after Jeconiah in Matthew's list, was an ancestor of Jesus, but not a descendant of Jeconiah. He was, in fact, the son of Neri. Jesus was descended from David through Nathan and Neri rather than through Solomon and Jeconiah. The curse on Jeconiah did not touch the blood lineage of Jesus.

  2. Both genealogies state that Zorobabel (Zerubbabel) was the son of Salathiel (Matt. 1:12; Luke 3:27). But the Old Testament chronicler identifies Zerubbabel as the son of Pedaiah (1 Chron. 3:19). Though present knowledge does not permit an easy solution, the discrepancy does not undermine our confidence in the two genealogies of Jesus, since, in their assertion that He descended from Salathiel (Shealtiel), they agree with each other and with several Old Testament texts (Ezra 3:8; 5:2; Neh. 12:1; Hag. 1:1). If we grant that Luke states the blood line of Christ, we must conclude that Salathiel was indeed Zorobabel's father or grandfather. Pedaiah and the others listed in 1 Chronicles 3:18 may be the sons of Shealtiel rather than Jeconiah.

  3. After Zorobabel, the two Gospel genealogies proceed along different lines. Matthew notices the descent through Abiud (Matt. 1:13), whereas Luke focuses on the heirs of Rhesa (Luke 3:27). The difficulty is that neither name appears as a son of Zerubbabel in the chronicler's official genealogy (1 Chron. 3:17-20). Nevertheless, it is likely that Rhesa was another name of Zerubbabel's principal son, Hananiah. Many Jewish captives assumed two names, one Hebrew, one in the language of their captors. Whereas Hananiah is a Hebrew name, Rhesa is the Persian word for "prince," a most suitable title for a man who stood in the succession of Jewish kings (12). Abiud's absence from the chronicler's genealogy may mean only that Matthew skipped one or more generations between Zorobabel and Abiud. The many gaps in his list of kings—between Joram (Jehoram) and Ozias (Uzziah), for example, he omits Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah (Matt. 1:8)—demonstrate that he did not intend to furnish a complete genealogy.

Footnotes

  1. Josephus Life 1.
  2. Josephus Against Apion 1.7.
  3. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a.
  4. F. F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1974; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 56.
  5. Jacob Shachter, trans., Sanhedrin, in The Babylonian Talmud, ed. Isidore Epstein, 18 vols. (London: Soncino Press, 1961), 282.
  6. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a.
  7. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (n.p.: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1930; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1965), 203-209. Robert G. Gromacki, The Virgin Birth: Doctrine of Deity (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1981), 153-155.
  8. Machen, 205.
  9. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, eds., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 155.
  10. William L. Coleman, Today's Handbook of Bible Times and Customs (Minneapolis, Minn.: Bethany House Publishers, 1984), 73.
  11. NASB.
  12. Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Luke, 5th ed., The International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1922), 104.