The Genealogy of Jesus Explained

Question from a Site Viewer
Why is the father of Joseph different in Matthew 1:16 (Jacob) from Luke 3:23 (Heli)? The genealogy of Jesus should be like any other genealogy — accurate. In other words, there shouldn’t be different versions.

Tim’s Answer
The question of why the genealogies in Matthew and Luke are different has been answered in different ways by different theologians. In the end, only God really knows the completely accurate genealogy of Jesus. However, among the different views, I think the best is that offered by Africanus, an early church chronicler, who wrote at the end of the second century or the beginning of the third century A.D. He gives us the most ancient explanation and states that it was the explanation handed down by tradition. He also states that the tradition came from the family of Jesus Christ. (We note from Scripture that Jesus had younger brothers and sisters [Matthew 13:55-56; Mark 3:31-32; Galatians 1:19].) In my view his opinion is the only one that relies on anything other than mere speculation. He writes within 150 years of the death of Mary, and within around 100 years of the death of John, the Apostle, and within a time when the descendants of Mary and Joseph would still be known and the story would be testable. I find his explanation the best, although I note that even he was not vouching for the truth of the tradition.

He wrote a letter to Aristides that we do not have today, except some fragments quoted by Eusebius, a fourth century historian. In the fragments that are quoted, he explained that Matthan, the father of Jacob who was the father of Joseph in Matthew’s genealogy, was the first husband of a woman named Estha (the name of the woman is given by Africanus, though her name is not given in Scripture). To Matthan and Estha was born a son, Jacob. After Matthan died, Estha married Melchi, who according to Africanus was the father of Eli, the father of Joseph in Luke’s genealogy. Because Luke’s genealogy actually lists Matthat as the father of Eli and lists Melchi as the great-grandfather, I think it is most likely that Africanus, while having the right story, inserted the wrong name in his account. Another explanation is that Matthat also was known as Melchi in honor of his grandfather. In any case, I join the Venerable Bede (the eighth century English monk and scholar) in believing that the references to Melchi in Africanus’ account should be understood as being to the person named Matthat in Luke’s account. I will use that name in the rest of the explanation.

Out of these two successive marriages of Estha to Matthan and to Matthat came the two sons, Jacob and Eli, who were half brothers. Thereafter, Eli married a woman and died without having a child. According to the law (Deuteronomy 25:5), it became the duty of Jacob (Eli’s half brother) to take Eli’s widow as a wife and raise up seed to Eli (Deuteronomy 25:6). (A beautiful picture of the application of this law in Scriptures occurs in the book of Ruth.) Jacob obeyed the law, took Eli’s widow, and to their union was born Joseph, who was Jacob’s physical child but was deemed to be the child of Eli by the law.

Thus, Matthew says that Jacob begot Joseph, which is a true statement. Luke says that Jesus was deemed to be the son of Joseph of Eli, which is also a true statement. Given the ancient source of this account and given that there is only speculation as to any other explanation, I believe this account provides the best explanation for the two genealogies.

Some might think it too far-fetched to believe that two successive generations had young widows. But we must remember that in ancient times any disease or accident could result in early death. The average life expectancy was not long. Losing a spouse early in life was not uncommon.

There are other explanations that are based on speculation. Some have thought that the genealogy of Matthew is that of Joseph and the genealogy of Luke is that of Mary. In this view, Joseph would be the son (today we would say “son-in-law”) of Mary’s father, Eli. People with this view note that Saul called David, who was his son-in-law, “son” in 1 Samuel 24:16 and 26:17. Still others see Matthew as being Mary’s genealogy and Luke being Joseph’s genealogy. And some simply say that they are in irreconcilable conflict.

Because I tend to rely on the early church fathers as being the best source for truth in these matters, I accept Africanus’ account as being the best explanation.

The implications of this are not inconsiderate. God told Solomon in 1 Kings 9:4-5 and 2 Chronicles 7:17-18 that if Solomon followed God that God would establish his throne forever and he would not cease to have a man on the throne. The strong implication is that this was a conditional promise. Because Solomon turned away from God when he became old, the conditional promise was broken. Thus, the legal genealogy comes not through Solomon but through Nathan, a different son of David. Joseph, though a physical descendant of Solomon, was not counted in Solomon’s genealogy, but rather in Nathan’s genealogy. Our actions can have far reaching consequences.

Because what we do can affect generations to come, it is most important that we pursue God with all of our hearts. Like Abraham of old, by doing so we can leave to our descendants a blessing of God that continues for many generations.

May the Lord Jesus bless you as you seek to live out His will.

a fellow pilgrim,


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