The Genealogies of Christ

by James Akin

Since the gospels were first written, people have been puzzled by the two genealogies they give for Christ. The genealogy in Matthew 1 offers a different lineage than the one in Luke 3. This isn’t surprising since neither genealogy attempts to give a full family tree for Jesus, containing all his lines of ancestry. Each records only one line of ancestry.

Even so, people are often perplexed by some of the differences between the two. The most obvious difference is that Matthew’s genealogy begins with Abraham moves forward to Christ. Luke’s genealogy, on the other hand, begins with Christ and traces the line backward to Adam.

If we compensate for these factors and only look at the period where the two genealogies overlap, there are still differences. The most notable is that both genealogies trace Jesus’ lineage back to David, but through different sons. Matthew has Christ descending from David through Solomon, while Luke has him descending from David through a different son, Nathan.

This is not itself a puzzlement since David had more than one son, and a later individual can be descended from more than one of them. The question arises when the two lines meet up again.

The Solomon line runs parallel to the Nathan line until the time of Shealtiel, when they intersect. In Matthew, Shealtiel is described as the son of Jechoniah, and in Luke his father is said to be Neri. The question arises: How can he have two fathers?

After Shealtiel, both genealogies state Christ was descended from Shealtiel’s son, Zerubbabel, who was governor of Israel after the Babylonian Exile. But then they diverge again. Matthew traces Christ’s lineage through Zerubbabel’s son Abiud, while Luke traces it through a different son, Rhesa.

Again, there is no puzzlement since Zerubbabel simply had more than one son, and Christ was descended from both. The question again arises when the two lines converge, which they do on Jesus’ foster father, Joseph.

In Matthew, Joseph is said to be the son of Jacob, of the Abiud line, while in Luke Joseph is said to be the son of Heli, of the Rhesa line. So the question is: How can Joseph be said to have two fathers?

Some have tried to deal with the issue by saying that Luke’s genealogy really doesn’t give Jesus’ lineage through Joseph at all, but through Mary. It is true that Mary was a descendant of David (cf. Rom. 1:3), but neither of the lines given in the gospels is her line. The text does not support that idea. Luke states that Joseph was the son of Heli, not that Mary was the daughter of Heli, and in any event, this does not account for the question of Shealtiel’s two fathers.

To explain that issue, one needs to know something about how ancient Jewish genealogies work. There are a number of differences that can account for this.

Ancient Jewish genealogies often skipped generations, in part because there were no terms for "grandson" and "grandfather." Any male one was descended from was one’s "father," regardless of how many generations back he was. Similarly, any male descended from you was your "son," no matter how many generations down the line he was. This is why the Hebrews were called "the sons of Israel" hundreds of years after the original Israel (Jacob) died.

Potentially, this could explain why Shealtiel is said to have more than one father. In biblical genealogies, as soon as one moves more than one generation back, a person does have more than one father.

Adoption, whether of a child or an adult, was also common and could affect which genealogical line one was ascribed to. For example, the faithful spy Caleb was biologically the son of a non-Jew named Jephunneh (Num. 32:12), but he was adopted into the tribe of Judah and ascribed to the line of Hezron (1 Chron. 2:18).

Adoption could take place even posthumously. The most striking example of that is what is known as the levirite marriage (from the Latin, levir = brother-in-law). If a man died childless, it was the duty of his brother to marry the widow and father a son on behalf of his brother. This son would then be posthumously "adopted" by the dead man and reckoned as his son in the family genealogy.

Adoption is the most probable explanation of Shealtiel’s two fathers. Jeremiah had prophesied that Jechoniah’s (biological) descendants would never sit on the throne of Judah (Jer. 22:30). Thus the legal succession passed to the line of Nathan and Shealtiel, though biologically the son of Neri, was reckoned as Jechoniah’s son for purposes of the kingly line.

It appears that Shealtiel also died childless and his brother Pedaiah fulfilled the obligations of a brother and fathered Zerubbabel (1 Chron. 3:17-19 with Ezra 3:2, etc.).

This solves the first case of in the genealogy of a man seeming to have two fathers. The second occurs with Jesus’ foster father, Joseph.

In this case we have more direct information. The second century historian Julius Africanus, a native of Israel, records information given by Christ’s remaining family in his day. According to their family genealogy, Joseph’s grandfather Matthan (mentioned in Matthew) married a woman named Estha, who bore him a son named Jacob. After Matthan died, Estha married his close relative Melchi (mentioned in Luke) and bore him a son named Heli. Jacob and Heli were thus half-brothers.

Unfortunatley, Heli died childless, and so Jacob married his widow and fathered Joseph, who was biologically the son of Jacob but legally the son of Heli (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 1:6:7).


Structure of Christ's Genealogy Using All Sources

The above diagram uses the information from Matthew, Luke, Romans, and Julius Africanus.

It does not show all generations between Jesus in David, merely those needed to clarify the relationship of the different lines of legal and biological descent.

For a further explanation of the links, please refer to the text of the accompanying article.