The first 17 verses of the New Testament are not the most compelling read in the Bible, but they’re pretty iconic, and entirely relevant at Christmastime.
And if you look at them from the right angle, they’re actually kinda beautiful.
Matthew 1:1-17 is a genealogical record of the ancestry of Jesus – from Father Abraham down to His adopted father, Joseph – but the repetition, the rhythm and the meter of the passage feels more to me like a poem than a simple enumeration. And its final verse is quite startling, when you think about it:
‘Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.’ – Matthew 1:17
It’s pretty awesome how God did that. Seven is the number of completeness and perfection, so its repetition here is soaked with (barely) hidden meaning. Each group of 14 generations is a pair of sevens, so in this verse, Matthew plays a hand that contains six of a kind – and without wild cards!
If only his buddy Luke hadn’t called his bluff…
You see, in Chapter 3, Verses:23-38 of his Gospel, Luke also provides a genealogy of Jesus, starting from the Savior and working backwards all the way to Adam.
And, goshdarnit, the genealogies in Luke and Matthew do not agree.
For starters, Luke’s version contains quite a few more names. Fifteen more, if my cipherin’ is key-rect. And that puts the authenticity of Matthew’s überpokerhand in significant doubt, doesn’t it?
Now, one might be tempted to deduce that Matthew trimmed a few generations out, to make his 14-14-14 pattern work – and in light of the semi-poetic nature of the text, you could almost call that legitimate poetic licence …
… if that were the only discrepancy. Unfortunately, it’s not.
Luke and Matthew agree that Joseph is a descendant of King David, but completely disagree about the line between these two. According to Luke, David’s son Nathan gave rise to Joseph, while Matthew traces the lineage from Solomon.
I gotta tell you. When I came across this gospellic disharmony a couple of weeks ago, I was a little deflated.
How can there be two genealogies for Jesus, both so excruciatingly detailed, that completely disagree? Who were Jesus’ real Granddads and Great-Granddads?
I turned, as I often do, to The Google for answers, and thankfully was not left empty-handed.
GotQuestions.org has an article on this very topic, that puts forward two possible explanations:
- Matthew is tracing the biological lineage, while Luke is tracing the legal ancenstry – through a possible ‘Levirate marriage’, where, according to the Jewish custom of the day, if a man marries his brother’s widow, his offspring with her would be legally seen as the dead brother’s children. So perhaps Heli (identified as Joseph’s father in Luke 3:23) and Jacob (Joseph’s father in Matthew 1:15) were half-brothers, but Heli died without a son, then Jacob married Heli’s widow, who gave birth to Joseph. This would make Joseph the son of Heli legally and the son of Jacob biologically.
- Matthew is tracing Joseph’s lineage, while Luke is tracing Mary’s. This train would seem to be derailed before it leaves the station by the fact that it says clearly in Luke 3:23 that Heli is Joseph’s father – not Mary’s. However, there was apparently no word for ‘son-in-law’ in ancient Greek, so if Luke wanted (for reasons that seem to have been lost through the passage of time) to trace Mary’s lineage but start with Joseph, he’d have had to phrase it this way.
The second theory seems to have fairly broad acceptance, and it does seem a little less contrived than the first. Neither one fully satisfies my journalistic curiosity, but I suppose they’re plausible enough for me to set this little bit of doubt aside and move along.
On a different level (and at the risk of entering the realm of rationalization), I actually find it a bit reassuring that these genealogies both exist.
But more on that tomorrow. For now …
Peace be with you.
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