This is the fourth instalment in the “Debunking the Nativity” series and I will concentrate on the genealogies of Jesus. These posts sit alongside my book The Nativity: A Critical Examination.
Both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew contain genealogies which look to trace Jesus’ lineage back to important people. Jesus was claimed to be the Messiah. Either this was prophesied in the Old Testament, or the other side of the coin is that the Gospel writers created stories, or fit existing Jesus stories into Old Testament frameworks, that would ‘fulfil’ these prophecies.
The contrived fulfilment of prophecy does seem to be the most probable explanation for the genealogies existing at all, from a critical point of view. There are countless prophecies in the Old Testament, from the likes of Hebrews, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Genesis, which stake claims that the Messiah will come from the Davidic line or from Abraham, or from Judah or the “seed of a woman”. The genealogies ‘prove’ all of this, it would appear. To the more critical reader, again, it is hard to see how many of these prophecies could be applied to Jesus by way of fact that they are either not prophetic writing or clearly do not refer to Jesus in the Old Testament contexts.
Of course, if we discount Joseph as being Jesus’ real father then both genealogies are futile attempts to link Jesus to anybody.
Luke’s genealogy is a long list of names which goes back to Adam, the first man, supposedly (we will ignore the huge elephant in the room of human genetics, history, anthropology, palaeontology and so on). Luke does start with the important words “When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age, being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph…” This “supposed” seems to refer to the virgin birth scenario. Obviously this genealogy (as we understand heredity) does not relate Jesus to anybody since Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. This means that it could be read in a legalistic sense.
Luke’s 77 generations used in the genealogy is a symbolic number representing, according to early theologian Augustine, the forgiveness of sin. Seven was a very important number for the time and so it looks like Luke might be counting in groups of seven. As mentioned, one of the crucial points of the genealogies was to link Jesus through to David so to prove that Jesus was of Davidic stock. This fulfils some vital prophecies which predict that the Messiah will come of the House of David, liberally scattered around the Old Testament. Something which I will return to later is the fact that Luke represents Jesus as being 42 generations after David, which is no small amount of time.
One issue for Luke is this quote from 1 Chronicles 22:9-10:
But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign. He is the one who will build a house for my Name. He will be my son, and I will be his father. And I will establish the throne of his kingdom over Israel forever.’
This is problematic due to the prophecy that Jesus is not, in Luke’s genealogy at any rate, a descendent of Solomon, but of his brother Nathan. This means that the Messianic prophecy of this extract is not fulfilled in Jesus, which is potentially critical for Luke’s claims.
So what of the Gospel of Matthew? Matthew’s genealogy is somewhat different both in number of generations and in personnel. Numerology is just as important to Matthew, perhaps more so. He sets the lineage out in three sets of fourteen, based on landmark events in biblical history. Again, as with Luke, this makes the genealogy rely on the factor of seven. The number fourteen is the gamatria of David—the numerical value of his name. These events are the formation of Israel, the Babylonian captivity and Jesus as Messiah split into the respective groups as can be seen in the previous table. As Matthew 1:17 says:
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
There is a genealogy in 1 Chronicles 3 which overlaps Matthew’s and it seems like he has omitted three names (Joash, Amaziah, and Azoriah) which undermines one of the two lists. This is probably Matthew’s doing—it could well be an opportunity to lose a few names for numerical reasons, and these kings were particularly wicked, coming to infamous ends by God’s will. Also, two Jeconiahs seem to have been melded into one. The fact that the genealogies differ from the Old Testament list is telling, though.
There are only thirteen names in the last tesseradecad (a group of fourteen names). This is not thought to be a simple mistake of miscounting on the part of Matthew and as a result many second guesses have been put forward. For example, Mary could be counted as a generation alongside Joseph; Jeconiah could be doubled as mentioned; names at the beginning or end of the tesseradecads after David could be double-counted and so on.
One problematic Messianic obstacle for Matthew’s genealogy is the curse of Jeconiah. Reported in Jeremiah 22:24-30, this is where God cursed Jeconiah and all his descendents (“Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah”). This rather puts paid to Messianic claims derived through Matthew’s claimed lineage since Jesus is clearly of the offspring of Jeconiah. Some apologists claim that the curse was limited to Jeconiah’s lifetime whilst others claim that Jesus is disqualified as an ancestor with Messianic properties. Thus both Matthew and Luke have issues and perhaps they were each trying to divert their respective lineages around the obstacles, but in so doing created further impediments to a successful Davidic and Messianic heritage.
Accuracy is perhaps not actually that important for Matthew in his Gospel. His average generation appears to be calculated at fifty years, twice the normal generational span.
These two genealogies disagree with these lineages. But more damning is that they also disagree on who Joseph’s father was! Even Augustine recognised a problem here. There are some Christian harmonisations such that he could have two fathers (legal and natural). These are weak and unsubstantiated. Charles Foster, Christian apologist, admits (2007, p. 14-15): “How did the discrepancies between the genealogies arise? I don’t know and nor does anyone else.”
In reality, the Gospel writers, in all probability, had no great desire to fulfil historical accuracy; they had an agenda. These genealogies, like much of the infancy narratives, involved using mechanisms to derive symbolic truth claims. And when such mechanisms are shown to be problematic, so too, then, are those theological truth claims.
 For example, Psalms 89:3-4 Psalms 132:11, Isaiah 16:5, Jeremiah 23:5-6, Isaiah 11:1–10
Foster, Charles (2007), The Christmas Mystery, Milton Keynes: Authentic Media
- Debunking the Nativity: The Gospel Sources
- Debunking the Nativity: The Virgin Birth
- Debunking the Nativity: The Mistranslation of “Virgin”
- Debunking the Nativity: The Male Genome