This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David. (Matthew 1:1, NIV)
He was the son of Joseph, so it was thought, the son of Heli (Luke 3:23, NIV)
Have you noticed what looks at first sight like a significant contradiction between Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s? Both give a genealogy for Jesus down the male line, but they give him a different ancestry as they link him to King David. Matthew has him descended from David’s son Solomon, and Luke from David’s son Nathan. In a male-only lineage, both cannot be true. Then, apart from one point of convergence, the male lines then differ entirely between David and Jesus. Surely here is an obvious contradiction?
This is not a new problem. Bible readers have been pondering this puzzle since at least 225 AD, when theologian Julius Africanus grappled with it. Various solutions have been proposed. Some have suggested that the lines are of the same people under different names, but this seems immensely unlikely. Others, that Luke gives us Jesus’ ancestry via his mother, Mary. This is a bit more plausible, but still not the natural way to read the passage. Is there a better answer?
The two lists are not irreconcilable in theory. Matthew’s term was the father of does not necessarily imply the immediate father. We know, from comparison with the books of Kings in the Old Testament, that he actually leaves at least four people in the line out (all kings: Ahaziah, Joash, Amaziah and Jehoiakim). It would in principle be possible to skip from grandfather to grandson down a mother’s side in the same way, and lines to diverge, and then for a subsequent marriage to make them re-converge. Perhaps this has happened somewhere in one or other of these lists. But we simply cannot tell.
A more fruitful approach is to start with the authors’ intentions. Luke seems to be emphasising the humanity of the Lord Jesus, and traces him right back to Adam. His genealogy comes just before he tells us about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, again reflecting his humanity. Matthew, on the other hand, wants to emphasise Jesus’ kingship, as Son of David. Luke’s list contains only one king (David), but Matthew’s fifteen. It may well be that Luke is giving us Joseph’s direct physical ancestry, but Matthew is giving us the royal succession. This is the traditional solution (see the amazing picture below, from the front of our old King James Bible, distinguishing ‘by nature’ from ‘by succession’). It also explains why Luke starts with Jesus and works back, but Matthew works forward.
Royal succession does not, of course, always pass directly from father to son, because some kings have no sons. A line could pass to a brother, or a brother-in-law, or another close relative.
Professor F F Bruce says, “Matthew’s line is probably intended to trace the succession to David’s throne, even where it did not run in direct succession from father to son.”
If so, we read the Magi’s question with fresh understanding and startling force: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2)
Enough on theory. On Sunday morning we’ll consider what‘s the message for us all in this.