Several passages in the Hebrew Bible (which Christians refer to as the Old Testament) prophesy that David’s throne will be established forever: 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Psalm 89:3–4, 132:11; Isaiah 16:5; and Jeremiah 33:17. Jews, therefore, have taken that to mean that the messiah, the future deliverer of Israel, will be descended from David. Christians interpret these prophecies as having been fulfilled in the person of Jesus, to whom they attach the title Christ (Gr.; Heb. Messiah), the “anointed one” of God.
Christians also make the unique claim that Jesus was born of a virgin, per the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 (which Jews say Christians have misunderstood, the Hebrew word almah not necessarily referring to a person who has not had sexual intercourse).
The Christian confession of these two truths—that Jesus is the messiah in the line of David who God promised to Israel, and that he was conceived by a virgin—creates some complications of ancestry and inheritance.
How does one reconcile the two very different genealogies of Jesus given by Matthew and Luke?
Matthew, whose purpose is to present Jesus as king of the Jews, starts with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew nation, and traces the line of descent through the royal line of David all the way down to Jesus. He skips several generations, though, omitting the names of some of the wicked kings of Judah.
Luke, in backward fashion, starts with Jesus and moves all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes of all people.
The problem is, the two lists don’t match. Not even close. Well, they match up until David’s name, then they diverge, with Matthew tracing a line of descent through David’s son Solomon, and Luke tracing a line of descent through David’s son Nathan. They come together again at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but then they diverge again until finally arriving at Joseph.
Biblical scholars have developed various theories to account for such differences. I’ll summarize the two most common ones.
OPTION 1: Matthew’s genealogy goes through Joseph’s biological father, whereas Luke’s goes through Joseph’s legal father by levirate marriage.
Julius Africanus was the first to attempt a solution to the problem, ca. 225 AD. In his Letter to Aristides he claims that Joseph’s grandfather Mattan was the first husband of a woman named Estha, through whom she bore Jacob, but after Mattan died, she remarried Melchi and bore Heli; Jacob and Heli, therefore, were half brothers. Heli married but then died without any offspring, so Jacob married his brother’s widow, in accordance with the Jewish laws of levirate marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). As the offspring of this levirate union, Joseph would have been seen as a perpetuation of the deceased brother’s line, not of that of his natural father.
Because all these relationships Africanus posits are difficult to process in paragraph form, I’ve attempted to render them schematically:
This theory is still presented as a valid option in Bible commentaries, with several scholars holding to it. One academic paper I found that’s available to online lay readers is “Jesus’ Family and their Genealogy according to the Testimony of Julius Africanus” by New Testament studies scholar Christophe Guignard.
OPTION 2: Matthew’s genealogy traces Joseph’s ancestry; Luke’s traces Mary’s.
It appears to me that this is the most widely accepted view among Christians today, even though it arose later in church history, being initially proposed by John of Damascus in the first half of the eighth century.
The obvious objection to this theory is that Luke explicitly lists Joseph as Jesus’s predecessor, with no mention of Mary: “And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23, KJV). Supporters, though, say that the genealogical language is not as precise here as it is in Matthew. The early Greek manuscripts read “Joseph, of Heli”—“the son” is an editorial insertion, acknowledged by italics in the King James Version. Luke does not use the verb gennaō (Hebrew for “to father” or “to beget”) that Matthew uses to describe the relationship between the two generations, which leaves it open to speculation that perhaps Joseph was the son-in-law, not the biological son, of Heli.
The punctuation of this verse was also not present in the original, and some translators suggest that the closed parenthesis belongs after “Joseph” instead of after “supposed,” as in “Jesus . . . being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Heli.” With this formulation the implication would be that Jesus’s maternal grandfather, Heli, is his closest male ancestor.
Some commentators have gone even further to suggest that Mary’s father, Heli, had so sons, so he made Joseph his adoptive heir when he and Mary wed. (See Numbers 27:1–11, 1 Chronicles 2:34–35, Ezra 2:61, and Nehemiah 7:63 for Jewish precedents.)
If Luke really is tracing Mary’s ancestry, then why not just say so? Because like most ancient cultures, the Hebrews omitted women’s names from genealogical records. Luke (unlike Matthew, who very brazenly cites four women in his genealogy for Jesus) is simply following custom by sticking to male names only.
It would have been natural for Luke, who acknowledges the unique case of the virgin birth, to give the maternal genealogy of Jesus, even if that meant expressing it a bit awkwardly in the traditional patrilineal style. Not only that, but Luke’s Gospel often focuses on Mary’s perspective, which has led some to believe that she served as a source for some of its material. The Gospel of Matthew, on the other hand, tends to focus on Joseph’s perspective.
How does one explain the convergence at Shealtiel and Zerubbabel?
Scholars have proposed the possibility of two levirate marriages to solve this problem. Less commonly, it is claimed that the Shealtiel and Zerubbabel in the Lukan genealogy are entirely different individuals than the more famous ones listed by Matthew.
Doesn’t the curse of Jeconiah disqualify Jesus from claiming the throne of David?
One common objection to Jesus’s messianic qualifications is that Matthew traces his descent through Jeconiah (also known as Jehoiachin, or Coniah), whose bloodline was cursed by God in Jeremiah 22:30: “Write this man down as childless, a man who shall not succeed in his days, for none of his offspring shall succeed in sitting on the throne of David and ruling again in Judah.”
In response, some biblical scholars claim that after this curse, the legal right to David’s throne was passed to the house of Nathan—an ancestry that Luke ascribes to Jesus. To use the language of Isaiah, the throne “branched.” God’s unconditional promise to David—that his offspring will reign forever—was still good; it was just transferred to the lineage of a different son of his.
Other scholars, however, argue that the curse of Jeconiah was lifted, as history bore out: the curse said that Jeconiah’s offspring would not rule, yet his grandson Zerubabbel (1 Chronicles 3:16–19) became governor of Judah (Haggai 2:2, 23). Not only that, but after Jeconiah was released from prison, he prospered (Jeremiah 52:31–34), suggesting that God’s favor toward him had returned, perhaps because of his (unrecorded) repentance. Rabbinical tradition actually supports this view.
Or else scholars claim that the curse was meant only for the lifetime of Jeconiah: Jeremiah 22:30 says that he would not see his descendants on the throne “in his days.” Or perhaps the curse applied only to those immediately fathered by Jeconiah, which is why his son Shealtiel never held power but his grandson did.
These same scholars point out that for Matthew, Jesus’s standing as the Jewish messiah is predicated on his descent from the royal line of David, which included Jeconiah. Matthew certainly would have been aware of the curse, yet he felt no need to explain his inclusion of the name in Jesus’s genealogy; to him the curse was apparently a nonissue.
If Jesus is not the natural son of Joseph, then how does he have any right to David’s throne?
Opponents of Jesus’s messianic claims say that only gene-carrying descendants of the royal line of David are eligible to inherit the throne of Israel. This is simply not true. It was not unusual for a king to adopt an heir to his throne when he lacked natural children, and furthermore, the laws of levirate marriage stipulated that if a childless widow were to marry her deceased husband’s brother, her first husband’s name and inheritance would be passed on to the child of that union. Legal and kinship standing, therefore, was related to either genes or adoption or marriage.
Even though Jesus didn’t share Joseph’s DNA, he was Joseph’s adopted son, and as such he would have been David’s legal royal heir through Solomon.
Those who believe the curse of Jeconiah is still in effect, however, would claim that Jesus’s maternal connection to David is of utmost important because it is through Mary that he inherits the throne. Even though thrones were inherited through the male line, there were some exceptions, most notably that of the daughters of Zelophehad, who, lacking brothers, became the ancestresses of clans within the tribe of Manasseh that were named after them—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah.
Why do some people claim that Mary was from the tribe of Levi, not Judah?
Luke 1:5 states, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” Then later in verse 36, Elizabeth is referred to as a “relative” (syggenēs) of Mary—translated in some versions as “cousin,” even though their precise relationship is unknown. Because a kinswoman of Mary’s belonged to the priestly tribe of Levi, it is sometimes assumed that she, too, was a Levite.
Some Christians have latched on to this speculation as supportive of the notion that Jesus came to earth as both king (from Judah) and priest (from Levi).
Church tradition and modern scholarship, however, maintain that Mary was from the tribe of Judah, not Levi, and the house of David. The apostle Paul seems to support this view in Romans 1:3, where he writes that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh.”
Just because Mary had a relative from outside Judah does not mean that she, too, hailed from outside. Mary’s mother was likely from Levi but married into the line of Judah. Here are just two of several possible scenarios I sketched out to explain Mary’s relationship to Elizabeth, with her Judahite affiliation still intact.
Christians often insist vigorously on the critical importance of both genealogies, and how only together can they show that Jesus is uniquely qualified to be the messiah. I disagree: both genealogies show Jesus’s descent from David, which is what was repeatedly prophesied, so either one, I think, is sufficient to establish Jesus’s messianic eligibility. I don’t know whether Jesus inherited the throne through Joseph or through Mary, and—perhaps controversially—I don’t think it matters, so long as we see that he is on the throne, the Son of David, the Root of Jesse.
People get caught up in tracing the “royal line,” but it’s not clear where that line went after the end of the monarchy in the sixth century BCE—whether it was to stay with Solomon’s descendants or, because of God’s frustration with Jeconiah, branch over to Nathan’s. All we know is that
the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5–6)