All we know about the birth and lineage of Jesus comes from accounts (including genealogies) in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. But they seem so different! That’s because they have different emphases and different perspectives. Before exploring the differences, it is important to emphasize what Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-3 have in common:
- Jesus was born in Bethlehem
- Jesus was raised in Nazareth
- He was a direct descendant of King David
- His parents were named Joseph and Mary
- Mary was a virgin until after Jesus was born
- An angel told both parents (separately) to name him Jesus.
- Herod reigned as king in Jerusalem
Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ legal lineage from Abraham and David in order to establish his royal credentials. His account has much less interest in the birth of a baby named Jesus than of the awaited Messiah. He uses Scripture to demonstrate that Jesus’ coming fulfilled prophecies and tells the story from a national and worldwide perspective: The coming of foreign nobles looking for a king frightened Herod and caused him to commit atrocities for political reasons.
Matthew describes the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s viewpoint. News of Mary’s pregnancy devastated Joseph. Betrothal was something more formal than our engagement. It could only be broken by divorce, and the death of one partner legally widowed the other. But it was not yet marriage and therefore not yet consummated by sexual union. Mary’s pregnancy therefore meant she had been unfaithful.
Legally, Joseph could have denounced her publicly and had her executed. He decided to divorce her quietly instead, until God himself revealed that the baby’s father was none other than the Holy Spirit of God. Therefore, she had not been unfaithful to him and was still a virgin. God commanded Joseph to marry Mary and raise Jesus as his own.
Luke emphasizes Jesus’ descent from God, and yet he traces his lineage from David through Mary. Unbelievers point to the two vastly differing genealogies with merriment, thinking they have found a contradiction that proves the gospels have to be human writings, and not divine. The fact is that both genealogies are correct and appropriate for their intended use according to established rabbinic procedures, and in both cases, Jesus descended from David.
Where Matthew traced Jesus’ legal lineage, Luke brings out his human lineage. According to Luke, Jesus was the supposed son of Joseph, who was son of Heli. Matthew gives the name of Joseph’s father as Jacob. A look at Jewish marriage law and custom yields three possible solutions to the apparent contradiction.
- Heli had no sons and decided to adopt Joseph son of Jacob, his daughter’s husband, as his heir.
- Heli died childless and a levitate marriage took place; Jacob, son of the same mother as Heli but a different father, married his half-brother’s widow. In that case, Matthew traces Joseph’s biological descent through Jacob and Luke his legal descent through Heli.
- Jacob died childless, and the legal claim to the throne of David passed to Heli’s line, in which case Heli was Joseph’s biological father, but Joseph became Jacob’s (therefore David’s) legal heir.
The point of Luke’s genealogy is simply that Jesus, the Son of God, is also a real human and not some kind of demigod. He alludes to scriptural symbols without explicitly claiming to describe the fulfillment of any particular prophecy. In his emphasis on Jesus’ true humanity, he tells the story from Mary’s viewpoint and from an intimate family perspective.
I have previously explained why, because of the sin in Jesus’ family tree, his mother had to be a virgin. Only a perfect, sinless human being could accomplish what the baby Jesus did when he grew up. He demonstrated how to live in constant communion with God and without falling in to even the tiniest sin. After demonstrating his fitness as a holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, he voluntarily submitted to a hideous death by execution, rose from death, and proclaimed that everyone in the world had the right, through faith in his accomplishment, to receive forgiveness, redemption, and intimate fellowship with God.