Two Sides of the Coin?
I occasionally debate with a fellow online about Religion (me being an Atheist (I don’t know there is no god/are no gods, but I don’t see enough evidence to believe in any) and him a Christian). After the last debate, he challenged me to research the “Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus”. I’m doing that now–it is a subject with a lot to say! But in this research I was side-tracked by the issue of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ.
How does the Genealogy of Jesus work? Why is this an issue? Well, there are two places in the New Testament where it is listed–Matthew 1:1-17, and Luke 3:23-38, and they are totally different. The big question is: Why are they different?
The Genealogy of Jesus is more complicated than I imagined, or I should say, the issue is more complicated. The issue is a bit confusing even to me, who grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian sect with hours’ worth of bible study every week. So, hopefully I can make it clear here.
Matthew’s record traces the lineage from Abraham, Father of the Faithful and the biblical Father of Israel; Luke’s record traces it all the way back to Adam, Father of All. Apparently I am not the first, by a long shot, to bring up the question–almost all the sites I visited mentioned that, “skeptics are usually quick to attribute these differences (in the two genealogical accounts) to biblical errors” (christianity.about.com). I can understand why that would be…but let’s look at the arguments and see what we can find out!
It appears that the main bone of contention is the genealogy between King David and Jesus–everything prior matches up. You can find the differing lists probably anywhere, but I found this site to be a quick, easy reference. Not only are the two lists completely different, but the list in Luke has 15 additional names. Well, they’re not, perhaps, completely different: both have a listing of Zerubbabel, son of Shealthiel. However, there is disagreement on who these men are, with some saying they are clearly the same man, while others claim that Zerubbabel would be a common choice of name for the son of a man named Shealtiel (famous personages and all) and so not necessarily the same person. Most of the sources I’ve read don’t deal with that particular, so I’m not sure where the consensus lies. Some argue that it cannot be the same person (or if it is, it makes things more difficult) on account of Shealthiel being a descendant of a certain King Jeconiah. King Jeconiah of Israel was somebody the God of the Old Testament did not smile upon, but rather cursed him for being an evil bugger–the curse saying that none of his line would sit on the throne. (Jer. 22:24-30). To get around this issue of Shealthiel being descended from Curse King, several assumptions are made which could be true but “which are actually not entirely described in the bible”. One of these is something called the “levirate marriage” (explained later).
For the differences in the lineage in general, the almost universal explanation is that Matthew’s account traces the lineage of Joseph (Jesus’ legal father), while Luke’s traces the lineage of Mary. One fellow, at least, says that since both lineages list Joseph just prior to Jesus, that a better explanation is that the different lineages are of Joseph’s Paternal and Maternal heritage. This is not as odd as it may sound, for even Augustine (Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo) posited a similar solution, for the dichotomy troubled him from youth: “The explanation given by Augustine is that Joseph had a biological father and an adoptive father, and that one of the gospels traces the genealogy through the adoptive father in order to draw parallels between Joseph and Jesus (both having an adoptive father).” However, again, the answer given by all others that I’ve seen is that the difference lies in that one genealogy is of Joseph while the other is of Mary, but Mary isn’t listed because she would have fallen under Joseph’s “family” since they were married. Women, you’ll remember, didn’t generally have a very high standing in society or legal circles back in those days and so it is usually just the men who are mentioned. Since Joseph is listed as having different fathers (Matt says Jacob, Luke says Heli–the very beginning of the discrepancies), then according to this explanation, Joseph is the son of Jacob and son-in-law of Heli.
But again, it must be remembered, this is a best guess to explain something that is far from clear in a simple reading of the scriptures.
Other explanations for the differences relies on something called the “levirate marriage” as described in Deut. 25:5,6. This says that if a man is married, yet dies without a child (or at least a son), then his Brother should go in unto the now-widowed wife and “raise up a child” in the name of his dead brother. This arrangement is a very popular explanation for how Joseph could be an heir (through the afore-mentioned Shealthiel) of evil King Jeconiah in spite of the curse–Joseph isn’t a blood descendant on account of a levirate marriage or two, and thus him being the legal father of Jesus doesn’t preclude Jesus’ ability to sit on the throne of David, according to some prophecies listed in the sites that talk about the genealogy. The answer of levirate marriage is also what saves Jesus on his mother’s side, unless the Shealthiel on her side is a different person altogether.
So, to recap:
1. The two genealogies are explained to be of Joseph and Mary, and that is why they are different.
2. Joseph is listed as the son of Jacob and the son of Heli because, according to 1, he is son-in-law of Heli, Mary’s father.
3. The Zerubbabels, son of the Shealthiels are either different people because the Shealthiel in each genealogy has a different father, or they are the same person and one lists the “legal” father and the other lists the “blood” father in a case of levirate marriage that was necessary to free the lineage that would eventually lead to Jesus from suffering under the curse of King Jeconiah.
One question still bugs me, though. Apparently, from David, Joseph’s lineage is through the son Solomon, and Mary’s through the son Nathan. However, there are 15 more names in Mary’s line than Joseph’s. A rule of thumb for today is that a generation is approximately 30yrs. I’m sure it was less in the Bronze Age (might have been higher in Bronze Age Middle East than in Bronze Age Northern Europe, but still far less over-all). But whether people were generally having more children at 15, 20, or 30, the length of a generation was the length of a generation. So, how does one side of the family gain 15 additional generations? If my wife and I discovered that we shared a distant relative, I don’t think there would be a difference of 15 generations. David is thought to have ruled Israel at about 1000BCE. Using the 30yr Generation, that equals 33 generations between David and Jesus, beginning the counting as “David, 1, 2, etc, Jesus”. So, Solomon/Nathan would be #1. Now Matthew’s list has 27 generations–that is 37yrs per generation. That is a bit long, even by today’s long life expectancy, and by Bronze Age figures I think it is right out. Luke, on the other hand, lists 42 generations. 42 generations in 1000yrs yields a rather more reasonable 23.8, or say 24yrs between generations.
However, there is an explanation! Apparently, Matthew’s list has deliberate omissions so that a certain schema can exist–namely, 3 sets of 14 names. Very poetical, and a great thing for fans of biblical numerology, but not a terribly accurate way to transmit information. Wikipedia even tells us that a few biblical scholars have attempted to complete Matthew’s abbreviated list, but apparently without success.
So, we are left with a conundrum. We are left with a question that has plagued Christianity almost from the very beginning. Even such early christian luminaries as Augustine (approx. 400CE) and Africanus (approx 200CE) have tackled it–without resolving it! The research shows a consensus of opinion as to, probably, the best explanation for the divergent genealogies–one for Joseph and one for Mary–but without any real concrete evidence behind it. Thus we are left with doubt, or left to ignore the implications and have faith in the inerrancy of the Bible. I mean, after all, all scripture is given by inspiration of God (II Tim. 3:16)…